Sean Penn, A Man of Many Trades

This year’s PEN World Voices Festival features dozens of writers from around the globe, including bestselling novelists, war correspondents, Hollywood screenwriters, and globe-trotting activists. Sean Penn, whose debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuffwas released last monthis likely the only speaker who ticks off each and every one of those boxes. And he’s definitely the only writer whose résumé boasts all of the above bona fides plus a couple of Oscars for Best Actor. On Tuesday night, the 57-year-old sits down for what is sure to be a wide-ranging conversation with New Yorker writer Jon Lee Anderson at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn.

“I think the fact that Sean is out there, offstage, and has a very private parallel life — as in Haiti and other places he is drawn to, curious about, or involved in — is the very thing that would surprise most people,” says Anderson, who interviewed Penn for a New Yorker feature about Haiti’s recovery from 2010’s devastating earthquake. “Also perhaps, beyond all the Hollywood bad boy glamour and gossip, that he has a very practical bent, which he deploys in order to make basic things work for people going through hard times. As in Haiti.”

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For anyone who’s been paying attention, the fact that Penn should turn to writing isn’t especially surprising. Since 1991, when he turned his own screenplay into his feature directorial debut, The Indian Runner, Penn has shown an affinity for letters, and an eye for America’s dark heart. He’s written op-eds in major newspapers, befriended celebrated authors, and scored one of the biggest scoops in recent magazine history when Rolling Stone published his exclusive interview with Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Archivaldo Guzmán Loera.

“The Chapo scoop was quite something, and he got a lot of stick for it, paradoxically,” says Anderson. “He made himself vulnerable by overly exposing the process he underwent for the story he wrote, but I appreciated the fact that he went and did it at all, which takes moxie.”

When you add a lifetime of experiences — from starring as Jeff Spicoli to marrying Madonna to helping rebuild earthquake-ravaged Haiti or hurricane-ravaged New Orleans — the guy clearly has plenty to write about. So why not kick off his publishing career with something a bit less challenging, not to mention more commercially promising, like, say, a memoir? “At this point in my life,” says Penn, “fiction served my participation more strongly.”

That’s not to say there aren’t any similarities between author and protagonist. Sean Penn is a fiftysomething divorcé from California with left-leaning politics and a smoking habit. Bob Honey is also a fiftysomething divorcé from California with left-leaning politics and a smoking habit. But where Penn is regularly photographed with the world’s most beautiful women and is recognized as one of his generation’s finest actors, Honey is a “man of many trades,” as Penn writes. “Sewage specialist, purveyor of pyrotechnics, contract killer for a mysterious government agency that pays in small bills.”

Penn began Bob Honey as an audiobook, a rush job aimed at getting a rough version of his vision out before Election Day 2016. No stranger to controversy, he’s received some criticism for the way the book alludes to recent news, including the #MeToo movement (“Is this a toddlers’ crusade? Reducing rape, slut-shaming, and suffrage to reckless child’s play? A platform for accusation impunity?”), Hillary Clinton’s loss (“Was she the worst possible candidate or are you the most arrogant, ill, and unqualified electorate in the history of the Western world?”), and Donald Trump’s win (“You are not simply a president of impeachment, you are a man in need of an intervention. We are not simply a people in need of an intervention, we are a nation in need of an assassin”).

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While the specter of the election hangs darkly over the book, in the real world Penn sees some light on the horizon, embodied by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “ ‘Hope’ is a term some seem to lean on as a predetermined life preserver,” he says. “I don’t want to promote the denial of imminent threat. I find teenagers who fall under horrifying murderous gunfire on one day, and testify with grace, intelligence, and humor the next, a strong sign of hope.”

For his part, Penn shows no signs of slowing down, even if he plans to spend more time with a pen in his hand than in front of a movie camera. “Any movie is a collaborative effort,” says Penn, who frequently notes that he no longer plays too well with others. “My book…is mine.”

‘Sean Penn in Conversation With Jon Lee Anderson’
PEN World Voices Festival
St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church
157 Montague Street, Brooklyn
April 17 at 7 p.m.


