"Slumdog Millionaire" was the final answer at the Critics Choice Awards last night, as the sweeping drama about an improbable winner of India's version of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" took the top prizes at the closely watched Oscar barometer.
The movie, set in the terror-hit city of Mumbai, won five awards, including best picture, director (Danny Boyle) and writer (Simon Beaufoy). It solidifies its status as an Oscar frontrunner ahead of the Jan. 22 nominations announcement.
The Critics Choice Awards, organized by the Broadcast Film Critics' Association, are one of the most reliable predictors of Oscar success. In the last 10 years, they have foreshadowed both the best picture and director Oscar winners 70 percent of the time. Their success rate is 60 percent for best actor and actress.
Somewhat disingenuously, "Slumdog Millionaire" producer Christian Colson told reporters backstage, "We haven't got a chance in hell."
Perhaps more importantly, the film's success would "absolutely" be a huge morale boost for Mumbai, where 10 gunmen killed 179 people in November, said actress Freida Pinto.
"Everybody back in India's probably rejoicing already because they are hooked onto Google," said the one-time model, who played the love interest of star Dev Patel.
Patel, who was not at the event, was named best young actor. Indian musician A.R. Rahman, named best composer, declared, "This is for India!" as he accepted his award.
"Slumdog Millionaire" also generated a nomination for best song, but that prize went to an absent Bruce Springsteen for his title song for "The Wrestler."
Sean Penn wins best actor
Sean Penn was named best actor for his lead role in "Milk," a drama about California's first openly gay elected politician Harvey Milk.
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"At heart, this is a beauty contest so I had an advantage," Penn joked as he received his award.
The actor was not so happy a year ago when his directing foray "Into the Wild" led the event with seven nominations but went home empty-handed. It was also ignored by the Oscars.
"Milk" also won the acting ensemble award. The film, along with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," led the field with eight nominations. "Benjamin Button" was snubbed, a blow for star Brad Pitt who was at the event with girlfriend Angelina Jolie, a best actress nominee for "Changeling."
That award was a tie between Meryl Streep for her role as a nun in "Doubt" and Anne Hathaway for playing a drug-addicted woman taking cente rstage at her sister's nuptials in "Rachel Getting Married."
Late Australian actor Heath Ledger, considered a sure shot for an Oscar, received a standing ovation for his supporting turn as the Joker in "The Dark Knight," which was also named best action film.
The film's director, Christopher Nolan, said Ledger would be "quietly proud" of his contribution to cinema. Ledger died of an accidental drug overdose last January.
British actress Kate Winslet, a five-time Oscar nominee, was named best supporting actress for playing a Nazi war criminal in "The Reader." She was not at the event.
The awards show, which took place at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, was broadcast on cable channel VH1. The Broadcast Film Critics' Association consists of about 200 television, radio and online critics in the United States and Canada.
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