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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Inside the L.A. film critics' awards

December 9, 2008 |  5:27 pm

WalleThe big surprise of the L.A. Film Critics Assn. awards, which were announced today, was that the critics group gave its best picture award, along with the best picture runner-up, to two of the biggest-grossing movies of the year, "Wall-E" and "The Dark Knight." The move should drive the clown-suit clad Oscar pundits crazy, since "Wall-E," despite being a huge critical favorite, has no chance at an Oscar best picture nomination. (No animated film has ever won that Oscar.) Passions run high at any critics gathering, the LAFCA being no exception. This year's meeting was held at LAFCA President Lael Loewenstein's house, with 39 critics on hand to vote (along with four critics voting by proxy).

With Sean Penn winning best actor, Sally Hawkins winning best actress and Danny Boyle winning best director--Variety has the entire list here--the awards raised some hopes and dashed some others. There was good news for "The Dark Knight" (with Heath Ledger winning best supporting actor and Chris Nolan winning runner-up for best director), "Milk" and "Slumdog Millionaire," which my spies say came in a close third in the best picture race, but bad news for a host of films looking for a critic award boost, notably "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Revolutionary Road, "Doubt," "The Reader" and "Che."

Here's a few highlights from my spies in the room: They say that "Slumdog" sparked the most divisions of any film. Its partisans praised its filmmaking energy and social consciousness. But its scrum of detractors said they wouldn't vote for it under any circumstances, with some critics claiming it was too derivative, coming off like an amped-up Satyajit Ray film. The only slam dunks in the voting were Penelope Cruz, who won best supporting actress for "Vicki Cristina Barcelona" and Ledger for "The Dark Knight." The voting for best picture was extremely close, with the joke being that whether the vote went for "Wall-E" or "The Dark Knight," that it was still a thumbs-up for an animated film, since "Dark Knight" is loaded with computer animation effects.

The biggest loser was probably Kate Winslet, who is considered a big academy favorite for her roles in "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader" but got no love at all from the critics. The best actress runner-up was Melissa Leo ("Frozen River"), with the remainder of the voting going to Kristin Scott Thomas ("I Loved You So Long"), Meryl Streep ("Doubt") and Angelina Jolie ("Changeling"). Penn and Mickey Rourke dominated the best actor voting, with some critics expressing surprise that Frank Langella didn't poll higher. Left out in the cold were "Revolutionary Road," "Doubt" and "The Reader," which all need strong critical support to find an audience, along with "Benjamin Button," which too many critics said left them cold. "Milk" and "The Wrestler" earned raves for their acting performances, but were not viewed as best picture material.

It's not the end of the world for any movie, since critics awards are not an especially great predictor of Oscar riches, but I found it surprising to see the LAFCA so eager to embrace the commercial mainstream. Maybe it's a fluke, but maybe it's a sign that critics aren't as out of step with audiences as they've been in years past.   

"Wall-E" photo from Disney / Pixar

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