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.
Unusual for both building a consensus and stirring ardent feelings, WALL-E scored most passionately. But the poll’s top 10 changes drastically if the movies are reordered by the Passiondex and opened up to the top 25 vote-getters. Now, the cult enthusiasms surface: Jonathan Demme’s Altmanesque ensemble extravaganza, Rachel Getting Married (No. 12), enters the top 10 in second place, while a cluster of more esoteric foreign-language movies, José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia (tied for No. 21 with The Class), Carlos Reygadas’ Mennonite passion play, Silent Light (No. 13) and Serge Bozon’s musical lost-platoon drama, La France (No. 23), place third, fourth and 10th, respectively. Synecdoche, New York moves up to fifth place, and Let the Right One In to sixth (while Still Life drops to seventh, The Flight of the Red Balloon floats down to eighth, and A Christmas Tale falls to ninth). The prize critical cult film: Rachel Getting Married. Despite generally mixed reviews, Demme’s independent feature received a higher percentage of first- and second-place votes than even WALL-E, meaning that the people who liked it really liked it.
I’d argue that Rachel participated in the positive-thinking Zeitgeist as well. The plot may revolve around an obnoxiously disordered personality (Anne Hathaway) and feature the ultimate downer (death of a child), as well as divorce, competitive dishwashing and a number of lesser domestic disasters, but the movie itself was overwhelmingly affirmative, if not positively utopian. Demme had organized the movie around the ultimate rainbow-coalition musical-fusion New Age wedding, which, as a colleague remarked, had everything but Jimmy Carter in a purple dashiki — an image of inclusion that might have been almost too prophetic.
Best Films of 2008
1.WALL-E (237 points, 35 mentions)
2.The Flight of the Red Balloon (163 points, 26 mentions)
3.Happy-Go-Lucky (159 points, 26 mentions)
4.Still Life (147 points, 23 mentions)
5.A Christmas Tale (146 points, 24 mentions)
6. Waltz With Bashir (140 points, 22 mentions)
7. Milk (123 points, 21 mentions)
8. Wendy and Lucy (122 points, 25 mentions)
9. Let the Right One In (113 points, 20 mentions)
10. Synecdoche, New York (106 points, 18 mentions)
1. Sean Penn, Milk (86 points, 36 mentions): Reigning in his mannerisms, Hollywood’s moodiest male star triumphantly vanished into the role of community organizer–political martyr Harvey Milk — and could well emerge brandishing an Oscar.
2. Mickey Rourke,The Wrestler (74 points, 36 mentions): Gotta be the comeback performance of the decade — aging bad boy as an aging, almost lovable, broken-down professional wrestler.
3. Benicio Del Toro,Che (25 points, 12 mentions): A sometime showboat demonstrates his own brand of revolutionary discipline, playing the icon of icons as a dedicated professional.
1. Sally Hawkins,Happy-Go-Lucky (83 points, 34 mentions): Erupting out of the Mike Leigh ensemble, Hawkins riffs an indelible character into existence — a London kindergarten teacher, at once grating and irresistible in her boundless good nature.
2. Michelle Williams,Wendy and Lucy (60 points, 28 mentions): Williams performs a virtual solo as a young woman who loses everything when she loses her dog. No one this year held a close-up better.
3. Juliette Binoche,The Flight of the Red Balloon (55 points, 26 mentions): Encouraged by director Hou Hsiao-hsien to invent her own character, Binoche broke new ground playing a professional puppeteer as eccentric as the movie in which she found herself.
Best Supporting Actor
1. Heath Ledger,The Dark Knight (75 points, 29 mentions): A no-brainer. Even had the release of Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel not been preceded by Ledger’s untimely death, his turn as the anarchic Joker in Louise Brooks eyeshadow would have immortalized him among a generation of moviegoers and aspirant Method actors.
2. Eddie Marsan,Happy-Go-Lucky(43 points, 19 mentions): As the dyspeptic yang to Sally Hawkins’s ebullient yin, this pug-faced Mike Leigh regular proved a formidable test case for the limits of positive thinking and gave a bad name to driving instructors everywhere.
3. Josh Brolin,Milk (30 points, 13 mentions): After playing Dubya for Oliver Stone, Brolin stepped down the political hierarchy to render an even more chilling impersonation of San Francisco supervisor and avid Twinkie-consumer, Dan White.
Best Supporting Actress
1. Penélope Cruz,Vicky Cristina Barcelona (42 points, 21 mentions): Woody Allen’s sun-drenched Spanish ménage à quatre is chugging along pleasantly enough, and then Cruz enters the frame as Javier Bardem’s homicidal ex — and sets the whole thing ablaze like a raging comic fireball.
2.Viola Davis,Doubt (35 points, 14 mentions): As the pragmatic mother of an allegedly molested boy at a Catholic high school, Davis has just one major scene, but it is the kind that stops an audience dead in its tracks and colors the absolutist logic of John Patrick Shanley’s modern morality play with much-needed splotches of gray.
3. Rosemary DeWitt,Rachel Getting Married (30 points, 14 mentions): Although Anne Hathaway has commanded the lion’s share of press, it’s DeWitt’s less showboating performance as the titular betrothed that provides a welcome oasis of calm at the center of Jonathan Demme’s big, fat U.N. wedding party.
