French-language drama Amour was named the year's best film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, whose prizes are among a flurry of year-end honours that help focus the Academy Awards race.
Among the group's other honours, 1950s cult drama The Master earned four awards: best director for Paul Thomas Anderson, best actor for Joaquin Phoenix, supporting actress for Amy Adams and production design for David Crank and Jack Fisk.
The Master was also chosen as best picture runner-up. The film stars Phoenix as a volatile Second World War veteran who comes under the sway of a charismatic cult leader. Adams co-stars as the cult leader's tough-minded wife.
Amour star Emmanuelle Riva, who plays an elderly, ailing woman being cared for by her husband, shared the best actress honour in a tie with Jennifer Lawrence of the lost soul romance Silver Linings Playbook.
Newcomer Dwight Henry was chosen as supporting actor for the low-budget critical darling Beasts Of The Southern Wild. The film's writer-director, Benh Zeitlin, received the group's New Generation Award and shared the prize for best music score with composing partner Dan Romer.
Directed by Michael Haneke, Amour is Austria's entry for the foreign language Oscar and won the top honour at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
The choice by the Los Angeles critics marked a move away from bigger Hollywood productions that the group favoured the last two years when it named George Clooney's The Descendants as the best film of 2011 and David Fincher's The Social Network as tops for 2010.
The critics' picks came days after both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review chose Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden manhunt docudrama Zero Dark Thirty as the year's best film.
Shut out at the Los Angeles critics honours was Steven Spielberg's Civil War epic Lincoln.