Terrence Malick's cosmic epic The Tree of Life has been named best picture by the Toronto Film Critics Association, which also crowned Malick best director. 

The kudos come as the sprawling portrait of humanity approaches a wide-open Oscar race packed with several contenders.

Other front-runners include Martin Scorsese's 3D feature Hugo, George Clooney's family drama The Descendants and the French silent film The Artist. Each was named best of 2011 by other film groups.

The Toronto critics handed two acting prizes to the psychological drama Take Shelter, naming Michael Shannon best actor and Jessica Chastain best supporting actress.

The awards will be presented at a gala dinner on Jan. 10, 2012 in Toronto, when the association will also hand out the Rogers best Canadian film award, which carries a $15,000 cash prize. 

The nominees are Jean-Marc Vallée's Café de Flore, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method and Philippe Falardeau's Monsieur Lazhar, which is Canada's submission to the Oscars for the best foreign-language film category.

In Wednesday's announcement, association president Brian Johnson called Tree of Life and Take Shelter ambitious projects that "took bold risks."

"These are both intimate dramas that play out on an apocalyptic canvas and impart a sense of wonder and mystery," said Johnson, a film critic for Maclean's magazine.

The critics association named Michelle Williams best actress for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, while Canada's Christopher Plummer won best supporting actor for his role in Beginners as an elderly man who comes out of the closet. 

Best screenplay went to Moneyball, the story of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane. Based on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, it was written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, with a story by Stan Chervin.

Other award-winners included:

  • Best foreign-language film: Mysteries of Lisbon, directed by Chile's Raoul Ruiz, who died in August at age 70.
  • Best documentary feature: Nostalgia for the Light, directed by Patricio Guzman.
  • Best first feature: Attack the Block, from British writer-director Joe Cornish.
  • Best animated feature: The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Steven Spielberg.

The awards bash will also hand out the Jay Scott prize for an emerging artist, which carries a $5,000 cheque, and the Deluxe student film award, which gives $5,000 in post-production services to a student filmmaker.

Cronenberg will present a posthumous award to John Dunning, who passed away in September at age 84 after co-founding the distribution company Cinepix in the 1960s.

Dunning's son Greg will accept the Clyde Gilmour award for his father, who is credited with nurturing homegrown talents including Cronenberg, Ivan Reitman, Denys Arcand, Don Carmody and Vincent Gallo.

The Clyde Gilmour award recognizes Canadians whose work has enriched the understanding and appreciation of film.