My Favorite Moments in the 2011 Best Picture nominees: Hugo

It’s so hard to pick just five of my favorite moments in our next Best Picture nominee. Every moment of this film felt so magical that I had to include it. Even the tiniest moments — a shot here, a line there — they were all so wonderful. But, I did my best, and managed to whittle my list down to just five. And I’ll tell you — the more I see this film, the more I see just how perfect it is, and just how much this should go down in history as one of the greatest love letters to cinema ever made.

Here are my favorite moments from Hugo:

5. The very first shot of the film.

I went into the theater knowing nothing about this film. I’d seen a trailer some months back, and knew it would be a grand adventure with the children, and on that alone, I was sold. And then, the film began, the image of the gears of a clock, rendered in wonderful 3D, gave way to a perfect graphic match of the Arc de Triomphe. And at that moment, my jaw dropped. Within sixty seconds, this film had already created a better 3D environment than anything I had ever seen. And then we get that wonderful (it’s two shots, but still, it feels continuous) tracking shot of Paris, flying over the houses and streets, and into the station, along the tracks, between the trains, past the people (through a wonderfully tricked cloud of smoke, allowing the image to switch from CG-rendering to the actual set), along the station floor, and up to a clock, where Hugo watches everything happen, and Howard Shore’s wonderful score gets going. Once that accordion kicked in, I got goosebumps. What a glorious image Martin Scorsese has treated us with.

4. The automaton’s drawing.

This is the moment the film reveals what it is truly about. What makes it so magical is that it has already hooked you. You really want to know what the automaton holds as its secret, and you want Hugo to find what he is looking for — and then we get this drawing. And what this drawing reveals to us over the remainder of the film is one of the most precious messages about cinema you’ll ever get. It is a wonderful moment. It’s one of those moments that makes you wonder just how a book could manage to be so perfectly tailored for a director. It’s a miracle. This film is a miracle.

3. A history of the movies.

What amazes me about this moment was thinking that he actually got away with it. As a student of film, all of the stuff told and shown in this sequence is nothing new. It’s Film 101. But the idea that, in a story for children, he actually got away with this, continues to amaze me. It’s just — you mean you can teach kids about the history of film, and they’ll want to watch it?! I love when a film does this. A good film. Inglourious Basterds did a lesser version of this, with the lesson on nitrate film prints. But it’s the same concept — people who see these films — they’re going to get a history lesson. And it’s amazing to me that can happen. Complete with curtain opening too. Scorsese literally stops the film (but not really! Which is even more amazing!) to give you a history lesson in American movies. And all the clips he shows, to a film student — it’s like being in on the reference. Like, “Oh man, The Great Train Robbery! Intolerance! Hell’s Hinges! The General! The Kid! Caligari!” Even stuff like the people exiting the factory and the kiss — those old Lumiere and Edison films. It was so wonderful to see all of these movies I saw in class (literally, all of them) shown as sort of a visual textbook. It was such a wonderful moment. Because to someone who knows all the stuff being shown, it allows you to enjoy it while also looking around at everyone else who doesn’t know, watching them be taught all of this stuff. It’s so wonderful. (Extra points for making the Michael Stuhlbarg character basically Scorsese. I love that.)

2. Méliès’s speech.

This scene is everything Martin Scorsese loves about movies. And it’s such a touching moment in the story as well. It’s just — perfect. The beginning, talking about how they managed to find and restore films thought to be lost or destroyed so people could see them, and then Méliès getting up on stage (a moment that, while not exactly the same, did actually happen in his life, making it all the more touching). The speech he gives is so perfect. It won’t even do justice talking about how great it is (also, Kingsley not being nominated for Supporting Actor for his performance is a real shame). Here is the speech. It is one of the reasons why I love movies. What this has to say about the plot, the man, and films themselves and what they mean to us, and it’s simplicity in doing so, makes this one of the greatest speeches I have ever seen delivered in a film:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am standing before you tonight because of one very brave young man, who saw a broken machine, and against all odds, he fixed it. It was the kindest magic trick that ever I’ve seen. And now, my friends, I address you all tonight as you truly are — wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, magicians. Come and dream with me.”

1. “If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around… this is where they’re made.”

This is the best moment of the film. The living recreation of Méliès studio and his films. It’s just so beautiful. This is what a film student dreams of, seeing things like this. And to see it recreated like this — it’s breathtaking. Having taken a class on silent cinema, I saw all of these Méliès films. It was great watching only the films, going, “Oh, that’s great, they put a fish tank in front of the lens to make it seem like it was underwater.” And now I got to see a recreation of the fish tank in front of the camera! And I got to see the behind the scenes of all of it. The fact that this even exists is a miracle. Sequences like this are why Scorsese will go down as one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. This film is a master class of cinema, and I feel so blessed to have been able to see it.

One response

  1. Frankie

    #4: The automaton’s drawing: At the end of the film, we find out that the automaton was built before Melies film career, then taken apart so he could build is first movie camera. So we are to believe that Melies foresaw the most memorable picture he was going to shoot, then programed the automaton to draw it?

    March 4, 2012 at 6:11 pm

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