Content advisory: symmetrical cinematography & emotionally stunted men
If it weren't for this damn virus, Wes Anderson's 10th feature film The French Dispatch would have released by now. Endlessly busy, the 20+ year directorial career of this preppy, symmetrically obsessed auteur has breathed life into some of the most charmingly captivating films of all time, neatly presented in an utterly distinct visual and dialogic style. You know when you are watching a Wes Anderson film. If the children operate with more maturity than their adult counterparts, if the movie is artfully repurposing old (white) music for a sense of unfounded nostalgia, if its bright, flat and features Bill Murray in one place or another, you will know immediately who you are watching.
So, with the delay of The French Dispatch into 2021, there's a hole in our hearts. There's emptiness where there should be a brand new film exploring the marvellous misadventures of the French outpost of a fictional American newspaper. We should be seeing Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Lyna Khoudri lighting up a storm, but instead? Nothing.
Let's be positive then. For those of you desperately waiting for the next addition to the "Bill Murray & Owen Wilson Cinematic Universe" this is your chance to fly back through the worlds of Wes, or maybe to find out where to start in the first place, as we at Slow Motion Panic Masters count down the greatest ever films directed by Wes Anderson.
9. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
The one criticism that hangs over Wes Anderson even more worryingly than accusations of his films as "style over substance" is the more unsettling position of non-white, non-male characters and spaces in his cinematic universes. 2007's The Darjeeling Limited is the worst offender.
While clearly attempting to ridicule the entitlement of its three central characters (brothers embarking on a 'spiritual' journey through India), The Darjeeling Limited absorbs the toxic orientalism of its protagonists rather than critique it. India is a background, its citizens interacted without depth or independence from white characters, imposed on an Indian culture that the film makes no real attempt to develop. In a filmography that has never presented a non-white, non-male figure as a *true* central protagonist, Wes Anderson does himself no favours with this film. Without even considering the movie as Anderson's most dull and his least charming (which I think are valid positions to hold), The Darjeeling Limited stands out as perhaps the only real misstep in Anderson's career, and arguably his most offensive.
- Ben Wheadon (Instagram)
8. Bottle Rocket (1994)
Everyone seems to react to Bottle Rocket the same way: "this just doesn't look like a Wes Anderson movie!" And they're right. As his directorial debut, Bottle Rocket stands out in just how 'normal' it looks, but don't be fooled - all the best parts of this director's unique style are littered throughout.
Flat close-up shots, iconic costume choices and absurdly formal dialogue propel this heist movie forward as a film that shows all the formative ideas of Anderson's early career. It's funny, it's charming and it's an incredibly insightful look into how this director's style has emerged over the last twenty six years.
...but. It's also a bit racist. As a passive love interest, Bottle Rocket's Paraguayan housekeeper (that can only speak via male interpreters) is an example of everything that is often wrong with how Wes Anderson presents both women and non-white characters in his films. It's a feature that at best feels awkward and at worst connects to The Darjeeling Limited's insensitivities in all the wrong ways. Still, it's much better than Anderson's 2007 Indian adventure, and has a great deal to offer for long time fans.
- Ben Wheadon (Instagram)
7. Isle of Dogs (2018)
Isle of Dogs (犬ヶ島) is good. Not just good, it’s superb. This stop-motion picture is bizarre, darkly funny and full of emotion; constantly re-examining the genre of stop-motion as not just exclusive to children, but as essential to film as a whole.
Isle of Dogs manages to mimic substantially traditional Japanese cinema with its characteristic musicality and editing stylistic choices. Journeying to a derelict trash island where all Japanese dogs have been banished, Atari Kobayashi’s (Koyu Rankin) odyssey to be reunited with his dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber) is genuinely intriguing throughout and creates a case of fun scenarios both on a visual and narrative level. The division between English speaking dogs and untranslated Japanese human characters creates an interesting dynamic through which the audience can audibly understand the distinction between the dog and human worlds, but the inclusion of a white, American character is undeniably superfluous to the film as a whole.
This is the last time we will speak about Anderson's questionable interaction with race and cultural insensitivity, but there is no reason for the introduction of an American white saviour into this film. Speaking English, Tracy (Greta Gerwig) undermines the inherent divide between dog world and human world. The conversation of cultural appropriation should certainly be raised over a movie directed by a white American man, and we are certainly not the first to do so, and I do believe that Isle of Dogs should be recognised at least somewhat as a product of cultural appreciation, but it still stands out as an utterly supreme achievement in stop-motion animation, and one of Wes Anderson's most impressively built worlds.
