Give the Best Picture Oscar to Hugo!

The Academy Awards are coming Sunday, and the category I’m most anticipating is Best Picture, because I want to be able to swoon with delight when the upset of all upsets is announced… Martin Scorsese’s Hugo!

Something in my gut tells me that the Academy will present the award to The Artist, but Hugo really deserves the statuette, and not just because I think it’s probably the best-made film among the nominees, but because it’s also a wonderful lesson in film history.

Scorsese’s long been a passionate advocate for film preservation, so it’s no surprise that he would take this subject to make his first “family” movie. It’s beautifully acted and wonderfully designed, and here the veteran director shows everyone how to make a 3D movie. I felt like I was inside a snow globe while I was watching it—just wonderful.

Asa Butterfield is Hugo, an orphan who lives secretly in the walls of a Paris train station and keeps all the clocks running (a job his uncle, who’d mysteriously disappeared, used to perform). He steals what he needs from the various shops in the place, and runs afoul of one of the vendors (Ben Kingsley), an elderly man who sells clockwork toys. He needs parts from the toys to finish rebuilding an automaton that his clockmaker father had been working on when he died in a tragic lab explosion.

The shopkeeper accuses Hugo of stealing and takes away his notebook filled with sketches and schematics for the automaton. He seems to recognize it and demands to know where the boy got it. Hugo refuses to say, so he tells him he’s going to burn it as punishment. In his efforts to retrieve the book, he becomes acquainted with the man’s granddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), an orphan herself, and their adventure begins.

What begins as a mystery about a lonely little boy and an automaton becomes a film about the love for film, a project ideally suited for Scorsese. Of course, the shopkeeper is Georges Méliés, father of special-effects movies, now forgotten and down on his luck. Kingsley is wonderful as Méliés, as is the rest of the cast. Butterfield is ideal as Hugo, and Moretz, who won me over as the vampire in Let Me In, is perfectly charming here. Helen McCrory is moving as Jeanne, Méliés’ devoted wife and former star. Even Sacha Baron Cohen is less annoying than usual.

In various smaller parts are Jude Law (as Hugo’s father), The History Boys‘ Richard Griffiths and Frances De La Tour, the great Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer and Ray Winstone.

It’s not surprising that Scorsese would hit a home run with this film. He’s broken genre boundaries before. In 1974, he made a “woman’s film” that everyone could enjoy—Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which earned Ellen Burstyn the Academy Award for Best Actress. And The Last Waltz, about the Band’s final concert, is considered to be right up there with Woodstock as one of the best music documentaries ever made.

Still, coming from a director whose characters usually end up ventilated instead of fulfilled, it’s amazing how well he handles this material. Kudos too go to John Logan’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s book and Howard Shore’s lush score. And the 3D recreations of Méliés’ films are just astounding.

I know The Departed wasn’t that long ago, but I can’t think of a film more deserving than Hugo for the Best Picture trophy this year. I mean—Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? War Horse? Yeesh. I also hope that Brad Pitt derails the Clooney bandwagon and wins for Moneyball. I mean, I like Clooney and The Descendants was a perfectly serviceable TV movie with a standard-issue Clooney performance, but Pitt was terrific and muti-dimensional as Billy Beane in a film that could have been stultifying but was wildly entertaining instead.

I’d also like to see Christopher Plummer win for Beginners. I didn’t see any of the pictures with Best Actress nominations, but it’d be nice to see Viola Davis or Michelle Williams take the trophy instead of Streep’s cartoony-looking performance. I don’t feel strongly about any of the Supporting Actress nominees except that I’ll give a head-slap and side-eye if Melissa McCarthy wins for her scenery-chewing performance in the flatulent Bridesmaids.

Moneyball is Money

Brad Pitt has had quite an interesting career. Besides being one-half of Brangelina, he’s played vampires, jocks, con men…even a figment of Edward Norton‘s imagination. For years, he was typecast as sort of a friendly stud because of his masculine beauty—Thelma and Louise (1991) is probably the penultimate example. And regardless of the character he played, as David Denby pointed out in the New Yorker, his eyes were empty. He wasn’t able to convey the thought process.

