16 Films Without Which Wes Anderson Couldn't Have Happened
1. The Graduate (1967)
Perhaps the most important touchstone in the career of director Wes Anderson, Mike Nichols' seminal comedy of disaffected youth echoes through all five of his features—for its groundbreaking use of pop songs on the soundtrack, for its impeccable widescreen compositions, and for its tale of a young man of privilege crippled by uncertainty and melancholy. Take your pick of direct influences: The May-September dynamic between an unformed kid and a much older woman (Rushmore), the wall-to-wall music by a single composer (Paul Simon here, David Bowie in The Life Aquatic), the stalled lives of young adults who move back in with their parents for the indefinite future (The Royal Tenenbaums). And in the end, a satisfying resolution that isn't quite a happy ending.
2. Paper Moon (1973)
Anderson has a weakness for movies involving precocious young people, child-like adults, and overtly retro stylization. In that respect, his films echo Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon, a black-and-white hit about a lascivious con man (Ryan O'Neal) who hits the road with a pint-sized prodigy (his real-life daughter Tatum O'Neal) and begins separating suckers from their hard-earned scratch. Like Anderson, Bogdanovich in his prime had such complete control over mise en scene and such a strong sense of production design (thanks in no small part to his ex-wife and production designer Polly Platt) that his films became hermetic little worlds. (Years later, Platt served as a producer on Bottle Rocket.)
3. Harold And Maude (1971)
Cat Stevens' "The Wind" pops up in Rushmore as another example of the film's excellent use of songs from the '60s and '70s. It's also a tip of the hat to Hal Ashby's cult classic Harold And Maude. In H&M, Stevens' songs accompany the coming of age of Harold (Bud Cort), a death-obsessed teen who comes to a better understanding of life by interacting with an older generation. (Though Jason Schwartzman's relationships with Bill Murray and Olivia Williams remain much more chaste than Harold's affair with his 79-year-old friend Maude, played by Ruth Gordon.)
4. Brewster McCloud (1970)
Cort has the sad, slightly blank face of a lost Wilson brother, and his role in Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud foreshadows Anderson's obsessive heroes. Here, Cort plays a kid fiercely dedicating to flying inside the then-new Astrodome, and exhibiting the unflappable tenacity Owen Wilson brings to his doomed heists in Bottle Rocket. (Almost inevitably, Cort found his way into one of Anderson's films, playing a nervous accountant in The Life Aquatic.)
5. Sullivan's Travels (1941)
Life has a way of making obsessions seem wrongheaded, however. In Preston Sturges' comedy Sullivan's Travels, Joel McCrea plays a Hollywood comedy director intent on making a picture of great social significance called O Brother, Where Art Thou? Disguising himself as a hobo, he sets out to get the real-world experience he thinks he'll need to make the movie, only to be taken aback by what he finds. Like many of Anderson's characters, he discovers the world is simultaneously more perilous and kinder than he'd imagined.
6. The World Of Henry Orient (1964)
What is Rushmore but a coming-of-age story, in which a precocious teen learns to put his preoccupations to better use? There've been few better coming-of-age movies than The World Of Henry Orient, in which two 14-year-old New York girls stalk concert pianist Peter Sellers. The girls—played by Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth—are like Jim Henson's Tenenbaum Babies, flashing comically grave expressions while they share their boundless imaginations and adolescent obsessions. Just as Anderson's characters come off like juvenile-fiction heroes in an adult-fiction world, so the teenagers in The World Of Henry Orient have their idyllic friendship ruptured by the repercussions of divorce and the looming specter of sex. The movie's exterior is soft, but there's a familiar soreness at the center.
7. The River (1951)
Acknowledged by Anderson as the most significant influence on The Darjeeling Limited, Jean Renoir's first color film is as bracing in its way as the transition from black-and-white to Technicolor in The Wizard Of Oz. Shot entirely on location in India, the film could be called a colonialist's view of the country, but Renoir isn't indulging in exoticism for its own sake; on the contrary, he comes from a position of respect and deep curiosity for its cultural traditions. Though Anderson's film is about travel, while Renoir's remains more or less stationary, both come from a distinctly Western vantage, and neither feigns any expertise about understanding a radically different culture. The characters in The River and The Darjeeling Limited are going through a painful time—in the former, three teenage girls come of age; in the latter, three brothers deal with their father's death, their mutual estrangement, and various personal crises—yet the country transforms them and heals them, and gives them passage to the next phase in their lives.
8. Bande À Part (Band Of Outsiders) (1964)
Jean-Luc Godard's enormously influential Bande À Part has had a strong influence on countless filmmakers, many of who have paid reverent homage to its famously spontaneous dance sequence. But other elements cast a heavy shadow over Anderson's 1996 debut, Bottle Rocket, another unexpectedly bittersweet crime comedy about charming young people playing at being outlaws, none too convincingly. The films share a youthful playfulness that coexists surprisingly smoothly with undertones of melancholy and loss.
