Looking back on the past year in movies, I was truly happy to see so many ambitious projects that were produced. From "The Beaver" with Mel Gibson to Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," 2011 included many movies that were willing to take chances even though the filmmakers probably knew the final product wouldn't make much money.

In the assortment of tough sells, "The Artist" may very well take the cake. Not only is "The Artist" a silent picture, it is shot entirely in black and white, and isn't even in widescreen.

I can imagine many audiences avoiding this film at all cost. That's a royal shame because they will be missing out on one of the most magical experiences they'll ever have at the movies.

French actor and comedian, Jean Dujardin, portrays George Valentin, a fictional silent movie actor who is among the most beloved stars in the world.

Much like Don Lockwood in "Singin' in the Rain," Valentin's livelihood is soon put in jeopardy when the movies begin to make the transition to talkies.

As Valentin's career declines, a new star named Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo, ascends into fame. Miller owes her career to Valentin, who initially gave her a bit part in one of his films.

Although Valentin greatly resents Miller now that she's on top, he still can't help but admire her and perhaps even care for her romantically.

Only two individuals stand by Valentin in his time of need. John Cromwell gives a subtle performance as Clifton, the former star's manservant who lives to serve. Then there's Valentin's loyal terrier, played by a dog named Uggy.

Along with Snowy from "The Adventures of Tintin," Uggy is another winning canine screen presence. I'd even go as far to compare Uggy to Lassie, as he stands by his master and helps to keep him going.

There's not a doubt in my head that this year's Best Actor Oscar belongs to Dujardin, who naturally looks like a silent movie star with a slick mustache and pearly grin.

In a performance that's completely reliant on facial expressions and body language, the physically gifted Dujardin impeccably succeeds in taking the audience on an emotional journey.

Dujardin provides many moments of humor in the film's first act, such as a Charlie Chaplin-like scene when he attempts to cheer up his distant wife at a dinner table. As his character arc unfolds, however, one can't help but feel nothing less than pity for the struggling artist.

Dujardin embodies all of the regret of a man who had everything and lost it all, such as when he observes a classy tuxedo in a store window.

One of the numerous aspects I love about "The Artist" is the film's ability to conjure contrasting feelings within the same scene. There is a particular chilling moment that leads up to a fire that may claim the life of a major character.

In this instance, I felt my heart sinking with suspense and panic. Against all odds, however, this tragic scene manages to end with one of the funniest and most clever twists of recent memory.

Director Michael Hazanavicius has made a masterful tribute to the silent movie era.

Every aspect of his film is genuine, most notably the profound cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman and the musical score by Ludovic Bource, which acts as a constant presence.

This could all easily come off as pretentious and gimmicky in the hands of lesser visionaries. "The Artist" manages to delight from start to finish, however, never evoking a false note.

Another standout of the movie is Hazanavicius' wonderful screenplay, which I can only hope won't be overlooked. Sure, the film may be heavier on actions and situations than dialog.

Yet, Hazanavicius' script embodies more raw emotion, wit, and charm than any movie this year. At the center is a rich protagonist who will either revive his fame while maintaining his artistic integrity or suffer the same tragic fate of other fallen screen legends.

It's also quite outstanding that in a wasteland of multi-million-dollar blockbusters the most climatic moment in any movie this year would come from a silent picture.

I don't want to give anything away, but let's just say you'll be at the edge of your seat by the final act of this movie. It's all topped off with a pitch-perfect ending of a perfect film.

• Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at nspake@asu.edu.

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