10 Films That Couldn't Have Happened Without Wes Anderson
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1. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
In spite of his status as one of the few directors who's often a bigger draw than the actors in his films, Wes Anderson has never really made a major commercial hit. The closest he's come is Napoleon Dynamite, a pale imitation of Anderson's most obvious mannerisms, co-written and directed by Jared Hess. While Anderson is generally sympathetic to the oddball characters inhabiting his films, Napoleon Dynamite suggests that audiences prefer filmmakers to hold eccentrics at arm's length; it's easier to mock them and feel the warm, uplifting surge of superiority that way. Also, wouldn't it just be hilarious if the hopelessly nerdy main character did a really wacky dance at the end? Let's see Anderson top that with a wistful Faces song!
2. The Squid And The Whale (2005)
A friendship with Anderson helped convince Noah Baumbach to return to the director's chair for this corrosive comedy about the confluence of divorce and adolescence in a family of academics. And while Baumbach clearly shares a set of influences with Anderson—including Louis Malle, Whit Stillman, and Martin Scorsese—he takes them in a more realistic direction, eschewing theatrical distance in favor of raw-nerve immediacy. The two directors most resemble each other in their use of music: Baumbach's jumble of Loudon Wainwright, Pink Floyd, Bert Jansch, and Lou Reed on the Squid And The Whale soundtrack is as counterintuitive as anything in an Anderson film, yet it works just as swimmingly.
3. Garden State (2004)
In his 2004 directorial debut, Garden State, Zach Braff perfectly cast himself as a stock Anderson character: a self-absorbed man-child who returns home for his mother's funeral after an extended estrangement. Natalie Portman's odiously self-conscious quirky girl "saves" him from being so darn sad all the time; she also seems like a character thankfully axed from an early draft of a Wes Anderson screenplay. As a director, Braff took another cue from Anderson by populating his soundtrack with fashionable indie and classic rock songs—his expert use of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy In New York" as a backdrop for his first kiss with Portman might have even made Anderson jealous.
4. Tadpole (2002)
Wes Anderson's influence officially reached a nadir with 2002's Tadpole, a hideously ugly low-budget digital-video festival favorite that scored big at Sundance, only to bomb during its theatrical run. Essentially a labored sitcom version of Rushmore further hobbled by cable-access production values, Gary Winick's exhaustingly self-infatuated festival of twee centers on a precocious self-styled 15-year-old-intellectual (Aaron Stanford) whose laughable pretensions (he reads Voltaire! And finds women his own age hopelessly immature!) inexplicably render him irresistible to beautiful women old enough to be his grandmother. Tadpole is everything Anderson's detractors accuse him of being: smug, self-infatuated, utterly divorced from reality, and hopelessly in love with the sound of its own voice.
5. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
At the heart of many of Anderson's movies lies a fascination with family values of a much different sort than those espoused by conservative politicians. Like The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' wry comedy-drama Little Miss Sunshine is essentially about a broken family made whole through shared experiences and/or a lengthy trip on a claustrophobic vessel. (In Aquatic's case, a sub; here, a van.) While Sunshine's climax is ultimately broader than anything in Anderson's filmography, that just illustrates how diverse Anderson's influence has been: As with so many influential filmmakers, acolytes pick and choose what they like from his instantly recognizable aesthetic and disregard everything else.
6. Igby Goes Down (2002)
Like Tadpole, another self-conscious quirkfest about an unlikeable young man inexplicably irresistible to older women, Burr Steer's Igby Goes Down initially seems to borrow all the wrong things from Anderson's oeuvre. But as Kieran Culkin's prep-school brat gets humanized by a gauntlet of abuse, the film's smug airlessness gives way to more humane emotions. Like so much of Anderson's work, Igby is haunted by the spectral presence of J.D. Salinger, literature's premier poet of highbrow teen angst, and it captures, albeit intermittently, the heightened, easily bruised emotions that characterize adolescence for so many.
7. Rocket Science (2007)
Sometimes, indie films rip off Anderson's work wholesale; at other times, they have the familiar texture of his movies while heading off in different directions. Though Jeffrey Blitz's semi-autobiographical debut feature—a follow-up to his hit documentary Spellbound—has its own particularities and a greater commitment to realism than Anderson's work, it applies his stylistic template. The use of music, especially, connects Blitz to Anderson, from the repeated refrains of Violent Femmes' "Blister In The Sun" (including a version for cello and piano) to the mopey Eef Barzelay tunes that underscore the entire movie like the David Bowie songs in The Life Aquatic. Unsurprisingly, Blitz's stabs at Anderson-like whimsy are the film's weakest element; when he gets real and deals directly with a stutterer's coming of age, the film stakes out more original territory.
8. Charlie Bartlett (2007)
Let's see: Creative kid given to formalwear gets kicked out of private school, initially looks like a misfit in public school, and eventually wins over the student body without modifying his eccentricities one iota. Sound a little familiar? Yet the Charlie Bartlett, one of several Son-Of-Wes films on the way (in this case, after a none-too-promising delay in its initial release date), is a lesson in the many ways Rushmore could have gone wrong. Rushmore protagonist Max Fischer hides a genuine vulnerability behind his grand, infectious creative vision, though it's exposed when his misplaced puppy-love for a teacher goes awry. In contrast, the blueblood troublemaker in Charlie Bartlett seems thoughtless and mechanical in his rebellion, though he has a father in jail for tax evasion and a mother wound tight as piano wire. He's a shifty little weirdo with a mirthless grin plastered on his face; never once does he suggest the charisma that would lead his classmates to conform to him, rather than the other way around.
9. Juno (2007)
The snappy, sardonic dialogue in this upcoming high-school indie-quirkfest has more in common with Ghost World and Heathers than Rushmore, but director Jason Reitman leans heavy on Anderson's character-definition-through-costuming method—particularly when it comes to Michael Cera, the accidental father who spends most of Juno in a track uniform, complete with headband. Throw in Cera's habit of pounding down orange Tic-Tacs, and he adds up to a character who's nearly all fidget: a cartoon in the shape of a person.
10. Son Of Rambow (2007)
A hit at Sundance, Garth Jennings' follow-up to his Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy adaptation adds a dash of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) to several heaping cups of Anderson's Rushmore. Nothing much is done to obscure the similarities between the two movies: Both follow precocious kids as they attempt to reproduce a cinema classic (or what they believe to be a cinema classic, anyway). In Rushmore, it's Serpico and Heaven & Earth (and for the MTV Movie Awards, Armageddon, Out Of Sight, and The Truman Show); in Son Of Rambow, it's the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Rambo: First Blood Part II. In Rambow, the making of a movie forges an unlikely partnership between the school bully and a wimpy outcast from a dogmatic Christian family. This sort of preciousness treads a fine line, which here crosses into the full-on, gag-test whimsy that Anderson so studiously avoids.