All hail Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E — even us! Sometimes, the movies really are universal. And so a major studio’s mainstream, multiplex, mega-million-dollar-grossing, Oscar-friendly “summer movie” resoundingly won the ninth annual Village Voice–L.A. Weekly poll of (mainly) alt-press critics, named on 35 of 80 ballots.
Unlike last year, when Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood materialized in late December to snatch the prize from the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and David Fincher’s Zodiac, there was no groupthink stampede. Critics had months in which to cogitate over the eventual poll winner. Pass the popcorn, not the ammunition: While last year’s top films were characterized by murderous violence, WALL-E radiated hope. The new optimism was also manifest in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, which, boasting a relentlessly upbeat performance by Sally Hawkins, finished a close third in the poll just behind Hou Hsiao-hsien’s relatively cheerful The Flight of the Red Balloon, as well as Gus Van Sant’s ultra-inspirational political biopic, Milk (No. 7).
There are, to be sure, a number of demanding, arty, feel-bad films among the critical favorites: Ari Folman’s animated documentary, Waltz With Bashir (No. 6), deals with the trauma of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon; Kelly Reichardt’s low-budget Michelle Williams vehicle, Wendy and Lucy (No. 8), evokes the reality of hard times without a safety net; and Charlie Kaufman’s convoluted extravaganza, Synecdoche, New York (No. 10), had the fearsomely impacted dry-mouth quality of speed-freak scribble-scrabble. But in other movies, even the bad felt good: Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (No. 4) brooded over a Chinese river city flooded and rebuilt as part of the Three Gorges Dam project — everything despoiled and yet, thanks to the camera, impossibly beautiful.
Arnaud Desplechin’s shamelessly entertaining A Christmas Tale (No. 5) made light of terminal cancer and mental illness; Tomas Alfredson’s offbeat gorefest, Let the Right One In (No. 9), was an unexpectedly touching treatment of child vampirism. Already slated for English-language remake, Let the Right One In was a genuine sleeper — the most surprising movie to crack the poll’s top 10. Other surprises include the relative weakness of Danny Boyle’s well-reviewed (and feel-good) Slumdog Millionaire, which finished 20th, three notches below the year’s commercial triumph, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. And did Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s exceedingly timely geriatric Dirty Harry–cum–disgruntled auto worker flick, arrive in theaters too late to place any higher than a distant 29th?
Batman didn’t prevail, and Clint failed to save the day, but then, John McCain didn’t win the election. It was WALL-E that touched a chord and fit the national mood. No movie was more American than this state-of-the-art ballet mécanique — a bit of apocalyptic slapstick that satirized technology even as it deployed it — unless it was Milk. But neither Sean Penn’s martyred activist nor Hawkins’ irrepressible Happy-Go-Lucky Pollyanna was more industrious or indomitable a public servant than Pixar’s planet-saving ding-bot. Assigned the thankless, lonely job of cleaning up the cosmic mess of an abandoned, polluted world, little WALL-E succeeded in turning it green. True, the machine was inspired by “love” for a more advanced Danish modern fembot, but the real miracle of WALL-E was that the standard Disney tropes — adorable critters, rampant sentimentality, asexual eroticism — were burnt to a crisp and then redeployed as beacons of hope in an almost unbearably bleak vision of a dead world.
Not just the winner on points, WALL-E was also the movie about which critics felt most strongly. Ballots are weighted (first choices garnering 10 points; second choices, 9; and so on), but a majority of votes doesn’t necessarily reflect the degree of devotion that a particular movie inspires. That can only be quantified by the Passiondex — a form of data-crunching developed with a nerdiness worthy of WALL-E. The Passiondex is determined when a film’s total points are divided by the number of ballots on which it appeared; this average point score is then multiplied by the percentage of voters who cared enough to rank the movie first or, factored in at one-half, second. (I have long suspected that in polls such as this, second place is the real number one. The first listed film is the official choice, offering protection for the secret enthusiasm of the film that follows. But that’s another story.)
The Passiondex enables us to make a distinction between those movies that have true partisans and fervent lovers, and those others which, inspiring fraternal good wishes, are the consensus choices that typically appear toward the bottom of many lists. This year’s supreme example would be Wendy and Lucy, which, although it had the most anemic Passiondex of any movie in the top 10, nevertheless appeared on more lists than any except WALL-E, and thus is clearly a movie that, however widely liked (or well respected) among critics, does not inspire much mad love.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes