You probably haven't heard of The Artist (it's playing in very limited release), but critics and film buffs have, evidenced by the film's soaring 96% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a string of wins and nominations at film festivals, including a nomination for the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival and the Best Actor award for the film's star, Jean Dujardin. With The Artist receiving five Spirit Award nominations and critics associations in New York and Washington choosing it as film of the year, The Artist is emerging as an early Oscar favorite.
It's hardly unusual for a festival and critical darling that few have heard of and even fewer have seen to pick up Oscar nominations -- it happens every year. But something that doesn't happen every year (and hasn't happened since 1931) is a silent film winning an Oscar. That's right -- The Artist is a black and white silent film about the death of silent films. Watch the trailer for The Artist below.
So why are critics going so crazy about a throwback oddity like The Artist? I have a few theories.
First, most critics love movies about moviemaking and Hollywood's golden era, and The Artist is both. It takes place in Tinseltown in the late 1920s and early 1930s during the turbulent transition from silent films to talkies. George Valentin (Dujardin) is the reigning king of silent film, and initially dismisses talkies as a fad that will run its course. As we know, that didn't happen, and Valentin soon finds himself being replaced by actors who talk, even as he doubles down by directing and starring in his own silent film. Riding the talkie wave is Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), a young woman who goes from Valentin fan to extra to the brightest star in Hollywood's newly verbal firmament.
In many ways, The Artist is like a darker take on Singin' In the Rain, which follows the transition from silent films to talkies with a decidedly sunny tone and stars Gene Kelly, whom Dujardin bears a striking resemblance to with his hair, smile, charisma, and physicality. But instead of deftly shifting to verbal acting as Kelly's Don Lockwood does, Valentin finds himself unable or unwilling to attempt the transition and soon finds himself a divorced, penniless drunk with only his trusted driver (James Cromwell) and his faithful dog by his side, with the newly famous Peppy, ever the fan, as Valentin's only hope to salvage his career.
But nostalgia can't be the only reason why The Artist is receiving such critical praise. And be sure -- The Artist is a charming, beautifully shot, often funny novelty that audiences of all ages would do well to take a chance on (if they can find it). But while I enjoyed The Artist, I would never consider it a contender for best film. So is there something else going on?
I think so. Much like the time period The Artist covers, the film industry has seen some radical technological changes in the past several years, to the point that it's even hard to call it "filmmaking" anymore. While some of these changes have been positive (like hi-definition video and increasingly realistic computer-generated effects), others like 3D and performance capture have been dubious at best and annoying, moneygrubbing, cynical, ugly boondoggles at worst that have earned my scorn on numerous occasions -- a sentiment shared by many critics. So in that sense, one can view critics' adoration for The Artist as a reaction and statement against trends in modern filmmaking, not the celebration of what is truly one of the year's best films. It's a way for film buffs (especially older ones) to say, "See? You don't need all those fancy hi-tech geegaws to make a good movie! Heck, you don't even need sound!"
First, this is hardly news to anyone who's ever seen one of Charlie Chaplin's or Buster Keaton's silent films, which are often funnier and more entertaining than most modern comedies released in a given year. Nor should the fact that good acting, emotion, story, and captivating, expressive faces will always trump technological gimmickry -- you learn that on the first day of any Intro to Filmmaking class.
Second, let's be serious.
There's a reason why silent films became extinct and won't return, no matter how loudly critics applaud The Artist or how many nominations it receives. And silent films are neither better nor more "pure" than talking, color, CG, 3D, IMAX, digital, etc. films -- there are good and bad examples of any medium. While The Artist is a nice movie that I enjoyed and recommend, I'm sure no one would be talking about it if it didn't have the gimmick of being silent, and the fawning adulation for it smacks of the sort of "Everything in the past was better and everything now is worse" rants that makes younger people roll their eyes and ignore their grandparents.
With the Academy attempting to attract more and younger viewers to the Oscar telecast with more popular and populist fare, critics' over-the-top lionization of a good (but not great) black and white silent film that no one has heard of is probably the last thing they wanted. Unless critics start wetting themselves over a movie with only audio and a blank screen celebrating the good old days of radio.