Find a full schedule of events and tickets at


Fatal Assistance: A Scattered, Impressionistic Look at Haiti’s Post-Quake Problems

There’s no more sobering example of the feeble results of the massive, multibillion-dollar relief effort that is post-Haitian-earthquake reconstruction than the pathetic one-room shacks, with no plumbing or cooking areas, finally built by the international do-gooders who swarmed the island.

In Fatal Assistance, director Raoul Peck, a Haitian native, demonstrates that multinational relief groups and celebrities did little to relieve Haiti’s plight — a gruesome worsening of a housing situation that was critical even before a debilitating 7.0 magnitude quake shook it to rubble in 2010.

But Peck doesn’t exactly make the why all that clear. The mass of dead bodies and debris to be moved was immense, requiring manpower, expertise, and, above all, money, but that problem wasn’t quite sexy enough for the likes of Sean Penn, outside relief groups, and their mountains of cash.

Haitian politicians and agencies got sidelined, but Peck doesn’t really address the stated reason: the outsiders’ fear of local corruption. Housing expert Priscilla Phelps of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission led by Bill Clinton offers a pointed critique, but her contributions to the film’s argument come here and there, without focus.

Voiceovers that are a fictional exchange of letters, like most dull re-enactments, sap the film’s force. Peck’s documentary is not a penetrating look at at Haiti’s post-quake problems, but a scattered, impressionistic one. It unveils the bureaucracy, naïveté, and historical forces plaguing Haiti to this day, but it’s no more than a forceful poke at a hornet’s nest.


Sean Penn, Gothed Up and Great, in This Must Be the Place

If you Google the phrase “Danzig shopping for cat supplies,” you’ll find links to phone-cam shots of former Misfits singer Glenn Danzig crossing a grocery-store parking lot while wearing a Danzig T-shirt and carrying Fresh Step. He’s a striking figure and, with his pale, vampiric aspect, totally incongruent with the prosaic suburban surroundings. The shots are humbling and humanizing, and therefore also kind of assholish and intrusive in a way that makes you want to punch the photographer in the nose.

In scenes perhaps inspired by those Danzig photos, retired musician Cheyenne (Sean Penn), the subject of Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place, wanders through a Dublin grocery store in his ostentatious Robert Smith hair and makeup, dressed in black from head to toe, peering over the tops of his old-man reading glasses as he draws the stares and mean giggles of the other Tesco patrons.

A huge pop star in the ’80s, Cheyenne retired following a tragedy, buying land in Ireland and hanging around the neighborhoods now in the shadow of the undulant Aviva Stadium. Penn plays Cheyenne with childlike fragility, delivering dialogue with a tremulous, understated affect that belies the flamboyance of his appearance. He often disappears into the shadows in such dark spaces as dimly lit bars, gargoylish and physically closed. Cheyenne is gentle and funny, and though occasionally wise, has never become an adult, still wearing the same clothes and makeup he started wearing at age 14.

Cheyenne enjoys a meaningful and playful marriage to Jane (Frances McDormand), with whom he has lived for 35 years. They throw dinner parties, play handball in the empty pool behind the mansion, and have a lot of sex. Although the two live comfortably on his music fortune and apparently smart investments, she still enjoys working as a firefighter. Jane chides him gently for his lack of interest in song writing or MTV’s requests for televised appearances and loves him for the old-man crotchetiness he filters through his delicate, elfin persona. Penn is astonishing, creating a funny, guileless waif, infusing a faded celebrity figure with tactility and humor.

Indolent and creatively unproductive, Cheyenne is maybe the least likely globe-traveling Nazi hunter imaginable, but there you go. When his estranged father, a Holocaust survivor, passes away in New York, Cheyenne returns home for the funeral. His father’s diaries document a fruitless, decades-long search for a particular German prison-camp guard. In order to heal that estrangement, Cheyenne follows the clues in the journal across the United States in a dreamlike pursuit of his father’s tormentor. As he confronts the American family members of the fugitive Nazi guard, Cheyenne reveals his own gentleness and his unjudgmental affection for people.

