If you see no other film this year, see Hugo, Martin Scorsese's homage to the transcendent magic of silent film. Hugo was adapted from Brian Selznick's children's book, The Invention of Hugo Cabaret, and is about a wily, sensitive orphan living inside a Paris train station at the turn of the 20th century whose exchanges with a toy store owner become life transforming.
Hugo is based on an actual filmmaker, Georges Méliès, who was best known for the special effects of his silent films that combined magic and theater at the turn of the 20th century. Méliès became fascinated with the medium after seeing a demonstration by the Lumière Brothers in 1895. Subsequently, he ran his own studio and made hundreds of films, the most famous of which, A Trip to the Moon (1907), is referenced several times in Scorsese's tribute.
Silent film buffs will relish not only the actual snippets of great silent movies, featuring Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton among others, but the many references to famous silent movie moments in imagery in the actual story, and the use of classic techniques, such as slapstick. But, like the machinery discussed with so much fascination in Hugo, everything is finely tuned here, with no extravagance or excess. Hugo is a major work of art about a medium and the magic it captured.
Hugo is in 3D, which only helps to place you in the story (as opposed to freak you out, which sometimes seems the point of 3D), and features 14-year old Asa Butterfield; Cloe Moretz, who looks in the film like a very young Ingrid Bergman; Emily Mortimer; Sir Ben Kingsley as Méliès himself; Jude Law; and a standout performance by Sacha Baron Cohen, the wildly funny and often brilliantly wacky English comedic actor (of Barat fame), who lends quiet ferocity and tenderness to his role of a Clouseau-like inspector with a squeaky metal leg and a rusty heart of gold. Cohen looks a bit like Freddie Mercury, and, as it turns out, is scheduled to play the rock artist in an upcoming film about QUEEN. Supposedly, Executive Producer Johnny Depp -- whose greatest film portrayal in my view, Edward Scissorhands, echoes the human beauty of the artistic automaton in Hugo -- plays the part of a painter who helps the children out on their adventure in the film. But if so, I missed him. Darn!
As a friend and I discussed after Hugo, there are so many occasions where a scene might have gone wrong, resorting to modern tricks or dirty innuendos, but Scorsese's tribute never fails to please and never steps down from its perch of high artistry. There is, for example, the moment when two characters who are attracted to one another introduce their dogs to one another in a cafe, a moment when, being well versed in American modern cinema, one might wince imagining what tackiness might ensue for a laugh. But the scene is played gracefully. There is the moment at the end of the film when, during a close up of the automaton, with its curiously human and moon-like visage, you half expect to see it wink at the audience for a final special effect. Thankfully, this doesn't happen either, for Hugo is a film of classical nuances not cheap tricks; it's about film's hopeful beginnings and its potential, not its tacky reprises.
Let me say one more thing about ambience. It's what silent film focussed on and what has been all but forgotten in modern movies, where pyrotechnics and visual spectacle are all the big deal. Ambience, many filmmakers forget, is what places one in the heart of a story, and makes the experience of it, real and lasting. Hugo has it in spades. You will feel a part of the Parisian milieu at the turn of the century; you will feel like Hugo himself, lost in the conundrum of a clock, in the machinery of time, in movies themselves.
Cheers to Scorsese and all who had anything to do with Hugo. I smell multiple Oscars!