You would be forgiven if you weren't aware of how significant this year has been for auteur Wes Anderson, an avant-garde filmmaker known for his symmetrical sets, eccentric characters, and robust ensembles. Anderson is known primarily for his earlier works such as The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox - though he found significant success in his The Grand Budapest Hotel as well, which found itself walking into the 2015 Oscars with nine nominations and a status as a potential Best Picture winner (Birdman eventually won out).
This year in film isn't one you'd look at and say without hesitation that Wes Anderson has claimed it as his own. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Greta Gerwig have seized the conversation and directed most attention elsewhere. But with a shy determination, Anderson's filmography has reestablished the director as one of Hollywood's greats, a force to be reckoned with in terms of not only style but substance as well.
Though his most devoted fans awaited this year's Asteroid City with enormous anticipation, Anderson's career had settled into an uncomfortably steep downhill trajectory. Both successors to Grand Budapest Hotel, arguably the peak of the classic era of Wes Anderson and his career-high before 2023, were positively received.
These were Isle of Dogs, a charming but underwhelming stop-motion animation of dogs finding their owners in dystopian Japan, and The French Dispatch, an anthology film about three interesting news stories in 20th-century France.
They marked advancements in the director's style; the latter is often described as the "most Wes Anderson film to ever Wes Anderson," an achievement distinct enough to warrant Anderson getting his adjective. However, both left audiences cold, missing the heartfelt characters and messages Wes was consistently able to bundle in the early 2000s. It was enough for some to discard Anderson completely as a contemporary great… but 2023 hadn't begun yet.
Asteroid City: An Exercise in Bedazzlement
Just keep on telling the story. You're doing great. You don't need to understand it. Just keep moving forward.
- “Asteroid City”
Asteroid City is one of the most beautiful pieces of raw storytelling of all time, an unsettlingly simple example of massive profundity, a story within a story that capitalizes on ideas Wes has been toying with for decades. His trademarks are all present in Asteroid City, from the impressively expansive cast - all of whom give memorable performances and portray hilarious characters - to the vibrant and soulful colors in the sets and cinematography, the soundtrack and score that fit this setting like a glove.
Everything in Asteroid City is imbued with wondrous enjoyment, a quaint tale about a grieving family stopping in a small hamlet during an amateur stargazer convention and being visited by aliens. It's an artifice one could bask in for days, led by protagonists that rival some of Anderson's most iconic and a jubilant wide-eyed tone that pairs wonderfully with some of the film's more emotional moments.
But the movie continually surpasses itself, offering ideas that lie beyond the surface and manifest as richly rewarding for anyone who dares to reach for them. Asteroid City is about the contemplation and wonder we draw from the unknown. It offers rich lessons about storytelling and what we find within ourselves to illustrate the world around us. It does feel like Wes Anderson at his most effortful, a tour-de-force exemplar of genuineness and celestiality.
Jason Schwartzman's gruff compassion, Jake Ryan's stilted comprehension, and Scarlett Johansson's earnest intensity all come across as variations of the filmmaker himself, as an interaction between himself and his own story, an instance of radical thematic awareness and elegance. Through all of its layers, from quirky alien invasion to heartfelt family tragedy, to uncertain theatrical performance, this message shines through; indeed, it might even be the layers that create it, a truly phenomenal feat of moviemaking.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Three More
Audiences loved it, but no one ever ever believed it to be genuine. Still don't. Even doctors, such as yourself, who blindfold me most expertly, refuse to believe anyone can see without his eyes.
They forget there are other ways of sending an image to the brain. What other ways? Quite honestly, I do not know.
- “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar”
It's the rest of 2023 where Wes Anderson's year gets impressive because he didn't stop at Asteroid City… he made four short films to boot, released on Netflix recently in weekly succession. Asteroid City is the crown jewel of Anderson's 2023 collection, but the fact that he can claim a collection - and such a robust one at that - for a single year is what merits an article being written (plus, these shorts were pretty recent, so I have an excuse to write the article in the first place).
The shorts mark Wes Anderson's second major adaptation effort of Roald Dahl's books after Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is still my favorite film by a long shot. This movie combines the childish wonder of Dahl with the timeless wit of Anderson to create one of the most devastating pieces of cinema ever made.
