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Dargis and Scott Praise War Horse, Naming it one of the Best Films of 2011

In their mostly frustrating, occasionally interesting discussion of movies Manohla Dargis disses the Artist (a “cute gimmick”) and both critics go nuts for the Spielberg film – though they can’t agree on Hugo:

DARGIS  I can’t imagine, for instance, watching “War Horse” on a television, much less an iPhone: this is a self-consciously old-fashioned movie, shot in gorgeous film, which deserves to be seen projected on a big, bright screen and not via a thinner-looking “digital cinema package.” (This is the studios’ term for the compressed and encrypted digital files they use to store and distribute content, i.e., movies.) The use of the past in, say, “The Artist,” a cute gimmick stretched to feature length, is very different from how Mr. Spielberg (in “Tintin” and “War Horse”) and Mr. Scorsese (in “Hugo” and last year’s “Shutter Island”) self-consciously invoke and engage the cinema of earlier eras.

Both these filmmakers, two of the greatest of the movie-brat generation, are preoccupied, in their respective ways, sometimes nostalgically, with older movies, both European and Hollywood. (The movie brats are New Hollywood directors schooled in cinema who emerged in the 1970s; the other great being Francis Ford Coppola.) That nostalgia is sometimes inscribed both in the filmmaking and in the story, as with “Raging Bull,” a (largely) period piece shot primarily in black and white and very much a film about Mr. Scorsese’s own love of movies, with one of his touchstones, for instance, the black-and-white cinematography of “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957). With “Raging Bull” Mr. Scorsese even started a campaign to raise awareness about the fragility of color film.

The heart of “Hugo” is Mr. Scorsese’s ode to the early filmmaker Georges Méliès, a homage that’s also a tribute to cinema, which gives the movie a sense of urgency, particularly because what cinema was, for much of its history, has been eclipsed by the convenience of televised and now streaming images. Film history also matters in “War Horse,” and that’s partly why it’s so involving. It isn’t just about war and loss, which makes tears flow; it’s also about movies as they once were (and can be, as this film proves). When Mr. Scorsese was asked about the influence of Samuel Fuller’s “Shock Corridor” (1963) on “Shutter Island,” he said of the earlier film, “It’s in me.” Looking at “War Horse” you can see how John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley,” among many other films, is in Mr. Spielberg.

And then AO Scott:

Although I admired the visual bravura of “Hugo” and was touched by its sincere affection for Méliès and his work (the gorgeous restoration of his masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon” that was shown at the Cannes and Telluride film festivals was surely a cinematic highlight of the year, maybe the century), I was not as enthralled as perhaps I should have been. Or as enraptured as Mr. Scorsese clearly wanted me to be. The many breathless invocations of “the magic of cinema” lessen the magic, and the busy, showoffy historicist aesthetic prevents a deep and powerful register of feeling from developing (except in Ben Kingsley’s marvelously melancholy face).

“War Horse,” in contrast, uses its saturation in older styles of moviemaking to stir up the sort of simple and emphatic emotions that have always been central to the collective moviegoing experience. Mr. Spielberg’s formidable technical command is very much in evidence, but it is placed in the service (as it was in “E.T.”) of forceful and almost naïve sentiment. In other words, the movie does not seem to be, as “Hugo” is, primarily about its director’s bottomless love of movies.

Wow, couldn’t disagree with him more, both in his overpraising of War Horse and in his inability to emotionally connect with Hugo – although you can’t disagree with someone’s inability to connect with something – either they feel it or they don’t.  For me, having felt War Horse all the way through it didn’t necessarily make it a great film.  For Hugo, I felt it while also seeing the great film that it is emerge over its slow progression.  At least in Hugo the element of make believe exists throughout – it doesn’t thread through something as brutal as the war and then suddenly spring back to the land of fairy tales, Christ figures and happy endings as I feel War Horse does while it cheats itself out of the film it could have been.

Scott goes on:

Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” with the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender as a sex-addicted yuppie (is that still what they’re called?), has received a lot of attention for its frankness, but I think it and its admirers confuse moralistic misery with honesty.

Hm. They confuse moralistic misery with honesty. Has there ever been a more condescending statement written by a critic at the Times?  Probably, but this one is right up there.

I’m not even going to repeat what Dargis gets wrong about Shame, though I will quote her on Hugo:

There’s more to “Hugo” than Mr. Scorsese’s passion for movies, though there’s nothing wrong with that. It is also an argument for cinema, for cinema as a constituent part of modern life, which means it’s also a way of telling the truth. “Hugo” largely concerns its title character, who’s at once a watcher (like the viewer) and something of a director in the sense that his observations of the habitués in the train station where he lives resemble little movies. (I think he’s a proxy for the young Mr. Scorsese.) These vignettes or cine-fragments show us how Hugo views the world, how he makes sense of it and, importantly, they also show him the way to finding his place in it. As that great philosopher of film, Stanley Cavell, has written, “It is through fantasy that our conviction of the worth of reality is established; to forgo our fantasies would be to forgo our touch with the world.”.