Another Man’s Opinion: Ranking Wes Anderson’s Filmography
Yesterday my esteemed colleague Tyler Coates ranked the oeuvre of Wes Anderson in descending order of quality. You can read the post here, but the sequence is as follows: Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Bottle Rocket, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited. Although he didn’t explicitly state it, he told me IRL that he "would rank Moonrise Kingdom between The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox." Although I like Mr. Coates as a person and think he does a stellar job as the Senior Editor of BlackBook, I believe his appraisal fails in several important ways. The first is that it is wrong.
Any sane fan of life and of movies would rank the Andersonian filmography as follows:
The Royal Tenenbaums
This film, which represents the sophomore effort of Anderson’s late style, is his only film that, in my mind, strikes the correct balance between twee-ness and realness. It’s also, with the exception of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, his only film that comes anywhere close to a properly mimetic description of family tensions. Furthermore, that Elliott Smith song! Finally, and most importantly, it is the only film starring Gene Hackman. Why, you might wonder, hasn’t Gene Hackman been in more films with Wes Anderson? It’s because he thinks Wes Anderson is a pussy. That’s not nice but perhaps it is accurate. Witness the following reverie from the cast members in 2011:
"I loved working with him," said Paltrow. "I loved being in the same scenes as him. He was kind of a bear of a guy, but I also found something very sweet and sad in there. I liked him a lot. I think he’s one of the greatest actors who ever lived. To be in his presence and watch him do his thing. It’s like—you know, you’re Gene Hackman, you can be in a bad fucking mood."
"I’ll stick up for Gene too," said Murray. "I’d hear these stories, like, ‘Gene threatened to kill me today.’ ‘He can’t kill you, you’re in a union.’ ‘Gene threatened to take all of us and set fire to us.’ ‘It’s a union shoot, it’s New York, he can’t set fire to you.’"
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
It may be surprising that the salutatorian slot goes to an animated feature of Walter Potterian proportions. But it is my conjecture that by eradicating actual human beings—which are so overly stylized as to beggar the description at all—Anderson felt free to delve deeper into the dark recesses of their hearts. From an emotional point of view, The Fantastic Mr. Fox contains virtuosic heights that rival the abovementioned Elliott Smit-scored suicide attempt scene from Tenenbaums. This, though, could be explained by citing the original author of the story, the master of pathos imaginatively gift-wrapped, Roald Dahl.
As an outlier that seems apart from the rest of Anderson’s work, his first film takes bronze. Embryonic in his development, Anderson had not yet moved so far towards twee affectlessness and an almost Western kabuki level of stylization that has riddled his lesser work. As Mr. Coates also noted, this film introduced the world to the Owen Brothers. To watch them then now is to comprehend the terrifying cycle of fame. They were so young then, so pure and so good. Too young then, too pure and too good, I fear, for the machine of Hollywood that turned the dark-haired one into a corporate shill and the tow-headed brother into a caricature of his authentic self.
Rushmore brought Anderson fame, but it also laid the groundwork for his own destruction. By rewarding Mr. Anderson for enshrouding hurt, pain, and sadness in pretension, the film sowed the toxic lifeless seeds that mars Anderson’s later work. However, the carapace, at this point, had not yet hardened, and one can still be moved by Jason Schwartzman’s adolescent love, something that recalls Scott Spencer’s Endless Love mixed, of course, with Holden Caulfield.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
In my opinion (and I join Mr. Coates in this), this is the tipping point in Anderson’s career wherein he starts to privilege things over people. Or rather, he starts to emphasize the portraying with acuity the material manifestations of a character’s personality over attempting to portray their personality per se. Bill Murray and Willem Dafoe, great actors both, are ill-used. Perhaps Mr. Coates put it best when he wrote, "Perhaps Roger Ebert put it best when he wrote, ‘I can’t recommend it, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it.’"
From a technical standpoint, one that we delved into this morning with the film’s production designer, Moonrise Kingdom may be the apotheosis of the Wes Anderson aesthetic. Yet the sun-blanched universe is airless, devoid of the messy emotions of man. There is one scene, however, in which one can glimpse joy as the film’s adolescent protagonists dance to Françoise Hardy. The scene lasts two or three minutes, but because of that, the film’s remains breathing—belabored breath indeed, but life-giving nonetheless.
The Darjeeling Unlimited
Like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but for a trio of estranged brothers, this film had all the makings of a The Royal Tenenbaums-esque emotional drama, yet, because the trappings of Andersonia hung so heavy around its neck, the result became stale and strange Orientalism.