"A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees," per William Blake. Ain't that the truth! Although listed by barely half of the 95 participating voters, Terrence Malick's polarizing The Tree of Life sits comfortably atop the 2011 Film Critics' Poll. Part Brakhage, part Tarkovsky, part Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, Malick's cosmic family drama handily outpointed its expected challenger, Lars von Trier's Melancholia (No. 3), as well as the surprise runner-up, Asghar Farhadi's Iranian courtroom drama A Separation (No. 2), while Malick himself crushed bad boy von Trier as best director.
Other strong finishers by established favorites were Abbas Kiarostami's Tuscan brain-twister, Certified Copy (No. 4); Raúl Ruiz's epic swan song, Mysteries of Lisbon (No. 5); Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (No. 6); Kelly Reichardt's revisionist Western, Meek's Cutoff (No. 8); and Nicolas Winding Refn's '80s action flick, Drive (No. 9), for which Albert Brooks snagged best supporting actor.
But A Separation, which doesn't open stateside until next week, was not the only sleeper. Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret (No. 7) was a movie many critics didn't even see because its distributor seemed determined to turn its Searchlight elsewhere (see Karina Longworth's Top 10 list in this section). Indeed, Margaret was a multiple winner — edging A Separation for best screenplay while copping actress awards for Anna Paquin and Jeannie Berlin. Not quite as obscure, Jeff Nichols' corn-fed Take Shelter (No. 10), with Michael Shannon as best actor, helped close out two critical darlings, Martin Scorsese's Hugo (No. 11) and David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method (No. 12), not to mention a prominent pair of critics'-circle prize winners, Alexander Payne's classy soap opera The Descendants (No. 15) and Michel Hazanavicius' retro silent The Artist (No. 17).
So what's it all mean? Will The Tree of Life, having taken the Palme d'Or at Cannes and topped the Voice Crix Poll, now complete moviedom's Triple Crown with Best Picture on Oscar night? Stranger things have happened (especially since Tree didn't get a single Golden Globe nomination) but, rather than speculate on the Academy's mindset, let's analyze the poll within the poll — crunching the numbers that separate the movies that were broadly well liked, clustering near the bottom of people's lists, from those that critics really, truly loved. For this, we have the calculus known as the Passiondex™.
Weighted ballots, used by 90 of the 95 voters, award a first-place choice 10 points, second place nine points, and so on. The Passiondex™ is derived by multiplying a movie's average score by a percentage of those voters who marked it first or second or, because passion cuts two ways, declared it the year's worst movie. If the Passiondex™ is applied to the top 10 movies, Tree of Life drops to a temperate sixth place and A Separation to a reasonable 10th, with Melancholia (which garnered far more first- and second-place votes, as well as a nod for worst) the easy winner, followed by Mysteries of Lisbon, Certified Copy, Margaret and Uncle Boonmee. If we open up the top 10 to the 20 highest vote-getters, Melancholia is displaced by The Artist (which boasts three worst votes), and Tree of Life falls to 10th, as Hugo, Steve McQueen's sex-addiction drama, Shame (No. 18) and Jean-Luc Godard's impenetrable Film Socialisme (No. 20) elbow their way into the top 10.
What happens when we open things up to the entire poll? The two Cannes laureates, Uncle Boonmee and Tree of Life, vanish. Applying the Pash across the board yields a surprising result: Moving into first with every single one of its seven voters ranking it first or second to achieve an unprecedented perfect Passiondex™ ratio, the late Edward Yang's 1991 epic youth drama, A Brighter Summer Day (No. 23), which had its first New York theatrical run in November and never played L.A., wins!
Some might call this outpouring of love for a 20-year-old movie a form of nostalgia, but if so, it's nostalgia for what movies can be. Whatever else it is, The Tree of Life is the most blatantly avant-garde commercial release in the 53 years since Stanley Kubrick's similarly divisive 2001. Nor is it the only recent movie aspiring to wow the mass audience with cinematic art. Each in its way, Inception, Avatar and Gaspar Noé's art-house cult film Enter the Void had the same Kubrickian ambition. So, too, the universally beloved 2001 parody that topped the 2008 Voice poll, WALL-E.
As cinema turns inexorably from what we call film, with its traditional basis in photography, to the brave new world of digital image-making, there is, it seems, a new appreciation for the old-fashioned attractions. How to account for the outpouring of love directed at The Artist — a mediocre silent movie that, if nothing else, does evoke the essence of movies before the last technological revolution by emphasizing the eloquence of the image. Similarly, the more overtly cinephilic Hugo revives the primitive magic of George Méliès' paleocinematic trick films by constructing an elaborate 3-D frame for their projection. Incredibly, the Ziegfeld audience with whom I saw the movie actually cheered for Méliès' ancient F/X!
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes