“I like to do things that are a little surrealistic but with characters who are real. So that, even if things are a little unusual, the emotions will come through anyway.” – Wes Anderson
Surreal and unusual are two words that can be used to accurately describe Wes Anderson’s films but the reason I really appreciate this quote, from the acclaimed director himself, is because it sheds light on what his filmmaking style truly is. That style is something that is often discussed amongst film fans and critics because even though we all know what the look and feel of a “Wes Anderson Film” is, his style is still one that can be difficult to define at times. It is this distinct style, which is made up by his idiosyncratic visual aesthetic, meticulously crafted shots, memorable music selections, witty dialogue, and unique characters, that has made Anderson one of the most popular and revered filmmakers of the modern era. Not many filmmakers have been able to essentially create their own genre of film in the same way that Anderson has — I think it would be fair to say that “Wes Anderson” is a legitimate genre that exists within modern film. When I first became introduced to Anderson’s films at a young age, I remember thinking they were unlike anything I had ever seen before, which is a sentiment I’m certain many other film fans can relate to. I felt this way because Anderson is truly one-of-a-kind. Similar to a director such as Quentin Tarantino, Anderson is a filmmaker who has the ability to create worlds so intricate and unique that only he can properly navigate them. This is why even though many have attempted to imitate his style over the years, no one has been able to truly recreate the distinctive feel and tone that comes with a Wes Anderson film.
While Anderson’s unique visual style deserves all the attention it gets, I think one shows a limited understanding of his work by only focusing on aesthetics when discussing Anderson’s films. To me, the list of reasons why Anderson’s films are so special extends far beyond just the way they look or the way they’re shot. As made evident by his quote at the start of this blog, Anderson is a director who puts just as much thought into the emotions conveyed in his films as he does into anything else. There is no doubt that his films share a bizarre, unusual, and often times comedic quality but they also all hold an emotional weight to them as well. Any observer of Anderson’s work knows he is interested in exploring themes such as familial relationships (often times sibling rivalries), friendship, falling in love, and adolescence. Anderson’s characters could be described as absurd or strange but I like to think that Anderson is interested in exploring universal themes that everyone can relate to through these eccentric outsiders that often fill his films. I feel Anderson has a great amount of empathy for his characters, which is part of the reason these characters often times feel so special and memorable to the viewer. Another thing I admire about the emotional aspect of Anderson’s work is how comfortable he seems to be operating in the worlds of both melancholia and optimism. There are even times Anderson is able to incorporate utterly bleak moments and incredibly hopeful moments into the same film. This is not an easy task for any director to pull off but Anderson has been able to do it over and over again with what seems like relative ease. Many of the things I’m describing, especially the empathy Anderson has for his own characters, help to create a sense of warmth and sincerity that permeates through all of Anderson’s films. This is important because the authentic, imaginative, and original mood and tone of Anderson’s film is what makes fans of his want to continue to revisit his movies on a regular basis.
Even though I stated there is much more to what makes Anderson and his films special than just his visual style, this visual style cannot be ignored when discussing Anderson’s career. There are few filmmakers who care as much about every single shot of their film more than Anderson does. As a film fan, this is exactly what I want from a director. I appreciate how much care and attention-to-detail Anderson puts into the visual aspect of his films. Without this attention-to-detail, his films just simply wouldn’t be the same. Anderson’s experimental camera movements, symmetrical shots, and innovative use of miniatures all add to the charm that each one of his films possesses. Without this charm, Anderson would not be as beloved as he is today. Many filmmakers can be described as perfectionists and I think it would be more than fair to include Anderson in that category. This need for everything to be meticulously crafted is certainly not a bad thing though, in fact, it is the reason Anderson’s films are not only enjoyed by so many but actually studied and examined as well.
Something else that cannot be ignored when discussing Anderson’s work is the amount of people who are critical of his style and his films as a whole. While I’ve mentioned many times that Anderson and his work is beloved by many, this love is certainly not universal. In fact, there are many people who can’t stand Anderson’s films. He is a filmmaker who you’re either going to love or hate. Criticism of Anderson’s films is always interesting for me, a massive fan of Anderson, to see. While I certainly don’t enjoy seeing one of my favorite filmmakers receive hate, I believe the divisive nature of Anderson’s work actually shows how substantial his films truly are. Great art should be polarizing. If a film draws a strong reaction out of you, that is an accomplishment in and of itself. No one can deny that Anderson is a filmmaker who takes chances and relentlessly sticks to his vision. Even if one does not appreciate that vision, they would have to admit that the world of filmmaking is better off with directors who take chances and have unique visions, rather than directors who continuously turn out safe and mediocre films that feel focus-grouped to death. I understand that Anderson’s style is not for everyone, and I can appreciate thoughtful criticism of his work. However, no-one can make the claim that Anderson isn’t a passionate, rigorous, and talented filmmaker.
