by Paul Deeter
I preface this piece by mentioning that the work of Wes Anderson is not easy to rank or respect from a universal perspective, and my opinions come from being a teenage-to-adulthood fan. I'm certainly in favor of the work of this auteur director, but understand the divisiveness of some of his features, both recent and otherwise. I'd recommend a great piece by a guest writer covers some of the problematic issues Anderson has when casting and also using POC characters to flesh out his narratives. All that being said, Wes Anderson is a director unmistakable for his set design, staggering cast sizes and overall weird style that makes him such a unique name. Just like some of the greatest directors of other auteur stature, Anderson has 9 films out over two decades of work, similar to Tarantino's choice to stick with 10 features and Paul Thomas Anderson's retirement after making 12. These are three directors considered modern auteurs in the literal dictionary definition:
“An auteur is a filmmaker whose individual style and complete control over all elements of production give a film its personal and unique stamp."
Time has passed since the term was coined for classic directors like Truffaut and Hitchcock, for example. In the term auteur comes the argument for who can hold the title as one in modern cinema. It's almost as if its a baton passed on in a relay; one director can be an auteur only when another director passes or so forth. In the last twenty to thirty years the concept of the auteur has also been debated for its limit to distinctly white, male directors, even after years have passed and the playing field has become more open for other POC talents behind the screen. So love it or hate it, it's easy to see Wes Anderson for his auteurism, specifically when it comes to his color palette and niche soundtrack choices. In the following breakdown of his nine current feature films, months before the release of 2021's The French Dispatch, let's discuss the wonderful, the weird, and the worst of each of his distinct feature films.
9. Isle of Dogs (2018)
Wonderful: Yoko-Ono playing herself, Keitel's vocal performance and the visually distinct style of the setting.
Weird: Anderson's choice to adapt an animated feature about the exile of dogs to an island literally called Trash Island, and to do so outside of a Japanese city, is not just a bit outlandish (even for Wes.) The argument has been made that Wes does this out of respect for classic Japanese film and other entertainment but...
Worst: It's just too much to stomach the fact that Anderson chose an overwhelmingly white cast of actors to voice its main characters, while using Asian culture as a background to his narrative and sometimes even punchlines. It left me a little uncomfortable but has also made some controversial waves among the East Asian community of viewers, with some critics pointing out the use of too simple Japanese verbosity mixed in with the English scripting, and some seemingly color-blind jokes about sushi and sumo wrestling for example. Other critics have made better points than I have including Austin Trunick from Under the Radar who said...it needs to be mentioned that Anderson’s blanket appropriation of Japanese style and culture has the potential to leave a mildly gross, Orientalist aftertaste in some viewers’ mouths. The fact that (outside of young Atari) our main heroes are Western-voiced dogs and a white, American foreign exchange student draws additional attention to the too-often-“wacky” otherness of the film’s setting. (Poisoned sushi, sumo wrestler thugs, et al.) " Anderson has defended his perspective on this controversy, basically saying that this interpretation comes from his own love of Japanese culture and that he "would never suggest that this is an accurate depiction of any particular Japan." Can we just leave this one on Trash Island?
8. Rushmore (1998)
Wonderful: Welcome to the big screen, Jason Schwartzman!
- Anderson's first montage: Max's many, many school extracurriculars.
- "Nothin in the World Can Stop Me From Worryin' 'Bout That Girl" by the Kinks.
- "Here Comes My Baby" - Cat Stevens
Weird: Max puts on some pretty theatrical plays. The conclusion of the film is accompanied by a Vietnam-war epic that uses real dynamite in the action scenes... wait did I say weird? Awesome, I meant awesome.
Worst: It's hard to say that I don't like Rushmore. The film benefits from performances by Jason Schwartzman as the young (prodigy? prick?) student Max along with some solidly droll moments of comedy brilliance provided by Bill Murray as Herman Blume. The down-side of the performances here are the fact that they're both playing insufferable characters each vowing for the heart of a young teacher named Rosemary (Olivia Williams) they barely know. Max is clearly too young, but Herman is also an old, washed-out drunk, and the film tries to tie Blume and Rosemary together as if they deserved a true sunset Hollywood ending. Rosemary isn't perfect, but she holds moral superiority to both of them (she sees Herman as immature as the young teenage Max in one speech) and the movie doesn't quite nail its conclusion. For example:
Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four citing an issue with the film's shift in tone in the final act, stating "the air goes out of the movie" in regards to "stage-setting and character development".
Others have noted the same about the character's egos, but as Anderson would become a more defined director, this character type would become a regular addition to his plots. I think Rushmore came out too early for its own good, but I also think its ambitions outweigh its means, much like one of Max's many school projects.
