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If you've been wondering why film cognoscenti spent the last two weeks worrying about the Toronto International Film Festival, consider this stat: 7 of the last 15 audience award winners at Toronto have gone on to receive Best Picture nominations, with three films ('American Beauty,' 'Slumdog Millionaire' and 'The King's Speech') taking home the trophy. Which is to say that making a statement at TIFF is certainly a key opening salvo to a successful awards season run. Unfortunately for 'The Artist' -- which has been gathering Best Picture nominee buzz since debuting at the Cannes Film Festival this spring -- the 2011 TIFF audience award went to the Lebanese film 'Where Do We Go Now.' That means the Michel Hazanavicius-directed film will have to go into the hectic coming months with yet another handicap in addition to its silence. That's right: your Best Picture winner this February might be a silent movie. In black and white. Get to know 'The Artist' ahead with three key reasons why the film is still a frontrunner, Toronto be damned.

It's about Hollywood
The Oscars love celebrating Hollywood's Golden Era -- something Hugh Jackman really played up when he hosted three years ago -- and 'The Artist' gives the AMPAS a chance to honor its own long history. The film, which takes place in 1927 at the advent of talkies, is basically another riff on 'A Star is Born': a silent film star (Best Actor contender Jean Dujardin, who took home that trophy at Cannes) refuses to aclimate to the new medium of film, all while falling for a young dancer/actress who will excel in said medium. That the film is without words -- for the most part -- makes it a tough-sell to general audiences, but the charming trailer goes a long to presenting how it will all come together.



There's Oscar history in that plot as well: the 1937 and 1954 versions of 'A Star is Born' received numerous Academy Award nominations, while the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson was no slouch either. 'The Artist' isn't a remake or anything, but the basic story has been proven as Oscar cat-nip before. Why not again?

There are no other frontrunners
Last year at this time, 'The King's Speech' had just torn through Toronto, while 'The Social Network' was reaching Defcon-1 levels in the lead-up to its Oct. 1 release. This year? 'Moneyball' and 'The Descendants' were well-liked to borderline-loved by the festival crowds in Toronto and, in the case of 'The Descendants,' Telluride, but neither feel like wire-to-wire favorites. The buzz on 'The Ides of March' hasn't ratcheted up just yet. No one has seen 'J. Edgar,' 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' or 'War Horse,' while 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' is just starting to screen. 'The Help' is beloved -- and a box office hit -- but also controversial. 'The Tree of Life' might be too esoteric. 'Midnight in Paris' might be too slight. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. With a field this wide-open -- and with TIFF not focusing the conversation -- 'The Artist' has a chance to capitalize on the open slot at the top of the conversation, something its U.S. distribution studio can certainly take advantage of...

Harvey Weinstein
Who's to say Harvey Weinstein can't pull off one of his patented Oscar campaigns to make 'The Artist' the film that all voters can agree on? He's done it before in weak fields -- 'Shakespeare in Love' and 'The King's Speech' -- and there's really no reason he couldn't do it all over again here. Keep in mind: 'The Artist' tells an old-fashioned story -- one that will speak to the Academy's mythic AARP voting block -- but it comes from Hazanavicius, a French director known for 'OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.' The Austin Powers-y spy parody was all the rage for the cool kids in the summer of 2006 (Dujardin also starred in 'OSS 117'), giving 'The Artist' ties to both new and old Hollywood. Provided Harvey plays his cards right -- and as history has shown, he probably will -- 'The Artist' could get support from all factions of the Academy; if that happens, it'll be hard to beat -- silence or not.

Photo: The Weinstein Company