With Asteroid City hitting cinemas (23 June) we took a deep dive into the celebrated auteur's unique filmography…
Bottle Rocket (1996)
Words by Nathan Smith
Have you ever held sugar beet in your hands? It's not particularly attractive and it smells rather awful. But put that beet through a refinery and you end up with the sweetest white granules. Bottle Rocket is Wes Anderson's sugar beet movie. On the surface it's an undisciplined film full of ‘indie movie' clichés, but dig a little deeper and Anderson's signature style is most definitely there, positively bubbling away.
Anderson's debut feature has a raw, pioneer attitude, coming as it did in 1996 amid films from the likes of Tarantino, Kevin Smith and the Coen brothers. It's instantly recognisable as a 90s indie film but also very much its own thing. Weird – at times – but remarkably sweet.
It's Luke Wilson's movie through and through, channelling some big nineties-angst energy whilst playing off his brother Owen Wilson, who delivers what may well be his very first ‘Wow!'. Reason alone for its preservation in the annals of cinematic history.
Words by Richard Gordon Davis
There's a magic about Rushmore that hasn't dimmed in the near 25 years since its release. That magic centres chiefly around the film's indelible protagonist Max Fischer, played by Jason Schwartzman in his film debut. If Bottle Rocket's Dignan is the prototype Wes Anderson character, then Max is the archetype.
Sure, there's an enjoyment to be taken from Wes Anderson's ‘looser' style, the film's note perfect casting, a virtuoso series of montage sequences, a killer soundtrack and a memorable series of one-liners (O.R. they?), but Max is something special. He dominates the screen.
From the film's opening moments we're in Max's head – literally – as we see what turns out to be his fantasy, where he solves ‘the hardest geometry equation in the world' to the acclaim of his class only to wake up in assembly. There's an argument the rest of the film could also be fantasy, a fantasy fulfilment for the audience that cinema can frequently provide. There's a part of ourselves and our egos that Max represents so vibrantly. A kind of sociopathic underdog spirit that refuses to let other people define us. We can do anything. Become French club president. Manage the school lacrosse team. Found an astronomy society. Save Latin.
But as things inevitably unravel we see a different, deeper side to Max; a humble barber's son, desperate to do his dad proud and honour the memory of his mother. It's an arc that makes Max not just one of Anderson's most bombastic and iconic characters, but also his most human one.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Words by Tom Mimnagh
While Wes Anderson films frequently verge on the surreal in tone, The Royal Tenenbaums veers into more whimsical territory, focusing on the nature of family, relationships, redemption and whether childhood rifts can be healed in adulthood. It's touching and moving in equal measure but never strays from Anderson's now recognisable style.
There are many reasons to adore The Royal Tenenbaums, but few things catch the eye as much as the prestige of its cast. Ben Stiller, Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson (who arguably steals the show), Angelica Huston, Bill Murray and Danny Glover all have major parts in a stacked ensemble cast that features Alec Baldwin as the film's narrator. Filled with memorable performances, Gene Hackman's comedic, against-type role is tremendous – one of his last as he began winding down his distinguished career into retirement.
With a heady mix of comedy and drama, a unique story and series of fantastic, underappreciated performances, The Royal Tenenbaums is a classic from a writer/director/auteur at the top of his game. Peak Wes Anderson.
Words by Blaise Radley
In hindsight, it's easy to see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) as the defining film of Wes Anderson's career; the moment when his stylistic considerations all slipped into place. Much like The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), there's an ensemble cast of recurring players, but where his previous film toyed with the heightened reality of its literary framing device, here reality dissolves entirely. Everything about the inner workings of Steve Zissou's (Bill Murray) marine documentary film crew, among whom we spend the entire runtime, is exaggerated, from the bisected submarine set to the stop-motion fluorescent fish and the nerd chic of the colour-coded costuming. Fortunately, it's also Anderson's most incisively funny feature.
Where later Anderson outings (I'll let you decide which) suffer as a result of his precious streak, devolving into kitsch dioramas with little human element, here the artificial nature is comment in itself. As we follow Zissou on his quest to track down, document, and then blow up the shark that killed his best friend, Anderson draws particular attention to the insular, navel-gazing repetitions of its central sad-sack and the distance his art has created from those who, despite it all, love him. The obvious parallels with Anderson's own artistic impulses load Zissou's slow journey from self-loathing to self-awareness with a downbeat humour, as Anderson questions what redemption looks like for a lifelong arsehole. The answers he finds along the way are refreshingly ambivalent.
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Words by Kate Padley
The Darjeeling Limited is Wes Anderson's best film: there, I said it. Admittedly, I might be biased. I'm half Indian, and the culture clash of West-meets-East makes me incredibly nostalgic for the communities and dynamics I grew up in. But aside from the setting (which Wes uses in the least tacky, most humane and respectful way possible), there is so much in Darjeeling that tugs at the heartstrings.
The quiet moments of grief shared between brothers, so overwhelmed by their pain that they can barely utter a few stunted words to each other. The relatable awkwardness of a family who, try as they might, simply cannot communicate. The wonderful chaos of India and how reflective it is of the brothers' turmoil. The quiet, profound heartbreak of four simple words: ‘I didn't save mine'.
