'Bashir' waltzes to win

Nat'l Society of Film Critics taps documentary

The National Society of Film Critics has hailed the animated documentary "Waltz With Bashir" as the best picture of 2008.

The last of the major critics' groups to weigh in with a selection of the year's best, the National Society's choice Saturday confirmed the rising status of animated films. Last month, the Los Angeles Film Critics' Assn. singled out "WALL-E" as best picture of the year, and "WALL-E" tied with the British comedy "Happy-Go-Lucky" for runner-up status in the National Society's best picture voting.

The group has not had a separate animated film category but decided at this year's meeting to begin handing out annual animated film laurels, at its discretion, beginning next year.

Directed by Ari Forman and released by Sony Pictures Classics, "Bashir" is an animated doc about Israel's war with Lebanon in 1982.

"Happy," a Miramax release, walked off with the most awards, though. Mike Leigh's portrait of a blithe spirit and the effect she has on those around her earned Leigh best director and best screenplay honors. Sally Hawkins, as the upbeat central character, was named best actress, and Eddie Marsan, playing a downbeat driving instructor, was chosen as best supporting actor.

The group's best actor award went to Sean Penn, who plays the title role of Harvey Milk in "Milk," with Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler") and Clint Eastwood ("Gran Torino") runners-up.

Veteran actress Hannah Schygulla was named best supporting actress for her performance as a conservative German woman who befriends a young Turkish activist in "The Edge of Heaven." Runners-up were Viola Davis ("Doubt") and Penelope Cruz ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona").

James Marsh's documentary about Phillipe Petit, "Man on Wire," was named best nonfiction film, winning in that category over Tia Lessin and Carl C. Deal's "Trouble the Water" and Werner Herzog's "Encounters at the End of the World."

The cinematography award went to Anthony Dod Mantle for "Slumdog Millionaire" over runners-up Lee Ping-Bing ("Flight of the Red Balloon"), Wally Pfister ("The Dark Knight") and Yu Luk-Wai ("Still Life").

Actresses in smaller indie pics were the critics' darlings in the best actress deliberations. While Hawkins prevailed, Melissa Leo ("Frozen River") came in second while Michelle Williams ("Wendy and Lucy") was third.

In choosing Leigh best director, the critics voted second place to Gus Van Sant for both "Milk" and "Paranoid Park" and third to Danny Boyle for "Slumdog."

The runners-up to Marsden for supporting actor were Heath Ledger ("Knight") and Josh Brolin ("Milk").

Runners-up to Leigh for best screenplay were writer-directors Arnaud Desplechin ("A Christmas Tale") and Charlie Kaufman ("Synecdoche, New York").

The National Society named Ken Jacobs' "Razzle Dazzle" best experimental film.

It handed out several Film Heritage Awards, citing the Criterion Collection for its DVD release of Samuel Fuller's "White Dog"; Kent Mackenzie's 1961 film "The Exiles," about Native Americans in Los Angeles, which was restored by Ross Lipman of the UCLA Televisionand Film Archives and distributed by Milestone; Flicker Alley for releasing DVD collections of rare early U.S. and foreign silent films; and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment for its DVD set "Murnau, Borzage and Fox."

The National Society, made up of 63 critics from across the country, held its annual awards meeting at Sardi's Restaurant in New York, with 49 members voting, using a weighted ballot system. Scrolls will be sent to the winners.

David Sterritt was re-elected chairman for 2009. (partialdiff)