Tuesday, November 22, 2011
NYFF Review #11: THE ARTIST
Sometime in mid-September, I was a call-in guest on Jason O'Brien's Oscar-related podcast, and I posited that Michel Hazanavicius' tribute to silent movies called THE ARTIST was going to be the winner of this year's Best Picture Oscar. Everyone made fun of me, and thought me insane, and I agreed that it seemed quite wacky that a movie like this could bewitch so many in this digital age. I explained to Jason that I have a gift.
See, I have this bell. It's in my head. I can't explain how I got it--maybe it came from being an Oscar fan for 35 years. But it's there. And each year, when I see signs of the eventual Best Picture winner, that bell goes off. I started noticing this bell in 1982. I was 16 years old and I remember predicting the five Best Picture nominees that year; E.T., GANDHI, and TOOTSIE were easy to predict, but THE VERDICT and MISSING were adventurous choices. Still, I got them all right. This gave me confidence. And the winner was easy, if painful, to predict (I liked all four nominees more than GANDHI, but I knew Attenbourough's bio-pic would win).
I had a dream in the summer of 1992. It took place in January 1993, and I was leafing through an issue of VARIETY, and I was looking at an ad for Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN, and the ad said that Clint's newest movie had gotten eight Oscar nominations. I was, at this point, convinced that the very unlikely UNFORGIVEN would win Best Picture. The film, of course, ended up with nine Oscar nominations, and was the winner of Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor and Editing. I was creeped out by this prediction, in particular. I thought, at this point, I had a preternatural ability.
From this point on, the only time this bell of mine has failed me was in 2005, when I was sure Ang Lee's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN would win the big prize. But CRASH famously dashed those hopes, and I was shocked. Still, after that, I knew that THE DEPARTED, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, THE HURT LOCKER (the bell REALLY went off on that one), and THE KING'S SPEECH would win the Best Picture Oscar.
This year, when I saw the trailer for Hazanavicius' THE ARTIST, the bell went off big time. I let Jason O'Brien know of this first here. Yeah, I was mocked. But now that the movie is hitting full force, and is no longer a Cannes Film Festival rumor (where it was a frontrunner and eventually won Best Actor for its lead), it's turning out that I am correct. Yes, it's a silent, black-and-white movie filmed at 22 frames per second (making all of the action a little quicker than you might be used to) and, yeah, that might not seem like a sure bet awards- or box-office-wise. But THE ARTIST is a total crowd-pleaser, and the positive talk will gather. It's an exhilerating Hollywood comedy with sneaky dashes of melodrama. Moreover, it's a ridiculously beautiful look at moviemaking's past; it's filled with adoring references to a now-ancient form of the craft and it's impossible to hate.
THE ARTIST captured me immediately with its first scene where the hero, the dashing silent film star George Valentin, gloriously laps up praise after the premier of his new silent spy epic, "A Russian Affair." THE ARTIST's star, Jean Dujardin, won my imagined Best Actor vote almost immediately because his Valentin is so lovably, hilariously hammy (seriously, I was cackling all the way though the film's first six minutes---what a winning toothy smile Dujardin has). Also, on top of his smashing face and ebullient energy, he's got an indespensible sidekick: a Jack Russell puppy billed as "The Dog" but played by an amiable pooch named Uggie (who should win Best Supporting Actor this year). Uggie's precise, energetic showing here ranks as one of the cinema's great animal performances.
Being realistic, THE ARTIST doesn't go many places you don't expect it to go. The story--Valentin is a silent film actor left behind after the advent of sound cinema--is basically A STAR IS BORN crossed with a bit of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN--but its charm lies in its mastery of each composite of film art. The detailed art direction (by Lawrence Bennett), cinematography (by Guillaume Schiffman, who shot the film in the old-time 1:33 aspect ratio), closely-examined costumes (by Mark Bridges), editing (by Hazanavicius and Anne-Sophie Bion), tuneful scoring (achieved succinctly by Ludovic Bource), scripting, and yes, even the sound (which is used is always surprising ways), is absolute perfection.
Hazanavicius delivers this love letter to long-gone moviemaking complete with dazzling uses of period graphics, multi-layered montages, surprising digital effects (which bring the film into the modern era--this is a movie that firmly belongs HERE, at the death of 24 frames per second), and well-considered casting of nearly every person who appears onscreen (though there are perhaps unnecessary appearances by Malcolm McDowell, Ed Lauter, and Beth Grant--they get high billing but their arrivals are little more than cameos; the bit players are more noteworthy though, meanwhile, the amiable James Cromwell is cleverly cast as Valentin's steadfast chauffeur, harkening back to Cromwell's film debut as the driver in 1976's likeminded throwback MURDER BY DEATH). John Goodman, post-MATINEE, portrays yet another cigar-chomping movie mogul (and he's an expert at this), and Brazillian actress Bérénice Bejo is Dujardin's lively rival/romantic interest (she's dynamite). But, though I wish the film were slightly more moving in the scenes where it's meant to be, Hazanavicius' loving, playful direction bests everything. He's having fun with film and film history and, boy, yeah howdy, he does it so well. Though Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE is still the most astounding movie of the year, THE ARTIST remains a winner through and through.