Sustaining The Illusion: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

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By now, the phrase “A Wes Anderson Film” carries with it a vast, intricate stylistic template, dictating everything from set design and title fonts to a precise sensibility refracted through distinct character types, situations and humor. What tends to get lost when thinking about the films solely via their director are the extraordinary, revelatory lead performances which uncover other dimensions to them: think Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer, Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum or Bill Murray as Steve Zissou (or Herman Blume). On occasion, Anderson achieves a similar effect via a true ensemble (for instance, MOONRISE KINGDOM, in which both Bruce Willis and Edward Norton revealed new facets of themselves, albeit in smaller roles); still, think of how different BOTTLE ROCKET might’ve been without Owen and Luke Wilson, or FANTASTIC MR. FOX without George Clooney.

Likewise, it’s hard to imagine Anderson’s eighth feature without Ralph Fiennes. Often cast as either a villain (a Nazi in SCHINDLER’S LIST, Voldemort in the HARRY POTTER series) or a romantic lead (THE ENGLISH PATIENT), he hasn’t had too many straight-up comedic roles. Credit Anderson, then, in perceiving this ability in Fiennes: his Gustave H. is an inspired creation and one that suits the actor beautifully. As head concierge of the film’s titular institution, he’s outwardly cultured but never a crass snob, convincingly virile (he irresistibly and literally charms the pants off a certain kind of woman) but unapologetically fey (he refers to all, female or male, as “darling”), effectively commandeering in his work but respectfully modest of his place and role (look at the shabby servants quarters where he resides). When one of the film’s narrators says, “His world had vanished long before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace,” one suspects Fiennes kept those words in mind throughout filming—he’s fitfully funny, but, like the best Anderson heroes, he never obscures his character’s dignity and gravitas, his insecurities sometimes abruptly but always believably surfacing to show he’s more than a caricature.

This is alternately Anderson’s European film (shot in Germany but set in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka), his early 20th Century period film (mostly set in 1932) and his action/adventure caper film (his first to climax with an epic shoot-out!). The story of Gustave H., told via a literary device akin to what THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS used, begins briefly in the present, steps back for a moment to 1985, then further back to 1968, where our first narrator (Jude Law) visits the titular hotel, now a tarnished, horridly “modernized” shell of its former self. He meets owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who recounts how the Grand Budapest came into his possession following his stint as the hotel’s young lobby boy, mentored by the legendary Gustave H. We learn that the sudden, mysterious death of Gustave’s dearest companion (an unrecognizable, aged via makeup Tilda Swinton) set off a chain of events involving a desired, rare painting, the companion’s vengeful son (Adrien Brody), his violent, evil henchman (Willem Dafoe, perfectly cast), a young bakery worker with a facial scar in the shape of Mexico (Saoirse Ronan), plus stints in prison, an impending war and a slew of cameos from Anderson regulars (Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Owen Wilson, among many others). Newcomer Tony Revolori rounds out the cast as the young Moustafa, often holding his own with Fiennes.

Less a departure for Anderson than a continued honing of his particular (some less charitable would say peculiar) sensibility, its jaunty pace and positioning as an unambiguous comedy give it a wider-than-usual appeal, which may explain why it will likely end up his biggest hit to date. It is immensely enjoyable and, like all Anderson films, endlessly rewatchable, with subtle details making themselves known on subsequent viewings. For me, it falls short from occupying that upper echelon of Anderson’s works because it simply doesn’t resonate as deeply. I’m not certain as to exactly why—all the elements are there, from Gustave’s character arc to his mentoring of Moustafa, but nothing here is as, for lack of a better word, special as the wistful, final shots of RUSHMORE and MOONRISE KINGDOM or those moments of understanding organically established between various family members throughout THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. Still, this is ultimately a minor quibble for a film with more than enough to recommend it, even to those who don’t like Wes Anderson, though thankfully, he’s remained true to himself—I’d much rather he made an imperfect film than a calculated, crowd (and detractor) pleasing one.  Grade: A-


Top Twenty Films of 2012: # 5 – 1


Taking on the Herculean task of assembling what feels like a warehouse-sized arsenal of archival footage into a coherent narrative, David France excels and then some: the story of ACT UP, a 1980s coalition of New York-based AIDS activists unfolds so effectively that not one clip feels unnecessary. A few, like Larry Kramer’s passionate address to a mob scene that inspires the film’s title, are more powerful as anything in (the admittedly monumental) Angels In America. This is essential viewing for anyone wanting to understand how a disease ravaged a culture, and what that culture did to combat it.


