Oscar hopes for Scorsese's `Aviator' are given lift by the critics Critics'

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MARTIN SCORSESE was named director of the year by the London Critics' Circle yesterday for The Aviator, his epic about the life of the millionaire, Howard Hughes, in a vote that will cheer those who believe this is the year when he will be finally honoured at the Oscars.

But Scorsese, one of the most feted directors never to have won a best director Academy Award, was beaten to the film of the year award at last night's glittering awards by Sideways, the wine-centred buddy movie that is also a hot favourite for the Oscars.

The director headed the list of stars, including Cate Blanchett, Imelda Staunton, Daniel Craig, Bob Hoskins and Alan Rickman who attended the 25th anniversary ceremony which was hosted by Mariella Frostrup at the Dorchester Hotel in London in aid of the NSPCC.

William Russell, the awards' chairman, said: "The Aviator is the work of a master film-maker who has handled the epic story of Howard Hughes, one of the major figures in American cinema, quite brilliantly."

The Motorcycle Diaries, the FilmFour-backed movie about Che Guevara, received compensation for missing out on film of the year by taking the foreign language honours.

But the movie of the night was Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, an emotional tale of backstreet abortions in the 1950s, which added to its existing portfolio of international honours by taking five awards. Imelda Staunton, its star, beat a shortlist of Nicole Kidman, Natalie Portman, Annette Bening and the Oscar-winner, Charlize Theron, to take the actress of the year award - a rare British success in the categories open to actors and directors of all nationalities.

Phil Davis, who plays her husband, was named best British actor in a supporting role and Mike Leigh took the British director of the year and British screenwriter of the year.

Vera Drake was named best British film in a shortlist that also included Finding Neverland, about the life of J M Barrie, and My Summer of Love, the coming-of-age movie that secured a British newcomer prize for one of its two young stars, Natalie Press.

Mr Russell said: "Mike Leigh's Vera Drake is a work of great compassion about a social problem, unwanted pregnancies, as real today as it ever was.

"He has secured from his cast, headed by Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis, performances which surpass anything they have done in the past."

Eva Birthistle, the star of Ken Loach's story of inter-racial love Ae Fond Kiss, shared the British actress of the year award with Kate Winslet for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which was written by Charlie Kaufman, who took screenwriter honours.

Loach received the Dilys Powell Award, presented in memory of the late film critic, for outstanding contribution to cinema. Actor of the year went to the hot Oscars favourite, Jamie Foxx, for his performance as Ray Charles, while Daniel Craig was named British actor of the year for his role in the adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel, Enduring Love. Romola Garai won the British supporting actress award for Inside I'm Dancing.

Norma Heyman, the producer whose credits include Buster, Dangerous Liaisons and Mary Reilly, followed her special jury prize at the 2004 British Independent Film Awards by receiving an award introduced to mark the 25th anniversary of the critics' awards.

The London Critics' Circle, - the film section of the Critics' Circle - has 100 members who write for newspapers and magazines across the UK.