The release of any Wes Anderson film comes the discussion of the director’s best work. The French Dispatch, which stars every Wes Anderson regular plus a few new additions, is officially out after many delays and the question remains: What is his best film?
There is not a common answer.
Although it, of course, comes down to personal preference, it is odd that Wes Anderson’s now four decade spanning career does not have a consensus pick for his best, or even most iconic film.
When considering Wes Anderson’s catalogue, or the catalogue of any auteur, one must consider what it is that makes a filmmaker an auteur, or if they believe in auteur theory at all! The auteur theory, as defined by Andrew Sarris in 1962 is “a pattern theory in constant flux.” This pattern would become so strong over the course of a filmmaker’s career, that their work could be considered “authored” by them. The style is defined, but shifts in aesthetics and direction as the author matures. If you believe that an artists sole vision for a film can be so strong that they could claim authorship, it is pretty indisputable that Wes Anderson is a filmmaker who belongs in that group.
His unique, symmetrical, storybook visual landscape, juxtaposed with often blunt, soft-spoken, and cynical cast of characters makes his filmography an easy one to view as a catalogue. His films, from Bottle Rocket (1996) to The French Dispatch (2021), are what seem to be the full spectrum of his visual and narrative style, developed over the course of 25 years. Each film leaning harder into his signature style than the last. One’s favorite Wes Anderson film likely has to do with how you as a viewer feel about his style and exactly how much is too much.
I somewhat arbitrarily have mentally broken down his career into three phases. Phase one features his most human films: Bottle Rocket, Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Even in this first section, his visual style is already beginning to take shape. The humanity of his characters, however, still takes center stage.
The second phase features The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). These films turn up the symmetry of his shot composition and set design significantly. They retain very human stories, focusing mostly on family dynamics.
The next phase is his post-auteur, adventure, plot-driven era. The films include Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and Isle of Dogs (2018). In this phase, Anderson’s diverging narrative structures, world-defined color-palette, idiosyncratic plots and characters take our full attention, and realism is at an all time low. This is not to knock Anderson’s later films, as I am a big fan of most of them, but the human element begins to get lost in the shuffle as time goes on.
Personally, the first phase is where I find most of my enjoyment. Mostly due to just how rich and sympathetic those characters are. Nothing quite communicates the feeling of emptiness of wealth, the loneliness and lack of self-worth that come with it much like a scene in Rushmore.
Bill Murray’s character Herman Blume mindlessly throws golf balls into his pool, barely even caring as he watches his wife feed another man a piece of cake. He dives off of a tall diving board for no real reason, other than to maybe feel something, and idles at the bottom of the pool. When he opens his eye, he sees a young boy with goggles on staring at him, reflecting the innocence and childlike curiosity he has lost in the pursuit of wealth.
His juvenility and childlike cruelty is reborn in the most cynically funny way when he interrupts a playground basketball game and hits the ball toward the ground, just as some kid is about to make a basket. Just like before with the golf balls, this moment is also somewhat mindless but in a way that truly entertains him. Little moments of humanity like this one, as dark as they are, make Rushmore Wes Anderson’s best film.
It is by far his most human film, with the tragically earnest Max Fischer at the heart, who wages war with Herman Blume, for the love of Mrs. Cross, an elementary school teacher from Rushmore Academy. Although it focuses mostly on these three characters, Rushmore has an astounding supporting cast who each provide something memorable to the film. Margaret Yang, played by Sara Tanaka, particularly stands out as a nerdy student at Grover Cleveland High and the only one who relates to Max as an outsider, although he can’t see it. Rushmore features some of Wes Anderson’s funniest, and most warm and heartfelt moments. They feel so rich and complete because the characters have so much depth.
Though everyone’s preferences are valid for a Wes Anderson film, so maybe it’s best that his catalogue has yet to produce a definitive film. Not one has become the poster child for him as a storyteller and a visual artist. It’s becoming hard to imagine just how much more Wes Anderson’s style can progress.
With The French Dispatch, perhaps there will be the emergence of a new phase of Anderson’s style.