Up until this year, when the New York Film Critics Circle decided to make itself irrelevant by voting before their Thanksgiving dinners had fully digested, it was left to the National Board of Review to put the first … shall we say … “critical” stamp on the awards season. But because nobody knows who exactly comprises the NBR’s self-described “select group of knowledgeable film enthusiasts, filmmakers, academics and students,” their scattershot selections (Everyone’s a winner! Now please buy a table at our dinner!) are typically greeted with a collective shrug.
But today’s announcement that Martin Scorsese’s crowd-pleasing masterwork “Hugo” has taken the NBR’s top prize nicely dovetails with academy members’ passionate response to the film at screenings over the past couple of weeks. Yes, many dig “Hugo” for its film-geek, up-with-George-Melies element. But what most voters are really connecting to is the deep desire of Melies (played beautifully by Ben Kingsley) to be remembered for his work. For the academy’s older members (and this is a group that skews toward the elders), that kind of sentiment hits home in a profound fashion.
Looking at the below-the-line categories, “Hugo” seems a strong bet to win nominations for Dante Ferretti’s dazzling art direction, Sandy Powell’s costume design, Howard Shore’s score and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, as well as nods for makeup, sound editing and mixing and visual effects. These contributions come from Scorsese’s longtime collaborators, who, between them, have dozens of Oscar nominations and quite a few trophies. They’re people the academy loves, and they’re doing work that ranks with the best of their careers.
So, if “Hugo” receives that much below-the-line love, a best picture nomination would seem a logical next step, even if, outside Kingsley, it doesn’t have much heat in the acting categories. (Again: Actors branch members are connecting with the movie’s themes.) And if you think about Scorsese’s bold, visual storytelling and the extraordinary way he uses 3-D, a director’s nod would appear a no-brainer as well.
Few people had “Hugo” on their lists before the award season heated up. But, in a wide-open year like this, come Oscar-nomination morning, it may well be leading the conversation.
-- Glenn Whipp
Photo: Asa Butterfield stars in "Hugo." Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures