Topping the 10th annual Village Voice Film Critics’ Poll, The Hurt Locker is also director Kathryn Bigelow’s personal best. Impressively old-school in its construction of suspense and character, the film is also horrifically topical with its depiction of existential terror and men at war in the age of the drone aircraft and the IED. Working from Mark Boal’s knowledgeable script, the movie brilliantly conflates human and technological alienation—its protagonist is an artist as crazed as the Joker, the robot bomb defuser he scorns is first cousin to last year’s poll cover-boy WALL-E.
The Hurt Locker is not just the decade’s strongest Iraq movie and the finest action flick of 2009, but a remarkable consensus choice—having also been named the year’s best movie by critical conclaves in both New York and Los Angeles. The Voice poll, which queries film critics throughout the country, had The Hurt Locker on 54 out of 94 ballots; its margin of victory surpassed the runner-up, Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours, by the poll’s largest percentage since David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive swamped Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love back in 2001. (These two movies get a rematch in our film of the decade category, with Mulholland Drive defeating runner-up In the Mood even more decisively this time around; the big news there is that Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour, a weak 25th in the 2002 poll, ties for second place.)
That said, the 2009 poll does reveal certain fan favorites. The Coen brothers (A Serious Man, #3), Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum, #5), Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman, #6), Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox, #8), and Pixar (Up, #10) are all previous top 10 finishers. The only newbies: Corneliu Porumboiu (Police, Adjective, #7), James Gray (Two Lovers, #9), and, surprisingly, Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds, #4), whose previous best was a 15th-place finish for Kill Bill Vol. 2 in 2004. The influence of the New York Film Festival, at least on local critics, may be gauged by the high scores of two inclusions: Police, Adjective, opening this week, and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (#11), opening next week. (Six out of the top seven vote-getters among the movies sans distribution—including winner João Pedro Rodrigues’s To Die Like a Man—all had their local premieres at the same NYFF.) On the other hand, the post-Thanksgiving Oscar rush had relatively little impact on the poll. Up in the Air finished at #20, Avatar at #41, Invictus at #74, and Crazy Heart at #113.
Auteur allegiance may be a given but, as proof of a critical capacity to compartmentalize, let’s note that, in many cases, the performances transcended the movies—particularly in the portrayal of dangerous characters. Psycho-mother Charlotte Gainsbourg was cited on three times as many ballots as her vehicle, Antichrist (#25), while Tilda Swinton and Mo’Nique gave poll-topping perfs as even worse mommies in Julia and Precious, two films that failed to break the top 25. In the best actor category, Nicolas Cage placed second to The Hurt Locker‘s Jeremy Renner for his turn as the world’s most degenerate cop in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a movie that finished at #30. And Christoph Waltz’s affable Nazi villain (Inglourious Basterds) continues his winning streak—Cannes, New York, Los Angeles, this paper—proof that the devil still gets the best lines.
Disagree? Contribute to our Readers’ Poll. We’ll publish the results in the January 13, 2010 issue of The Voice and, of course, online.