Centering a film on a love triangle is a notion older than the movies themselves; fortunately, in her second feature, actress-turned-writer/director Sarah Polley (aided by lead Michelle Williams) approaches it with nuance while establishing a singular, personal viewpoint as a director. You sense it in the assured rhythms between scenes, the action as it unfolds in seemingly commonplace (but occasionally profound) conversations and usage of an unlikely pop song that brilliantly complements her narrative. Her bold final act seems like a stunt until it closes with a bitter honesty that marvelously drives home a hard truth about having to live with choices we make.


Once in a while, the stars align and a filmmaker you admire makes something not only worthy of his past triumphs but also finds a measurable audience that mostly agrees. Here, Wes Anderson doesn’t exactly alter his style or absolve himself of those quirks that all but define him (as if he ever could), but in his total commitment to recreating an era and fully realizing a setting’s rich potential, he suddenly seems vital again. The extended sequence where his young protagonists run off together hits a crescendo of feeling and warmth that nearly surpasses anything he’s previously tried in that vein and it carries over to the delicately lovely and wistful note he goes out on.


In this act of inspired madness, Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) mysteriously travels in his stretch limo around Paris to a series of appointments where, cloaked in meticulous disguises, he slips from one role to the next, ranging from a bag lady to a heavily-costumed actor on a motion-capture soundstage to a foul, gibberish-sprouting sewer creature to an elderly man consoling a loved one from his deathbed. Writer/director Leos Carax offers no explanation or rationale for why Mr. Oscar is hired to do what he does; the result is one of the stranger (and frankly wonderful) films I’ve ever seen, and one that explores, without limits, what it means to inhabit a role and to absorb an identity.


Like Holy Motors, Joachim Trier’s film transpires in the course of a single day, but that’s about all the two have in common. Melancholy, austere, and remarkably quiet, Oslo, August 31 follows Anders (Anders Danielson Lie, the lead in Trier’s Reprise) on a one-day leave from rehab to his hometown to interview for a job and visit family and friends. The film’s great, profound tragedy is that, without the drugs, Anders has lost the will to live, even as we see him drift through a city (and traces of a former existence) teeming with life and pleasures running the gamut from the mundane to the sublime. It’s a cold, uncompromising yet strangely buoyant film—offering no easy answers for Anders, but instead potentially inspiring us to consider what makes our own lives worth living for.

Top Fifty Films of the 1990s: # 10-2

On paper, this has disaster written all over it, from a greasy, unkempt John Cusack and a frizzy-wigged Cameron Diaz to the titular actor, so pivotal playing “himself” that one false move on his part could ruin the entire film. And yet, everything in it gels to perfection: the extended seventh-and-a-half floor gag obtains a Monty Python-worthy level of inspired silliness as does the most Malkovich-iest sequences (including a trip into his subconscious and another into a realm teeming with Malkovich).

The easiest way for a filmmaker to evoke a past time and place is to use recognizable visual and aural cues to season the narrative. What makes this and Terence Davies’ other autobiographical essay films challenging is that he nearly leaves the narrative out altogether, fashioning tone poems out of period music and imagery as if we were viewing glimpses of Davies’ own memories. What more can I say except that The Long Day Closes is simply one of the most strikingly beautiful and original films ever made?

Also amazingly original: Todd Haynes’ peculiar, perverse and unnerving study of a suburban housewife (Julianne Moore) increasingly unable to cope with the toxins in her everyday environment. As doctors can’t find anything physically wrong with her, she turns to radical, desperate measures, gradually closing herself off from the rest of the world. At this point, Safe starts resembling a psychological horror film. As it dribbles to a close, it bespeaks an eerie calm that in context is absolutely terrifying.

For fans of Zhang Yimou’s landmark early ‘90s work starring his muse Gong Li, it’s hard to pick one favorite because they’re all so startlingly good (even The Story of Qiu Ju!). Thus, To Live was the first one I saw (in fact, one of the first subtitled films I ever saw) and its impact on how I view movies (and maybe life itself) has not diminished. A stirring account of a family through both China’s Communist and Cultural Revolutions, it’s possibly the most intimate historical epic I can name.

Years after all the hype has diminished, it’s reassuring to see Pulp Fiction age splendidly while still very much appearing like a product of its time—more accurately, it’s a film that ended up defining its time, no matter how much it geeked out on its own movie-ness. For all of his obnoxious traits, you have to admit Quentin Tarantino was some kind of genius in how he applied an encyclopedia of film knowledge to an innovative, circular narrative and an astounding ensemble cast.

For a certain breed of film lover, Wes Anderson’s second film had an initial impact analogous to that of when Breathless or Mean Streets or Stranger Than Paradise or Reservoir Dogs first hit theaters, not only heralding a unique talent’s arrival but also introducing a new kind of movie to become enamored with and obsess over. While Bottle Rocket (see # 42) might have done this for the relatively few who saw it, it is to grainy black-and-white what Rushmore is to Technicolor. Also, the moment when Max introduces Herman to his father may be my favorite scene in any film on this list for its understated but earned poignancy.

