From "Sideways" director Alexander Payne, "The Descendants" stars Clooney as a neglectful father in Hawaii trying to tend his daughters after his wife falls into an accident-induced coma.
Michael Fassbender won best actor for a breakout year that included leading roles as a sex addict in "Shame," as a genetic mutant in "X-Men: First Class," as psychiatrist Carl Jung in "A Dangerous Method" and as sullen Victorian gentleman Rochester in "Jane Eyre."
The best-actor runner-up was Michael Shannon as a man beset by apocalyptic visions in "Take Shelter."
The critics' group passed over big Hollywood names to bestow its best-actress prize on Yun Jung-hee for the South Korean drama "Poetry," in which she plays a grandmother in the early stages of Alzheimer's who struggles with a new desire to write a poem.
Kirsten Dunst was best-actress runner-up as a depressive woman who finds inner strength as another planet bears down on a collision course with Earth in "Melancholia."
Notoriously press-shy filmmaker Terrence Malick was named best director for his epic family drama "The Tree of Life," starring Brad Pitt as a domineering father who mixes tenderness and cruelty in raising his sons. "Tree of Life" was the best-picture runner-up to "The Descendants."
The film also helped pick up the supporting-actress honor for Jessica Chastain, who was cited for "The Tree of Life" and five other films in which she co-starred this year. "Tree of Life" also earned the cinematography award for Emmanuel Lubezki (the runner-up was Cao Yu for "City of Life and Death").
The directing runner-up was Martin Scorsese for his 3-D family adventure "Hugo," about an orphan boy unraveling a mystery pegged to a toy-seller at a Paris train station in the 1930s.
Christopher Plummer won as supporting actor for "Beginners," in which he plays an elderly dad who announces to his son that he's gay. The runner-up was Patton Oswalt as an aging nerd who becomes unlikely pals with an old high school bombshell in "Young Adult."
Chastain, largely unknown until this year when she appeared in half a dozen films, was picked as supporting actress for her rush of movies, among them "Tree of Life," in which she plays a nurturing mother as counterpoint to Pitt's harsh dad. Besides "Tree of Life," Chastain's films included "The Help," "Take Shelter" and "Coriolanus."
Janet McTeer was runner-up for supporting actress for her cross-dressing role as a woman disguising herself as a male laborer in "Albert Nobbs."
The LA critics passed over the acclaimed silent film "The Artist," considered a potential best-picture favorite at the Feb. 26 Oscars. Their East Coast counterparts, the New York Film Critics Circle, chose "The Artist" as the year's best picture last week. "The Artist" also is tied for the lead with five nominations at the Spirit Awards honoring independent film.
Prizes from the two critics' groups help sort out the awards picture amid the crush of Oscar contenders that studios fling into theaters at the end of the year. The Oscar outlook will be further refined by nominations Wednesday for the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Thursday for the Golden Globes.
The LA critics honored Johnny Depp's Western comedy "Rango" as best animated film. Steven Spielberg's globe-trotting action tale "The Adventures of Tintin" was runner-up.
The electronic duo the Chemical Brothers earned the prize for best music score for the action thriller "Hanna." The runner-up was Cliff Martinez for another action tale, "Drive."
Also Sunday, the American Film Institute released its list of the year's top-10 films, listed alphabetically: "Bridesmaids," "The Descendants," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "The Help," "Hugo," "J. Edgar," "Midnight in Paris," "Moneyball," "The Tree of Life" and "War Horse." The group does not rank films on its top-10 list.
The AFI, whose awards honor U.S. films, gave a special prize to French director Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist."
Other LA critics winners:
- Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi, "A Separation"; runner-up, Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, "The Descendants."
- Foreign-language film: "City of Life and Death"; runner-up, "A Separation."
- Documentary-nonfiction film: "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"; runner-up, "The Arbor."
- Production design: Dante Ferretti, "Hugo"; runner-up, Maria Djurkovic, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."
- New Generation award: "Martha Marcy May Marlene."
- Independent-experimental film: "Spark of Being."