In Silence, 'The Artist' Can Not Be Ignored


It's been 84 years since The Jazz Singer became the first feature film to have synchronized dialogue, and it wasn't long after its release that the fate of silent films was all but sealed. Yet here we are in 2011 having to seriously consider the possibility that a movie with no such synchronized dialogue could take home a number of Hollywood's highest honors, including Best Picture at the Oscars. The film in question is a French project titled The Artist, which focuses on the decline of a movie star, played by Jean Dujardin, in concert with the decline of the silent-film industry.

If you think you've read your way into the Twilight Zone, you're forgiven, but you're also going to need to come to grips with this new reality. Consider that The Artist just took home the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Picture on Tuesday. While that isn't even a remotely certain indicator that it will garner Oscar glory, it does virtually guarantee that it will get serious consideration, at minimum.

Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times explains:

In the past 25 years, only five NYFCC picks for best picture have gone on to win the Oscar, most recently in 2010, when "The Hurt Locker" took home both prizes. At last year's Oscars, "The King's Speech" won the big enchilada after "The Social Network" landed the NYFCC prize. For the most part, the New York critics pick a film that has played far better with critics than with a broader audience, as in 2009, when the academy went with the big crowd pleaser, "Slumdog Millionaire," while the NY critics went with "Milk," the art-house favorite. Ditto for 2007 when the academy picked "The Departed" while the NY critics chose "United 93." ...

So "The Artist's" Oscar chances depend on whether a rival picture emerges that has most of "The Artist's" artistic credentials, but even more commercial clout. That would seem to limit the possible contenders to David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," if it hits pay dirt and doesn't make voters too squeamish, or Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," if it has box-office legs without coming off as too trite and emotionally manipulative. My favorite film, "The Descendants," remains a plausible threat but only if it can out-perform "The Artist" at the box office.

The trailer, which you can view above, is certainly intriguing, but I'm having a hard time getting worked up about this movie. Part of that is the busy holiday movie season, which is awfully full of must-see movies. Those movies might not represent more enticing bait to voters in the Academy, but they do have things like words to keep us captivated, to keep the plot moving along.

That might sound like a swipe at The Artist, but honestly it's not. I do want to see the movie. It does look genuinely good, and I'm not just saying that because John Goodman is in it, though that doesn't hurt matters. It's just ... it's 2011 and we have surround sound and 5.1 audio and high-definition television. I don't have a lot of hangups when it comes to prioritizing movies, but I guess what I'm saying is that dialogue might be one of them.

I realize that probably makes me sound like an uncouth mouthbreather incapable of appreciating true art. Well, so be it. There's a big spectrum of cinematic possibility between hollow eye candy like, say, Immortals and no-fi high art like The Artist, and I'm afraid my moviegoing experience is going to naturally gravitate toward that middle ground.

I'll get around to The Artist, just don't rush me.