The San Francisco Critics Circle voted "'Milk (trailer above), a biopic on Harvey Milk, the pioneering gay-rights activist and San Francisco supervisor assassinated in 1978, as the year's best film.
The group also honored Gus Van Sant as best director and recognized the film's writer, Dustin Lance Black, in the original-screenplay category
Sean Penn, who stars as Milk, was named best actor along with Mickey Rourke, recognized for his performance as a down-and-out professional wrestler in "The Wrestler" (opening in Sacramento in January). The vote in that category ended in a tie.
Though "Milk" is a very San Francisco story, it is winning plenty of acclaim elsewhere. The New York Film Critics Circle and Southeastern Film Critics Association both named it best picture.
Judging by critics' groups awards so far -- but not by the Golden Globe nominations, which (criminally) omitted "Milk" from its best drama list -- the film is shaping up as a leading Oscar best-picture contender, along with "Slumdog Millionaire" and that animated story of the rusty robot that could, "Wall-E."
Sally Hawkins , the previously little-known British actress who plays a perpetually upbeat schoolteacher in "Happy-Go-Lucky," continued her roll with best actress honors from the San Francisco critics. Hawkins previously was honored by the New York, Boston and Los Angeles film critics.
Like Penn in the lead-actor category, Hawkins looks to be an early favorite for the best actress Oscar, though Anne Hathaway ("Rachel Getting Married"), Kate Winslet ( "The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road," opening in Sacramento on Christmas Day and in January, respectively), and a little-heralded newcomer named Meryl Streep ("Doubt") certainly are in contention as well.
Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker in "The Dark Knight," by contrast, already appears to be a virtual lock for an Oscar. The San Francisco critics, like almost every other critics' group to weigh in so far, named Ledger best supporting actor of 2008.
The San Francisco critics recognized Marisa Tomei as best supporting actress for her performance as a stripper who may or may not have a heart of gold in "The Wrestler."
Peter Morgan took adapted-screenplay honors for transforming his own stage play into "Frost/Nixon." The Swedish vampire/coming-of-age story "Let the Right One In" was named best foreign-language film, and "My Winnipeg," director Guy Maddin's 's ("The Saddest Music in the World") artful tribute to his Canadian hometown, best documentary.
The San Francisco Film Critics Circle consists of 24 film writers, including me and the News & Review's Jonathan Kiefer .