If such disparate elements aren’t perfectly balanced, the whole narrative would buckle and shatter, like a sculpture of heavy steel and fragile glasswork. Sorrentino’s languorous photography, understated humor, and quiet but profound dramatic reveals coil together into something organic, whole, and achingly sweet.



Dir. Gus Van Sant (2008).
Van Sant directs his Harvey Milk biopic so carefully, there might be a Ming vase balanced on his head. No less cautious, Sean Penn drops his habitual banty roosterism to play the martyred gay activist, with the concentration of an actor entrusted to portray the future subject of a U.S. postage stamp: Content trumps form as communal solidarity redeems individual sacrifice.

Fri., Sept. 30, 7 p.m., 2011


Directors Revisit the Past in Anthology’s ‘Auto-Remakes’ Series

In 1979, Trent Harris recorded his chance encounter in the parking lot of a Salt Lake City TV station with a celebrity impersonator and would-be star, Richard “Groovin’ Gary” Griffiths. Morbidly fascinated, Harris followed Griffiths to his hometown, Beaver, Utah, to tape a talent show booked by Griffiths, headlining with his own cross-dressing performance as Olivia Newton-John.

Harris dramatized this documentary character-study in two subsequent short films, with pre-celebrity Sean Penn (1981) and Crispin Glover (1985) imitating Griffiths. His three drafts of the same story, palimpsests plainly visible, compose The Beaver Trilogy (assembled in 2001). The shot-on-video Penn short is a mongrel, incorporating documentary footage from Beaver, and burdened by Harris’s worry that he has exploited Griffiths. The last version is a rather stylish 35mm job: Glover gets the right tangle of hurt and twitchy extroversion, and Harris lets his subject’s weird dignity speak louder than his own guilt. Third time’s the charm.

This is the “Auto-Remake,” defined by Anthology Film Archives as a director’s repurposing his own previously used plot in a new movie (no director’s-cut dickering, more common today). Eighteen films, principally the works of studio filmmakers, are arranged as flawed mirror images of auteur careers in different phases.

The comparisons serve to reaffirm the prime importance of those mere vessels known as actors. Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, or Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr? That’s the choice between Love Affair (1939) or its reiteration, An Affair to Remember (1957), to which director/co-writer Leo McCarey added CinemaScope, ravishingly colored bougainvillea, and a half-hour of material cut from or unfilmed for his original. (The added reels lopside the tricky balance of Remember’s last act, while Boyer and Dunne, despite stiff competition, more gracefully achieve McCarey’s transubstantiation of the saccharine into the sublime in the original.)

McCarey’s congenial, style-effacing style remains consistent; a greater gulf exists between the versions of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, separated also by nearly two decades. The 1934 British film is a wonderful construction—like the nifty toy train set that chugs toward the camera to open one scene—with Leslie Banks and Edna Best’s married couple all West End flippancy, threatened by Peter Lorre and villains with the jagged, hanger-in-the-overcoat postures of German Expressionism. In the 1956 version with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, Hitch gives his American cattle-actors room to range. Stewart delivers another prickly-sweat postwar performance—but the film most valuably gives the lie to received opinion of Day as only a corny actress. She is deeply affecting in her scene of maternal despair giving way to tranquilizer-
induced unconsciousness, and her two distinct performances of “Que Sera, Sera” are extraordinary examples of song being made to serve a narrative.

Closer proximity, however, can lead to harsher contrast. Raoul Walsh’s Western Colorado Territory (1949)—an uncredited remake of his tender gangster tragedy High Sierra (1941)—is by no means a disgraceful entry in the director’s action-filmmaking portfolio, full of daredevil second-unit work and extraterrestrial Southwestern landscapes. But Virginia Mayo’s buxom hard-luck half-breed is pure Hollywood compared with Ida Lupino’s original stamp on the part in High Sierra, playing a sullen, lovelorn dance-hall girl opposite Bogart.

