David Edelstein reviews "Hugo," "The Artist"

Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz in Martin Scorsese's "Hugo."
Paramount Pictures

Like clockwork, the holiday movie season is under way. And our David Edelstein has seen two of the very first out of the gate:

Who'd 'a thunk in this 2011 holiday season we'd be talking so much about movies with no talking?

Both "Hugo" and "The Artist" hark back to those days when imagery was unfettered by the spoken word, when only the eyes had it.

To be clear, Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" isn't silent. It merely comes to center on one of the pioneers of film fantasy, the Frenchman George Melies - a magician who in the first years of the twentieth century began to film stage shows. He then moved on to make deliriously surreal shorts like "A Trip to the Moon," which looms large in "Hugo."

Scorsese packs in other primitive curiosities, like the Lumiere brothers' footage of a train pulling up that reportedly made people shriek and head for the exits.

"Hugo" would have given them coronaries! Scorsese crafts a gargantuan train set of a movie, in which he and his 3-D camera whiz around and show off all the expensive toys and wax lyrical within the film itself on the magic of movies.

Actually, the story of the orphaned Hugo, who lives behind the station walls, pretty much stops dead for Movies 101. The rest of the time, Scorsese is so hell-bent on bedazzling us that the prevailing emotion is technological exuberance rather than a child's longing for human contact.

For all its amazements, "Hugo" feels like a film about magic instead of ... well, a magical film.

"Hugo" cast members awed by Scorsese
Scorsese explores cinema's past and future with "Hugo"

Michel Hazanavicus' "The Artist" is virtually silent and in black and white, but its subject is the arrival of sound - and how the Douglas Fairbanks-like hero played by Jean Dujardin announces he's too much of an artist to speak.

It's a charming doodle, a goof on the vocabulary of cinema, packed with tropes that seem to spring from the collective unconscious of moviegoers.

But it goes on way too long, most of it centering on the hero's alcoholism and bankruptcy, and the rise of his protege, played by the delectable Berenice Bejo.

So if "Hugo" and "The Artist" are hits, will silents come back? Not hardly.

But it's fun to go back to the dawn of a medium we so take for granted, and rediscover our sense of wonder, to see it with new eyes - and our ears in check.

"The Artist": Silents are still golden
The Showbuzz: "The Artist"

Edelstein endorses:
  • "The Descendants"
  • "A Dangerous Method"