N.Y. film critics name ‘Topsy-Turvy year’s best

In a surprising move, the members of the New York Film Critics Circle, an association of film reviewers from major Manhattan-based newspapers and magazines, selected “Topsy-Turvy” as the Best Picture of 1999.

Part biopic, part backstage drama, “Topsy-Turvy” is an opulent motion picture that focuses on the prickly relationship between librettist William Schwenk Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. Mike Leigh was selected as Best Director for the same film, which now becomes poised with “American Beauty” (selected by the National Board of Review), “Three Kings” (the Boston Critics’ choice) and “The Insider” (the L.A. Film Critics Association winner) as frontrunners in the upcoming Oscar race.

The top acting honors were awarded to two performers who portrayed real-life figures. Veteran Richard Farnsworth was named Best Actor for his turn as Alvin Straight, a man who rode a tractor several hundred miles across the Midwest in order to reunite with his estranged brother, in “The Straight Story,” directed by David Lynch. Hilary Swank was cited as Best Actress for her superlative portrayal of Teena Brandon, a Nebraska woman who lived her short adult life as a man, in “Boy’s Don’t Cry.”

The quirky, highly original comedy “Being John Malkovich” earned three awards: Best Supporting Actor for John Malkovich (for playing a character based on himself), Best Supporting Actress for Catherine Keener and Best First Film for director Spike Jonze.

For the first time in its 65-year history, the Circle voted to present a prize for Best Animated Film, bestowing the honors to Trey Parker and Matt Stone for the uproarious and irreverent “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” As Circle Chairman Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly explained, “You could almost say that this award category created itself. There has been such an increase in animated features targeted at adults as well as children, that as critics we felt we had to recognize superior achievement in the field.”

All About My Mother,” directed by Pedro Almodovar, was selected as the Best Foreign Language Film, marking a clean sweep in all the critics’ prizes presented to date.

Other award presented by the New York Film Critics Circle include Best Cinematography to Freddie Francis‘ lensing of “The Straight Story,” Best Non-Fiction Film to “Buena Vista Social Club” and Best Screenplay to Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor for the little-seen “Election.” A special award for distinguished achievement in film criticism was bestowed on Manny Farber.

Gleiberman and Vice-Chairman David Sterrit of The Christian Science Monitor made the announcement of the awards. The annual presentation of the awards will be held at a dinner at New York City’s Windows on the World at the World Trade Center on Jan. 9.