A Quick One While He's Away, adrien brody, alec baldwin, andrew wilson, anjelica huston, bean, belafonte, ben stiller, bill murray, boggis, bond company stooge, bud cort, bunce, capra, cate blanchett, creation, criterion collection, danny glover, darjeeling limited, eric anderson, esteban du plantier, fantastic mr. fox, frances mcdormand, futureman, gene hackman, george clooney, gwyneth paltrow, henry selick, hotel chevalier, hugo guinness, james caan, jared gilman, jason schwartzman, jeff goldblum, kara hayward, karen duffy, kicking and screaming, kinks, life aquatic, lost in translation, luis buñuel, luke wilson, lumi cavazos, makin; time, mario batali, michael gambon, miguel calderon, moonrise kingdom, natalie portman, ned plimpton, new penzance, noah baumbach, Nothing In This World Can Stop Me Worryin' Bout That Girl, olivia williams, ooh la la, owen wilson, roald dahl, robert musgrave, robert yeoman, roman coppola, royal tenenbaums, seu jorge, seymour cassel, social services, steve zissou, suzy bishop, the faces, the godfather, tilda swinton, wallace wolodarsky, watergate, wes anderson, willem dafoe
With Wes Anderson‘s Moonrise Kingdom arriving on DVD this week, I thought I might as well put some thoughts down about his films leading up to this latest release. While not the largest collection of films, they represent a group either widely loved or widely dismissed for their hipster-ish quirkiness.
Here is the order I believe to be his least fine to his absolute best:
7. Moonrise Kingdom
By rating Moonrise Kingdom as my least favorite Anderson film doesn’t mean I didn’t like it or that it was a bad film. To me, it didn’t seem to fit well into his collection of work despite receiving some of the best critical reviews of his career.
The story follows young love as it blossoms between Sam (a A Khaki Scout attending camp on New Penzance Island) and Suzy (a resident of the island) despite protestations from family members and scout troop leaders forcing the two to run off together. There are some very tender moments in this film and it is one of the better and most accurate depictions of young love I’ve seen in a long time. However, this film is a good example of Anderson being able to get great actors for his films and really doing nothing with the characters, a problem he has had since The Royal Tenenbaums. I thought that Tilda Swinton, while having a hilariously wonderful character name Social Services and knocking her role out of the park, was underused. Bill Murray and Frances McDormand play Suzy Bishop’s father and mother. They add a little depth to the film, but they too are underused. Criminally so. Anderson‘s landscapes are populated with interesting characters, but frequently there are too many. This film is the most egregious on that front in the Anderson universe. Also, Anderson‘s departure from using his signature final shot in slow-motion in this film bummed me out. I always looked forward to seeing how Anderson would end his films. I was let down with this one.
I would still rank this film above virtually everything being released in theaters these days. Its heart is in the right place, but when taken in context with other Anderson works, it just didn’t hit me at the level that the rest of his films did.
6. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
When I heard that Bill Murray was reuniting with Anderson to star in the leading role of thi film, I was VERY excited. Murray shines when they work together and I had very high hopes, especially with Cate Blanchett lending her incredible talent to the picture. I wasn’t disappointed either. Even though this ranks #6 on my list of Anderson‘s films, I love it dearly and it illustrates how good his films really are…at least in my estimation.
The Life Aquatic follows the story of Cousteau-like documentarian/mariner Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) as he tries to find the rare and elusive jaguar shark that killed his best friend and fellow mariner Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel). As he is about to start the mission, which is also being filmed, a man named Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) introduces himself to Steve claiming to be his son. So this further strains his already tenuous relationship with his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) as well as with his crew chief Klaus (Willem Dafoe) who sees himself as the son Steve never had. Couple this with Ned having to fund the new expedition as investors have become scarce, tension mounts. As the expedition commences, the crew comes under attack by Somali pirates, robbed, and the bond company stooge (Bud Cort) present to keep the film is kidnapped initiating the crew of the Belafonte (Zissou’s ship) to take action. And all of this is being covered by pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (played by the magnificent Cate Blanchett) for a cover story for Oceanographic Explorer magazine.
