''The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'' was supposed to have a lock on the Best Picture race this year, but until now, awards groups had bucked the conventional wisdom. On Monday, ''Return'' grabbed its first brass ring, from the New York Film Critics Circle, the oldest of the year-end movie critics' voting groups. The New York critics gave the hobbit saga short shrift in all other categories, however, in a list drawn almost entirely from 2003's independent releases.
Also ignored were such large-scale Hollywood awards hopefuls as ''The Last Samurai,'' ''Cold Mountain,'' ''Master and Commander,'' and ''Mystic River'' (which won Best Picture and acting honors from both the Boston Society of Film Critics and the National Board of Review). Instead, the New Yorkers gave two prizes each to such acclaimed indies as ''Lost in Translation, ''American Splendor,'' and ''The Secret Lives of Dentists.'' The New York group gave ''Lost'' recognition for Best Director (Sofia Coppola) and Best Actor (Bill Murray). Hope Davis was named Best Actress for her two very different housewives in ''Splendor'' and ''Dentists.'' ''Splendor'' also won Best First Film (for filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini), while ''Dentists''' second award was for Best Screenplay (Craig Lucas).
Supporting Acting prizes went to Eugene Levy, for his aging folkie in ''A Mighty Wind,'' and to Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays the wife of Ben Kingsley's character in the upcoming ''House of Sand and Fog.'' Harris Savides won Best Cinematographer for his work on two Gus Van Sant films, ''Gerry'' and ''Elephant.''
The NYFCC named Brazil's ''City of God'' Best Foreign Film. The group chose ''Capturing the Friedmans'' as Best Non-Fiction Film. Best Animated Film went to French import ''The Triplets of Belleville.'' The NYFCC has been handing out prizes since 1935, and it claims a 43 percent success rate in predicting the Best Picture Oscar winner.