Best Picture 2011: One to cross off your list

Okay, so I haven’t reviewed a movie in a while. There are extenuating circumstances for that (read: life) but after seeing the ‘Best Picture’ list from that abhorrent, ugly, selfish little man we call ‘Oscar’, I feel the need to draw on some Rage, draw on a rich tradition of Commentary and throw two incredulous and very snarky cents into the pot and then I PROMISE I won’t say anything else about those silly awards because they’re not going to change and I’m not going to change it.

You know how on standardized tests, they always tell you to start by eliminating the obviously wrong answers and then move on to selecting the correct one? Well I’m going to go ahead and help y’all out on this one:

– The Artist
– Moneyball
– The Descendants
– Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
– The Tree of Life
– War Horse
– Midnight in Paris
– The Help

That’s right, you just don’t need to worry about this one. Far be it from me to judge one of Hollywood’s old souls, but dammit, this movie just wasn’t very good and I still cannot understand why everybody thought this movie was anything more than a big bowl of sugar-free marshmallow fluff. Okay, well maybe I have a few theories.


So, first to defend my proposition that this film is not good against its overwhelming 94% on RT. Well friends, it’s not bad, it’s just not good, what my good man Sam W. might call a ‘meh’. Typically a ‘meh’ needs no further comment, but when it shows up on the Best Picture list, it turns into a shrill ‘WTF.’

Knowing nothing about the film going in, I feel that I am in a good position to judge fairly. There’s a tendency today to ascribe someone’s dislike of a motion picture to some internal trait of the film’s genre or themes that will automatically turn certain people off. I disagree. Sometimes films are just bad even when you want to like them. I’m no erudite. I don’t really like cold, bleak films about pain and desolation above chunky Hollywood fare. I actually nurse a soft spot for heartwarmth, liberal use of special effects and movies geared toward or starring kids. I liked Spider Man 3. You give up ‘erudite’ status when you vocally defend Spider Man 3. There was nothing about Hugo that would not appeal to me. It simply did not appeal to me.

The film is adapted from a Caldicott-winning book called “The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It’s about a little orphan boy who works tirelessly to keep the clocks of the Parisian train station he calls home, working. He also tries to unravel the mystery of a strange mechanical man that his father found. The mystery leads him to restore the fortunes of famous silent film auteur George Méliès.

This is, by purely objective standards, a mediocre movie. The story is sort of interesting, but there’s a lot of setup and very little payoff. The robo-guy is a very cool image and it’s enough to arouse intrigue and suspense for the first half of the movie, but its purpose doesn’t really fit with the grand importance the camera gives it. It basically just draws a picture and that’s it. The picture is a clue to something else which is a clue to something else which leads to a book which leads to a chance encounter with the author of that book which leads to…anyway, its perceived importance far outweighs its actual importance, which makes the whole robot man conceit kind of a dud. Oh and yes, I realize that it’s a metaphor for the kid, but it’s a kind of big, blunt-ended metaphor that ends with a dream sequence of the kid turning into the robot. By this point the thematic undertones float to the surface and become in-plot allegories and lose their charm entirely.

The Méliès stuff is sort of cool, but it’s hard to explain why an orphan boy would really be so invested in saving the emotional health of a former silent-film entrepreneur, or why the entire back-story of Melies isn’t even explained until halfway through the film. While the best parts of Hugo are the ingenious recreations of classic Méliès films, seamlessly intercut with actual footage from these films, a montage in itself is not enough to make a good movie. It’s a fun, animated history lesson, but one that’s done in the middle of the film, shoehorned into an otherwise fantastical plot. Also, it made little sense to have a flush, richly color corrected set of golden age Parisian architecture brimming with baguettes and flowers be the backdrop for the ‘industrial age’ that Méliès bemoans.

The characters are sort of charming, but there’s also a lot of dead air and a very fluid emotional current that is hard to grab onto, unless multiple shots of a staring, blank-faced orphan boy is all you need to care.

Also, La La brought something to my attention when she leaned over to me in the theater and said “There’s a lot of running in this movie.” She has a sixth sense for pointing out the obvious things in films that I always miss and unnecessary running is one of them. Hugo is full of it. Any time the script cannot deliver any tension, it’s right back to “Quick! Run from that guy! He’s going to, like, catch us…because we’re kids, I guess!” Mindless thrills put my wife to sleep and its become a good litmus test for whether or not a film has content or just motion.

Anyway, why would such a clearly bland film be received so well and be nominated to receive the highest award in filmmaking? Well, it looks like I’m going to need to add a category onto the ol’ Oscar-Nom-O-Matic. To explain: Oscars nominated for Best Picture tend to fall into a few categories:

1. Historical epics

2. Biopics

3. Bleak, emotionally devastating character pieces

4. Films that focus on a recent event or social issue

aaaaaand now:

5. Self referential movies about movies

Yes folks, the inclusion of The Artist (which I’m sure is a great film) and the big ‘meh’ bomb that is Hugo requires a new Auto-Oscar category: the movie about movies. Both the Artist and Hugo pay homage to the birth of cinema. While I’ve heard the Artist is a really good movie that pays homage to the birth of cinema, I’m sad to report that Hugo is a weak movie that pays homage to the birth of cinema. It’s because the Academy, who took film history, liked having an inside understanding of the film’s subject matter. The homage to Méliès is also out of character for Scorcese, whose own resume is entirely bereft of the magician’s wonder that Melies spun. It wasn’t exactly a real Melies moment when Pesci is cracking a guy’s skull in a vice grip in Casino.

The hypocrisy is clear: far be it from the Academy to nominate films that capture the imaginations of little boys and girls today, but they will nominate a long chase sequence with bad acting because it points to a historical figure that captured the hearts of little girls and boys then. Meanwhile, the rest of us just want to know why the hell Wall-E wasn’t nominated (or Ratatouille or The Incredibles or Up or Finding Nemo or Toy Story 3 for that matter). I’m going to call out the academy on this one. There’s a reason why George Méliès was overlooked, because the established academies of his day had no time for puppet dragons and flights of fancy. They were interested in ‘serious’ art. Today, the powers that be are no different. Maybe when Pixar is a hundred years old someone will pay homage to the overlooked genius of John Lassetter and we’ll all pay academic interest and get warm fuzzies for ‘the good old days’. Until then, we get Hugo, a soulless automaton that conjures up the perceived ‘brilliance’ of the past while ignoring its spirit in the present. Come on, Academy. Be true visionaries and recognize great art now instead of waiting a century to pay homage to it and lauding mediocre efforts in the meantime.


About alexwilgus

Twentysomething from Texas. Living in Chicago. Working for a living. Writing for life.
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2 Responses to Best Picture 2011: One to cross off your list

  1. Personally, I enjoyed Hugo. I’m not as efficient in analyzing my thoughts as you are, so I can’t really provide as convincing of an argument for the movie as you did against it, but mostly I was just in awe of the production value. I’d award it Art Direction and possibly Costumes in a second, but you raise a very good case for the weakness of the story. It was an unfocussed yarn, but a well-produced one, to say the least.
    P.S: The Jachine may find it “pretentious,” but I promise you, “The Artist” is magnificent.
    P.P.S: I thought I was the only one alive who actively defended Spider-Man 3.

    • Sam Wieland says:

      “The Artist” is good if you’re the film school student who’s trying to impress their professor by making a silent movie. “I’ve made a silent film in a generation filled with Talkies! I’ve even set it during a time when Talkies weren’t being made yet.” ….. it infuriates me.

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