It's taken five weeks, but 2014 finally has a great movie on its hands. No, it's not "Boyhood," any other selection from the Sundance Film Festival last month or Lars Von Trier's slightly overrated "Nymphomaniac." It's Wes Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel." That's no disrespect to Richard Linklater's buzzed drama, it's no doubt great. "Grand Budapest" is very different from "Boyhoood" or any other film that screened in Park City. Simply, Anderson's latest is an example of an auteur at the peak of his cinematic powers.
Anderson's aesthetic has evolved over the years and he's had some missteps along the way (yes, "The Darjeeling Limited," we're looking at you). In fact, this author wasn't really a fan of the Texas native until his stop-motion animated wonder, "Fantastic Mr. Fox." And yet, with that film and then "Moonrise Kingdom," Anderson has settled into a creative groove. He's always had a distinct voice, but now he's figured out how to make it work consistently. The context of his stories, characters and distinct style make much more sense than they did eight to 10 years ago. Moreover, they allow the subtleties of his storytelling, which have been lost on audiences at times, to finally shine through.
"Budapest's" artistic accomplishment will likely be covered by G. Lodge's official review and a review closer to release from D. McWeeny. But let's talk Oscar shall we? It all begins with the date.
Fox Searchlight and the filmmakers no doubt have their reasons for releasing "Budapest" in the Spring. The obvious comparison is "Moonrise Kingdom." That Focus Features release was a monster art house hit grossing $45 million domestic the summer of 2012. Anderson's "Royal Tenenbaums" earned slightly more in December 2001, but Disney spent a tremendous amount to market it during the holidays and the grumblings from the Mouse House were heard all around town. Among Anderson's other releases, "Mr. Fox," "Darjeeling" and "Life Aquatic" failed commercially with fall release dates. Moreover, unlike "Moonrise," which grossed just $21 million overseas, "Grand Budapest" has the international star power and Euro-centric storyline to be a much bigger hit across the pond (one reason it's opening the Berlin Film Festival). So, for the financial success of the picture, a March release makes sense. For awards season? Well, we'll see.
To be completely honest, if this had been released in late November or December of 2013, this pundit is convinced it would have made the Best Picture field. It's accomplished, entertaining, funny, has a subtle serious undertone to it and features an incredible acting ensemble including a "give this man a Best Actor nomination" turn by Ralph Fiennes (more on him later). But, that didn't happen, so let's not dwell on it. Or, let's leave that to others for now.
The big question is whether "Budapest" will still be a relevant contender with a March release date. Focus believed in "Moonrise," but even with stellar reviews it was hard to pull out anything other than an original screenplay nomination (Anderson has two of those and a Best Animated Feature Film nod). Searchlight actually thought they might get some traction for "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," which was released in the Spring of 2012, but grabbing much more than some SAG and Golden Globe nominations was too difficult with so many films entering the fray in the final months of the year (and yes, we're well aware we're talking apples and oranges in terms of quality but members actually mentioned "Marigold" throughout the year).
Since the Best Picture field expanded to as many as 10 nominees, May releases "The Tree of Life" and "Midnight in Paris" are the earliest bows of the nominees. "The Hurt Locker," "Up," "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Winter's Bone" each hit theaters in June. Let's be clear, however. There is a huge difference between March and May. So, if the hype starts building with critical kudos, just take it all with a grain of salt, awards watchers. The last time a film released before May and landed a Best Picture nomination? "Erin Brockovich" in 2000.
One contender that actors, film lovers and awards watchers should keep the fire burning for is Ralph Fiennes. Beyond Anderson's smart and succinct script, the film's amazing production design and (again) fantastic ensemble, "Grand Budapest" lives and dies on Fiennes' performance as M. Gustav. He's simply phenomenal, delivering Anderson's quick dialogue with expert deadpan precision. Moreover, even with its large cast, Fiennes is the engine that drives "Budapest." He makes you root for M. Gustav and helps transform him into one of Anderson's most memorable characters. He's never made a flat out comedy before (no, 1998's "The Avengers" doesn't count) and you could certainly argue Anderson's films are not traditional comedies. That being said, "Grand Budapest" will be a massive reminder to producers and filmmakers around the world just how wide Fiennes' range is.
Fiennes is really the only possible acting contender in the cast, but it must be pointed out how wonderful it is to see F. Murray Abraham, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe and Adrien Brody seemingly having the time of their lives. Their enthusiasm over the material completely translates on screen and a number of them haven't been this energetic in a movie in years (or possibly this century).
While almost all of Anderson's films have been exemplary below the line, "Grand Budapest" feels as though its team has taken the director's aesthetic to another level. More than any of his other films, you often feel as though you're watching live action actors in a stop-motion animated world. Production designer Adam Stockhausen, who collaborated with Anderson on "Moonrise," has done a superb job and it's quite a jump from his incredibly realistic Oscar-nominated work on "12 Years A Slave." And, as always, Alexandre Desplat's score is fantastic. This could easily earn him a seventh Academy Award nomination.
We haven't even gotten to Anderson, of course. It would be shocking to see him passed over for another original screenplay nomination, but the date will have a lot to say in terms of where "Grand Budapest" will play in the season. Some might think it's comical to consider such possibilities in the beginning of February, but the case has been made as to how difficult it is to be a contender before a May or June debut. For Anderson and his cast and crew, let's hope those odds are wrong.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" opens in limited release on March 7.