No, not because of some sociohistorical/psychological significance that various pundits have ascribed to the Hazanavicius' movie and its effect on members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That's not only total b.s., but a blatant misreading of both the (brilliant) film itself and of the Hollywood period it represents. Not to mention the fact that The Artist isn't even an American production, but a French (or Franco-Belgian) effort that was a hit in Cannes long before it arrived at these shores.
The Artist is the top contender for the Best Picture Academy Award because, its SAG Award defeat notwithstanding, it's a feel-good (feel-great, some might say) movie, it's technically impeccable, and it's an upbeat portrayal of moviemaking and moviemakers. Ah, and it's a Harvey Weinstein release in North America. That always helps. (Suffice to remember The King's Speech and Shakespeare in Love.)
Additionally, The Artist has already won both the Producers Guild and the Directors Guild awards. Since the PGA Awards were instituted in 1990 (the DGA Awards have been around since the late '40s), only three DGA/PGA winners have failed to win the Best Picture Oscar: Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995), Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. The Best Picture Oscar winners in those years were, respectively, Mel Gibson's Braveheart, John Madden's Shakespeare in Love (a Miramax/Harvey Weinstein release), and Paul Haggis' Crash.
Wrapping this up: Director-writer Hazanavicius has been adroitly selling his movie, emphasizing that The Artist is a heartfelt homage to American cinema. In other words, Hazanavicius and producer Thomas Langmann may be French outsiders, but their movie isn't. To the contrary, their offering is the only 2012 Best Picture nominee fully shot in the Los Angeles area. In no small amount due to Harvey Weinstein's ardent, huh, prayers, we believe the Hollywood film industry gods will smile upon Hazanavicius' offering.
Jean Dujardin, Uggie the dog/The Artist pic: The Weinstein Company.
In early 1996, the Best Picture win of Mel Gibson's Braveheart wasn't a surprise, as the Producers Guild/Directors Guild award winner Apollo 13 had failed to be shortlisted in the Academy Awards' Best Director category. In fact, Ron Howard's DGA win – much like Steven Spielberg's for The Color Purple a decade earlier – could be seen as a message to the Academy: highly commercial, crowd-pleasing filmmakers are people, too.
On the other hand, considering that both Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee were Best Director Oscar winners for, respectively, Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), the Shakespeare in Love and Crash Best Picture victories turned out to be major upsets.
This year, the two movies that could theoretically lead to such an upset are Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Alexander Payne's The Descendants. Hugo would be banking chiefly on Scorsese's prestige, as the film hasn't been all that lucky with the guilds this awards season, and, relative to its cost (as high as $170 million), it has been a major box office disappointment. The Descendants, for its part, has already won a Writers Guild Award (Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist screenplay was ineligible) and was a surprise winner of the ACE Eddie Award for Best Edited Motion Picture - Drama. (The Artist won in the comedy/musical category.)
An unheard-of upset would be Tate Taylor's socially conscious SAG Award winner The Help winning Best Picture. No movie has won the Best Picture Oscar without a matching Best Director, Best Film Editing, and/or Best Screenplay (Original or Adapted) nomination since Edmund Goulding's Grand Hotel for the period 1931-32. Now, it should be noted that whereas eight movies were up for the Best Picture Academy Award that year, only three directors were nominated, and only seven movies were shortlisted in the writing categories. No movie was nominated for Best Film Editing, as that category was instituted only in 1934. (We should also add that voting procedures were quite different back then as well.)
Besides Grand Hotel, only two other movies have won the Best Picture Academy Award without a matching Best Director nomination: William A. Wellman's Wings in the awards' first year, 1927-28, and Bruce Beresford's Driving Miss Daisy for the year 1989. Beresford's socially conscious comedy-drama, however, also won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar and was nominated for Best Film Editing.
An ensemble piece with a Message, The Help is clearly well-liked among actors: in addition to its Best Cast SAG Award victory, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain were all nominated for Oscars. Yet, the film doesn't seem to have that many enthusiastic fans in the Academy's other branches, as it wasn't nominated in any other non-acting category apart from Best Picture. In fact, considering its blatant lack of support elsewhere, here's wondering if The Help would have made the Best Picture cut had the Academy kept its pre-2009 five-film limit.
The Artist, Hugo, The Descendants, and The Help's Best Picture competitors are Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, Steven Spielberg's War Horse, Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, and Bennett Miller's Moneyball.
Asa Butterfield/Jude Law/Hugo photo: Jaap Buitendijk / GK Films