From the moment the Oscar nominations were announced last month, it was already a foregone conclusion: The Artist is the year’s Best Picture winner. It has been since mid-December, before it was even released in most major American cities.
Some seasons, the Academy Awards have a bit of suspense leading up to the Best Picture winner. These days, though, there’s so much up-to-the-minute coverage that it’s hard to pack much of a surprise when it comes down to it. It can lead us to a feeling that the telecast itself is underwhelming — as it sometimes is. Last year’s biggest Oscar “surprise” was just how wretched Anne Hathaway and James Franco were as hosts.
Off the top off my head, this is the first year I can remember that not a single film in my Top 10 was nominated for Best Picture. Their choices for acting, writing, and so on also greatly diverge with mine, with only a slight overlap. Clearly, the Academy and I are at odds in 2012. As the LA Times quite unnecessarily revealed this year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences is a group dominated by white men with a median age of 62. As is the movie business. I’m willing to let the Academy slide to a certain extent, but this year they’re testing me. They’re really testing me.
But let’s clear something up: it’s not that I expect or even want the Oscar nominees to reflect nothing but my own personal choices. That would be silly! (And awesome.) However, I do think the lineup should be a diverse roster of films that appeal to a wide variety of demographics — something for everyone. Last year, for example, was a very good slate of Best Picture contenders — the crowd-pleasing The King’s Speech,the critical darling The Social Network, the dark and arty Black Swan, the family drama The Kids Are All Right, the bombastic blockbuster Inception, the family-friendly Toy Story 3, and so on.
This year, the nominees feel more repetitive — Moneyball and The Descendants strike a similar dashing-movie-star-as-deadbeat-schlub chord, Hugo and Midnight In Paris take us back in time in France, Hugo and The Artist are both very much concerned with the art of moviemaking, War Horse and Hugo are sweeping epics, The Help and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close are “Issue Movies” that gloss over the pricklier details of their subject matter. And how many of these movies have prominently featured “daddy issues”? The Tree Of Life, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, War Horse, The Descendants, Moneyball, and Hugo. That’s almost all of them.
Where is this year’s Black Swan? This year’s The Kids Are All Right? This year’s Winter’s Bone? Where are all the films for people who don’t care for mediocre, middle-brow movies? If last year’s selection had a little something for everyone, this year’s just has a hell of a lot to satisfy elderly Caucasian dudes.
And you can’t chalk it up entirely to that, either, because the past decade has seen Best Picture winners like Crash, The Departed, No Country For Old Men, The Hurt Locker, and Slumdog Millionaire, none of which seemed like Oscar bait when first released. It was really only last year that the Academy regressed back to choosing such a safe and inconsequential film. You’d have to go all the way back to 2005 and Million Dollar Baby to find such a paint-by-numbers choice. What happened in the past couple of years to make the Academy so ancient and out of touch?
Clearly, certain people loved the 2011 Best Picture nominees. But who are they? Almost everyone I know — personally, and in terms of critics and journalists I admire — is pretty indifferent about them. The critical reception is mixed to negative regarding every Best Picture contender, and of the non-nominees, only a very tiny handful are unanimously beloved (you’d be hard-pressed to find a strong dissenter for A Separation — but is that it?). Certified Copy, Melancholia, Drive, Shame, Take Shelter — all have strong opinions for and against, which is likely why they were so snubbed. Most knowledgeable film lovers can agree that there were better 2011 releases than the ones nominated for Best Picture, we just can’t agree on which. And so they went unrecognized.So what of the actual nominees? The Tree Of Life may have been my personal favorite amongst the nominees for Best Picture, but do I think it should win? Not really. I hope its nomination encourages more people to see it, but only if they do so with an open mind, with full knowledge of what they’re getting themselves into. This is a film that features dinosaurs and whisperings to God and long glimpses at the creation of the Earth set to classical music. It’s what you’d get if you mixed Moneyball with Jurassic Park as directed by Stanley Kubrick in a very good mood — or Kirk Cameron, in a very contemplative one. As such, I would not necessarily recommend The Tree Of Life to many people I know. It’s gorgeous and profound, but it’s not for the masses. Ultimately, I think each year’s Best Picture should be one that can be enjoyed by the mainstream (not to be confused with the sentiment that it should be the year’s most palatable, crowd-pleasing movie — The Help, this means you).
