The Oscar Finalists: Silent Picture Double Feature

The Artist and Hugo lead the nominations race, as Meryl, Michelle and Viola compete for Best Actress and friends George and Brad vie for Best Actor

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The Weinstein Co.; Paramount Pictures

Once upon a time, in a place called Hollywood, people made sweet movies everyone everywhere wanted to see. They dreamed for the whole world…

And today the Motion Picture Academy fell back into that distant reverie. Two heartfelt, gorgeously embroidered valentines to the silent-movie era that vanished 80 years ago led the pack in the Oscar nominations announced this morning. Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s 3-D adaptation of the graphic novel about a lonely boy who finds the magic of machines with the aid of a French film pioneer, received 11 nominations, including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. Ten nominations went to The Artist, the nearly wordless, black-and-white fable of a silent film star at the dawn of the talkie era. Made in Los Angeles by French writer-director Michel Hazanvicius and a pair of French stars unknown in the U.S., The Artist is a finalist for Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay — virtually all the major categories — and is the early favorite to win the Academy’s top prize.

The acting categories offer some piquant pairings. George Clooney and Brad Pitt, the very image of classic Hollywood hunkdom, will square off in the Best Actor ring: Clooney for The Descendants vs. Pitt for Moneyball. Meryl Streep, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, will vie with Michelle Williams, as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, for Best Impersonation of an Icon — sorry, Best Actress — and both stars will hope that Viola Davis doesn’t outclass them. Davis, the ferociously dignified moral center of The Help, will be competing in a way with her thespic sisters: Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain are up for Supporting Actress in the same film.

(SEE: Corliss’s breakdown of the six big Oscar categories)

And Hollywood is praying that the attention showered on the nominees between now and Oscar Night, Feb. 26, will attract large audiences to see honorable work they have so far mostly skipped.

All year, in the corner suites of gleaming office buildings, movie moguls dream of sure things: blockbusters and, better, franchises — weekend after weekend of comic-book smashes and their sequels. Then, come Oscar time, they vote for excellent “little” films they would never greenlight. The last big-studio movie to take Best Picture was Scorsese’s The Departed, five years ago. Since then, the winners (No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech) have been indie productions. Oscar éclat has turned some of these dark horses into box-office thoroughbreds, but not all; The Hurt Locker was the least-seen Best Picture champ in Academy history.

Two years ago, after the scandal of The Dark Knight’s exclusion from a Best Picture nomination, the Academy doubled the list of finalists to 10 films. The idea was to honor not just critically praised indie films but real movies that real people saw. Maybe then the Oscar show, in olden days the year’s highest-rated telecast, would regain its absentee viewers. The tactic worked in 2010, when Avatar, the top-grossing film of all time, went up against The Hurt Locker. A year ago, the list of 10 nominees included Toy Story, the Pixar smash, and Inception, Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster followup to The Dark Knight.

(SEE: The All-Time Top 10 Oscar Nomination Snubs)

This time, the Academy instituted new rules to winnow the list of finalists. Savants predicted only six to eight films would be nominated for Best Picture. As it happened, the number was nine — not a very severe diet. And not with broadly appealing fare. Only one of the Best Picture nominees, The Help, had finished among the 30 most popular movies at the box office. Meanwhile, big-money films like the Harry Potter finale and the third Transformers were thrown scraps from the technical categories: sound editing and mixing, visual effects, etc. In a way, that’s true to Oscar’s heritage. The sponsoring organization is, after all, called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Acting and directing are considered arts; making stuff blow up is a science — the one that lures the customers and pays Hollywood’s bills.

The contenders for this year’s top Oscar — The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life and War Horse — make a distinguished company. (I would say that, since four of the films made my 10 Best Movies list, and two others I cited for Best Performances.) Now it’s the turn of real filmgoers to see these pictures and decide for themselves.

In categories whose nominees are chosen by special committees, the results were on the bizarro side. Last year saw giant strides in motion-capture animation, thanks to the ILM team that realized Rango and to Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital team that brought Steven Spielberg’s version of The Adventures of Tintin to electrifying life — but only Rango was nominated. The animation mavens went abroad for more intimate movies, A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita, which is fine, but lavished two other slots on the DreamWorks features Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss in Boots. That meant ignoring Pixar’s Cars 2 and George Miller’s Happy Feet Two, which, whatever you think of them, boast magnificent designs and color palettes. It’s clear the animation selectors doesn’t want live-action directors poaching on their property; they must think of themselves as union members fighting the scabs. But innovation comes from all corners, including the bright minds of the best auteurs.

The Foreign Language Feature category is always questionable, though for once may have a consensus winner: the Iranian drama A Separation, which also received a Screenplay nomination. The Documentary Feature category has some worthy nominees, including Paradise Lost 3 and Pina, Wim Wenders’ eulogy to choreographer Pina Bausch; but in early rounds the Doc committee disqualified so many superior films, such as Steve James’ The Interrupters and Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss (Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams having been disqualified last year), that the winning documentary will not have had the honor of besting the best. Michael Moore, now on the Doc board, has vowed to untangle that systemic snafu next year.

Moore won’t be making mischief on stage this Oscar night. The host is Billy Crystal, who has been around so long he may have handed out the very first Best Picture statuette, to Wings, in 1929. If this year’s nominations are any clue, and The Artist wins, history could repeat itself: for the first time in 83 years, the top Oscar could go to a silent movie, and Once Upon a Time would be Feb. 26, 2012.

READ: The complete list of nominees