Get out your bowties and put on some 60s rock ‘n’ roll because it’s time to talk about Wes Anderson.
Many of you will have had different reactions to his films. They’re precious, unsettling, and so highly stylized that it’s difficult to separate them out in your head if you aren’t versed in his ideas. I came to him late, around 2012, and still remember the first time I saw one of his films. Picture it, a hungover me stumbling down the stairs at my buddy’s place. Everyone else was still passed out but I’ve never been much of a late sleeper. I came down and discovered his brother watching a movie on the old desktop PC. I didn’t ask what he was watching, I just sat down and followed along because my head was pounding and I couldn’t form words that Sunday morning. That young man introduced me to Wes Anderson and all of his goofy, heartfelt, ridiculously sincere films.
Most of you will have seen at least one Wes Anderson film, and my money’s on The Grand Budapest Hotel, but there are several other wondrous entries in his catalogue and I don’t think there’s much in there that isn’t worth your time. Let’s talk about it, shall we?
9. Rushmore : I get it, I really do. This is everyone’s twee favorite about a young boy named Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) that is just absolutely lost. He’s smart, but not academically driven. He’s grating, but it has a certain charm to it. He’s obsessed with his teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) to the point of discomfort. His best friend is an industrialist tycoon named Herman Blume (Bill Murray) that suffers from the most bland case of ennui that I’ve ever seen in an American film. All the pieces for something fun are there, and yet I can never fully engage with it. I’m so baffled at the open adoration for this film, with critics and viewers all citing it as a personal favorite in Anderson’s run. To me it’s a deeply uninteresting story that never manages to leave the realm of “aggressively okay” and that’s a hard pill to swallow.
8. The Darjeeling Limited : I absolutely adored this the first time I saw it, weirdly attached to something that had so little to hold onto. The story follows Francis, Peter, and Jack as they literally carry their father’s baggage on a trip to get over his death while they look for their mom. A young me loved the idea of father issues, as mine run rampant to this day. The search for a mother figure was important as well, seeing as I’ve got tension with my own. As an adult, though, I find the whole thing too cutsie. They’re LITERALLY carrying their father’s baggage. A child is killed and it’s supposed to carry narrative consequence, but rather winds up being hollow and exploitative. The film is full of Anderson’s many quirks, from professional steadicam shots to the beginnings of his need for parallelism. It’s a goofy, sweet little film, but it lacks a lot of what came to be better storytelling that still incorporated his particular oeuvre.
7. The Isle of Dogs : I saw this movie after a six pack of beer and a jar of Carolina Reaper salsa that I ate with a friend and his wife. She then proceeded to sneak beers into the theatre in her purse so that we could taper off instead of cut cold turkey. So…that was fun. The film is an absolutely goofy piece that incorporates references to anime, Toho kaiju films, Westernized versions of Japanese culture, and a very strange sense of language disparity. I find the film adorable, my love of dogs being no small reason, but there’s a bizarre bit of cultural appropriation and distortion that lends a specific bit of nastiness to the animation. The spirit of the film discorporates quickly, leaving you to rely on plot instead of theme. Thank goodness the plot is cute as hell, one that follows a small boy landing on an island to save his dog after all of them were shipped there for…no reason. Animation is a strange thing for a major, oscar-winning director to deal with. Anderson delved into this once before (we’ll get to it, hang on a damn second) and his chosen claymation style carries a lot of the film. I love the film, but I can also readily see why so many had issues with it.
6. Bottle Rocket : I had a lot of fun with this weird, silly little heist film. Owen and Luke Wilson got their start alongside Anderson, and they all came up to prominence together. The brothers starred as friends Dignan and Anthony, two losers that have a plan to pull off several small heists and launch themselves to a life of luxury. Things go wrong, if you didn’t already gather that, and hilarity ensues. Not much of what Anderson would become is here outside of the brothers Wilson, but it contains a fun little narrative that shouldn’t take you much time to get through. The film was a commercial disaster but it led to the careers of these three men. That’s a win for us, and no small one.
