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Top Challengers to 'The Artist' Get Big Boosts at National Board of Review Awards (Analysis)

THR's awards expert Scott Feinberg breaks down Tuesday's biggest winners: "The Help" ensemble, "Hugo" director Martin Scorsese, "Descendants" screenwriters and "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" star Rooney Mara, among others.

Hugo Asa Butterfield  Ben Kingsley Toy Shop - H 2012
Paramount Pictures

Last night, the National Board of Review -- a group of film historians, educators and students that has been bestowing best-of-the-year honors since 1930, only one year less than the Academy -- held their annual awards gala at majestic Cipriani 42nd Street in New York. The biggest winners -- all of which were announced weeks ago -- were Hugo (best film and director), The Descendants (best actor, supporting actress, adapted screenplay), and The Help (best ensemble), which happen to be the three films that have the best chances of upsetting presumptive best picture front-runner The Artist (which the NBR snubbed save for a mention on its top 10 list) at the Oscars.

The ceremony was hosted by NBC's gorgeous Today show host Natalie Morales. It ran very long but was jam-packed with A-list actors and filmmakers (honorees and presenters), moving and funny acceptance speeches (honorees have time to prepare since voting is conducted and results are announced weeks before the show) and good food and cool swag (several people joked from the podium about the massive hunks of beef and mountains of books, DVDs and soundtracks on each table), all of which made it well worth sitting through until the bitter end.

(Surreally enough, I was seated at a table with Hugo's director/producer Martin Scorsese, supporting actor Sir Ben Kingsley, producers Tim Headington and Graham King and executive producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, among other fun folks, so I certainly wasn't going anywhere!)

PHOTO: George Clooney's Squeeze Stacy Keibler Sparkles In Marchesa At The National Board Of Review

Following brief introductory remarks from NBR president Annie Schulhof and Morales, things got under way with a presentation of the best documentary award. Lars Ulrich, the drummer for the band Metallica, spoke movingly about the Oscar short-listed doc Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's third HBO film in 18 years about the "West Memphis 3" (three men who were convicted of murder in 1994 for a crime that they always maintained they did not commit). The filmmakers' focus and persistence motivated many people, including Ulrich, to begin pressuring the state of Arkansas to reopen the case and has been credited with helping to lead to the release of the three men in August. They were joined at the podium by one of the three, Jason Baldwin, who said as much.

Next up, Alec Baldwin, who eight years ago was presented with the best supporting actor award for The Cooler by the legendary thespian Christopher Plummer, returned the favor by helping to recognize Plummer's work in the dramedy Beginners, for which he is widely regarded as the Oscar front-runner. Plummer noted that different expectations come with winning different awards -- for instance, he cracked, when one is bestowed with a lifetime achievement award (as he was by the NBR in 2002), one is supposed to die. But, he added, "Try as you might, I didn't croak. And here you are, trying to get rid of me in another category!"

Then, actress Naomi Watts, who looked particularly stunning, took the stage to speak about Gore Verbinski, the director of best animated feature winner Rango. Watts, who was directed by Verbinski in the horror/thriller The Ring (2002), joked, "He taught me how to scream," then credited him with setting her career on a totally different path. For his part, Verbinski noted of Rango, "None of us who worked on this film had ever made an animated movie before," which he indicated was the reason the film wound up being so unconventional, in the best sense of the word.

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Verbinski was followed by Oscar winner Jeremy Irons, one of the many fine actors who were convinced to work for the young first-time director J.C. Chandor on Margin Call because of his marvelous script, which produced a first-rate and timely thriller. Irons presented the best breakthrough director award to Chandor, who subsequently recounted the funny garb in which Irons was adorned when he arrived on set to shoot a scene in a corporate boardroom, out of which he changed into boxers and a wife-beater before commencing in a table read-through. Chandor thanked Irons and the rest of the cast for delivering his words in a way that made him forget they were his own, and in so doing giving him a career.

Plummer then returned to the stage, this time as a presenter of one of the night's two best breakthrough performance awards to his The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo co-star Rooney Mara, who is widely regarded as being on-the-bubble for a best actress Oscar nomination. Mara's standing in the minds of many attendees was boosted immensely by both Plummer's uncharacteristically gushing introduction ("She recently burst upon the scene with a force Joan of Arc would have envied … with a fearlessness and courage I have not seen in a hell of a long time") and her own eloquent, humble and heartfelt acceptance speech ("I'm more nervous about standing up here than I was about anything I had to do in the movie; I don't know if you've seen the film, but that's saying a lot").