Every once in awhile cinema has a stellar year: 1939, 1940, 1941, 1950, 1957, 1962, 1967, 1976, and 1994 spring to mind. I now feel confident that we can add 2011 to that esteemed list, primarily because of such films as The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Midnight in Paris, A Separation, In Darkness, and today’s entry: Hugo. Granted, some are better than others, but taken as a whole they serve to make 2011 one of the best years for film in almost two decades. It is my opinion that director Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is the standout production from this illustrious year.
Based on Brian Selznick’s 2007 novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo is about an orphaned Parisian boy (Asa Butterfield) who keeps the Paris Gare Montparnasse Railway Station’s clocks moving. Apprenticed to his drunk, absentee uncle (Ray Winstone), Hugo is an extremely lonely boy whose only friend appears to be a broken automaton (think Metropolis) that he and his father (Jude Law) were attempting to fix before Mr. Cabret was killed in a fire. To attain parts to the automaton, Hugo steals them from the railway station’s toymaker, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who begrudgingly befriends the boy after witnessing his mechanical acumen. Hugo also become friends with Méliès goddaughter and ward, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), who happens to possess the key (quite literally) to fixing the automaton. Once fixed, the automaton draws the now iconic symbol of the spaceship in the eye of the moon from A Trip to the Moon (1902). The children set off to discover what the drawing means, and this adventure leads them to discover that the toymaker was once one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers. There’s much more to the story, but I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet.
Scorsese, along with acclaimed cinematographer Robert Richardson (who won an Oscar for this film), shot Hugo is 3-D. My words can not do justice to the sheer beauty of what they put up on the screen. Without a doubt this is Scorsese’s visual masterpiece, it is a shame that he didn’t win a Best Director Oscar, but obviously the Academy was in love with The Artist in 2011. From the shots of the interworking of the clocks to the spectacular railway shots, everything seems so much crisper and fluid than what I’ve seen in other 3-D films. Hugo deservedly won five Academy Awards for its visual and audio mastery: cinematography, art direction, visual effects, sound editing, and sound mixing. The only technical award that it didn’t win was for film editing, which went to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I haven’t seen this yet, so I can’t make a judgment on which deserved the Oscar more).
But this movie isn’t just visually stunning, it also has an engaging and endearing story. Watching all of the plot elements come together at the end was perhaps a bit oversentimental, but still highly enjoyable. For a film filled with so many emotionally (and in one case, physically) broken people Hugo never becomes overburdened by melancholy. I was especially pleased with the care Scorsese and Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan took in developing Méliès’s backstory. Yes, they took a few historical licenses in this depiction, but for the most part they were fairly accurate. Few directors have as much reverence for the history of film as Scorsese. By inserting clips of the most important films prior to 1931 (when this story takes place) Scorsese showcases the grandeur of early cinema. On a side note, I must thank The 1001 Book for my ability to recognize just about every film referenced in Hugo.
In addition to outstanding visuals and a moving story, Hugo is also loaded with a number of standout performances. Both Butterfield and Moretz show great range for such young actors. Butterfield, in particular, has what is known as screen presence (of course, that could have been an added advantage to being shot in 3-D). Not surprisingly, Kingsley is mesmerizing as Méliès. If you’ve seen any old photos of the famed director then you know the make-up department did a fantastic job transforming Kingsley into Méliès. The most surprising performance came from Sacha Baron Cohen as Inspector Gustave. Who knew that the man who created such idiotic caricatures as Borat, Ali G, Bruno, and General Aladeen, could play a complete buffoon with so much restraint? I have to admit I was completely shocked by how nice of a job he did with this role.
I could go on and on about how much I liked Hugo, but I expect you are tired of reading (if you’ve made it this far), so I’ll end by saying that it is one of the best films I’ve seen in the last ten years. It is truly a monumental piece of cinematic vision.