The father-son angle is a little overplayed, but never tips into ridiculousville. The animation of all of the sea animals by Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) is awesome and gives a cool additional touch of detail to the film. Pelé dos Santos'(Brazilian musician Seu Jorge) renditions of David Bowie songs played throughout the film (in Portuguese no less) are fun and a typical Anderson touch whose soudntrack choices go from the amazing (Rushmore) to the overwrought (The Royal Tenenbaums).
This film was co-written with one of my all-time favorite writer-directors Noah Baumbach whose Kicking and Screaming I have highlighted before. These two are a match made in heaven. Their dialogue is second to none in contemporary film.
5. The Darjeeling Limited/Hotel Chevalier
The Darjeeling Limited is one of Anderson‘s films that I think most would put at the bottom of the list. I’ve always been curious as to why others feel that way about this film.
I will be the first to admit that this isn’t the strongest film of the group However, there is just something about it that I love. The film follows three brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) as they travel through India on a mystery trip. The three brothers haven’t spoken since the death of their father and really don’t get along all that way. Francis is hoping the trip helps them bridge the gap that has been built between making them close again. As you might expect, that isn’t the case. While all of Anderson‘s film focus on relationships, this one rings best with me. I have three siblings, all of whom I get along with very well, but I understand the problems that can crop up between them. This film is a good depiction of issues that can tear apart a family and somewhat bring them back together.
The claustrophobic nature of the titular Darjeeling Limited train that the men are traveling on helps bring conflict about quicker and with greater effect. I think this is one of the genius parts of the script and the film. After having been apart from one another for a while, being forced into the same cramped space draws out the issues each of them have with one another. How many families could survive a trip like this, even on the best of terms?
This is Anderson‘s first film shot on location outside of the country and cinematographer Robert Yeoman (who has shot every Anderson film) really captures the beauty of India showing us the exotic people and landscapes. Get this man an OSCAR. This film was co-written with Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, son of Francis Ford Coppola and represents Anderson‘s first deviation from writing by himself or with the Wilson brothers.
Hotel Chevalier is a short film that played in front of Darjeeling Limited in theaters and is the prologue to Jack’s story. Living in the Hotel Chevalier in Paris since leaving America after his father’s death, Jack gets an unexpected phone call from his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman), one that isn’t exactly welcomed. When she comes to the hotel, they start to have sex, but stop in the middle, the pain of the past gaffes in the relationship surfacing. Jack asks her if she wants to see his view of Paris (see picture above) and they retreat to the balcony, contemplating what has transpired and what may transpire between them. Watch here:
As Darjeeling Limited tells us, Jack has left this girl behind, on the run from her again. This is an interesting little film. It is typical Anderson, flush with camera moves taken directly from Luis Buñuel and employed in so many of his other films.
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Anderson‘s first foray into animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox is just that…fantastic. Based on the children’s novel by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox is the story of Mr. Fox (George Clooney), Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) are trying to live a normal life. Mr. Fox, a newspaper columnist, has lost his former spark, his zest for life, when he was an animal thief. So, on the sly, he decides to revive his old thieving habits with the help of Kylie Sven Opossum (Wallace Wolodarsky) and commences stealing from the big three farmers in the area – Boggis (Robin Hurlstone) who specializes in chicken farming, Bunce (Hugo Guinness) who specializes in duck and goose farming and Bean (Michael Gambon) who is a turkey and apple farmer. When the farmers find out that Mr. Fox is stealing from them, they decide to kill him. They lay in wait as he returns from a night mission and Mr. Fox narrowly avoids death as they blast him with shotguns shooting off the trademark of any fox, his tail. Needless to say, it hits the proverbial fan when Mrs. Fox finds out about this. Mr. Fox had sworn to never jeopardize their lives stealing after a close call when they first met as young foxes. The farmers then decide to go all-in and dig the fox out. This sets off a shockwave through the underground animal community of which Fox and his family are a part. Since the farmers are hell bent on eradicating Fox, they have no regard for the others if it means getting him. The animals lose their homes, have no food and are angry with Fox…until he initiates the heist of all heists.
