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