The task of ranking Anderson’s nine films was not an easy one. When I was constructing my rankings, I was reminded of the difficulty I had constructing my Paul Thomas Anderson rankings. I consider both of these men to be modern masters of their craft, and do not believe that either one of them has made a single bad film. The difference in quality amongst Anderson’s films is not a great. The lowest ranked film on my list is still a movie I very much enjoy. Because of this, it is fair to say that my rankings could shift if I were to write this blog tomorrow, a week from now, or a year from now. But, at the moment this is my definitive ranking of Wes Anderson’s films.
So, without further ado let’s unnecessarily take a bunch of meaningful works of art from a brilliant filmmaker and pit them against each other for no apparent reason.
9. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
“There’s a lot of attitudes going on around here… don’t let me get one.”
Anderson’s first stop-motion animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox, lands at the lowest spot on my list. This film is of course based on the classic Roald Dahl novel of the same name. Interestingly enough, this film is a great adaptation not because Anderson simply copied the novel but because he was able to blend his style with the already incredible story created by Dahl. For those unfamiliar, that story consists of a fox whose inability to resist returning to his thieving ways causes a conflict with three farmers, and a great amount of tension for his family and friends. Anderson’s film adaptation stars frequent collaborators of his such as Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson as well as George Clooney and Meryl Streep. All the characters in this film and perfectly cast and the voiceover acting as a whole is one of the best parts of the movie. As I previously stated, this was Anderson’s first foray into the world of stop-motion animation, and with Fantastic Mr. Fox, it instantly felt like he belonged. Anderson’s unique style blended perfectly with the visual aesthetic of stop-motion animation. Furthermore, the use of stop-motion in his film never feels like a gimmick because Anderson uses it to enhance the story being told. This type of animation allows him to have greater control over what is being shown on screen and he takes full advantage of that. The animation in this film is truly something to be marveled. I was surprised that this film ranked at the bottom of my list because I genuinely do enjoy it and also because it is a collaboration between Anderson and another one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote the screenplay. Ultimately, what led me to placing this film at the bottom of my list was the fact that I find myself rewatching it less than Anderson’s other films. Also, I find it to have a little more of a made-for-kids quality than Anderson’s other stop-motion film which ranks higher on this list.
8. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
“Let’s go get a drink and smoke a cigarette.”
The mid-2000s are seen by many as the low point of Anderson’s career and many consider The Darjeeling Limited to be his worst film. While I certainly believe it has its flaws, I find The Darjeeling Limited to be a film made up of many great moments. The film stars Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody as three brothers traveling across India by train in an attempt to bond with one another and perhaps find something greater than themselves along the way. All three of the leads give great performances and Amara Karan gives a truly memorable performance in a supporting role as well. The Darjeeling Limited explore themes involving family and the relationship between siblings, which Anderson explores in many of his other films as well. Unfortunately, The Darjeeling Limited just does not reach the heights that those other films reach though. Even though I have a fondness for this film, I understand those who view it as uneven and take issue with the perceived lack of self-awareness on the part of Anderson. The film has been criticized for portraying three white, wealthy, American males traveling though a poverty-stricken setting that seemed to not be portrayed accurately by Anderson. While I understand these critiques, they do not make this a bad or unwatchable film for me. Anderson was attempting to tell the story he wanted to tell, and while I have mixed feelings about the characters that lead this film, I don’t think he should be punished too harshly for that. Ultimately, The Darjeeling Limited is a lesser Anderson film that is still enjoyable and consists of some very memorable moments.
7. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
“Don’t point that gun at him, he’s an unpaid intern.”
Another Baumbach-Anderson collaboration lands at the number seven spot on my list. The Life Aquatic is the other film, along with The Darjeeling Limited, that is sometimes seen to be a part of Anderson’s “cold-streak” in the mid-2000s. There is a lot to love about this film though and I think it is admired much more now than it was at the time of its release when it was met with somewhat mixed reviews. The film’s story centers on a Jacques Cousteau inspired oceanographer named Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) who exacts a plan of revenge on a shark that killed his ex-partner. Along with Murray, the film stars Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, and Willem Dafoe, among others. I love the performances of Murray and Blanchett in this film and find this movie to be most alive when those two are on screen together. This film remains Blanchett’s only collaboration with Anderson but she fit into his world perfectly. Another thing to admire about this film is that in a career marked with visual achievements, The Life Aquatic is perhaps the most visually stunning and ambitious film of Anderson’s career. This truly is a beautiful and remarkable film from a visual standpoint. However, the film does struggle in terms of character and emotion though. Also, most of Anderson’s films land somewhere in the 90-100 minute runtime while The Life Aquatic is two hours long. This extra length can definitely be felt, especially in the second act of the film. Despite these flaws, I enjoy The Life Aquatic for what it is. While it certainly may not be Anderson at his best, it is still a brilliantly acted, visually stunning film that at least makes an attempt to tackle some interesting themes and ideas.
