Heading into Sunday’s Oscar telecast, one category considered a lock is Best Picture. Seven pictures might compete but only one (The Artist) continues to generate serious buzz. That’s a real shame, because the best film I saw this year, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, received a nomination but seems unlikely to score anything beyond technical awards. And while mainstream audiences will find Hugo more accessible than The Artist, they have yet to realize it.
Perhaps we can forgive Academy voters for feeling there’s no reason to pay much attention to Hugo – aside from the double-fistful of nominations the film received. They’ve already handed Scorsese his lifetime achievement award via the Best Director honor he won for The Departed. So any recognition for Hugo comes as mere gravy for a director already lauded as a master. This thinking, however, refuses to judge Hugo on its own merits.
Based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick and set in Paris in 1931, Hugo starts with tragedy: the title character (Asa Butterfield) orphaned when his master clockmaker father dies in a museum fire.
This leaves Hugo to live within the walls and secret passages of the railway station Gare Montparnasse, setting the many clocks and stealing what parts he can to finish building an automaton he and his father began restoring.
Hugo begins as a Dickensian orphan but later emerges as a talented mechanical genius who shares his father’s love for the machines they build together. George Méliès (Ben Kingsley) starts out as a potential villain for Hugo, but develops into a man who lives his life hiding his past as a filmmaker. Hugo discovers a love of film and imparts it to Méliès’ granddaughter Isabelle; the two then show her father how much of an impact his early creations had.
In the relationship between Hugo and Méliès the film shines brighter than any of the others I’ve seen this year. Méliès first sees Hugo as nothing more than a thief, but by the time the credits roll the two develop a deep bond.