"The Artist," a black-and-white silent movie, was named best picture of 2011 Tuesday morning by the New York Film Critics Circle. The film's director, Michel Hazanavicius of France, also earned best director for his valentine to the early days of Hollywood.
It is the first time the critics have given its top award to a silent film. Earlier in the morning, the film earned five nominations for the Spirit Award.
Meryl Streep was named best actress for her performance as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady," which opens in L.A. on Dec. 30. It is the fifth time the New York circle has honored Streep. The last time was two years ago for "Julie & Julia."
Brad Pitt took home best actor honors for his performances as Oakland A's manager Billy Beane in "Moneyball" and as a stern father in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." It is his first honor from the critics' group. Steve Zallian and Aaron Sorkin won for best screenplay for "Moneyball."
This year's golden girl, Jessica Chastain, was named best supporting actress for her roles in "The Tree of LIfe," "The Help" and "Take Shelter." Albert Brooks won best supporting actor for a rare dramatic turn in the film noir "Drive."
Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams' won best nonfiction film, while "Margin Call," written and directed by J.C. Chandor, was awarded best first feature. Cinematography honors went to Emmanuel Lubezki for "Tree of Life."
Foreign-language film honors went to Iran's "A Separation," which has already won multiple awards and is the country's submission for the foreign-language film Oscar. The Chilean filmmaker Raoul Ruiz, who died in August, got a special posthumous award.
The awards will be handed out in a ceremony in Manhattan on Jan. 9.
The New York Film Critics Circle, which was founded in 1935, is the first major critics group to announce its picks for the best of the year. The organization, made up of critics from daily newspapers, weekly newspapers, magazines and online sites, traditionally voted after the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. But in October, the 33-member group announced it would move its awards selection ahead two weeks.
The voting was supposed to have happened on Monday, but the group didn't have the chance to screen David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," which opens Dec. 23, until Monday morning, so the voting was delayed until Tuesday. The film received no awards.
Over the decades, the New York critics' selections and those of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have differed. Last year, the circle chose "The Social Network" as the top film and the academy gave "The King's Speech" the best film Oscar. The two groups agreed two years ago on "The Hurt Locker."
The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures announces its selections Thursday morning.
-- Susan King
Photo: Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo in "The Artist." Credit: The Weinstein Co.