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For your consideration, Part 3: An early look at Oscar

A silent treasure, a morose comedy among top Academy Award contenders

POSTED: December 15, 2011 1:00 a.m.

The major awards races continue to take shape as each week more organizations (American Film Institute, Broadcast Film Critics Association, etc.) announce their winners.

I only have a few days of consideration left before voting with the Southeastern Film Critics Association. (How's that for a shameless plug?)

The frontrunners are beginning to emerge, and this week we look at two films that are consistently landing at the top of best-of lists.

‘The Artist'

"The Artist" is a minor miracle. It's a black-and-white silent film earning enough praise from critics and preview audiences that it has a good chance of being released widely. Who knew such a thing was still possible? A silent film hasn't caused this much commotion since Charles Chaplin was still working.

The stateside buzz is all the more impressive when you consider that the lead cast and crew are virtually unknown in America. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicious and the male lead, Jean Dujardin, are French, and Berenice Bejo, who plays Dujardin's love interest, is Argentinian. A few of you might have caught this trio's work in the OSS 117 spy parody franchise.

Despite all of this, "The Artist" currently has the inside track in the best picture race.

The story is "Singin' in the Rain" meets "A Star is Born." Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent era movie star whose career falls apart after the conversion to talkies. While Valentin drifts into obscurity and depression, his fetching protegé Peppy Miller (Bejo) rises to fame.

Hazanavicious, Dujardin and Bejo are supported by a host of great American actors, including John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle and Penelope Ann Miller. The cast coaxes romance, heartbreak and laughs out of this familiar story.

Even though it is set in 1927, the backdrop of a movie industry in transition bears resemblance to our own time. Digital technology is replacing film, and declining box office revenues threaten careers. The movie is thus both nostalgic and relevant.

"The Artist" is a loving tribute, a pastiche that weaves classic set pieces into an intimate drama. My only complaint is that the writers didn't reach very deeply into film history for their references. On the other hand, that's probably the only way to get a silent movie into theaters in 2011.

While its only novelty is that it's a silent film made in the digital era, "The Artist" celebrates much of what was great about silent cinema, and it's a joyous, unexpected experience.

‘The Descendants'

The latest from Alexander Payne ("Sideways," "About Schmidt") has a lot going for it, including a well-received novel as its source, a brilliantly adapted screenplay, lush Hawaiian settings and great acting.

"The Descendants" has also performed relatively well in limited release, grossing over $24 million while playing only 876 theatres. The Oscars like to reward prestigious movies that also earn money. Distributor Fox Searchlight has also launched an enthusiastic awards campaign.

But for a movie billed as a comedy with a heart, this is one morose movie. George Clooney gives an outstanding performance as Matt King, a father of two whose wife is in a coma after a boating accident. Matt struggles to rebuild relationships with his daughters, awkward tween Scottie (Amara Miller) and combative teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).

Mean-while, Matt discovers that his wife had been having an affair and planned to divorce him. The emotions are complex, and the emerging bond between Alexandra and Matt is touching. But Scottie becomes an afterthought, and there aren't many laughs.

"The Descendants" will land in my top 10 but definitely not the top five. However, the movie has built significant momentum during its month in release. Whether it nabs an Oscar or not, it's worth seeing.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.



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