What do Brad Pitt, Viola Davis, John Goodman and Jessica Chastain have in common? Each of them appears in two of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture of 2011 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Four of the films include French settings or characters, three of them use World Wars I or II as plot elements, and two of them feature a boy trying to strengthen ties to his late father by solving the mystery of a missing lock or key. Aside from all that and a pervading air of nostalgia, the field of nominees is most notable for its diversity. Good luck to the Academy trying to sort it all out, because these nine films are nearly incomparable.
The Artist may appear to casual moviegoers as the oddball of the bunch. After all, it's a silent movie shot in black and white. This does not, however, signal pretentiousness. On the contrary, it's a very accessible, entertaining film that's bound to charm anyone who gives it a chance. Best Actor nominee Jean Dujardin and Best Supporting Actress nominee Berenice Bejo are magnetically charismatic as falling and rising stars at the dawn of the talkies. Those with a fondness for silent cinema will enjoy the evocation of that era, but it's not necessary to be a film buff to like The Artist. It's a lightweight yet engaging romance, a rare crowd-pleaser that does not pander to its audience.
"Fear not! It's only a picture of a train!" Learning the language of cinema in 1895.
SPOILER ALERT! If you are like me and prefer to know as little as possible about a movie before seeing it (I don't even like to watch trailers for this reason), then be forewarned that the following post discusses key plot elements of Christopher Nolan's Inception. Furthermore, if you haven't seen Inception, I recommend that you read no further and see the movie at your earliest convenience, before someone tells you all about it. Just think about how much more fun Psycho would have been if you hadn't already known what was coming. You'll enjoy Inception more going into it blind.
A cartoon I remember from years ago depicted a couple leaving the cinema. The man opines, "I didn't care much for the plot, but I did enjoy the illusion of motion created by the projection of still frames in rapid succession." I still smile whenever I think of that cartoon, because not only is it funny, but it also it also says something about the way our minds are accustomed to films and television. That anyone should go to a movie and simply appreciate the technological trickery that makes our brains perceive moving images is laughable to us now. What we often do not recognize, however, is the sophistication of our collective perception, that we understand what we watch because we have learned the conventions of cinema.
There is the famous apocryphal story of the audience reaction at the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumiere's 1895 short The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Running only 50 seconds, the pioneering film's documentary content is aptly summarized by its title. According to legend, viewers were so alarmed by the moving image of an approaching train and so unaccustomed to cinematic illusion that they reflexively took evasive action so as not to get run over. You can judge for yourself by viewing the original footage, which wouldn't hold a modern audience's attention for half its length. At the end of the 19th Century, though, content hardly mattered. Just watching projections of apparently moving images was captivating.
Ever have one of those days?
"I've been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society."
"Aw, youth is wasted on the wrong people!"
"This old thing? Why, I only wear it when I don't care how I look."
"Well, I'm sorry - HEY!"
"Out you two pixies go, through the door or out the window!"
If the previous quotations are instantly recognizable to you as lines of dialogue from It's A Wonderful Life, and if you cannot read the words without also hearing them and visualizing their associated characters, then you and I have something in common. We're two among the countless devotees of the 1946 Frank Capra classic, its sights and sounds replaying within our cerebral folds after many hours of repeated exposure. There's only one reason why anyone would voluntarily watch a movie again and again, and that is, of course, that you like it. Obvious, right? But the widespread appeal of this film is varied, and perhaps the only thing upon which all lovers of it will agree is that it is a great movie.
As for me, and in the words of Henry F. Potter, "I'll go further than that." I think It's A Wonderful Life is as close as anyone has come to making a perfect narrative movie.