God love the National Society of Film Critics. More often than not, you can count on them to go their own way on the precursor trail -- and they did so in defiant fashion today, becoming the first major critics' group to single out Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" as the year's best, handing star Kirsten Dunst the Best Actress prize into the bargain. (It's Dunst's first win since her Cannes trophy, and not a moment too soon; look out for my interview with her on Monday.) It's the second time the group has stood up for von Trier in this way -- 15 years ago, they gave "Breaking the Waves" the same two awards.

As if to underline their independence from the Oscar conversation, their runner-up picks were also decidedly dark horses: "The Tree of Life" (which lost the Best Picture race by a single point, but won Best Director and Best Cinematography to make up for it) and "A Separation," which won the foreign-language race by a landslide and also took its second major critics' prize in the Best Screenplay category. (The LA Critics reached the same conclusion last month -- could the Academy's writers' branch take notice?)

Breaking up the arthouse love-in in the top categories, Brad Pitt took their Best Actor award for "Moneyball." Following his New York critics' prize at the start of the season, this means he's now taken two of the Big Three US critics' gongs -- which suggests to me that we ought to start taking his Oscar chances very seriously. The Academy's last seven picks for Best Actor all took at least one of those three prizes along the way, a stat George Clooney won't like much. Indeed, supposed critics' favorite "The Descendants" is somewhat conspicuous by its absence throughout the NSFC list -- a bronze medal for Shailene Woodley is its sole citation.

Speaking of the supporting trophies, the NSFC didn't shake things up here, as Albert Brooks and Jessica Chastain (again cited for multiple roles) continued their dominance of the precursor circuit thus far, though it's nice to see Jeannie Berlin copping a runner-up mention for "Margaret." They didn't stray too far in the documentary category either, as Werner Herzog picked up yet another award for "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" (I still don't get why), beating his own "Into the Abyss" into third place.

But it's "Melancholia" that's obviously the biggest story here, and I'm thrilled the NSFC has chosen to shine an extra light on this striking, unsettling, not openly embraceable film -- in a year when certain critics' groups have proudly boasted of their Oscar-predicting records, would that more of them had the gumption to veer this far off-track. Whether anybody follows their lead or not is neither here nor there -- there's every chance this will be the Society's first top winner since "Yi Yi" in 2000 not to register with the Academy at all. They've given one of the year's best and most discussed films its due, and asserted their critical identity in the process, Isn't that what all critics' awards should aim for?

The full list of winners is below:   

Best Picture
1. "Melancholia" (29)
2. "The Tree of Life" (28)
3. "A Separation" (20)

Best Director
1. Terrence Malick, "The Tree of Life" (31)
2. Martin Scorsese, "Hugo" (29)
3. Lars von Trier, "Melancholia" (23)

Best Actor
1. Brad Pitt, "Moneyball" and "The Tree of Life" (35)
2. Gary Oldman, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (22)
3. Jean Dujardin, "The Artist" (19)

Best Actress
1. Kirsten Dunst, "Melancholia" (39)
2. Yun Jung-hee, "Poetry" (25)
3. Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady" (20)

Best Supporting Actor
1. Albert Brooks, "Drive"
2. Christopher Plummer, "Beginners" (24)
3. Patton Oswalt, "Young Adult" (19)

Best Supporting Actress
1. Jessica Chastain, "The Help," "Take Shelter" and "The Tree of Life" (30)
2. Jeannie Berlin, "Margaret" (19)
3. Shailene Woodley, "The Descendants" (17)

Best Screenplay
1. "A Separation" (39)
2. "Moneyball" (22)
3. "Midnight in Paris" (16)

Best Foreign Language Film
1. "A Separation" (67)
2. "Mysteries of Lisbon" (28)
3. "Le Havre" (22)

Best Documentary
1. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" (35)
2. "The Interrupters" (26)
3. "Into the Abyss" (18)

Best Cinematography
1. "The Tree of Life" (76)
2. "Melancholia" (41)
3. "Hugo" (33)

Best Experimental Film
"Seeking the Monkey King"

Film Heritage
1. BAMcinématek for its complete Vincente Minnelli retrospective with all titles shown on 16 mm. or 35 mm. film.
2. Lobster Films, Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema for the restoration of the color version of George Méliès’s “A Trip to the Moon.”
3. New York’s Museum of Modern Art for its extensive retrospective of Weimar Cinema.
4. Flicker Alley for their box set Landmarks Of Early Soviet Film. 5. Criterion Collecton for its 2-disc DVD package The Complete Jean Vigo.

Be sure to keep track of the ups and downs of the 2011-2012 film awards season via The Circuit.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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