Uggie of <em>The Artist</em>, with costar Jean Dujardin
Uggie of The Artist, with costar Jean Dujardin

Hollywood's annual prize day is a half-week away, and it can't come too soon. We're in another of those seasons when the winner of the top Oscars seems a lock, and that puts a bit of a damper on things even if you agree with the Academy's likely choice. Agree, or at least have come to look fondly on the prospect. (My own choice for top film of 2011, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is not among the nine titles nominated for Best Picture.)

When I first heard it proposed, shortly after the ecstatic reception for The Artist at last spring's Cannes Film Festival, that this modest, black-and-white, non-widescreen, silent movie had a sleeper shot at the Academy Award, I shook my head in disbelief at the giddiness of entertainment bloggers. Yet enthusiasm for the picture has built over the intervening half-year and more, till Oscar eve finds it dancing through a twinkling galaxy of honors from critics societies, Hollywood guilds and Oscar's transatlantic, more well-bred counterpart, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

This is a happier situation than last year's coronation of the ultraconventional The King's Speech, or 2008 with the raucous chai-wallah wallow Slumdog Millionaire claiming eight awards. For The Artist is a signal accomplishment, not just for its one-of-a-kind salute to Hollywood at the end of the silent era, but because of its limpid artistry and the sheer pleasure it delivers. For purity of heart and art, only Aki Kaurismäki's deadpan fairy tale Le Havre rivaled it in 2011.

So prepare to put on a beaming smile and applaud The Artist at the end of Sunday evening's ceremony. Its worthy competition for Best Picture includes another critics' fave, The Tree of Life, plus The Descendants, Moneyball, Midnight in Paris, and all right, Hugo, another salute to cinema's past—though I'll take any scene in The Artist over all the 3-D huffing and puffing of Martin Scorsese's movie. Also nominated: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, and War Horse.

Assuming there's still a contest, remember that only three films in the 83-year history of the Academy Awards have been named Best Picture without the director being nominated as well. This year's Best Director nominees are: Michel Hazanavicius, who wrote The Artist as well as directing it; Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life; Alexander Payne, The Descendants; Martin Scorsese, Hugo; and Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris. Should we tremble because The Help is this year's Driving Miss Daisy, and Driving Miss Daisy is the last film that copped Best Pic sans directorial nod?

Speaking of questions, "Will Meryl Streep finally win another Oscar?" has replaced "When are they gonna give an Academy Award to Martin Scorsese?" as the obligatory Oscartime wheeze. Streep last won for 1982's Sophie's Choice, 14 nominations ago. Her masterly channeling of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (a wretched movie) has already been hailed by the New York Film Critics and BAFTA, but she may lose Best Actress to a dear friend, Viola Davis, the best reason to see The Help. Also excellent: Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs, and—my impulsive choice—Rooney Mara for making The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander her own. I don't get the enthusiasm for Michelle Williams' turn as Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. (MIA: Keira Knightley, A Dangerous Method, and Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia.)

Actress and Actor are the nail-biting contests of the night. While noting that I haven't seen A Better Life and, therefore, the performance for which Demián Bichir is a nominee, I'll risk saying that whoever wins Best Actor deserves it. My guess is that Jean Dujardin will add to his lengthy list of victories for his exquisite miming as the silent-movie star in The Artist. Present-day superstar buddies George Clooney and Brad Pitt do career-best work in The Descendants and Moneyball, respectively. But seriously, how does anyone outclass Gary Oldman's complete inhabiting of George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?

As far as I'm concerned, you could fill the entire Best Supporting Actor slate with five guys from Tinker Tailor—say, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, and Colin Firth. None is nominated. Among those who are, Christopher Plummer seems assured of victory for his newly outed 75-year-old (Plummer is 82) in the SIFF item Beginners. Too cute for words. I prefer the wordless Max von Sydow, magical as the mysterious geezer in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. On the distaff side, Oscar has predictably erred by nominating Jessica Chastain for her garish Southern ditz in The Help rather than the luminous icon she incarnates in The Tree of Life. That means my choice for Supporting Actress must be Janet McTeer as Mr. Hubert Page in Albert Nobbs ... though let it be insisted that Bérénice Bejo of The Artist is as deft as she is darling.

Emmanuel Lubezki cannot fail to win Best Cinematography for The Tree of Life. The Iranian film A Separation deserves the Original Screenplay award and should be assured of victory in Foreign-Language Film—although the rules for that category are so tricky, applecarts have been known to get upset. Adapted Screenplay would properly go to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but in its way Moneyball is just as deserving—almost closer to an original screenplay itself.

Pre-show flapdoodle starts at 4 p.m. PT on Sunday, Feb. 26, on KOMO-4 (ABC).

Queen Anne & Magnolia News, Feb. 22, 2012 

Copyright © 2012 by Richard T. Jameson