Worst Best Picture: Is The Artist Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 2011 winner The Artist. Is it better than Crash?

There are 228 reviews of the 2011 Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. 224 of them are positive. The people have spoken: The Artist is apparently fantastic.

It’s also a slog to watch, and not just because it’s a silent movie made in the last five years. There’s no problem with the artistic choice to make a silent movie the better part of a century after the end of the artform. That much is ambitious and that much is why Moneyball and The Help and everything else that year had absolutely no chance against it.

It’s not “boring,” though that criticism might show up on a lot of personal reviews of The Artist. It’s the story of a silent film star on top of the world who gets dethroned by a young, unknown starlet. They coexist at the top of their game for a while, but she is willing to make movies with sound and he decidedly is not. Sound comes, audiences leave silent films in the dust, and our poor hero refuses to change with the times. Oh, and there’s about 75 minutes of dog tricks. For real.

The Artist made me feel like a teenager in an art gallery. It gave me the feeling of being able to recognize that something is “important” but not being able to pry out why everyone else is fawning over it. The grandeur of the silent film era and the nostalgia for a time gone by is easy to understand. The film pours this on thick as it opens with the cast waiting for an audience to clap after watching a zany sped-up silent film. Everyone loves it, silent movies are just movies, and time is frozen in the Greatest Generation of cinema.

The switch from silent films to “talkies” has a nice effect in the film as the main character starts to actually hear sounds in his life. It’s a neat element of the “silent film about the end of silent films shot after the end of silent films” movie, and it’s a bright spot in a movie that doesn’t take any other risks at all.

The climactic scene of the silent film star burning his original reels carries some heft to it, but it’s almost impressive how slight the entire film feels. This is one of film history’s greatest shifts — and there are scenes where a guy tries to burn down his house and shoot himself — but it embodies the campy feel of a silent movie so strongly that no one ever gets a chance to matter. No one learns any lessons, though they do grow. They grow for no intended reason, however, so the moral is apparently something akin to “just wait and life will work out, even if you try to burn down your house.”

Even if you buy it into it as a period piece (which you must, apparently) it is just such a slow movie. It’s only 100 minutes long — insanely short for a Best Picture winner — but it drags from start to finish. Almost all of the film is in the window dressing, and so if you don’t get into the aesthetic you certainly won’t be wowed by the plot. You’re far better off with All About Eve – just about the same story just a few decades later in time with much, much, much more venom. You might recognize that movie as the way people really behave.

The Best Part: It’s surprisingly sweet at times. There is a very sweet moment where the leads exchange fleeting glances as the silent star walks down a staircase out of the movie studio and the young starlet ascends it. For how hamfisted most of the mugging is later in the movie, this image will persist long after the film is forgotten.

The Worst Part: There was a campaign around the release of the movie to nominate the dog for Best Supporting Actor. I love dogs. In the spirit of a piece where I compare pieces of cinema, this would mean equating Robert De Niro with a dog.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I would not suggest that it’s worse, but a lot of that has to do with genre. It’s impossible to compare a movie about the end of an era with a movie like Crash, especially because Crash insists that “post 9/11” is the era of today, tomorrow, and the century after that. The Artist is about growing out of your notions about the future and learning to adapt in a way that you still feel valid. Crash is about how any growth or development is a myth that should be responded to with distrust. You have to change in the world of The Artist. You never can — even if you try, which you shouldn’t — in Crash. How is a movie about the end of a loved artform more hopeful than anything?

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: NY Times

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