Movies Watched, June 2023

Movies Watched, June 2023

For better or worse, Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City,” which I got to see at the theater last month, conforms neatly to my two major running theories about his work.

The first is that Anderson is essentially a children’s storyteller. For my money, he’s most at home when he’s telling stories through the lens of child characters, as he did with “Rushmore” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” both terrific movies. And it’s no accident that when he’s flat out making movies for kids, as he did with “Fantastic Mister Fox” and “Isle of Dogs,” they’re not aberrations at all but actually among the very best films of his career.

Anderson is a child at heart, of course, and that shows up countless times in his films, whether it’s in his scripts or his stage dressing or his picture book-like cinematography. However, the flip side of this youthful empathy is that Anderson is essentially lost when it comes to adult characters and, by extension, stories about adults. For me, this is the weakness that sabotages films like “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and the abysmal “The Darjeeling Limited,” which are populated with nonsensical, schematized characters that talk at one another but never truly interact.

All of this plays out in “Asteroid City,” a preening, highly ornamental story about a random selection of travelers, both children and adults, stranded in a desert town in 1955. When the movie centers the children, it feels like it’s pointing towards true north; the dialogue, the sympathies, the anxieties all feel authentic and engaging. When it turns its attention to the adults, the typically Andersonian deadpan-ness of these often eccentric characters is more than just emotionally muted; the actual logic of their words and actions feels inauthentic and theoretical, remote and alienating. The actors themselves become a kind of set dressing, another kind of quirky detailing that conveys a notion but not an idea, a visual but not a story. There’s little difference between the elaborate set constructed for the film and the elaborate contract and schedule wrangling that managed to gather Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson and a dozen more big name stars together for this star-studded spectacular.

These warring impulses between children’s stories and adult stories essentially tank “Asteroid City,” dooming it to the lower tier of Anderson’s work—at least for me. Which brings me to my second operating thesis: there’s not another director working today who inspires such widespread devotion and yet, among his devotees, so little consensus on what makes his films work, or which of his movies are the triumphs and which are the misfires. Some people revere “The Royal Tenenbaums,” others lionize the “Bottle Rocket” phase of his career. Still others think he hit a high with “Grand Budapest Hotel.” You could gather a roomful of passionate Anderson fans and I’d be shocked if any two of their “best of” lists were identical.

I find this perplexing, fascinating, even kind of admirable. For a certain kind of movie fan, Anderson’s movies are a Rorschach test of how we look at film, not just whether we value story or character or spectacle, but how we even define these core elements of the art form. For example, I find Anderson’s increasingly extreme level of presentational artifice to be a kind of story element in and of itself, an artistic vocabulary that often reveals as much as his character work (which of course might be seen as a backhanded compliment). For others, it might come across as obfuscation or even incompetence. And yet, even with a failure like “Asteroid City,” there’s always something to look at, to consider, to puzzle through and try to make sense of; there’s something for everyone who’s willing to look. The fact that no one can agree on which of Anderson’s films is his masterpiece is actually a feature and not a bug.

Though I’m here to say that his best film is “Fantastic Mister Fox,” definitively, hands down, no question about it. And that settles that.

Here are all nineteen movies I watched in June.

  1. The Far Country” (1954) ★★★½
    Jimmy Stewart in another of the series of psychologically grim westerns he made with Anthony Mann. This one is pleasingly twisty and sprawling throughout, until an ending that’s a bit flat.
  2. Spider-Man” (2002) ★★½
    Rewatched. Still pretty messy, with a hacky love triangle and a ridiculous villain. Why people remember this so fondly is beyond me.
  3. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” (2023) ★★★★
    Incomplete but still magical and thrilling in the way you want a theatrical release to be. Shames the MCU.
  4. The Naked Spur” (1953) ★★★½
    Jimmy Stewart in another Mann western, this time in a darker, fouler mood than ever, with redemption staved off until the very final moments.
  5. Raising Arizona” (1987) ★★★★
    A modern classic. An impeccably structured comedic gem.
  6. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Very nearly a modern classic, until the slack third act.
  7. Lovely & Amazing” (2001) ★★★
    Director Nicole Holofcener dissects the anxieties of three sisters and their mother in early 00s Los Angeles. It’s generally incisive, both delicate and bold, but it’s marred by a fatuous soundtrack.
  8. The Man from Laramie” (1955) ★★★½
    An angry, anguished Jimmy Stewart wanders into the middle of a “Giant”-style, ranch family drama, with brutal results.
  9. Fist of Fury” (1972) ★★½
    It’s still bewildering to me how Bruce Lee’s movies were never able to fully unleash Bruce Lee.
  10. Pleasure” (2021) ★★★
    Unflinchingly gross examination of adult filmmaking that’s long on observations but short on insight.
  11. Fail Safe” (1964) ★★★½
    Sidney Lumet spins a stylistically brutalist tale of Cold War geopolitical crisis. Imperfect but riveting.
  12. Infernal Affairs” (2002) ★★★½
    This Hong Kong policier will forever be overshadowed by Martin Scorcese’s remake (“The Departed”) but it’s still worthwhile, especially for Tony Leung’s performance.
  13. The Flash” (2023) ★★
    So hacky, ramshackle, and slapdash it makes Zack Snyder’s DC movies look like the work of a master.
  14. One Million Years B.C.” (1966) ★½
    A numbskull, essentially conservative misapprehension of how white people conquered prehistoric times.
  15. At the Video Store” (2019) ★★½
    A teary ode to mom ’n’ pop video stores that’s as shaggy as mom ’n’ pop video stores themselves.
  16. Asteroid City” (2023) ★★★
    A new release but basically a special edition re-issue of itself, full of multiple layers of obfuscating presentational artifice. Amusing but also frustratingly hollow.
  17. The Innocent” (2022) ★½
    A gentle comedy of suspicions and family relationships with no real trajectory, even after it settles on a rote love story.
  18. The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012) ★½
    This reboot is not without a few ideas, though none of them are really very good. Pretty much deserves its reputation as a misfire.
  19. Confess, Fletch” (2022) ★★★½
    Maybe I went in with low expectations but I thought this was a riot. John Hamm’s best role.

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I previously watched in May, in April, in March, in February, in January, in 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.