Wes Anderson doesn’t have a “bad” movie in his oeuvre, but he does have a few weak spots.
His tales can be adventurous or banal, his production can be grandiose or low-key; his storytelling skills, as well as his eye for color and symmetry, always deliver. Audience response to Anderson is polarizing. His stories are either full of whimsical humor and honesty, or they’re drenched in “obnoxious” style and oversimplified characters.
Ranking his films from “best” to “worst” isn’t about separating the gems from the garbage — he’s the kind of writer-director you either love or hate. Rather, it’s about examining each for its characters, world-building, complexity and whimsy.
Wes Anderson’s fifth feature film is the director’s foray into the faults of “Eat Pray Love.” The director seems intrigued, and certainly artistically inspired, by a surface-level multiculturalism. The film follows three brothers travelling through India together as a means of reconnecting after the death of their father.
While Anderson’s characteristic camera work and emotional tone are certainly palpable in “The Darjeeling Limited,” the film’s plot is slow-moving to the point of stagnance. While the brothers’ arc is clear by its conclusion — it’s heartwarming to be sure — it starts to feel long, even though the film itself is only an hour and a half.
What’s most disconcerting about “The Darjeeling Limited,” however, is the way that it depicts South Asian culture as unidimensional, both for the consumption of his characters and visually for the audience as well. Unfortunately, it’s not Anderson’s only foray into uncomfortable and problematic Orientalism — see “Isle of Dogs” more than 10 years later.
As Jonah Weiner wrote for Slate, “Beware of any film in which an entire race and culture is turned into therapeutic scenery.”
Anderson’s first feature came about as an adaptation of a short he made two years earlier. The first “Bottle Rocket,” a black-and-white film starring co-writer Owen Wilson, shined at the Sundance Film Festival, while the feature-length color film was basically a box-office flop.
If producers and studios hadn’t felt differently about the film — perhaps they saw Anderson’s fondness for sibling-oriented storytelling and unique directorial eye — then Anderson’s career, along with Owen and Luke Wilson’s, may not have launched. Luke Wilson didn’t think he’d do another film after 1994’s “Bottle Rocket,” but he went on to star in Anderson’s “Rushmore” and later “The Royal Tenenbaums,” alongside his brother again for the latter.
Since the beginning of his career, Anderson has cultivated a central cast of actors who reappear in his films, starting with the Wilson brothers in “Bottle Rocket,” who will later be joined by Bill Murray, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman, among others.
Anderson is now famous for the whimsy of his biggest films, including “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and this year’s “Isle of Dogs,” but “Bottle Rocket” hints at a kind of melancholy that can be felt in several of his films as well.
- ‘The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou’
One of Anderson’s most melancholic films is perhaps 2004’s “The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou.”
This film, like “Darjeeling,” moves a little slower than his later films, but it dives much more deeply into the characters’ complex ties to each other, and much less deeply into problematic portrayals of people of color.
“The Life Aquatic” stars Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, who’s head of the crew and patriarch of the family onboard his little yellow submarine — an ideal, intimate and colorful setting to showcase Anderson’s style, as well as that of his cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, who’s worked on every live-action film of Anderson’s.
This year’s “Isle of Dogs” is playful, adventurous and visually stunning. The simplicity of its characters works in the film’s favor — much like the minds of its main characters, it never feels static or overly complex. The film is action- and humor-driven, and it demonstrates the way that Anderson’s simplistic approach to characters can work entirely in his favor.
“Isle of Dogs” could have been one of his top films, had he not also oversimplified Japanese culture and vilified it to a disruptive and problematic degree. Here, Anderson seems slightly more aware of his own appropriation — he seems to approach Japanese culture with an eye for waggish homage rather than exotification, as seen in “Darjeeling.” Still, he seems fundamentally unaware of the difference and boundary between stylistic homage and cultural appropriation.
As The Daily Californian’s film beat reporter noted, the film’s ostensibly comical take on Japanese- and bark-to English translation is indeed harmful: “That ironic whimsy curdles once it’s revealed that no Japanese characters are subtitled — an inherently racist aestheticization of language.”
Anderson’s second feature film stars a teenaged Jason Schwartzman as a precocious high school playwright with a crush on his teacher (Olivia Williams) and a middle-aged man (Bill Murray) as his closest friend.
“Rushmore” is arguably lowkey when compared to large scale projects like “The Life Aquatic” or “Grand Budapest Hotel,” but Anderson’s voice as a writer of teen characters here can be linked with the astute young voices in “Moonrise Kingdom” almost 15 years later.
The animated 2009 film is the start of Anderson’s trifecta of three back-to-back incredible films, with “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Grand Budapest Hotel” completing the triangle.
Here, Anderson’s visual world of stop-motion animation is unquestionably dazzling. Even a gentle wind in the characters’ fur is swoon-worthy, but it’s not the only thing that makes “Fantastic Mr. Fox” one of Anderson’s best.
This film takes the best of Anderson’s visual style and turns it up 10 notches, with an ironically human story to-boot. Mr. Fox’s life is certainly banal, but through the film’s meticulous construction, it never looks it — and because of the characters’ bright and endearing personalities, the story never feels trite or humdrum either.
The film is pure fun. Really, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is tied for third with the next selection on this list.
- ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’
What puts “The Royal Tenenbaums” just a hair above “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is the fact that it’s Anderson’s best-executed attempt at his version of a family dramedy.
When I think of Wes Anderson, I think of “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Maybe it’s the secret romance between adoptive siblings Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Richie (Luke Wilson) that lends to hipster halloween costuming. Maybe it’s Anjelica Huston’s understated portrayal of the Tenenbaum matriarch.
The most likely reason is the film’s emotional poignancy. While still maintaining Andersonian iconography, “The Royal Tenenbaums” examines parents’ subconscious impacts on their children’s adult interactions with the world.
Rare is the film that can tackle puppy love without undermining its own narrative via condescension. “Moonrise Kingdom” takes itself exactly as seriously as its characters take their affair.
Few things are as endearing as pubescent Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy’s (Kara Hayward) letters to each other. Once their elopement begins, their interactions are just as concise and honest — Anderson’s precision as a comedy writer is at its best here, capturing the characters’ blunt, punchy personalities.
The kids’ external vulnerabilities expose what their parents would rather not say, and their trust in each other is hopeful, showcasing Anderson’s whimsy at its best as well.
Few can argue that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is not one of Anderson’s most ambitious features.
The film’s interwoven story and colorful mixed-media world-building makes “Grand Budapest” a stand-out in and of itself, worthy of the same acclaim as his stop-motion forays. Beside the film’s striking imagery is a heist-centric comedy and a delightful love story that could rival any cinematic classic.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” has a little something for everyone: the Anderson connoisseurs, viewers who admire brilliant comedic timing — both physical and dialogic — as well as those who like to be surprised by unpredictable twists and turns or be dazzled by young love and visual invention.
Anderson’s best is nothing less than spectacular.
Contact Sophie-Marie Prime at [email protected].