the artist

The BAFTAs: The Artist brushes off the competition

The Artist swept the BAFTAs on Sunday night, taking seven awards including best film, actor and director. The Iron Lady, Hugo, Senna and Tinker, Tailor also took two awards each while Martin Scorsese was awarded a BAFTA fellowship, the British Academy’s highest honour. Nonetheless, the evening belonged undeniably to Michael Hazanavicius’ silent movie, adding another set of statuettes to his burgeoning trophy cabinet.

The Artist has swept both the critics and the awards this year. Backed by the influential Weinstein brothers the film had already won big at the Golden Globes, SGA and DGA awards before this latest haul. Aside from the best film, best director and best actor prizes, the movie also bagged prizes for its screenplay, make-up, cinematography and music.

Yet while it is undoubtedly an excellent and deserving winner, the predictability of victory has rather dulled this year’s awards season and caused a number of other strong productions to be overlooked. Thank heavens, then, for the only real shock of the evening, a win for Senna in the best editing category. Asif Kapadia’s real footage based account of Ayrton Senna’s life and times was acclaimed on release but has been largely forgotten in the last few months. A dual win today (it was also named best documentary) was not only a pleasant surprise but might just reignite some interest.

The Iron Lady, Tinker, Tailor and Hugo will arguably be more disappointed with their showings, although both The Descendants and Drive failed to win anything despite high billing. George Clooney will certainly be cursing his luck that a silent, independent French film should overshadow his starring turn as a Hawaiian property developer.

Despite this, the most predictable win of the entire night was probably Christopher Plummer’s for best supporting actor in Beginners. Plummer has virtually swept the board in his category, and Sunday was no exception. He plays a 75 year-old who finally comes out as gay and starts a new life before falling prey to cancer. The role has been widely acclaimed and, aged 82 but with few major awards, he appears to be making up for lost time.

The Skin I Live In also surprisingly edged A Separation in the contest to be named best foreign language film. Pedro Almodovar is one of the most decorated, and eccentric, living directors but the beaten Iranian piece is seen by many as one of the year’s outstanding productions.

SAG and DGA awards: The Artist needs no Help

As the awards season totters towards a conclusion, only the BAFTAs and Oscars now remain, it seems ever more likely that the Artist will go down as this year’s outstanding film. Recent weeks have seen triumphs for director Michael Hazanavicius and leading man Jean Dujardin in the annual Directors Guild of America (DGA) and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards respectively. The Help also prospered at the SAG ceremony, winning in the best actress, supporting actress and ensemble cast categories. Christopher Plummer rounded out the awards with a nod for his supporting role in Beginners.

The DGA hands out only one prize for feature films, and victory is a near certainty of Oscar success. Indeed, in the ceremony’s 64-year history, only six victors have failed to follow up with the Academy award. In taking home the prize Hazanavicius secured his 17th award of the year, he must be heavy favourite to be on the podium come Sunday 26th.

Dujardin’s victory was another in a successful season so far, and he will likely be vying with George Clooney for the biggest prize of them all. Despite having a role with only two spoken words, he has already scooped 9 awards and looks to be a strong contender for the Academy’s leading male gong.

Nonetheless, the biggest winner at the SAG awards was the Help, the civil rights drama taking 3 of the 5 acting prizes despite a mixed response from critics. Viola Davis was named best leading lady, while Octavia Spence was honoured for her supporting role. The Help’s cast has been widely acclaimed, even by those who have derided the film’s message. It would, however, still be a minor miracle were Tate Taylor’s adaptation to win best film come Oscar night; a successful £1 bet on the Artist would win you 20p compared to £35 for the Help.

Plummer’s reward was his first SAG success at the fourth attempt, and came for his performance playing a septuagenarian who finally comes out as gay after his wife’s death. The 80 year old, who debuted on screen in 1953, has acted in nearly 200 film or TV productions, but this has been arguably his most acclaimed role.

