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The newest Andersonian 

By choosing to make movies, Wes Anderson may have missed out on a lucrative career as a high-wire artist. He has constantly walked the tightrope throughout his three previous films --- Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums --- between quirky and contrived, clever and clumsy, moving and maudlin. But he has always made the right choices to keep himself and his films aloft, and he continues to do so with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Well, almost all of his decisions are good: That is one unfortunate title.

Bill Murray successfully joins forces with Anderson for a third time as the titular Steve Zissou, a Cousteau-inspired oceanographer complete with a red knit cap, his own film crew, and a Caribbean-flavored vessel called The Belafonte (Cousteau roamed the earth on The Calypso --- get it?). Zissou recently lost his best friend and colleague Esteban (Seymour Cassel, also in his third Anderson film) to the appetite of a jaguar shark, and Zissou's thirst for revenge is what sets this odyssey into motion.

The grizzled and grumpy Zissou sails with a loyal bunch that includes, among others, insecure cameraman Klaus (Willem Dafoe, never better) and physicist-composer-cake decorator Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor, Almost Famous), as well as wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston, back again), whom everyone except Zissou believes to be the brains behind Team Zissou. There are also a gaggle of interns (identifiable by the helpful t-shirts that read "INTERN"), who sadly have to share a Glock.

Newly arrived on The Belafonte is Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson, who for the first time does not collaborate with Anderson on the script), a charming pilot for Air Kentucky claiming to be Zissou's illegitimate son. Also along for the voyage are "bond company stooge" Bill (Bud Cort, Harold and Maude), and Jane (Cate Blanchett, The Aviator), a no-nonsense reporter covering the exploits of Steve Zissou whose visible pregnancy does nothing to make her seem less available to Zissou or Plimpton.

Who knew Bill Murray would become one of our most gifted and reliable actors? His Steve Zissou is basically a self-serving and misguided jerk (ala Max Fischer and Royal Tenenbaum) but that doesn't stop us from rooting for some third-act clarity and redemption. And I don't mean to single him out --- the uniformly crackerjack cast also includes Michael Gambon and Jeff Goldblum.

One immensely enjoyable aspect of all of Anderson's nearly flawless scripts (he shares screenwriting credit here with Kicking and Screaming's Noah Baumbach) is his willingness to incorporate what more economical filmmakers might consider throwaway dialogue and details. Not everything that people say, do, or see in real life is germane to a given situation, but that usually doesn't make it any less interesting, welcome, or satisfying. And that, for me, is what typifies a Wes Anderson film.

Aquatic is total eye candy. Besides the gorgeous Mediterranean vistas, we're treated to "rare" sea creatures such as the constellation ray, the sugar crab, and a little seahorse that shares a color scheme with Fruit Stripe gum, and the intricate dollhouse view of The Belafonte allows Anderson to make the most of his trademark long shots during which there's much more going on than whatever happens to be in the middle of the screen (note to self: See Aquatic again).

As with his other movies, Anderson's musical selections are both esoteric and fitting. In addition to an immediately identifiable score by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh (he's done all of Anderson's films), the soundtrack consists mostly of Bowie songs performed acoustically and in Portuguese --- and on camera --- by Seu Jorge, who plays crew member Pele (he was also Knockout Ned in City of God). And the use of the Stooges' "Search and Destroy" during a particular free-for-all generates the same exhilaration found in one of Rushmore's finer interludes, the Max Fischer-Herman Blume battle set to "A Quick One While He's Away" by the Who.

One question lingers, though: When will Wes Anderson make a different movie? The truly accomplished filmmakers don't stick with a particular formula (Martin Scorsese, Takeshi Kitano, Wong-Kar Wai), although there are a few who rarely strayed from making a certain type of film and became genres unto themselves (Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, John Woo). It will be intriguing to see what happens if and when Anderson decides to venture outside his obvious comfort zone, although I suppose "Andersonian" has a certain ring to it.

So it's that time of the year when people list their Top However-Many Whatevers. And since I tend to pout when I feel excluded, here are my no doubt eagerly awaited Four Favorite Films of 2004:

Spider-Man 2: "Thrilling," "heartbreaking," "clever," and "inspiring" are not words often associated with big-budget Hollywood filmmaking.

To Be and To Have: A patient and passionate teacher's final year at a tiny French schoolhouse = my favorite documentary of 2004.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The year's best film taught me that romantic and realistic are not mutually exclusive.

Before Sunset: This film reminded me of the above fact. Sometimes I lose my way.

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