A Wondrous, Heartfelt Masterpiece with No Extra Parts

I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine.
Machines never come with any extra parts, you know.
They always come with the exact amount they need.
So I figured if the entire world was one big machine,
I couldn’t be an extra part.
I had to be here for some reason.
And that means you have to be here
for some reason, too.


Hugo is the best film of 2011.

At its heart, Hugo is the story of an orphaned boy who lives in the railroad station in Paris.  He minds the extensive clockworks in the building after his uncle, who actually does the job, disappears.  The boy, Hugo Cabret, has in his possession one unique item: an automaton that his clockmaker father had once tried to restore.  More than anything, Hugo wants to put it back together and get it working again.

But there is more to this story.  And that’s where Hugo’s wonder takes it from children’s story to Best Picture of the Year.

It’s a heartwarming, old-fashioned story about finding love by giving love.  It’s about finding purpose in life by restoring purpose to another. It’s a breathtaking visual spectacle, full of delightful flights of imagination, large and small: a view of Paris from a railroad clock tower, drawings that come alive, an adorable little clockwork mouse.

Hugo is also clearly a personal film, a film about making films that addresses director Martin Scorsese’s obsession with the history of cinema and echoes psychological themes found throughout his work, but without the gangsters, guns, and swear words.

It is without question a work by a major film artist and craftsman, made partly in tribute to another one. Hugo was adapted from Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by screenwriter John Logan.  The story mirrors what Scorsese has shared about his own life: lonely boy, lover of technology, obsessed with films; a forgotten filmmaker and his lost masterpieces,.  It is also an appreciation and celebration of the early days of cinema.  From the earliest films of the creators of the movie camera, the Lumière brothers, to masters like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Georges Méliès–all of whose films make appearances in this story that is ostensibly about an orphan boy and his automaton.

Scorsese and his usual team of technical and design collaborators (particularly cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti) create a gorgeous storybook vision of Paris, circa 1930, and moves us through it with fluid cinematic ease. Scorsese’s use of 3-D isn’t a stunt or a value-added effect–it’s a storytelling tool, a method of infusing the tale with humor, humanity and often breathtaking depth. From the opening tracking shot, which plunges from the Parisian sky along the railroad platforms and finally to the station clock, behind which 12-year-old Hugo is hidden, the vision at work in this film is unmistakable.

Many fans of the film appreciate its call for film preservation and a celebration of the early visionaries of cinema (which I do appreciate as well as a lover of films in a day when film is rarely art and as disposable as the heels which Georges Méliès’ films were melted down to form).  However, my appreciation of Hugo is not just in the excellence of its performances (does Ben Kingsley ever give a “bad” performance?), the beauty of its craftsmanship (Howard Shore’s score is beautiful and full of life), or the fact that this is truly what Scorsese should win an Oscar for.

It’s for the quote I started this post with.  Hugo speaks to the very heart of what I believe all great stories should speak to: answering the question of identity.  Who are you?  Why are you here?  Because this question is the essential one–the eternal one–the one that is at humanity’s very core.

All of us have a part in the mechanics of creation.  We are created specifically to fit that part. There are no extra pieces, no accidents.  Everyone has a purpose, and when we drift away from that purpose or forget it or have yet to discover it, we find ourselves asking that eternal question: why am I here?

Hugo discovers his purpose. He helps another discover his. And in doing so, he helps the world rediscover something it had forgotten.  As Georges Méliès says, “Come, dream with me.”  Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a story of dreams, adventure, and purpose.  It is a celebration of the power of film making–and a celebration of what it means to be uniquely human.

Each of us are here for a reason.  Scorsese, the master of the dark gangster drama, celebrates that in a “children’s” story that is my personal favorite film of the last year.

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