(Reuters) - The New York Film Critics Circle on Tuesday named silent film The Artist the best movie of the year, and gave its top acting honors to Meryl Streep and Brad Pitt.

Michel Hazanavicius won best director for The Artist, a black-and-white film about Hollywood's transition from silent films to talkies in the late 1920s and the toll it takes on one actor's life. In the romantic drama, a couple played by Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo find themselves on opposite sides of a career arc -- his descending as her star begins to shine.

The film began to generate buzz at festivals earlier this year and received strong reviews. With Tuesday's important, early win from the New York film critics, The Artist positions itself as a key competitor in the race for this year's Academy Awards, the film world's highest honors which are handed out in February.

Streep won the New York critics' best actress award for her portrayal of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, while Pitt was cited for his performances in two films, sports drama Moneyball and drama The Tree of Life.

It was Streep's fourth best actress win from the critics' group and Pitt's first.

Jessica Chastain was named best supporting actress for her performances in three films, The Tree of Life, The Help and Take Shelter.

Veteran actor Albert Brooks won best supporting actor for his turn as a small-time mobster in thriller, Drive.

The best screenplay award went to Moneyball's Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin.

It's a nice lineup with some surprises, the group's chairman, critic John Anderson, said of the winners.

He noted that while most categories required many ballots, there was also no rancor. He called the group hardly a unified mass, but told Reuters the choice of The Artist made sense.

It's a film about film, so it would appeal to the critical sensibility. It's a movie that celebrates movies.

But it's also well done, Anderson added. And it's upbeat, joyful, and just hard to resist.

The group shunned some presumed Oscar contenders such as The Descendants and Beginners, though Anderson noted the former film had some strong support.

The New York based film critics organization was founded in 1935 and comprises members from daily newspapers, weekly newspapers, magazines and some online general-interest publications.

Awards from critics groups and other industry panels often influence which films, performers and movie makers will compete for Oscars, which are given out by the Beverly Hills-based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The New York critics group's pick for best non-fiction, or documentary, film went to Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog's 3D movie about a cave in southern France.

The critics named Iran's A Separation, about a couple struggling with the decision about whether or not to leave their home country, as the year's best foreign language film.

Best cinematography went to Emmanuel Lubezki for The Tree of Life and best first feature to Margin Call.

A special award was also announced for filmmaker Raoul Ruiz, who died in August aged 70.