Ranked

Every Wes Anderson Film, Ranked

To mark Bottle Rocket's 25th anniversary, Ella Kemp delves into the filmmaker's idiosyncratic canon and sorts the good from the great

Fresh-faced film students and hardened cinephiles alike tend to drop whatever it is they're doing when a new Wes Anderson picture presents itself. For who can resist this filmmaker's meticulous, generous detail, the string of unpredictable deadpan characters seeking validation and empathy in the most unlikely places?

Nothing is off limits for a filmmaker fascinated with mile-a-minute conversations and imperfect family men: a study of a washed-up oceanographer’s sense of self; a portrait of young love stifled by small-town expectations; an exploration of 1920s fascism across Europe through the lens of one particularly hedonistic hotel concierge. Yes, you know the broad colours and shapes – the symmetry, the hues, the wit – but the fine details always manage to reveal something exquisite, something entirely new. 

As we celebrate 25 years since the release of his very first feature, Bottle Rocket, and ahead of the much-delayed, long-awaited tenth, The French Dispatch, there’s never been a better time to look back on Anderson's immensely drawn oeuvre – ranked, here, from worst to best…

 

9. Bottle Rocket (1996)

Where to watch it: Prime Video

It seems unthinkable that there was a time when we didn't know who Luke and Owen Wilson were, brothers who Wes Anderson introduced to the world with his 1996 feature debut, Bottle Rocket, based on his 1993 short film of the same name. The feature itself is a scattershot caper, often as directionless as Owen Wilson’s character, Dignan, who enlists his friend Anthony Adams into a series of heists alongside their getaway driver Bob Mapplethorpe. There are a lot of markers here that would come to define some of Anderson’s best work – the bickering brothers, the haywire robberies, the impeccable music cues – but Bottle Rocket is, inevitably, far rougher around the edges than what we’ve come to expect from this filmmaker. Released today, there’s no doubt it would still find an audience, with Anderson’s voice, already wry and sincere and fearless, shining through. But the best was yet to come – even if those butter-yellow jumpsuits still stand as one of the filmmaker’s best sartorial decisions.

 

8. Isle of Dogs (2018)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Wes Anderson’s greatest skill and his biggest flaw is his ambition. The ornate sets, the microscopic detail in the dialogue, the never-ending, thrilling scores (Alexander Desplat has never been more elaborate or exciting than he is here), the intricately arranged ensemble cast members. It’s why his greatest technical feat, Isle of Dogs, finds itself towards the bottom of this list (which, it must be said, contains no bad films). The 2018 stop-motion animation sees Anderson writing a love letter to the world's loveable canine creatures, reckoning with a ban of all dogs in Japan’s fictional Megasaki City. Atari Kobayashi, a little pilot, has lost his pet Spots, and he enlists a ragtag pack of “alpha dogs” to help track him down. By this point in Anderson’s career it was no surprise to discover the voice cast was so thrilling: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Babalan, Jeff Goldblum – the list goes on. But the orbiting narratives and characters – a wider political conspiracy, a plucky teen activist, a handful of scientists, professors and punks – at times makes for more demanding viewing than you'd expect for a film about talking dogs.

 

7. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Alienated teens? Check. Deadpan sincerity about dysfunctional families? Check. A tea-stained visual palette and desperately cool nostalgia-filled soundtrack? Check, check, checkity check. Moonrise Kingdom offers the highest concentration of Anderson’s trademark quirks – devoted fans could call it his best, long-time sceptics might point to it as the most extreme example of the worst. We follow 12-year-olds Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop as – long story short – they run away together to be in love. There is a sense of dissonance in Moonrise Kingdom, as these children talk with the focused cynicism of middle-age, while those out looking for Sam and Suzy are mostly adults clad in boy scout gear. Edward Norton is as committed and against type as ever as Scout Master Ward, while an appearance from a young Lucas Hedges makes for a brilliant introduction. Everyone exists within this pristine, well-designed world, yet they still feel somewhat removed from the film’s emotional core. It’s a confident statement from Anderson – only one that’s a little colder than the sepia-tinted glasses we’re experiencing it through.

