Wes Anderson Retrospective

I enjoyed writing my Ridley Scott Retrospective so much that I started thinking I could turn this into a series of articles about the directors I admire the most. So for my second article I have selected a director who I discovered when I was 17 around the time I began working at a cinema. I discovered him from his second film, Rushmore which is arguably his finest. Anderson is an auteur with a singular unique vision and I love his dry wit and visual flourishes. For film fans though there is the extra special understanding that you will see references to many other films throughout his work in the camera moves, the framing of shots and in the script. If you find yourself enjoying his films as much as I do then I would suggest you seek out the writings of Matt Zoller Seitz to get a more academic comparison.

Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson met at the University of Houston and became friends and collaborators. Their short film Bottle Rocket appeared at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993 and it enabled them to get a script deal to rewrite it as a feature. Wes and the Wilson brothers (Owen, Luke and Andrew) created a startling debut which oddly was rejected by Sundance (in a move they later apologised for) whilst it garnered praise from the likes of Martin Scorsese.

In a career so far covering 9 perfectly formed feature films Wes has continued to work with the same talent. His first 3 features were co written with Owen Wilson and all featured Luke and Andrew Wilson, whilst Owen has appeared in 6 of his films. Bill Murray first appeared for him in his 2nd feature but has been present in every film since in one form or another. He has also forged other writing partnerships with the likes of Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman.

Bottle Rocket (1996)

When Anthony (Luke Wilson) is released from a mental hospital following a nervous breakdown he meets up with his lifetime friend Dignan (Owen Wilson) who has a crime spree planned. Unfortunately Anthony and Dignan aren’t criminals, just lost and directionless middle class boys seeking meaning in their lives.

Anderson’s debut film has a lot of his now signature style but when watched with knowledge of his other work it definitely feels like a lesser film. It’s the scratchy demo tape to his other films polished albums. It has heart that fans will embrace but others might miss. Starting life as a 13 minute black and white short, something you can easily find online and watch, its expansion to a 90 minute feature film results in it suffering from some lulls in the story and it feels like 3 distinctly disparate segments.

The opening segment where the boys reunite and commit a petty crime is probably the best. It is here that we see an early example of signature Wes Anderson in Dignan’s 75 year plan neatly laid out in an exercise book. Following their crime they go on the run and Anthony finds romance in the motel they hide out in. This is the section that succeeds the least, it feels overlong and the chemistry between Anthony and Inez (Lumi Cavazos) isn’t as interesting as that between him and Dignan. The final third sees the boys unite with the mysterious Mr. Henry (James Caan) for a big score and succeeds in injecting life back into the film.

Caan’s appearance here is interesting given Anderson’s relationship with Bill Murray that began in his second film Rushmore. Did Caan miss out on a career revival given that he seems to be playing the Murray role in Bottle Rocket?

Overall it’s an interesting quirky comedy, but just a stepping stone to more accomplished films.

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Rushmore (1998)

Rushmore was the first Wes Anderson film I saw and I’ve been a fan ever since. It is a perfect film that manages to be funny whilst exposing an underlying sadness in its characters. Whilst Bottle Rocket showed glimpses of the Anderson tropes followers of his films will now be used to, Rushmore came fully formed with them front and centre. It features amazing montages, slow motion, an exceptional soundtrack featuring The Who, Cat Stevens and The Faces, title cards for the sections of the film and a precocious youngster.

The story follows three main protagonists. Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman in his debut acting role), a 15-year-old boy at the prestigious Rushmore academy by way of a scholarship. Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) a teacher at the school still mourning the death of her husband Edward Appleby. And Mr. Blume (Bill Murray), a self-made millionaire who is one of the school’s key benefactors.

All of them are broken or lost in some way and they each find something in each other to help make their lives better. Max lost his mother at a young age and tries to fill the hole with clubs, but the result is he is failing his classes. Miss Cross is a widow who sees something of the spark of her husband in Max. Mr. Blume on the other hand sees something of himself in Max and certainly wishes his children were more like him.

Over the course of 5 months friendships are forged and broken, feuds are fought and Max writes, directs and stars in some plays. And what plays they are! The Max Fischer Players presentation of Serpico is one I would want to see.

