You can tell holiday season has arrived when more of the movies in our mini-reviews are recommended than not.
It's no coincidence that names like Clooney, Eastwood, Spielberg, Streep, Hanks, Pitt and Scorsese start showing up in the credits at this time of year. Granted, it's still the superheros and vampires who win at the box office, but with Oscar, Golden Globe and a zillion other award nominations in the offing, this is the time when compassionately written, superbly crafted films about really interesting people sneak in among the usual 3-D alien life forms.
Early awards from New York honoring "The Tree of Life," "The Artist" and "Beginners" are reminders of the gap between movie critics and normal people. But they're also reminders of how great it is, for one month at least, for movies not to be looking for the lowest common denominator, but instead for audiences smart enough to figure out what's going on, and compassionate enough to care.
While picking the "best" of anything artistic is always a matter of subjectivity, it's more instructive to check out who's there at the starting line.
Rather than singling out winners, it's the sum total of all the contenders that shows the best work of the year on movie screens. Maui Film Festival's FirstLight screenings have spoiled local audiences by showing almost all the contenders, not to mention all the eventual best-picture winners, for the past 12 years. After giving us a three-day Thanksgiving appetizer, FirstLight will return in earnest on Dec. 14 with programming through the holidays.
FirstLight's opening selection, "The Descendants" is expected to land Oscar nominations for star George Clooney, director Alexander Payne and 18-year-old supporting actress Shailene Woodley, for openers.
Set on Kauai and Oahu, kamaaina audiences will find everything onscreen feeling familiar. It feels mostly real, too, from the slack key soundtrack featuring Gabby Pahinui, Keola Beamer, Sonny Chillingworth, Jeff Peterson and more, through the Kauai locations, right down to the casual informality creeping into even the most tragic situations.
The film's title refers to the descendants of the islands' earliest haole arrivals, who now own thousands of acres of paradise that they didn't earn and their ancestors didn't exactly earn, either.
Clooney plays the father of two daughters, whose wife lies in a coma in a hospital bed after an unfortunate speedboat accident. The upheavals in his life come in waves, and his struggle just to keep his head above water is another multifaceted acting achievement cloaked in his trademark understatement.
Director and co-writer Payne's contribution comes in a sense of bathos -truly tragic developments in the story may turn comic in the next instant.
"The Descendants" is equal parts real family dynamics and actual island style - which turns out to be far more appealing than Hollywood's usual drinks-with-umbrellas variety. Like a wiser, hipper, funnier "Hawaii Five-0," it exports visions of what aloha actually looks like - warts and all -to audiences on the Mainland and elsewhere. While some little part of me wants to point out that film industry professionals don't quite "get it" as much as they think they do, I can imagine airline reservations to the islands soaring after audiences get this heartwarming hit of all things local.
Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," in contrast, offers a marvelous trip to Paris in the '30s. The Oscar-winning maestro of gangster machismo and men acting badly (acting like animals, actually) has finally created a PG-rated fable his 12-year-old daughter can watch, and in the process has crafted a masterpiece brimming with love, sweetness, sentiment and magic.
Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is a young orphan living in hiding in a Paris train station where he keeps all the massive clocks running on time. Joining forces with a beguiling young girl at the station (Chloe Grace Moretz), the two embark on an adventure to solve the mystery of her godfather (Ben Kingsley), a mysterious and cranky figure who owns a toy store in the train station's microcosmic universe.
The two young leads are as superbly cast as the adults led by Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen McCrory. The script, a celluoid fairy tale, sprinkles in metaphors about fixing broken people like broken toys, and patterns of street life in Paris mirroring the perfect harmony of the stars in the heavens. It also leaves room for Scorsese to pay homage to films of the silent era, recreating some brilliant effects from cinema's magical infancy. While he gives away some of the secrets, he doesn't break the spell.
Told with childlike innocence and melodramatic emotions from that time, "Hugo's" most lasting impression -unexpected from a brilliant filmmaker known for grim violence - is the love spilling from every frame.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com