Virtually any film fan worth his salt at this point will know what the label “a Wes Anderson film” means. It means distinctive color pallets, symmetrical framing, children acting like adults, and adults acting like children. It means consistently fantastic casts littered with indie cinema legends and, underneath all the style, deeply moving family dramas populated with touching universal truths.
His style is everywhere, not just in every frame, shot and edit of his nine meticulously crafted feature films, but also in the work of his imitators such as Taika Waititi or Noah Baumbach. Love him or hate him, Anderson fills a void in modern Hollywood for unique, mercilessly singular artists crafting films with irreplicable passion and attention to detail.
And with his new film, The French Dispatch now delayed until further notice, and the Coronavirus pandemic keeping us all behind closed doors now seems as good a time as any to delve into Anderson’s back catalog, ranking his films from worst to best.
*Disclaimer: In my opinion, each one of these films can at least be considered “good” and this ranking is largely influenced by a personal connection this writer had with the movie, which can explain some controversial choices high up in the list.
9. Bottle Rocket (1996)
Anderson’s debut film Bottle Rocket itself adapted from his very own black-and-white short film of the same name released two years prior, is, by all means, a damn good movie. Solidly crafted and thoroughly entertaining, this first outing sees Anderson’s visual stylings at an embryonic phase of their artistic evolution, with some unique shot composition and camera movements distinguishing it from the similar indie fare at the time.
Co-written by and starring Owen Wilson, the film tells the story of three friends and a robbery-gone-wrong. A simple enough premise, but more than done justice by the whip-smart screenplay and a host of hilarious performances from Wilson, his two brothers Luke and Andrew, and even James Caan. Ultimately it says more about the consistency and evolution of Wes’s filmography that Bottle Rocket lands at the bottom spot on this ranking, as it’s still worth a look for any fans he may have attracted with his recent successes.
8. Isle of Dogs (2018)
From Anderson’s first film at the number nine spot, we swiftly transition to his latest project at the number eight. The director’s second animated film, and by far his most controversial, it’s easy to let the conversation of cultural appropriation to overshadow the film itself. And though much of the film does straddle the fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation clumsily at best, there is still an irresistible charm to the typical brand of deadpan humor, symmetrical cinematography and meticulous stylishness on display here.
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Twenty-two years into his career, Wes has truly groomed his aesthetic to the point of perfection, and every frame of Isle of Dogs is truly beautiful, created lovingly by the animators and composed brilliantly by the director DP Tristan Oliver. That, alongside Alexandre Desplat’s rhythmic, percussion-heavy score, is outstanding, but the film does fall short in the story department, as despite having four credited screenwriters this tale of a boy reconnecting with his canine companion never reaches the same emotional heights as his finest efforts. Ultimately, it’s rather telling that the flick’s most memorable sequence was one of sushi being chopped and that naming any dog or human characters from it would be hard for even the biggest of Wes Anderson fans.
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7. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
It’s hard to recall two-child performances more compelling or engaging than those Kara Hayward and Jared Gillman in the 2012 critical darling Moonrise Kingdom. The film that marked Anderson’s return to live-action, after the animated detour of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise demonstrates the work of a director fully at ease with his own abilities, reflexive within his style yet perhaps frustratingly unwilling to stray from it. Buoyed as ever by Robert Yeoman’s cinematography and precise color palette (this time one of the muted blues, yellows, and browns), Anderson and Roman Coppola’s script shines brightest when the children can take center stage. Their romantic connection is palpably tender and awkward in equal measure, offbeat and unconventional, yes, but a deeply heartfelt portrayal of young love nonetheless.
The film falters, however, when the children aren’t present, as the host of performances from the expected cast of Anderson regulars (Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, etc.) feel more obligatory and forced than ever, with the aura of A-list actors trying on their indie film boots to gain some critical credit seeping off of the screen, and ultimately submerging the film in its own whimsy by the final half-hour. To the director’s credit, though, the film is mostly about the unorthodox couple at the story’s heart, and there aren’t many more engaging or convincing portrayals of underage romance out there.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Anderson’s most successful film to date, from both a critical and commercial standpoint, there’s a case to be argued that The Grand Budapest Hotel was the film that launched the auteur from being revered indie royalty to one of the world’s most popular and garlanded directors. The movie also may be Anderson’s most direct attempt at comedy since Bottle Rocket all those years ago, and whilst that artistic decision comes at the sacrifice of some of the deep emotional impact found in his very best outings, it results in a wildly entertaining and humorous ride.
Via a typically quirky story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure, the film tells the tale of the titular establishment, and it’s rise and fall throughout the early 20th century, in particular the relationship between bell boy Zero (Tony Revolori) and concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, in a career-best comedic form), but in truth, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s main focus is style, particularly in terms of production design. Renovating a run-down shopping center, Anderson and production designer Adam Stockhausen created a truly iconic cinematic building, bathed in pink and purples and inhabited by one of the finest ensemble cast imaginable. By no means as compelling as The Life Aquatic, as moving as The Royal Tenenbaums, but by some distance the funniest and most instantly likable film in this list.