6. Bottle Rocket (1996)
“You’ve never worked a day in your life. How can you be exhausted?”
1996’s Bottle Rocket was not only Anderson’s directorial debut but also the debut feature for both Owen and Luke Wilson as well. In many ways this film reminds me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut film, Hard Eight. While their stories may not be all that similar, I find Hard Eight and Bottle Rocket to both be small and contained character-driven films from two master filmmakers that show the potential that each of their directors will ultimately go on to fulfill. This potential, on the part of (Wes) Anderson, was certainly acknowledged by many upon the release of Bottle Rocket. The film garnered a lot of attention and praise from critics which helped Anderson go on to have the career he has now. Besides critics, someone who was particularly fond of Bottle Rocket was Martin Scorsese, who named it one of his top ten films of the 1990’s. Although it is full of Anderson’s patented wit and charm, I find Bottle Rocket to be, at times, his darkest film. The story revolves around three friends who attempt to pull off a robbery and go on the run. It quickly becomes clear to the audience and to these characters that they are not fit for this life though. As I previously stated, the film stars the Wilson brothers in their first roles and it is easy to see why this launched them into their future success. They both pop off the screen in this film and it must have been evident at the time that both of these actors would go on to be stars. In terms of the supporting cast, Lumi Cavazos and James Caan both give memorable performances and steal many of the scenes in which they appear in. Bottle Rocket is by far the least stylized film of Anderson’s career and when watching it now, it is clear that it was his debut. However, the character-driven nature of this story makes for some of the most intimate and personal moments in all of Anderson’s filmography.
5. Isle of Dogs (2018)
“Whatever happened? To man’s best friend.”
Anderson’s most recent film, and second stop-motion animated feature, lands at the number five spot on my list. There is a strong case to be made that, from a story standpoint, this film is the most ambitious of Anderson’s career. The story in Isle of Dogs is somewhat difficult to describe but essentially this film is about pack of banished dogs who help a young boy search for his own dog after the entire species has been banished to a remote island. As I typed that I realized this is without a doubt Anderson’s weirdest film but it also touches on relevant issues that exist within today’s society. Similar to Fantastic Mr. Fox, the voiceover work in Isle of Dogs is tremendous. The cast includes Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, and Harvey Keitel, as well as Japanese actors Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Akira Takayama, and Akira Ito. The world-building in Isle of Dogs may just be better and more intricate than any other Anderson film that came before it. Once again he utilizes stop-motion animation to enhance this story and add to the humor that is found within the script. I have this film ranked much higher than Fantastic Mr. Fox because even though I enjoy both films, I find that Isle of Dogs is much more ambitious and has a lot more to say. Isle of Dogs was the third film Anderson released in the 2010s and it capped off the single greatest decade of his career. After a somewhat controversial mid-2000s, Anderson undoubtably returned to his former greatness in the 2010s. I’m hopeful that he can carry that success over into the 2020s with his upcoming film, The French Dispatch.
4. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
“Hell of a damn grave. Wish it were mine.”
There are some that may find fourth to be far too low of a placement for The Royal Tenenbaums. While I have a great amount of love for this film, which gave Anderson his first Oscar nomination, there are still three films from his filmography that I enjoy more. For now, let’s focus on The Royal Tenenbaums though. This ensemble family comedy was Anderson’s third film and remains his most influential. This film is a beautifully eccentric tale of an equally eccentric family and the struggles its members go through as they reluctantly reunite for a variety of reasons. The all-star cast includes Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, and Danny Glover but it is the performance of Gene Hackman as the patriarchal member of the Tenenbaum family that sticks out the most. This film has been described as the most “Wes Anderson film” of all his films and it is not hard to see why. The characters, the dialogue, the setting, and the framing are all so perfectly Anderson. The relationships and the story within the film are perhaps the most complete and mature among all of Anderson’s works as well. Although the film is filled with a lingering and unavoidable sense of melancholy, it remains a movie that is still somehow utterly rewatchable. We’re getting to a point in the list where it is hard to find flaws with the films I am discussing but I suppose some could consider The Royal Tenenbaums to be a slow-burn, I must say I do not find this to be a problem though. Few ensemble films have ever been able to give us so many memorable and vividly constructed characters in the same way that The Royal Tenenbaums does. It is a film that influenced indie movie-making for many years after its release and remains one of the best of Anderson’s career.