5. The Fantastic Mister Fox : Look, I know this one ranks really high for a lot of people but it’s a middle-of-the-pack film for me. Doesn’t mean I don’t adore it, seeing as it’s about as perfect as you could want. The voice cast is stacked, and I mean George Clooney/Meryl Streep/Jason Schwartzman/Bill Murray/Willem Dafoe/Michael Gambon/Owen Wilson/Roman Coppola/Jarvis Cocker/Brian Cox/Adrien Brody/Mario Batali stacked. Hell, Anderson even gets to voice a weasel real estate agent. I mean…he plays an actual weasel. Everything about this is charming, but something I truly found profound is the idea of a man trapped in life and wanting to pull one big score. That doesn’t matter if you’re talking about stealing chickens from the meanest farmers in town or recording an album or recording a book, a person always wants that big accomplishment. I took to that hard, even over a decade ago. It’s profound for a film posing as a kid movie.
4. The Royal Tenenbaums : So this one’s quite the cry-movie for me. It’s not truly profound until the end, when Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller) tells his father Royal (Gene Hackman) that he’s had a hard year. I’ve mentioned a plethora of times that I’ve got an antagonistic, uneasy relationship with my father, so seeing all of that portrayed onscreen as the young man still needs his father to vent to. “Family film” has become a term that most use to refer to animated films, but there was a time when an R-rated comedy about a wealthy shithead and his ennui-laden family could be a family film simply because it had so much to say about the nature of family. I didn’t see this until I bought the Criterion Collection release and it has remained a favorite of mine ever since. Charming, vicious, adorable, and devastating, The Royal Tenenbaums remains an American masterpiece and one of the strongest films the director ever put forth.
3. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou : Who doesn’t love a movie about a man in a weird hat that exists in a constant state of depression, jealousy, and angry revenge fantasies? Anderson’s fourth film let Bill Murray lead as a comedic manic depressive, someone that got famous for documentary features and then for the death of his best friend. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) opens the film with horrid cries as he cradles his best friend in the water. The man was killed by a Jaguar Shark, a thing that no one believes exists and that Zissou is now hell-bent on killing. He’s joined in his endeavor by Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a boy that believes Zissou to be his father. Together they face danger, death, charming visuals, and the absolutely dynamite sexuality of Jeff Goldblum. Initially the film received a lot of flack for taking Anderson’s visual style and going balls-to-the-wall with it, but lately people seem to have come around and found the charm in it.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel : Yeah, that’s right, it’s number two and you can fight me over that some other time. I actually skipped this in theatres to watch Aronofsky’s Noah, a move I kind of regret but still am glad that I made. It’s pivotal, though, and so important to how I currently view movies. The simple line “…and then they shot him,” rings so clearly in my head even to this day. I’d seen something beautiful, fun, profound, and highly entertaining, and then was reminded that it was filtered through an unreliable narrator that was reliving the greatest days of his life only to reveal that the most important person to him was murdered before his eyes because he wouldn’t let the guy be bullied. Decency matters. Humanity matters. Remember that as we go into the latter third of the year. Many of you seem to like pretending that humanity matters to you while twiddling your thumbs at horrific, violent injustice. Wes Anderson begs you to practice what you preach and to give a shit.
1. Moonrise Kingdom : This is it, the film I saw when I stumbled down my friend’s stairs and found this streaming on a computer. I was baffled by what I saw, confused and elated. Moonrise Kingdom is a film that takes adult concepts and break them down for the minds of children. It tells you this from the opening, when Benjamin Britton’s guide to the orchestra for young people plays. That entire piece takes a large, adult concept like the orchestra and breaks it down so that a young person can understand what’s going on in each section and how they work as a whole. Anderson does this with his magnum opus, weaving these meaningful emotions into something that a child can understand. This is reflected in the idea that the children behave as adults while those fully grown can’t behave as such. I cannot begin to describe the layers this film has underneath it’s goofy, adorable surface, but I hope that one day you dive in and come to adore it as I do.
There’s my Anderson rankings! Thanks for sticking with me through that, and I hope those of you that haven’t given his films a shot do so. He’s quirky, he’s weird, and he’s adorable. Each film has something to say about American existence, from ennui to love to depression to political unrest, and I think you’ll be happy to find out just how great he truly is. The French Dispatch is set to hit theatres once America isn’t a shitshow, and I hope you stick around for that! Stay safe, and wear a goddamned mask.