tongue-tied lightning

The Best Films of 2011: #12 Hugo

I haven’t been overly fond of Scorsese’s output over the last decade or so, building to a head with last year’s Shutter Island placing second on my worst films list. Add that to a mess of a trailer that made Hugo look like an over the top Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle and I very nearly passed up seeing it in the theater. Then Von Samuel, notorious hater of children, told me it was rather exceptional and I needed to see it, so I gave it a shot. Color me surprised to find it Scorsese’s best outing since 1993’s The Age of Innocence and one of the most enchanting films of the year.I’ve heard the first hour of the film derided as boring and aimless, but I enjoy the way Scorsese slowly lowers us into the Parisian milieu. Ingratiating us with the day to day going-ons in the train station Hugo calls home with an almost Tatiesque sense of awareness. For a film so overtly about cinephilia I think this is a key point, as Hugo is observing these people unawares drawing on the subtle humor and eliciting tenuous plot strands, editing their lives and characters into brief arcs and recognizable traits. This runs parallel to his attempts at restoring his father’s automaton, a further manifestation of the impulse to play god and create life that inspires much artistic creation, certainly in the realm of cinema.

For a film that seems at a surface level very un-Scorsese it’s hard to think of another director that would make a 130-minute children’s movie about the importance of film preservation. Another charge I’ve heard leveled at Hugo is that it becomes rather didactic near the end, this was also said about the environmental themes in Miyazaki’s Ponyo a few years back and in both cases I feel it’s defensible because the target audiences are children. More importantly, both films remain entertaining and even moving at times. Scorsese’s trademark camera work is also noticeably present. The tracking shots maneuvering through the crowded train station and the clockworks Hugo maintains make 3D for once feel integral to the experience of a film. The technology also serves to put a damper on the rapid fire editing that has plagued some of his more recent outings.

It would be a mistake to forget the actors among the technology and the firm directorial signature Hugo possesses. It’s a brilliantly cast film. Asa Butterfield is admirable enough playing in the role of the cipher, but Chloe Grace Moretz is positively magnetic, stealing every scene she’s in even when she’s acting alongside veterans like Christopher Lee. It’s a sign of Scorsese’s clout that he’s able to get people like Emily Mortimer and Ray Winstone to fill out what are essentially glorified cameos but it really helps in cultivating the film’s celluloid-tinged view of Paris. Not to mention Ben Kingsley, without whom it’s hard to imagine the film carrying the weight it does. All these pieces (and many I’ve failed to mention) go a long way towards creating the fully realized environment that is such a joy to inhabit for two hours and change, in a moving tribute to the art of cinema.


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