The Best Movie of 2014: The Grand Budapest Hotel

I mentioned yesterday that there was a great variety of movies on the five different lists submitted for our Best Movies of 2014 poll. That’s true, but at the same time, one movie ran away with the top spot in a decisive victory: Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel didn’t just appear on every list, it ranked first on three of them and within the top five on all five lists. Rather than figure out who should write about this movie, then, we decided to talk about it together. Here’s on our collective favorite movie of 2014:

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Given that Anderson is a filmmaker whose greatest awards attention tends to come in the writing categories, it’s not surprising that authors and literature have often played an integral part of his work: The Royal Tenenbaums opens with a library book bearing the film’s title being handed to and stamped by a librarian before the mellifluous tones of Alec Baldwin’s narrator take over to read from said book. And while Moonrise Kingdom uses orchestral music as a frame rather than fiction, its romantic freewheeling plot could be lifted right from one of Suzy Bishop’s young-adult treasures. Then there’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s first and only literary adaptation (and animated feature) thus far, whose colorful images spring to life straight from Dahl’s pages. But The Grand Budapest Hotel marks the first time he’s made an author the explicit deliverer of the story he’s telling, with a structure that unfolds and folds back on itself as delicately as origami.

We begin in 1985 with a young girl going to visit the grave of a famous unnamed author. The girl sits down and opens one of the author’s books: The Grand Budapest Hotel. In a sprightly comedic interval, we jump for a moment to the author, played in old age by Tom Wilkinson, in the midst of writing the book, which proves to be a memoir of someone else’s story. “Once the public knows you’re a writer,” he says, “the public brings the characters and events to you.” His narration brings us further backward to 1968 when the author, played now by Jude Law, visits the titular hotel and met Zero Moustafa, the current owner, who has invited him to dinner and proceeds to share the tale that takes up the majority of the film’s runtime: the halcyon years between the world wars when Zero was a young lobby boy and the hotel was run by M. Gustave, a man of impeccable bearing and a taste for the company of elderly guests.

Grand Budapest Writer

It’s a potentially dizzying first act, with all of its layered timelines. Anderson is well known, and sometimes dinged, by critics for the tight construction of his films — but the method is nothing if not purposeful. While in past films the use of chapters allowed for a steady accumulation of action and emotion, here the way the story spins outward to the past has a wistful, elegant quality that serves the tone of his narrative. Anderson has openly acknowledged that the stories of Stefan Zweig provided inspiration for the film; Zweig was a writer living in Vienna when WWII broke out and while his work from the pre-war era has a nimble grace, he was shattered by his experiences and eventually committed suicide after moving abroad. The mournfulness of such loss hangs over The Grand Budapest Hotel as Zero’s story makes clear; for one of Anderson’s most whimsical creations, it also has the highest body count. But as the narration sweeps us back to the girl closing her beloved book, we are reminded of one of the foremost joys that great literature and film can bring us: we can’t return to these wonderful places in the past, indeed they may never have truly existed. But we can always visit.

Like Sara, I also thought about Anderson’s past movies while thinking about Grand Budapest, in part because he did something no filmmaker has been able to do since I’ve been making best-of-the-year lists (so, over twenty years): he’s made two movies that I’ve ranked at number one. I had Moonrise Kingdom at the top of my list in 2012 — and The Royal Tenenbaums only maybe loses out in 2001 because one of my other favorite movies evere, Moulin Rouge!, came out the same year.

Of course, best-of lists are somewhat arbitrary and I’m a huge Anderson fan, so maybe it’s just strange that it hasn’t happened even more often (come at me, and I’ll talk about how great The Darjeeling Limited is). But I think it’s notable that an Anderson movie was able to break out of pretty crowded movie years in both 2012 and 2014, and that he keeps making movies that feel like culminations of what he’s been doing over the years. Much has already been written about the fussiness of the Grand Budapest production design, and how that seems more the point than ever — allowing some who haven’t vibed with past Anderson films to get past what they sometimes see as a weakness, rather than an entrancing feature, of his work (though I’d argue the fastidiousness of the designs, camera movements, etc., has always had a good reason). I’m particularly struck in this movie how Anderson continues his visual effects work. It really began with The Life Aquatic, which featured stop-motion creatures great and small. At the time, it seemed like a warm-up for the stop-motion project Fantastic Mr. Fox (another movie where the meticulousness of Anderson’s vision was “excused,” by those who needed to make an excuse, due to the particular medium he was working in). But Moonrise Kingdom also featured a surprising amount of effects work for a movie about two kids running away together on a small island: the climactic storm, in particular, features rushing floods of water and a small but potent fireworks explosion, complete with dramatic leap to safety from Edward Norton.

The effects work in Moonrise is simple, not always “convincing” in the photorealistic sense, but very much of a piece with Anderson’s aesthetic, and he takes that to even greater heights in Grand Budapest, where he’s clearly using some kind of miniature for the movie’s widest exterior shots (making the titular hotel look like an elaborate dollhouse), and later essentially mounts an entire chase scene fudged with miniatures, animation, and trick shots. I don’t know exactly how it was filmed but I’m reasonably certain Ralph Fiennes and company were not actually careening down a snowy mountain — possibly not within miles of a snowy mountain, for that matter. This marriage of big physical production design and small-scale effects shots makes the movie feel, as Sara alludes when discussing Anderson’s tight control over other matters, both expansive and intimate. I love that rather than easing up on his controlling tendencies, Anderson, if anything, went further, harnessing all of this design and effects work to make something even more fussy and specific. I’m not sure if this was the goal, but I think Grand Budapest Hotel might be what an epic Wes Anderson movie looks like.

