Disney/Pixar toon named best picture of year

Disney/Pixar’s robot love story “Wall-E” was named best picture of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. on Tuesday, marking the first time in the org’s 33-year history that an animated film has taken the top prize.

While the L.A. critics have leaned toward specialty fare in recent years, such as “There Will Be Blood,” “American Splendor” and “About Schmidt,” they’ve honored mainstream crowd-pleasers before: “Star Wars” won best pic in 1977, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” in 1982.

Danny Boyle nabbed directing honors for “Slumdog Millionaire,” his kaleidoscopic look at the life of a young man growing up in the slums of Mumbai. The Fox Searchlight release, inherited from the recently folded Warner Independent Pictures, was named top film earlier this month by the National Board of Review and the Washington, D.C., Area Film Critics Assn.

In addition to “Wall-E,” another well-reviewed summer blockbuster, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” proved popular with the L.A. critics. The late Heath Ledger drew the supporting actor nod for his villainous turn as the Joker in Warner Bros.’ Batman sequel, which was also the runner-up for picture and director.

Miramax Films’ “Happy-Go-Lucky” scooped honors for actress Sally Hawkins’ lead turn as a perpetually upbeat London schoolteacher and for writer-director Mike Leigh’s screenplay. Leigh won the directing prize for “Secrets and Lies” in 1996.

Sean Penn took the actor nod for his portrayal of gay political activist Harvey Milk in Focus Features’ “Milk.” Penn was last honored by the L.A. critics in 1983, when he received the New Generation award for his breakout work in “Bad Boys” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Penelope Cruz won supporting actress for her turns as a sultry Spanish artist in the Weinstein Co.’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and as the object of an older professor’s desire in Samuel Goldwyn Films and Lakeshore Entertainment’s “Elegy.”

Besides “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” which was lauded for A.R. Rahman’s score, the only film to snag more than one nod was Chinese helmer Jia Zhangke’s “Still Life,” which took trophies for foreign-language film and Yu Lik-wai’s high-def cinematography. A poetic look at changing ways of life along the Yangtze River in the wake of China’s Three Gorges Dam project, the pic won the Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Film Festival but was not released Stateside until this year, courtesy of New Yorker Films.

The critics awarded their top documentary prize to “Man on Wire,” James Marsh’s account of Philippe Petit’s daring 1974 high-wire walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Magnolia Pictures picked up the docu after it won both the grand jury prize and the audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Israeli director Ari Folman’s animated docu “Waltz With Bashir,” a genre-busting meditation on the 1982 massacres in Lebanon, won the group’s animation prize and was runner-up in the nonfiction category. Sony Classics is distributing the pic.

Mark Friedberg was recognized for his elaborate production design for Sony Pictures Classics’ “Synecdoche, New York.” Charlie Kaufman’s writing-directing debut was also the runner-up in the screenplay category.

In addition to recognizing Boyle and Nolan, the critics conferred their New Generation award on another British helmer, Steve McQueen, for his directing debut, “Hunger.” The IFC Films release, which recounts IRA leader Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike in protest of the British government, won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

American avant-garde filmmaker James Benning received the group’s Douglas E. Edwards independent/experimental film/video award for his two most recent films, “RR” and “Casting a Glance.”

Other runners-up included Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”), actor; Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”), actress; Eddie Marsan (“Happy-Go-Lucky”), supporting actor; Viola Davis (“Doubt”), supporting actress; France’s “The Class,” foreign-language film; Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), cinematography; Nathan Crowley (“The Dark Knight”), production design; and Alexandre Desplat (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), music/score.

As previously announced, vet studio exec and producer John Calley will receive the group’s career achievement award.

The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.’s awards dinner, to be held Jan. 12 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beverly Hills, will be dedicated to Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, who turns 100 Thursday.

Picture: “Wall-E”
Runner-up: “The Dark Knight”

Director: Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Runner-up: Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight”

Actor: Sean Penn, “Milk”
Runner-up: Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”

Actress: Sally Hawkins, “Happy-Go-Lucky”
Runner-up: Melissa Leo, “Frozen River”

Supporting actor: Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”
Runner-up: Eddie Marsan, “Happy-Go-Lucky”

Supporting actress: Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Elegy”
Runner-up: Viola Davis, “Doubt”

Screenplay: Mike Leigh, “Happy-Go-Lucky”
Runner-up: Charlie Kaufman, “Synecdoche, New York”

Foreign-language film: “Still Life”
Runner-up: “The Class”

Documentary: “Man on Wire”
Runner-up: “Waltz With Bashir”

Animation: “Waltz With Bashir”

Cinematography: Yu Lik Wai, “Still Life”
Runner-up: Anthony Dod Mantle, “Slumdog Millionaire”

Production design: Mark Friedberg, “Synecdoche, New York”
Runner-up: Nathan Crowley, “The Dark Knight”

Music/score: A.R. Rahman, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Runner-up: Alexandre Desplat, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

New Generation: Steve McQueen, “Hunger”

Douglas E. Edwards independent/experimental film/video: James Benning, “RR” and “Casting a Glance”

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