I was ten minutes into The Artist when I toggled the options to see how long the movie was. By the time I was 20 minutes into the movie, I couldn’t turn away. When the movie finally ended, I wanted to go back and immediately rewatch it again. It is movies like this that make me happy to be in a professional critic’s organization that sends out screeners to view those movies that have not made it to Middle American locations like Oklahoma yet.
It is also why The Artist shot to the upper echelon of my year-end award list and ended up winning the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle award for Best Film of 2011.
The Artist is a movie about silent film but the unique method director Michel Hazanavicius used to tell his story was to create it as a silent film as well. This had good and bad repercussions. First, there are a lot of people who will not watch a black-and-white, full-screen, silent film, no matter how great it is. However, the unique style of filmmaking gives Hazanavicius a distinct advantage when it comes to critical acclaim. Film critics love something different, especially if it is used to tell a compelling story.
The Artist tells the story of a silent film star, an Errol Flynn-styled character, who mugs for the camera and uses his distinct facial expressions to tell the story without ever needing to use dialogue to move the plot along. He was the biggest star in Hollywood until sound cinema changed everything.
Jean Dujardin stars as George Valentin, the silent film star, and he turned in a performance that was nothing less than masterful. The idea beneath the story is that George is afraid to take the next step in his career, into sound cinema, and wants to grasp his past as long as possible. His memorabilia collection proves how much he cares about his past achievements and he is too prideful to ask for help when things start to go wrong and he loses his way.
Instead of working within the new system for a producer who has stuck with him for years (John Goodman), George decides to use his own money to make a new silent film, bankrupting himself when audiences flock to the latest talkie instead. The only people who stay by his side when he finally is pushed out of Hollywood are his dog (Uggie) and chauffeur, Clifton (James Cromwell).
Personally, I’d vote for Uggie in the Best Supporting Actor (animal) category of any award show.
Meanwhile, the story also shows the rise of a new starlet in the world of sound cinema. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) gets her lucky break in the business when George puts his career on the line for her. However, when his career falls apart, he refuses to ask for help and shuns all assistance from the young actress.
This is a movie about a man who is not able, or willing, to talk. This metaphor goes from his fear of change to his inability to express his true feelings, beneath the bravado of his on-screen persona.
What is most amazing about The Artist is it takes the silent film and somehow makes it appear new and fresh. Yes, they use the silent form perfectly, with two notable exceptions (a nightmare sequence and the final scene of the movie), but the film itself never feels like a silent relic that drags you reluctantly to the end. As a matter of fact, when the end comes and the payoff occurs for our sad sack hero, you can only smile as the final number plays out, but also miss the silent film that just completed.
A lot of people will not give The Artist a chance because of a bias against both black and white films as well as silent cinema. There are simply too many people in the world who refuse to “read their movies.” Those people are in for a loss because The Artist is one of the best, if not the best, movies of 2011.