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My Best of 2011: The Artist, Tempering Nostalgia & Truly Accessible “True Art”…

It’s that time of the year. To celebrate 2011, and the countdown to 2012, I’m going to count down my own twelve favourite films of the year, one a day until New Year’s Eve. I’m also going to talk a bit about how or why I chose them, and perhaps what makes this list “my” best of 2011, rather than any list claiming to be objective.

The Artist is number three. Check out my original review here.

Spend a bit of time discussing film with people, and you’ll discover that a lot of prejudices exist about certain types of films and their audiences. For example, you’ll discover that some people cling to the believe that any film made on a budget of over six figures and released in the middle of summer is a brain-dead offense to the senses. On the other end of the scale, you’ll find those who protest that any narratively challenging or otherwise unconventional film is “pretentious” or “inaccessible.” These views don’t represent the majority opinion, but you’ll stumble across them if you converse about film enough. Thankfully, at least, The Artist puts paid to the idea that a black-and-white silent film is inherently “inaccessible.”

Critics will suggest that the decision to present the movie as a black-and-white silent film is nothing but a “gimmick” and a “cheap hook” from writer and director Michel Hazanavicius. They’ll suggest the film is only attracting attention and winning awards because of such as bold and undeniably “artsy” decision, suggesting that it’s a cynical ploy to court the Oscar voters. I’ll concede that it is, of course a gimmick – the films sells itself and defines itself  through its form, even going as far as to adopt an old-fashioned and out-dated aspect ratio for the film. And yet I don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with such gimmickry.

After all, “it not what a movie’s about, but how it’s about it”, to quote a great film critic. Or, if you’ll allow me to be a little pretentious myself, “the medium is the message.” All aspects of a movie’s production – cast, crew, filming technique, special effects, 3D, story, camera angles – are tools in the hands of the film maker. The black-and-white imagery here is no more of a gimmick than Imax is in the hands of Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight or 3D is to Martin Scorsese for Hugo. These are all aspects of film-making that serve to make a film more marketable (or at least increase the ticket price), but they are also tools that can be used to improve the quality of the movie-going experience, if used in the right context by the right movie-makers.

The Artist is a black-and-white silent movie about black-and-white silent movies. And yet, it’s a film that any modern movie-goer can just slip into and find themselves right at home. There’s not pretension around the use of the technique. There are, of course, sly references, but they don’t crowd out the screen. Instead, the humour is broad, the emotions are basic – but effective. If anything, the emotional impact of the film is heightened because the characters and situations aren’t over-complicated with dialogue. The title cards tell us what we need to know, but – in most cases – they feel completely superfluous. Hazanavicius has selected his actors so skilfully that everything we need to know is written on their faces and in their movements, without any dialogue or accents or other complications to distract from them.

Like a lot of films on this list – and, arguably, a lot of films off it – The Artist seems focused on the past. 2011 seems to be a year where cinema has boldly looked backwards, as if staring to the past for answers. Even ignore the cinematic history lesson of Scorsese’s Hugo or Woody Allen’s trip back to 1930s Paris in Midnight in Paris, it seems that a lot of films this year harked back to a simpler time – and that’s not even discussing the sequels or the reboots or the remakes. Even family films like Rango or The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn seemed to hark back older films, and Super 8 was a love-letter to those Spielberg-ian blockbusters of the seventies and eighties.

We could speculate on why that might be. Perhaps in a global financial meltdown, the zeitgeist is locked on an older and better time, as if to give the audience some comfort in an uncertain era. Or perhaps the increasingly disappoint box office takes are leading to a more conservative outlook from movie producers, who seem to fall back on tried-and-tested nostalgia instead of pressing ahead with newer and riskier ideas. I don’t know, but I think that this cinematic year has been more focused on the past than any in recent memory. And that, to be honest, is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, a good film is a good film – regardless of setting or background details.

However, I think that I warmed so much to The Artist because, like Hugo, it tempers its nostalgia with a sense of enthusiasm and hope. It’s a movie that thrives on romanticism for an old-fashioned Hollywood that doesn’t exist any more, but it doesn’t indulge in depression or cynicism. Yes, the advent of “talkies” did fundamentally alter the movie-making business, and did lead to the decline of any number of successful actors and studios, but it also heralded new opportunities and adventures. Had we never moved beyond silent cinema, as beautiful as it was, we would never have seen Citizen Kane or The Godfather.

As much as the film might ask us to sympathise with silent movie star George Valentine, it also asks us to pity him because he refuses to change. He’s charming and witty, but he’s also stubborn and shortsighted, steadfast in his own assumptions about what cinema is and always should be. He doesn’t realise that cinema can’t be defined in such rigid terms, that it’s always thriving and growing and evolving. That there are always, ultimately, avenues for creative people to explore and develop even as the technology itself might change.

Valentine might refuse to talk, but the film suggests that he doesn’t have to. Like any other aspect of film production, the use of sound can be a handy tool in the proper hands, allowing Valentine to move into the brave new world without compromising his artistic credibility – if he’s smart and bold enough to take the opportunity. Rather than suggesting that commercial change destroyed “the artist” of the film’s title, I find something heartwarming in Hazanavicius’ suggestion that he was ultimately able to meet it on his own terms.

It suggests that change isn’t something to be feared, but something to be embraced – it’s a bold and enthusiastic outlook which suggests that film as an artistic medium is always growing and expanding, and that there’s no dead-end that could stifle the energy and creativity of the right sort of people, the people with genuine talent. There is room in a world of sound for George Valentine, just as there is room in a world of 3D for Martin Scorsese and in a world of Imax for Christopher Nolan.

And that is a very comforting thought.

I’m counting down my top twelve films of 2011, one a day. Here’s the list so far:

12.) Rango

11.) The Guard

10.) Super 8

09.) The Adjustment Bureau

08.) True Grit

07.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes

06.) Black Swan

05.) Thor

04.) Midnight in Paris

03.) The Artist

02.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

01.) Drive

You might also like our other end/start-of-year pieces:

6 Responses

  1. As someone who has worked in the entertainment industry, I enjoy reading reviews and peoples thoughts about films. Your are very interesting and not many people consider film the way you have. Nice job!

    • Thanks. Much appreciated! Really means a lot. I love just getting to write. Even if it’s occasionally nonsense! But I enjoy it.

  2. Sorry, I posted this comment earlier in the wrong place The Artist is not a 2011 release in this country. It is not released in Ireland until January 6th. By these standards, True Grit and Black Swan should be on your 2010 list.

    • No worries, Mortimer. The information I had at print, and still have, is that the The Artist has a UK and Irish release date of 30th December. That’s how the distributor describes it, and that’s how I’m counting it. Counting it as a 2011 release (albeit by the skimpiest of margins).

  3. Fair enough. It is, in fact, showing at just one cinema in the UK this week. The distributors do, it is true, regard the UK and Ireland as one territory. Not surprisingly, most irish folk bristle somewhat at such lumping in.

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