This essay was written before the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). It will be updated… sometime.
Wes Anderson may be the played-out indie-hipster’s favorite director, but that shouldn’t detract from his ability to tell compelling stories through aesthetically striking films. His movies are instantly recognizable, equally in part by their screenplay motifs (dysfunctional families, quirky characters, underdog protagonists) and film and editing techniques (warm compositions, slow-mo, tracking shots). His titles, captions, and credits are dependably Futura, his soundtracks are folksy and retro, and he always makes sure to bring his cast along for each new endeavor. Indeed, he has distinguished a particular style, and what better way is there to stand out in an overpopulated medium? His originality is noteworthy and commendable, and this commendation will take the form of a films-ranked list.
1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
The Tenenbaums are the quintessential Anderson family: dispirited, neurotic, fickle, and a million other adjectives that fall under the “dysfunctional” umbrella. But potent writing and superlative acting allow these unlikeable qualities to form wonderful sympathetic characters. Somehow the director has his audience rooting for a disgraceful father who feigns cancer to gain his family’s reconciliation and an extramarital romance between adoptive siblings. The accomplishment here is profound: instead of relying on typical heroism to sell his story, Anderson takes a chance with taboo but familiar human conditions. Sure, he does this in most of his films―and I’m not claiming he’s a pioneer here―but the execution in Tenenbaums is unforgettable. The charm that exudes from what should logically be more peculiar than enjoyable earns this film the top spot. Or perhaps it’s Alec Baldwin’s irresistible narration.
2. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
In a word, The Darjeeling Limited is magnificent. Tasked with providing a synopsis for this very list, I’m at a loss for clear plot description. What actually happens here? Three estranged brothers go on an exotic quest to make spiritual amends? Something like that. Anyway, the film is arresting. I bet most fans would agree it is Anderson’s most visually intoxicating work, and perhaps the most adeptly soundtracked. As much as its appeal is in its mystique, concrete elements like Wilson’s convincing performance as the kooky but paternal oldest brother carry the film to this number-two spot. And let’s not forget that Portman-powered prologue.
3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
I’d say Moonrise Kingdom is (to date) the most compelling in the Anderson collection. Whereas Tenenbaums and Darjeeling overtly tackle their obscure issues, Moonrise’s psychology is less conspicuous; it’s all about the story. Sure, the debate of authenticity in childhood romance is apparent, but the focus seems more on the progression of the arc and the outcome of its characters. In other words, it’s about the movement of the story―not the complexities within. And who doesn’t love a good story?
4. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou leans towards the Moonrise approach with a moving narrative and ostensible objective, but its motives land closer to those of Darjeeling‘s and Tenenbaums’. The film’s protagonist, Steve Zissou, sets out a revenge mission against a shark who allegedly ate his friend. Unlike Moonrise, though, the outcome doesn’t seem to matter. What Anderson focuses on instead are the relationships brought out between the eclectic characters and the moral dilemmas that subsequently arise. Also soundtracked to perfection (let’s get that Brazilian David Bowie guy back for more), The Life Aquatic is probably Anderson’s second most Andersonic film. That’s an adjective I just made up to describe Anderson-styled films. Congrats Wes, ya made it.
5. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
How to adapt a Roald Dahl children’s book into a screenplay: hire two of cinema’s biggest actors as leads and be Wes Anderson. Classic.
6. Rushmore (1998)
Rushmore was Anderson’s way of saying to the world, “Here I am, world; I make movies out of weird stories.” Though I did just make that up, the film really launched the director’s avant-garde reputation. While the photography is less dramatic than his later work, the narrative is unmistakably Anderson. An eccentric prep school kid befriends an old guy and then they fight over a hot widowed teacher. Yep, sounds about right. It is believed (a.k.a. stated on Wikipedia) that Rushmore was the movie that re-birthed Bill Murray as a serious actor. That’s gotta count for something.
7. Bottle Rocket (1996)
I don’t have much to say here. It’s a pleasant enough watch―and it’s not like I have any imperative complaints―but it’s clear to see Anderson’s maturation and development since his debut film. And that’s only a good thing; how often do we dwell on the artist who cannot live up to or recreate their breakthrough introductory work? Progression > regression.
Thanks for the thoughtful and dedicated work, Wes. Keep it up!