(Not the) Best Picture, or The Indiscreet Charm of THE ARTIST [On The Contrary]
February rolls on, and now that the Punxsutawney Phil is back in bed, the Valentines are opened, and the Presidents commemorated, the only big event still looming for the month is the forced pageantry of the 84th Academy Awards. I wrote a column last year about breaking up with the Oscars after having a devoted relationship of over 15 years, but somehow the split has not slowed Oscar’s social life. She (or he) just keeps going on, as though I was never needed to begin with.
So, in the spirit of stalking an ex, I’ve been thinking a lot about the movies Oscar sees fit to bestow its highest honor on. The Best Picture award might be the most controversial award given, since very rare is the year when everyone can agree upon what was the best movie. We can disagree on the other awards, but ultimately at least someone is happy to get the golden statue, and we can feel good about the joy of another person on a human level. The best picture award is the only one of the major awards that is bestowed upon a thing—not a person. Yes, the film’s producers receive the award, but the record lists the movie, not the people. It’s hard to feel good for a winner you didn’t like when it’s not a person, even if the Citizen’s United decision wants us to think of companies as people too.
Anyway, we wait the whole show to see what wins Best Picture, and we are either bored (because we expected it, as with most recent years) or shocked that that they could pick such a turd (as with CRASH). In the case of the latter, there is the lingering feeling that we wasted an entire evening watching a show about awards that clearly have questionable judgment. Either way, the end of the Oscars is usually a let down.
But there I go, attacking my ex again. What is actually interesting about the Best Picture Award, at least in recent years, is how fast they seem to slip from memory. Granted there could be a number of reasons for this—how much time do we spend thinking about movies that came out over a year ago?—but the forgetfulness seems greatly increased. When RETURN OF THE KING won the award in 2004, the movie didn’t drop off the face of the earth. We still were making references to it and its release on DVD seemed like an important moment. But I could not think of the last three Best Picture winners without looking them up. They were: THE KING’S SPEECH, THE HURT LOCKER, and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.
I’m not going to trash any of these films—they are all great movies. And they were loved at the time (both KING’S SPEECH and SLUMDOG made over $135 million at the box office, while HURT LOCKER felt important and influential even though box office success eluded it). But if you referenced SLUMDOG in a conversation today, it would feel a little off and need some qualification, while THE DARK KNIGHT (which came out the same year) still feels fresh. The same could be said for a number of films, and I suppose it holds true for much of the history of the Oscars, but it really seems magnified recently. The movies that win Best Picture are those that peak at the right time. The Oscar race is becoming like the 2012 Republican Primary—you just need to be the hot candidate when people cast their votes.
The hot candidate for this year seems to be THE ARTIST, a (mostly) silent film in black and white about the golden years of Hollywood starring two unknowns French actors. This is what is favored to win the Best Picture of the year. It was a slow year for Oscar-type movies, but even so this feels like a reach. Anyone who has attended film school has seen this movie made a hundred times by film students trying to make a modern silent film, albeit with less production value or quality actors. The story is beyond cliché, following every classic Hollywood trope and pandering to the audience in every way possible (even a bit with a dog). The gags that bring sound into play not only feel gimmicky, but technically amateurish, as though they were done by Sound Design Grad Student at USC (no, scratch that, a Trojan would make it sound good—I mean an NYU student). The cinematic style is straightforward and bland. For a film that relies entirely on image, the picture is curiously lacking any memorable visuals. And yet this elongated, glorified student film is the frontrunner for Best Picture. How?
Charm. That’s the only explanation. If you found yourself growing annoyed as I took pot shots in the previous paragraph and wanted to defend the film, ask yourself why. You could say that the film is meant to be simplistic and archetypal, that cliché was a stylistic choice, but I think the real reason we feel drawn to defend this movie (which despite its flaws I enjoyed) is because this is a picture that is just plain charming. There is no irony, no hidden messages, but the movie has an upbeat quality that is undeniable and makes it difficult to dislike. There is an intangible charisma to the movie, much of it residing in its stars (including the dog) but expanding beyond them in creating an intoxicating world of naivety.
We do not get to see charm in movies very often anymore. Usually movies descend into overly sentimental claptrap or defensively postmodern irony if they deal with emotions at all. When a movie comes along that is actually charming, we tend to blow its merits out of proportion and forgive its flaws, however glaring (see JUNO and UP as recent examples). We seem to be doing the same with THE ARTIST, a slight film that nevertheless has a very good chance of going home with a little golden naked man next week. We might scratch our heads in the years to come about what we saw in this little movie, but it seems to have cast its spell on audiences (and Oscar voters) at just the right time. It’s like the homely funny guy who stayed late at the bar and gets to go home with the drunken underwear model because he stuck it out and was in the right place at the right time. Hey, it has to happen sometimes.
And really, this is not a year that has produced any films that seem to lay a claim on Best Picture. It’s difficult to get excited about the field. So maybe this might actually be a movie that we can be happy for when it wins—even if we know it wasn’t the best picture of the year.
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