For such a singular artist and aesthete, Wes Anderson has always been comfortable with wearing his influences on his sleeve, rightly confident that he can celebrate his touchstones without resigning to them. For proof, just look at the way his characters worship each other in order to find themselves — from Ned Plimpton’s childhood obsession with Steve Zissou, to the mild awe that Gustave H. inspires from his new lobby boy, Anderson understands that self-discovery is the last stage of a failed attempt to become someone else. Maybe that’s why “Rushmore” represented such a breakthrough for him, because this coming-of-age story about a super precocious kid (and the grown man who goads along their mutually assured destruction) is so giddy about the things that made it possible.
Running on the fumes of the French New Wave and drafting behind American touchstones like Mike Nichols and Albert Brooks, Anderson’s second feature is like an artistic manifesto that never declines to cite its sources. And, not for nothing, it gave the world Jason Schwartzman, reinvigorated Bill Murray, and — most importantly — made it possible for generations of viewers to say “Wait wait, go back… was that Rory Gilmore!?” “Rushmore” is a film as self-possessed as its hero (and many times cooler), and that makes it a favorite for many, but it lacks the sentimental spark that galvanizes Anderson’s more mature work.
5. “Isle of Dogs”
The world is trash, and Wes Anderson is currently enjoying the hottest streak of his career. These things, it turns out, are not unrelated. The worse things get, the more fantastical Anderson’s films become; the more fantastical Anderson’s films become, the better their style articulates his underlying sincerity. Disorder fuels his imagination, and the staggeringly well-crafted “Isle of Dogs” is nothing if not Anderson’s most imaginative film to date.
There’s a whiff of inevitability to that. Whether telling a story about a splintered New York dynasty or one about a faded European hotel where it used to be possible to find some faint glimmers of civilization in this barbaric slaughterhouse known as humanity, Anderson has always been attuned to the beauty of magical idylls, to the violence of losing them, and (most of all) to the fumblingly tragicomic process of building something better from the rubble. So at a time when global warming and gun violence have become inescapable — a time when fascism and xenophobia are no longer abstract threats so much as Republican campaign promises — it’s no wonder that America’s fussiest auteur is operating near the peak of his powers.
“Isle of Dogs” is the work of an artist who’s howling into the same wind that’s currently blowing in all of our faces. Blending Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki into a darkly comic fable about a boy, his dog, and a world that’s on the brink of running out of biscuits, this is a movie that literally asks: “Who are we, and who do we want to be?” And since it’s a Wes Anderson movie, those questions are posed straight into the camera. It’s funny, it’s grim, and it’s probably the most pet-able bit of dystopian fiction we’ve ever seen.
4. “The Royal Tenenbaums”
©Buena Vista Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
The Wes Anderson movie that people think of when they think of Wes Anderson movies, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is a story about failure that’s told by someone who’s afraid of his own ambition (or, more precisely, afraid of his unwillingness to tame it). Unfolding like “Fanny and Alexander” as remade by a very drunk Whit Stillman, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is responsible for so many of the worst quirks of recent indie cinema, but it falls victim to exactly none of them. It’s a film where the characters are cobbled together from affects, but all manage to feel human. It’s a film that feels overstuffed to the gills, but one whose every moment is iconic — gather enough twentysomethings together, and their Tenenbaums tattoos could serve as storyboards for the entire script. It’s a film that leaves me a little cold every time I watch it, but always feels worth watching again.