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'What's the meaning of this sh*t?!': Wes Anderson's top five films

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As Isle of Dogs closes in, we decide Anderson's five best films.

A lot of people find it very easy to cast off Wes Anderson’s recent filmography, or his entire body of work, as emotionless. Empathy and warmth, being too imperfect to disturb his doll-house compositions, are jostled out of every frame for not being symmetrical enough, leaving little more than well-oiled machines working like clockwork.

But, even with the overbearing whiteness of every single story he’s ever told, Anderson’s trademark is not to make everything look like an illustration in a textbook or a still from a travel documentary made in the 1960s. It’s melancholy, found in characters who are either pathetic adults or prematurely neurotic children trying not to turn into pathetic adults.

He’s given some of Hollywood’s most underrated actors the chance to give marvellous performances, housing them in perfect proscenium arches that deceive the audience into thinking that everything happening inside is just as perfect. You only need to see Ben Stiller’s Chaz Tenenbaum tell his father that he’s had a rough year in The Royal Tenenbaums, or Bill Murray’s cuckolded Mr Bishop pray for a great gale to carry him away in Moonrise Kingdom, to know that there is deep-seated sadness in Anderson’s vision.

His films live or die by how sympathetic we are to that vision, but when they live, they are beautiful. To mark the release of his latest, Isle of Dogs, here are his five finest films to date.

5. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

It makes sense that Anderson was attracted to Roald Dahl. Though Dahl’s use of a repeating, self-referencing structure is far more about harnessing the power of nursery rhymes and childlike prose, it’s also neat and meticulous, and neatness is Anderson’s trade. Even as Anderson deviates from Dahl’s book, the soul is still there – playful, but also lateral and constructed. Anderson’s casual eccentricities are still likely to lose the younger viewers, but it’s unquestionably his brightest, most big-hearted work.

4. Rushmore (1998)

Anderson still felt tethered to reality back in 1998, and heightening that reality was the best thing he could have done. Following Jason Schwartzman in his born-to-play role as preppy teenager Max Fischer, a private high-school student whose commitment to extra-curricular activities has negatively impacted his studies, Anderson suggested for the first time in Rushmore that young people find it easy to romanticise their lives. Fischer envisions life like a Salinger novel, romanticised and post-modern, but like all of us at fifteen years old, he thinks far beyond his years, to the irritation of the adults around him.

He becomes infatuated with a school-teacher, competing for her affections with Bill Murray’s Herman Blume (the beginning in a series of wonderful collaborations between Murray and Anderson) and spouting Stoner-esque non-sequiturs. It’s Schwartzman and Anderson’s unwavering commitment to Fischer’s precociousness that allows the film to land on its feet. Not once is his spell broken, making Rushmore toe a line between pitying irony and genuine novelistic profundity.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Anderson’s largest undertaking yet might well have fallen short of its ambition. It seemed almost too obvious for someone with a craftsman’s precision to make a film that looks like a series of dollhouse cakes, and the film’s hall of fame cast seemed to be nudging parody very hard in the ribs. Murray, Goldblum, Dafoe, Swinton, Norton, Keitel (!), Brody (!!), Wilson (!!!), Schwartzman (!!!!) and, to top it all off, Ralph Fiennes in the spotlight?! It was like they’d all been nabbed just to elicit progressively more shrill squeals of delight as the trailer wound on.

In reality, Budapest is probably his most focussed, tightly wound film to date. The machinations of hoteliering are an obvious fit, but Anderson sprawls across the whole of Europe for a story of intolerance, militaristic brutality, and forgotten times. Had this been made in the 1960s, the in-film vantage point from which the main story is being recounted, it would have played like an elegy to days just gone. As it is, the film is more a passed-down fable to a lost time, one of gentlemanly conduct and graciousness. Yet, its entire focal point is on the two leads – a charming duo of Ralph Fiennes’ snappy concierge, M. Gustav, and Tony Revolori’s spirited lobby boy, Zero Moustafa – and it doesn’t lose its way once. No wonder this is what got him within reach of an Oscar.

2. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Still, the piece that feels his most personal is 2001’s Royal Tenenbaums, following a near-dynastic American family that’s splintering and faltering with time. Each family member is drawn brilliantly, and each is desperately trying to find their way in the dark.

Family patriarch Royal Tenenbaum, in Gene Hackman’s finest onscreen performance as a completely unlikeable, somehow sympathetic idiot, is woefully attempting to re-connect with his family (surviving on a shoestring budget) and catch up on lost time. His ex-wife Etheline (though they remain un-divorced because of his refusal to sign the papers) wants so badly to let go of her past, both the unhappy marriage she had with Royal and the cloying children she raised mostly by herself.

The enterprising children of Royal and Etheline are faltering just as much. Margot, a wide-eyed Gwyneth Paltrow, is living with years of neglect from her adoptive father, which she made up for with a wild-child lifestyle and aspirations of being a playwright. Chaz, in Ben Stiller’s first performance to suggest there might be more to him than meets the eye, is raising two sons alone after the death of his wife in a plane accident that left the rest of the family living, grieving. Then there’s Richie – a star tennis player, and Royal’s favourite, whose career was killed by a simple, unassailable desire for his adoptive sister Margot. Luke Wilson gives such burrowing depth to the character, whose arc is possibly the most interesting Anderson has written.  

Across this cast, each playing to different merits, Anderson constructs one of his most long-lasting stories of a family shattered years ago, now trying to pick up the pieces. It’s remarkably hopeful, rich, funny, and startling, particularly looking back at it now. It’s undoubtedly him, but some people may find it surprising that he was ever this empathetic.

1. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Those people clearly never saw Moonrise Kingdom.

In Anderson’s most staggering work, and one that required multiple viewings to click with me, he tackles the basic urges for human connection that drive all of us. On his secluded New England island of Penzance, he showed us a group of characters longing for a cinematic escape. His two young leads, twelve-year-olds Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, have one type of escape in mind: the young lovers run from their parents and live in their own little world, something Anderson captures beautifully.

But everyone else has their own wishes too. Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton in a beautiful, charming performance) must have had dreams of military service but seems too meek to have followed through, so treats the scouts in kind. Suzy’s parents, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand in two of their most affecting roles, live in an unhappy marriage where neither feels the same passion as they did in their youth. Captain Sharp, the island police officer with whom Suzy’s mother is having an affair, gives Bruce Willis his first shot at a juicy role for years, as he longs for a human companion, and finds one in the unlikeliest place.

The adult characters scramble to find the runaways, unable to see (or maybe they are, and that’s why they need the chase to end) that the children have everything figured out better than them. It’s his deepest, warmest film, and bears similarities with Grand Budapest in many ways. If that film was about a bygone era of classical, early-20th century films, this one yearns for the brightness of the ‘60s without being saccharine or heavy-handed with it. It traces the human need for purpose from childhood to adulthood better than most others, and crackles with Andersonian wit, texture, and design. It’s yet to be bettered.

Isle of Dogs is released on 30th March, distributed by Fox Searchlight.

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