Oscars 2012: ‘Artist,’ despite slams, deserves front-runner status

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‘The Artist’ has 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture, director and screenplay. Only ‘Hugo,’ with 11, has more, but ‘The Artist’s’ two nominees in the powerful best acting categories make it at the very least one of the favorites for the Oscar. Does anyone realize how remarkable an accomplishment that is?

It’s the first silent best picture nominee since silents went away, and as a French film it is the first best picture front-runner in memory from a non-English-speaking nation.

More than that, it is a film that never ever imagined it would get so far. In fact, Oscar-nominated costar Bérénice Bejo has said that she and nominated writer-director Michel Hazanavicius had so little hopes of it even getting a U.S. release that they planned to send DVDs to the American cast and crew so they could see it. Then Oscar mastermind Harvey Weinstein got involved, and that has not been necessary.

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Weinstein’s input has been noteworthy because “The Artist” is not something people are initially eager to see. As an early advocate of the film after its Cannes success, I faced a wall of stony indifference when I returned to Los Angeles and told people I knew how charming it was. Their lips may have said, “That sounds great,” but their eyes told me, “Not in this lifetime.”

“The Artist” also had to overcome a recent fashionable tendency to dismiss this year’s candidates in general, and this film in particular, as not quite lofty enough to merit Oscar consideration (whatever that means given some of the questionable winners of the past). The New York Times, for instance, went out of its way Sunday to take a patronizing swipe at it as a “careful if sometimes condescending pastiche of silent era filmmaking.”

So what is going on here? What, besides the Weinstein touch, has made “The Artist” so appealing to Oscar voters right here in Hollywood, where they don’t necessarily care what they think in New York?

PHOTOS: Los Angeles locales star in silent film ‘The Artist’

First off, “The Artist” really is fun for adults to watch. That may sound like a given, or something that happens every day, but movies that manage to successfully entertain modern grown-up audiences in traditional ways are way rarer and more welcome than tastemakers want to acknowledge.

So many have taken to carping about “The Artist” that it was tonic to receive the recent year-in-review issue of the prestigious British film journal Sight & Sound and read the lavish praise. “A glorious film for which I am temporarily suspending my rule never to use the word ‘perfect,’ ” wrote one critic, with another adding, “No film this year better expressed the pure pleasure in and of cinema.” This pure entertainment aspect of “The Artist” was a key part of what academy voters must have responded to.

A second source of “The Artist’s” appeal is that it allows audiences to participate in and feel good about the traditional communal nature of the moviegoing experience in a way that talking films rarely do.

As costar John Goodman has pointed out, silent films by their nature are best experienced in a crowd, where the emotions produced by the music and the emotive nature of the acting get naturally amplified as they bounce from person to person. In an age when watching movies alone at home is a given and watching them regularly on your cellphone is being touted as one of the glories of the future, academy voters likely found it exhilarating to be reminded of the special nature of the theater-going experience.

Finally, for more than one reason, “The Artist” is that almost unheard of film that makes voters feel good about what they do for a living, that makes them take pleasure in working in the industry when so little else does.

In part this is because this is a movie about movie-making, a picture that makes being in the business seem glamorous and exciting in ways it doesn’t always do in real life. For voters who often may have jobs working on movies that even if successful tend to be mind-numbing sequels that succeed for all the wrong reasons, the chance to vote for a joyous film that’s accessible to all and insults no one’s intelligence was too good to pass up.

There was quite a lot for fans of intelligent movie-making to be greatful for this year, from screenplay and acting nominations for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” to an excellent foreign language list (after last year’s “Of Gods and Men” fiasco) to six nominations for the often overlooked “Moneyball.” But seeing “The Artist” being all it can be has got to be the biggest satisfaction of all.

The following video is from the Envelope Directors Roundtable. Here, directors George Clooney (‘The Ides of March’), Stephen Daldry (‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’), Michel Hazanavicius (‘The Artist’), Alexander Payne (‘The Descendants’) and Martin Scorsese (‘Hugo’) talk to The Times’ John Horn about how they decide which movies to bring to life.

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-- Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times film critic