Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol. Harry Potter. Thor. What do these films have in common? I'm sure there are many answers, but what stands out the most to me is that they are all begging to be seen on the big screen, in some cases the biggest. Viewers tend to rush out to see these films in theaters because of the 3D, surround sound, and huge picture. But listen to what I am about to say: The Artist--yes, the new black and white silent film--is more deserving of a theatrical experience than any other release this whole year.
Not because of the big screen. Nor is it because of the great sound quality (heh). No, the reason you need to go and see The Artist while it's still in semi-limited release is because of the audience, the one thing you can't recreate no matter how advanced your home theater system is. You see, this delightful film pays homage to the early days of filmmaking. The days when going to the movies was an event. Theaters would sell out, people would dress up, and it was an experience to remember.
The Artist isn't a film to rent. It's a moviegoing treat. A rare experience where the onscreen energy makes the audience come alive. At first, settling into the silent nature of the film is awkward, but the movie is very aware of that. It often pokes fun at itself. Or maybe it's poking fun at the audience. A crowd laughs and applauds in the film, but we hear nothing. It seems to be telling us right from the start that it isn't going to manipulate our senses to win us over.
It's essentially Singin' in the Rain. The familiar premise is about the transitions from old to new and how quickly fame can fade. George Valentin (Jean DuJardin) is the biggest of all silent movie stars. He is the face everyone wants to see. His smile stretches from ear to ear, almost literally. His fame is illustrated in the turning point of the film when he bumps into a young woman (Berenice Bejo). He flirts with her a bit, and she soon becomes a paparazzi sensation. "The name is Peppy Miller!" she declares confidently. Valentin is taken by her.
It's 1927 and "talkies" are just being introduced. The studio he works at, Kinograph, halts all silent productions to go with what the public wants--"fresh meat". Valentin laughs it off, because he can't imagine people wanting to hear voices onscreen. People do, however. And they especially want to hear Peppy's voice. As she becomes a rising star, he begins to fade away. Even though this story is set in an era dripping with nostalgia, the film feels rich, and the parallels about old and new seem modern and relevant.
One of the marvels of this motion picture is how perfectly it captures a sense of time and place. The film feels authentic. It's not an imitation or a rendering of the silent film era. It belongs, both there and here. There are subtle references to classic films, but this isn't just a herald to those films. The film keeps from being pushy and pretentious, and remains accessible to all audiences. Is this shameless Oscar bait? Maybe. But The Artist wins on many other levels than that.
DuJardin is a real star. It's a different challenge to connect with an audience without using your voice, but he has electrifying energy. He shapes a character without using exaggerated body movements or absurd expressions. It's his subtle gestures that rule his performance. We see joy and loss through the same two eyes. His performance is the best of 2011. His costars, from the adorable Berenice Bejo to the comically gruff John Goodman, don't feel quite as well-rounded, but they don't need to be. The Artist is about one man. One journey.
The biggest scene-stealer of all, though, is a hilarious Jack Russell Terrier (listed in the credit roll as Uggie). He gets the biggest laughs in the film and will win over even the most resistant viewers. Aside from him, there are a few great tongue-in-cheek jokes and other innocent gags that make this enjoyable from start to finish. Briskly paced and light on melodrama, The Artist is quick on its feet and never boring.
Awards buzz has been circling this film since festival season, but now it is beginning to pick up real steam. Right now it is the frontrunner for Best Picture, with DuJardin sneaking up behind Clooney for Best Actor. It's deserving of both of these awards and a handful of other technical categories like Art Direction, Original Score, and Cinematography (the film is presented in authentic 4:3 aspect ratio). An interesting note is that if this film takes home the prize for Best Picture, it will be the first time since the very first Oscar ceremony in 1928 that a silent film has won. I do, however, hope that this film is viewed as more than just "this year's film to beat." The Artist is, in a way, timeless.
I know I wasn't convinced when every critic was raving about this film. It seemed to be just another Benjamin Button, just vying for voters attention. But as it turns out, The Artist is one of my favorite moviegoing ventures of the year. It's an old-fashioned film for the modern audience. Classy and ambitious, this is a film to remember. But I repeat what I said earlier: this movie is meant for theaters. It's meant for big crowds. If I had waited to watch this at home, I probably wouldn't have engaged with it as well. So take a trip to the city. Take your friends and family. Don't wait around. This silent film is one to make some noise about.