Ah, Wes. Always able to boggle our minds with immensely precise symmetrical framing. Ahead of his latest film Isle of Dogs, released later this month, reviews speak enthusiastically of his ability to turn a dumpsite into art, and expectations run high. But, if you simply can’t wait, he also has a whole archive of distinct works to his name, each of which warrant watching before then. His collection is diverse, eccentric, sometimes downright strange, but all in the name of good filmmaking.
It seems that the further back you go into Anderson’s filmography, the closer to the strange inner workings of his mind you get. His distinct visual aesthetic – deadbeat humour, sharp dialogue and wacky narratives – are always underscored by a subtle sense of pathos. It’s important to be balanced: not everything he has created is a masterpiece (Blasphemy! I hear you cry). It took time to build his status as an auteur. Some of his films have been seen as problematic – The Darjeeling Limited was noted for his mishandling of race and adherence to naïve Orientalist stereotypes. Some might even say his obsessive artistry borders on pretentiousness. But for all the criticism, it’s important to take a balanced view and to consider his full range of works when diving in to the world of Wes. Here are 5 of his films we think you should see:
5. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
A strange film about a dysfunctional family, The Royal Tenenbaums merits watching simply because of its deeply unusual characters, typecasts of Anderson’s later works. It follows the lives of the Tenenbaum family, and the father who tries to make things right after a lifetime of ruining his family’s lives. At its heart, it’s about second chances, even if it’s a little odd in its arrival at this premise. Arrested Development owes a lot to the figures of irresponsible fathers, mismatched couples, squabbling brothers and illicit relationships. Its producers even use Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” whenever a character walks away sadly – the same as Margot Tenenbaum’s theme, sung by a choir when she’s sat having ice cream with her father. Overall, it’s a mixed bag, but worth the watch. And Anderson’s mother was formerly an archaeologist, which is paid homage via Angelica Huston in the film. Who says he isn’t a family man?
4. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
A less-than-subtle skewering of the worlds of research, filmmaking and marine biology, The Life Aquatic plays out something like Little Miss Sunshine. It’s the story of a washed-up explorer-filmmaker on a final, surreal expedition for his nemesis, the Jaguar Shark. His motley crew includes a pregnant journalist, an estranged son, several underpaid interns, and an unshakeably calm German — Willem Dafoe at his best. Anderson’s love affair with intertitles and pointing to maps is prominent, as is his self-conscious editing: note his B-movie long-zoom techniques throughout. The self-reflexive narrative generates much of the comedy (‘a relationship subplot, how does that sound?’) and is aided by a few surprise Bowie covers in French.
3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Featuring newly-crowned queen of Hollywood Frances McDormand and her page Lucas Hedges, this is the story of two 12-year old lovers in 1965 who run away from their New Hampshire island homes. For all intents and purposes it’s children living out the fantasies of being adults: looking after each other, sharing secrets, having responsibility. It’s also something of a star vehicle, featuring Edwards Norton, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray – as if Anderson couldn’t get enough of him. It plays out much like a Western with vigilantes and fugitives in the wilderness, but rigidly angled sets and matter-of-fact dialogue reveal Anderson’s penchant for structure in an otherwise fantastical film.
2. Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
Wacky, with an occasional profound comment amid the humour, this is staple viewing. It tells the story of the Fox family, forced to flee the murderous advances of ne’er-do-well farmers, catapulting Mr Fox into a life of crime he’d long since left behind. The quotes are excellent: “If what I think is happening, is happening — it better not be.” Anderson is all about showing misfit characters seeking solace with those willing to accept them despite their flaws. A favourite character is Kristofferson, a troubled cousin who comes to stay with the Fox family, sharing in their domestic life, even when it gets turned upside town. As an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story, it works, but it’s unmistakably an Anderson creation. It was the first opportunity to show his virtuosity with stop-motion technology — where everything is in the frame because he decided it should be— and this will surely bear comparison to his latest canine escapades.
1.The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
In this writer’s opinion, his finest. There’s a number of reasons why this was nominated for three Oscars in 2015: retrospective storytelling combines with a total lack of irony even in the most tragic moments — it’s hilarious, touching and completely unpredictable. It tells the story (within a story…within a story) of the owner of a hotel in a vague, nondescript European province, and his adventures with his lobby boy. Gorgeous cinematography, delicious colours and playful editing have been employed throughout, and a static camera has never been used to such hilarious effect. While it only received a moderate domestic gross of $59 million, making 2015 a year of some of the lowest-grossing nominees, Grand Budapest has nevertheless become a cult favourite, deserving of the attention of any Wes Anderson fan.
Isle of Dogs will be released this month.