But time has been kind to Pitt. Age has mellowed his looks, and somewhere along the line he began to catch fire. Maybe Inarritu’s Babel (2006) was the first film in which I noticed him really getting in touch with his emotions. As a man struggling to save his severely wounded wife, he showed a depth he hadn’t exhibited before. And he’d matured enough to really make the outrageous concept of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) work.

In Bennett Miller‘s wonderful new film Moneyball, we get the Pitt performance we’ve been waiting for—nuanced, charismatic and resonant. I’d read Denby’s review before seeing the film, so the first thing I looked for were his eyes—and indeed they’ve got life in ’em! He plays Billy Beane, the (real) general manager of the down-at-their-heels Oakland Athletics. Frustrated at the loss of his star players to higher-paying teams, he starts to look around for up-and-comers he can get cheap. His aged scouts are no help; they seem more concerned about the potential replacements’ good looks and girlfriends than their onfield talent.

When he goes to Cleveland to try to trade players with the GM of the Indians, he is outraged when the man keeps deferring to a chubby young guy, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), whose whose every word he seems to take as scripture.

After the meeting, he hunts Peter down to ask him who he is and why his boss takes him so seriously. Peter, a Yale graduate in economics, explains that he’s designed a statistical way to rate players and their winning potential, and the trades Billy wanted were just too valuable. The game. he explains, is simply about runs, so anyone who’s guaranteed to make it to base is a big deal. Billy thinks about it for a while, and instead of trying to buy players, he decides to buy Peter.

Peter arrives in Oakland and begins putting together lists of players that could bring real talent to the club at a bargain price. Having lost Jason Giambi, Billy gets his hard-partying brother, Jeremy (Nick Porrazzo). Another player, Scott Hetteberg (Chris Pratt), who has been considered a lost cause as a catcher due to nerve damage in his hand, is retrained to play first base.

The team’s manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) seethes at his perceived loss of control and refuses to put the new players into the positions Billy recommends, and the first few games are a disaster. Billy solves the problem by trading off Art’s favorites, leaving him no choice but to put Billy’s guys into position. As a result, they begin to win…and win.

Moneyball is an underdog story, but with a refreshing twist. Although it doesn’t have a tragic ending, it’s not one of those over-the-top exhilarating “feel good” movies like Field of Dreams. Pitt’s Billy is a very real person. He’s prone to attacks of extreme anger (this movie has to hold the record for desks being turned over) and his tension is expressed through an oral fixation. When he’s not chewing tobacco, he’s eating junk food. As a matter of fact, he’s eating something in almost every scene.

What can I say about Pitt? He inhabits Billy’s character with maturity and truly wonderful gravitas. He’s gonna get an Oscar nomination, folks—but will he go all the way? Hill is a surprisingly excellent match for him as a tight-assed nerd who gets caught up in all the excitement. Hoffman, who is always good, is enjoyable as the burned-out manager who is angrily indifferent until the team starts to win, and then he becomes visibly quickened with excitement.

There are a lot of unfamiliar faces in Moneyball, as there were in Miller’s earlier, marvelous Capote (with Hoffman as the elfin author). This adds a documentary feel to the film without disrupting its dramatic flow.

Reed Mitchell, whose second film this is, plays the young Billy in truly touching flashbacks showing how he turned down a scholarship to Stanford to join the MLB at age 19, and failed…giving us a reason to understand his violent outbursts. Robin Wright is effective as Billy’s ex-wife, who is clearly still in love with him, but probably divorced him because of said outbursts. Particularly notable is 13-year-old Kerris Dorsey as his daughter, Casey, who really knocks it out of the park in her few scenes.

What’s most remarkable about Moneyball is that it’s based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book, covering a topic that could be unbearably boring—statistics—yet it’s alive and real, and there are a lot of laughs.

Some reviewers have said that you don’t need to be passionate about baseball to love the film. Well, that may be true, but it certainly helps. If you get choked up when you see an establishing shot of Fenway; if you keep your favorite team’s last game on your DVR to watch again later (as I did with the Dodgers); then you’re the film’s target audience. As Billy says more than once, “It’s not hard to romanticize baseball.” And indeed it isn’t.

When I went to Fenway in 2006, my childhood crush, Susie Cowsill, was there to sing the national anthem. Now how’s that for romanticizing the game?