Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H. in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
There was a point when Johnny Depp was reportedly supposed to star in "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (though Wes Anderson has subsequently denied that was ever the case, suggesting it was written for the person who ended up playing it). It's an intriguing thought, certainly, but we wouldn't want anyone but Ralph Fiennes in the role: it's a career-changing, comic tour-de-force that, despite the film's sprawling cast, pretty much comes to dominate the picture (Ed Norton recently said he would have fought tooth and nail for the part had he not instantly thought Fiennes was born to play the role). We've seen glimpses of Fiennes' lighter side before —his foul-mouthed gang boss in "In Bruges," on stage in "The God Of Carnage"—but this is something else. Gustave H. is like if David Niven and Peter Sellers shared the same body, a debonair, rather camp sexual omnivore, the king of his own little domain, who's aware that his time on the throne is coming to an end. Like Royal, he's a man out of time (as Zero, his protege, says at one point, "His world had vanished long before he ever entered it, but he certainly sustained the illusion with a remarkable grace"), and for all the deft comic skills he displays, he's the source of the film's deep melancholy as well. Like so many of Anderson's characters, Gustave is self-centered, self-involved and even thoughtlessly cruel, but though Fiennes can often be somewhat chilly as an actor, he's effortlessly warm here, enough for you to root for him and Zero on his adventures, and miss him deeply when he, and the world he represents, is gone.
George Clooney as Mr. Fox (aka “Foxy”) In “Fantastic Mr. Fox”
"I think I have this thing where everybody has to think I'm the greatest, the quote unquote 'Fantastic Mr. Fox', and if they aren't completely knocked out and dazzled and slightly intimidated by me, I don't feel good about myself," George Clooney’s Mr. Fox says in Wes Anderson’s first animated movie, revealing much of his darker true nature. A relentless optimist not unlike Dignan (and perhaps the polar opposite of the sour and grouchy Steve Zissou), Wes Anderson’s Mr. Fox also wears a lot of vain and showy masks to make up for his own insecurities. And this simply articulates why Anderson’s animated movie “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” is probably much more sophisticated than you originally remembered (and how it’s not really for kids at all and is just as emotionally complex as any other Wes Anderson film which is probably why it didn’t connect at the box-office like most animated movies do). As played by George Clooney, you can tell the actor just gets it and snaps into the rhythm of Anderson’s movie extremely effortlessly (man, we’d love to see him as one of Anderson’s wintry sad-sack characters in a live-action movie one day). Thematically, there’s a lot of richness in the movie you may have forgotten, particularly the notion that Mr. Fox is self-destructive at heart because he’s feral, a wild animal and he just can’t help himself. Narcissistic and needy, but eventually coming through for the family and neighbors he almost ruins, there’s a lot of heart and soul in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and much of it comes through in the perfectly nuanced inflections and emotions of Clooney’s voice. A severely underrated performance in the Wes Anderson canon, and likely just as undersung in his oeuvre.
Bill Murray as Harold Herman Blume in “Rushmore”
“How the hell did you get so rich? You're a quitter, man!,” young Max Fischer yells at his much-older, but perhaps just as immature friend Herman Blume. Played by Bill Murray in an absolutely terrific and pitch-perfect performance that earned him his first award season love (he somehow missed out on an Oscar nomination, but earned a Golden Globe and his career as a “serious” actor was instantly born), it’s easy to forget that in 1998, the comedian had not yet gone through the career renaissance that gave him some of the best and most memorable roles of his career in fare like “Lost In Translation,” “Broken Flowers,” “The Life Aquatic.” Murray’s turn in “Rushmore” not only opened doors for all of these now beloved serio-comic performances, but it unlocked something inspired in the actor audiences had never seen before. A wealthy industrialist and father to boys he barely relates to, let alone recognizes, Herman Blume is the now prototypical disillusioned and now-weathered character who has seen his lumps over the years. Lonely, alienated from his family and wife who soon divorces him, Herman is yearning for something and he finds kinship and friendship in a precocious young 15-year-old boy named Max Fischer who reminds him of who he was many winters ago. Anderson’s “Rushmore” has a soft bittersweet and autumnal tone to it and Murray’s performance is not even a half-note out of place, playing the comedy just right and the melancholy notes like a virtuoso at the piano with nothing to prove. Layered, sad, funny and textured, on top of the dynamite turn by Jason Schwartzman as Max, it’s not hard to see why many of us still believe “Rushmore” is Anderson’s greatest film to date.
If we did a 7th pick, the washed-up and disabused Steve Zissou would be on this list and as much as that’s heresy for some, if we’re going to go with one Bill Murray pick—which was the goal—we’ve got to stick with the one at hand. Sound off, bitch and moan below. And remember while quarreling: You never say, "I'm gonna fight you, " You just smile and act natural, and then you sucker-punch him. — Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez