Producing variations on a successful theme is a preferred Hollywood tactic; why fix it if it earns millions of dollars or clumps of awards or both? Studios zealously track each other's development slates and so it is no surprise that, in any given year, it looks like directors and producers share a hive mind. Their Borg-like tendencies gave us Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998 — both movies threatened apocalypse via meteors — and the lamentable Antz and A Bug's Life (not bad, but surely a lesser Pixar work), also in 1998. In 2006, we had magician movies The Illusionist and The Prestige. This year, audiences chose between two Snow Whites.
In most of these cases there is a clear winner in terms of box office and quality. But sometimes, like in 2011, we are lucky enough to get two films of equal quality with delightfully different takes on their rather similar themes. Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist is a charming depiction of the silent film era that captures the fall and rise of its biggest star, played by Jean Dujardin in an Oscar-winning turn. The titular artist struggles to come to terms with a new-fangled technology (that he is determined is just a fad) — talking movies — and Dujardin manages, without words, to portray a charismatic, if stubborn, man who nearly loses everything. The real standout, however, is Berenice Bejo, who plays Peppy Miller, a starlet who becomes a star even as Dujardin's George Valentin's star falls with his refusal do talking movies. Miller falls in love with Valentin and remains a source of support even when he doesn't want it. Indeed, she is the reason he doesn't end up like Georges Méliès in Martin Scorcese's steampunk love letter to cinema, Hugo.
Scorcese's Méliès, based on the real-life movie pioneer, is a visionary and genius whose work, like Valentin's, is not so much unappreciated in its time as left behind by it. Bitter at how society and World War I treated him, Méliès retreats from the world, setting fire to his work and enveloping himself in a garb of disillusionment. He meets his Peppy much later in life, in the form of an orphaned boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in a clock tower at a train station and forces Méliès to remember his past career. This leads to a wonderful digression where we get to see almost the entirety of Méliès 1902 silent classic A Trip to the Moon.
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