Last year, I had a problem with The King’s Speech‘s win because, in part thanks to that film’s dogged campaigning, it just felt so desperate to be liked, so self-satisfied in its own “inspirational” story. It was a fine movie, but hardly a great one, and there was a better choice available — The Social Network. The Social Network wasn’t my personal favorite of the nominees (Black Swan was), but I felt it was the most accessible while still progressive and culturally relevant. The Social Network is a film that could only have been made in 2010, whereas The King’s Speech felt like reheated 90′s leftovers. And sure, not every average Joe who watches The Social Network will take away a deep understanding of its complex themes — the way the baton passed from old rich white guys (hi, Academy!) to young, not-yet-rich white guys in the 21st century — but at least, most who watch it are bound to be entertained despite likely missing the point of the movie. That’s probably not true of The Tree Of Life. I do encourage the people in my life to step outside their cinematic comfort zones… but not that far. That’s really going out on a limb. (Ha!)
The Artist, though, isn’t one. Is it a profound film? No. Is it a revelation? Not on its own merits, but as Best Picture winner… maybe. A silent, black-and-white film winning the year’s top Oscar? That’s actually pretty novel!
As a movie, I found The Artist to be utterly charming — a bit of a lark, really. It aped the old silent movie formula and didn’t expand beyond it, save one dream sequence that toyed with diegetic sound in a wink-wink way. Thematically, it didn’t say anything Sunset Boulevard didn’t tell us more than 50 years ago. It was as predictable and inconsequential as most romantic comedies from back in the silent film era (and from this one, I suppose), but there were enough clever visuals and story beats to earn a stamp of approval from me. I’d hardly call it the best film of the year, but it’s far from the worst. Of the nominees, it’s actually probably the most solid overall. There’s little about The Artist to grumble about afterwards (that whole Kim Novak-raping use of the Vertigo score notwithstanding).
The Help has some dicey racial politics it shoves aside in favor of a feel-good tone. The Tree Of Life is sprawling and pretentious. The Descendants is a glorified Lifetime movie. Hugo is a Drew Casper Cinema 190 lesson disguised as a 3D children’s movie. War Horse is steeped in so much equestrian schmaltz it’s like a parody of a Spielberg movie. Midnight In Paris is the same Woody Allen movie as most Woody Allen movies, except the supporting characters have names we studied in junior high school. Moneyball is whip-smart and about… baseball statistics? And Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close just flat-out sucks — unless the primary adjective you’d like to ascribe to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is “cute.”
The Artist, on the other hand, is a solid piece of entertainment featuring two magnificent lead performances. Comedies don’t often win Best Picture — people have been complaining about that for years — specifically not a comedy as slight and breezy as this one. And the writer/director and stars are not American — how often does that combination come to the podium? This isn’t yet another case of an esteemed filmmaker being given the equivalent of a “lifetime achievement award” for a film that doesn’t hold up to his prior works, nor a pale imitation of past award winners featuring a grab bag full of previously nominated stars. It’s the rare feel-good movie that actually is good, one that can be enjoyed by your children, your mother, your grandfather, and probably your dog. It may be the first silent film many Americans have ever seen; it may remain the only silent film most Americans will ever see. But hey, at least that’s one more than they’d see in a world where Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close won Best Picture.
Yes, The Artist is more of a throwback to better, more authentic films from another era than a groundbreaking entry from this one, but if it’s an Academy Award surprise you’re hoping for, this is it. Six months ago, who would have anticipated such an unconventional film as the frontrunner for an Oscar sweep? It was a daring choice for Michel Hazanavicius to write a silent film, an even bolder one to actually finance. If The Artist paves the way for more formally experimental films to get made in lieu of assembly-line product so lacking in originality, imagination, and genuine charm, then more power to it.
The Artist is a celebration of all the best things about movies and none of the wrong ones. And really, isn’t that what a Best Picture should be?