There are also too many brilliant scenes for me to single any out. From a joke about O.R. Doctors’ scrubs, the glimpses at Max’s plays or quieter moments when Max introduces his father to Mr. Blume. Its humour is acerbic, its heart is full of warmth and its soul is melancholic.

Perfect

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The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) 

The Tenenbaums are a family of geniuses who have lost their way. And when the absent patriarch, Royal (Gene Hackman) announces he is dying and that he wants to reconnect with his family we get to see the dysfunctional group try to work through their problems.

Anderson’s third (and so far, final) film co-written with Owen Wilson really ratchets up the melancholy undertones. Depression, loneliness and repressed emotions are all part of the Tenenbaum make up. Surprisingly then, The Royal Tenenbaums is incredibly funny.

Following the success of Rushmore, Anderson has an all-star cast. Gene Hackman, Angelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Luke and Owen Wilson all feature in front of camera whilst Alec Baldwin narrates. Despite such a huge cast, all of the characters are beautifully realised in a film that is short by today’s standards at 110 minutes long. No one puts a foot wrong either, with Paltrow, Hackman and Luke Wilson delivering some of their best performances.

The structure of the film is beautifully realised as well. All of the characters are authors and the film is presented to us in chapter format like a book, with our narrator filling in key information and helping segue into montages. These of course in true Anderson style are sign posted by title cards and feature slow motion and a fantastic soundtrack. This time featuring the likes of Elliot Smith and Nick Drake (two singers who committed suicide).

Slowly but surely we learn more about the demons each character faces, whilst Royal, a man who never grew up, learns what his family really means to him. By the time we see the slow motion exit to Van Morrison’s Everyone we know that whilst all of the families woes may not be resolved they have gone a long way to repairing them.

One final thought. Early in the film we see an image of the family dog Buckley, in his cage on a mountain range and it is more than a little reminiscent of Isle of Dogs!

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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is an ocean adventurer in the guise of Jacques Cousteau (who was the inspiration for Edward Appleby in Rushmore and who this film is in memory of). Zissou is another Anderson protagonist who is broken and in search of something to fill his existence. In this case that search is made literal by his need to track down the Jaguar Shark that killed his lifetime friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel in his 3rd consecutive Anderson film). Zissou is very much in the mould of Royal Tenenbaum. Selfish, self obsessed and at an age where he is reflecting on the family he has rejected in his life.

When Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) arrives claiming to be Zissou‘s son he embraces him into the fold. Initially though this is purely because he has someone who looks up to him, but slowly things start to change. As with The Royal Tenenbaums this film has a large ensemble cast with some great performances. Jeff Goldblum is particularly funny as Zissou’s wife’s ex-husband and nemesis!

Anderson’s fourth feature is his first without Owen Wilson as a co-writer. This time he wrote with Noah Baumbach, who is the writer/director of films such as Frances Ha and While We’re Young. Conceptually the results are very similar though, a large cast of characters with their own pathos and demons.

The most striking thing about the film is how many stylistic choices are made that make it so distinctive. One of the crew members on the ship (Seu Jorge) is regularly playing David Bowie covers in Portuguese. The set for the ship has been created sliced down the middle so Anderson can perform tracking shots following crew around it. The sea creatures are animated by the director of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas, Henry Selick. The crew of Zissou’s ship have matching uniforms for every occasion. The fake documentaries are recorded in a washed out manner to make them look old. Add to this Anderson’s calling cards, title cards separating the film into sections, slow motion, montages and a fantastic song selection in the soundtrack and The Life Aquatic is a surreal world even for Wes Anderson!

It certainly might feel a little too much for people new to his worlds. And it has one flaw because of its surrealism. When darker, more emotional moments arrive they can feel especially jarring and out of place in this world.

Any flaws are forgiven though in the penultimate emotional scene of the film when Sigur Ros’ song Starulfar swells up in the background and if you are like me tears will fill your eyes.

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The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Brothers Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) meet in India to travel on the cross-country train The Darjeeling Ltd one year after the death of their father.

