Directed by Jason Reitman ("Juno," "Thank You for Smoking"), the film stars George Clooney as a perpetually traveling contractor who fires people for a living. The National Board of Review, which announced its awards Thursday, also chose Clooney as best actor, an honor he shares with Morgan Freeman who plays Nelson Mandela in "Invictus."
"Up in the Air" also won best supporting actress for Anna Kendrick and best adapted screenplay, penned by Reitman and Sheldon Turner working from Walter Kirn's book of the same name.
Already an Oscar favorite, the win boosts the awards prospects of "Up in the Air." The last two NBR winners — "No Country for Old Men" and "Slumdog Millionaire" — have gone on to win best picture at the Academy Awards.
Best director went to Clint Eastwood for "Invictus," the story of Mandela's embrace of the South African national rugby team.
Carey Mulligan was chosen best actress for her lead performance in "An Education," a coming-of-age story set in 1960s London. Woody Harrelson won best supporting actor for "The Messenger." In the film, the actor plays Captain Tony Stone, who is tasked to inform the families of fallen soldiers.
Best animated film went to Pixar's "Up," an adventure about an elderly man who has always yearned for adventure and finds it when he flies away in his house with a boy who has stowed away. "The Cove," about the slaughter of dolphins in a Japanese village, won best documentary. The prison drama "A Prophet" won best foreign film.
NBR President Annie Schulhof noted the large number of films — from "The Cove" to "Up in the Air" — that reflected social conscience. The group cited "Invictus" and the documentaries "Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country" and "The Most Dangerous Man in America" for its "freedom of expression" award.
Joel and Ethan Coen won best original screenplay for their script to "A Serious Man," a black comedy set in the 1960s.
The NBR also singled out Wes Anderson for a special filmmaking achievement award for his stop-motion animated "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," which Anderson co-wrote, directed, lent his voice to and deeply involved himself in the arduous minutia of the animation.
Best ensemble went to "It's Complicated," a romantic comedy starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin and John Krasinski.
The awards also highlighted breakthrough performances, honoring those by Jeremy Renner ("The Hurt Locker") and Gabourey Sidibe ("Precious"). And the National Board of Review cited the directorial debuts of Duncan Jones ("Moon"), Oren Moverman ("The Messenger") and Marc Webb ("(500) Days of Summer").
The National Board of Review, which is composed of film historians, students and educators, was founded in 1909. The awards will be handed out Jan. 12 in a New York gala hosted by Meredith Vieira.
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