Maestro: Wes Anderson
Known For: Quirky, comedic tales of families and failure.
Influences: Satyajit Ray, Orson Welles, Mike Nichols, Quentin Tarantino and perhaps most of all Hal Ashby.
Masterpieces: I find Anderson to be endlessly fascinating, but I’m not in love with any of his films, except for Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Disasters: none (I promise I’ll eventually get to a director with a disaster, I swear)
Better than you remember: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was his most poorly received film and I can’t say I disagree. So no entries here.
Awards: Nominations at the Oscars, BAFTAs, Venice and Berlin. Not a whole lot of substantial wins.
Box Office: The Royal Tenenbaums with over 50 million is the winner.
Favorite Actor: Bill Murray and Owen Wilson tie, each in five of Anderson’s six films.
Wes Anderson was a part of a new generation of indie directors that came to prominence in the late 1990's including (though not limited to) David O. Russell, P.T. Anderson, and Spike Jonze. And though he may not be the most talented among that group, he's possibly the most influential. His is the career that launched a thousand quirky comedies. Without Wes Anderson would there be a Little Miss Sunshine? a Juno? an Eagle vs. Shark? The tragi-comedy about a sad figure set to impossibly trendy music isn't a new concept, but one may just have to credit Anderson for hastening its recent rise (for better or worse). What's so surprising is that even though Anderson is thought of as a "hip" or "trendy" director his themes are not exactly the encapsulation of "cool". Stories of once-great men, their downfalls, and familial relationships aren't as cool as stories about killers or kings. But it's here where Anderson keeps returning. Royal Tenenbaum, Steve Zissou, Mr. Fox are all men attempting to recapture some past glory (and who all star in films named after themselves). And do they recapture their past glory? Well that's complicated. Anderson never gives us a clear ending. His ulitmate suggestion seems to be that life is neither happy nor sad nor simple, yet almost always ironic. So yes you can find your white whale (or jaguar shark) but when you get there the price you've paid for your goal will diminish its worth.
Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese's discussion on the best films of the 1990's (Scorsese selected Bottle Rocket to his list) where they noted this sense of existential irony that permeates through that decade's independent cinema. "Everything has quotation marks around it" says Roger Ebert. And there's something about Wes Anderson's style that puts him at the forefront of this phenomenon. Anderson's construction and framing often highlight the artificiality of his films. Realism is farthest from his mind and he regularly betrays convention with the film drawing attention to itself as a result. Anderson would rather shoot a conversation between two characters in its entirety with both in profile then as series of cross-cut over-the-shoulder shots. Why is this? Is it to achieve a sense of unreal? Is it to maintain the tempo of a comedic scene? Is it just to break the rules? A little bit of all three I think.
It's nice to see Wes Anderson back on top of the world again with his most acclaimed film in eight years. Even though his two prior films achieved interesting things (The Life Aquatic allowed him to work with Herny Selic and The Darjeeling Limited let him homage Indian cinema in a way he'd been hinting at for a while) neither was able to capture the brilliance of The Royal Tenenbaums, which was, at the time, the quintessential Wes Anderson film, hitting all of his most common themes and also having fun taking a somewhat affectionate look at the oppression that comes from being rich and famous (an offshoot of his interest in failed great men and a concept taken right from Hal Ashby). But Fantastic Mr. Fox gave Anderson the chance to try animation, a genre quite possibly perfectly suited to Anderson's constructed ironic sensibilities. What's next for Anderson we don't know. IMDb and Wikipedia each list different future projects, but there's little doubt that he'll have another film out soon and it will continue to influence young directors while clearly setting himself apart from those who try to do what he does with his superior sense of style and craft.