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Critics Are in ‘Baby’s’ Corner

Times Staff Writer

Though “Sideways” has received accolades as best picture of 2004 from more than 30 critics’ groups, Clint Eastwood’s pugilist drama “Million Dollar Baby” was voted top film Saturday by the National Society of Film Critics.

In one of several split decisions handed down at the group’s 39th annual meeting at Sardi’s restaurant in New York, Hilary Swank tied for best actress for her performance as a talented young boxer managed by a trainer played by Eastwood. Swank shared the honor with British actor Imelda Staunton, who portrayed an abortionist in the 1950s in Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake.”

Jamie Foxx was voted best actor for his portrayals of singer Ray Charles in “Ray,” directed by Taylor Hackford, and an L.A. cab driver kidnapped by a sociopathic contract killer in “Collateral,” directed by Michael Mann.

Zhang Yimou was chosen best director for his adventures “Hero” and “The House of Flying Daggers.” Zhao Xiaoding won for best cinematography in “The House of Flying Daggers.”

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Also nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, “Million Dollar Baby” is a leading Oscar contender. The critics’ group last year voted Eastwood best director for “Mystic River,” which went on to win best actor and supporting actor Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. Eastwood’s 1992 western “Unforgiven” received four awards from the 56-member critics’ group, including best picture.

Though “Sideways” didn’t win top honors, the dark comedy set in Santa Barbara wine country didn’t come away empty-handed. It garnered three awards, the most among the group’s choices: best screenplay for director Alexander Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor; and supporting actor and actress nods for Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen.

Ousmane Sembene’s “Moolaade” was voted best foreign language film, and Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation” was chosen as best nonfiction film.

The National Society of Film Critics is not considered much of an Oscar barometer, because it has agreed just three times with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ choice for best picture: 1977’s “Annie Hall,” “Unforgiven” and 1993’s “Schindler’s List.” Though “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won 11 Oscars last year, it did not receive awards from the society.

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The group also awarded special citations to Richard Schickel, Brian Jamieson and Warner Home Video for the reconstruction of Samuel Fuller’s World War II classic “The Big Red One,” and to the cable TV network Turner Classic Movies.


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