- Guille Fernandez (Instagram)
6. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Ok. Every film from here-on in is utterly fantastic. Watch them all.
Moonrise Kingdom is just great, isn't it? With its ultra-stylized depiction of adolescent love, the blossoming relationship between Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) is treated with more maturity and formality than any other of Anderson's romances. Like with every single film Anderson has ever directed, the inch-perfect cinematography of Robert Yeoman elevates the film to an astral plane, but it is in the dialogue (co-written between Anderson and Roman Coppola) that MK really delivers.
The absurdity of two young lovers writing grammatically faultless love letters to each other works so well, and that is due in no small part to the absolutely wonderful debut performances from the two central child actors, but this might quietly be one of Wes Anderson's best ensemble casts too. Alongside expected appearances from Anderson stalwarts Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, a list containing Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Bob Balaban all bringing their absolute A-game makes Moonrise Kingdom our first unmissable pick in Mr. Anderson's stellar filmography.
- Ben Wheadon (Instagram)
5. Rushmore (1998)
Through Max Fischer’s multitudes— from play-writing, bee-keeping, calligraphy and the rest of his extracurricular obsessions, Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson wrote out the DNA to all of Anderson's future films. There’s the precocious youth, who Jason Schwartzman in his red beret, blazer and braces plays opposite the other man-child, and the film’s true star— Bill Murray, with a face like a distraught punching-bag. In his role as Herman Blume, hopelessly lost in deadpan middle-age, he caught the second wind of his career in arthouse films and as a recurring Anderson collaborator, kicking off the ‘Murrenaissance’ as we now know it.
In Rushmore there are graveyards, letterheads, dysfunctional relationships and the promise of aquariums, many, many aquariums (I see you, Steve Zissou). The soundtrack blends the soon-to-be signature Wes blend of plucked strings and glockenspiels with songs by Cat Stevens and The Who— featuring an iconic montage of petty revenge acts to the repeating chorus of "you are forgiven!"
But past the ennui and chain-smoking that goes with the perils of trying to act one’s age, this movie gets to the childish centre of Max’s— and Wes’s— arts and crafts. The school plays Max puts on, of Vietnam violence and gangster cliché, are tropey genre pieces, basically conveying his desire to direct grown-up subject matter, delivered with trademark Wes Anderson irony: "Frank, you enter stage-right with the bag of cocaine." But in the perfectionism of Max’s direction and above all the stagecraft— which revels in production design, flame-throwers, train-sets and toy aeroplanes— Anderson’s own bran of sartorial cinema is laid bare in all its aesthetics and eccentricity. Auteurs, amirite?
- Sam Harding (Instagram)
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Let’s face it. Adapting the books of Roald Dahl is not an easy task. Dahl’s quirky and darkly comedic storytelling is fascinating on paper, but it has often proved hard for film adaptations of his classics to achieve the same level of magic and weirdness.
Thankfully, Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox is perhaps the film that best manages to recreate Dahl’s original intentions in visual, emotional and tonal approach. Shifting to stop-motion animation for the first time in his career, Fantastic Mr. Fox nails this stylistic re-invention, somehow remaining faithful to the iconic art style of Quentin Blake while still providing an entirely novel spin. With Anderson's first steps into stop-motion filmmaking, the hyper-specific shot compositions and symmetry ascended to their most perfectly realised form. Now able to perfectly mould his scenes into perfect alignment, the position of this film in Anderson's catalogue should not go underappreciated for the revitalising affect it had on the director's career after The Darjeeling Limited.
The film’s voice cast is superb, calling on George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Owen Wilson (amongst others) as the main roles in the characters; this lends the film an interesting weight of settled Hollywood actors which transpires into professionality on screen. A must watch for people of all ages, Fantastic Mr Fox does not permit itself to be simply a "children's movie", and that is perhaps the best example of just how true it kept to the vision of Roald Dahl.
- Guille Fernandez (Instagram)
3. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
If you read our last big film article, you know how I feel about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
For what it's worth, I find The Life Aquatic to be Wes Anderson's most inviting work. Releasing in 2004, none of his films had really experienced the kind of criticism it received. Ebert was luke-warm, Empire declared it Wes Anderson's worst attempt at "character and sensibility" and the film bombed spectacularly in the box office, but the world has come back to apologise to Zissou.
Next to Lost in Translation, I think The Life Aquatic holds perhaps Bill Murray's greatest ever performance. Mimicking Jacques Cousteau as a blue-shirted, red-hatted, crushingly depressed oceanographic filmmaker, in contrast to the early 2000s criticism that was hurled towards it The Life Aquatic could well be seen as Anderson's most human work. The characters are typically diverse, involving Seu Jorge singing Portuguese Bowie covers while Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett, Noah Taylor and more populate the good ship Belafonte on a revenge-fuelled quest for a mythical white whale (or, 'Jaguar Shark').
