The Films of Wes Anderson, Ranked
"When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself." -- Jacques-Yves Cousteau, as inscribed in a book by Edward Appleby, donated to Rushmore Academy by Rosemary Cross and taken out of the library by Max Fischer.
Isle of Dogs is the second stop-motion animated feature from bespoke director Wes Anderson. But as with Fantastic Mr. Fox, he doesn't do much to tamp his usual obsessions: Dogs is an explosion of style, cinephile references, and meticulous whimsy, and another ride on the see-saw between melancholy and madcap, only with more fur. No one (except for maybe Czech animator Jiří Barta) is making anything with this level of handcrafted expertise right now, and few filmmakers have so mastered deadpan humor. It's a heck of a formula.
A few years ago I got into a discussion with a bearded film bro who, much to my surprise, was unimpressed by Wes Anderson.
How can you not like Wes Anderson? What's not to like?
He pinpointed the moment in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson's seventh film, in which the young, on-the-lam lovers Sam and Suzy finally have a moment to dig into their heretofore epistolary relationship. Suzy grabs her suitcase and, eliciting snide chuckles from my anti-Anderson acquaintance, she "literally unpacks a load of quirky signifiers meant to represent her character. It's as if Wes Anderson finally gave up on writing a scene."
I had no retort. In fact, I still don't. I mean, he isn't wrong. The thing is: Who cares?
As part of my due diligence to rank Wes Anderson's CV in the order of my personal taste (and, therefore, their empirical greatness) I mass-dosed on the man's work over the course of a few days. (Not too difficult, he's only made nine features, and all of them are streamable except the latest.) My primary takeaway: more so than any other major director of our time, Wes Anderson's films are the same damn movie over and over.
Wes Anderson's movies let production design, clothing, cultural references and a not-quite-realistic way of speaking do the heavy lifting to create empathy. Maybe the films are just a panoply of easily reproduced Halloween costumes (were you a Richie or Margot Tenenbaum one year?), minor-chord Kinks songs, inserts of notes, cards or itineraries shot from above and a fanatical devotion to the Futura font. Is this a crime? If you do something well, why not reach for a permutation that much closer to perfection?
In an Anderson story, you are likely to find bickering characters fighting to see who is the leader, or perhaps trying to win favor of a father figure. Eight of nine films feature a character grieving over dead loved one. Most characters are smart and sophisticated, oftentimes smooth talkers who are quick to downshift into declarations of deep insecurity. Everyone wears their heart on their sleeve, but can quickly become nasty. There's usually a big heist or a chase at the end.
The main character is impulsive and reckless and unbelievably charismatic, but sometimes a bonafide jerk. Royal Tenenbaum is a racist. Steve Zissou is a homophobe. Max Fischer does not respect that no means no. The Bottle Rocket guys are rich kids but still rob a bookstore (a bookstore!) at gunpoint. Rita (aka "Sweet Lime"), the stewardess on the Darjeeling Limited, seems to be using Jack Whitman just as much as he is using her, but the jury's still out on that. Mr. Fox lies to his wife.
The cartoonish Suzy from Moonrise Kingdom and Margot Tenenbaum are the closest thing to "real" women in these movies. They are also very similar, from their bookishness, their decision to "run away" and their heavy use of eye makeup. Wes Anderson's lead (and always male) characters are all precocious pre-teens at heart, and terrified of/unfamiliar with girls. Steve Zissou actually calls 11-and-a-half his "favorite age."
These recurring themes, plus the more granular instances, like repeated joke setups (Jason Schwartzman, nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, makes two Godfather jokes!), visual motifs (animal print wallpaper) use of montage and the oft-mocked use of symmetrical framing (balanced by the less-discussed frenetic handheld shots) are, in my opinion, the mark of a great artist. Talk to any particle physicist, The Answer will come from pattern recognition.
Wes Anderson has made nine feature films. Eight are great. Seven are fantastic. Sussing out the pinnacle of his work, suffice it to say, was quite difficult. I will accept any notes of condolences you wish to send, but please send them by post on personalized stationery.
