Wes Anderson is easily one of my favorite directors. The only other director who comes close to crafting films with such a gorgeous and playful visual style would be France's Jean-Pierre Jeunet. As brilliant as I feel both Anderson and Jeunet are, however, the comparison stops there as they are ultimately (and thankfully) very different film makers.
It's time to take another trip through Anderson's worlds to prepare for viewing his latest opus: The Grand Budapest Hotel. As with all of my reviews, five stars is the highest possible ranking. Each film title below can be clicked to view the trailer. My "Wes Anderson Ranked" list can be found here on Letterboxd.
Bottle Rocket (1996) ★★★
This film never really feels like the Wes Anderson we now know and have come to expect. While there's some small flashes of his meticulous visual flair and subtle humor; it's very much a raw effort. It's also missing something that is essential to the best of his work which is a strong male lead who starts off as something of a misfit but is still someone you like and who becomes a better person by the end of the film. Owen Wilson's Dignan is still pretty dumb and naive at the conclusion of Bottle Rocket and he's not as much of a sympathetic or amusing character to the audience as I feel he probably is to Anderson and Wilson (co-writers.) The relationship between Luke Wilson's Anthony and Lumi Cavazos' Inez is also more distracting than sweet and slows the film down. There's still enough here to recommend it and there are a few big laughs in the script but when compared to the rest of his films I'll always feel this is clearly the work of a first-time director who hadn't quite found his way.
Rushmore (1998) ★★★★½
If Bottle Rocket was the equivalent of a rookie QB having a good season that made experts say they liked what they saw and maybe this guy has a chance at a long career; Rushmore is that QB surprising people by having a sophomore effort that resulted in a Pro Bowl appearance and him being recognized as sure-fire elite talent.
It's hard not to smile all the way through this film as nearly everything starts hitting on all cylinders for Wes Anderson: music selection (which seemed timid in Bottle Rocket), consistently funny and sharp dialog, solid lead performances and character building by Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, and trademark shots and style markers all make appearances. You have to pay attention to everything on screen or you risk missing small little details that add a level of charm and weight in a way most films would never even consider.
Although Rushmore is mainly focused on Jason Schwartzman's Max Fischer; it's Bill Murray's Herman Blume that really pushes this into elite territory and gives us some of the funniest moments. I would say this is where Murray cemented the fact that he could take it down several notches and not only still be hilarious but also deliver the goods on a serious level as well. Everyone is fantastic though from Olivia Williams, to Seymour Cassel, to even Anderson regular Kumar Pallana's small role as Mr. LittleJeans.
A great film that lays the groundwork for many to follow.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) ★★★★★
A true masterpiece, The Royal Tenenbaums gives us and thrives through one of cinema's great characters: Royal Tenenbaum himself. Gene Hackman shines in his last great role before his retirement after 2004's Welcome to Mooseport. Nearly every line Royal has is quote-worthy. It would be easy to give sole credit for that to the writing of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson; but that would be denying credit to Hackman's flawless line delivery and mannerisms as the Tenenbaum patriarch.
He's also surrounded by a wonderful assortment of actors who all succeed in creating a family that's quirky but never cloying, emotional but not sickeningly sentimental, and funny in subtle ways instead of being clumsy and brash. Ben Stiller, Gwyenth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Angelica Huston, Bill Murray, Luke Wilson, and Owen Wilson all fit wonderfully into Anderson's perfectly realized world. And it's the journey through that world which marks the first time the mix of writing, cinematography, style, set design/decoration, direction, music, editing, and acting melded perfectly for him. Rushmore came close but from the first few minutes of this film you feel like this world the Tenenbaums inhabit is real and welcoming.
Once again, it's crucial to pay attention to the backgrounds in nearly every scene or you risk missing some delightful details worth devouring with your eyes. In short, if you haven't seen this movie...why are you reading this? Go watch now and enjoy!
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) ★★★★
My feelings on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou have gone back and forth over the years. After The Royal Tenenbaums made me such a huge fan of Wes Anderson's work, I, like many people, was highly anticipating his follow-up. After the trailer hit I was ready to declare it another classic before I had even seen it. To this day I feel that trailer is one of the best I've ever seen.
After finally seeing the film opening weekend, however, my thoughts were a mixed bag. I liked it but I didn't love it. I remember commenting at the time that I would rather have seen an entire film about Team Zissou's earlier exploits when they were at the top of their game instead of the depressed, washed up, and pouty man that Steve Zissou was during the timeframe of the story. It also seemed uneven at times and almost bordering on Wes Anderson parodying himself.
Subsequent viewings though have made me take it for what it actually is without putting unfair expectations on it to be another Tenenbaums. It can still be slightly uneven at times but it can also be extremely witty and inventive and Henry Selick's stop-motion animation of various sea creatures is a delight. The best part of the film to me, in fact I would dare to call it the best part of any of Anderson's films, comes at the end when [SPOILERS!] Steve fills his submarine with his family, friends, and crew to finally confront the dreaded jaguar shark which nobody was even sure actually existed throughout the entire film. This scene to the music of Sigur Rós' beautiful song "Starálfur" is absolutely perfect and pushes the entire film up a notch. [MORE SPOILERS] What follows is also a remarkable credits sequence as Steve walks to his ship, the Belefonte, to David Bowie's "Queen Bitch", with members of his crew joining him one-by-one, until he ultimately reaches the ship and we see what appears to be the recently deceased Ned perched upon the top of the ship. Was the ending of Zissou's latest film an elaborate ruse? Or is it just Wes Anderson having some fun with his end credits? Regardless, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is another winner.
Before we discuss Anderson's next film, 2007's The Darjeeling Limited, it would be criminal to not remember the short film Hotel Chevalier which acts as a prologue and gives more details on Jack's time in France before he meets his brothers in India. It's available on YouTube so I've included it here (FYI...it's NSFW at all: nudity and swearing.) Be sure to watch it in HD. It's also on the Criterion edition of The Darjeeling Limited and you can choose to have it automatically play before the main feature. Frankly, I think it's the only way it should be done.
I adore this masterpiece of a short film and think it's an exquisitely staged moment between two people who are in love even though they are probably no damn good for each other. Portman's gorgeous, the little details around Jason Schwartzman's room are fantastic (as is the way he composes himself during the entire scene), and the dialog and music are entrancing. Watching it will not spoil any details from the main film and even enhance some of the dialog which occurs during it. I highly recommend.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007) ★★★★
A more intimate story than the previous four, this is another Anderson film that has grown on me more each time I see it and again it's because I'm guilty of setting ridiculously high expectations going into the theater. Filling the film with music from the films of Satyajit Ray and Merchant Ivory was a great decision; as was the inclusion of Adrien Brody and Amara Karan with Anderson's usual cast of actors.
There's less quirkiness here than in his last film and that works to its favor since it's more of a serious story about brothers and families dealing with loss and life in general. Similar to Life Aquatic there's a sequence which pulls the film up to another level; although this one comes out of nowhere and while it is quite tragic, it's kicked off by one of the picture's funnier lines. Some favorite moments for me are the train montage near the end and Bill Murray's role which amounts to not much more than a cameo. Angelica Huston also shows up in a small role which I can't help but feel could've been left out and not hurt anything at all but that's nitpicking. The Darjeeling Limited is a more then worthy addition to Wes Anderson's resume.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) ★★★★
When I first heard that Wes Anderson's next film after The Darjeeling Limited would be a stop-motion animated feature based on a children's book by Roald Dahl, I didn't quite know what to think of the news. Why was he attempting to make a movie for kids? Would his trademark style translate well to animation? Would this turn into a disaster similar to when Kevin Smith tried to make a family friendly film and gave us Jersey Girl? As it turned out, not only was Fantastic Mr. Fox not a disaster but it was one of his best films.
Thanks to what I assume is excellent source material since I haven't read Roald Dahl's book but am a fan of his two delightfully twisted Willy Wonka tales; combined with Anderson's deft touch and the wonderfully designed animation, this is one of the best animated films in years. Certainly it's one of the most cinematic. It also has just enough of an edge to be appreciated by a wide age range while staying well within the boundaries of its PG rating. I can't recommend this enough for people with children who'd like to expose them to an animated film that has more going on than just loud noises, songs, and flashing colors. If you've ever wanted to hear Willem Dafoe play a sleazy security-for-hire rat speaking in film noir lingo here's your chance!
Moonrise Kingdom (2012) ★★★★½
This may be the most light-hearted film of Wes Anderson's career but that's fitting since its two leads are lovestruck 12 year olds. I loved how it didn't handle the relationship between Sam and Suzy flippantly as nearly all of the adults treated them with respect and never dismissed them as "just kids" which is one of the biggest mistakes we can make as we get older and can forget what it was like to be young.
For the third time in a row, the story takes more of a center stage over design and staged quirk. Not that that bothered me much before at all (in fact it's part of what I love about Anderson's work) but it again proves that he knows when to dial it back when it won't serve the story and characters since they're always his main focus within the visual splendor.
I've yet to see actors be added to his roll call and fail. Aside from Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman it's a whole cast of Anderson first-timers joined by movie first-timers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman. The mostly fresh cast was a welcomed change and they all succeed. I particularly enjoyed seeing Edward Norton play such an innocent character and Bob Balaban as the fourth-wall narrator. Gilman and Hayward also deliver great performances as Sam and Suzy which is critical to being able to take the story seriously and not just feel like you're expected to find it cute because they're kids out in the wilderness (*ahem* looking at you The Kings of Summer.)
At this point Wes Anderson is on a very short list of directors whose films I will go see on opening day without question and have that nervous excited feeling going in that I could be seeing something very special. So far, he never strays too far from the mark even though the bar has been raised quite high.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) ★★★★
This turned out to be the toughest Wes Anderson film for me to get a feel for because it's a real departure from certain aspects of his style that's been cemented in place since 1998's Rushmore. I've now seen it twice in ten days and a second viewing definitely helped. There's a lot to love here and some things to still dig into and ponder in future viewings. I'll be doing a review podcast very soon with Matt and Dave so I'll say just two final things about The Grand Budapest Hotel: Ralph Fiennes give the best performance in a Wes Anderson film since Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums and from a visual perspective it's as delightful as one of Herr Mendl's cakes.