Best First Film
Ballast (20 points/mentions): Lance Hammer’s soulful study of a single mother and her teenage son eking out a poverty-line existence in the Mississippi Delta, Ballast was the rare film about the black American experience whose characters possessed a quiet, unassailable dignity from the start — one not revealed (or, worse, bestowed upon them) by the filmmaker.
Man On Wire (16 points/mentions): A nonfiction film with the heart of a Hollywood caper, James Marsh’s wildly entertaining docudrama revisited French provocateur Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and turned it into an eccentric valentine to imagination, risk-taking, and creative self-expression.
The Love Guru (5 points/mentions): In the same year that Slumdog Millionaire became a word-of-mouth smash, onetime box-office champ Mike Myers went slumming in brownface as the eponymous cupid of this little-seen (but much-loathed) “comedy.”
Best Undistributed Films
1. The Headless Woman (15 points/mentions): After Che, the love-it-or-hate-it attraction of last year’s Cannes Film Festival was director Lucrecia Martel’s intentionally disorienting immersion into the unstable universe of a bourgeois Argentine woman reeling from a bump on the noggin. As usual, away from the Cannes hothouse, the film’s supporters quickly outnumbered its detractors.
2. Tony Manero (11 points/mentions): You can tell by the way he uses his walk that the monomaniacal protagonist of director Pablo Larraín’s unnerving sophomore feature really, really wants to win a John Travolta lookalike contest on a TV variety show in the waning years of Pinochet’s Chile.
3.Four Nights With Anna (10 points/mentions): Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski’s return to feature filmmaking — and to form — after a self-imposed 15-year hiatus is a typically idiosyncratic, darkly funny tale of obsession in which a lonely morgue worker can only express his love for a beautiful nurse through subtle acts of home invasion (and home improvement).
The Ground Rules: We asked each critic to cite 10 films, three male lead performances, three female lead performances, three male supporting performances, three female supporting performances, 10 films without distributors, and one choice each for documentary, first feature, and worst. Ranked ballots were weighted as follows: For film: 1 (10 points), 2 (9), 3 (8), 4 (7), 5 (6), 6 (5), 7 (4), 8 (3), 9 (2), 10 (1). For performance: 1 (3), 2 (2), 3 (1). Unranked films were awarded 5.5 points each, unranked performances 2 points. Ties were verboten. Outside of the undistributed category, we asked voters to focus on films that opened for U.S. theatrical engagements in 2008.
Participants:L.A. Weekly/Village Voice Media contributors: Robert Abele, David Ehrenstein, F.X. Feeney, Scott Foundas, Lance Goldenberg, Ed Gonzalez, Tim Grierson, Aaron Hillis, J. Hoberman, Brian Miller, Kristi Mitsuda, Adam Nayman, Michelle Orange, Elena Oumano, Nick Pinkerton, Nicolas Rapold, Jim Ridley, Vadim Rizov, Sam Sweet, Ella Taylor, James C. Taylor, Luke Y. Thompson, Martin Tsai, Chuck Wilson
Others: Jason Anderson (Eye Weekly), John Anderson (Newsday), Melissa Anderson (Time Out New York), David Ansen (Newsweek), Sean Axmaker (Seattle Post-Intelligencer), Sheila Benson (freelance), Richard Brody (The New Yorker), Peter Brunette (The Hollywood Reporter), Ty Burr (The Boston Globe), Justin Chang (Variety), Tom Charity (CNN.com), Daryl Chin (Documents on Art & Cinema), Richard Corliss (Time), Peter Debruge (Variety), David Edelstein (New York), Jim Emerson (RogerEbert.com), Steve Erickson (Gay City News/Baltimore City Paper), David Fear (Time Out New York), Howard Feinstein (Filmmaker), Larry Gross (Film Comment/Movie City News), Molly Haskell (Turner Classic Movies), Christoph Huber (Die Presse, Vienna), Harlan Jacobson (Talk Cinema), Christopher Kelly (Fort Worth Star-Telegram), Ben Kenigsberg (Time Out Chicago), Peter Keough (The Boston Phoenix), Leonard Klady (Movie City News), Robert Koehler (Variety), Dan Kois (NYmag.com), Michael Koresky (Reverse Shot), Diego Lerer (Clarin, Buenos Aires), Philip Lopate (Film Comment) Todd McCarthy (Variety), Patrick Z. McGavin (Screen International), Wesley Morris (The Boston Globe), Mark Olsen (Film Comment), Gerald Peary (The Boston Phoenix), David Poland (Movie City News), Richard Porton (Cineaste), John Powers (Vogue), James Quandt (Cinematheque Ontario), Berenice Reynaud (REDCAT), Carrie Rickey (Philadelphia Inquirer), Jonathan Rosenbaum (JonathanRosenbaum.com), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York), Brent Simon (FilmStew.com), Chuck Stephens (freelance), David Sterritt (DavidSterritt.com), Amy Taubin (Film Comment), Charles Taylor (Newark Star-Ledger), N.P. Thompson (Movies Into Film), Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times), James Verniere (The Boston Herald), Matthew Wilder (Collider.com), Michael Wilmington (Movie City News), Neil Young (Jigsaw Lounge, UK), Stephanie Zacharek (Salon.com)