The Artist

Everything old is new again, it seems. The Artist, a black-and-white valentine to old Hollywood shot in the Academy ratio and (mostly) without sync sound by French writer-director-editor Michel Hazanavicius (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies), just won the best-film-of-2011 award from the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), the first major critics’ association to vote on its awards this year. It’s arguable how much clout critics’ awards really have with the Motion Picture Academy but, coupled with a best-director win for Hazanavicius, the prize cemented The Artist‘s front-runner status in the Best Picture Oscar race.

Is it weird that critics groups are giving out best-of-the-year awards before the end of November? Yes! The New York group moved its announcement forward this year to try to squeeze a little extra juice out of awards season by being among the first to report. (Next up is the National Board of Review, which is scheduled to weigh in on Thursday.) But in this case, NYFCC seems to have put publicity ahead of reasoned consideration of the year’s films. Surely there are worthy films that some members of the group haven’t gotten to see yet. For instance, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was reportedly unveiled for critics last night. And I’ve heard that the Christmas-day release Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, from director Stephen Daldry, simply hasn’t screened yet. It surely helped The Artist‘s chances with the critics that it was a festival favorite that’s been generously screened in New York.

I don’t mean to knock The Artist. It’s a fun movie, if a little formulaic, that does really interesting things with sound and silence that will resonate especially well with an audience that makes movies for a living. It will do well with the Academy regardless of what critics’ awards it receives. (For another take, check out Beth Marchant’s read on it from back in August.) It’s a shame that the 1.37:1 aspect ratio won’t properly fit most movie-house screens — I suspect most prints will have the image “windowboxed” in the widescreen frame, but it would be nice if full-frame 35mm prints were available, providing the best quality for venues that can handle them.

Speaking of image quality, the NYFCC didn’t laud Artist cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman’s luminous work, opting instead to recognize Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s Herculean efforts on Terrence Malick’s dazzling (and divisive, in some quarters) Tree of Life. Malick’s film was also honored last night, when the indie-oriented Gotham Awards announced that Tree of Life had tied with — surprise! — a largely unheralded indie from director Mike Mills, Beginners, for the best feature film prize.