While the SAG and DGA awards are respected in their own right, they are arguably better known as barometers for the Academy awards. While the Help’s success may have been surprising, the Artist looks well placed to prosper at the Oscars.

Are the Oscars becoming irrelevant?

Well no, since you asked. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply flawed.

The Oscars are the high watermark of film recognition. The red carpet trampling, lovvie love-a-thon that is the motion picture awards season starts in earnest with the Golden Globes in early January and extravagantly culminates every year in late February with the Academy Awards in which apparently “everyone is just thrilled to be nominated!” but in actuality hopes are realised, dreams are shattered and the presenters are almost constantly underwhelming. When it comes to the big night though it can all seem like a bit of game. A cynical, industry driven game in which awards are doled out by the sensibility load and Martin Scorsese can win an Oscar through sheer bloody minded persistence (and a superlative body of work of course).

The awards themselves essentially boil down to the artistic whims of a group of voters who are predominantly older, whiter and male-er than your typical movie audience, and your typical movie audience they most definitely aren’t. The 6000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are a venerable bunch of industry professionals who once inducted are placed into their various pigeonholes of expertise. Actors, directors, cinematographers and writers all have their place to name a but a few with the experts in each category having more sway when it comes to the tricky business of voting. In the first round directors nominate the work of directors, writers of writers and so on with each member providing a list of their top five choices. These feed the candidates for the second round of voting to the Academy as a whole who then all submit their top fives in most categories. The exception is of course the be-all and end-all award of Best Picture which everyone votes for.

Oscar voters are people sustained and venerated by their own artistic endeavours and as such they won’t be voting for any hack produced hokum any time soon. Added to this we don’t get many surprises either. We get them plumping for the worthy over the cinematic (think the choice of The Help over Tinker Tailor), the traditional over the innovative (War Horse over Drive), the heroic underdog over the perverted sex-addict (Brad Pitt’s average display in Moneyball over Michael Fassbender’s powerhouse performance in Shame). Way back when in 1989 we got the starkest manifestation of this we could ever wish for with the triumph of the comfortably middle class over the radical and intelligent with Driving Miss Daisy winning best picture over Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing – a film that set the tone of black-centric cinema for a decade to come and wasn’t even nominated. A case like that more clearly than anything shows how the mass appeal of the facile and one-dimensional can almost always triumph over the confrontational and original. This may seem like I am throwing The Help and Driving Miss Daisy together into some sort of race rights for dummies cadre and it kind of seems like I am. But Driving Miss Daisy cleaned up at the Oscars so of course it’s brilliant. Of course it is! Anyone who says otherwise is stupid, or a Hollywood Foreign Press member. So both.

Speaking of which when you compare the Oscars to the Golden Globes our gold plated, statuesque friend comes out smelling of roses. The Golden Globes are the sort of unashamed silly affair that keeps re-hiring a presenter to hilariously lampoon their inadequacies in some sort of devil’s pact for viewers. It’s like someone building a house on a cliff using stone from the cliff face. At some point the Golden Globes, I mean house, ahem, will collapse and all of the viewers will leave and Ricky Gervais will have to find somewhere else to live out the creative death of his career.

What the Golden Globes do have over their more respected counterparts however is timing. If something wins at the Globes it’s often a good indicator for things to come. By the time the Oscars swing round films like The Artist will have won so many awards that they’ll we struggling for something to say other than “OMG OMG OMG OMG the Oscars are the best it’s been my dream blah blah blah” that we’ve heard all before. There’s none of the surprise that there should be for indie flicks like The Artist when they win a huge award as their expectations are already so high come February that a Best Picture victory will seem more like a relief than anything.

So why will I be staying up into the wee hours of the morning waiting to get my Oscar fix for yet another year? Well it’s because they are just so bloody important and despite everything that I’ve said up until this point they still hold the requisite amount of artistic integrity.