This film is one of very few examples where I think the film outshines the book. Now, this is one of my favorite kids books of all-time, so that’s quite an endorsement. Anderson and Baumbach‘s additional material that didn’t appear in the book are some of the film’s strongest parts. I loved the Kristofferson (voiced by the director’s brother Eric) addition and the fleshing out of his interactions with Ash (who is merely a supporting unnamed character in the book). They are very funny and poignant. The Whackbat scene is the best inclusion of new material because it is adds to the Kristofferson-Ash rivalry, but also encompasses all that is really Wes Anderson‘s quirkiness. Have a look – pardon the bad video quality, but it’s the only full clip I could find:
Another detail I appreciated was the substitution of “cuss” where actual curse words would be. Mr. Fox’s usage of clustercuss makes me smile every time I hear it.
The top-notch voice cast helps add to enjoyment of the film, and it is chock full of Anderson, but also features folks like Darjeeling script co-writer Roman Coppola, revered Italian-American chef Mario Batali, and former MTV VJ Karen Duffy thus adding to the eclecticism of his films.
Once again, I dearly love this film and it is one that I will show my children, gladly, when they get just a little older.
3. The Royal Tenenbaums
The Royal Tenebaums is perhaps Anderson‘s most serious film. All of his films tackle depression and alienation, but this one has it in spades. It’s also the first film to really feature an all-star ensemble cast, something that Anderson has kept up in each of his films since.
The Royal Tenenbaums focuses on the Tenenbaum family, headed by lawyer and patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman in arguably his best role since the French Connection) and matriarch/archaeologist Etheline (Anjelica Huston) and their three children – Chas (Ben Stiller), Richie (Luke Wilson) and Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). All three children had above average aptitudes in their own areas – Chas in international finance, Richie (“The Baumer”) in tennis and Margot in dramaturgy. Etheline wrote a book about them making them famous and simultaneously synonymous with being a prodigy. However, as time went on, each of them with exception of Etheline has their own downfall: Margot wilts under criticism for her work, drops out and marries stiff psychologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), Richie falls in love with Margot (who is his adopted sister) and after she marries Raleigh has a breakdown on the court costing him (and Royal) money and fame, Chas loses his wife in a plane crash and becomes obsessed with the safety of him and his children, and Royal is disbarred and jailed for tax evasion and sued twice by Chas. So after giving us this story (narrated masterfully by Alec Baldwin), the film gains traction as it chronicles the contemporary Tenenbaums.
Royal fakes like he has stomach cancer in order to gain back time and trust from his children and Etheline. All bite on the bait except for Chas, who still remains skeptical of his father and his intentions. During this time, Royal finally gets the chance to know his family in a way that he never had. He meets and spends time with Chas’ two sons Ari and Uzi, makes peace with Margot since he was critical of her always making sure to point out that she was his adopted daughter, and bonds with Richie, who is the only one who shows real compassion toward Royal.
Of course, it all blows up as Royal is found out to be faking it by Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), Etheline’s new fiancee. Royal, in addition to reconnecting with his kids, was trying to rekindle the fire with Etheline. In one of the funniest exchanges in any Anderson film, Henry and Royal have this back and forth, which is enough reason to watch the entire film:
Margot’s relationship with Tenenbaum-wannabe and best friend to Richie, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson) tips Richie over the edge in the most somber and serious scene in any Anderson film. Richie is still in love with Margot and the news of her affair causes Richie to attempt suicide. Here is the clip (not for the faint at heart):
That this sequence has Elliot Smith‘s “Needle in the Hay” playing over it is extremely prescient in that Mr. Smith himself committed suicide in 2003.
