‘The Artist’ to Ascend to Academy Glory

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Every year the Oscars race seems to become less and less surprising. This year, a  consensus was reached almost a month before this Sunday’s ceremony. Critical opinion seems almost unanimous in predicting the unruffled procession of French silent film “The Artist” to the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards. From a niche arthouse film that made a brief splash at Cannes to the recent loud publicity campaign from its producer, awards supremo Harvey Weinstein, “The Artist” has been the talk of the industry. Anything less than a major share of the main awards in Los Angeles is unlikely for the film, and such an accomplishment will be not be undeserved—it is beautiful entertainment, filled with charming grace notes and a reverence for old Hollywood that the French express well on-screen. Of the films nominated for Best Picture, it is a cut above in quality.

The only other serious contender is Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” a typically intelligent look at familial crisis in a Hawaiian setting. At times, however, it seems like an inferior re-run of previous Payne films such as “Sideways” and “About Schmidt,” but without the acid bite that marked out his superlative “Election” of 1999, a picture that skewered the male menopause with political satire and an acerbic wit that seems lacking in “The Descendents.” I would bet on George Clooney to wrest the best actor gong from Jean Dujardin of “The Artist,” however. Clooney has been here before with nominations for “Michael Clayton” and “Up in the Air,” and the Academy may have decided that the time is right to reward him with the top prize, despite Dujardin’s win at the BAFTAs earlier this month. In reality, though, neither performance is as brave or recklessly Promethean as Michael Fassbender’s startling turn as a New York sex addict in the otherwise anemic “Shame.” The Academy rarely seems to reward younger actors these days, though, preferring to honor industry veterans. And so in light of Fassbender’s scandalous omission from the nominations, I’ll take Gary Oldman’s marvelously restrained, reptilian George Smiley in the unfairly overlooked “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” as the performance that deserves the statuette.

Michel Hazanavicius’ win for Best Director for “The Artist” seems pretty much sewn up—as does a further prize for Best Original Screenplay—so the only other potential doubt in the major awards lies in the battle for Best Actress. Meryl Streep recently won at the BAFTAs for her pitch-perfect impersonation of Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” but the performance was no more than that—an impersonation that copied the tics and mannerisms precisely but failed to get to the steel and ugliness that lay beneath Thatcher’s prim exterior. Streep, for all her plaudits, did what amounted to an excellent piece of historical karaoke. I would much rather see Michelle Williams win for “My Week with Marilyn.” What her acting and appearance lacked in precision she made up for in coming closer to capturing the essence of an iconic figure than Streep.

A note on the year in film: Once again the Academy Awards have largely failed to recognize the greatest achievements of the last 12 months. “Drive,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s existential pulp thriller, which garnered rave reviews and a gong for its director at Cannes, has picked up a single paltry nod for sound editing. “Tinker Tailor,” the best spy movie in years, has been similarly rejected. “Senna,” the superlative Asif Kapadia documentary about the tragic Formula One racer that has made it onto numerous top-10 lists all year, has been completely snubbed. In the last case, the fault is egregious—“Senna” has rewritten all the conventional rules for biopics and sports films, and its progression is as exciting as watching one of its races in person.

The best film of the year, however, is none of these. Technically “Of Gods and Men” is a 2010 film (debuting at that year’s Cannes festival), but it wasn’t released in America until last March. Its absence exposes not just the scheduling vagaries of the awards system— it fell into an awkward gap between years on account of the awards season really encompassing January and February of any given year—but also the fundamental problem with an awards system in which the best films seem to go consistently neglected. Xavier Beauvois’ film is astonishing—a retelling of the kidnap and murder of a group of Trappist monks by terrorists during the Algerian civil war. This is cinema as religion and act of faith, a hypnotic and transcendent achievement in on-screen storytelling, just the kind of unlikely, brilliant film that the Academy should be rewarding. Its absence speaks louder than any other film’s inclusion, as excellent as they may be.

Caleb's Oscar Predictions:

Best Picture

What will win: The Artist

What should win: The Artist

Best Actor

Who will win: George Clooney

Who should win: Gary Oldman

Best Actress

Who will win: Meryl Streep

Who should win: Michelle Williams

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