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Only 10 months and 3 days until the next Oscars are awarded on February 22, 2015.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

photo I’m admittedly (and shamefully) a latecomer to the genius of animator/director Hayao Miyazaki, whose recent masterpiece The Wind Rises was the first of his impressive 35-year career that I’ve actually seen, but may turn out to be the last the master makes, if Miyazaki follows through with his promise to retire. The Wind Rises was an absolute revelation, its hand-drawn artistry, lavish palettes and poetic resonance reminding me what an art form narrative cinema can still be in the hands of a true master. I kick myself that it took me so long to discover his work and I’ve made a promise to myself to go back and watch his previous films and make up for this gaping hole in my cinema education.

In an interesting twist—coincidence?—I find myself at the same time re-evaluating another director who I realize I may have written off too soon. It could be a great many things coming into play, maybe I’m older and I “get” them more, maybe he’s finding a clearer voice, or, maybe, he’s just making better movies, but I have to say that I am now, finally, coming around on Wes Anderson movies. I hated Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums when they came out 15 and 13 years ago, respectively. But now? I loved Anderson’s last movie, Moonrise Kingdom, and his current film, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, in my opinion, the best one yet.

Much like Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a cinematic pop-up book—a whimsical, fantastical fable that takes the audience into a world all its own. This time, it’s an elegant Eastern European hotel in the late ‘30s, run by its charming and precise concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), as seen through the eyes of its earnest Lobby Boy (Tony Revolori). There are adventures galore and Fiennes is in form we haven’t seen in years, a nice reminder of his tremendous talent—boy, he’s still got it in spades. Revolori is a nice sidekick, but, as usual in any Anderson movie, it’s the ensemble that steals the show, from the regulars (Adrian Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray), to the first-timers (Saoirse Ronan, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law), all are first-rate. Wes Anderson is more than a writer/director, he’s a genuine artist, with a style and voice all his own and he knows it. He’s comfortable with/in it, he’s able to play with it, and it works because he surrounds himself with actors who buy into it and commit just as much to it as he does. Anderson is in very rarefied air in Hollywood—much like the Coen Brothers—an artist who can make his own movie, with his own vision and voice, seemingly concerned more with artistic integrity than financial results, which must be why so many actors want to work with him again and again. It doesn’t hurt that it seems like his actors are always having a blast.

Besides the performances, what works the most about Anderson’s films now are the worlds he creates. It worked in Moonrise Kingdom and it works again here in The Grand Budapest Hotel. He paints a picture on a canvas and you are drawn in, from corner to corner, as with a paintbrush, cheeky at moments, violently at others, but always warmly, colorfully and completely engagingly. Every moment is staged for the benefit of the camera frame, and this becomes so exceedingly entertaining that it makes you giggle without you even realizing it. It’s almost as if Anderson is teasing as much as he’s revealing. It’s just such a gift to watch an artist who is able to play with an art form on the number of levels that Anderson does. From the story to the acting to the physical camera work to the set decoration to the cinematography to the score, every element of this film is nothing short of meticulous, delicious perfection.

Of course, with every Anderson film, you have to understand that you are getting a fantasy world, a highly stylized vision of magical dream-world that has no connection to real life—if you are expecting something else going in, you will be very, very confused. But, if you know going in what you’re getting and you are someone who appreciates cinema for the art form that it is and can be, and have a soft spot for the whimsy of life in all its shapes and forms, then Wes Anderson is the filmmaker for you and The Grand Budapest Hotel is the movie of your dreams.

So go see The Grand Budapest Hotel. And if you can make it a double-feature with The Wind Rises, you can cross “genius overload” off your Bucket List.

Academy Awards Best Picture Winners (1927 - 2014)

The Monuments Men

photo I guess it’s one thing to rescue great works of art from the grips of the Nazis, it’s another to make a great movie about it. Tina Fey’s joke about George Clooney should’ve been about him still floating in space while he was directing The Monuments Men instead of escaping Sandra Bullock—that would’ve been more believable.

