By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Film Critics Circle on Monday picked action thriller "Zero Dark Thirty" as best film and gave its top acting honors to Daniel Day-Lewis and Rachel Weisz in the first major movie awards of the season leading up to Hollywood's Oscars.
U.S. filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow won best director for "Zero Dark Thirty," based on the decade-long U.S. operation to kill Osama bin Laden and billed as a cinematic look at "the greatest manhunt in history."
Bigelow's film, which stars Jessica Chastain as a young female CIA officer doggedly pursuing bin Laden for years through a long-forgotten courier, has yet to be released but has already gained buzz in early screenings for critics.
After Monday's nod from the New York film critics, "Zero Dark Thirty" is positioned as one of the front runners in the race for this year's Academy Awards, the film world's highest honors, which are handed out in February.
Day-Lewis won for his performance as President Abraham Lincoln in "Lincoln," while Britain's Weisz was a surprise choice for the New York critics' best actress award for her portrayal of Hester Collyer in romantic drama "The Deep Blue Sea," set in post-World War Two Britain.
Sally Field was named best supporting actress for her performance opposite Day-Lewis as Mary Todd Lincoln in "Lincoln," the tale of Lincoln's battle to outlaw slavery. It was written by playwright Tony Kushner, who also picked up the best screenplay award.
Actor Matthew McConaughey won best supporting actor for his performances in "Bernie" and raunchy comedy "Magic Mike."
NOTHING FOR 'LES MIS'
Notably absent from the list of winners was "Les Misérables," the first big movie adaptation of the popular stage musical. It stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway and was directed by "The King's Speech" Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper. The movie has been gaining critical buzz in preview screenings.
Also missing from the list of winners was Ben Affleck's well-received Iran hostage thriller "Argo."
The New York based film critics organization was founded in 1935 and comprises members from newspapers, magazines and some online publications.
Awards from the critics and movie industry groups often influence which films, performers and film makers will compete for the Oscars, which are given out by the Beverly Hills-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
"Zero Dark Thirty," saw its release date pushed back to December 19 after the film got caught up earlier this year in a U.S. election controversy.
The makers of the film - "The Hurt Locker" Oscar winners Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal - recently denied a claim they were given classified material for their research but said they did conduct interviews with a CIA officer and others at the heart of the hunt for the al Qaeda leader.
The New York critics group's pick for best documentary went to "The Central Park Five," Ken Burns' examination of the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers whose convictions of raping a white female jogger were overturned after they spent years in prison.
Best foreign language film went to Austrian director Michael Haneke's "Amour," a tale of an elderly couple facing the tragic march of death, while best animated feature went to "Frankenweenie."
The critics awarded best cinematography to Greig Fraser for "Zero Dark Thirty" and best first film went to nonfiction film "How To Survive A Plague," David France's documentary about the first nine years of AIDS advocacy group ACT UP.
The organization announced the awards via Twitter.
(Reporting by Christine Kearney; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Steve Orlofsky)