More often than not the Oscars get it vaguely right and if they don’t it’s not usually that bad (apart from the Academy’s complete disregard for Senna this year which is ridiculous beyond parody). Yes, last year The Social Network should have walked off with Best Picture never to be refuted but that on the night it went to The King’s Speech wasn’t terrible. The Social Network would’ve been (and had been) a success irrespective of awards attention but The King’s Speech, high on the Oscar buzz it was getting – and Colin Firth’s repeated walk-ons at every awards show imaginable – carried the film through its January and February release period to a humongous (and thoroughly deserved) box-office. That an artfully inclined arthouse flick about a king with a speech impediment made $400 million worldwide is testament to the power of Oscar buzz. Without the Oscars such deserving films would get much less mainstream attention and I think cinema would be poorer for it.

Recently this also proved true for Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, 127 Hours, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Brokeback Mountain and the masterful Sideways to name but a few. Oscar buzz is the real force behind the Oscars. What happens on the night happens and will be raked over in movie posters for eons to come but the real relevance of the Academy Awards is in the bridge they build between the artistic medium of film and the mainstream engine of the film industry.

If you love films and hate to see the wrong things getting top recognition come awards night then yes it may seem like the Oscars are losing their relevance, but as an industry force they are nevertheless a force for good. Even if we do have to put up with the occasional give me a bloody Oscar already! film like I Am Sam (featuring the now famous Sean Penn going ‘full retard’ performance) or Seven Pounds (in which Will Smith begs for an Oscar so hard that I’m surprised he didn’t actually grab his nearest box jellyfish and jump into a bathtub for attention come nominations), ultimately they bring (albeit a small selection of) lesser known gems to the masses.

So come February the 26th 2012 I’ll be sitting down to watch 4 hours worth of film industry back patting, self indulgent montage and lots and lots of hysterical speeches. But I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Oh and Billy Crystal’s back. Which is nice.

Oscar nominations: Hugo’s 11 outdo Clooney and The Artist

And lo, it’s that time of year again – an exciting time for we film journalists, as we pore over the list of Academy Award nominations. The Oscars being nothing if not predictable, here’s an overview of the favourites.

The nominations have seen two films stand out – Martin Scorsese’s Hugo netted the most nominations with 11, closely followed by Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist with 10. It’s The Artist however that’s really being talked up for the big awards. It’s a heavy favourite for Best Picture, although Alexander Payne’s The Descendants has the potential to spoil the party for  Hazanavicius, who’s also up for Best Director. He’s the favourite there too, although that one could be pretty close. Payne and Terrence Malik (for Palme d’Or winner Tree of Life) could potentially sneak it on the night, but the main challenge will be from the veteran Scorcese – his 2007 win for The Departed could stand against him though.

The acting categories could see some surprises. George Clooney is the Best Actor favourite for his role in The Descendants – he’s a Hollywood favourite and despite multiple nominations has only ever received one Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, for Syriana. He faces a potential threat from The Artist’s Jean Dujardin, but it’s Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) that Clooney should really be looking out for – this is, shockingly, the veteran actor’s first ever nomination, and the Academy may decide to reward an acting legend for long service.

There seem to be two main candidates for Best Actress. Meryl Streep (for whom this is an incredible 17th nomination) is seen by some as a shoe-in for her much-praised performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, especially given the Academy’s recent form in rewarding biopic roles. She has, however, already won two Oscars, and the Academy may instead decide to bestow the honour on relative newcomer Viola Davis for her powerful performance in The Help.

Christopher Plummer (Beginners) looks a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor, though there’s a possibility the honour could go to the 84 year old Max von Sydown (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) – the veteran actor is on only his second nomination and has never received an Oscar before. The competition for Best Supporting Actress appears close, looking like it could go one of three ways. Jessica Chastain is perhaps the favourite for The Help, but Berenice Bejo (The Artist) and Octavia Spencer (The Help) should not be ruled out.

Elsewhere, Best Original Screenplay competition seems to be between The Artist and Midnight in Paris (also look out for nominee A Separation – the Iranian film is a heavy favourite for Best Foreign Language Film). The Descendants looks a sure bet for Best Adapted Screenplay – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is its nearest rival, but if you’re looking for a bit of a left-field option, consider baseball film Moneyball, which has been attracting a bit of attention.

