Mar 5, 2014

Ranking the Films of Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson
It is a testament to having a style so defined that Saturday Night Live does a pitch perfect parody of your work. While director Wes Anderson has been a distinct director since his debut in 1996 with Bottle Rocket, he has become a commodity for distinct storybook style film making. With an enviable cast that includes the likes of Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman, his work feels more confident than ever. In fact, 2012's Moonrise Kingdom briefly held the record for most money per-screen average. With his latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, opening in limited release this Friday with an even more enviable cast, the director looks to be sliding more into his own definitive style and as well his prime.
There can be arguments made that Anderson's visual style is silly, especially when correlating to French New Wave nonsensical references. It is highbrow, occasionally funny, but his work can be called sweet more often than comedy. He knows how to work with actors and deliver films that explore the depths of human relationships while growing further into a fascinating visual style that is all his own. While his early films, The Royal Tenenbaums, are often considered his greatest, I do consider his work to be getting progressively better, if not more confident. 
This is most evident from the reaction to the Moonrise Kingdom trailer premiered to quotes saying "The most Wes Anderson-looking film ever." This could be taken as an insult, but with the results earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, his work speaks for itself. To say the least, Anderson is an eclectic taste that becomes even more niche. He has achieved rare success of being having hits without sacrificing his talents.
With only eight films, he has an impressive body of work. Unlike some people, there was a lull period in the mid-00's for me, but he has since been on fire. The following is a ranking of the films he has released with some personal thoughts on each one. This does not include the shorts that he has made nor The Grand Budapest Hotel, which are equally great and help to establish his style even more definitively.

1. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

There is something to be said when Fantastic Mr. Fox has become the first animated film to enter the prestigious American DVD collection the Criterion Collection. The film is the beginning of a bright new era of Wes Anderson after a series of slow moving family narratives with the help of a rascally fox. Set to a delightfully banjo-centric score by Alexandre Desplat, the film is full of wit, action, and so many classic film references that it is at least the strangest family film of the past decade. Much like Wes Anderson's eclectic style, the choice to go stop motion helped to make the film feel authentic and unlikely to be imitated anytime soon. With an excellent voice cast lead by George Clooney and Meryl Streep, this is a film that captures the Anderson atmosphere in the strangest way possible. It is delightfully strange without losing the family exploration and begins a sense of fun and excitement that his work has captured since. Also, nothing quite tops figuring out how to properly play whack bat.

Left to right: Jason Schwartzman, Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward
2. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Continuing to pull an embarrassing amount of top notch actors, Wes Anderson's tale of puppy love also creates one of the best stories camp movies in history. Focusing on first time actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, the tale of children behaving like adults and adults behaving like children is an endearing juxtaposition that further explores the director's fascination with human interaction with some funny gags and brilliant narration by Bob Balaban. Much like his previous effort Fantastic Mr. Fox, the third act's action-packed conclusion reflects the director's slide into a funner sense of self that also helps it to feel like his tribute to natural disaster films. For many, it may be the moment when the director became more stylistic and twee than honest, but I personally feel it is the moment where his work officially began to feel authentic and a singular voice emerged with a storybook set design and a delightfully innocent romance story that makes this easily one of his most confident and enjoyable.

Left to right: Gwyneth Paltro and Luke Wilson
3. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

When many people will think of Wes Anderson's magnum opus, it is likely that they will be referencing his third film The Royal Tenenbaums. It is the most financially successful film as of this publishing and the definitive narrative of his obsession with human interaction. By focusing on one of the most dysfunctional families in cinema, the director explores the final days Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) as he tries to patch things up with his family, who have been deeply traumatized in different ways by him. It is his most ambitious, dark, and successful film to date and the closest that he has come to making an epic. It is funny, sweet, and one of the ultimate proofs of the director's skills as a writer. At this point, it is vintage Anderson with his strongest ensemble cast and early signs of his flair for creating a storybook setting in some of the most ingenious inimitable ways possible.

4. Rushmore (1998)

Improving on his debut feature, Rushmore introduced the world to actor Jason Schwartzman and began the director's enduring partnership with Bill Murray. Mixing eccentric intellectualism with classic rock tunes, this vintage Wes Anderson film explores academia in all of its strange facets with an unorthodox romance and exploration of what power education and privilege really garners. While Bottle Rocket introduced us to the director, this is the beginning of his slide into visual authenticity as well as delivering his most explicitly funny film to date. There's plenty to admire about the film from its stage adaptation of Serpico to the use of Rolling Stones music and the strange ensemble of characters. Rushmore may be at times too understated for its own good, but it gave us the promise that Anderson was going to be a voice that was here to stay.

Left to right: Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Adrien Brody
5. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

This is a film that I try to like but essentially comes away feeling like his travelogue film. Following three brothers through India, it is a film exploding with beautiful scenery. The story of the three brothers is more problematic, as it feels like The Royal Tenenbaums-lite and focuses too maturely on some deeply complicated themes. The only unfortunate irony was that actor Owen Wilson's character's revelation of a suicide attempt mirrored reality in uncomfortable ways a few months prior, making it hard to enjoy. It is a film that explores spirituality in interesting ways, but suffers from the lack of Wes Anderson tones that makes most of his work click. At very least, this was a transition film for the director from choosing classic rock selections to diving more into world music and challenging the structure of his films by mixing comedy in drama in more profoundly complex ways.

6. Bottle Rocket (1996)

It was the film that launched the auteur director with the assistance of producer James L. Brooks. Focusing around the three Wilson brothers: Owen, Luke, and Andrew, its offbeat style set the bar for where the director was likely to go. Mixed with humor and a strange family dynamic, it may be a little uneven at points, but its confidence in production helps to make it one of the most memorable directorial debuts of the 90's. It introduced the classic rock music and the tracking shots and was the debut for some of the most successful comedians of the 00's. There's a lot for Wes Anderson fans to dissect in the film, if just to see where the director would go, but more than anything, the film stands up on its own. It is enjoyable and strange in ways that make it more endearing than dated.

Bill Murray
7. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Following the acclaim of The Royal Tenenbaums, it seemed like Wes Anderson could have made any film he wanted. In what helped to transition from his more narrative-driven early films to his stylistically ambitious later films is this Bill Murray lead film that reflects everything that naysayers think is wrong with him. The pacing is rather slow and the visual style is starting to develop, but feels inevitably twee. Along with The Darjeeling Limited, it was a film in which the director explored a more mature approach to his work, only it was nearly as interesting. Of every film he has made, this is the only one that I cannot understand as anything more than a transitional film that explored his style in strange ways, but wasn't done with a compelling execution.

Where will The Grand Budapest Hotel land? Hopefully it continues his triumph as a director in his stylistic prime with a story that looks as grand as The Royal Tenenbaums with a cast that is equally large. All I know is that as someone who enjoys his visual style, he is a welcomed voice to independent cinema as well as film making in general. If only more current directors with definitive styles could be so synonymous with their work and be praised for it. Wes Anderson may be a divisive director in some ways, but he does his job so well that love him or hate him, you got to admire someone with a fully fleshed out vision.

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