3. Rushmore (1998)
“Oh, yeah and with friends like you, who needs friends?”
Anderson’s second film, Rushmore, which really helped launch his career in a major way lands at the number three spot on my list. After the success of Bottle Rocket, Anderson had a lot of buzz around him and he delivered on that buzz with the brilliant film that is Rushmore. This film has a, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, eccentric main character played Jason Schwartzman. The supporting cast consists of Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Seymour Cassel, and Brian Cox, among others. The film can be best described as a coming-of-age story. The plot is centered on a teenager named Max Fischer (Schwartzman), his friendship with wealthy businessman Herman Blume (Murray), and the conflict that ensues when they both fall in love with the same woman, Rosemary Cross (Williams). Rushmore navigates the idea of one’s first crush/love as well as, if not better, than any other film I’ve ever seen. This theme is tackled with Anderson’s quirkiness and wit but the emotion felt by the characters still comes through in a way that really ends up resonating with the audience. As I said in my intro to this blog, Anderson continuously has a great amount of empathy for his characters and there is perhaps no better example of that than in Rushmore with Max Fischer. There has been speculation that the character of Fischer was influenced by Anderson’s younger-self — because of the sincere and genuine nature in which Anderson tells this story, I don’t doubt the idea that he drew from some of his own personal experiences. I think of Rushmore as the film in which Anderson truly found his voice as a director and because of that, I am immensely grateful that this film exists.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
“Rudeness is merely the expression of fear. People fear they won’t get what they want. The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved and they will open up like a flower.”
Earlier in this blog I stated that these rankings could potentially shift if I were to write this on another day. There is perhaps no better example of that than with my top two choices, which could absolutely swap spots depending on the mood I am in. For now, I am sticking with my decision to place 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in the number two slot. This film won four Oscar’s at the Academy Awards and marks the first and only time in his career that one of Anderson’s films has been nominated for Best Picture. It was absolutely deserving of that honor. Set in the 1930’s in a fictional country by the name of Zubrowka, The Grand Budapest Hotel tells the story of the relationship between a high-class hotel’s lobby boy and its outstanding and beloved concierge. Like many of Anderson’s films, the cast is just absolutely full of ridiculous talent. Some of that talent includes the likes of F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, and Tony Revolori. But, the performances in The Grand Budapest Hotel cannot be discussed without highlighting the magnificent work done by Ralph Fiennes in the role of M. Gustave. Fiennes steals literally every scene he is in and gives without a doubt one of the most captivating performances of the past decade. Some may consider The Royal Tenenbaums to be Anderson’s most complete work but I believe it is The Grand Budapest Hotel. Even though it is full of the Andersonisms that we associate with all of his movies, this film feels like a true step up into a more polished and refined type of filmmaking that we had not seen from Anderson prior to 2014. I am constantly impressed by Anderson’s ability to garner memorable performances from actors in small roles and The Grand Budapest Hotel is another great example of that. Every character in this film serves a purpose and there are so many memorable moments, lines of dialogues, and jokes that stick with the viewer long after they have finished watching it.
1. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
“I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I can certainly admit that The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel are probably more complete and substantial works made by Anderson, but in my opinion he has not made a more entertaining, endearing, and lovable film than Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson’s unforgettable tale of romance and companionship between two young lovers is, like many great coming-of-age stories, a movie about kids that is not necessarily for kids. The film stars Jared Gilman as Sam and Kara Hayward as Suzy and follows their journey as they attempt to run away together. Anderson has made many films about family but Moonrise Kingdom is his film that deals most closely with what the meaning of home is. Other themes in the film include the naivety and boldness we possess in our youth, how the things we are often trying to escape are actually the things we love the most, and what it feels like to be lonely. I must also mention the supporting cast which consists of names like Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton all turning in wonderfully constructed and immensely memorable performances. Another thing I love about Moonrise Kingdom is that Anderson treats the adult characters and the child characters with the same level of respect. He shows that adults can be just as sad, lonely, or confused as kids can be. Anderson shows a great understanding of the human condition in this film. There is a sincerity that exists throughout this film that I find incredibly charming. This feeling of sincerity is capped off by an ending filled with hope and optimism. This ending does not feel corny or out-of-place though because the audience is consistently rooting for these main characters as Anderson navigates us through their journey. At the end of the day, the Wes Anderson film I am most often interested in rewatching is Moonrise Kingdom, and that is why it remains my favorite film from his spectacular career.