The films of Wes Anderson – ranked

From Bottle Rocket to The Grand Budapest Hotel, we rank the American director’s nine features.


David Jenkins and Sophie Monks Kaufman

Ranking the films of Wes Anderson may seem a somewhat futile task considering the manifold merits inherent in the director’s extraordinary oeuvre, but it’s a task we’ve taken on all the same. The highly scientific ranking system employed in this feature involved months of preparation and a secret ballot which canvased the opinions of WA fans over five continents – The Anvers Island Wesfriends of Antartica (AIWOA) could sadly not be reached for comment. And so, for your delectation, here are Wes Anderson’s nine feature films ranked from great to greatest…

9. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Why is The Darjeeling Limited the runt of the litter? Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman as estranged brothers, (Francis, Peter and Jack) attempting to bond during a train trip is not an inherently flawed conceit. Francis slipping laminated daily itineraries under his brothers’ doors is a brilliant, enduring joke that highlights how in families one person’s source of solemn importance is another’s pinnacle of ridiculousness. The film’s undoing is that by setting the action in India, as opposed to a fictional India-inspired location, it makes frivolous use of the country and its customs.

Wes Anderson’s worlds are not of this world. They are immaculate bubbles. Inside the safe enclosures of Anderson’s aesthetic fantasies, deadpan characters and their deadpan melancholy resonates. The Darjeeling Limited is dedicated to and inspired by Satyajit Ray – a director whose films dug deep into the existing world at a slow and flowing pace. In other words, he was Anderson’s rhythmic and aesthetic opposite. Respectful as this homage may be, its notes sound tinny in this foreign land. Sophie Monks Kaufman

8. Bottle Rocket (1996)

“On the run from Johnny Law… Ain’t no trip to Cleveland.” WA’s first movie out of the gate was a largely successful attempt to produce a straight comedy (though perfume of melancholic tragedy seen in his later films are certainly present) first made headlines as a mis-marketed box office bomb, the pundits pointing and laughing as this purported Reservoir Dogs knock-off plummeted into obscurity.

While Tarantino’s debut sits at a cosy stall right at a crossroads in ’90s film history, Bottle Rocket might actually be deemed the better film, a bungled crime caper revolving around a lead character whose pluck and moxie shroud serious psychological damage. It’s the film that introduced the world to Owen Wilson, and his tenacious, yellow jump-suited career criminal Dignan remains one of Anderson’s greatest creations, a man who uses nefarious activities as a way to preserve the lost thrill of boyhood monkeyshines.

Though played for the laughs, the story opens with Dignan “breaking out” of some kind of low security sanitarium, his pal Anthony (Luke Wilson) assisting in this strange ruse to keep things cheery. Variations of this set-up are played over and over as Anthony has the tensile strength of his friendship tested as Dignan’s schemes get grander and more dangerous. It’s a sweet, small, beautifully written film, everything that we know and love about Anderson – the geometric framing, the ’70s AM radio rock hits, the ironic non-sequiturs, deep focus photography, the comedy of depression – is all there for the taking. As is the late Kumar Pallana, starring here as ace local safe-cracker Kumar and who would also turn up in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. David Jenkins

7. Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

A great film, but a transitional work within the WA canon. With the gift of hindsight, it feels like a project made to dust away any creative cobwebs that may have been forming over the previous two pictures, a refreshing of the classic Anderson format aimed at a slightly different audience. Aesthetically speaking, the film remains a true original, made using stop-frame animation and 3D models, but in a way which neutralises the depth of the field. Spectacular and eccentric details fill the frame, and unlike many similar labour intensive enterprises, Fantastic Mr Fox is riven with narrative digressions, single-serving side characters and brilliant throw-away details.

It’s an adaptation of the 1974 children’s novel by Roald Dahl, and it’s hard to think of a more perfect union of creative minds. The story centres on the wily Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney), undergoing a mysterious existential crisis, while having to attend to the fact that three repellent farmers want to clear this vermin of their land. Though Mr Fox is clearly the hero of the piece, the film itself is a complex moral fable about the anxieties that come from just trying to survive in this harsh world, especially the undermining shame that’s felt from not being able to feed your own family. DJ

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Absolutely the most Andersonian film to date, darling, taken to a fabulously camp place by the comic performance of Ralph Fiennes. As M Gustave H concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fiennes is a fleet-footed, sexually-efficient version of Burt Lancaster in The Leopard – the last man standing for a noble but crumbling way of life. Anderson’s ear for farce is peak. He captures the rhythms of a caper film, matched step-for-step by Fiennes whose mouth and body are always on the go. He speaks in perfect clipped tones, imparting his values to wide-eyed protege, Zero (Tony Revelori).

Stefan’s Zweig’s writings inspired the story, set in the Republic of Zubrowska. This fictional setting is a plausible site for everything that Anderson treasures. It is a pastel-hued, old-fashioned dollhouse inhabited by collaborators, old and new, all united by the drama of their faces. Willem Defoe as a punk-goth Nosferatu of a villain is too much (in a good way). Adrien Brody has a lustrous moustache. Saoirse Ronan adds a splash of serenity as an employee for the intricately constructed Mendl’s cakes. SMK

5. Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2005)

In 1959, Louis Malle and Jacques-Yves Cousteau picked up the most prestigious prize in moviedom – the Palme d’Or – for their marine biology-themed documentary, The Silent World. This amazing film saw Cousteau cast as an intrepid explorer, taking to the high seas in his boat and heading into the briny deep to photograph the wonderful sealife that lives there. Inspired by this, and Cousteau’s countless other nature documentaries, Wes Anderson made The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, a masterful, singular work which takes the Cousteau template and style, and asks – what if he were going through a mid-life crisis? Arguably Bill Murray’s greatest starring role, his Zissou is a taciturn bastard with a heart of gold, the unswerving adoration he receives from his rag-tag crew an affirmation that, during the run time of the movie, we’re seeing him at a less-than-ideal time in his life.

