NEW YORK (Reuters) - "Milk," a movie about slain U.S. gay politician Harvey Milk, was named the best picture of 2008 on Wednesday by the New York Film Critics Circle, throwing the top award category wide open in the race for the Oscars.
The New York Film Critics Circle honors are the third major awards of Oscar season following the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, which on Tuesday named animated feature "Wall-E" the best picture, and the National Board of Review, which last week named "Slumdog Millionaire."
Such critical nods are helpful for movie studios' marketing campaigns as they jockey for attention for their films before the Academy Awards, the industry's top honors, in February.
Actress Penelope Cruz picked up her third award for the season, named best supporting actress by all three groups for her role in director Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
Sally Hawkins was named best actress by the New York Film Critics Circle, an honor she was also given by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for her role as a cheery schoolteacher in "Happy-Go-Lucky."
The New York and Los Angeles critics both named Sean Penn the best actor for portraying a gay politician in "Milk," while his co-star Josh Brolin was named best supporting actor by the New York critics and the National Board of Review.
Disney/Pixar's "Wall-E," about a love-struck robot stranded on Earth, won best animated film of 2008 from the New York critics and the National Board of Review and was a surprise choice as best film by the Los Angeles critics.
"Wall-E" has proven to be a favorite with critics and audiences alike, raking in $490 million worldwide.
The New York and Los Angeles critics and the National Board of review have all named "Man on a Wire," about a Frenchman who walked a tightrope between New York's Twin Towers in 1974, the best documentary.
But the best director category is also wide open with three different winners so far. The New York Film Critics Circle gave its award to Mike Leigh for "Happy-Go-Lucky." Other winners this season are Danny Boyle for "Slumdog Millionaire" and David Fincher for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
The best foreign film category has also had different winners with "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" picking up the award from the New York critics.
The Critics Choice Awards, voted by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, unveiled its nominees on Tuesday, and the Golden Globe Awards, voted by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, will announces its finalists on Thursday. The Screen Actors Guild will name its award nominees next week.
All three organizations will name winners at awards ceremonies in January.
Editing by David Storey