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NSFC Awards: Clint Eastwood Melodrama Is Surprising Mainstream Winner

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Clint Eastwood Million Dollar Baby Hilary SwankMillion Dollar Baby with Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank: The National Society of Film Critics’ surprisingly mainstream Best Film, Eastwood’s maudlin boxing melodrama is unlike most of the group’s recent selections – e.g., American Splendor, Mulholland Dr., Yi Yi.
  • National Society of Film Critics Awards: Clint Eastwood’s sentimental boxing melodrama Million Dollar Baby has been named the NSFC’s Best Film. The Best Director, however, was Zhang Yimou for two Chinese epics.
  • Apart from the Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Documentary categories, this year’s NSFC Awards mostly went to “safe” choices like Million Dollar Baby, Sideways, and Ray actor Jamie Foxx.

National Society of Film Critics Awards: Clint Eastwood’s sentimental boxing melodrama and two Zhang Yimou period epics among NSFC’s top picks

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

Clint Eastwood’s schmaltzy surrogate father-daughter/boxing melodrama Million Dollar Baby and two sumptuous Zhang Yimou-directed period epics, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, were three of the National Society of Film Critics’ top choices this awards season, as announced at a gathering held on Jan. 9 at Sardi’s in New York City. (See further below the full list of this year’s NSFC Awards.)

A critical favorite and one of the top award-winning movies this season, Million Dollar Baby was named Best Film of 2004. Written by Paul Haggis – from a short story by F.X. Toole (a.k.a. Jerry Boyd) – it stars Eastwood as a grouchy boxing trainer who, while estranged from his daughter, takes economically disadvantaged and steadfastly loyal fighter Hilary Swank under his wing. A daddy-daughter relationship inevitably develops between the two, but ultimately there’s a price to pay.

Million Dollar Baby also earned Swank the NSFC’s Best Actress citation – in a tie with Imelda Staunton for her Venice Film Festival-winning portrayal of a cluelessly sweet-natured 1950s London abortionist and working-class mom in Mike Leigh’s British-made Vera Drake.

Now for the big surprise: The NSFC Awards’ Best Director wasn’t Eastwood, Martin Scorsese for the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, or Alexander Payne for the Wine Country road movie Sideways. Instead, the winner was Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou for two period epics: Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

The former is a 2002 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee that was released commercially in the United States only last year. The latter is China’s entry for this year’s Oscar in that category.

House of Flying Daggers also earned Zhao Xiaoding the Best Cinematography award.

Surprisingly ‘safe’ NSFC winners

Usually more offbeat in its awards season selections – at least when compared to other U.S.-based film critics groups – this year the NSFC went almost totally mainstream.

Two top awards for Clint Eastwood’s sentimental Million Dollar Baby and no less than three for Alexander Payne’s crowd-pleasing Sideways:

  • Thomas Haden Church, who just happens to be Paul Giamatti’s co-lead in the film, was named Best Supporting Actor for his performance as an egotistical, sexually starved actor.
  • Virginia Madsen, Giamatti’s dream-woman love interest, was Best Supporting Actress.
  • Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor won Best Screenplay for their adaptation of Rex Pickett’s novel.

In addition, Taylor Hackford’s by-the-book, box-office-friendly Ray Charles biopic Ray earned critics’ fave Jamie Foxx the Best Actor award.

MoolaadéMoolaadé. The latest effort by Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, whose feature credits date back to the landmark 1966 drama Black Girl, topped the NSFC Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category and the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Non-mainstream ‘female circumcision’ exception

Alongside Zhang Yimou’s Best Director win, more off the beaten path was the selection of Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé – a multi-country (Senegal, Burkina Faso, France, etc.) production – as Best Foreign Language Film.

Hardly an awards season favorite (possibly due to its limited U.S. distribution), last year’s Toronto Film Festival entry was a particularly surprising pick when one considers that Best Director Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers was the runner-up.

Set in a remote Burkina Faso village where old customs remain prevalent, Moolaadé revolves around the practice of female genital mutilation (a.k.a. female circumcision).

Unusual Best Documentary

Also unusual was the NSFC Awards’ Best Non-Fiction Film/Documentary winner: Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, in which the filmmaker depicts his complex relationship with his mentally ill mother.

The vast majority of U.S. critics groups (including the New York Film Critics Circle) have opted for the controversial anti-Iraq War, anti-George W. Bush blockbuster Fahrenheit 9/11, directed by the American Far Right’s Public Enemy No. 1, Michael Moore.

Strangely, Fahrenheit 9/11 isn’t even found among the two immediate Best Non-Fiction Film runners-up.

Luchino Visconti & Fritz Lang

Several DVD releases received a special Film Heritage mention at the NSFC Awards, notably:

  • Luchino Visconti’s 1963 classic The Leopard, an Italian-language period family/political drama based on the 1958 novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and starring Hollywood import Burt Lancaster as a Sicilian aristocrat, French import Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale.
  • The six-film “Fritz Lang Epic Collection,” including the silent fantasy/historical epics Die Nibelungen: Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge, in addition to the 1931 film noir predecessor M, starring Peter Lorre as a child murderer.
  • Five John Cassavetes titles, among them the two that earned him Academy Award nominations: Faces (Best Original Screenplay, 1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (Best Director, 1974), both featuring his wife, Gena Rowlands.

Immediately below is the full list of winners and runners-up at this year’s NSFC Awards.

National Society of Film Critics winners & runners-up

Film: Million Dollar Baby.

Runners-up: Sideways; Before Sunset.

Foreign Language Film: Moolaadé.

Runners-up: House of Flying Daggers; Notre musique.

Director: Zhang Yimou, House of Flying Daggers & Hero.

Runners-up: Alexander Payne, Sideways; Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby.

Actress (tie): Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake + Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby.

Runner-up: Julie Delpy, Before Sunset.

Supporting Actress: Virginia Madsen, Sideways.

Runners-up: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator & Coffee and Cigarettes; Laura Linney, Kinsey.

Actor: Jamie Foxx, Ray.

Runners-up: Paul Giamatti, Sideways; Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby.

Supporting Actor: Thomas Haden Church, Sideways.

Runners-up: Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby; Peter Sarsgaard, Kinsey.

Screenplay: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, Sideways.

Runners-up: Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke, Before Sunset.

Non-Fiction Film/Documentary: Tarnation.

Runners-up: The Story of the Weeping Camel; Bright Leaves.

Cinematography: Zhao Xiaoding, House of Flying Daggers.

Runners-up: Christopher Doyle, Hero; Dion Beebe & Paul Cameron, Collateral.

Special Citation: Richard Schickel & Brian Jamieson for the restoration of Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One.

Film Heritage Awards (to new DVDs):

  • Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard.
  • Fritz Lang Epic Collection (Metropolis, Die Nibelungen: Siegfried, Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge, Woman in the Moon, Spies, M.)
  • John Cassavetes, Five Films (Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night).
  • More Treasures from American Film Archives, 1894–1931 (including the Rin Tin Tin star vehicle Clash of the Wolves, Ernst Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, and the Alice Guy Blaché short Falling Leaves.)

“NSFC Awards: Clint Eastwood Melodrama Is Surprising Mainstream Winner” notes

National Society of Film Critics website.

Hilary Swank and Clint Eastwood Million Dollar Baby movie images: Warner Bros.

Moolaadé image: Filmi Domirev.

“NSFC Awards: Clint Eastwood Melodrama Is Surprising Mainstream Winner” last updated in December 2023.

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