The truth will be revealed on February 26th.

Baftas: Tinker Tailor and The Artist look set to clean up

With the Golden Globes officially over, the focus of awards season shifts, temporarily, to our side of the Atlantic. The nominations for the British Academy of Film and Television Awards 2012 have been announced, and the ceremony itself will take place on February 12th. As if this wasn’t enough, the winners of the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards were announced on Thursday 19th January. As the Oscar speculation builds, let’s take a look these recent developments.

Having walked away with an impressive collection of accolades from last week’s Golden Globes, the team behind The Artist are likely to leave the Baftas with similar booty. A tale of dignity and fragility with all the 1920s Americana of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Artist looks set to make a storm on February 12th. Having collected 12 nominations as well as Director and Actor of the Year awards from the Critics’ Circle, I wouldn’t be surprised.

This is by no means a one-horse-race, however, contrary to what Steven Spielberg may have hoped. The Best Film category includes Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Nicolas Refn’s Drive which have been rewarded for their striking imagery and calculated performances with 11 and 4 nominations respectively.

By contrast, The Descendants sees George Clooney as head of a dysfunctional family, à la Little Miss Sunshine without the laughs. Despite resounding success at the Globes, this scrapes the barrel with only 3 nominations. The Help, our final contender for Best Film, is a warm-hearted glance into the world of civil rights through the microcosm of the American household, set to the tune of 5 nominations – on par with Spielberg’s War Horse.

The nostalgia of The Artist and The Help is a continuing theme, and My Week with Marilyn has received six nominations including one for leading actress Michelle Williams. Similarly, Woody Allen has received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay for the charmingly nostalgic Midnight in Paris which sees Owen Wilson clinking glasses with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Other somewhat older stars have also successfully established their place at this year’s ceremony. Meryl Streep is nominated in the best leading actress category for The Iron Lady, and Martin Scorsese will enter the Royal Opera House with ten nominations between two films, Hugo and George Harrison: Living in the Material World.

The 32nd Critics’ Circle Film Awards are testament to the abundance of British talent this year. Most notably, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin took British Film of the Year, and Olivia Coleman, not recognised with a Bafta nomination, was awarded British Actress of the Year for her work in The Iron Lady and Tyrannosaur. Michael Fassbender’s performances in A Dangerous Method and Shame earned him the British Actor of the Year spot, and Andrew Haigh won Break-through British Film-maker for his intimate romance, Weekend.

It seems that this has been a year of inventive sentimentalism, though this is truer of the Bafta than the Critics Circle, who have leant towards grittier stories. Regardless of speculation concerning trends and precedents, however, only time will tell as to whose nominations will materialise into Bafta success: the net has been cast widely, the decisions will not be easy.

By Francis Blagburn


Films about films: The rise of self referential cinema

As the festive period recedes into the past, there are two feature films still at cinemas that, unlike bulging waistlines, are a welcome reminder of Christmas. Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist both have lavish visuals and melodramatic styles that sit warm among the heartstrings in the colder weather. Both have also earned great plaudits from critics, lead the way in Oscar nominations, and have (spoiler alert) French(ish) leading men named Georges. They also share a more fundamental trait: they are both films about films.

In some ways this isn’t surprising; we expect self-obsession from Hollywood, an industry poised to inflict the awards season on the public this winter. There are many historical examples. The idea seems to have originated in Los Angeles: A Star is Born tells the simple story of a rising young actress making her name. However, it can be seen in films around the world: as recently as 2009 Pedro Almodovar made Broken Embraces, a brilliant but eerie tale of an aging director that’s just a little too personal. Sunset Boulevard is perhaps the greatest film about Hollywood, and finds its captivating story in the sadder side of the business – the later years of an aging star. David Lynch followed on in this tradition with Mullholland Drive, depicting a sinister effect of glossiness in film-land.