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Wonderful: Talk about set-design! The Grand Budapest Hotel is an international tale set between train-stations, prison yards and the aforementioned hotel, of course. I'd consider it his most accomplished cinematography work to date, and his use of color is also unmatched here. Marshall Lee of Queen's Quarterly puts it as follows: The film eschews Anderson's trademark pale yellow for a sharp palette of vibrant reds, pinks and purples in prewar Grand Budapest scenes. The composition fades as the timeline forebodes impending war, sometimes in complete black-and-white in scenes exploring Zero's memory of wartime, underscoring the gradual tonal shift." On top of this
- A stellar lead performance from Ralph Fiennes.
-Also it's Anderson's highest grossing film to date.
Weird: It was way more successful than ever imagined. It broke the record for most robust live-action limited release previously held by Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (2012). Significantly overseas and in Belgium it powered box offices. Go Wes! (Also Ralph Fiennes mustache. Also weird.)
Worst: It's not that this film is the worst Anderson feature. It's maybe that it seems like the most passable of his works. The performance of Zero by Tony Revolori is sweet, and there's a few other solid performances here, but none match Fiennes work as Monsieur Gustave. I won't say he carried the film, but it's my main takeaway regardless. Tonally the movie sways uneasily from action and occasional violence to more comedic moments that feel a little mismatched. This is my opinion of course, this is Anderson's hit and some would say their favorite film of his. I liked it, but I wouldn't go out of my way to watch it again.
6. Bottle Rocket (1996)
Wonderful: I'd define this movie as an indie darling, with the sense that as time has passed more appreciation can be given this film and its wholesome nature. Bottle Rocket is the last Wes Anderson film I hadn't seen before, and when I finally watched it I was under the assumption that it was a less than notable feature. Maybe an attempt but misfire, not unlike the many misfires that happen between the three bumbling criminals at the center of this film. This is a film worth digging back to in my opinion. It has moments of ridiculousness including the attempted robbery of a bookstore that only has small bags for carrying the stolen money away. It's got a really cute lost in translation motel romance, too. Also, welcome to the big-screen Luke and Owen Wilson! That's a twofer! No including Anderson, that's a 'threefer"?
- Those yellow jumpsuit disguises...
Weird: Apparently this is one of Martin Scorcese's top ten favorite movies of the 90s?
Worst: It's a movie titled after something smaller with a quicker explosion but less of an impact. That's fitting for the movie overall, because despite the two superstar Wilsons entering the scene, each performance here is quiet and understated. That might be a selling point to non-Anderson fans too. Here's a Wes Anderson film that feels nothing like one? Blessing and a curse maybe? You won't be thinking of this film too long after watching it, and that's ok.
5. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Wonderful: How can I not love a movie set in India! India is the most beautiful country in the world (ful stop.) Much of the movie was actually shot in Udaipur and the soundtrack is heavy with Bollywood tracks. It's a fairly rare printed record to get ahold of, I managed to claim a copy on Record Store Day circa maybe 2014, and it's market value has gone up quite a bit since. The film centers around three brothers: Jack (Jason Schwartzman), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Francis (Owen Wilson). There literal journey through India on the titled Darjeeling Limited train is simultaneously a spiritual one, and through the use of subtle flashbacking we see some of the damage left upon their brotherhood from their father's death. And the Kinks! The f**king Kinks!
- "This Time Tomorrow" - The Kinks
- "Strangers" -The Kinks
and then a Stones oldie, but goodie
- "Play with Fire" - The Rolling Stones.
Weird: The film comes with a short film release titled Hotel Chevalier, which is under ten minutes and does nothing but set up Jack as a bit of a floozy. Also Natalie Portman walks around naked throughout the whole short. Good for her.
Worst: Not in my opinion at this film, but it's hard to ignore that Anderson is beginning a tradition of wanderlust that leans a bit into the trop of a white person re-discovering themselves in an exotic country. I don't think it ruins the film, but India happens more often as a background of moving the character in moments of personal growth, than actually being fleshed out locationally. But it sure is his prettiest film.
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Wonderful: This movie is accessible to the widest audience, it's a PG appropriate movie for kids of all ages with tons to love for adults. If you're a long-time Anderson fan you'll immediately recognize the voice work of Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Willem Dafoe for example, but you might be surprised that Meryl Streep and George Clooney play Mrs. and Mr. Fox, respectively. The backdrop for this animated feature is always bathed in a vibrant yellowish orange that's easy on the eyes. To top it off we're coming from the source material of the brilliant Roald Dahl. It's such wholesome fun, and the writing and comedic timing is impeccable here. I haven't smiled so hard at a family in years.
- Original score by Alexandre Desplat
- You can take your kids.
Weird: Mario Batali plays Rabbit. Yes you are now just learning that as well.