As with all of Anderson’s characters they are damaged. The loss of their father and the absence of their mother weighs heavily on them and they each have their own personal issues. Francis was in a car accident, something that is troubling with the knowledge of Owen Wilson’s attempted suicide just before the release of the film. Peter has run away from his heavily pregnant wife scared of becoming a father. Jack is heartbroken by the break up of his relationship. Something which is expanded upon in the short film Hotel Chevalier which plays before the feature and stars Schwartzman and Natalie Portman.

Anderson tones down his usual flourishes for this film and it’s far less comedic and much more focused on the relationship between the brothers. Aside from the train sets (reminiscent of the ship set in The Life Aquatic) the main visual motif here are the Louis Vuitton suitcases the brothers carry around that used to belong to their father. It may be a slightly heavy-handed metaphor for them to be literally carrying around the baggage of their dead father but it fits the Anderson world to have some recurring visual imagery.

As always there are some choice songs in the soundtrack with Peter Sarstedt’s Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) particularly haunting. And the India locations allow for some beautiful colours in the imagery.

Overall though it is a lot harder to enjoy than Anderson’s other films. Perhaps it’s that the brothers feel less likeable and more importantly less likely to find their salvation? Or maybe it’s that the pain the characters are feeling seems more real when the world they live in feels less Anderson like? Or perhaps it is that this is one of Anderson’s smallest casts and the characters only have each other to rely upon?

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Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Based on Roald Dahl’s famous story, Anderson’s adaptation was written by himself and Noah Baumbach who worked with him on The Life Aquatic. And whilst it holds true to the book’s main characters and plot they have truly made it their own. Following Anderson’s usual themes the focus is on a dysfunctional family and a patriarch who struggles to accept the responsibility of an adult life.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney, perfectly cast) is a wild animal who struggles with Mrs. Fox’s (Meryl Streep) insistence that he no longer poach. Whilst their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) struggles with his adolescence and feeling different. When Mr. Fox pushes the evil farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean too far they must use all their wiles to save themselves and other animals in the area.

Told using exquisite stop motion animation (Anderson would go on to use the medium again with Isle of Dogs) and filled with deadpan witticisms Fantastic Mr. Fox is an absolute joy to watch and something that I have been able to do countless times with my young family.

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Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

12-year-old Khaki Scout Sam (Jared Gilman) has planned to run away with Suzy (Kara Hayward) and set up camp in a cove on the fictional island of New Penzance. Whilst the small island’s residents mobilise to find the missing children we see romance blossom between an orphan and a troubled child.

Moonrise Kingdom feels both old and new as far as Wes Anderson films go. Some of his recurring themes pop up again, the focus on books from The Royal Tenenbaums returns and his Khaki scout troop feels reminiscent of Max Fischer’s organised clubs in Rushmore (although that’s perhaps due to Jason Schwartzman’s brilliant cameo as Cousin Ben). What feels fundamentally new however is a far greater deal of optimism. Yes, the lead characters have issues but there is a far greater sense that they can work them out and everything is far more sweet. Perhaps the new-found optimism is explained to some degree by the dedication at the end of the film to his girlfriend Juman Malouf.

In terms of performances Anderson also manages to get some of his best yet from his cast. Given that the two leads and a large proportion of the supporting characters are around 14 years old he gets great results. And newcomers to the Anderson fold such as Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton fit right into his quirky world.

There are also some brilliant scenes that always stick out for me. An exchange between a jaded husband and wife played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand where she tells him to “stop feeling sorry for himself” to which his response is simply “why?” seems to sum up Anderson’s characters. And a flood scene that looks distinctly like the elevator scene in The Shining is visually exciting.

Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson at his whimsical best with the added bonus of some real optimism. So much so that I had this as my film of the year in the first year I created that list.  Best and Worst of 2012

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The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) 

Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) is the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. When a rich guest leaves a priceless painting to him in her will he and his protegé, lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) go on an adventure.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a real departure for Wes Anderson in that it’s far more of a caper movie than an insight into a dysfunctional family or character. It’s fast paced and incredibly funny whilst containing some flashes of brutality.