9. A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969)
Anderson's use of "Christmas Time Is Here" on the Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack isn't the only indication of his Charles Schulz fetish. The "uniforms" he outfits his characters in are like a variation on Charlie Brown's zigzag shirt and Lucy's blue dress, and there's an atmosphere of wistful melancholy common to Peanuts cartoons and Anderson's seriocomedies. A Boy Named Charlie Brown echoes Anderson's persistent "sic transit gloria" theme, as Charlie Brown blazes through the rounds of a local spelling bee, then washes out at the nationals. When he returns home to a group of friends who accept him as much as they mock him, he might as well be walking in slow motion, while "Ooh La La" plays on the soundtrack.
10. Stolen Kisses (1968)
Anderson's protagonists frequently suspect that the world runs according to a rule sheet they've never been given, a trait they share with François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel. Played by Jean-Pierre Léaud in four and a half films, beginning with 1959's The 400 Blows and concluding with Love On The Run 20 years later, Doinel fumbles his way through a series of jobs and a disorderly love life in Stolen Kisses, usually two steps behind everyone else. But the distance gives him perspective while lending Truffaut's film a wistful, wise tone that Anderson—who's never been shy about citing Truffaut as a profound influence—frequently reprises.
11. Big Deal On Madonna Street (1958)
Though it lacks Bottle Rocket's whimsy, Mario Monicelli's classic parody similarly turns the heist picture on its head, following a band of inept criminals as they botch a big score. Like Owen Wilson's Dignan and the gang, the stars of Big Deal are big-hearted dreamers who aren't really cut out for criminality, which doesn't stop them from trying. Their can't-miss scheme involves breaking into a vacant apartment next to a pawn shop on Madonna Street; once inside, they can easily tear down the thin wall separating the two, and access the unprotected safe on the other side. It sounds simple, but the only expert in their sphere is a retired safecracker who isn't around for the job, and the others include a boxer with a glass jaw and a hot-tempered Sicilian preoccupied with protecting his sister's virtue. They're a loveable bunch of guys—both here and in Palookaville, a skillful indie remake from 1995—but they definitely aren't cut out for this sort of work.
12. Local Hero (1983)
Anderson's films often center on depressive characters in the midst of emotional crises: think Bill Murray in Rushmore and The Life Aquatic, or Luke and Owen Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums. In Bill Forsyth's beloved cult comedy Local Hero, businessman Peter Riegert bounces back from a serious case of the blahs by traveling, at his employer' behest, to a lovely Scottish village touched with magic and wonder. But Riegert's blues pale in comparison with those of boss Burt Lancaster, a cantankerous old tycoon who becomes infected with the Scottish village's sense of joy while fleeing his bullying psychiatrist. Thankfully, the sad-sacks in Anderson and Forsyth's films are lucky enough to exist in a world brought to vivid, though quaint, life by supremely humane creators whose films radiate compassion for their troubled characters.
13. The King Of Comedy (1983)
Martin Scorsese has been a vocal Anderson supporter from the start, recognizing a kindred spirit. And while nothing in Anderson's work suggests the rawness of Mean Streets or Raging Bull, both directors have an interest in overt theatricality of the Max Ophüls/Michael Powell variety. The King Of Comedy balances Scorsese's theatrical flourishes and his neo-realist side in an Anderson-like way, and Robert De Niro's portrayal of the fame-hungry Rupert Pupkin recalls Jason Schwartzman's Max Fischer in Rushmore and Bill Murray's Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic, in that they're all dangerously deluded and impossible to deter.
14. Metropolitan (1990)
The cult popularity of Whit Stillman's debut feature showed indie-film financiers that movies about effete, erudite young adults with obscure concerns could find an audience. Metropolitan also fits into the mosaic of New York movies that informed The Royal Tenenbaums, both in its sketch of a class-splintered dream-city, and in its story of a golden age too quickly tarnished by human vanity. Give the debutantes and escorts of Metropolitan a few years, and they might well be puttering around their apartments in their old clothes, seething over what went wrong.
15. A Thousand Clowns (1965)
Since J.D. Salinger hasn't allowed any of his work to be adapted to the screen, writers and directors have had to find ways to sneak some Salinger in through the back door, via situations, dialogue, and overall attitudes that smack of the prickly cult author. Anderson's early films have a decidedly Salinger-esque tone—the brother-sister relationship in Bottle Rocket is very Holden-Phoebe—as does Herb Gardner's play and screenplay A Thousand Clowns, which shadows Salinger's iconoclastic idealism. Jason Robards plays a reluctant TV writer who'd prefer to spend his days showing his nephew how to live splendidly as a New York slacker. But if he doesn't buckle down and get a steady job, Robards is going to lose his right to raise the child the way he likes. There's a bit of Steve Zissou—and Holden Caulfield—in Robards' disgust with mediocrity, as well as in his drive to pursue his whims, however impractical.
16. Murmur Of The Heart (1971)
Throughout his career, Anderson has been peppered with accusations of cultural insensitivity and suggestions that he glamorizes upper-class privilege, but those traits may be better ascribed to his characters. A lot of Anderson heroes are like Murmur Of The Heart's provincial teenager Benoît Ferreux, who copes with the stresses of growing up by taking full advantage of what wealth allows, and—in a shocking climactic act—leveraging his boyish insecurity into a literal return to the womb. Like Anderson, director Louis Malle makes his self-absorbed hero strangely agreeable, by presenting his arrogance with a light dollop of nostalgia.
Tomorrow: 10 films that couldn't have happened without Wes Anderson.