- NSFC Awards: Clint Eastwood’s sentimental boxing melodrama Million Dollar Baby has been named the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Film.
- Imelda Staunton and Hilary Swank tied for Best Actress for their work in, respectively, Vera Drake and Million Dollar Baby. Jamie Foxx was chosen Best Actor for Ray, while Virginia Madsen and Thomas Haden Church topped the supporting categories for Sideways.
- Although most other NSFC Awards went to “safe” choices like Million Dollar Baby and U.S. critics’ favorites Foxx, Madsen, and Church, there were a trio of surprises in the Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Documentary categories.
NSFC Awards: Clint Eastwood’s sentimental boxing melodrama + two Zhang Yimou period epics among top picks
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.
Shockingly ‘safe’ NSFC Awards
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.
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), the 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 selection
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 have opted for the highly 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.
Immediately below is the full list of winners and runners-up at this year’s NSFC Awards. Make sure to check out the eclectic entries in the Film Heritage category.
National Society of Film Critics
Film: Million Dollar Baby.
Runners-up: Sideways; Before Sunset, dir.: Richard Linklater.
Foreign Language Film: Moolaadé.
Runners-up: House of Flying Daggers; Notre musique, dir.: Jean-Luc Godard.
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.
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, dir.: Davaa Myambasuren & Luigi Falorni; Bright Leaves, dir.: Ross McElwee.
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.
- John Cassavetes, Five Films (Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night).
- Fritz Lang Epic Collection (Metropolis, Die Nibelungen: Siegfried, Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge, Woman in the Moon, Spies, M.)
- 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.)
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National Society of Film Critics’ website.
Hilary Swank and Clint Eastwood Million Dollar Baby images: Warner Bros.
Image from the NSFC Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film winner Moolaadé: Filmi Domirev.
“NSFC Awards: Clint Eastwood Melodrama Is Surprising Mainstream Winner” last updated in October 2020.