Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Can “Asteroid City” Bring Wes Anderson Back To The Oscars?

Wes Anderson’s newest film, “Asteroid City,” premiered at Cannes in May to very favorable reviews, even with many established Anderson-skeptics impressed with his latest work. The film comes to theaters nationwide in mid-June and seems to be eying a legitimate awards run. Many of the reviews coming out of Cannes praised certain aspects of the film, from technicals to acting performances, but also shared a common sentiment to them more broadly: “Wes Anderson is back.” This brought me back to a question I have been wondering about since the awards-season collapse of his previous film, “The French Dispatch,” a few seasons ago. Is Wes Anderson still in “The Club” regarding the Oscars? I wrote this winter asking the same question about the composer (and frequent Wes Anderson collaborator) Alexandre Desplat- a person who enjoyed major Oscar success after his first breakthrough on awards stages but who has recently failed to secure the nominations that we had become accustomed to name-checking him for. Looking at Wes Anderson’s own Oscar track record, he begs the same question. Additionally, how much was he ever in The Club to begin with? Can “Asteroid City” re-establish him as a member of the group of perennial Oscar contenders, or will he again be looking in from the outside like he was with “The French Dispatch?”

It’s important first to place this discussion in context within Anderson’s career and Oscar history. The first nomination earned by one of his films was for his third feature in 2001, “The Royal Tenenbaums.” After impressing with “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” the seal was finally broken for Anderson when he himself was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. He was officially “Academy Award nominee Wes Anderson” and looked like a very promising rising voice in Hollywood. However, his following two features, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (which did enjoy a reasonably successful run in the guilds) and “The Darjeeling Limited,” struck out entirely when it came to significant awards. It was after these that Anderson pivoted to his first stop-motion animated film in 2009, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which not only emerged as a worthy entry in the canon of all-time greats of animation but also put Anderson’s movies back on the Oscar stage with nominations in Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score, a full eight years after first being there. It seems this was a turning point; as unrecognized as his work was during that previous near-decade, a full reversal was about to happen: in the decade that would follow, there wouldn’t be a Wes Anderson film that didn’t get nominated at the Oscars.

His next film would be 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” which landed Anderson back in the Best Original Screenplay lineup (and put up impressive other showings among critics groups, and even got top-of-the-line attention with nominations at the Producers Guild Awards and Golden Globe awards!). Anderson was becoming familiar on the awards circuit and seemed primed for a breakout. And break out he did, just two years later, with his next film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” To this day, the crowning achievement of his career in terms of awards success but also just personal style and storytelling, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” secured nine Oscar nominations (and came close in a couple of other categories), including Best Picture and Best Director for Anderson himself, and also gave his films their first Oscar statuettes with four wins, tying Best Picture winner “Birdman” as the night’s biggest winner. A Wes Anderson film was indisputably front-and-center on the Oscars stage, and it was exactly the kind of mammoth showing that christens a filmmaker into the proverbial “Club” of folks that forever have Oscar hopes attached to their projects.

It would be a few years before his next project, but when his second stop-motion animated film, “Isle of Dogs,” came out in 2018, a couple of Oscar nominations in Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score followed in step, exactly replicating the showing of “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” despite not being on the same level as far as critical acclaim and warm reception. Hardly acknowledged to be one of Anderson’s strongest or splashiest works even at the time of release, he found himself back at the Oscars pretty comfortably- as a member of the Club would expect!

This kind of showing made me (and others, no doubt) comfortably confident about the Oscar chances of “The French Dispatch” in 2021, even amongst mixed reviews. It was a large, hugely designed, star-studded ensemble period piece with his signature immaculate dollhouse detail with almost all of his usual collaborators- just like “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” It seemed like a slam dunk on paper, an ambitious and true-to-form live-action return. Even as momentum slowed for it upon release and mixed reviews came in, I and many others remained optimistic for it as an awards player in categories like Best Production Design, Best Original Score, and maybe even Best Original Screenplay. The film, however, was shockingly blanked entirely on Oscar nomination morning in 2022, and I was forced to really reexamine my view of the relationship between the Oscars and Anderson’s work (especially as not only a committed fan of Wes Anderson but also fairly adamant “The French Dispatch” apologist). Was this a signal that he was no longer in evergreen good favor with the Oscars? Was “The Grand Budapest Hotel” the exception to the rule, not the trendsetter of things to come?

