National Society picks 'Pan' as best pic

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Guillermo del Toro's imaginative fable "Pan's Labyrinth," set amid the rise of fascism in 1940s Spain, was voted best picture of 2006 by the National Society of Film Critics during the group's annual meeting Saturday at Sardi's Restaurant in New York.

The Spanish-language film, a Picturehouse release, prevailed in the voting over Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," which came in second, and Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima," which placed third.

With a membership that includes 58 critics from around the country, with 45 of them taking part in the voting, the National Society uses a weighted balloting system, and "Labyrinth" pulled ahead of "Lazurescu" by three points. "Labyrinth" scored 34, "Lazarescu" claimed 31 and "Letters" followed with 29.

Del Toro did not receive best director honors, however. That distinction went to Paul Greengrass for helming the docudrama "United 93." Greengrass earned 21 points, while del Toro and "The Departed's" Martin Scorsese tied for second place with 15 points each.

The critics' group, which dedicated its 41st annual awards to the memory of the late Robert Altman, named Forest Whitaker best actor for "The Last King of Scotland." But Whitaker eked out that victory; on the initial ballot, he and Peter O'Toole, who stars in "Venus," tied with 54 votes apiece. A tiebreaker, determined by those present at Sardi's, gave the win to Whitaker by a 9-8 vote. Ryan Gosling, of "Half Nelson," finished third with 37 points.

Echoing many other critics' groups, the National Society decided that Helen Mirren was its choice as best actress for "The Queen" -- she earned a commanding 94 points. Laura Dern ranked second for "Inland Empire" with 32, followed by Judi Dench for "Notes on a Scandal" with 25.

Mark Wahlberg earned best supporting actor honors for his cop in "Departed," with Jackie Earle Haley ("Little Children") and Alan Arkin ("Little Miss Sunshine") the runners-up.

Although 20th Century Fox is promoting Meryl Streep as a best actress contender for her role in "The Devil Wears Prada," the National Society instead hailed her as best supporting actress for her performances in "Devil" and "A Prairie Home Companion." Runners-up were Jennifer Hudson ("Dreamgirls") and Shareeka Epps ("Half Nelson").

Peter Morgan earned the best screenplay award for his work on "Queen." The runners-up were William Monahan for "Departed" and Eric Roth for "The Good Shepherd."

For best cinematography, the voters singled out Emmanuel Lubezki for "Children of Men." Runners-up were Guillermo Navarro for "Pan's Labyrinth" and Zhao Xiaoding for "Curse of the Golden Flower."

Davis Guggenheim's environmental tract "An Inconvenient Truth" was chosen best nonfiction film, with "Deliver Us From Evil" and "Shut Up & Sing" the runners-up.

David Lynch's "Inland Empire" earned a citation as best experimental film, with the group calling it a "a magnificent and maddening experiment with digital video possibilities."

The group presented its Film Heritage Award to Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 film "Army of Shadows," which was released for the first time in the U.S. last year by Rialto Pictures.

It also offered a Film Heritage Award to the Museum of the Moving Image "for presenting the first complete U.S. retrospective of French filmmaker Jacques Rivette."

David Sterritt was re-elected chairman of the group for this year.
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