Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Artistic License

Well, what do you know? For the last quarter of 2011, ever since I saw Nicolas Winding Refn’s stellar Drive, the Ryan Gosling throwback drama has been my favorite release of the year. Between its excellent cast, stellar visual directing and strong story, Drive was an easy choice for that top spot. Sadly, a slow box office performance (exacerbated by the 3D re-release of The Lion King) resulted in an underrated status, and the film has garnered hardly any award attention, a poor response to one of the more visually emotive films of the year. Sometimes though, the industry gets it right. For months, I had been hearing nothing but great things about The Artist, the French-produced black and white silent film. Besides these simple descriptors however, I knew nothing about the movie itself; I wasn’t even sure that it really was a silent picture. Then the platitudes started coming out. It was nominated for the Cannes Film Festival’s Palm D’Or (eventually won by Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life) and has been nominated for 6 Golden Globes, the most of any movie for 2011. For all that, the actual subject matter of the film was still unknown to me, and for that reason I had no expectations heading into The Artist when the film finally became available in my area this past week.

They're congratulating you for actually paying attention
It’s 1927, and actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is the biggest star of Hollywood’s silent film era. He knows it too, constantly putting on a show for his fans, who eat up the antics of Valentin and his talented dog, who doubles as his best friend. Meanwhile, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) is an up-and-coming actress who befriends and develops feelings for the established star. At this point, things are going well. Soon, however, changes begin to appear. The invention of Talking Pictures revolutionizes the movie industry, with more studios using the new format every day. Despite George’s assertions that “Talkies” are a fad, even his producers get in on the act, dropping its silent film stars and going giving younger stars like Miller a big push. As Peppy Miller’s career soars to new heights, George Valentin drops to new lows, and the struggling performer tries to coexist with a world that has never needed to hear his voice before today.

Well, that answers that
Likely one of the reasons I reacted so positively to the story presented in The Artist was likely that it was very similar to another film I saw in 2011, the classic Singing in the Rain, which also dealt with the end of the silent film era. As amazing as that musical turned out to be, I was far more impressed with the implementation of The Artist’s self-imposed silence and the hurdles it had to overcome in the narrative department. Essentially a silent film concerning the end of silent films, every performer needed to emphasize their visual cues to make up for the fact that you can’t understand what they’re saying, and all the performers are more than up for the challenge. Jean Dujardin especially has to be the most visually emphatic performer, and he does so with such energy and gusto that he is immediately appealing even though we never hear his voice throughout the entirety of the film. With apologies to Michael Fassbender and his outstanding performance in Shame, Dujardin has become my newest Oscar favorite, with the strength of his performance knowing no bounds. Still great (if not matching up to Dujardin’s level), Bernice Bejo shows a propensity for the needed physicality for silent films while putting up a strong performance in her own right. Secondary characters including John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle and Penelope Ann Miller do good work in limited appearances, though the biggest actor not a lead is Uggie, a Jack Russell Terrier who accompanies George Valentin everywhere. Uggie will arguably be the biggest star to come out of The Artist, and when you understand the wealth of talent around him, that’s no light compliment.

It's so meta...
While it’s amazing to see a real, honest-to-god silent film on the big screen, it’s almost as nice to see where the film deviates from the more happy-go-lucky titles of that age. When George pisses off his female lead, she gives him the finger; stuff like this was never portrayed in the 1920’s (or for several decades after) and modern-day additions like this makes the film more honest and emotional. There is also a number of metaphysical scenarios that are hilarious in the context of the film (watching an audience watch a silent picture, a sign that asks for people behind a screen to be "silent", George’s wife asking him why he “won’t speak”) that really help add to the humor inherent in the script and cast. There’s never a dull moment, and even though you cannot hear the inflection in a character’s delivery, you can get enough from their gestures to understand the gist of the funny. The Artist also features some physical humor, but thankfully the film doesn’t bet the bank on it, preferring you to actually laugh at the situations and not the jokes.

He smokes a big honking cigar; you know he's in charge
But it’s The Artist’s heart that really makes it the best movie this year. Yes, that’s right, I said it; The Artist is 2011’s #1 film. Thanks to director Michel Hazanavicius, the film is simultaneously different from everything you've ever seen while completely comfortable in the moment. At times both funny and sad, melancholic and hilarious, The Artist is easily the year’s most well-rounded release. Even if the idea of a silent film turns you off, trust me and go out to see this release. It is the best movie of the year, it SHOULD be treated like the best movie of the year, and you’ll be kicking yourself if you miss the best movie of the year.

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