Of course it features all of Anderson’s usual quirks. The framing is very specific, with controlled panning and zooming of the camera and there is some beautiful miniature work included. Its cleverest and most fun feature is its use of aspect ratios by timeline. The story is told in a Russian doll nesting structure. In 1985 we see a young girl going to the monument of “Author” with the Grand Budapest Hotel novel. We then see the author (Tom Wilkinson) who starts to tell us how he came to the story. Cut to 1968 where Jude Law is now the author at the hotel, where he meets Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who tells him the story. Cut to 1932 where we see the story of Gustave H unfold. 1985 is shot in 1.85:1, 1968 is shot in 2.35:1 and 1932 is shot in 1.37:1. It’s a fun use of aspect ratios that were commonly in use at the time those sections of the film are set and it gives the film a unique look.

At this point in his career, Anderson is now able to call on a large range of superb actors who regularly feature in his films as well as attract newcomers to the fold. So whilst we see the likes of Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum and Tilda Swinton in small roles here the key leading roles go to Anderson debutants. Fiennes and Revolori are absolutely superb. Fiennes is the stand out though, blisteringly funny as the well spoken concierge prone to outbursts of swearing.

Easily one of Anderson’s most accomplished films and so far the only film for which he was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.

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Isle of Dogs (2018) 

Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s second foray into stop motion animation and as with Fantastic Mr. Fox it looks sumptuous. As with Grand Budapest it is much more of an adventure caper movie and is perhaps Anderson’s craziest story yet.

For my original review of Isle of Dogs on its cinema release date see this article:

Isle of Dogs

The film will be available on Blu-Ray on August 6th 2018 and hopefully this article is just in time to make you think about purchasing it.

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Summation

It was great fun watching all of these films again and a much easier task given that I owned all of them on DVD/Blu Ray. I am unsure if they are still available but the Criterion Collection sets I have for Rushmore, Tenenbaums and Life Aquatic are particularly well crafted for fans.

I would like to thank you for reading my thoughts again and I really hope you seek out these films and enjoy them as much as I do. Before the rankings here are some of the thoughts that I had on Anderson.

The first thing I wanted to do was to counter the most common criticism I hear levelled at these films. That Anderson makes the same film over and over. On a very superficial level and with only a small glance I can see where this accusation comes from. But just because the themes explored are similar (dysfunctional family/depression) and the director has recurring motifs (title cards, montages, slow motion, fantastic song selections, recurring actors and perfect framing to name a few) does not mean that the stories being told are the same. Anderson creates beautiful worlds with interesting characters and fantastic stories.

In fact it is the single minded vision that Anderson has that I love the most. All of his films are written or co-written by him and only 1 is based on an existing story. The pathos and neediness of his characters, the fact that the frame almost always looks like a work of art, the brilliance of juggling large ensembles in nearly all of his films and the relationships he builds up with cast and crew. In 9 films he has only ever used 2 composers (Mark Mothersbaugh and Alexandre Desplat) and consistently uses the same actors. Bill Murray (8 films), Owen Wilson (7 films), Jason Schwartzman (5 films), Kumar Pallana (4 films), Bob Balaban, Adrien Brody, Harvey Keitel, Seymour Cassel, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Defoe, Andrew Wilson, Luke Wilson, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and Anjelica Huston (All 3 films).

And finally, in a world of increasingly long films, so far not a single one of Anderson’s reaches the 2 hour mark and only 3 are longer than 100 minutes.

Wes Anderson Ranked 

Sticking with the format I used for my Ridley Scott retrospective I am going to place the films in groups by release order. With only 9 films in his catalogue I actually found this much harder to do, because I think the quality level is so high!

Essential  – A must watch for everyone

  • Rushmore
  • The Royal Tenenbaums
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox
  • Moonrise Kingdom
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel

Good – Exactly that, a good film worth watching

  • The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
  • Isle of Dogs

For fans of his work – Fans will still enjoy these, less so for casual observers

  • Bottle Rocket
  • The Darjeeling Limited

Eminently missable – Even fans might struggle, for completionists only

  • NONE! I like them all too much!
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