9. Bottle Rocket (1996)
Written by: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson.
Best needle-drop: The Rolling Stones' "2000 Man."
Best random line: "How does an asshole like Bob get such a great kitchen?"
Wes Anderson's directorial debut is also his only movie that is merely "very good." Based off an earlier short -- which is essentially the first 20 minutes of the final movie in black-and-white -- Bottle Rocket follows Anthony (Luke Wilson), a sad rich kid returning to life after a voluntary stay in a mental hospital. Dignan (Owen Wilson) is determined to "break him out," and in that way, becomes the prototype for all future Wes Anderson protagonists: a pain-in-the-ass who keeps messing up, but is driven to "lead an extraordinary life," which in this film means committing crimes for some reason. Anthony and Robert Musgrave's Bob follow in Dignan's wake, with Anthony falling in love with a Paraguayan maid and Bob eventually losing interest.
Bottle Rocket is a good '90s indie, and if Wes Anderson disappeared after this it would still be remembered fondly by some. There are hints at the heavily art-directed filmmaker to come, but this is still a small and scrappy movie. Part of its charm today is to see Anderson's fastidiousness in its nascent form.
8. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Written by: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman
Best needle-drop: Shankar-Jaikishan's "Theme from Merchant-Ivory’s Film Bombay Talkie."
Best random line: "I had him bring a printer and a laminating machine."
It's almost shocking how much The Darjeeling Limited is a replay of Bottle Rocket. Jason Schwartzman slips into the Luke Wilson role, while Adrien Brody takes Robert Musgrave's. Owen Wilson remains Owen Wilson. But instead of getting into a life of crime, the trio (estranged brothers a year after their father's passing) go to India to "find themselves." Yes, it's a bit of a cliché, but that's why the movie is brilliant.
The Darjeeling Limited came after The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which featured, perhaps, cinema's most fabulous boat. Much of this is shot on a train, which got jokes going that Anderson's next one would be on a zeppelin or something. Obsession comes at a price.
The train looks absolutely spectacular, as do the scenes in India, though this film does feature one of the very few cringey moments in Anderson's resumé. The three brothers come across three poor Indian children in peril and rescue two. They end up attending the funeral of the third, which trips the manic flashback scene of driving to their father's burial. However, Wes has gotta Wes, so we get one of the trademark slo-mo shots of the three rich Americans emerging from a tent among grieving Indians as a melancholy Kinks song plays on the soundtrack. It doesn't work.
But that’s the exception. The three characters (who are high as a kite most of the time) may be rich and oblivious to the rest of the world, but they are in pain. Anderson shoots their journey, as preposterous as it is, with a total commitment to their weltschmerz. When they finally unload their father’s baggage (designed by Louis Vuitton especially for the film) it actually feels like a triumph.
7. Isle of Dogs (2018)
Written by: Wes Anderson; Story by Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura
Best needle-drop: Sergei Prokofiev's "Lt. Kijé – Troika" (aka "Midnight Sleigh Ride" as performed by the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra.
Best random line: "Awooooooooooooo!"
Oh no, the new one is this far down on the list? Only because there are only so many movies. Isle of Dogs is outstanding, and more than likely I'll dig it more with repeat viewings -- something with this many layers of visual splendor certainly demands.
Moving at a breakneck speed, Anderson's vision of an alternate-future Japan features a villainous mayor who decrees that all dogs must be quarantined to nearby Trash Island due to an outbreak of "Snout Fever." Distraught over losing his own pooch, the mayor's ward pilots a plane out to Trash Island, only to crash land. A gang of mangy mutts end up rescuing him, and assisting in his search for the missing dog. It's all so cute!
While there are still moments of soulful rumination, as is required in any Anderson film, this is the one with the most wall-to-wall action, as the dogs race to save their species from an easily swayed voter base. Isle of Dogs is not not a political allegory for our times, but it's also an excuse for the most dizzying montage of sushi preparation (and countless other loving homages to Japanese culture and cinema) you are likely to see.
6. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Written by: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
Best needle-drop: The Ramones' "Judy Is a Punk."