Look. Its filmed on the gorgeous Mediterranean and everyone's wearing matching outfits. Go watch it.
- Ben Wheadon (Instagram)
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
In ‘Accidentally Wes Anderson’, the new book adorned with pastel images of Instagrammable, mostly European architecture and symmetry, life has begun to imitate art. Except, as lamented by The Grand Budapest Hotel, this kind of art was getting left behind by reality a long time ago. Based on the works of Stefan Zweig and set in the fictional state of Zubrowka in the 1900s, the ornamental fancy of an Anderson spectacle becomes the backdrop to a continent drawing dark borders between the past and the present.
This time the stakes are high, with the spectre of war and desperate refugees fleeing in search of ‘civilisation’, only grounded by the relatable need to pack your own wine so as to avoid the cat-piss they serve in the dining car. Wes serves up a five-star orchestration of red-velvet décor and whip-pans, inviting us up to the yodelling nights of aristocracy and oil-paintings only to witness their proximity to the looming world forces of greed, racism and "filthy fascist assholes."
In an ensemble jam-packed with thespian talent, the show is utterly stolen by Ralph Fiennes as the dashing concierge M. Gustave, icing this marzipan-reality with wit and perfume. By turns foul-mouthed and daintily poetic, his relationship with Zero (Anthony Revolori)— lobby boy, protégé and persecuted migrant— abounds with comedy and the sweet scent of brotherhood.
This film is a caper, with jailbreaks, murders and ski-chases set to a rollicking score that gets occasionally infiltrated by notes of tender harpsichord— where the nostalgia for times past becomes almost too much to bear. For the Grand Budapest Hotel— a story within a book within a film within an instagram aesthetic— is lost to us, its demolition a foregone conclusion that ushers in the end of an idealised world. But the image it preserves— just look at Saoirse Ronan’s face, smiling against the halo of a carousel in aching slow-motion— is one that only the gloss of movies and memory can recapture.
- Sam Harding (Instagram)
1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
As dysfunctional families go, The Royal Tenenbaums give all contenders a run for their money.
Patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) runs the show, attempting to get back into the lives of his now-grown children, after he spent their entire childhood torturing them with an unerring sense of disinterest and disapproval. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is stuck in a limbo of past and present, much like her brothers Chas (Ben Stiller) and Richie (Luke Wilson). After a childhood spent being hailed as geniuses, the three progressed into lukewarm adult life, with growing disappointments and failures. Child prodigies are constant sources of comedy in the worlds of Wes Anderson, and as the children of The Royal Tenenbaums soar into childish adulthood, each of them ends up desperately clinging to the past for comfort.
Anderson’s attention to detail shines brightest in this - his best film to date. Richie sports the same haircut and impractical chunky headband as any self-respecting 80s tennis champion, but his career has flopped. Chas, who once sued his father for injuring him with a BB gun, is trying to raise his children to be as close to him as he was far from Royal. But it’s Margot who really teaches a lesson in the style of nostalgia; she still wears the same fur coat she must have pilfered from her mother’s wardrobe as a kid, hides herself away behind black eyeliner and is far from the award-winning playwright she was as a teenager. Each festering into stagnation, the family is shaken up when Royal is kicked out of the hotel he’s been staying in and shows up at the family home, pretend stomach cancer in tow, desperate to be let in.
The film, simply put, features the very best moments of Anderson's entire career. From Richie in the bathroom, to road traffic hazards, to the utterly transcendent pairing of Wilson, Paltrow and Nico's 'These Days.' The highest highs of Wes Anderson's brilliance are all on show here, with the first film that truly demonstrated his staggering stylistic creativity. Anderson leads an ensemble of oddities into comical misunderstandings through the lens of a style that became recognisable in its soft hues, rich details, bookish chapter headings and unnerving symmetry. Viewers can only hope they might emulate the Tenenbaums’ style, only hopefully without the childhood trauma that may come attached.
- Maria Orlando (Instagram)
Guille Fernandez is music lover who studied the cello for almost 10 years before moving to the UK to study English literature at King's College, London.
Sam Harding is a student at York and an enthusiast of mosh pits. He is trying to marry music with writing but is running out of onomatopoeia. Life soundtrack includes underground rap and electronic bleep bloops.
Maria Orlando is a bookworm and writer that traded Italy's mild weather for London's constant drizzle. All to study literature. Oh well.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
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