Eclectic choice lifts the robot's kudos cred

For the first time in its 34-year history, the Los Angeles Critics Assn. has honored an animated film as the year's best picture, choosing Disney and Pixar's "WALL-E," directed by Andrew Stanton.

The runner-up for best picture was Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight."

As if to spread the wealth, the group on Tuesday singled out the Israeli film "Waltz With Bashir," rather than "WALL-E," as its best animated film. The group took a similarly Solomon-like path in 2000 when it honored the Chinese-language "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" as best picture, then selected the Taiwanese film "A One and a Two" as best foreign-language film.

The critics selected Danny Boyle as best director for "Slumdog Millionaire," his Mumbai melody of drama, comedy and emotions. Runner-up was David Fincher for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

Sally Hawkins won as best actress for her role as the irrepressible schoolteacher in "Happy-Go-Lucky." The runner-up was Melissa Leo in "Frozen River."

For best actor, Sean Penn earned the nod for his portrayal of Harvey Milk in "Milk." Runner-up was Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler."

LAFCA's best screenplay of 2008 was written by Mike Leigh for "Happy-Go-Lucky." He edged out Charlie Kaufman, who wrote "Synecdoche, New York."

Penelope Cruz earned the critics' best supporting actress nod for two pieces of work: her tempestuous artist in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and her passionate younger lover in "Elegy." Viola Davis, who played a Catholic schoolboy's mother in "Doubt," was runner-up.

Supporting actor went to the late Heath Ledger as the Joker in "Knight." Eddie Marsan, who plays the bigoted driving instructor in "Happy-Go-Lucky," came in second.

In the documentary category, the critics went for James Marsh's "Man on Wire," the doc about Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974.

For best cinematography, the group voted for Lik Wai Yu for the Chinese film "Still Life." The nod for best production design went to Mark Friedberg for "Synecdoche." For best musical score, the group honored A.R. Rahman, who made his debut on a Western film with "Slumdog."

The critics selected Zhang-Ke Jia's "Still Life" as best foreign-language film.

The critics will hand out these awards Jan. 12. (partialdiff)