I didn’t fall in love with Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited upon its 2007 release, but I certainly admired it after the zany, indulgent ramblings of Life Aquatic. However, revisiting the film this week in preparation for a review of the Criterion Collection’s brilliant Blu-ray disc for Slant Magazine has convinced me of its brilliance. The sublime story of the Whitman brothers is Anderson’s most fully realized examination of siblings in distress, and it gets better with repeat viewings. And the visual transfer is expectedly superb.
The Best of the Rest: Honorable Mentions for the 2000’s
For every beginning, there must be an end. Sadly, our joint venture has come to its waning days, but the experience has been invigorating and therapeutic. So we have a decade nearly in the books, ten personal favorites revealed, and plenty of great Cinema to spare.
As previously stated in the Prologue, a rash of other masterful films deserve mention as best of the 2000’s, and I’d like to consider each in short bursts. I’ve ranked them 11-20 but in truth, they are interchangeable on any given day. To be followed by my Top 10 performances of the decade. Continue reading
With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson the auteur, the charming orchestrator of verbal banter, the rigorous explorer of family melancholy, comes full circle and revisits the nuanced themes and motifs of his two previous masterpieces (Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums). Anderson’s first official foray into animation clarifies what the director has been building toward with his last few films, problematic pictures about misbegotten families that confuse deep irony with deep humanity.
Fox, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, takes Anderson’s themes to a far superior level, using stop-motion animation to infuse the lively creatures beneath us with human traits, emotions, and conflicts, complicating the beasts and their burdens with inevitable change. The film frolics at a breakneck pace, cramming detail upon detail into strikingly composed frames, revealing a sublime order from mother nature’s darker hues. In short, the film creates a dynamic, communal animal universe with traditions, histories, and legends that all layer into a superbly specific tale of adaptation, instinct, regret, and contentment.
And so it begins, with Mr. Fox (George Clooney) leaning confidently against a skinny tree overlooking a vast valley, immersed in a tape cassette recording of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, pleased with his profession (killing chickens) and his singular family (wife Felicity Fox voiced by Meryl Streep). It’s possibly the only moment in the film where our hero is alone, and it can easily get forgotten amongst the countless joyous moments to follow. But it speaks volumes about his character as a kind rogue flushed with self-confidence, waiting for life to happen, hiding insecurities about parenting, later entranced back toward darkness by a mid-life craving of sorts. This type of complexity inhabits each of Anderson’s characters, and the world seems to evolve from their mere existence.
Deep seeded emotions carve these characters into complex animals, rendering the fabric of their hair, skin, claws, and teeth. Parental influence, sibling rivalry, responsibility, and trauma become benchmarks for their interactions, creating kindred moments akin to Max’s deep longing for his mother in Rushmore or Chas’ haunting admission at the end of Tenenbaums. Their detail evolves from the colorful and illuminating mise-en-scene – interiors flushed with portraits, landscape paintings, objects of affection, and clothes, exteriors dense with movement, danger, and elemental shifts. Anderson takes his characters through holes, trees, sewers, and finally into the sun, basking in the glow of immediacy. Color pops from every angle – the red of Fox’s tail, Badger’s dark suit, and Ash’s light blue cape immediately make an impact.
Wes Anderson creates universes from the ground up, rooting space, time, and style within the organic makeup the characters, and when he’s most successful the screen pops with visual splendor and darkly comedic undertones. Fantastic Mr. Fox has these traits and more, illuminating the texture of wild instinct, the detail of fatherhood, and the colorful glow of love. If these brilliant incarnations seem occasionally forlorn, it’s because the wild animal in them takes a backseat to their human soul, for the good of friendship and family. But Anderson also understands that each needs to release the necessary beast inside, if only for a moment, to eat, scream, or hold an occasional rumpus.
Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson’s beautifully eccentric debut feature, hints at the complex connections between family, mise-en-scene, and self-worth on display in Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums. Anderson’s career trajectory seems familiar; a young filmmaker who initially alludes to his artistic obsessions through witty banter and ironic scenarios, then shifts gears (as his budgets get bigger) toward a purely cinematic vision (in this case filled with texture, color, and unspoken subtext). Some twelve years later, the pragmatic, bare bones aesthetic on display in Bottle Rocket is refreshing, reminding why lush tapestries like The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited feel so cold on the inside. It’s worrisome that Anderson’s penchant for lavish visuals is overwhelming his characters’ potential to be human.
The image above represents the wonderful visual creativity on display in Wes Anderson’s marine epic The Life Aquatic With Steve Zizzou. Anderson and animator Henry Selick create some brilliantly surreal underwater creatures that pop with color and personality, giving momentary glimpses into a unique and layered existence beneath the surface. If only their human counterparts matched this sort of vibrancy and intimacy.
The script, co-written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, has little use for a connective narrative, reverting stock characters into drones of past Anderson incarnations without much depth or sincerity. The film meanders along for nearly two hours, shelling out standard Anderson wit like it’s on indefinite quirky auto-pilot. Bill Murray’s lead performance is admirable, especially in the sad final moments when he transcends the catch phrases and sheds a few tears in honor of his fallen son Ned (Owen Wilson). The Life Aquatic isn’t a bad film, nor a terribly interesting one at that (a first for Anderson), making the beautiful but hollow end result all the more frustrating.
Wes Anderson’s recent pretentious work (The Life Aquatic, Hotel Chevalier) feels cold, cynical, and outlandishly self-conscious, a troubling trend considering these films come right on the heels of his early, more humane masterworks, films which harbor untapped amounts of creativity and sincerity.
With The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson rediscovers this joyous sensibility toward movie-making and character, completely reveling in the diverse and colorful setting of India which acts as metaphor for his protagonist’s evolution toward understanding and transcendence. Anderson’s heroes are The Whitman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, and Owen Wilson), a trio of estranged siblings who meet up on a train (named The Darjeeling Limited) traveling through the Indian countryside. While the men are trying to reconnect with each other and their long lost mother (Angelica Huston), Anderson paints them as individuals consumed by the past and their place within the family. In fact, the entire film charts the brother’s progression from singular, destructive entities to a collective unit, beautifully evolving each character with astute attention to their familial patterns and hierarchies.
As with most Anderson films, The Darjeeling Limited uses setting to highlight vibrant colors and sounds, in this case yellows, oranges, blues, reds, and sitar music all acting to offset the pain hiding beneath the Whitman’s monotonous surface. These men learn to move past mere language and gestures toward a relationship ripe with substance. Spending time with each other produces a number of life-affirming and fascinating experiences, and like the Whitman’s themselves, we never want to leave their side.
In Hotel Chevalier, Wes Anderson manages to uncomfortably stuff 12 minutes of screen time with his standard operating procedures – artifice and irony. Needless to say, after four films obsessed with this relentlessly quirky style, it’s gotten quite tiresome. Anderson arguably peaked with his masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums and has been playing copycat ever since. This short film, which supposedly is the first part to his upcoming The Darjeeling Limited, represents a perfect example of Anderson’s patented slow motion tracking shots and pop music parallels to character development. Except here, as with the previous Life Aquatic, Anderson doesn’t inject any humanity into his writing or performances. As coldly played by Jason Schartzman and a naked Natalie Portman (something good I guess), the protagonist couple give clues to their love and breakup, but in a way so stylized and vague it resembles more a Noir than Anderson lite. The artificiality of his set design and directing places a stranglehold on the story, and in Hotel Chevalier, the Anderson aesthetic snuffs it out in style. It makes one long for Max Fischer and The Tenenbaums and wonder where this wunderkind went so wrong.