When trying to answer these questions, we can take the long view and continue to view Anderson’s Oscar track record as one with more successes than failures, no matter how colossal of a letdown a shutout for “The French Dispatch” was. After all, the stark reality is just that the industry and critics really didn’t like “The French Dispatch” as a whole, regardless of any long-standing goodwill toward Anderson as a filmmaker. Its reception was as comparably muted as that of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “The Darjeeling Limited” back in the 2000s, and thus (understandably? predictably?) met the same fate, in contrast to his many more heavily-awarded projects. Many cried “style over substance” as Anderson’s remarkably unique personal style, which has begun to push even the most grounded fiction toward fantasy, reached new heights. From one very plausible vantage point, “The French Dispatch” is an explainable blemish in a decades-long endearment to Anderson’s work at the Oscars. “Nothing personal, Wes, we just didn’t love this one. See you next time, though!”

There’s another side of the coin, though, which shows the blanking of “The French Dispatch” as indicative of a deeper-rooted issue for Anderson at the Oscars and sets the massive success of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in stark opposition with the rest of his career. Of course, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is Anderson’s only Best Picture and Best Director nominee. Still, even crafts like production design and cinematography have become so synonymous with his personal style and brand that SNL, TikTokers, and AI have discovered a rich vein in spoofing it and were only nominated for this single film throughout his career. His repeated success, outside of his streak in Best Original Screenplay, could be attributed to the Academy’s mid-2010s obsession with Alexandre Desplat and their pigeonholing of his animated work into the Animated Feature category as a recognizable name on the backs of incredible stop-motion artists.

These perspectives offer a foggy look at the status of Wes Anderson as a member of “The Club” at the Oscars and make the season ahead for “Asteroid City” a particularly interesting prospect. First reactions out of Cannes describe it as a return to form, with all the same trinket-like design and quippy writing that you’d expect from his movies, but also containing a real heart and cozy sentimentality in approaching big questions that many folks said was lacking from “The French Dispatch.” Anderson has never directed an Oscar-nominated acting performance (though Ralph Fiennes’ snub for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” remains a historically significant atrocity in many people’s eyes, including mine). There doesn’t seem to be any particular standout performance in “Asteroid City” with enough meat to put it into that conversation. If it is going to be an awards player, it seems like it will excel in Anderson’s apparent powerhouse in Best Original Screenplay for his fourth time, as well as the craft categories, bringing along his past collaborators back to Oscar recognition in Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, and more. Such initial solid reactions after the premiere certainly allow space for the now very cautiously optimistic fan of his to be hopeful of another “The Grand Budapest Hotel“-esque showing at the Oscars- maybe when it rains, it pours for him?- with plays even in Best Picture and Best Director not out of the question if critics and audiences continue to warm up to it.

This is a precarious moment for Wes Anderson as a member of “The Club” at the Oscars. The ceiling is very high, as we have seen before. Still, the floor is shockingly low, with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The French Dispatch” serving as respective examples in recent memory for Oscar predictors. Where will “Asteroid City” land on that spectrum? It is being released relatively early in the season (a March release certainly treated “The Grand Budapest Hotel” well in its year!), and we can only guess where it will stand next winter as it begins to navigate the long season ahead.

How many Oscar nominations do you think “Asteroid City” will receive? Do you think Wes Anderson, himself, will receive any Oscar nominations this year? Have you seen the film yet? If so, what did you think?¬†Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Cole and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @CurtissOnFilm

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