This film has much to like about it. The cast, despite Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow (both of whom have very limited range or utility to me in any film), shine. Gene Hackman, like Bill Murray in Rushmore, delivered an Oscar-worthy performance and one of the best of his career. The quirkiness that Anderson started in Rushmore is amped up in this film x100 and to great effect. Have a look at one of artist Miguel Calderon‘s paintings featured in Eli Cash’s apartment:
It is details like these that separate Anderson from most contemporary filmmakers. I will admit that Anderson tries too hard in certain aspects of his films to make them “cool” and the soundtrack to this film fits that bill. Whereas the Rushmore soundtrack complemented the film, the soundtrack for this film seemed to be populated with songs that were cool rather than serving a purpose to advance or enhance the story. I will say that Mark Mothersbaugh‘s score is just as lovely as that of Rushmore, though.
Nevertheless, this is a movie that has all of the hallmarks of a great film. Check it out if you haven’t.
2. Bottle Rocket
Bottle Rocket is Anderson‘s first film, the one that got it all started. It was my first introduction to Anderson and the Wilson brothers. It was one of those transformative experiences when you realize that all of the big budget glitz, in almost every case, can’t match a well-written story that highlights interesting characters in challenging, humorous situations. No egos get in the way in this film since everyone involved, with exception of James Caan, are virtual unknowns at the time this film was made. This is a film with edges, unpolished in places, but is better off for it.
Bottle Rocket is an almost Capra-esque, slapsticky version of a crime film. It is one that has a heart and, unlike films like The Godfather, you end up sympathizing with criminals that have earned that sympathy.
The story of this film follows Dignan (Owen Wilson), a wannabe criminal who “breaks” his best friend Anthony (Luke Wilson) out of a mental health facility (which Anthony checked himself into voluntarily) so that they could start a crew of guys to work with local crime boss Mr. Henry (James Caan). Dignan prepares a 50-year plan, which is carefully sketched out in marker in a spiral-bound notebook. With Anthony in, they only need a getaway driver and they enlist the help of their friend Bob (Robert Musgrave). Here’s his interview, which really gives you an idea of who Dignan is:
After getting the crew set, they rob a bookstore to get Mr. Henry interested in what they have to offer his operation. While on the lam (“On the run from Johnny Law…ain’t no trip to Cleveland”), Anthony meets housekeeper Inez (Lumi Cavazos) at the hotel where they are staying and falls in love with her. Their relationship blossoms over the few days, annoying Dignan who believes this will interfere with his long-term plan. Things are really thrown off when Bob’s brother Future Man (played by a third Wilson brother, Andrew) is arrested and Bob deserts Anthony and Dignan causing a rift between the two that appears unbreachable.
After all settles down, the three men come back together to pull off a large-scale caper with Dignan at the helm. And just when we think Dignan is going to get the payoff for his hard work…
Bottle Rocket was actually shot as a short film before being turned into the feature-length film. Of course it’s different, but it’s good to see where the film started and to see its evolution. You can watch the short here:
Future Man is without a doubt my favorite character name of any movie character. It is so incredible. I only wish I had crafted such a character myself. And one of the great triumphs of this film is when Future Man meets Mr. Henry. Absolutely hilarious. It’s so hard not to root for Dignan throughout this film. He is so dedicated to his preparation and work, that you just want to see him succeed.
Finally, this film’s ending is one of the most devastating things I’ve ever seen. That it’s shot in slow motion, an Anderson trademark up to Moonrise Kingdom, is key. We are forced to linger in Dignan’s realization of his future and it is painful.
This film is as good as any first feature I’ve ever seen. Anderson started off with a bang, no doubt.
