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"Million Dollar Baby' wins film critics' award

Although Sideways has received accolades as best picture of 2004 from more than 30 critics groups, Clint Eastwood's pugilist drama Million Dollar Baby was voted top film Saturday by the National Society of Film Critics.

Hilary Swank also tied for best actress for her performance as a talented young boxer managed by a trainer played by Eastwood, in one of several split decisions handed down at the group's 39th annual meeting at Sardi's restaurant in New York. Swank shared her honor with British actress Imelda Staunton, who was recognized for her portrayal of an English abortionist in the 1950s in Mike Leigh's Vera Drake.

Jamie Foxx was voted best actor of the year for his portrayals of the late singer Ray Charles in Ray and a Los Angeles cab driver kidnapped by a sociopathic contract killer in Collateral.

Chinese director Zhang Yimou was chosen best director for his opulent period adventures Hero and The House of Flying Daggers, the latter also taking best cinematography for Zhao Xiaoding.

Also nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, Million Dollar Baby is a leading Oscar contender. The critics group last year voted Eastwood best director for Mystic River, which went on to win actor and supporting actor Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins.

Although Sideways didn't win top honors, the darkly comedic road trip set in the Santa Barbara, Calif., wine country didn't come away empty-handed from Saturday's ceremony. It garnered three awards, the most among the group's choices: best screenplay for director Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor, and Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen received nods for supporting actor and actress.

Ousame Sembene's Moolaade was voted best foreign language film, and Jonathan Couette's Tarnation was chosen best nonfiction film.

The National Society of Film Critics is not much of an Oscar barometer _ only three times has it presaged the Academy Awards' best picture: 1977's Annie Hall, Unforgiven and 1993's Schindler's List. Although The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won 11 Oscars last year, it did not receive any awards from the group.