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Award-worthy Artist hits Gainesville
Brilliant silent, black-and-white film is pure entertainment, not just for critics
Jean Dujardin portrays George Valentin, left, and Berenice Bejo portrays Peppy Miller in a scene from "The Artist."

The Artist

Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, John Goodman

Rating: PG-13, for a disturbing image and a crude gesture

Runtime: 1 hr. 40 min.

Bottom line: Possibly the best picture of 2011

The Academy Awards justify their existence this week.

Not because the Oscar statuettes will finally be doled out this Sunday. After all, does anyone actually watch the Oscar telecast live anymore? You will more likely browse red carpet photos on and view the acceptance speeches on YouTube.

No, the best reason for the Academy to continue holding the Oscar ceremony is that it occasionally brings films to midsized cities like ours that otherwise we would never get to see on the big screen.

"The Artist" opens in Gainesville this Friday, and the film would not play locally if it weren't nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It also helps that "The Artist" is probably the front-runner as the voting period ends.

We have to appreciate what a remarkable phenomenon it is that "The Artist" has achieved so much critical and commercial success, especially in the U.S.

Conventional logic says that to achieve at the box office these days, you first need big-name actors. Yet neither of the leads in "The Artist," Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, was even moderately well-known in America before the film began generating buzz back in November of last year. Now, of course, Dujardin and Bejo are becoming international superstars.

Conventional logic would also tell us that a black and white, mostly silent film would fail disastrously in 2012.

But a key reason "The Artist" is playing so widely and so well is that this is not a movie made primarily for critics, despite the lack of color and sound. Despite appearances, this isn't really even an art film.

This isn't the kind of film that allows silent film aficionados a chance to spot all the obscure references.

It's a funny, touching movie based on a familiar premise, made by a talented cast and crew who love the movies.

Set in Hollywood circa 1927, "The Artist" is "Singin' in the Rain" meets "A Star is Born." Dujardin plays George Valentin, a silent era movie star whose career falls apart during the conversion to talkies. While Valentin drifts into obscurity and depression, his fetching protegé, Peppy Miller (Bejo), rises to fame.

In great silent movie fashion, "The Artist" infuses a lot of physical comedy into a story that is simple yet bursting with emotion.

This movie is for anyone who loves movies but hasn't seen many silent films. It doesn't push any political or aesthetic agenda.

One of the things I disliked about "Hugo" is that it often felt like a lecture or public service announcement about the need to restore silent films.

"The Artist" doesn't indulge in explicit arguments for a return to pure cinema or any other such thing. It is simply a good time.

If there is any agenda, it is to remind everyone that movies can please audiences without all the effects and other nonsense that usually preoccupy modern Hollywood.

This is a vital message at a time when theatre attendance is dropping, home viewing is escalating, digital cameras are replacing film cameras and the industry is struggling to find its way - just as it did during the conversion to sound.

The Oscars consistently get it wrong when it comes to awards, and by the time the ceremony finally happens, fans are largely weary of awards. If you're like me, it's hard to generate much enthusiasm for the Oscars.

But drawing attention to great, unconventional films is one way the Academy gets it right. When an Oscar push helps take a film like "The Artist" into wide release, the Academy Awards go from something I ignore to something for which I am hugely thankful.

To echo a plea I wrote in my "The Descendants" review a few weeks ago, this is one of those weeks when Gainesville area film lovers need to vote with our dollars. We must seize the opportunity when so-called art films come to town, if we want higher quality movies to play more often.

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