But some of the night's thunder also went to the intimate story Lost in Translation, about two lonely Americans who find friendship in a Tokyo hotel. It collected three top awards, including best comedy film, best comedy actor for Bill Murray his first major acting prize and best screenplay for Sofia Coppola, who wrote, produced and directed the film.
Rings master Peter Jackson was recognised as best director, and the film based on the JRR Tolkien novels won best original score and best song for Into the West.
"Really, I just want to accept this award and pay tribute to Professor Tolkien for his incredible book," said Jackson, who began preparing to film the trilogy in 1997.
The Golden Globes, voted by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, is regarded by many in Hollywood as one of the year's biggest parties, but it's also a way to generate front-runner buzz for the Academy Awards.
The show's highlight may have been the acceptance speech by the notoriously sardonic Murray, who thanked Coppola before dryly mocking Hollywood award speeches, declaring he had fired all his agents and representatives and had no one else to thank.
Coppola, collecting the best screenplay trophy, thanked her father, The Godfather director and co-writer Francis Ford Coppola, calling him "a great screen-writing teacher".
Sean Penn collected the dramatic actor award for playing an emotionally ravaged father seeking revenge for his daughter's murder in Mystic River, and Charlize Theron won the drama actress honour for Monster, the story of a serial killer.
Tim Robbins's supporting role as a child-abuse survivor suspected of murder in Mystic River earned him the first trophy of the night. Renée Zellweger received the supporting actress award for her tough-as-bark backwoods woman in Cold Mountain.
Among TV nominees, HBO's six-hour adaptation of playwright Tony Kushner's Angels in America won five trophies, including best mini-series or TV movie.
The film also won four performing awards. Co-star Meryl Streep and Al Pacino were picked best TV movie lead performers and supporting TV honours went to Jeffrey Wright and Mary-Louise Parker.
Diane Keaton, as a woman in love in Something's Gotta Give, collected a Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy, and thanked director Nancy Myers and co-star Jack Nicholson for making a romance about people over 50. "With hope as our light at the end of the tunnel, we made our unlikely alliance work in the name of love at any age," Keaton said.