So yes, I knew something was terribly wrong with this film when it was moved from the coveted December (Oscar race) slot last year to the dreaded February (death march) slot this year, but who knew a George Clooney-directed movie based on a best-selling book about retrieving stolen art from the Nazis starring Clooney himself, along with Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett and Hugh Bonneville could go so devastatingly off course? The Monuments Men is not only off-course, it feels like it’s actually playing on the entirely wrong field. I have no idea what co-writers Clooney and Grant Heslov (based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter) were even thinking when they wrote this screenplay, which comes off as a literal M*A*S*H-up of Ocean’s Eleven, Hogan’s Heroes and Saving Private Ryan, with dashes of every buddy movie ever seen thrown in for good measure.

The tone of this film is so completely all over the place, I had no idea whether to laugh, cry, be tense, nervous or anxious from any single moment to the next. And I seriously don’t think the actors or the filmmakers had any idea, either. The only actor playing with any stakes at all here was Blanchett, who quite literally seems like she’s in another movie altogether. Everyone else is playing some sort of army play-camp game and Clooney is their Scout leader.

The subject here is so rife with potential and the story is a most fascinating one: the biggest treasure hunt in history, to salvage cultural and historical artifacts and to preserve artworks that are priceless, this is a monumental story that deserves to be told. But it’s clear from the start that Clooney and Heslov are lost, they seem so concerned with keeping their audience entertained, as if talking about art for two hours will lose us, so they feel the need to pander by turning this into some sort of silly buddy movie of the lowest common denominator. Nothing works here, absolutely nothing, and the constant shifts in tone are jarring at best.

Add to it the cheesy dialogue, poor editing, and by far the worst score I have ever heard from the normally genius Alexandre Desplat, and I can easily say The Monuments Men is the first major disappointment of 2014. Of course, it is February—I have only myself to blame.

My Top 10 of 2013

1. Gravity
2. Her
3. Captain Phillips
4. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
5. Philomena
6. 12 Years a Slave
7. The Way Way Back
8. Rush
9. Blue Jasmine
10. This Is The End

Gravity

photo There aren’t many movies that leave me speechless. Or breathless. In fact, Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, Gravity, felt like it sucked every vital organ out of my body for 90 minutes, except for my eyes and ears—the only ones it needed—and those it held in glorious captivity throughout one of the most compelling, if not the most visually stunning cinematic experiences I’ve had.

The basics: Gravity is set in space and stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who play two astronauts who must try to survive an accident that destroys their space station while they are literally floating in space, orbiting Earth. I myself was dubious as to how a full-length movie was going to sustain on a premise of floating in space (I mean, what else is there to do, really, out there), but every doubt I had evaporated from the first moment. To say this film is an immersive experience is to understate its power, its beauty and its transcendence. Do not be concerned with what it’s about or whether you might be bored by it or whether it might be too scary or how it’s been marketed. None of that matters.

What matters is everything between the credits. Everything that is the experience of this film.

It may be a space movie, it may not have the strongest story or the most riveting (if much at all) dialogue, or character development, but what Gravity lacks in traditional narrative elements, it more than makes up for in the most fluidly arresting visual storytelling I’ve ever seen on screen. I can’t remember the last time I was so absorbed by a film as I was by this one. The visual effects are so affecting, they just may make you gasp more than once and will certainly make your jaw drop. The details of the technical achievements don’t matter (although they are absolutely astounding), what matters is the end result and the result, for me, was and always is the experience. I love movies because of movies like Gravity. I love being drawn into another world (or, in this case, the world above our own), and living there—and believing it—for two hours, absorbed, captivated and emotionally entwined with it and the characters. And I’ll tell you another thing…I certainly don’t mind being in sheer awe of what I’m seeing either.

If you love movies, see Gravity. If you crave transcendent experiences that just may give you a whole new perspective on art, cinema, technology, humankind and our place in the universe, run to the nearest theatre that has the largest screen and the best sound system, wait for the next showing and just….breathe.

MY CURRENT SMART PICKS

Top 5 List:

My Five Favorite Ralph Fiennes Movies:

1. The English Patient (1996)
2. The End of the Affair (1999)
3. In Bruges (2008)
4. The Hurt Locker (2008)
5. Schindler's List (1993)

Rental Pick:

Hanna (2011)

Favorite Trailer of the Moment:

Awesome Movie Montages and Lists: