Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Wes Anderson Movies Power Ranking 2014

with 10 comments

1. Rushmore (1998)
2. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
3. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
4. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
5. “Hotel Chevalier” & The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
7. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
8. Bottle Rocket (1996)

In general I would say that Anderson’s career seems to me to be divided between two clear periods: films about failed genius (Bottle Rocket through Darjeelingand about fairy-tale genius (Fantastic through Hotel.) That is: in the first period we find characters whose attempts to realize their creative potential are hamstrung by their inability to move past sadness, with the arc of the movie generally allowing them to expiate that sadness and move on (Max finds love and can write again; Royal’s children forgive him; Zissou grieves; the brothers literally abandon the baggage they’ve been carrying around the entire film). But the films of the second period, unlike the first, are dominated by characters who cannot lose: Mr. Fox is temporarily troubled but ultimately unflappable, always fantastic; Suzy and Sam are able to bend the unforgiving adult world to the service of their love; M. Gustave’s poise, control, and total mastery over social convention never fail him except in the face of maximum fascism in the moment of his heroic death. The all-pervading sadness of the first films persists in the fairy tale films, but only in the background, in the side characters who threaten to, but never quite, take over the main narrative: F. Murray Abraham’s adult Zero; The Bishops and Captain Sharp; Fox’s less-than-fantastic son. My gloss on Anderson’s recent “fairy tale” films is that they feel, generally, like the stories the characters from the “failed genius” period attempted, but failed, to craft about themselves. Moonrise Kingdom feels very strongly like one of Max’s or Margot’s plays; the story the Reader reads of the Author’s recounting of Zero’s telling of M. Gustave’s life feels like a cut from one of the films from the heroic era of Zissou Society, and is quite literally the lie Royal gets engraved on his tombstone: “Died tragically rescuing his [friend] from the wreckage of a [country sinking into fascism].” The ironic cruel-optimism gap between potential and reality that dominated the early films, that crucial space of failure, is strongly pushed off center stage in the later ones — and I think that’s why, while I love them all, I think the later ones are generally a bit worse.

But I wonder if The Grand Budapest Hotel won’t improve a bit, in my estimation, upon subsequent viewings; while a strong sense of entropic breakdown runs throughout the setting, especially in the subtle architectural sublime of the Budapest itself as it falls into ruin, the anti-climatic “shock” of the abrupt ending permanently hurls us out of the fairy tale back to a world structured by failure and loss. Unlike Fox and Moonrise, which never deviate from the inner logic of a children’s story, The Grand Budapest Hotel can really only be viewed that way once. When M. Gustave’s magic finally fails at the end of the film, as it always had to, the fairy tale dispells and only the elegy is left; we’re actually left at the end of Hotel in a world darker and sadder than any found in the earlier films, a world where we seem to have neither the compensations of art nor friendship, where grief never fades, where the intricately constructed dollhouse becomes instead a tomb.

10 Responses

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  1. The periodization logic seems to flow out of what I wrote about DARJEELING a few years back:

    I think I was right that it marked a break, but wrong perhaps about what kind of break it would turn out to be. We’re talking on Twitter now and perhaps I’ll Storify it later…


    March 30, 2014 at 8:39 am

  2. Our respective power rankings are almost completely different except for the number one spot. I don’t disagree with your thematic analysis (although really there’s just the one theme — bad fathers/father figures), I just happen to think some of the fairy tales (Moonrise Kingdom) are simply better films than some of the failed genius stories (Tenenbaums).

    Bill Simmon

    March 30, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    • Better films in what sense, though? Narratively, visually? Some sort of holistic total-film analysis? Both RT and MK in particular seem to be overlaid with both the best and worst of what Anderson does, as well as with a healthy dose of what-is-best-about-it-is-also-what-is-worst-about-it…


      March 30, 2014 at 1:02 pm

  3. “we’re actually left at the end of Hotel in a world darker and sadder than any found in the earlier films, a world where we seem to have neither the compensations of art nor friendship, where grief never fades, where the intricately constructed dollhouse becomes instead a tomb.”

    That’s a bad thing? I thought that’s the hidden secret of all his films, anyway, and that him covering up was just bad faith.

    Alex Greenberg

    March 30, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    • I wasn’t saying it was a bad thing; it might be what I like best.


      March 30, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    • To your point about bad faith, I think we have to notice that the ZZ of the fascists in GRAND BUDAPEST is a blurred vision of the Z emblem of the Zissou Society.


      March 30, 2014 at 1:14 pm

  4. I hacked together a quick Storify of this morning’s Wes Anderson geek-out on Academic Twitter, which hopefully didn’t leave too many people out (Storify was acting a little wonky):


    March 30, 2014 at 1:41 pm

  5. I agree with Aaron Bady’s point that Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s best film yet. I could easily write an essay about this (can’t we all?) but I’ll briefly describe the main reasons why.

    1. It provincialises Europe. It makes notions of “European exceptionalism”, and “high European culture” the hollow covers for barbarity, savagery and simple insular provincialism that they are. Monsieur Gustave is a ludicrous character and the one admirable character in the film – Zero (incidentally an ordinarily “servile race”) – has absolutely no illusions about the fact. It doesn’t idealise Europe so much as say: “oh what a quaint beautiful little country, such silly people, such barbarous savages at times, and they think they are civilized”. Very much like Gandhi’s quip on the matter (Gustave’s own assertions about this reflect his recognition of the truth of that quip). We are seeing this from a brown refugee’s perspective, not that of the white man. That we don’t see Gustave’s heroic death prevents us and Zero from deifying him. Gustave is no white saviour, and Zero is in no need of saving. For much of the film, it is in fact the other way around.

    1. a) the fact that so many of the characters in ostensible Europe have unabashed American accents suggests to me that Anderson is implictly targeting American exceptionalism (and America’s idealisation/appropriation of European civilization as a basis for its own greatness and exceptionalism)

    2. As mentioned above, it brings out the heartbreaking sadness of the 20th century. Zissou failed a little bit for me because the death seemed too convenient, almost a plot-point than a genuine moment of tragedy. By contrast, every death in Budapest Hotel made me cringe.

    3. It also brings out the sheer hollowness of art, aesthetic pleasure in the face of serious suffering. That a “visual masterpiece” is behind most of the savagery in the plot bears this out. But more vividly, the most stunning visual in the film – the mountain-top wedding of Zero and Agatha – is accompanied by Zero’s telling us of Agatha and their child’s untimely death! Here Anderson is laying out his the cards on the table: the deep tragedy that lies in everyone’s life can never ever adequately be aestheticised or wished away. However nice the sets are, or the scene is, you have to face the fact that those you love suffer and they die. Zissou didn’t do the latter, and most of the others didn’t either. Budapest Hotel most definitely seemed to achieve that for me.

    4. Of course, the lack of female roles is frustrating – Agatha is great, but too much of a side-character and not developed enough. So when Anderson makes a feminist film, that would be ideal!

    This is long enough as it is. I’m loving the Anderson geek-out though!


    March 30, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    • I like your point about provincializing Europe a lot — I don’t know how deep you got into the Storify but it’s a point we came to as well over the course of our long, winding discussions this morning. I’ve been troubled all day by the omission of the scene where Gustave is killed. I think you’re right that choosing not to show it is a way to avoid heroizing the moment; another reason you might choose not to depict that visually would be to leave a trace of doubt in the viewer’s mind that it happened that way (or even that it happened at all). But it’s also a bit hard to imagine how you get from the moment that is depicted to a moment where Gustave has been murdered and Zero and Agatha are safe; did the fascists just want to murder somebody, anybody? Did they forget how it all started after Gustave was taken out and shot? With Zero knocked out and Gustave murdered, it’s only Agatha left to save them, which opens the door to some frankly horrifying possibilities about what might have happened in the missing scene. I don’t think Anderson necessarily intends for us to think too closely about this, but having done so it feels hard to resolve.


      March 30, 2014 at 10:17 pm

  6. In honor of Grand Budapest winning a Golden Globe, the WES ANDERSON POWER RANKINGS JANUARY 2015:

    1. Rushmore
    2. Zissou
    3. Grand Budapest
    4. Fox
    5. Royal T
    6. Darjeeling L
    7. Moonrise
    8. Bottle R

    Big move by GBH over the year, and shout-out to those who saw it coming…


    January 11, 2015 at 11:06 pm

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