"American Splendor," an offbeat, independent American movie based on the scruffy life and hard times of underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar, was selected as the best film of 2003 on Jan. 3 by the National Society of Film Critics. Barely nudging out the second-place film, Clint Eastwood's moody crime drama "Mystic River," "Splendor" was picked by the 55-member critics group at its 38th annual voting awards luncheon held at Sardi's Restaurant.
The other top winners included Charlize Theron, picked as 2003's best actress for her scary psychological and physical incarnation of real-life prostitute/serial killer Aileen Wuornos in another American indie, Patsy Jenkins' "Monster"; Bill Murray, chosen as best actor for his part as a disillusioned movie celebrity at loose ends in Japan in Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation"; and Eastwood, voted best director for his adaptation of novelist Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River."
All three won by wide margins over the runners-up, as did foreign-language film victor "The Man Without a Past" (Finland), Aki Kaurismaki's droll lower-depths fable about an amnesiac's struggle to regain his life. "American Splendor" also garnered the screenplay award for writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, making their first dramatic feature after estimable careers as documentarians.
The blockbuster J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy-adventure adaptation "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" -- which had won best-picture honors from the New York Film Critics' Circle -- was shut out this time, although "Rings" director Peter Jackson did finish second to Eastwood in the best-director balloting.
Instead, "American Splendor" and "Mystic River" were the top two contenders throughout the afternoon, with "Mystic River" finishing second in four other categories -- best picture, best actor (Sean Penn), best supporting actor (Tim Robbins) and best screenplay (Brian Helgeland). Meanwhile, "Splendor's" Hope Davis, as Pekar's brainy helpmate, was the best-actress runner-up to Theron. (Davis was also cited for her lead performance as the wife in Alan Rudolph's "The Secret Lives of Dentists.")
The supporting-actor category was won by Peter Sarsgaard for his intense portrayal of a gutsy magazine editor faced with a major scandal in "Shattered Glass," the docudrama about the New Republic's prevaricating writer Stephen Glass. Patricia Clarkson won as supporting actress for her roles in two films, as the sharp-tongued dying mother in "Pieces of April" and as one of a trio of small-town outsiders in "The Station Agent."
The best-cinematography prize went to Russell Boyd for his spectacular work in Peter Weir's film of Patrick O'Brian's sea adventure novels "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." Named as best nonfiction film was "To Be and to Have," Nicolas Philibert's luminous French documentary on the daily life of a provincial elementary school teacher. That film barely nudged out runner-up "The Fog of War," Errol Morris' powerful interview portrait of Vietnam War-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, while the foreign language runner-up was Sylvain Chomet's exuberant French cartoon feature "Les Triplettes de Belleville."
The NSFC's special Film Heritage Award was divided between two companies. Milestone Film and Video was cited for its DVD and theatrical presentations of Michael Powell's "The Edge of the World," E.A. Dupont's "Piccadilly," Andre Antoine's "La Terre" and "Mad Love," a collection of early Russian silents by Evgeni Bauer, while Kino on Video won honors for its collections of the works of directors F.W. Murnau and Erich Von Stroheim, and producer Ely Landau's productions for The American Film Theatre.
The awards this year were notable again for the number of films honored from independent or subsidiary companies such as Fine Line ("American Splendor"), Focus ("Lost in Translation") and Sony Pictures Classics ("The Man Without a Past") -- a trend that held despite the initial unavailability of critics' screeners from these companies because of the MPAA's screener ban. (Eventually, the ban was struck down by a federal judge.)
The National Society of Film Critics is composed of 55 major critics, including this one, for newspapers, magazines and online publications around the country.