The New York Film Critics' Circle yesterday named "A Passage to India," David Lean's epic of British imperialism drawn from the 1924 E.M. Forster novel, Best Picture of the Year.

The awards, given annually by New York's two dozen or so critics, are generally considered a stalking horse for the Oscars, and can be particularly valuable to art-house films or films, like "A Passage to India," without immediate mass-audience appeal.

Lean, who withdrew from the world of movies 14 years ago, in part due to the nasty reaction of the New York critics to his "Ryan's Daughter," was chosen as Best Director. Dame Peggy Ashcroft, the doyenne of the British stage who appears in "A Passage to India" as Mrs. Moore, was chosen as Best Actress.

The biggest surprise was the choice of Steve Martin for Best Actor for his portrayal of a lawyer occupied by a woman's spirit in "All of Me." Like the Academy, the Gotham critical fraternity rarely gives the award for a comedic performance.

"The pachyderm party won this year," said one critic who participated in the selection. "Heavy, lumbering movies tended to do very well. There was this very stubborn Anglophiliac section that shocked me."

Bertrand Tavernier's "A Sunday in the Country" was chosen as Best Foreign Film. Robert Benton was awarded Best Screenplay laurels for his "Places in the Heart." Christine Lahti, who inspired the greatest unanimity of the afternoon, won as Best Supporting Actress for her role in "Swing Shift"; the Best Supporting Actor nod went to the late Sir Ralph Richardson for his performance in "Greystoke."

The conclave was marked by irritability, ennui, giddiness, and an outburst by National Review film critic John Simon. "It was an interminably boring meeting," said David Denby, film critic of New York magazine. "We were there over four hours, at least an hour longer than ever before. There was no real enthusiasm for anything, so there were invariably three or four ballots."

Simon's outburst came during an argument over whether "Stop Making Sense," Jonathan Demme's concert movie about the Talking Heads, could be considered a documentary. Asked by a fellow critic, "Would you consider this a documentary?" Simon thundered a rather colorful characterization of the film that brought the discussion to a halt.

"The Times of Harvey Milk" was chosen as Best Documentary. "Stop Making Sense" was nominated for a special award, but failed by one vote.

The other surprise of the afternoon was the unusually strong showing of Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise," which came in third in the voting for Best Picture. "Stranger" is Jarmusch's first film. "The Killing Fields," which came in second, won the award for Best Cinematography.

"Amadeus" swept the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards earlier this week, winning Best Picture, Actor (Tim Hulce), Director (Milos Forman) and Screenplay. The National Board of Review, a group of 15 film scholars, researchers, teachers and editors, named "A Passage to India" Best Film, Lean Best Director, and Peggy Ashcroft and Victor Banerjee Best Actress and Actor in its meeting on Monday.