NEW YORK — The National Board of Review, widely considered a harbinger of the Academy Awards, has chosen "The Social Network" as the best film of the year.
The NBR lavished a total of four awards on the film, naming David Fincher best director, Aaron Sorkin's script best adapted screenplay and Jesse Eisenberg best actor. Eisenberg plays Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg in the film, which has won critical praise and earned more than $180 million worldwide at the box office.
In the past three years, the National Board of Review winner has twice gone on to win best picture at the Oscars: "No Country for Old Men" in 2007 and "Slumdog Millionaire" in 2008. Last year's winner was "Up in the Air."
The National Board of Review, a group of film historians, students and educators founded in 1909, is one of the first notable groups to announce its picks for the year, beginning in earnest the long drumbeat of critics groups and guilds that will name their own choices ahead of the Oscars on Feb. 27. Its robust backing of "The Social Network" will only add to the movie's reputation as an awards front-runner.
NBR President Annie Schulhof said she expects "The Social Network" will "stand up over time and appeal to many generations."
"With 'The Social Network' you had very strong elements that were very much appreciated: the direction, the writing, the acting, its great storytelling," Schulhof said. "That spoke to the very diverse landscape of the National Board of Review."
Lesley Manville was named best actress for her performance as a desperate middle-aged secretary in "Another Year," Mike Leigh's British drama about friendship and aging.
Best supporting actor went to Christian Bale, who plays Dicky Eklund, the junkie former boxer and older brother to Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) in David O. Russell's "The Fighter." Jacki Weaver won best supporting actress for her role as the matriarch of a blue-collar crime family in the Australian drama "Animal Kingdom."
Ben Affleck's Boston crime drama "The Town" — which features Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner and Jon Hamm — was chosen for best ensemble cast.
Shut out entirely was "The King's Speech," the drama about the struggles of King George VI (Colin Firth) with stuttering. It has been seen by Oscar prognosticators as the movie most likely to contest "The Social Network" for top honors. (The group did list "The King's Speech" as one of the top 10 films of the year.)
"Toy Story 3," Pixar's third installment in its beloved franchise, won best animated feature. Best documentary went to the "Waiting for 'Superman,'" which details the U.S. education system and puts hope in charter schools. Best foreign language film went to "Of Gods and Men," the French drama about Cistercian monks fighting fundamentalism.
One of the group's most surprising choices was picking Chris Sparling's "Buried" script for best original screenplay. The film, an exercise in minimalism, stars Ryan Reynolds as a contract worker in Iraq taken hostage and buried alive in a coffin — the cramped setting of the entire movie.
Sofia Coppola was chosen for a special filmmaking achievement award for writing, directing and producing "Somewhere," her lyrical depiction of a Hollywood actor (Stephen Dorff) questioning his lifestyle during a visit from his young daughter (Elle Fanning).
The NBR also sought to highlight a number of newcomers, citing Jennifer Lawrence of "Winter's Bone" for breakthrough performance and "Restrepo" co-directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hethington as debut directors.
The group gave French animator Sylvain Chomet and the late filmmaker Jacques Tati the "spotlight award" for "The Illusionist," Chomet's animated adaptation of an old screenplay by Tati.
Dante Ferretti won the production design award for "Shutter Island," Martin Scorsese's psychological drama.
The National Board of Review also cited three films — "Fair Game," ''Conviction" and "Howl" — for their annual "freedom of expression" citation. The NBR will also grant critic Leonard Maltin its William K. Everson Film History Award.
The group's top best films of 2010 are: "Another Year," ''The Fighter," ''Hereafter," ''Inception," ''The King's Speech," ''Shutter Island," ''The Town," ''Toy Story 3," ''True Grit" and "Winter's Bone."
The awards will be handed out Jan. 11 in a New York gala hosted by Meredith Vieira.