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CRITICS’ POLL ’06 | The Afterlife of ‘Mr. Lazarescu’: Cristi Puiu’s Meditation on Mortality Tops in

CRITICS' POLL '06 | The Afterlife of 'Mr. Lazarescu': Cristi Puiu's Meditation on Mortality Tops in

If you’re experiencing deja vu, it’s because this national survey is a direct descendant of the Village Voice poll, which I conducted from 1999 to 2005 (“Take One” through “Take Seven”) with the help of my former colleagues J. Hoberman and Michael Atkinson. Recent developments at the Voice have left that poll without a home and the good folks at indieWIRE have graciously stepped in to adopt it.

For our first go-round (or eighth, depending on how you look at it), we kept the same categories, rules, and scoring system. The constituency of the Voice poll was largely alt-weekly and alt-minded critics and here at indieWIRE, it made sense to preserve that base. This year, though, we cast a wider net in a concerted attempt to look beyond the dusty confines of print media–and to acknowledge that some of the most serious, energized, and cinephilic film writing can now be found online.

The chatter in film circles this year seemed repeatedly to touch on the relative dearth of truly exciting films, or–since those in our profession are not exactly immune to hyperbole–on the irreversible decline and looming death of film culture, film criticism, film distribution, and even film viewing. It’s only fitting then that our No. 1 movie is about a decrepit old timer’s grim passage into oblivion. “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” Romanian director Cristi Puiu‘s virtuosic second feature, left behind its competition by almost as large a margin as last year’s Voice poll runaway winner “A History of Violence.” Just over half of our 107 voters included it on their 10-best list and it was the #1 film for nine of them.

The complete list of indieWIRE Critics’ Poll results, including links to individual ballots, is available here at indieWIRE.com

But here’s a dispiriting stat: Not counting the films that have yet to open, “Lazarescu” is also the lowest-grossing movie in the entire top 20. Domestic box office gross: a dire $80,000, less than even Andrew Bujalski‘s self-distributed indie “Mutual Appreciation” (#20) and a lot less than any previous winner of the Voice poll. It’s enough to make you reach for the Mastropol.

Scrutinized one way, our results do support the notion of an annus horribilis, or at least the nagging sensation that there was not much new to love. Our top two films date all the way back to Cannes 2005 (where the Dardenne brothers’ “L’Enfant” won the Palme d’Or and “Lazarescu” was ignominiously declined a competition slot). “Three Times” (#6), boosted by the widest release ever accorded to a Hou Hsiao-hsien film (thanks to IFC First Take), is also a 2005 holdover and was, in fact, Best Undistributed Film in last year’s Voice poll.

Speaking of holdovers: “Army of Shadows,” Jean-Pierre Melville‘s belatedly unearthed 1969 French resistance thriller finished at #5 and had the second highest average score (a remarkable 13.13 out of a maximum of 15) of any film that received at least two votes. (Only Pat O’Neill‘s experimental “The Decay of Fiction,” with 41 points from three voters and a 13.67 average, did better.) “Army” also scored 12 first-place votes (out of 30 voters), more than any other film this year and more than last year’s top two “A History of Violence” and “2046,” which both had 11.

Naturally, it also did well on the trusty Passiondex, a superbly geeky measure of partisan intensity devised by J. Hoberman (and derived by multiplying a film’s average score with the proportion of its voters who ranked it first). Considering only the Top 60 films, and thus excluding the outliers that only received one or two votes, “Army of Shadows” tops the Passiondex rankings with a whopping 5.24. (“Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” followed with 3.17.) Since the nomination of a 37-year-old film as the best of 2006 could be construed as vote of no confidence in the state of contemporary film, a more appropriate term here may be “Dispassiondex.”

The other big story in the Top 5: a mighty tussle between auteur gods Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, whose latest films could hardly be more different. “The Departed” is a highly commercial work-for-hire that its director imbues with flashes of personality. “Inland Empire,” meanwhile, is nothing but personality and no one’s idea of commercial. Scorsese barely inched out Lynch in the Best Film rankings and in the closely contested Best Director category, but “Inland Empire” scored eight first-place votes (to four for “The Departed”) and a far higher Passiondex (2.72 to 1.05). Lynch’s showing is especially impressive given that his film is a self-distributed limited release that has put off even some longtime devotees. “The Departed” did score a Supporting Performance win for poll favorite Mark Wahlberg, who pulled off an upset in that category two years ago for “I Heart Huckabees.”

All in all, it was a better-than-average year for American films (maybe because it was a worse-than-average year for foreign film distribution–the death of Wellspring will be felt for years to come). The two most beloved American indies of 2006, Kelly Reichardt‘s “Old Joy” (#7) and Ryan Fleck‘s “Half Nelson” (#10), finished in the Top 10. (Another Sundance highlight, So Yong Kim‘s “In Between Days,” placed 4th in Undistributed. See Anthony Kaufman’s piece for a more detailed analysis of that category, which should perhaps be renamed in honor of perennial top-ranker Hong Sang-Soo.)

The most political studio film of the year, set in a near-future dystopia that might as well be Iraq circa right now, Alfonso Cuaron‘s “Children of Men” (#9) fell short of a more literal re-creation of terror: Paul Greengrass‘s “United 93” (#8). Due out Christmas day, “Children of Men” would surely have done even better with an earlier release date and a bigger push from Universal (which, incidentally, had more titles in the top 30 than any other distributor, studio or indie).

Our voters were in agreement that Cuaron’s film owed much of its power to the astonishingly supple long takes orchestrated by his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose victory was the biggest landslide in any category in the history of the poll: He received as many votes as the next four finishers combined. Reinforcing the sense that “Children of Men” is largely a technical triumph, seven of our voters named Cuaron best director (though the film only received three first-place votes).

Conversely, “The Queen” (#11), a film with no visual sensibility to speak of, was handsomely rewarded for writing and acting. Peter Morgan ran away with the screenplay category. Helen Mirren comfortably won Lead Performance (heading a gang of four, including Ryan Gosling, Laura Dern, and Sacha Baron Cohen, who far outpaced the pack). Mirren appears a lock for an Oscar, but the other results may not be such useful predictors, given our voters’ overall immunity to for-your-consideration hype: Witness the dismal showings of “Little Miss Sunshine” (#42), “Babel” (#60), and “Dreamgirls” (zero votes).

We hope that by calling attention to some of the year’s most overlooked films, our List of Lists generates its own kind of hype. With any luck, an aggregate survey of this scale and scope, drawn from this particular electorate, serves as a meaningful counterpoint to the numbing groupthink of the critics’ awards. You’ll find complete results here, linked to full ballots from all 107 voters, along with the usual blitz of shout-outs and smackdowns. We hope you have as much fun browsing as we did putting it together.

The complete list of indieWIRE Critics’ Poll results, including links to individual ballots, is available here at indieWIRE.com

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Thanks to Eugene Hernandez and Anthony Kaufman for offering the poll a new home and getting it set up so quickly. Anthony was also an invaluable co-conspirator on every step of this process. Andrew Cowan, indieWIRE’s tech wiz (from GMD Studios), did a miraculous job with the database. Ben Kenigsberg, a veteran of the Voice poll now at Time Out Chicago, took charge of fact-checking and tabulation issues. Joshua Land, another former Voice compatriot, helped sort through the voluminous comments. Mike D’Angelo of Esquire was a useful sounding board when we were in the planning stages, and Michael Koresky of Reverse Shot and David Hudson of Green Cine helped put us in touch with several writers. Big thanks to all.

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