The Darjeeling Limited is both joy and pain. It's simultaneously everything that's wonderful and awful in the world. One big, beautiful, frenzied, self-contradiction. Just like grief: the preciousness of having been touched by someone so deeply, only to feel the sting of their loss forevermore. Just like India: somehow serene, beautiful, treacherous and gruelling all at once. Darjeeling encapsulates it all: a profound ode to the peaks and troughs of life in all its complicated, messy glory.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Words by Becci Sayce
Quaint and charming landscapes, an absurd yet heart-warming narrative, and talking foxes – what more could someone want? Wes Anderson's first foray into the world of animation takes Roald Dahl's classic 1970 novel Fantastic Mr Fox in a wacky new direction that places it as a strong contender for his best work.
With fabulous voice acting from the likes of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jarvis Cocker and Willem Dafoe (among others), Fantastic Mr Fox is a heart-pounding tale of nature versus greed told through anthropomorphic protagonists. When Mr Fox's serene life is broken after raiding the farms next-door, he has to resort to his natural craftiness in order to overcome his opponents.
Animated films are sometimes seen as being for children, yet the film is devilishly witty and downright silly in equal measure with puns and double-entendre's aplenty to puts smiles on the faces of audiences, regardless of age. The stop-motion is stunning, with each scene transporting us into the picturesque English countryside that's every bit as wondrous as the way Dahl described it. Anderson's attention to detail and love for his craft is truly remarkable.
Just as endearing as his live-action works, Fantastic Mr Fox is a masterful multi-generational treat!
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Words by Will Stottor
One of the main reasons why Moonrise Kingdom is one of Wes Anderson's best films is because of how effectively it works on an emotional level. Anderson's eighth feature film tells the story of two youngsters played by unforgettable newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, who share feelings of alienation and sadness and, eventually, find love with one another. The events take place on the remote, picturesque island of New Penzance – a perfect playground for Anderson's style to flourish.
Moonrise Kingdom mixes the best of Wes: the dry, odd humour (“No, what kind of bird are you?”); distinctive colour palettes and perfect visual symmetry; a sumptuous Alexandre Desplat original score. The latter perfectly complements the use of existing music by Benjamin Britten. But it's Moonrise Kingdom's smart portrayal of young love, mental health and human connection that marks it out as something singular in Anderson's ever-expanding filmography. There is a lingering melancholia hanging over Moonrise Kingdom but, like the passing of its climactic storm, it eventually gives way to a form of brightness and hope.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Words by Chris Connor
The Grand Budapest Hotel is the quintessential Wes Anderson film, brimming with quirkiness and featuring an extensive ensemble, many of whom have gone on to be regulars in the Wes-CU. It's perhaps his most universally acclaimed film, balancing colourful escapades with emotional depth and featuring a stellar Ralph Fiennes performance that flashes his comedic side – one that has come to define the latter part of his career.
It's bursting with colour – most notably pink – the colour of the titular Grand Budapest hotel and perhaps most memorably, Mendl's cakes. While all of Anderson's films are playful, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most consistently funny, striking a perfect balance between humour and its deeper moments. With so many hidden details in each frame and exquisite production design and cinematography, there are elements that leap out on repeat viewings, deepening the experience and highlighting what makes Wes Anderson such a distinctive director.
Isle of Dogs (2018)
Words by Cara McWilliam Richardson
A futuristic dystopian Japan is the setting for Wes Anderson's second animated feature, Isle of Dogs. Utilising stop motion once again, the film showcases all the Anderson quirks that audiences have come to know and love with a superbly animated film that proves that dogs really are man's (and perhaps cinema's) best friend.
Isle of Dogs sees Anderson teaming up with Fantastic Mr Fox cinematographer Tristan Oliver, to create a world that feels tangibly real. In spite of the harsh, disease-riddled world that the characters inhabit, the film is filled with warmth and vibrancy.
Serving as a parable – and a warning – for those pushed to the edge of society, it is also a study of a tyrannical and racist regime. Yet at its heart it is the simple story of one boy and his dog. Filled with masterful technical aspects and a moving story, Isle of Dogs is a pure delight, for both head and heart.
The French Dispatch (2021)
Words by Joe Raczka
Even when they're set in the present, Wes Anderson films rarely feel contemporary. He prefers looking at the past not as a time when things were better, but as a point in the collective memory that we're unable to return to. And, in the case of The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, ways of doing things that could be lost.
The French Dispatch is an ode to the golden age of journalism – before mobile phones and internet research – when there was an art to the practice and Anderson renders his universe artfully. The cast has the regular repertory players and some interesting new faces, the soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat and Jarvis Cocker creates a louche, Gainsbourgian mood and the cinematography, by frequent collaborator Robert Yeoman, is lush and textured. All of this comes in aid of a melancholic spirit that's as enchanting as it is bittersweet.
The French Dispatch brings to mind the song Auld Lang Syne or ‘Old Long Since'. The Robert Burns poem that inspires the song opens with: “Should Old Acquaintance be forgot, and never thought upon. The flames of love extinguished, and fully past and gone”. Much like the poem, the film asks us whether the past should be forgotten.
Asteroid City is released on 23 June, check out our very own Kate Padley's Cannes review!