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–LA Weekly poll of (mainly) alt-press critics, named on 35 of 81 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 (#7). Appropriately, Hawkins and Milk‘s Sean Penn were voted best actor and actress, while the best documentary, Man on Wire, also featured an affirmative hero in the person of daredevil aerialist Philippe Petit.
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 (#6), deals with the trauma of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon; Kelly Reichardt’s low-budget Michelle Williams’s vehicle, Wendy and Lucy (#8), evokes the reality of hard times without a safety net; and Charlie Kaufman’s convoluted extravaganza, Synecdoche, New York (#10), had the fearsomely impacted, dry-mouth quality of speed-freak scribble-scrabble (and was the only movie in the top 10 to garner a few “worst film” votes). But in other movies, even the bad felt good: Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (#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 (#5) made light of terminal cancer and mental illness; Tomas Alfredson’s offbeat gorefest, Let the Right One In (#9), was an unexpectedly touching treatment of child vampirism. Already slated for an 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’s 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 PassiondexTM—a form of data-crunching developed with a nerdiness worthy of WALL-E. The PassiondexTM 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 PassiondexTM enables us to make a distinction between those movies that have true partisans and fervent lovers, and those others that, 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 PassiondexTM 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 PassiondexTM and opened up to the top 25 vote-getters. Now, the cult enthusiasms surface: Jonathan Demme’s Altmanesque ensemble extravaganza, Rachel Getting Married (#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 #21 with The Class), Carlos Reygadas’s Mennonite passion play, Silent Light (#13), and Serge Bozon’s musical lost-platoon drama, La France (#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. (Adding to the passion, Rachel also received two votes for “worst film.”)
I’d argue that Rachel Getting Married 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.