Why The Artist Doesn't Mean The End Of Bold Choices For Best Picture
It was a little hard during last night's Oscars to see this as the same Academy that changed their rules for The Dark Knight. Just two years after the Academy expanded the Best Picture category to 10, then swooned over genre movies like District 9 or pop cultural mashups like Inglourious Basterds, they handed us the 2011 nominees, with only one Best Picture nominated film set in the present day, and most of them touting old movies, or at least old culture, as superior to what we have now. It all culminated with the Best Picture win for The Artist, a charming French film about the era of silent Hollywood filmmaking, complete with tricks from a dog and a tap dancing routine at the end. How much more old school can you get?
It's true that The Artist is not cut from the same cloth as fellow recent Best Picture winners The Hurt Locker and No Country for Old Men. But it is an independent film, it's worth noting, secured through European financing and premiering at the Cannes Film Festival last May-- to rapturous audience response, of course-- without a distributor in place. And it is a silent, black and white movie largely led by unknown French actors, the kind of thing many moviegoers might roll their eyes at and choose to see Ghost Rider 2 instead. It is an out-there anomaly for Best Picture when you put it next to movies like TItanic or Forrest Gump-- just an anomaly glossed up in a Hollywood sheen that lets it pass as an insider.
There were a handful of bolder choices to be made for Best Picture last night, like Terrence Malick's wondrous visual poem The Tree of Life-- though still made by an industry veteran, it's worth adding-- or the maverick baseball story Moneyball. But the rest of the Best Picture nominees were more solidly old Hollywood than The Artist by far. This just wasn't an Oscar year for game-changing bold moves. There wasn't an Inception out there, much less a Dark Knight, and the gritty independent films as good as or better than The Hurt Locker-- Meek's Cutoff, We Need To Talk About Kevin, even Steven Soderbergh's studio movie Contagion-- didn't have the alchemy of factors to lift them into competition. Early on in this year's Oscar race it became The Artist's prize to lose, but unlike last year, where the comfort-food The King's Speech trounced the daring The Social Network, there were no clear signs of the past getting ready to run roughshod over the future. The Artist's independent roots and tricky black and white gambit make it both a dare and a comforting blast from the past, which might be why it had such an easy road to Best Picture.
It will take a long to make sense of this current era of Best Picture, as the Academy seemed to reel back from Crash's controversial win to reward the excellent dark stuff like The Departed, No Country for Old Men and especially The Hurt Locker, which triumphed over the bright blockbuster Avatar. They still have a weak spot for the sentimental stories that have always moved them, but these days they're done up in more interesting clothing-- the multi-cultural appeal of Slumdog Millionaire, the modern aesthetic beauty of The King's Speech, and now The Artist, a silent movie for a new era. Next year, if new films from Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coens and Christopher Nolan and two new ones from Terrence Malick are up to snuff, we may have another avant garde year full of bold, exciting work-- nothing about The Artist's win seems to prevent that.
The Academy is getting younger, and they are no longer the same group that gave Best Picture to Braveheart, but larger change takes time. It's easy to see The Artist's win as the Academy regressing to that simplistic love of Hollywood they tout in every single montage during the awards show, but give them time. The next The Dark Knight phenomenon is out there-- and when it comes, I'm confident they'll give it it's due.
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