GBH ski

I’ve also heard the criticisms about the Anderson production design, and he’s a lot more playful that most people give him credit for. Focusing on something — like whether or not his characters are allowed to move in diagonal lines — and call him rigid when, like Jesse pointed out, he’s perfectly comfortable sending a toy funicular up a fake mountain during a serious scene in a movie.

Another way Anderson is less rigid than his detractors say: The accents in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Accents are tricky in movies. They’re one of those things that exist mainly to be screwed up. When done right, no one says much (well, maybe about Meryl Streep’s technical precision back in the eighties). But if they call attention to themselves in any way, more often than not it’s because they attracted complaints about their perceived accuracy. (Nathaniel tells a story about how a friend of his complained about Keira Knightly’s supposedly awful fake English accent in Pirates of the Caribbean. Whoops! That’s just her voice.) And they’re definitely something a supposed control-freak like Anderson could obsess over, trying to get it perfect.

Most of the time, I think: Why would any director bother? Why put actors through that, making them flatten out their vocal uniqueness to sound like the imagined platonic ideal of a certain accent? Unless it’s essential to the story, I don’t really see the point – and even then, I still sometimes don’t. It’s much more interesting to have a flawed, varied, true voice. Big Eyes, for example, chose to let Christoph Waltz use his inaccurate-to-true-life German accent because it understood that it was the character’s charisma, not his dialect, that was most important to the story. And it worked; his performance is amazing.

For me, one of the greatest pleasures of The Grand Budapest Hotel is that Anderson gives all of the actors the freedom to speak with their own accents, perfectionism be damned. Saoirse Ronan’s voice sings in its natural lilt, making her seem even more delicate and ethereal. Ralph Fiennes’ fusty British accent is befitting of an international concierge. Tony Revolori, being from California, is the opposite; he doesn’t have a stereotypical accent one would associate with a refugee from a country called Aq Salim al-Jabat, nor does he sound much like his older counterpart played by F. Murray Abraham, but that incongruity makes the whole thing all the more interesting.

Anderson’s reputation for being meticulously tied to his aesthetic is usually followed with the accusation that it makes his movies cold. The accents in Grand Budapest show he’s a lot looser than people realize, and he loves his characters (who also have great love for each other), and I actually find all of his movies very warm because of it. The production design may be fussily perfect, but the people are still messy.

The Grand Budapest Hotel - 64th Berlin Film Festival

Thinking about what to say about this movie (also my vote for Number One on this list), I keep thinking about that tension between whimsy and mourning that Sara mentioned. Most of Anderson’s pictures find their characters dealing with a loss of some sort as their stories begin. Sometimes it happens at the beginning of the film, like Esteban’s death in The Life Aquatic or the dissolution of the Tenenbaum family, and sometimes it’s something that occurred prior to the film, like the parental deaths in Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited. And in about half of them, he bookends the story with another loss. The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Zero Moustafa gets it really hard on both ends.

Sara rightly points out that the film is both one of Anderson’s most delightful (with a great depth and breadth of silliness and funny business) while also carrying the highest body count in any of his films. The violence can be shocking, and while he creates a host of lovable characters, he is unsentimental in telling their stories. A lot of that is just intrinsic to Anderson’s storytelling voice, but it is also necessary here because this movie represents him expanding the scope of his vision to incorporate world history. The movie takes place in Wes Anderson world, but here we learn that this world has had the same problems as ours. As the Nazis (under a veil of Anderson design and serio-comic remove, but still, it’s a pretty thin veil) encroach on and eventually invade the fictional country of Zubrowka, Anderson situates his characters in a clear analog for European history in the 1930s, and they fare about the way people did in our world. While we’re distracted by the fantastic comic chemistry between Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, and the delightful caper/mystery plot, Anderson sneakily sets his world on a trajectory familiar to folks who know what happened in the 20th century. It turns out that in this film, the bookending tragedy isn’t just what happens to Zero and his loved ones (though of course that hurts), but it is something that happens to the whole world — and we even get to see the ripples of it, thanks to that nesting doll structure.

For my part, as the movie ended and Anderson (and Zero) gently slip in a couple of revelations, almost as a postscript, that make it clear that the outside world may ultimately have more to do with the fates of our heroes than the disposition of “Boy With Apple,” I was struck by a wave of melancholy (familiar in Anderson’s work). Nonetheless, my overall immediate impression was more informed by the buoyant sense of joy and invention throughout the film. But the next morning, as I went out for groceries, those final moments floated back into my mind and I nearly had to stop and catch my breath. I’m not sure how best to articulate it, but I was so moved that at least Zero was there to mourn for Gustave H., a good man. However delicately delivered, the harshness of those final moments really crystalized the movie’s arguments for just why somebody like Gustave H. (or Wes Anderson, movie director) does what they do. As the man says, “You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant… oh, fuck it.”