The Grand Budapest Hotel, the newest film by the divisive Wes Anderson, is now playing citywide after premiering in New York and LA last week. J.R. Jones has a review of the film in this week’s paper, in which he writes “over the years Anderson’s cult following has built steadily, though his filmography has had its ups and downs . . . with each new feature his eccentric visual style becomes more pronounced even as his characters seem flatter and more cartoonish. Anderson’s movies can be wonderfully funny and fun to look at, but they often give me the feeling that I’m watching a grown man play with dolls.” I agree with this statement, but unlike Jones, I don’t necessarily see it as a negative. If anything, the further Anderson moves toward a heightened, more cartoonish space, the more interesting his films become. As elaborate and meticulously constructed as The Grand Budapest Hotel is (the film, with its layered narrative structure, shifting aspect ratios, and whimsical production design, feels like the cinematic equivalent of a matryoshka doll), it’s never soulless. In other words, Anderson isn’t sacrificing emotion for the sake of style—emotion exists within the style (as Jones notes, “Anderson is one of the few directors working today who can actually get laughs with a camera”) and the characters become an extension of this aesthetic.
For some people, of course, Anderson is just too much—too precious, too twee, and seemingly enraptured with his own work. He’s often subjected to mockery—though I think the ease at which he’s parodied speaks to his singularity as an artist more than anything else—and even inspired an entire Pinterest page that offers tips on how to create costumes based on his characters, but I’m hard pressed to find an American cineaste purer than him. You can check out my five favorite Wes Anderson films after the jump.
5. Rushmore (1998) A touchstone in the Bill Murray mythos and one of the most inventive films about teenage aggression ever made. Though it seems somewhat unremarkable in the light of Anderson’s increasingly intricate style, the film remains the ideal gateway into the director’s world. It’s a canonical standby at this point, noted for its meticulous tableaux vivants and punk-rock attitude.
4. Bottle Rocket (1996) The least stylish of Anderson’s films, but easily among the most poignant and most funny. The director’s strong command of character interplay is very much present between Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, and Robert Musgrave, who form a dysfunctional trio of would-be heist men whose various hang-ups keep them from realizing their criminal potential. No mere farce, the film aspires to and achieves great human depths while also retaining an absurd tone.
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) In one way or another, each of Anderson’s films can be described as a sort of live-action cartoon—with their vivid colors, quirky characterizations, eccentric gestures, and liberal experimentation with physical space—all of which explain why this animated feature is in direct step with his live-action work. The film is notable for the way it permits Anderson to truly unfurl his whimsical inclinations without fear of coming off as “unrealistic,” plus the stop-motion animation and character design are truly remarkable.
2. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Anderson is a magnificent director of actors, as illustrated in this comedy, the first in which he used a large ensemble cast, something of a personal trademark by now. In stripping them down to clearly definable archetypes, the characters take on a symphonic quality, each contributing their own personal neuroses and quirks in what amounts to a sweeping movement of musical humor and pathos. At the center of it all is Gene Hackman, whose simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating performance is perhaps the best in any Anderson film.
1. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) After Fantastic Mr. Fox Anderson finally allowed his work to embrace the cartoonish tendencies that had previously lingered beneath the surface. In shedding the fussy emotionalism of his weakest films he entered pseudofairytale mode with this coming-of-age comedy and, in the process, delivered his most purely emotional work. Most of Anderson’s films are about adults who behave like children and must learn how to become more adult; Moonrise Kingdom is about actual children who learn that the world of adults is not that different from their own in many ways, a profound reorientation of Anderson’s most presiding theme.