Mayo also surfaces alongside frequent screen partner Danny Kaye in serial self-cannibalizer Howard Hawks’s A Song Is Born (1948), in which her coppery Technicolor locks and body straight off a B-17 fuselage fail to efface the vision of Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941), Hawks’s first draft of Billy Wilder’s story of monastic intellectuals having their ivory tower invaded by a hep kitten. As she does against road-tested Lupino, game-but-glossy Mayo suffers by comparison, lacking the foxy backstage know-how that ex-Ziegfeld gal Stanwyck lays onto her co-star, a prissified Gary Cooper. However one ranks McCarey’s Affairs, each is a personal, cherished work. In the only-for-the-money Song, Hawks’s timecard-puncher inattention is obvious: He lazily redoes a step-up kissing gag that works in the original specifically because of the difference in Stanwyck’s and Cooper’s heights. In remakes, as elsewhere, the crucial thing is for each scene to feel like it’s happening for the first time.



If you’ve never seen the cinematic weirdness that is The Beaver Trilogy, tonight’s special screening at the new indie movie theater reRun is the perfect opportunity to catch this rarely seen gem. The theater features 60 reclaimed car seats, a gourmet snack counter, and full bar—and you’ll likely need a drink for this. Director Trent Harris’s three short films are about a young man named Gary from Beaver, Utah, who is oddly obsessed with Olivia Newton-John and believes he can sing just like her. The first film, The Beaver Kid, is the 1979 documentary about Gary; Beaver Kid 2 from 1981 is a dramatization of the documentary starring a young Sean Penn as Gary; and 1985’s The Orkly Kid stars Crispin Glover in a different take on the first two films. But come early—last call for drinks and snacks is five minutes before the film starts.

Sat., Sept. 25, 9 p.m., 2010


Easy Rider

(Dennis Hopper, 1969).
What was once idiotic and then campy, now has a certain pathos—in addition to Jack Nicholson’s star-making performance and Dennis Hopper’s under-appreciated one, the ‘60s equivalent of Sean Penn’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High surfer.

Fridays-Sundays, 1:30, 3:30, 5:40, 7:50 & 9:50 p.m.; Mon., May 4, 1:30, 3:30, 5:40, 7:50 & 9:50 p.m.; Tue., May 5, 1:30, 3:30, 5:40, 7:50 & 9:50 p.m. Starts: May 1. Continues through May 3, 2009


Citizen’s Arrest for Wayne Kramer’s Tasteless Immigrant Drama Crossing Over

Haven’t we been here before? The inbred mutant offspring of Crash and Babel, writer-director Wayne Kramer’s Crossing Over treats the subject of illegal immigrants coming to (and from) Los Angeles with the same vulgarity that Kramer brought to his 2006 children-in-peril thriller Running Scared, this time (barely) concealed under a paper-thin plaster of Oscar-worthy self-importance.

Like the fictional New Jersey town that served as the backdrop for Kramer’s previous film, Angel City is, for the filmmaker, yet another disenchanted urban forest filled with innocent maidens (Alice Eve as an Australian actress trying to make it in Hollywood), big, bad wolves (Ray Liotta as the INS honcho who offers the Aussie a green card in exchange for daily buttfucking privileges), and world-weary armored knights (Harrison Ford as the Immigration and Customs agent who never met a pretty illegal he didn’t want to save). Similarly traveling along their own breadcrumb trails are a baker’s dozen of black-, brown-, and yellow-skinned unfortunates on hand mainly to be crushed by the might of La Migra or squished under the steel-capped boot of post-9/11 racial profiling—which may nonetheless be preferable to getting rammed up the ass by Mr. Liotta’s cock.

Crossing Over begins earnestly enough as an old-fashioned exercise in Stanley Kramerish consciousness-raising, with Ford wearing existential angst on his sleeve as a callous colleague reprimands him: “Jesus Christ, Brogan! Everything is a Goddamn humanitarian crisis with you!” From there, solemn overhead shots of freeways and skyscrapers serve as the Scotch tape crudely holding together the movie’s myriad storylines. Lest we forget that white people suffer, too, an atheistic British singer-songwriter (Jim Sturgess) masquerades as an observant Jew in order to obtain his much-coveted “status.” Meanwhile, a Muslim teen (Summer Bishil) gives a class report in defense of the 9/11 hijackers, then appears surprised to discover Homeland Security agents ransacking her bedroom. And an about-to-be-naturalized Korean youth (Justin Chon) resists indoctrination into the very street gang one was certain Clint Eastwood had already run out of town.

