Fine Line Features must be glad that the ban on awards-season screener videotapes was overturned in court. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association had canceled its annual awards in protest over the ban, then reinstated them when the ban was lifted last month. Fine Line promptly sent out screeners of ''American Splendor'' to critics. On Wednesday, LAFCA named the movie its Best Picture of 2003, just as the National Society of Film Critics had over the weekend.
The L.A. critics gave ''Splendor'' two prizes (the other was Best Screenplay, for writing-directing team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, for their innovative adaptation of file clerk Harvey Pekar's autobiographical comic book series). Also winning two awards were ''The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'' (Best Director, for Peter Jackson, and Best Production Design, for Grant Major) and the nearly dialogue-free French cartoon feature ''The Triplets of Belleville'' (Best Animation and Best Music Score).
The big surprise among the winners was Bill Nighy, the scene-stealing, blunt-speaking rocker of ''Love Actually,'' who won his first award so far this season as Best Supporting Actor for his work in four films -- ''AKA,'' ''I Capture the Castle,'' and ''Lawless Heart'' were the others. (Hey, what about his turn as a resurrected vampire in ''Underworld''? Was that chopped liver?) Other awards went to such awards-season favorites as Bill Murray (Best Actor for ''Lost in Translation''), Naomi Watts (Best Actress for ''21 Grams''), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Best Supporting Actress for ''House of Sand and Fog''), and ''The Fog of War' (Best Documentary). LAFCA will hand out its awards at a banquet on Jan. 26.
The L.A. critics' group is considered influential, since its members work in Oscar's hometown, though its predictive record is spotty. (Of its choices last year in the top six categories, only ''Adaptation'''s Chris Cooper went on to win the Academy Award.) Still, ''Splendor'''s win Wednesday was its third, putting it in the same company as Oscar frontrunner ''Mystic River.'' This season, only ''Mystic,'' ''Return of the King,'' and ''Translation'' have picked up more awards and nominations than ''Splendor.''