I really don’t care one way or the other about awards shows, and the Oscars are no exception. I’ve never watched an awards show all the way through, and I have no desire to. As much as I love movies, in the past I rarely ever went to theaters, and I typically just ended up renting whatever film won Best Picture.
This year, I decided to try to see as many Oscar films as I could. I only established this goal a few weeks ago, so I still haven’t seen nearly as many as I would have liked to, but I’ll review what I have seen. I’ll give a longer review of the Best Picture nominees that I’ve seen, and then a shorter summary of my thoughts on the films I’ve seen in other categories.
I’ll start with the Best Picture nominee that was, in my opinion (spoiler alert) far and away the best of the pack this year: “The Artist.”
There are a countless ways that this movie could have been terrible, and I was aware of all of them as I bought my tickets. I’m not especially well versed in the silent film genre to say the least (before this, I’d seen a couple Charlie Chaplin shorts and Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie), and it would have been easy for director and writer Michel Hazanavicius to use the film’s virtual lack of dialogue or a gimmick. The fact is that the entire film is simply so well executed that it effectively silences (ha) its skeptics.
I was worried that the story of The Artist would echo too heavily that of Singin’ in the Rain, and while certain parallels are undeniable, The Artist‘s story while not necessarily entirely unique, is fresh and charming. It tells the story of silent film start George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who, following the invention and immediate popularity of “talkie” technology, finds himself a relic in his own kingdom. He becomes overshadowed by fresh-faced young actors and actresses who speak, such as the charming Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). Valentin’s fall and Miller’s rise is entertaining and heartwarming, and the absence of dialogue allows the view to focus on the two actors’ considerable talents, including enviable facial acting and delightful physical comedy. The two are aided by an endearing and entertaining group of costars, including an excellent performance by James Cromwell as Valentin’s faithful manservant and a much-better-than-you-might-expect performance by John Goodman as a Hollywood studio executive. There is also an endearing performance by “Uggie,” the adorable Jack Russell you may recognize from his work in Mr. Fix It (?) and Water For Elephants.
The film’s silence did not necessarily trigger any great nostalgia in me, as this is not a genre I (or most living viewers) have much personal experience with, but it was enjoyable, both as a historical artifact, and as a way to examine what we come to expect in modern Hollywood movies. While dialogue is limited to the last scene of the movie, the use of intertitles throughout is sparing. At the beginning, I would watch a silent exchange between two characters, and wonder why the director chose not to use intertitles, but soon realize that the precise content of the speech was irrelevant to the story of the film. By only displaying the text that was absolutely essential, it allowed the viewer to focus on other elements of the movie. It made me wonder just how much of modern film dialogue could simply be cut without any substantive loss in meaning.
The bottom line is that The Artist was so well crafted that its silence avoided the pitfall of becoming a gimmick an instead was both an effective narrative and artist tool, as well as a window into the historical moment being portrayed. Other skeptics have accused the academy of navel-gazing for selecting a film so apparently tailored towards cinephiles (see my review of Hugo, which I think definitely does fall into this category), but The Artist is saved by the fact that it’s just so engrossing and entertaining. Regardless of what your level of experience is with the silent film genre, this is a delightful and heartwarming movie that I feel is an easy pick for Best Picture.