Saturday, April 26, 2014

Ranking Wes Anderson

One final cheat on my promise to review every new movie I've seen during the span of my Movie Diet, which ends tomorrow.

As it happens, I have already heard The Grand Budapest Hotel discussed extensively on not one, not two, but three different podcasts -- all before I actually saw it this past Monday. With these people's thoughts and words still bouncing around in my head, I'm not sure it will be possible to separate my own from theirs -- or that it will even be useful to you for me to do so. You've probably gotten your critical fill of Grand Budapest as well.

But I do want to talk about The Grand Budapest Hotel in a different way. Seeing this movie means that I have now seen all eight of Wes Anderson's feature films, and his eighth must have crossed an imaginary line in my head where I now want to rank the auteur's whole filmography. It's a filmography I have not always loved. But I now realize I have more love for it than I may have thought, considering how much I liked The Grand Budapest Hotel and where it ended up ranking among his films.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

There's a precedent for this kind of thing on my blog, if you go back a couple years. When Up came out I ranked all the Pixar films to date. My viewing of A Serious Man prompted me to consider the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. And my love for 127 Hours put the eclectic career of Danny Boyle under the microscope.

Considering that I haven't done one of these since the end of 2010, and I love ranking things, I thought it was about time for another one. Plus, comparing our rankings of things tends to invite more reader participation than a review, anyway.

Wes Anderson has a far less eclectic filmography than any of the people or entities listed above, but that's mostly in terms of his consistent aesthetic. The actual subject matter of his films is an area where Anderson never repeats himself, and he's managed to make all sorts of different genres distinctly his own.

Without any further ado:

1) Bottle Rocket (1996). Is Anderson's first really his best? After a very tough deliberation, I'm saying so. My top three Anderson films may all be interchangeable, in fact, in terms of my feelings toward them, but I'm going to make it simple by including the only two Anderson movies I've seen more than once as my #1 and #2. Bottle Rocket has relatively few of the trademark tics and camera setups we would come to identify with Anderson, but his oddball sensibilities and worldview are already in place. There isn't a single Anderson movie that doesn't have a healthy dose of melancholy, and that's true even in his least overtly melancholic film, about a trio of dimwitted would-be robbers (Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson and Robert Musgrave). The sweetness of this movie and its characters' intentions is what shines through, and I think the film benefits from not being burdened by the comparative fussiness (that's a big Anderson buzzword) of the aesthetic he would eventually develop. I also get a few big belly laughs from this movie, specifically anything and everything related to a clueless safecracker played by Kumar Pallana.

2) The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004). If Bottle Rocket was not a controversial enough #1 choice, I'm definitely thumbing my nose at convention by going with Steve Zissou at #2. Zissou came out at a time when I was becoming highly skeptical of Anderson, for reasons I will get into later when the relevant film comes up on this list, so I dismissed it outright, only eventually seeing it nearly four years after it came out. Simply put, I was overwhelmed by the strength of my emotional response to this film, which may be due in large part to that sublimely effective moment on the submersible near the end of the movie. I was digging this movie's quirks and world building long before then, though -- I think this is the first (though not last) time I have felt like I was living in a self-contained Anderson world that I actually loved. And I loved living in it even though its characters experience mostly sorrow and disappointment. That's the mark of strong filmmaking. (Oh, and I adore the set they constructed of the Belafonte, probably Anderson's crowning aesthetic achievement to date.)

3) Rushmore (1998). Given how much I loved Rushmore when it came out, how it filled me with a spine-tingling sense of anticipation over the arrival of an artist who had truly found his voice, I'm surprised to find it as low as #3 on this list. The reason it is that low? I can't ignore that I have yet to go back and watch Rushmore a second time, which is really saying something for a film that's been out for 16 years. I really do think it's just a random oversight, but I can't deny that I felt a little backlash against Rushmore when some of Anderson's later efforts began disappointing me. If I'd had a second viewing recently or even years ago, I'd probably feel more confident in whatever this ranking ended up being. As it is, though, I can't ignore the fact that I've seen Bottle Rocket three times and Steve Zissou twice, leaving this wonderful film about adolescence and the rebirth of Bill Murray only third among Anderson's films. I should probably also admit that I grew to consider nepotism the only reason that Jason Schwartzmann has a career, even though I did truly like him in this movie (and have softened my dislike for him in recent years, to the point that I may actually like him now).

4) Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) - Fox is the first Anderson movie I'm sure doesn't deserve consideration for my #1 spot, but I'm equally sure that it's better than the other ones I've seen. Curiously, I saw this movie one year to the day after seeing Steve Zissou, so had a whole new appreciation of Anderson that certainly fueled my unreserved embrace of this stop-motion delight about four-legged animals. I simply loved seeing Anderson's trademark dialogue choices and speech patterns, not to mention his inimitable tone, grafted on to what is essentially a children's movie. Rarely have characters in animated movies felt so world-weary and wise, and in a way it felt like Anderson's most ambitious movie yet. I don't have a lot more to say about it except that this is the one I am most conscious of wanting to see a second time -- perhaps even more than Rushmore.

5) The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) - At last we get to Grand Budapest, which feels like it may have required more effort than any other Anderson film -- even while taking the least amount of time to hit theaters after the previous one. Anderson is always building worlds, but in The Grand Budapest Hotel, he feels for the first time like he's creating a number of different sub-worlds inside this world. That's due to the largest number of different locales he's ever put on film, each of which have that delightful Anderson touch, each of which feels lived in according to his peculiar sensibilities. There isn't anything about this movie that I didn't like -- I liked the choice to effortlessly incorporate violence and profanity, I liked every casting choice, and I especially liked the art direction of things like the titular hotel and the bakery shop that keeps factoring into the plot. You might even say I loved most of these things. I just didn't feel that certain -- something -- as I was watching that would have allowed Budapest to overtake any of the others on this list. But it also has no competition for this spot from the films beneath it. (Favorite moments: Any time someone took that cute construction paper tram up to the hotel, the whole fast-motion skiing scene, and whenever Ralph Fiennes opened his mouth.)

6) Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - The last movie on this list that I truly like. And I do truly like Moonrise Kingdom -- in fact, I like it more the more I think about it, after an initial lukewarm reception. I saw Moonrise Kingdom as the second movie in a nighttime double feature with Beasts of the Southern Wild, so it suffered both in comparison to Beasts, and as a movie I started watching too late at night. I suppose I felt pretty emotionally disconnected from the characters in this film, a problem almost overcome by some of the sets Anderson builds (that scout camp being flooded was like a miniature fetishist's dream come true). Rushmore may be the movie I should see a second time the most, and Fox may be the movie I want to see a second time the most, but this is the movie I will most likely see a second time the soonest, since I own it -- a present from my sister a couple Christmases ago. I look forward to making a second assessment of a movie I think I didn't quite get, but probably would given another chance.

7) The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). The movie that started to turn me against Anderson. While many people felt their enthusiasm for Anderson ramping up after their love affair began with Rushmore, I felt just the opposite upon leaving Royal Tenenbaums. Never has Anderson's aesthetic felt more claustrophobic than it feels here, and it caused me to frequently tell people that this movie left me feeling "offbeaten to death." (I'm still very proud of that phrase.) When I think of this movie I just think of a lot of moping by Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson, really frizzy hair for Ben Stiller and an unnecessary shoehorning in of a character for Owen Wilson. I'm sure it's not as disappointing as I have made it out to be over the past 13 years, and given the disparity between my feelings about this movie and the average person's feelings, this is probably the Anderson movie that most direly needs a second assessment by me, just to get my head straight about how good (or bad) it really is.

8) The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Anderson's worst, and I don't think a second viewing would tell me any different. However, I am curious how I would feel about this movie if I had seen it after Steve Zissou, rather than about ten months before. At the time I watched Darjeeling Limited -- again too late at night, in a hotel room, which certainly could have been a factor -- The Royal Tenenbaums was still the most recent Anderson movie I had seen, so I still had its negative flavor in my mouth (even six years later). The flavor curdled even further after this viewing. I think there are probably some nice Anderson aesthetic touches here, and I love a train as a setting for a movie, but all the plotting seemed either wrongheadedly slapstick or otherwise uninvolving. Two things about this movie stick out for me as I think about it: The idiotic scene where Jason Schwartzmann (at a low point of his popularity with me) maces his own brother, and the heavy-handed final scene where the characters throw away all their baggage (literal baggage as well as emotional baggage). The movie just doesn't work.

There we go -- a complete assessment of Anderson's feature career.

There's been a lot of talk about which movies I might/should watch again, but in truth, I'm convinced that Anderson is a vital enough artist that I actually want to watch all of these again.

And, I can't wait to see what will be waiting for us in 2016.


Don Handsome said...

We've got more similarity than I imagined:

1) Bottle Rocket (remember how electrified we were after watching this in your old basement?)
2) Moonrise Kingdom
3) Rushmore
4) Fantastic Mr. Fox
5) The Grand Budapest Hotel
6) The Darjeeling Limited
7) The Royal Tenenbaums
8) The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Vancetastic said...

I do remember that.

(I just realized I had forgotten to respond to your comment.)

We will agree to agree. What?