The style of films about films can vary greatly. There is the straightforward biopic, ranging from the successful (see the young Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin), to the more bloated (Howard Hughes somehow made tedious in Scorsese’s earlier The Aviator). This kind of movie was twisted with characteristic verve by Johnny Depp and Tim Burton in Ed Wood, a film about the worst film-maker ever (which ironically brought ‘Ed’ belated cult appreciation). Then there are the more layered examples – Boogie Nights, about the porn industry, which after many shenanigans ends with another film starting to get made. Get Shorty is a gangster film about making a gangster film; its meta final line is ‘endings man, they weren’t as easy as they looked’.

The first thing to say about 2011 additions to a slightly specific genre is that they should both be seen – most importantly, they have engaging stories. Obsessed with cinema, they have deep fascination with early films in particular, nostalgically harking back to the silent era through different plot techniques, and eliciting delight from modern audiences even when remembering the clunkiest of technologies. With this they are not too saccharine, as they acknowledge the inevitable sadder side of progress: both main characters (the two Georges) are left behind to some extent with the advent of ‘talkies’.

One reason for this recent focus on film-making can be posited through thinking about Hugo. In marrying a story about Georges Méliès’ films from the 1910s with probably the best use of 3-D yet seen, Martin Scorsese links the old with the very new. 3-D was supposed to be the future, but is now looking pretty tired (see the re-release of Titanic this spring). Despite this, the development obviously caught Scorcese’s eye, and as he experimented, thought hard about the past too (one of the films key successes). The Artist has the same dichotomy at its heart, set more specifically in 1929. Is it a coincidence that this was the year last major stock market crash? Almost certainly. But the same phenomena can be seen elsewhere; films like Super 8 and Cloverfield are shot on hand-held cameras as they become available to a mass market.

Why do films about films matter? We might ask. Well, what is initially an observation only for the enthusiast extends out to other areas of life. They say that you should ‘write about what you know’, and Hollywood in particular has found a rich vein of material following this advice. More generally, the brief and by no means comprehensive list of films above shows that greats of today often hark back to older movies – from Spielberg to Tarantino the masters are extremely cine-literate. The Artist and Hugo are rich and loving in their treatment of cinema history, teaching us to treat change with respect, but also asking us not to forget the past. Don’t be surprised if either win a couple of golden statues. But then Hollywood hands those out all the time – it’s the films that live long in the memory.

By Robert Griffiths

The Artist: A monochrome masterpiece

There is a line in Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard which sums up the paradox faced by George Valentin’s eponymous artist, a silent film star at the advent of talkies: ‘if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’. Valentin, like Visconti’s fading prince, is a man with everything, yet also a man facing revolution. For Prince Fabrizio, this meant Garibaldi; for Valentin the revolution is sound, and if he wishes to maintain his standing he himself must change. The Artist follows Valentin’s life and relationship with Peppy Miller, a minor dancer escalated by sound to cinematic stardom.

Perhaps the film’s key moment comes as Valentin watches a co-star’s sound test. Upon being asked for one himself he laughs and walks out, uttering the fateful words ‘if this is the future, you can keep it’. This is where Valentin makes his choice, he will not change, he will allow the world to move on around him.

His predicament was one faced by numerous silent film stars as sound arrived, and immortalised by Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard. No one wanted a squeaky voiced hero. Careers built over decades could fall in a single mumbled sentence. And unlike black and white films, silent movies never made a comeback after Hollywood abandoned them. Indeed, in an age where directors constantly aim to break boundaries, Michel Hazanavicius’ move seems singularly daring. Silent film has remained virtually untouched for 80 years.

Yet The Artist isn’t entirely silent; there are two points where Hazanavicius switches briefly to sound, and the first is the moment Valentin realises his actions have left him stranded. The sequence is both masterful and telling, not only for the story but as a mark of the quality of filmmaking. I was intrigued to see how silent cinema’s limitations could be aligned with the sophisticated demands of modern audiences; I was not disappointed.

