LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood's Oscar race heated up on Tuesday when a trio of movies drew honors from critics, including the surprise choice of animated "Wall-E" as the year's best film by a major group of reviewers.
The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA) chose Disney/Pixar's "Wall-E," about a love-struck robot stranded on Earth, as the best movie of 2008 and picked the action-packed Batman flick "The Dark Knight" as runner-up.
Earlier Tuesday, the Broadcast Film Critics Association named nominees for top movies and performances with "Milk," about slain gay activist Harvey Milk, and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," a romance starring Brad Pitt, leading rivals with eight nominations each, including best film.
Both critics' groups represent key stops on the road to Oscars, the world's top film honors given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in February, because early honors help draw the attention of Academy Award voters.
The Broadcast Film Critics (BFCA) is the largest group of U.S. and Canadian reviewers with more than 200 members, and LAFCA enjoys influence due to its proximity to Hollywood.
LAFCA's selection of "Wall-E" comes as a surprise because typically in Oscar season, critics favor dramas that delve into human frailties and utilize real actors over humorous animated films.
But "Wall-E" has proven to be a favorite with critics and audiences alike this year, raking in $490 million at worldwide box offices. "The Dark Knight" also was a crowd pleaser with good reviews and nearly $1 billion in global ticket sales.
LAFCA named Sean Penn as the year's best actor for his starring role in "Milk" and Briton Sally Hawkins won the best actress title for her role as a cheery schoolteacher in "Happy-Go-Lucky."
Another Briton, Danny Boyle, was named best director for his drama "Slumdog Millionaire," about a young Indian man on a television game show.
LAFCA picked Australian Heath Ledger, who died early this year from an accidental drug overdose, as best supporting actor for playing the villainous Joker in "The Dark Knight," and Spaniard Penelope Cruz was named best supporting actress for her work in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "Elegy."
The LAFCA awards will be given out on January 12.
For its awards, the BFCA nominated 10 films for top movie: "Milk," "Benjamin Button," "The Dark Knight," "Changeling," "Doubt," "Frost/Nixon," "The Reader," "Slumdog Millionaire," "The Wrestler" and "Wall-E."
Best actress nominees included Angelina Jolie in "Changeling," Cate Blanchett for "Benjamin Button" and "Meryl Streep in "Doubt," among others.
BFCA nominees for best actor included Penn for "Milk," Frank Langella in "Frost/Nixon," Pitt for "Benjamin Button" and Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler."
The BFCA awards will be given out in a ceremony televised on cable TV network VH1 on January 8. A full list of nominees is available at criticschoice.vh1.com.
The Oscar ceremony is scheduled for February 22 in Los Angeles.
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bill Trott