Along with the usual prognostications, Oscar-time nowadays tends to generate two types of articles: One observes how the show's popularity has waned because it no longer honors box-office hits; the other meditates on past snubs of great films that weren't especially popular when they came out - films like "Vertigo" and "It's a Wonderful Life."
Has it occurred to anyone that these two complaints are contradictory?
While I fondly recall the shows when Oscar honored such blockbusters as "Titanic" and "Gladiator," perhaps the Academy wants to rectify a system that once feted "Greatest Show on Earth" over "Singin' in the Rain" - and "Shakespeare in Love" over "Saving Private Ryan."
I open this year's Oscar piece with such reflections because "The Artist" is likely to take Best Picture - continuing a three-year trend in which little-known underdogs came out of nowhere and conquered the Oscars ("Slumdog Millionaire," "The Hurt Locker," "The King's Speech").
So yes: Even though I think "The Help" is a better picture (and "Hugo" actually has the most nominations), I'm predicting that this year's top spot goes to the silent, black-and-white French film that deservedly wowed critics and won the Golden Globe for Best Musical/Comedy - plus seven British Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Screenplay, Cinematography, Costumes and Music.
If it does take top spot, it will be only the second silent film to do so - the other being "Wings," at the very first Oscar ceremony in 1929.
As with "The Artist," I'm calling mostly front-runners this year, including Viola Davis for Best Actress in "The Help;" after all, I opened my review of that film by insisting she'd win - though I was dumb enough to suggest they'd put her up for Supporting Actress.
On the contrary, "Help" co-star Octavia Spencer will win that award this year; if I'm right, it would be the first time two black people have won acting honors in the same film.
Best Actor is tougher to call. "The Artist" 's Jean Dujardin has nailed several prizes - but the Academy will likely go with George Clooney in "The Descendants."
Meanwhile, what a pleasure it is to see Gary Oldman among this year's nominees, tapped for the little-seen "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" - available on DVD March 20.
Best Supporting Actor will surely go to Christopher Plummer as an aging father who comes out of the closet in "Beginners."
Yes, the Academy likes to play up gay themes ("Milk," "Brokeback Mountain") - but even more significant is the beloved actor's career, going back to 1953 and spanning nearly 200 credits in film, TV and video games.
I haven't seen "Beginners;" but I can't believe anyone did better supporting work than Max Von Sydow in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." Also nominated this year, Von Sydow, like Plummer, is 82 and has never won - despite a storied career including 13 films for Ingmar Bergman.
Various Oscar-nom snubs were cited this time around, perhaps most notably Shailene Woodley as George Clooney's older daughter in "The Descendants."
For me, however, this year's worst omission was the dazzling screenplay Steve Zaillian adapted from Stieg Larsson's sprawling and intricate best-seller "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
But Zaillian shouldn't feel left out; he's likely to win in this slot for the "Moneyball" script he penned with Aaron Sorkin.
Best Original Screenplay will go to Woody Allen for the critically praised "Midnight in Paris," which is also the biggest commercial hit of Allen's long career. In all, he's been Oscar-nominated 23 times - including a record 15 nods for writing.
Which leaves Best Director.
Current front-runner is Michael Hazanavicius for "The Artist;" but my gut is telling me Terrence Malick will win for "Tree of Life."
Most Oscar shows feature at least one upset - like director Tom Hooper for "King's Speech" last year. Malick has made only five films in a career of nearly four decades and I suspect he'll be the surprise this year.
Meanwhile, won't it be great to have Billy Crystal back as host - and interesting to see if the show's overseer (film producer Brian Grazer) can fulfill his goal of keeping the broadcast to a reasonable length.
That would be an even bigger surprise.
'The Artist' is a masterpiece
By JOSEPH W. SMITH III
Currently poised to win the Oscar for Best Picture, "The Artist" has received rave reviews from nearly every critic - and I will tell you why.
It's because we love movies.
Old-fashioned movies. Black-and-white movies. Silent movies. Foreign movies.
"The Artist" is all of these - and more; in fact, it's a masterpiece.
Set in the years 1927 to 1932, the film concerns an aging silent star named George Valentin.
As the sound era begins, Valentin befriends up-and-coming actress Peppy Miller; convinced that sound is a fluke, and unwilling to speak aloud onscreen, the charming Valentin watches Miller's talkie career take off while his own collapses.
Ironically, the script sides with Valentin - insisting that if a film is well made, it doesn't need dialog or sound; and "The Artist" then proves this assertion with a silent film of breath-taking cleverness, beauty and craftsmanship.
The luscious score by Ludovic Bource recalls what Variety once said about screen composer Bernard Herrmann - that his work "would make blank film compelling."
Except that Bource isn't working against blank film.
On the contrary, "The Artist's" black-and-white photography is heart-breakingly gorgeous - reminding us that silver, gray, cream and charcoal really are colors in themselves; it's not hard to believe Time magazine's revelation that the film was actually shot in color and then "monochromed" in a lab.
Jean Dujardin is magnificent as Valentin; his matinee-idol good looks and Gene Kelly smile make it a cinch to see him as a silent superstar - and the man can dance like Kelly too!
Dujardin is easily matched by relative newcomer Berenice Bejo as Miller. Both are adept at the larger-than-life acting that characterized the silents and early sound films.
The one-two punch of these performances and Bource's music sometimes makes dialog seem not merely unnecessary but downright detrimental.
Take the scene when Miller tells reporters that silent-film acting was too extravagant and overdone. In this very sequence, both she and Dujardin are demonstrating - without the aid of dialog - that this style of acting still works beautifully 80 years later.
This sort of self-referential cleverness is the film's triumph - like the early scene from one of Valentin's movies, when he's being tortured but refuses to "speak;" when his wife complains that they never talk; and when he laments that his ever-present dog (an onscreen companion as well) can't do so either.
The storyline is rife with melodrama, grand gestures and blissful moments that are all strictly visual; I especially enjoyed the brief dance when George and Peppy first meet, and the touching scene in which she tries on his coat.
Best of all is the mild surprise ending, which is so understated that I'll warn you in advance: When the dance number ends, pay attention to the line, "With pleasure"; it'll make you want to watch the movie again.
I'm a hopeless fan of old movies and "The Artist" induced in me a burst of nostalgia that was all but irresistible - something that probably happened to most film-lovers who gushed about this movie.
If you relish old-fashioned cinema, "The Artist" is for you; if not, this is a good place to start.