Why make a movie about a man infamous for directing some of the worst movies of all time? The easy answer would be to have a cheap laugh at his expense; the more complex approach would be the one Tim Burton took—to affectionately celebrate the man and highlight his determination, spirit and love of humanity, while not obscuring his lack of talent or various personality quirks. Ed Wood was a little too subtle for mass appreciation: it was Burton’s biggest flop, but his most soulful work; Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi is one of the all-time great film portrayals of a real-life screen actor.

Despite what our parents said, high school actually isn’t all too different from adulthood, a crushing notion this brutally funny student government satire reveals and revels in. Having already established himself as a Midwestern heir to Preston Sturges (see # 43), Alexander Payne makes one inspired choice after another (most awesomely casting the man who played Ferris Bueller as a teacher). As the immortal Tracy Flick, Reese Witherspoon puts to rest any doubt regarding her acting prowess, wonderfully embodying both a heroine and a villain in the same deliriously ambitious, intriguingly cracked soul. P.S.: Election has aged almost unbelievably well.

I knew nothing of Atom Egoyan’s work when I first saw this during its theatrical release; afterwards, I wanted to rush out and consume everything he’d done, for it did nothing less than completely change how I thought one could construct a film. The Sweet Hereafter takes Exotica’s non-linear, puzzle-piece approach to narrative (see # 16) even further out into the blue, entirely reconstructing Russell Banks’ novel about a tragic bus crash to a degree where those familiar with the book will barely recognize it. But in taking such risks, Egoyan creates poetry out of prose (as does Sarah Polley in her breakthrough role).

Check back in a few days to see what I picked for # 1, along with some titles I couldn’t squeeze into the top 50.

Top Fifty Movies of the 1990s: # 50-41

I began taking film seriously (i.e.—deciding to devote my life to it via a graduate degree) almost exactly in the middle of this decade. Consequently, my current list of favorite films from this in-flux period rambunctiously swerves between the impossibly highbrow and the disarmingly stoopid. And I can’t help but kick it off with one of the latter…

Out of the many, mostly superfluous movie adaptations of old sitcoms made over this decade, few were as sharply satirical and simultaneously affectionate as this loving deconstruction of the TV equivalent of highly processed junk food. So effective you may even prefer Gary Cole and Shelly Long’s interpretations of Carol and Mike to Robert Reed’s and Florence Henderson’s before Henderson herself pops up at the end.

Although he’s arguably surpassed it with his two Pixar features, Brad Bird’s gorgeous full-length debut is its own kind of masterpiece. It initially bombed because it felt so out of time with its understated tone and deliberate pacing; with the possible exception of Miyazaki, it has aged far better than any of its contemporaries.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first feature still presents such a rich template for everything he would subsequently do that one now almost finds it impossible to conceive that it was co-directed with Marc Caro. In a decade mostly deficient of whimsy and real anarchy, Delicatessen almost feels like a manifesto of sorts—a live action Warner Brothers cartoon, only stranger.

Paul Thomas Anderson came off as a gen-x Robert Altman with this ambitious, hilarious, chilling epic spanning a most hedonistic decade in L.A.’s adult movie industry. Although a little too clever for its own good (something Anderson would rectify on later films), you can’t deny its excitable, somewhat insane ensemble (Marky Mark! Julianne Moore! John C. friggin’ Reilly! All of ’em cast as porn stars!).

Never available on DVD, Victor Nunez’s film risks becoming the decade’s lost indie classic (like Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping is for the 1980s). Probably a little too austere for today’s indieplex audiences, it suggests an intriguing alternate-world career for its young star, a never better Ashley Judd.

The teen movie of the decade. Visually it hasn’t dated all that well, but that’s what makes it as much of an iconic time capsule as Grease or The Breakfast Club. Alicia Silverstone was never better (nor, sadly, was a refreshingly normal-looking Brittany Murphy). Even director Amy Heckerling could never replicate one-tenth of its wit and heart.

Practically mid-to-late ‘90s indie in a nutshell. Before Todd Solondz’s breakthrough film, you simply could not have a protagonist as geeky and put-upon and frankly infuriating and often deserving of all the shit life has given her as Dawn Weiner. Its sustained comedic awkwardness where you often don’t know whether to laugh or cringe anticipated The Office by a few years.

For his first feature, writer/director Alexander Payne is a purely satirical Preston Sturges, a stance he’d successfully refine and deepen on his next few efforts. But it remains a delight, both for Payne’s scathing critique of both sides of the abortion issue and for Laura Dern, simply tremendous as an airplane glue sniffing lowlife whose usage as a pawn exposes the ridiculousness sometimes inherent in taking a side.

