Sean Penn, who stars in Milk, and Happy-Go-Lucky's Sally Hawkins were named best actor and actress on Saturday by the National Society of Film Critics, positioning them as front-runners for next month's Academy Awards.
The critics' association chose Waltz With Bashir as the year's best film in a surprise move. Other film associations had picked Slumdog Millionaire, Milk or Wall-E.
Israeli director Ari Folman's memoir of his years as a soldier during the 1982 war with Lebanon, Waltz With Bashir has been described as an animated documentary. The New York Times calls it "an altogether amazing film."
Happy-Go-Lucky, about a cheerily optimistic schoolteacher in North London, also won best director and best screenplay honors for Mike Leigh, as well as best supporting actor for Eddie Marsan.
Penn's award, one of several prizes ahead of February's Oscars, was for his acclaimed performance as San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, a gay rights leader who was assassinated along with the city's mayor by a fellow politician in 1978.
Best supporting actress went to veteran Hanna Schygulla for The Edge of Heaven, while Man on Wire, the story of a daredevil's walk across a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, was named best documentary.
Slumdog Millionaire won for best cinematography. Ken Jacobs' Razzle Dazzle was named best experimental film.
The National Society of Film Critics includes members from major newspapers in Los Angeles, Boston, New York and Chicago as well as from Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker and Salon.com.
Critics' awards help build momentum heading toward the Academy Awards, or Oscars, which are the world's top film awards given out on the final Sunday in February by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Shut out of the 43rd annual awards were highly touted films including Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino and The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button. Both are seen as front-runners in several Oscar categories.
The organization's special Film Heritage awards went to Criterion for Samuel Fuller's 1982 film White Dog; Kent MacKenzie's 1961 film The Exiles; Flicker Alley, which distributes rare silent films; and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment for its DVD boxed set, Murnau, Borzage and Fox.