Thornton tops at AFIs

LaPaglia, Connolly win for 'Balibo'

SYDNEY -- Australian movie "Samson and Delilah," about the plight of many Aboriginal communities, won the country's top film award Saturday, another major prize this year after it scored honors at the Cannes Film Festival.

Director Warwick Thornton took home the prize for best direction as well as for best original screenplay at the Australian Film Institute awards, which were presented in a televised gala in Melbourne

Thornton, who was raised in Alice Springs in the heart of Australia, had cast two non-actor children in the lead roles, and both -- Marissa Gibson and Rowan McNamara -- received the AFI's young actor award.

"Samson and Delilah" tells the story of two Aboriginal teenagers living in squalor and highlights the desperate state of many Aboriginal communities where glue sniffing, alcohol abuse and violence are common, although it ends on a more hopeful note.

The film has been doing the rounds at international film festivals since it won the Camera d'Or prize at Cannes earlier this year, and last month it took home the top prize at the annual Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

Anthony LaPaglia was named the AFI's best lead actor, and Oscar Isaac the best supporting actor, for their roles in Robert Connolly's "Balibo," a film about the execution of five foreign journalists, including two Australians, during Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor.

The film had received the most AFI nominations this year and Connolly and co-writer David Williamson also won the best adapted screenplay award, with the prizes likely to add to the buzz surrounding the movie which deals with an issue that has for years been a point of friction between Australia and Indonesia. The film was recently banned in the latter country.

Frances O'Connor took home the best lead actress award for her role in "Blessed" while Rachel Griffiths was honored with the AFI award for best supporting actress in "Beautiful Kate."

Director Baz Luhrmann's outback epic film "Australia," which had not been nominated for any top awards in his home country despite high hopes, was given the AFI's inaugural highest-grossing film award, a fitting tribute to the $130 million 20th Century Fox movie, the most expensive ever made in Australia.

Australian actor Russell Crowe received this year's AFI International award for best actor for his role in the political thriller "State of Play" while the AFI International award for best actress went to Toni Collette for her role as the suburban housewife with dissociative identity disorder in the Emmy award-winning television series "United States of Tara."