In comparison to Bottle Rocket, Rushmore is a polished film without the edges that Anderson‘s first feature has. With an increased dose of eccentricity, at least on the part of the main character, Max Fischer (so ably brought to life by Coppola family member Jason Schwartzman in his first film role), Rushmore sails. The story of Rushmore follows Max as he attends Rushmore Academy, a private school for children of the local and international elite. Max’s father (Seymour Cassel) is a barber and normally wouldn’t be able attend; however, when he was young, Max wrote a one-act play about Watergate that netted him a scholarship to the topflight academic institution. Max takes his involvement at Rushmore very seriously, enlisting himself in a plethora of clubs and activities and largely ignoring his studies, eventually finding himself on sudden death academic probation and facing expulsion. In the meantime, he befriends local steel magnate and father to twin classmates, Herman Blume, played by Bill Murray in what I believe is his finest performance. Herman takes Max under his wing and as they both fall for widowed Rushmore teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), tensions and rivalries get the better of them.
There are plenty of reason this is my favorite film of Anderson‘s. Bill Murray‘s performance is certainly one of them. His malaise and apathy towards his life is refreshing. Murray, for the bulk of his career, has always played such self-assured, confident characters. His turn as Bob Harris in Lost in Translation changed all of that and I think we as moviegoers are better for it. His collaboration with Anderson has been hit or miss, though. His supporting roles have been throwaways, which is a shame since he clearly shines in his work with Anderson.
The explosive debut of Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer is another. While his work outside of his collaboration with Anderson hasn’t been as strong (Bored to Death is pretty damn awesome), he clearly works well within the Anderson system. Max Fischer is not your typical high school character and Schwartzman brings him to life in memorable fashion. It would be hard to imagine anyone else in that role or any of the subsequent roles he’s played in with Anderson at the helm. When watching Rushmore, I find that I want to be Fischer, even though he has issues. To be dedicated to anything as much as he is to Rushmore is enviable. Here is a short example of who Max is:
Without the likeability that Schwartzman brings to the role, I doubt that would be the case. Imagine if someone like Shia LeBeouf were cast? Sweet Jesus in a dump truck. He couldn’t get away with something like this:
I would measure Rushmore‘s soundtrack against any other in an argument about which might be best. Anderson‘s nearly all-British Invasion track list is a sonic tour de force that stands on its own as a killer mixed CD. When coupled with the film, it’s a knockout. Is there a song better than “Nothing In This World Can Stop Me Worryin’ Bout That Girl” by the Kinks that could have been played during Herman Blume’s sons’ birthday party as he jumps into the pool? I doubt it. In the clip above introducing Max Fischer, Creation’s “Makin’ Time” is the perfect accompaniment. The good thing about the songs used on the soundtrack is that they aren’t this big hits of any of the bands, with the exception perhaps of “Ooh La La” by The Faces.
And this film has my favorite ending to any movie I’ve ever seen and the bulk of the reason for that is the usage of said The Faces song. Growing up, my father played Ooh La La the album a lot. Many good memories are attached to listening to this song and playing with the album cover (yes, we listened to it on vinyl) – the mouth opened and the eyes went from side to side when you pushed the top of it. So when Ruben, the DJ at the cotillion, spins it and the first guitar chord hit I was already in love. As the camera pulls back to capture Max and Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) enter the dance floor, Anderson employs his signature move of having the final scene of each of his films in slow motion. The song coupled with this technique is so perfect. For the first time, we see all of the major players of the film – Max, Blume, Miss Cross, Max’s father, Max’s new girlfriend Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka), best friend Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble) and even headmaster Nelson Guggenheim (Brian Cox) – in the same frame, happy. By using slow motion, Anderson allows us to linger in this moment with the characters, to leave behind the viciousness with which the characters set upon one another leading up to this point and creates one of the most cathartic film moments I’ve ever witnessed. Part of me wishes it lasted the entire song.
So that’s that. If you had to rate your favorite Wes Anderson film, what would yours be? Click it below!