Some stand by this as the best thing Wes Anderson ever did, which I find ludicrous. It’s a first film—a unique, highly accomplished one that fully establishes the director’s voice, but a first film nonetheless, and one with building blocks for ideas and motifs Anderson would develop and alchemize in his next two films. Still, it’s a gas to see such a young Luke and Owen Wilson and perhaps not too absurd to consider that they’ve never been better.

Like Dancer In The Dark, this film is way too painful for me to revisit. I’ve only seen it twice in the late-90s but my memories of it remain vivid—particularly of Emily Watson, whose performance is one of the most shattering, sui generis I’ve ever seen. I can’t still can shake the childlike joy she expresses as she dances with her husband to Elton John’s “Love Lies Bleeding”; nor can I ever forget the film’s tragic, then oddly transcendent final fifteen minutes.


In my original review of THE DARJEELING LIMITED, I detected the promise of a mature, career-defining work lurking deep within, and suggested that Wes Anderson shed some of his baggage in order to locate it. I didn’t specify what, exactly, that would entail, only that DARJEELING lacked emphatic resolve to a degree which, for all of the film’s attributes, only highlighted the director’s growing self-absorption.

Five years later, MOONRISE KINGDOM very nearly fills that magnum opus slot in Anderson’s oeuvre. While sonorously emphatic compared to anything he’s done since THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, it’s not as if he has radically altered his approach and discarded all of those stylistic quirks that viewers tend to either deeply admire or despise. I doubt he could rid his films of them if he wanted to—arguably no other filmmaker of his generation has forged such an instantly recognizable sensibility, both in visual and aural cues (you can trace the opening scene’s room-by-room house tour back to TENENBAUMS and THE LIFE AQUATIC) and narrative themes (absent parents, disillusioned adults, creative and resourceful children, parent-child bonding between two characters that are not related, etc;). Fortunately, they’re refinements rather than retreads, in the tradition of other auteurs who similarly make variations of the same film, from Bergman and Ozu to Woody Allen and the Dardennes.

At first glance, MOONRISE gets a lot out of its temporal and physical settings. Although ostensibly set in the present, Anderson’s past films felt lost in time, suffused with anachronisms that suggested not a specific date but an imaginative space where memories converged and coalesced. Here, he’s finally taken the extra step to purposely set the action in a particular time (late summer of 1965) in addition to a specific place (New Penzance, a fictional island off the New England coast). Committing to an era allows him to recreate it without seeming obsolescent. Unsurprisingly, everything from the wardrobe to the soundtrack impeccably evokes a year one could easily surmise even without expository assistance from Bob Balaban as the film’s narrator (but only Anderson would supplement Francoise Hardy and Hank Williams songs with relatively obscure Benjamin Britten pieces).

What primarily lends MOONRISE its mystique, however, is New Penzance itself. The coastal landscape (actually Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island) appears at once both cozily idyllic and rough-hewn. Its isolation breeds an otherness that manifests itself to positive (gorgeous, untouched scenery which Alexander Desplat’s score marvelously complements) and negative (a hurricane renders the same landscape violent and unforgiving) effect. It’s a model setting for a coming-of-age story where two young adolescents, Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, both first-time film actors) run away together, much to the chagrin and worriment of their peers, parents and other adults, most of whom are fairly unhappy and likely desire to run away from their own duties and disappointments as well. Anderson has assembled a terrific cast which includes faces both familiar (Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman) and new to the director; the latter include Edward Norton as an earnest scoutmaster, Bruce Willis as a lonely, pragmatic cop and Tilda Swinton as a fearfully efficient woman who, in a typical Andersonian quirk, goes by the name (and occupation) “Social Services”.

Naturally, a film’s setting and design will only carry it so far without an engaging narrative; in this case, the film’s story is its not-so-secret weapon which Anderson places front and center. Although he’s addressed the notion of first love before (most extensively in RUSHMORE), he’s never explored it as robustly and beautifully as he does with Sam and Suzy. The extended section where they run off together hits a crescendo of feeling and warmth that surpasses anything Anderson has previously tried in this vein. It’s almost like a whimsical take on BEFORE SUNRISE, only the characters aren’t aware that their time together is predetermined; thus their abrupt separation and eventual reunion makes more of an impact. The film’s second half aspires to an action-packed, Marx Brothers-style lunacy similar to what Anderson attempted in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, complete with fire, flash floods and even someone getting struck by lightning. Still, it’s the delicately lovely and wistful note the film concludes on that left me in a giddy haze as I exited the theater.  Grade: A