'The Artist' sets early pace in kudos race

With 88 days to go before the 84th Academy Awards, the kudos season’s first responders unleashed a flurry of tiny insights Tuesday morning but no major surprises or clarity in a race with no apparent frontrunner and an enigmatic new Oscar voting system.

Yes, a silent, black-and-white film starring French actors really is a contender this year. Absolutely, Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in “Moneyball” should be taken seriously. And three pics — “Take Shelter,” “Beginners” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — put themselves on the map in the early goings.

In Los Angeles, Film Independent announced its Spirit Award nominations, with “The Artist” and “Take Shelter” leading at five apiece. Back East, the New York Film Critics Circle was busy crowning “The Artist” best feature and picking Pitt and Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady”) for acting honors.

The bicoastal barrage brought a boost to Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” (Spirit noms for feature and supporting actress Shailene Woodley, though George Clooney was excluded) and Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which earned first feature, director and lead actress Spirit noms, plus the NYFCC’s first-feature honor.

Focus Features’ “Beginners” also moved forward with a Spirit nom added to the Gotham Award it won late Monday.

Fox Searchlight’s “The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick’s divisive film that shared the Gotham Award with “Beginners,” exceeded the Spirit Awards’ $20 million qualifying limit but was honored by the Gotham critics for cinematography (and shared a piece of acting citations for Pitt and Jessica Chastain).

But nothing made a stronger statement than “The Artist,” the silent film that’s earned $204,878 since its release in four theaters Friday. Its pack-leading five Spirit noms and best feature honor from the NYFCC — not to mention director honors in both cases for Michel Hazanavicius and an actor nomination for Jean Dujardin — put the film squarely in the hunt. Org’s top pick has gone on to receive a best picture Oscar nomination 13 times in the last 20 years.

“The Artist” was purchased at the beginning of the Cannes Film Festival by the Weinstein Co., which is mounting one of its trademark campaigns. Last week at an Academy screening, Harvey Weinstein brought along Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughters in an ode to Hollywood’s silent-film era.

Oscar glory for “The Artist” would be a crowning achievement even for ol’ Harvey himself: The last time a silent film was nominated for best picture was 1929 (“The Patriot”) — and it’s been nearly 20 years since a black-and-white film has been nommed (“Schindler’s List”).

Omissions among the day’s honorees include Paramount’s “Like Crazy,” a largely improvised film from Drake Doremus that had been getting good buzz but came up empty; Oscilloscope’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which is receiving a significant awards push for Tilda Swinton; and Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” which earned only a Spirit nom for supporting actor Corey Stoll and nothing from the NYFCC.

The high-profile films that went empty-handed on Tuesday included “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” even though Sony had arranged a special, first-look screening for the NYFCC.

However, these awards are the equivalent of early election primaries. There are still many more awards votes to come — the National Board of Review will weigh in Thursday — and these awards are not exactly surefire bellwethers. Last year, “Black Swan” won the Spirit and “The Social Network” took the New York crix nod, while “The King’s Speech” landed in the Oscar winner’s circle.

(Stuart Oldham, Dave McNary and Gordon Cox contributed to this story.)

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