If you've ever wanted to find the perfect film, Mr. Fox is that film.
And so it's no surprise that The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, as well as the three other shorts in the catalog - The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison - possess the same strength of adaptation and synergy between Anderson and Dahl that Mr. Fox does. Sure, they come nowhere close to the latter in most regards, but as a string of loosely related shorts with essentially no central theme, it is remarkable that the quartet accomplishes as much as it does.
The four all share the same cast - Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, and others - that rotate and play multiple roles within and across films. All four also share a specific structure, in which a narrator (sometimes Dahl himself, played by Fiennes, or sometimes a character in the story) recounts Dahl's book nearly word for word while the actions are played out on screen as if they are done in a play. Prop doors can be seen opening from the back, and no special effects are used in any of the films' fantastical shenanigans.
The main short, Henry Sugar, is easily the most worthy of discussion. It is twice as long as the other two films and has a certain originality to it, using Anderson's style to satirize rather than support itself and finding its voice quite quickly as a parable for greed, self-discovery, and sensibility.
The titular character, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is such a simple and thinly developed character and played with such a mocking lack of vitality that the whole thing feels quite intentional, that the man is a prop for a wider message that the characters in the layer below (Kingsley, Patel) and the layer above (Dahl) are trying to propagate.
The film's layers aren't exactly a unique facet of Anderson's style, but here, too, are satirized and made obvious rather than utilized to, well, better the film. There really isn't much explaining what the movie is trying to do besides saying that Wes Anderson is having a good time making fun of himself and manages to convey a morsel of truth while he is at it.
The other three shorts continue this farce with delightful commitment, each a one-layered nugget that exists only to convey a singular character and singular moment. The Swan follows a young boy being bullied, who is outraged at two boys' killing of a swan. Narrated by the grown boy (Rupert Friend), who walks through fake hedges and opens them for us to get a glimpse into the brief tale.
It is but 17 minutes, as is The Rat Catcher, which sees Fiennes in prosthetic makeup to convey a decidedly rat-like rat catcher, who details his process in uncomfortable detail. Finally, there is Poison, which features a frantic man (Patel) trying to help his petrified friend (Cumberbatch) from being bitten by a poisonous snake, a process that terrifies the latter to fury.
All three, like Henry Sugar, are heavily sarcastic and immensely entertaining, existing purely to show off the superb monologue skills of Fiennes, Patel, Kingsley, Cumberbatch, and Friend. The five resemble somewhat of a school theater troupe, performing four short plays for the viewer to enjoy.
The resulting product, much like a school production, is worthy of rapturous applause, even if you know the stories were told on a decidedly smaller scale than what the modern day allows. It is because of their miniature nature that one is able to fully embrace the films' delightful charms.
But [Wes Anderson] works. He's a workaholic. I'll give him that.
We jumped right from Asteroid City into the Henry Sugar thing. We were in Spain, and then we went to England. He works harder than anybody. He's just always got something going on.
- Robert Yeoman, cinematographer for Anderson
And if you thought Anderson would take a break after such a productive year, you'd be wrong. He already has something else in the works, a project starring Michael Cera that began filming this year (though this is not confirmed). Regardless of if these rumors are true, the consensus is that Wes Anderson will not be stopping any time soon.
After the bewildering mastery on display in Asteroid City, the marvelous wit in Henry Sugar, and the facetious glory of his accompanying short films, it seems that Wes has developed a closer relationship with the stories he and others (see: Roald Dahl) tell than ever before. He has once again defined himself as what he once was, a director whose amalgam of elaborate style and poignant storytelling make him an all-time cinematic giant.
The hope is that in continuing to tell these stories, in keeping moving forward - one of Asteroid City's most profound moments in how it relates to the director's own career - that Wes Anderson perseveres in this extraordinary job that he is currently doing. It isn't easy to parallel such innovative theatricality with such subtle and moving emotional symmetry.
Asteroid City and Henry Sugar certainly come off as a second triumphant career high for Anderson, but what made the director into an icon of cinema during the 2000s wasn't just his brilliant filmmaking. It was his unfathomable consistency. He will have to remember the same message that his 2023 films espouse: have faith in his own storytelling, believe in his own genuineness, and keep moving forward.