But by the time we arrive at the serendipitous meet-cute-by-car-wreck of Liotta’s green-card gatekeeper and Eve’s Kidman/Watts aspirant (who, by the way, happens to be the girlfriend of the counterfeit Semite), it’s clear that we’re firmly in the hands of the lurid Kramer we know, if don’t necessarily love. Wouldn’t she rather steal away with him for an afternoon quickie, he proposes, rather than end up in a San Pedro detention center where “some mamma Latina makes you her bitch for a couple of nights”? Well, now that you put it that way. . . .

Never does Kramer encounter a cultural stereotype he can’t repurpose. For most of Crossing Over, Ford’s Iranian partner (played in a triumph of affirmative-action casting by New Zealander Cliff Curtis) glowers so contemptuously at his cleavage-bearing sister that when the girl turns up with a bullet in her head, the only surprise is that the movie thinks it’s a mystery. Meanwhile, when Ford travels south of the border in search of the deported sweatshop worker (Alice Braga) who’s captured his heart, I could all but swear that Kramer and cinematographer James Whitaker slapped a brown filter on the camera, the better to emphasize the developing world’s pervasive filth.

And so it goes, with Kramer—who doesn’t really seem to like people very much—failing to muster even the superficial empathy the makers of the similarly programmatic The Visitor and Rendition showed toward their own cardboard-cutout imperiled illegals. Eventually, all points converge on a finale draped in patriotic imagery employed for maximum irony, as Kramer haphazardly cross-cuts between a naturalization ceremony and a deportation—not exactly The Godfather‘s baptism by gunfire, in case you had any doubts.

There might be no more to say, were it not for the fact that Crossing Over once counted that paragon of liberal virtue, Sean Penn, among its ensemble, before either poor test screenings or Penn’s own request to be cut out of the film—depending on which rumor mill you believe—saw him excised. Reportedly, Penn’s storyline involved a border patrol agent who crashes his car and subsequently “crosses over”—not from one country to another, but from this world to the next. Minus him, Kramer’s film at least manages to clock in just under the two-hour mark. Praise Allah for that.


Free Will Astrology: February 18 through 24

ARIES [March 21–April 19] For a limited time only, you’re in a position to consciously choose your next problems, so don’t allow this to go to waste. By being proactive, you can ensure the arrival of fun and interesting dilemmas, thereby avoiding the frustrating and draining kinds. If you go looking for provocative new challenges, the same old tired and trivial trouble won’t come looking for you. I suggest you begin the quest as soon as possible.

TAURUS [April 20–May 20] Actor Sean Penn lives a few miles from where I am right now. An out-of-town friend of mine who’s an aspiring screenwriter is pleading with me to drive by Sean’s house and hurl a hard copy of her latest script over the high wall that affords him and his family privacy. My friend imagines that Sean will find it, read it excitedly, and call her up to begin negotiating for rights to use it in a future film. I may do what she asks. It’s my policy not to discourage people’s fantasies about making the connections they need, even if they’re far-fetched. In that spirit, Taurus, I urge you to pursue any hunches you might have about forging alliances that could further your dreams.

GEMINI [May 21–June 20] “Opportunities multiply as they are seized,” wrote Sun Tzu in The Art of War. Now I’m conveying this idea to you, Gemini, as you enter one of the most opportunistic phases of your astrological cycle. What else can you do to get yourself in the right groove? First, adopt a perceptive, receptive attitude that attunes you to budding possibilities. Next, respond expeditiously to every little invitation that appeals to you. Finally, keep in mind that luck tends to happen to those who have done the hard work to generate it.

CANCER [June 21–July 22] If you ask young men what experiences have afforded them the most adventurous fun of their lives, a majority will talk about indoor activities. Some will say video games; others, their sexual escapades. Only a minority will describe far-flung events in the great outdoors or exotic locales. What about you, Cancerian? Under what circumstances have your most amazing forays into the unknown unfolded? Where have you been transformed in ways that helped you stretch to meet your destiny? I’d like to suggest that it’s time to go beyond those previous benchmarks. You’re ready to transcend your personal limits as you wander into the frontier.