Best random line: "You've made a cuckold of me."
This is probably the one that'll open up Wes Anderson's obituary. A breakout success with film dweebs and normies alike, the cheeky ensemble drama even won a few awards. More importantly, it got people on Anderson's wavelength.
"Did you see that movie where Ben Stiller and his two little boys wear the same outfit the whole time?"
"It was funny. But also kind of sad."
(Please picture the above conversation in shot/reverse shot with characters in the center of frame.)
The Royal Tenenbaums is a love-letter to a fake New York City as created by someone who only knows it from J.D. Salinger stories. It's also the first of Anderson's films to go full-blast with the walled-off style, leaving realism an afterthought, though adding in maybe even one too many needle-drops. (Elliot Smith, you don't belong here.) In retrospect, one or two of the mopey moments could have been clipped.
Then there's the issue of Richie (Luke Wilson) discovering that Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is sexually promiscuous, inspiring him to slash his wrists. Not exactly a progressive message. Later Wes Anderson films will frame the decisions of clingy or short-sighted men with the right amount of mockery, but if that's the intention here, it gets a little lost.
But here I am criticizing The Royal Tenenbaums -- I should be remanded to the 375th Street Y as punishment. This movie really is outstanding. Paltrow’s Margot especially resonates with so many as one of cinema’s great somber girls, and the novelistic approach (complete with storytime Alec Baldwin voiceover) is such a smart touch. The cross-generational cast makes bourgeois ennui look positively charming, and there are so many details tucked away in each frame. (I had to hit freeze in the games closet.) This film certainly acts as the litmus test for newcomers. If you aren’t intrigued by this film, don’t bother with the others. But many got their first taste here, and it was a warm welcome to the family.
5. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Written by: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, based on Roald Dahl's book
Best needle-drop: The Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains."
Best random line: "We'd better extinguish this magnesium!"
This is a pivotal film for Wes Anderson. From this point on, melancholy forever takes a backseat to mania. The action scenes in this movie (which stars woodland creatures stealing and eating poultry and quaffing hard cider!) are absolutely breathtaking. Anderson would never do anything so gauche as make a war picture (unless you count staging work by the Max Fischer Players) so the battle between the varmints and Farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean is the closest we'll get.
Unsurprisingly, the craft on display here is extraordinary, from the not-overly-anthropomorphized critters to the clever ways to make smoke, fire and water look "real" in this handmade context. Unlike Isle of Dogs' more satirical story, this is still a family drama not too far removed from The Darjeeling Limited or The Royal Tenenbaums. Children jostle for a distant father's attention, and that father's insatiable call to adventure ("I'm a wild animal") threatens to bring doom to the community.
Sounds heavy, but it's also hilarious (maybe George Clooney's funniest performance?) and dazzling to watch. I mean, an opossum who goes into a trance. That's the good stuff right there.
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Written by: Wes Anderson; story by Anderson and Hugo Guinness; inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig
Best needle-drop: None. All glory to Alexandre Desplat's gorgeous and jaunty original score.
Best random line: "Holy shit, you got him!"
The only Wes Anderson film to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture is really the director gorging on himself like prisoners on a cream-filled Mendl's cake. A four-levels deep Zubrowkanian nesting doll of a story (with each level getting its own aspect ratio!), this explosion of Mitteleuropean design fetish has a list of influences a mile long, from Ernst Lubitsch to Charles Chaplin, with a dash of early Milos Forman, and even a bit of '60s James Bond.
Actor Ralph Fiennes plays the world's greatest grand hotel maître d'/seducer of old, rich women whose new lobby boy (Tony Revolori) is a refugee from a war that's coming. Nazism never enters the story, but its specter (and equally frightening uniforms) are looming. The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson's ode to a lost sophistication that never really existed, from its ludicrously filigreed pastries to its absurd secret society of networked hotel managers. There are sequences every bit as cartoonish as you'll find in his animated films (lots of cutouts and miniatures) which speaks to Anderson's wider desire to create vast worlds that are increasingly closed off from reality. That this has a hint of real-world atrocities, delicately inserted between Ralph Fiennes fast-paced screwball charm and vulgarity, makes it even more poignant.