Much of the credit must go to Jean Dujardin, the leading man. The Artist was beautifully shot, paying extended homage to early Hollywood, and featured an immaculate score, but without his comic timing and expressiveness it would be hard to envisage a film nearly as good. He and Bérénice Bejo (Miller) are dazzling together, giving the film immense charm and character.

The Artist is at once romantic comedy, evocation of a bygone era and a study of a man confronting a changed world: a triumphant throwback to 1920s Hollywood. Bring on the Oscars.

Here comes the silence – The year of the silent film.

2012. Here comes the silence. Don’t worry this article contains no plot spoilers for ‘Dr Who the Movie’ (still thought to be in pre-production if a serious project at all). No, the coming silence concerns film direction rather than extra-terrestrials. Critics from all corners have suggested that the international acclaim levelled at The Artist, released nationwide this week, will lead to Hollywood copycat features for years to come; a deafening wave of silent pictures.

For those who have missed the furore surrounding the film, it stands a very good chance of being the first silent film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award since Wings in 1927, the inaugural winner. The Artist has received overwhelming popular and critical responses wherever it has shown and has brought fresh focus to a medium otherwise left unrecognised.  Director Michael Hazanavicius perfected the art of pastiche on his French-language releases the OSS spy-film spoofs. He has brought these skills to bear on a topic close to his heart. Hazanavicius’s previous pictures also starred Jean Dujardin, The Artist’s charismatic lead. Dujardin’s character struggles with the transition to ‘talkies’ as the career of young Peppy Miller, played by Hazanvacius’s wife Berenice Bejo, takes off.

In the case of The Artist, the artistic medium is defined by the narrative; a silent movie about the silent movie era. Hopefully it is this obvious narrative appropriateness which will prevent Hollywood producers justifying unnecessary mimic movies. That doesn’t mean silence will disappear from the cinemas though. In fact, over the last few years silence, and directorial reliance on images, rather than dialogue, to carry a narrative, has grown into a prominent part of artistic cinema. Many of the 2011’s best received hits, such as Tinker Tailor, Drive, and We Need to Talk about Kevin, were stories told through images rather than relying on dense dialogue. Neither Ryan Gosling nor Gary Oldman can have been overly taxed learning their lines yet still delivered consummate, physical performances, inhabiting their characters in much more than just larynx. Terrance Malik’s The Tree of Life, Lars von Triers’ Melancholia and Andy Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes demonstrated the variety of ways in which the silent image can convey meaning. Juxtaposition of familial drama and the conception of the universe played a central part in Malik and Triers films, connections and concept that can only be understood through images.

2011’s greatest cinematic loss, Ken Russell, keenly understood the power of the image. In interviews he often spoke of the ability to communicate with actors without words, almost telepathically, as the more he could do that with an actor, the more they could do that with the camera and audience. Whilst he was earning a reputation as a rebellious firebrand filmmaker he was in fact incredibly traditional in his philosophy. At its core cinema is an artistic medium built on connections an audience makes when viewing a series of images at great speed. Cinema, although certainly influenced by theatre and the written word, is an inherently visual medium. Film music plays a dual role in this process. Both aiding interpretation of the image through accompaniment and generating tension or suggesting realism in the silences.

Silence, in a performance setting, forces interaction. This is the premise at the core of 20th century classical music composer John Cage’s 4’33’’. The score directs a performer to sit in silence at a piano on the understanding that an audience will sit in silence, as they would for any piece of music, listening intently, interacting with the sounds of the world rather than a piano sonata. Absence of dialogue in a film forces an audience to interact with the images on screen; stitching them together, organising what they see. This is what allows people to understand a film like The Artist. It’s this interaction with the image that made Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy so interesting – what did that glance mean? It is what made The Driver such an enigmatic character; what made audiences empathise with an animated ape.

The Artist is part of a wave of mainstream films that celebrate the image, returning to the birth of cinema. (Martin Scorcese’s Hugo with its homage to 3D’s early life could be viewed as part of this movement.) We find cinema being introspective in its subject matter but in doing so it returns to a point of interaction; silence.

- Sam Poppleton