There are a select few in the hallway of great filmmakers whose work can be identified from a single shot, but Wes Anderson has undeniably proved himself to be one of them. His idiosyncratic directing and cinematic flourishes have been commended and recognised repeatedly over the years with his use of symmetry, shoebox dioramas, and colour redefining stylistic filmmaking. Beyond visual recognition, Anderson’s films can be identified by themes of nostalgia, melancholy, and ironic deadpan comedy. With every watch we find ourselves rooting for the outcast in a world of superficiality so masterfully constructed in each of his films. Anderson has eight feature length films, all of which deserve esteem, but these are the five I feel most strongly and intentionally encapsulate his work.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
One of my favourite films of all time, and arguably Anderson’s best, The Grand Budapest Hotel unfolds like a series of paintings stitched together; each shot is explicitly constructed and patterned. Anderson seems obsessed with the idea of impermanence, of moments as fleeting and the past as unattainable in the present. Nostalgia and a longing for the past are exemplified in former bellboy Zero’s narration recounting his time at the hotel, detailing the feelings and spirit of how it was at its prime. Each shot attempts to preserve Zero’s fondest memories, to capture them in snapshots and counter the less colourful, more lonely essence of the hotel in the present. The whole film is evocative and beautiful – a demonstration of Anderson’s storytelling capabilities.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Anderson is the master of creating ironic detachment between characters and the audience by having them deliver their lines in complete seriousness regardless of how absurd their situations may be. This detachment allows us to more strongly feel the sense of loss and loneliness that overrides his films, particularly in Moonrise Kingdom, which follows two kids feeling cast aside and isolated from the world they live in. As the characters embark on their adventure, we feel every moment of their journey tenderly, despite our understanding of them as kids living out a fantasy.
Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
Anderson’s precise and obsessive artistry is most readily seen in his impressive use of stop motion to create the beautiful and vibrant world of Fantastic Mr Fox. As the story unfolds and the characters come to life, it is almost hard to believe it has been achieved by clay models. The same can be said of Isle of Dogs, his other stop motion masterpiece, but I feel Fantastic Mr Fox utilises his recurrent themes more. A longing from the past is seen in Mr Fox’s attempts to return to a life of crime and loneliness is seen in his consequential pushing away of the other characters. Perhaps his most fun, upbeat, and comedically charged film, Fantastic Mr Fox is a great introduction to the world of Anderson.
While conceivably less visually recognisable than some of his other works, Rushmore captures Anderson’s ironic detachment perfectly in its self-driven protagonist Max Fisher. Through his serious delivery of unserious lines, and through our understanding of him as a young man and not the adult he poses himself to be, Fisher is a driving source of comedy throughout the film. The movie’s lines become funny, not to the characters, but to the audience. It is as if we are in on a joke that the characters themselves cannot see, and yet the film still manages to feel entirely heart-warming.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Following the lives of the Tenenbaum family, Anderson’s family tale takes place in a world of emotional repression. His overstylised shots create an almost dollhouse essence to the familial home that exaggerates the dysfunction of their relationships. The framing remains formal, structured, and perfected, creating a formalised world that the characters are designed to fit in to; they appear deadpan and emotionally unavailable. Not only does this make for an interesting family dynamic, it also provides, once again, a lot of comedy. Satirical lines are delivered in grave tones such as Richie admitting he wrote a suicide note only to be asked “is it dark?” to which he monotonously replies “of course it’s dark, it’s a suicide note”. This kind of comedic timing seems unique to Anderson’s work, and leaves me continuously bewildered by how even his most emotionally stripped back moments and unrealistically stylised worlds manage to have such a profound impact on his audiences. I suppose this is just one testament to the genius behind his films.