Thursday, July 06, 2017

Wes Anderson

I watched Moonrise Kingdom and The Fantastic Mr. Fox with my kids in the fall, which spurred me to revisit all of Wes Anderson's movies. I am a big fan, but I'm not sure that I love all of his movies the same way. Both The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited left me cold when I saw them in the theater. But his recent run of films won me back over. Anyway, revisiting his movies left me with a few thoughts, but listicles being what they are, let me also rank his films while I am at it.

1. Moonrise Kingdom: Bringing all of Anderson's obsessions to bear in a perfect package of nostalgia, regret, and danger, Moonrise Kingdom's greatness comes from taking the emotional life of its protagonists very seriously, even as it admits that there is a lot of absurdity here. The beating heart of the movie is the love between the kids at the center of the story, but it's also in the way that the adults around them, especially Bruce Willis's policeman and Edward Norton's scoutmaster, come to realize how all of the institutions and authority figures around them have failed them. This movie is, in short, a masterpiece.

1. The Fantastic Mr. Fox: Instead of pretending to be a lost children's classic like so many of Anderson's other films, Mr. Fox is actually an adaptation of a children's classic. Anderson pours his visual style into it, and it captures the main theme running through all of his movies: the refusal of exceptional people to be mediocre. Sure, Mr. Fox's bid for greatness endangers his family and puts his entire community at risk, but he also rages against the dying of the light better than just about any other middle-aged protagonists in a story for children. The movie is, in short, a masterpiece.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel: The apex of Anderson's craft and a tour-de-force racing through Anderson's pet obsessions: impeccable visual style, the imposition of history into literature, the self-styled great man raging against the tides of both institutional indifference and mediocrity, intergenerational friendships, the delicate and precise art of creating an experience, all with deep wells of love and loss. The movie is breathless throughout, but bursting with life, even with a cast this large. Every character has clear motivations, and Anderson's bench is deep enough that dozens of his stable of talented A-list actors make what are essentially walk-on performances, each imbued with enough material that they tell little micro-stories. The movie is, in short, a masterpiece.

1. Rushmore:  Right out of the gate, Anderson's second film introduces Anderson's primary theme of the great person struggling against authority and mediocrity. While Max Fischer may not be quite as amazing as he thinks he is, his creative talent is a delight and the fun of his character struggling to be taken seriously because of his age and inexperience (shades of Moonrise Kingdom) meets up with his deadly-serious emotions. The movie is, in short, a masterpiece. (OK, I'm going to stop this now, but a post about Wes Anderson calls for a little self-indulgence.)

2. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou: I really disliked this movie when it was released but now I think it is a only a second-tier Anderson film by a thin hair. Zissou is much like Mr. Fox but without the happy ending. The only thing keeping this film from being another number 1, really, is that it doesn't breathe life into the supporting cast the way that the above films do. However, there's some genuine pathos and danger in Zissou's reckless mid-life crisis, and the weird beauty of this film is both wholly an Anderson-style composition and yet unlike any other Anderson film. Additionally, contrary to his usual adoration of his iconoclast heroes, Anderson is aware of how irresponsible Zissou is and how this leads to the deaths of his best friend and his maybe-son. It's hard to call a film mature that explicitly idealizes the mind of an 11-and-a-half year old, but if any Anderson film can be called an examination of maturity and loss, it is this one.

3. The Darjeeling Limited and Hotel Chevalier: This movie, a distant third, wants to be an examination of maturity and loss, but it just doesn't work. Anderson is trying his damnedest to honor Satyajit Ray, but the movie lacks Ray's appreciation of sheer ordinariness. It comes across as mildly racist exotica, as the wealthy white explorers try to find themselves amid the backdrop of India's strange foreign ways. The character beats (the oldest brother's suicide attempt, the middle brother's fear of paternity, the youngest brother's recent break-up) seem more like tics than anything lived in or experienced. When the brothers finally literally let go of their father's baggage, it does not feel like an earned moment. That's my problem with the film - the central conceit just doesn't work for me. The movie is beautiful, though. The scene where the brothers rescue the kids from drowning is also among Anderson's best. The short released along with this film, Hotel Chevalier, was significantly better, with Schwartzman and Natalie Portman playing recognizable people with a difficult past and no idea about the future.

4. Bottle Rocket: I may have this one too low. I mean, I like it and it mostly works. But it also feels like a debut movie and the effort to make it shows. The quirky parts are too quirky, the composition style is not yet there, and the plot mechanics are a little too obvious.

5. The Royal Tenenbaums: I did not think that this movie would be so low on my list before I re-watched it. When it came out, I was blown away. I think of it as a gauntlet that Anderson threw down, an epic of composition and characterization built on classics of young adult or children's literature and a marriage of soundtrack and image that redefines the use of non-diegetic movie music (well, to be fair, Anderson had already hit those notes with Rushmore). And it is those things, but it is ultimately emptier than Anderson's subsequent revisiting of those same themes. The characters come across as jerks, not because of their losses and failures, as the movie would ask you to see them, but because they are just written as basically selfish jerks. When Nico's "These Days" erupts in the film, I was in tears during my original viewing in 2001, but in 2017 it seemed like a shortcut establishing a mood that has not quite been earned. Maybe I'll eventually come back around to seeing it as a masterpiece, but right now, it seems like the least of Anderson's work.


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