3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Written by: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Best needle-drop: Benjamin Britten's "Songs From Friday Afternoons, Op. 7: 'Cuckoo!'" as performed by the Choir of Downside School, Purley.
Best random line: "Fish on hook!"
Dedicated at its close to Anderson's real-life baby mama, illustrator and author Juman Malouf, Moonrise Kingdom is the sweetest film of the bunch, which is saying something considering it has two dead parents, a mom cheating on a dad, and a suicide pact.
Set on a coastal island in 1965 where it's still summer even though it's October (and the vibe is a rainy day even though it's clear out) a precocious orphan boy and a shy slightly older girl fall in love and decide to run away. In time, the entire island is on the hunt for them, Bruce Willis gives his only good performance of the decade, and Jason Schwartzman gets to do a slow-motion walk dressed like a "khaki scout" with a Reverend's robes draped over his merit badges.
There's a great deal of silly business in the periphery (Harvey Keitel in shorts) but its heart is the power of early, first love juxtaposed with the adults who have all but given up. Don't worry, it has a happy ending.
2. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
Written by: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
Best needle-drop: Devo's "Gut Feeling."
Best random line: "Is this my espresso machine?"
Here comes the controversy. Steve Zissou was considered a bit of a disappointment at the time of its release. Many felt it covered too much of the same ground as the previous Royal Tenenbaums. I say: that may be true, but it does it far better.
This is Anderson's first film to completely separate from reality, with every frame meticulously art-directed within an inch of its life. Taking the essence of Jacques-Yves Cousteau as a diving-off point, Bill Murray is perfect as the happy-sad oceanographer-filmmaker in a rut whose partner was just eaten by a giant sea creature. His wife (Angelica Huston, the second of three times she'll play the wife-mother) is leaving him, and he's just discovered he has a son (Owen Wilson).
Zissou takes to his ship for an expedition of revenge, and here Anderson gets to show-off with the practicalities of analogue filmmaking (factoid: whenever you see a boom mic in the movie, it's a live boom mic) and create the most dazzling set of his career. The interior of the Belafonte (Cousteau's ship was the Calypso, har har) is sliced down the middle and shot from "without," like Jerry Lewis' boarding house in The Ladies' Man.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou eases up on The Royal Tenenbaums' needle-drops (though there are still some great ones) and leans on Brazilian singer Seu Jorge's in-story acoustic covers of David Bowie tunes. There's also Mark Mothersbaugh's skippy and propulsive original score.
The setting is completely daffy (Jeff Goldblum as the evil, corporate oceanographer is a scream) but it's played so straight that the drama still works. The big showdown scene in the submersible gets me choked up every time.
1. Rushmore (1998)
Written by: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
Best needle-drop: The Who's "A Quick One, While He's Away" as recorded at the December 11, 1968 "Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus" concert.
Best random line: "Got any good hand jobs lately?"
I hate to imply that Wes Anderson's best work is 20 years behind him, but I think I've made it abundantly clear that the new stuff (like Isle of Dogs) is terrific. Still, I must be honest: Rushmore is his masterpiece.
Riffing a bit off Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude, Jason Schwartzman (in the first thing he ever did!) walks the perfect line between obnoxious and lovable as Max Fischer. He's ambitious and passionate, but also a bit of an idiot. He's bombing out of his classes and he's dopey enough to think he can woo the beautiful first-grade teacher (Olivia Williams) at his beloved prep school.
He finds a strange advocate in a wealthy industrialist Mr. Blume (Bill Murray) who can't stand his own boorish, silver spoon kids. This initiates a troubling love triangle (at least in Max's mind). Soon Max and Blume are practically in a Roadrunner vs. Coyote situation, but there's still a layer of sadness and, somehow, sweetness beneath it all.
Does Max Fischer save Latin because he loves Latin? No, of course not. He did it because he thought he would win the girl. But Wes Anderson gives us a world where Latin is even in a position to be saved. And that's how he won us.