'The Artist' deserves best picture, and here's why

Why is it, given all the prizes "The Artist" has won already — best picture from the Producers Guild; best actor for Jean Dujardin from the Screen Actors Guild and the Cannes film festival; seven awards, including best picture at the BAFTAs, the British Oscars, to name only the most obvious — that this film isn't always getting the respect it deserves? And what does it have that the inevitable naysayers are reluctant to acknowledge?

This film is a bit of a favorite for the best picture Oscar, but whether it will actually win is far from sure. But there's no doubt in my mind that it deserves all the awards it can get its hands on, including best picture.

It's not as if, frankly, the films that win best picture have inevitably been enduring classics whose power and beauty easily stand the scrutiny of posterity. Anyone eager to see "Crash" again? "American Beauty"? "Gandhi"? The list goes on, and it makes the timelessness that is one of "The Artist's" outstanding qualities look increasingly appealing.

"The Artist's" situation is even more perplexing when you realize it has a surprising number of the qualities whose absence critics of the award frequently lament.

Cynics complain, for instance, that Oscar voters always pick the same kinds of pictures for the top prize, which means that the award is so predictable you can tell at the start of the year which big-name-director films are going to be in the mix.

It should go without saying that a silent film made in Hollywood by a French team is not exactly business as usual for awards season or that absolutely no one saw this film coming when pre-season lists of potential Oscar favorites were made. So much for vive la difference.

One of the biggest raps against "The Artist" has been the notion that 2011 being a weak year for cinema is the reason for the silent film's preeminence. But if 2011 was truly a year without standouts, those earlier awards would have been spread all over the place instead of all going to "The Artist." A film with that much across-the-board support would have made an impact in any year, not just this one.

Grumbles are also heard that "The Artist" has been successful only because the Svengali-like powers of distributor Harvey Weinstein have somehow hypnotized the Hollywood community. The reality here is that, Weinstein's skill level notwithstanding, he can be such a polarizing figure in the business that one could argue that the film's success has come as much despite the man as because of him. Pre-Oscar maneuvering may persuade voters to actually look at a picture, but once seen every film is on its own.

There is, however, one quality that "The Artist" does lack. It's a quality that many Oscar winners, not to mention a number of this year's best picture candidates, have in abundance, and that is an off-putting sense of self-importance, a ponderousness that trumpets to the world the undying significance of what has been put on screen.

"The Artist," by way of contrast, has the grace to wear its considerably gifts lightly. Yes, it's got charismatic acting, a deft directorial hand, beautiful black and white cinematography, entrancing music plus a story that touches any number of emotional bases, but you never catch it breaking a sweat to convince you of its virtues. Its beating heart is Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier who stars as a dog who makes doing it all look like it's all in a day's work.

It's also possible that people who profess lack of enthusiasm for "The Artist" are really expressing dissatisfaction with the state of Hollywood as a whole, with the lack of quality adult films of the "Lawrence of Arabia" variety. I admire "Lawrence" as much as anyone, but in its absence arguing that "The Artist's" virtues are somehow insufficient is arguing against some of the things the movies do best.

Because it is silent, "The Artist," without pushing too hard, also makes a connection to Hollywood's often neglected and desecrated history. Prints of silent films were regularly physically destroyed once sound came in, and things had gotten so bad that when British film historian Kevin Brownlow came to Hollywood in the 1960s to talk to silent-film survivors for his monumental "The Parade's Gone By...," he found that many of them were embarrassed and apologetic about their participation in the medium.

In a similar way, today's Oscar voters frequently skirt the parallel danger of disregarding sophisticated and intelligent entertainments, considering them to be not as worthy of the best picture Oscar as more ostentatious, pretentious fare. Maybe you think every movie these days accomplishes what "The Artist" does. If you do, call to mind what you've seen in the past year, and think again.