The first film I ever fell in love with was Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. I was sixteen the summer it premiered, and watched it in a small-town movie theater in upstate New York with my cousin. The theater had been built in 1926 and hadn't grown much since then; it was small, with a screen the size of two king-sized sheets and seats upholstered in red velvet. The movie was shown on 35mm film. This was the best possible place to be introduced to a director, producer, and screenwriter with as many small quirks and fascinations as Wes Anderson.
Those who are familiar with Anderson's work will understand my feeling that his films are as exquisitely crafted and delicious as the confections he features in his 2014 film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. They are sweet, beautiful, and complicated; such that you enjoy them the first time you see them and then crave them again and again.
In preparing for this post, I've tried to watch all of the feature length films Anderson has written and directed (with the exception of Bottle Rocket, his first film from 1996.) The list is as follows: Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Although ranking these offerings seems as unfair as trying to pick favorites among a group of best friends, I want, here, to rate Wes Anderson's films from “Must Be Watched” to “See it if You’re a Fan.”
But before I do, let’s take a moment to talk about what makes Anderson’s films so incredible and distinctive. Although Wes Anderson often works with collaborators and cowriters, he has written, directed, and produced every single work I’ve included in this post; the final product, then, always has a couple of features that smack of Wes (warning, spoilers ahead!)
Anderson enjoys examining transient spaces: in particular, he seems to have a fascination with trains and hotels. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, Ash and Kristofferson bond over a toy train; in The Darjeeling Limited, Jack Whitman often wears a Hotel Chevalier robe when he’s aboard the train (a two-for-one!); in The Royal Tenenbaums, Royal Tenenbaum lives in a hotel for several years and eventually becomes its elevator attendant; Bill Murray’s character in Rushmore is similarly exiled to a hotel when his marriage dissolves.
Settings such as these are metaphorically fraught: does the train break down? Does the hotel make it through the war intact? Can this man pay for his room, and will someone help him if he can’t? The answers to these questions have as much to do with the internal state of a character as with any literal corresponding event.
When you put broken people in settings that aren’t quite anywhere, you put them in a space to move, either towards resolution or destruction. These settings, then, not only reflect the unresolved nature of Anderson’s characters (who are often sad, lonely adults striving for connection, be it with family or lovers), but also push them to extremes. Darjeeling Limited, for example, goes one step beyond trying to reunite three estranged brothers; Wes Anderson does not ask, what would happen if they met up for lunch? He asks, what would happen if they all lived in one small room on a train, in a country where they did not speak the language, for several weeks? Spaces like this, trains and hotel rooms, accelerate the plot, in that they naturally lead to something else: no character that lives in a hotel simply stays there and enjoys their visit; no train embarks without a destination. These spaces are close and temporary, a powder keg that the unstable character wanders into holding a lit match.
In the vein of explosions, I’d like to point out another facet of Anderson’s brilliance as a storyteller: Anderson, for all of the beauty and levity his work presents, never lets the viewer forget what is at stake, what is at risk, and what is in danger of being lost. His films often feature an animal companion; typically, these animals don’t live to see the second half of the film.
Remember Snoopy, the khaki scouts’ dog, shot through the neck in Moonrise Kingdom; Deputy Kovac’s beloved Persian cat thrown out a window in The Grand Budapest Hotel; poor Buckley in The Royal Tenenbaums, struck dead by an intoxicated Eli Cash. And if Wes chooses not to sacrifice an animal on screen, he populates his stories with dead mothers and husbands (as in Rushmore), or kills off a character (such as Ned Plimpton in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou or the cider obsessed rat in Fantastic Mr. Fox.)
Although what we are seeing on screen may be bright, filled with primary colors and quirky furniture sets, there is a darkness lurking very near to the surface. The viewer is not spared the gory realities, particularly in Anderson’s latest work: we see Snoopy bloodied on an arrow in Moonrise Kingdom, and in The Grand Budapest Hotel are treated to a view of a woman’s severed head. These gruesome moments remind us that in these films everything is at stake. The chance to reunite with a family member, to preserve a dying world of elegance, or to be with the person you love is not only that; it is a chance to live, and to make living worth something. Above all, these films are about lost people trying to come together and connect; the fear of death and of dying alone or forgotten drives these characters forward and towards each other. Forging and testing relationships, then, does have life and death consequences.
Anderson often makes the decision to emphasize the physicality of his characters, for similar reasons. When we see Peter’s long pale legs sticking out of his boxers in Darjeeling, or a flash of Laura Bishop’s breasts as she washes her hair in Moonrise Kingdom we are reminded that these characters are vulnerable and mortal.
Of course, Anderson does not rely solely on nudity to help the viewer see a character as a body: the subdued performances of many of his characters (the straight faced Suzy Bishop, for example) and the minimal style of dialogue focuses our attention on the actors as people with bodies; we see their clothes, their hair, their heavy eye makeup as clues to their interiors. Everything that we see tells us about the character. Wes Anderson is nothing if not an expert at visual storytelling.
This brings me to what most people associate with Mr. Anderson’s films: bright, beautiful colors and exquisite set design. He fills his worlds with fantastic, quirky objects (the mounted head of a javelina, a pair of antique binoculars, a pendant with two blue keys printed on it) so that his stories become rich visual experiences. He plays with balance, using close up camera shots to establish symmetry; but then, you notice, the character he has focused on has one black eye, and the balance that was so carefully established is violated. Anderson gives us a tight shot of a girl’s face as she reads a book aloud, and then zooms out until the scene is a diorama with improbable paper dolls in place of the actors. One never quite knows what to expect when watching Anderson’s films; one only knows that it will be beautiful and unusual, and that one will want their wedding to look exactly like it.
Another vital part of this visual experience is the quiet focus on scene and setting; each film is set in a different world, and Anderson makes sure to show to viewer every inch of it. We see the pink mountains of Zubrowka, the expansive forests of New Penzance, the multi-storied Tenenbaum house on Archer Avenue; the setting is so vital to the film that it comes close to being a character itself. These places are so believable, while at the same time being ever so slightly off, that one feels as if the worlds of Anderson’s films are just like ours, except that there, the whimsical and improbable can and will happen. The faux historical aspects of these places help us believe in the worlds just as we suspend our disbelief over what happens in them.
I will quickly mention (as I am running out of room) the meta-fictive aspect of many of Anderson’s films: often there is a narrator, a play within the film, or a sectioning of the film into parts or chapters. We are reminded, in watching them, of our favorite books, the ones we read over and over as children until the pages were stained with thumbprints and the corners had been torn.
As I’ve reached my 1500 word limit, I must present to you my ranking of Anderson’s films, and leave the discussion of music in his film for another time. Here it is, then, a list of Anderson’s films in order from “Must Be Watched” to “See it if You’re a Fan”:
1. The Royal Tenenbaums
2. Moonrise Kingdom
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox
5. The Darjeeling Limited
7. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
“For my dearest darling, treasured, cherished [Wes], whom I worship. With respect, adoration, admiration, kisses, gratitude, best wishes, and love from [M] to [W].”
Zero’s letter, slightly changed, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)