Director Wes Anderson’s latest movie, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is in theaters right now, but his unique filmography is well worth watching in entirety. Anderson has released eight full-length films. He tends to re-use actors: the Wilson brothers, Bill Murray, and Jason Schwartzman show up in nearly every one of his movies, his films’ scores are all written by either Alexandre Desplat or Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, and once he snags an actor, it is likely that actor will show up again in a later film, even if only in a cameo role. While the subject matter varies widely, his movies share a fascinating cinematographic style and a quirky, funny, slightly dark but heartwarming mood.
“Bottle Rocket” (1996) tells the story of two friends (played by brothers Owen and Luke Wilson); one is a criminal and keeps leading his reluctant pal down the wrong path, with ultimately disastrous results. Along the way, Luke Wilson’s character falls in love with a hotel maid. Despite being Anderson’s (and Owen Wilson’s) first movie, however, “Bottle Rocket” is a gem which will steal the viewer’s heart.
“Rushmore” (1998) is the one that made Anderson famous (and was also co-written with Wilson). Starring Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, “Rushmore” tells the story of a prep-school delinquent (Schwartzman) who falls in love with one of his teachers, starts a war with the father of one of his classmates over her, gets expelled, and finally finds his place in the world. Though Murray was already a well-established actor at this point, this was Schwartzman’s first role. This remains one of Anderson’s best-known films and one of his best films overall.
“The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) is Anderson’s weakest credit, despite being his first Academy Award nomination (one of only three). Gene Hackman stars as the patriarch of a wealthy dysfunctional family (which includes Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Anjelica Huston, and, of course, Luke Wilson); the family is thrown into chaos when Mr. Tenenbaum announces he has cancer. This is by far the least funny of Anderson’s films, and the most forgettable. Murray and Owen Wilson also star.
With “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004), Anderson found his stride once again. The film takes its inspiration from Jacques Cousteau. Steve Zissou (Murray) is a washed-up undersea explorer who wants revenge on the shark that killed his long-time partner. His estranged son (Owen Wilson) tracks him down and finds his way onto Zissou’s team of quirky adventurers, which includes Huston, Willem Dafoe, and Brazilian musician Seu Jorge. The whole lot of them go in search of the shark, racing to beat Zissou’s richer and more successful rival (Jeff Goldblum). This movie set the standard for what audiences have come to expect from Anderson: brightly-colored retro sets; a cast of memorable Dickensian characters; chapter headings in the midst of the story; a unique, funky soundtrack; a sort of magical realism that permeates the setting; the use of miniatures. If a viewer has never seen an Anderson movie before, this is a good one to start with.
“The Darjeeling Limited” (2007) takes three belligerent brothers with legendary noses (Schwartzman, Wilson, and Adrian Brody) on a train through India following the death of their father. While decent to watch, and very colorful to look upon, this is not a stand-out in Anderson’s filmography. There is plenty of familial drama and dysfunctionality, a startling ill-timed death, and a sort-of-happy ending.
“The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) is a stop-motion animation based on a Roald Dahl book by the same name. Starring George Clooney as the title character and Meryl Streep as his wife, this film is a delight; and, being based on a children’s book, it is also family-friendly. Mr. Fox is struggling to give up a life of crime so that he can settle down in security, but he decides to pull a final sting on the three terrible farmers who live above his den, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. This is the most light-hearted of Anderson’s films.
“Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) tells the story of two young lovers struggling to find acceptance and the freedom to be together in the face of small-town prejudices. This is made extra difficult because the lovers are about fourteen years old. Further complicating matters, this all takes place during a massive storm and amid political posturing and familial troubles on the part of the adults involved. This is a charming film and probably Anderson’s best (depending, of course, on one’s preferences), as it walks the happy medium between drama, romance, and comedy. Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, most of Anderson’s standbys, and a bunch of surprisingly talented child actors star.
Finally, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014) takes Anderson into darker territory. While easily one of the funniest in his filmography, it also inhabits a far more formidable, dangerous space than its predecessors. Ralph Fiennes plays the lead character, a metrosexual concierge in the fanciest hotel in a fictional Eastern European country on the eve of the Second World War. He and his sidekick (and the narrator), a precocious immigrant boy named Zero, must go on the run after stealing a painting from a family of horrible people (Dafoe, Brody). Several brutal murders ensue, and this one only barely ends happily. It is definitely worth watching before it goes to video.
Even the happiest of Anderson’s movies feature some unexpected tragedy. He has said he does this because, in real life, tragedy can and does strike at any time, and people have to deal with it and go on with their lives. The fact that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is both the funniest and the darkest of these eight movies is not an accident. Anderson’s message is that humor can be found even in the grimmest of circumstances. Jeff Goldblum gets his fingers chopped off in a sliding door, an important character is executed by fascists for no reason whatsoever, and a head is delivered to the police in a box – but life goes on. As a grown-up Zero narrates the film, he treats both the good and the bad with equal gravity – and levity: matter-of-fact, just as Anderson treats the straightaways and speedbumps of his characters’ lives. Though he has yet to achieve widespread fame, Wes Anderson has demonstrated that he is one of the best directors in the business. It will be interesting to see what he has in store for viewers next.