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5. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
The Royal Tenenbaums may not be Wes Anderson’s best movie, but it may contain the best performance within his entire oeuvre, courtesy of Gene Hackman’s fantastic turn as the titular patriarch of the dysfunctional Tenenbaum family, showcasing both the vulnerability and arrogance of his character flawlessly. The rest of the cast struggles to match his level, but there is still plenty to appreciate in the career-best performances from Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller as well. Needless to say considering such a significant ensemble (which also includes the Wilson brothers, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, and Anjelica Huston), this is very much a film focused on performance, all of which are complemented by one of Anderson’s finest, sharpest and most moving screenplays.
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Though frequently hilarious, the film also contains some of the most challenging themes and concepts to date. A (SPOILERS) famous scene of Richie Tenenbaum attempting suicide followed immediately by a jump cut to a comically frantic hospital room is one just many examples of the film’s brilliant balance between the light and dark, something that truly demonstrates Anderson’s undeniable skill as a writer-director.
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Anderson’s first, and by all means superior, foray into the world of stop-motion, this endlessly charming adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book of the same name is simply one of the finest animated films of all-time. Tailoring puppets with real-life costumes from his very own wardrobe and using real locations for the voice actors, it’s remarkable just how well Fantastic Mr. Fox fits in with the rest of the director’s oeuvre, not just looking at a home, but standing out as a delightful mid-career anomaly.
Most of this stylistic consistency is down to the presence of recurring crew members behind the scenes, from composer Alexander Desplat’s wonderful Oscar-nominated musical accompaniment to Anderson and Noah Baumbach’s witty and touching script, to voice roles for Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. But also crucial are the contributions of animators who would later go on to work on many acclaimed Studio Laika productions, such as production designer Nelson Lowry who creates a wonderfully homely and familiar world for the characters to inhabit. It’s this collaborative spirit and an omnipresent sense of both adult wit and childish wonder that makes this 2009 film such a gem.
3. Rushmore (1998)
Anderson’s breakthrough sophomore feature Rushmore marks a turning point in the career of the director. Not only does the film mark Wes’s inaugural collaboration with Bill Murray (who has starred in each of his films since, and helped to fund this one), but also the first part of his filmography to thoroughly expand upon and refine his stylings, adapting the quirky offbeat humor and framing of Bottle Rocket, and adding 60s rock tunes, slick slow-motion and a more heartfelt edge to the screenplay to create one of the 1990s most memorable and endearing films period.
In many ways, the story could be interpreted as a coming-of-age tale told in reverse, as the precocious and over-achieving Max Fisher (Jason Schwartzman, in a remarkable debut role) has to learn to accept his childish and immature instincts, in favor of embracing the wonder of youth. It’s a tricky story to get right, but through Wilson and Anderson’s screenplay, full of classic quotable lines and a wickedly subversive sense of humor, and stellar performances across the board, the emotional complexities and often hilarious shenanigans of youth are done justice, in an undoubted career highlight and deserved cult classic.
2. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
2007’s The Darjeeling Limited sees Wes Anderson at his most humane, spiritual, and dramatic, and perhaps because of those reasons it doesn’t seem to have amassed the same fanbase as his other works have over time. It’s not a celebrated indie favorite like Tenenbaums, a critically acclaimed Oscar winner like Grand Budapest, or even a divisive film with a devoted following like The Life Aquatic, but in terms of emotional connection and portrayals of the human condition, Darjeeling is the director’s most moving and compelling outing to date.
Telling the story of three brothers (Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson) traveling across India after a year separated and the funeral of their father, and is certainly bolstered by a trio of impeccable performances at its fore. Brody’s grief-stricken Peter, Schwartzman’s heart-broken Jack, and Wilson’s persnickety Francis make a convincing dramatic core with their interrelations and the complex dynamics of their relationship explored brilliantly and thoroughly by Anderson, Coppola and Schwartzman’s symbolism-heavy screenplay.
Some in the past have taken issue with the film’s portrayal of India, liking it to that of Japan in the Isle of Dogs, but in this writer’s opinion, the combination of serene beauty and intense poverty portrayed in the film acts not just as a pretty backdrop, but as a narrative tool to critique the upper-middle-class privilege of its protagonists. Truth be told, though, a lot of the appeal of Wes as an auteur and as a screenwriter is how much the viewer can connect personally with the film at hand, and for me, Darjeeling does just that, and if it weren’t for a prolonged and superfluous narrative cul-de-sac involving a car rental, it would be number one.
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1. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
If Wes Anderson is a hipster filmmaker, then The Life Aquatic is for sure the most hipster choice to place at number one on a list such as this one. Out of the nine films discussed in this ranking, this tale of an aging documentarian and sea explorer on a revenge mission has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score (56%), sits at the bottom of many a critical ranking of its director arsenal but has also experienced an enormous resurgence in popularity among the Anderson fanbase, and as the years go on its reputation only grows stronger.
For me, The Life Aquatic is the only film in this list that I have no qualms calling cinematic genius. The wonderful cinematography, unforgettable soundtrack, ingenious set design, iconic costumes and, of course, a career-best Bill Murray, portraying the doldrums of a mid-life crisis, grief and artistic starvation all at once, is truly astounding and a visionary work of cinema that only an artist at the peak of his powers could create.
Anderson’s take on the male ego or use of an ensemble cast has never been as developed or brilliant as it is here, and though the film runs for a relatively long 119 minutes this multi-layered revenge drama-comedy breezes by. It’s a true testament to the film and to Anderson that by the film’s emotional climax, it’s hard not to shed a tear as a cartoon fish circles around a submarine — the perfect marriage of whimsy and emotion, and a fitting way to top and conclude this ranking.