Inside the New York Film Critics Circle vote:

One of the bigger surprises in the circle's voting in recent year came with Tuesday's best movie win by "American Hustle,'' which squeaked by "12 Years a Slave'' on a highly unusual sixth ballot (including one ballot that was discarded, with its results unread, on a technicality).

The circle uses an arcane voting system for its multiple ballots, which open with a round in which each member (proxies are allowed at this point) is asked to make a single choice. This almost never results in a win. For subsequent rounds, each member (except those voting by proxies) make three choices -- ranked in descending order, with three points awarded for the first, two for the second, and one point for the third.

But there's also a requirement that winners appear on a majority of ballots for he second and third round, or there's no winner. If this happens, there's a fourth round where the majority rule is dropped (I told you it was complicated). But if this fourth ballots should produce a tie, then there's a fifth run-off round between these two titles. And the number of ballots fluctuates because proxies are ineligible on latter ballots, and as the day wears on members have to leave early because of work obligations.

This is what happened in the case of "American Hustle,'' which beat "12 Years a Slave'' by a 14-to-12 margin at the end of the meeting, which ran slightly over five hours.

An hour or so earlier, it seemed like "12 Years a Slave'' was a near-lock for best picture. Steve McQueen lead by a healthy margin in third ballot -- 37 to 30 for Alfonso Cuaron ("Gravity'') and 26 for David O. Russell ("American Hustle.''). McQueen landed on enough ballots to clinch the fourth and final round: McQueen 47, Russell 32, Spike Jonze ("Her'') 31.

"12 Years a Slave'' had a much narrower margin for the second best picture ballot over "American Hustle,'' 34 to 32. The third ballot was discarded (and the results not revealed to the membership) because some proxies accidentally were included -- a no-no at this point -- and a new third ballot was taken: "Hustle,'' 38 points, "12 Years'' 30 points (with 16 apiece for "Gravity'' and "Nebraska.''

The fourth resulted in a 38-38 tie for the frontrunners, with "Gravity'' and "Her'' tied in a distant second place with 17 points apiece. By this point -- it was near 3 o'clock and we had been there since 10 -- several members had left, and "American Hustle'' pulled off its squeaker in the tiebreaker round.

Would the results have been different if the pace of voting had been a bit brisker? If the third ballot hadn't been botched? We'll never know.

Tallies of the leaders in some of the other closely watched races:

ACTRESS. Second ballot: Cate Blanchett 44, Adèle Exarchopoulos 30, Amy Adams 29; Third ballot: Blanchett 47, Adams 40, Exarchopoulos, 34.

ACTOR: Second ballot: Robert Redford, 44, Chiewetel Ejiofor, Oscar isaac, 27.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Second ballot, Lupita Nyong'o 46, Jennifer Lawrence 40, June Squibb 34. Third ballot, Lawrence 40, Nyong'o, 39, Squibb 27.

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Second ballot, Jared Leto 49, Michael Fassbender 24, James Franco 24.

ANIMATED FILM: Second ballot, The Wind Rises 52, Frozen 33, Monsters University 15.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE: Second ballot, Blue is the Warmest Color, 37; The Past, 23, The Great Beauty 23. Third ballot, Blue is the Warmest Color 40, The Past 32, The Great Beauty 20.

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