Like everyone else who writes about films, I’m working on a year-end top-ten movies-of-2014 list. Here are some short pieces I wrote throughout the year about some of the contenders:
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)
That cover image encapsulates THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL — and maybe even Wes Anderson’s entire career so far — so perfectly: It’s an invented monument of a building in the countryside of a nation that does not exist, soaked in color and leaping out from its drab surroundings. That bright pink hotel looks to me like a rich, fancy dessert, the kind that you can’t attack all at once, not even back when you were a candy-craving kid.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is the most Wes Anderson-y of all the Wes Anderson movies to date — he has with each subsequent film come up with an intricately-designed, entirely invented realm in which his casts of eccentrics and potty-mouthed poets take refuge from the world the rest of us know — Max Fischer’s school plays, Royal Tenenbaum’s mansion in the middle of Harlem, Steve Zissou’s ship (the Belafonte), the Darjeeling Limited (the finely-painted train traversing India), every minute of THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, Sam and Suzy’s secret cove (which they call “Moonrise Kingdom”).
This time around, the sphere of existence inhabited by the film’s characters travels beyond the titular location — Anderson has invented an entire country! Not only that, but the story is a flashback within a flashback: Tom Wilkinson plays the older version of Jude Law, who plays a writer interviewing the owner of the hotel who is played by F. Murray Abraham, who in turn recounts the escapades of his younger self (played by the winningly expressive Tony Revolori), the apprentice to a charismatic iconoclast named Gustave H. (a thrillingly unlikely comic performance by Ralph Fiennes — twice as funny here as he was in 2008’s IN BRUGES), who has a flair for theatrics and a lust for geriatrics. Credit for outstanding achievement in protrayal of the latter arena goes to Tilda Swinton, who appears in beautifully grotesque make-up and luxe costuming.
It’s even more whimsical than it sounds, and normally I can’t stand whimsy. But the effusiveness of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, and nearly every performance within it, is contagious. The cast is a menagerie of wonderful actors, most of whom have at least once worked with Anderson before. The newcomers fit right in with the stock players — even Harvey Keitel, perhaps the most unlikely casting choice of them all, who nimbly plays past his characteristic gruffness, as a heavily tattooed gulag lifer. Keitel has rarely been this animated and enthusiastic.
Don’t mistake this for an unequivocal rave — THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL continues the odd trend of Anderson underusing Bill Murray, which has been going on since THE LIFE AQUATIC. (I get the feeling Bill Murray keeps showing up just because he enjoys the company, and Wes Anderson keeps finding a place for him just because he’s goddamn Bill Murray and if you’ve got his number you use it.)
But I did enjoy the time I spent with this movie, particularly any of the scenes with either Tilda Swinton or Willem Dafoe, both of whom add unforgettable new grotesques to their lengthy repertoires. I also liked that THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is the most violent Wes Anderson film since THE LIFE AQUATIC; the moments of darkness are essential to counterbalance the otherwise madcap nature of the proceedings, and they disarm the common argument (one I’ve flirted with at times but invariably discounted) that Anderson as a filmmaker is merely an indulgent quirkster.
I’m really not sure where Wes Anderson can go next, since THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL goes so far up into what he does that I’m not sure he can go any further. I’d love to see him attempt a hardcore genre picture — maybe science-fiction or even horror –but I won’t count my chickens.
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