There’s a key audio gag at the very end of this “silent” homage to silent movies. The gag is not only a delightful surprise: it also with just two words answers a question that’s been nagging us throughout: exactly why did the star fail to make the transition to talkies? It’s a joke that advances the plot, even as it comes mere moments before the end titles. That kind of grace note defines The Artist’s elegance, its wit and its sweetness. Norma Desmond’s famous line, “We had faces then…”, is here updated, because the two leads, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, most surely have faces now — and the ability to slightly emphasize in period style to make up for lack of dialogue — but not so much as to turn it into parody. “Even” on a screen reduced to the frame size of its inspiration, you will fall once again in love with black-and-white cinematography; its virtual absence from moviemaking is like the destruction of an art form. With a budget of just $12 million, “The Artist” looks amazing, a fictional time capsule, including impressive crowd shots and recreations of 1930-era Los Angeles that look like newsreel footage filtered through an artist’s eye and with lapidary technical work. Plus, much of the reason the movie is so effective comes from the use of music throughout, perhaps the finest original score of the year (and not the kind of movie music you’re used to hearing.) Double-Plus: a great dog performance! — Jeff Schultz

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