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Why Asteroid City Is One of the Best Movies of the Year

Wes Anderson's latest film is also one of his most thought-provoking.

By Matthew Jackson
A still image from Asteroid City (2023)

Asteroid City, the latest film from director Wes Anderson, carries with it a caveat that I've heard from viewer after viewer, one that's also been applied to many other films in Anderson's career. Over and over again, when discussing the film, you hear people say, "If you don't like Wes Anderson, you won't like this, but if you like Wes Anderson, it's another good one." 

RELATED: How Wes Anderson Created His Aliens and Ray Guns for Asteroid City

It's a reasonable claim to make when it comes to Anderson's films, which have always been steeped in a certain kind of visual and tonal specificity that some viewers just simply can't vibe with. For some moviegoers, they're just weird movies, and not in a good way, while for others, they're weird movies in a great way. Asteroid City is no different in that regard. But the specificity of Asteroid City in particular has something more to say, something that makes it one of the most compelling movies in Anderson's career, and one of the best films of 2023. 

Why Wes Anderson's Asteroid City is one of the best movies of 2023  

The film is a metafictional piece, allowing Anderson to play with artifice and staging on a level that even he has never achieved before, documenting both the story of a group of actors trying to put on a play called Asteroid City and the events of the play itself, which follows a small desert town beset by chaos and uncertainty after a visit by an alien life form. Within this nesting framework, Anderson is able to work with a massive ensemble cast of both mainstays in his stock company and newcomers to his films like Tom Hanks and Steve Carell. He's also able to play with the way the film looks, setting up Asteroid City as a kind of grand-scale diorama complete with backdrops of massive desert rock formations and perfect little buildings that give the sense that we're watching dolls moving within a massive playset.

Anderson has always been a filmmaker who leans hard into the storytelling tools at his disposal within his chosen medium, framing shots with perfect symmetry, playing with the conventions of cinematic storytelling, and never really letting us forget that we're watching a movie. His films are purposefully staged, intricately woven, and often deliberately artificial in the way they portray certain events, but in Asteroid City that tendency hits a new level. We're reminded time and again by the film's frame story that we're watching something fictional, not a real human experience but the journey of actors as they try to create an approximation of real human experience. He deliberately calls attention to the staged nature of the story, turning windows into portrait frames and backgrounds into pieces of a set. He wants us to know that this is artificial. 

RELATED: COVID Made Bill Murray Miss Filming Asteroid City, But He's Still Part of Wes Anderson's New Film

Wes Anderson on set for Asteroid City (2023)

But why? Well, it's there that Asteroid City takes on a particular brilliance, one that's both moving and intellectually fascinating. As the film starts to move toward its ending, Anderson gives his frame story a little room to breathe, allowing the creators of the play a chance to ponder what they're actually doing. They don't necessarily understand the story, the characters' motivations, or the way things are moving into a certain conclusion. That's OK, one character reminds us in arguably the film's most important scene. What's important is that you keep going, keep telling the story, don't let a lack of perfect understanding stop you from moving forward. 

This is a strong statement for any filmmaker, but it's especially powerful coming from Anderson. His films have, for years now, given the impression of someone who is in absolute control, who knows where every prop and every lock of hair on his actors' heads is going at any given moment. He is the current poster child for cinematic perfectionism, and it shows in every frame of his movies. But with Asteroid City, Anderson tells his audience that even he isn't entirely sure where he's going all the time. He doesn't have all the answers, no matter how much he clings to the control of the frame with each passing scene. We as humans love to control things, of course. We love to know where things are, how they work, what they mean, and Anderson's films are an externalization of one man's feelings on that essential truth. With Asteroid City, he reinforces that truth, while also letting us know that it's OK to let go once in a while. That's a wonderfully human admission from one of our most striking filmmakers, and makes Asteroid City one of the best films in his career.

Asteroid City is now available from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.