This season presents two Oscar contenders, Hugo and The Artist, that both bask in the dreaminess of cinema's early days, but from polar opposite ends of the technological spectrum. Whereas the latter is a famously black-and-white, French-made silent picture, Hugo is a mega-budget spectacle and the biggest pairing of heavyweight director and 3D since Avatar (it's also the most sophisticated movie yet to employ the format). In terms of awards chances, The Artist—which, appropriately enough, bears a key theme of overcoming technology's relentless propulsion—most certainly has the edge, and did even before yesterday, when it netted five major Independent Spirit Award nominations, earned two wins from the New York Film Critics Circle (including Best Picture), and landed fifth on Sight & Sound's polled list of the best films of 2011. But no one should assume that the soldiering forward of a powerful, atmospherically similar frontrunner means that Hugo can't also perform well. Besides, it's Martin Scorsese.
It would come as no surprise if Scorsese picked up a Best Director nomination for his work here, placing him alongside locks Alexander Payne and Michel Hazanavicius, and (potentially) fellow legends Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen. The antithesis of what Hazanavicius offers with The Artist, Scorsese brings a graceful, industry-loving validation of where the future of movies is supposedly headed, blending classic panache with contemporary flash in a manner that's surely comforting to Academy insiders. Moreover, the 3D family film marks a new milestone in Scorsese's career, and it's likely the Academy is still atoning for waiting until The Departed to reward him. His kid-friendly, tentpole-movie channeling of his film preservation efforts is a big draw in itself, with the reawakening of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) and his fanciful films further spreading Marty's attractive passion for celluloid guardianship. The cinematic nuggets sprinkled throughout (like the flagship clock image's nod to Harold Lloyd's Safety Last) are catnip for like-minded film lovers, and in case there's ever a shred of doubt about Scorsese's pristine craftsmanship, those ever-present turning gears prove potent reminders.
The perfectly calibrated milieu Hugo presents is what holds its surest shots at Oscar gold. On a technical level, the film is gorgeous to the smallest detail, which, again, should pit it against The Artist in multiple categories. Let it be written in permanent ink that Dante Ferretti will be nominated for spearheading the film's Art Direction, a nomination he'll share with set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo. The great Thelma Schoonmaker has a chance at an Editing nod, but better bets are perennial nominee Sandy Powell for her immaculate Costumes, and Robert Richardson for his sweeping, steam-and-gleam Cinematography. It's safe to assume the film will place in both the Sound Mixing and Sound Editing categories, and though it isn't as showy and surefire a hopeful as, say, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Visual Effects is also in the cards. Nearly as certain as Ferretti, too, is composer Howard Shore, whose epic, French-tinged Score is one of the year's most memorable.
That viewers don't quite know how to receive Hugo is one of the strikes against the film, and may affect its chances in the Best Picture category. Not quite a kids flick, but not entirely a grown-up movie, either, it sits in a precarious position whose discomfort counteracts the coziness of Scorsese's cinema-centric efforts. The neglected story of Hugo himself is where the director's indulgence is most evident, his infatuation with Méliès (and other personal interests) trumping and shortchanging the ostensibly primary plot line, resulting in an occasionally crippled pace that merely turns the pages of John Logan's script. But any film so poised to receive nods in so many other categories—Ben Kingsley may also score a nomination for Best Supporting Actor—seems all but destined to compete in the big race, too. Of all of this year's candidates, Hugo appears to be the one film for which a place simply must be carved out in the numerically uncertain Best Picture lineup, if only by virtue of technical support.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Director, Martin Scorsese; Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; Best Sound Mixing; Best Sound Effects Editing; Best Original Score.
Possibilities: Best Editing; Best Visual Effects; Best Supporting Actor, Ben Kingsley.
Shouldn't be Overlooked: None.