LEO [July 23–August 22] “Dear Rob: In my dream last night, I was playing with a lion in my garden. Suddenly, it jumped up, put its paws on my shoulders, and got face-to-face with me. I realized it could either swallow my head or kiss me. I was excited by the possibility of the kiss and scared because I sensed it wanted something from me, but I didn’t know what. Can you offer any insight? —Leo in Limbo.” Dear Leo: A lot of Leos are dealing with themes like this right now. The thing that’s most appealing to you happens to be wild. You need to exercise caution as you go forward to engage with it more intimately. Just as you want something from it, it’s asking for something in return. You’ll have to know exactly what that is in order to protect yourself from its wildness.

VIRGO [August 23–September 22] In a fiction-writing class at Sarah Lawrence College, professor Mary LaChapelle encourages her students to practice the art of enchantment. “How do we avoid succumbing to safe and unoriginal decisions,” she asks, “and aim to recognize and trust our more mysterious and promising impulses?”Keep this in mind right now, Virgo, whether you’re about to create something or are starting a new chapter in the epic story that is your life.

LIBRA [September 23–October 22] Evolution has given the human body a profound capacity to cure itself with its own resources, writes Roger Jahnke in The Healer Within. And yet most of us neglect to call on this inner reserve of natural medicine, looking mostly to drugs and doctors for the miracles we long for. I hope you deepen your relationship with your inner healer in the coming weeks. It’s prime time to take a more active role in shaping your well-being.

SCORPIO [October 23–November 21] Benjamin Franklin said that the U.S. Constitution “only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” That’s a good reminder for you as you enter a phase when you’ll probably have more success than usual if you hunt for joy and bliss. I suggest you create a list of at least three sources of delight with which you want to commune. Then write descriptions of how you’re going to increase and expand their presence in your life.

SAGITTARIUS [November 22–December 21] At the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, the value of petroleum rose 40 percent. But by mid-January, it had plummeted, losing 12 percent in one day. Suppliers started withholding large reserves from the market. For weeks, supertankers full of fuel circled aimlessly offshore, refusing to unload their precious cargo until prices rebounded. Consider imitating their behavior, Sagittarius. Don’t make your best stuff fully available until your target audience is ready to reward you for its true worth. It’s OK to tease, though—or do anything ethical that will increase the demand for your services.

CAPRICORN [December 22–January 19] Even when you are not feeling your best, you try hard. Where there is hurt, you rise up with resilience to provide help. If there are people who don’t know where they are or where they’re going, you are often a beacon of calm. I applaud your urge to fight for justice not only in service to yourself but also on behalf of others who can’t be as composed as you are when things are broken. And I’m happy to inform you that the favors you’re doling out now will ultimately be returned in kind when you least expect it.

AQUARIUS [January 20–February 18] I feel much better. Today, I underwent plastic surgery for the first time. An intervention specialist over at the Consumer Counseling Center removed 40 percent of my credit cards from my wallet. She then cut them in half and burned them, releasing fumes that sent me spiraling into an altered state of consciousness that revealed to me the steps I must take to upgrade my approach to money. In that state, I was also able to have psychic visions about the nature of your financial karma. What I saw is that you, too, would benefit right now from expanding your mind and changing your habits in all matters related to earning, spending, and saving money.

PISCES [February 19–March 20] A study at Newcastle University in the U.K concludes that if a cow is given a name by her owner, she generates more milk than a cow that’s treated as an anonymous member of the herd. “Placing more importance on knowing the individual animals and calling them by name,” said Dr. Catherine Douglas, “can significantly increase milk production.” I suggest that you give everything in your world names, including (but not limited to) houseplants, insects, cars, appliances, and trees. Of course, this is always a good idea, because it enhances your connection with all of creation. But it’s an especially smart approach now, when getting more up-close and personal should be your specialty.

Homework: What’s your secret beauty—the great thing about you that no one knows? Testify at


The Ninth Annual Film Poll

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.