For one, his oldest friend was killed by the elusive Jaguar Shark, so revenge is at the forefront of his mind. Add to that, his estranged son (Owen Wilson), has returned to the fray in an attempt to appreciate his father’s whimsical occupation, his wife (Anjelica Huston) is losing interest in him, and a journalist (Cate Blanchett) is documenting his every move. The film explores how our mind fights against depression, often convincing the body that it has to carry out irrational tasks as a way to achieve metaphorical closure on a painful episode in life. Steve intents to carry this out with explosives. DJ

4. Isle of Dogs (2018)

It’s never a good idea to think you’ve “got” a Wes Anderson film on the back of a lone viewing. Isle of Dogs, for instance, is – like a loving and faithful mutt – the gift that keeps on giving. Even after a third or forth watch, there’s so much background detail to enjoy, and new places to train your eye in the frame. But also, with repeat viewings, the subtlety and the emotion of the central storyline come to the fore, as a young boy with connections to a corrupt, dog-hating politico, risks life, limb and family honour to save his beloved security dog from annihilation.

This is Anderson’s ode to the Italian neorealist director Vittorio De Sica, who made films in which a simple quest narrative allowed for an exploration of a society full of poetry and sorrow. In The Bicycle Thieves, a father and son search for a stolen bike. In Umberto D, an elderly man searches for his lost dog. Anderson takes this deadly simple base material and transforms it into and eccentric adventure flick for the ages. If Fantastic Mr Fox was his trial run in the domain of animation, then Isle of Dogs, is his first attempt proper, and he really did yield some staggering results. DJ

3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

A Wes Anderson movie with a blossoming love story at its core! The fact that it’s a love story between 12-year-olds, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Sally (Kara Hayward), who run away together leaning on Sam’s scout survival skills, does nothing to undermine its weight. The adults disagree but the adults can’t handle their own problems. Anderson’s most melancholy character ever is played by Bill Murray. He wouldn’t mind if the approaching tornado blew him away, he tells no-nonsense wife (Frances McDormand). Part of the sorrow comes from knowing that the tornado won’t touch him. Life will make him see it through.

Anderson’s consistently delightful soundtrack choices reach a new level. The most iconic scene features the runaways in a remote beach cove dancing in their underwear to Françoise Hardy. The ensemble support cast are well chosen, each adding a different piquancy and frequency. Anderson’s regular cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, outdoes himself, capturing images with a camera that sometimes glides, sometimes zooms and sometimes composes the world with breathtaking symmetry. SMK

2. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Elliot Smith’s ‘Needle in the Hay’ finds its cinematic home in the sequence in which Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson) shaves his face and then slashes his wrists. Wes Anderson’s way of working with the same people makes him synonymous with family units. The Royal Tenenbaums is his most overt story about families. There is space for each member to feel complete, replete with personalised looks, manners and disappointments. Richie is in love with his adopted sister, Margot. Gwyneth Paltrow with her kohl-eyes and fur coat has the quality of an angel stricken by her fall to earth. The other Anderson (Paul) harnessed it in Hard Eight.

Wes finds her stillness, at odds with the tetchy movements of her red-tracksuit wearing brother, Chas (Ben Stiller) and the jauntiness of the head of the family, Royal (Gene Hackman). He and Etheline (Angelica Huston) are separated and his terminal illness is the trigger for an attempted reunion. What follows is an elegant sprawl of vignettes that reveal the dysfunctions of the family and the individuals within it. Tragedy and comedy hold hands throughout, taking it in turns to step  gracefully to the fore. The look of the film is perfectly New York and perfectly transcendent of it. SMK

1. Rushmore (1998)

Rushmore is Wes Anderson’s ‘Revolver’ – we love everything that he has made since, but in the end, this one is the daddy, accept no substitutes. Where Bottle Rocket was pistol-whipped to the floor by marketing boys desperately trying to “place” it onto the movie landscape, the director’s second feature was a case of being forced to accept that it is what it is, and that’s how it should be sold.

Time Out’s Tom Charity – bemused by the film at the time of his release – described its lead character, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), as a combination of Jay Gatsby and Ferris Bueller, and while the former feels bang on, it’s hard to see the bumptious, love-me, pre-packaged movie idol sheen of the latter. He deploys the tragic energy of a Welles “hero” – George Amberson Minafer or even Charles Foster Kane – his aggressive push for social betterment nudging him unknowingly to a great fall.

Rushmore asks whether social activities, sports, the arts, community organising, are tactics formulated by a society as a way to prevent the cultivation of intimate human relations, and it’s not just through Max’s wacky travails, but also those of drunken industrialist Herman Blume, who neglects both his family and his own heart. Olivia Williams’ supply teacher Miss Cross enters into the fray and courts the attention of both men, forcing them to dissolve their own fast friendship. For us, this one comes top because it remains Anderson’s most complete and most focused drama – there are cute asides and set-pieces, but here they all serve to enhance the overall mood of the film.

One of the film’s most memorable aspects – and arguably the facet which helped to entrench itself within the annuls of modern comedy greats – is the work undertaken by the Max Fischer Players: Broadway-sized high school theatre reinterpretations of classic movies. It’s a rare example of Anderson making a statement about cinema as an outlet to purge and express feelings, but also as a creative medium that could be used to impress, alienate and titillate those experiencing it. In the case of this emotional and comic wrecking ball, there are safety glasses and earplugs under your seats. Please feel free to use them. Oh, and let’s not forget the cherry on the top of this sweet gateaux: one of the most beautiful final scenes ever filmed. DJ

Published 11 Sep 2015

Tags: Wes Anderson

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