By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Silent film "The Artist" was the top winner at the Critics' Choice Awards on Thursday, boosting its profile as the Hollywood season heats up ahead of the Oscars.
The comedy, shot in black and white, picked up four awards, including best picture and best director for Frenchman Michel Hazanavicius, who called it "a love letter to American cinema."
Comedy/drama box office hit "The Help" was the night's other big, and surprise, victor. The tale of black maids and their white employers in the 1960s U.S. South brought acting honors for both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in their roles as maids. The movie also won best ensemble cast.
George Clooney was voted best actor for his role as a distracted dad in family drama "The Descendants" and female romp "Bridesmaids" won the award for best comedy.
The Critics' Choice Awards were given by the 250-member Broadcast Film Critics Association, the largest film critics organization in the United States and Canada.
The awards were handed out in Los Angeles before the Golden Globes ceremony on Sunday and a slew of other award shows that narrow the field for the Oscars - the movie industry's top honors - on February 26.
"The Artist," the story of a famous silent movie actor whose star crashes when talking pictures come in, is considered a front-runner for Oscar glory.
"I made a silent movie. I don't like to speak much," Hazanavicius said on accepting the best picture trophy.
But backstage he told reporters: "The film is a love letter to Los Angeles and a love letter to American cinema ... To shoot the film in Hollywood was a dream come true."
JUST ONE WIN FOR "HUGO"
Martin Scorsese's family film "Hugo" came away with just one award, for art direction, out of 11 nominations. But Scorsese was presented with a special award for the use of music in films like "The Last Waltz" and "Shine a Light" and was serenaded by Bob Dylan in a rare awards show performance.
"The Help" took movie critics and box-office experts by surprise last summer, despite being based on a best-selling novel of the same name. Davis, who beat the likes of Meryl Streep in the best actress category, said she was in "complete and utter shock" at her win.
"I hope this encourages Hollywood to keep making films with a cast that looks like this, a racially diverse cast, a female cast, because I think that would be the biggest statement of progress," Davis told reporters backstage.
Christopher Plummer, 82, was another popular winner for his best supporting actor role as man who comes out of the closet in old age in "Beginners."
"I feel terribly young tonight suddenly and at my age I need all the help I can get in that department. So thank you. You have brought back my youth," said Plummer, who is still best known for playing Captain von Trapp in "The Sound of Music" in the 1960s.
The best foreign film award went to Iranian family drama "A Separation," which also is seen as an Oscar contender next month.
Sean Penn was presented with a humanitarian award for his work in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake there. Penn, who was in Haiti for Thursday's second anniversary of the quake, told the Hollywood audience by video link, "There is change coming to Haiti but it can't happen without more help."
(Additional reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Trott)