Worst: Kind of hard to harp on a children's movie. Some say it loses some of what makes Dahl's work so important, but Dahl adaptations often fail in that regard.
3. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Wonderful: Hot of the critical and cultural success of his previous two films, Anderson dives into different waters with Life Aquatic, to less success (getting to that later.) Here he is mixing his normal visual style up with moments of surreal underwater sequences and stop-motion animated creatures. The particularly notable Anderson-style soundtrack is reverted here: the film and soundtrack feature Seu Jorge performing David Bowie songs in Portuguese on the acoustic guitar. Jorge, who also plays the character of Pelé dos Santos, performs some of these cover songs live, in character during the film, mostly with modified lyrics reflecting Jorge's own experiences working on the film. There are so many more factors that have grown on me so well, I've rewatched this feature three times since my Criterion Collection purchase of it. I simply love the randomness of characterization and detailing he does here.
- All the unpaid interns do most of the work.
- Sarah, the cartographer who never wears a top for some reason.
- Matching red hats.
and my all time favorite Wes Anderson quote:
- "I let you call me Stevesie! That's way cooler than calling me Dad!"
(Is it the best Anderson film? No, but it might be my rainy-day favorite.)
Weird: Vince Staples and Kilo Kish had a North American tour in 2016 that was themed "The Life Aquatic Tour" and started each set with scenes from the film. It was awesome. I was there. Tour picture below:
Worst: The movie is his most divisive and sits low at around 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, much lower than the rest of his work. It also made about half of its budget, which isn't ideal. Despite its shortcomings at the time it has since gotten a huge cult following, outside of Staples tour.
2. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Wonderful: Moonrise Kingdom is a masterpiece of storytelling, centered around a small scale romance between two children. It's the classic runaway romance story, but set on an island with an impending storm, and all the forces of the camp scouts on their trail. The young boy Sam is an orphan who pines after the love of Suzy, from a large family but feeling underloved and ready for adventure. Wes Anderson built the character of Sam from his feelings of love at the young age, but inability to follow through on them. He uses Sam as an outlet to a grandiose coming-of-age love story, and then adds multiple other fleshed out characters around them. Bill Murray plays Suzy's father simply named Mr. Bishop, who seems to be lashing out in anger to himself over the disappearance of the daughter. Frances McDormand as Mrs. Bishop asks him if the wounds on his arms are intentional in one poignant scene after he spends the night chopping wood in defeated, directionless anger. We are only seeing a small portion of his character's much larger undiagnosed idiosyncrasies, and the snapshot leaves us curious for more, but never follows through. Wes uses the mystery of each adult character as a flaw of their lives and presence in the lives of their children. It's the kids who are all right in the end.
- Alexandre Desplat on that OST, baby.
- "I love you, but you don't know what you're talking about."
- Suzy's character reads from six invented books in the film, which were each commissioned to be designed from six different artists. Neat!
Weird: Watching Edward Norton super-jump into a fiery tent to rescue camp counselor Harvey Keitel.
Worst: One scene involves a bit too racy of a depiction of the two leads romancing. The Huffington Post journalist Mina Zaher criticized the depiction of the sexual awakening between Sam and Suzy, expressing discomfort with the scene where Sam touches Suzy's breasts, calling it "a step further or perhaps too far". Zaher questioned if the children's sexuality could have been portrayed in a more appropriate way. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it's a bit much.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Wonderful: All of it, every bit of it. Ok fine, I'll elaborate. Gene Hackman stars as the title Royal Tenenbaum to a family of two sons: Chas (Ben Stiller) and Richie (Luke Wilson) and one daughter, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow.) He is estranged from his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) who is seeing Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). Also not listed are Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. If I'm not making it clear enough, my point is that the cast is absolutely studded, and feels even more prestigious than any of his previous films. Other movies would see these performers return, but this was his first big cast, and a lot of talent for a director's third film. As I had mentioned before, Tarantino and PTA have both benefited from a loaded casting call, and Wes is going all in here. The story is set around a redemption tale for the truly deplorable Royal, who can only rekindle contact with his family by faking a life-threatening illness. It's got a love arc too, and some great moments of character growth from father to son or other generational gaps. It's like the ultimate dysfunctional family film, so much so that its said to have inspired the style of the hit series Arrested Development. It's also impacted the fashion world, with lots of original dresses and outfits invented by the daughter Margot.
- Margot is the coolest daughter character in any movie in the 00s.
- His best soundtrack ever.
- The greatest character introduction scene of film history, set to "These Days" by Nico.
- "Needle in the Hay" - Eliott Smith
- "Everyone" - Van Morrison
- Literally every other song on the soundtrack.
Weird: Ben Stiller was great, but he seems to depart the Anderson stage here on out. Why?
Worst: Beats me.