#17 – The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Wes Anderson, one of my favorite directors, released three movies in the last decade.
2012’s Moonrise Kingdom received plenty of acclaim but is the rare Anderson film that left me a little cold, at least after one viewing. I owe it a revisit. 2018’s Isle of Dogs is a beautiful, hilarious animated gem, one that fell just outside of this Top 20.
But 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was the standout, and my favorite Anderson film since the exquisite The Royal Tenenbaums.
Grand Budapest is a delirious dark comedy about the relationship between a legendary hotel concierge and a lobby boy in the titular hotel in the 1930s. At times farcical, at times tragic, and always visually extravagant, it’s a full meal with an extra helping of dessert.
Ralph Fiennes, in his greatest ever performance, plays Monsieur Gustave H., who runs the hotel with an old-world charm that is already a bit out of time. Tony Revolori plays Zero, the lobby boy Gustave takes under his wing. Their friendship forms the spine of a movie that features romances with elderly women, a prison break, a downhill ski chase, a secret network of concierges called the Society of the Crossed Keys, and a priceless Renaissance painting titled Boy With Apple.
In other words, it’s a plot that could spring only from the fevered, precious imagination of Wes Anderson. Those who hate him will hate it. Those who love him will be in heaven.
Anderson is in particularly rare form when it comes to the film’s structure and visuals. Grand Budapest is built like a Russian doll, with framing devices inside framing devices. The main story is relayed by Zero as an old man to an author who eventually writes it into a novel. As the film begins, a young girl pays respects to that author (now dead) by visiting his tombstone.
Each of those time periods is shot in a different aspect ratio, suitable to the setting, from the square frame of the 30s scenes to the wider lenses capturing the action in the 60s, 80s and present day.
The structure plays up the movie’s themes of the power of storytelling and the inevitable passage of time. The farther back Anderson goes, the more elaborate and confectionery the visuals. Gustave basically lives in a pastel pop-up book, bursting with detail and even slipping into animation in a couple of scenes.
I get why some people find Anderson’s films a bit much. But when he is hitting all the right notes, as he is here, his work is a reminder that cinema is the most transporting and imaginative of art forms.