 

6. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Steve Zissou has something of an ego problem, and there’s a whole crew on hand to witness it. The washed-up oceanographer must embark on a quest to seek vengeance against the jaguar shark who killed one of his crew members, while also reckoning with his own responsibility to those around him: family, employees, fans. There’s a familiar father-son strain at the core of Zissou, resulting in one of Anderson’s more daring emotional climaxes. The film gives Bill Murray a tremendous opportunity to balance bitterness and egotism and self-consciousness in the lead role, and casts Cate Blanchett in a completely metamorphic role as a pregnant journalist writing a story on the ship. The film boasts a more electric atmosphere than a lot of other Anderson films, in part thanks to composer Mark Mothersbaugh, with a score that’s fearless and gnarly and nostalgic, and Milena Canonero’s inspired costume design (the red hats!). It is, as with most ambitious Anderson stories, a little too sprawling to fully cement itself as one of the truly top-tier titles. But there’s something about the way you see the crew silently pondering the intentions of that rare, gorgeous shark: there is vulnerability, and fear. Hold onto that – this is a filmmaker who chooses to express his emotions wisely, so you know these ones are particularly special.

5. Rushmore (1998)

Where to watch it: Prime Video 

Jason Schwartzman has never been better than the role that put him on the map in Rushmore (and even if he wasn’t a Coppola, this is undoubtedly the performance that proved he could stand on his own two feet.) It’s a big-hearted display of the stubbornly over-achieving teenager, as his Max's meticulous plan for world domination veers off-piste with the arrival of a beautiful teacher – an older woman, played by Olivia Williams. There are the same neurotic archetypes talking breathlessly fast here, but they’re all played with more uninhibited, neurotic frenzy than in some of Anderson’s later, larger productions. Bill Murray is allowed to be loose, Williams gets to be less solemn than usual, and Schwartzman, with his ink-black frown and pedantic smirk, succeeds in creating one of Anderson’s finest characters. Yet with the comedy at its darkest, in what amounts to a battle of wits across age groups, the filmmaker still finds room for sincerity. He bottles the final gasp of innocence, of optimistic youth, and lets it gleefully soar.

 

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

A matryoshka doll of a movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel allows Anderson’s years of intricate world-building and scheming to finally pay off. His most lavish production and star-studded cast are actively working in service of the narrative – at once a screwball comedy and a tragic eulogy for the glamour and violence of 1930s fascism across Europe – while nodding towards treasures of Anderson’s past. There’s romance and greed, in the way Ralph Fiennes’ concierge Monsieur Gustave maintains and nourishes relationships with the guests of the eponymous hotel, and there is grand-scale political uproar and familial upset following the death of a matriarch. There is every Anderson regular, and there is also Jude Law and Saoirse Ronan – both thoughtful, restrained and elegant in turn. There is romance, there is despair, there is cake. It’s everything you worried Anderson would one day go too far with, yet it’s impossible to resent him for it. And though the film’s Mendl’s patisserie opts for a three-tier choux pastry concoction as its centrepiece, it still winds up feeling more like the most delicate, decadent millefeuille: a sophisticated, thousand-layer sugary treat borne out of tradition, in which every tiny morsel is somehow perfect.

 

3. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Stripped back in terms of its characters but broadcasting one of Anderson’s most wide-reaching landscapes, The Darjeeling Limited leans in on the qualms and resentments of three estranged brothers embarking on a “spiritual journey” in the wake of their father’s death. Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody deliver tremendously nuanced performances, mining deep within the usual blasé stares to convey the years of isolation and bitterness. It’s lively, imperfect, emotional – and sees Anderson exploring new sonic territories as well. He borrows from film scores composed by Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, but also from a range of Merchant Ivory films, too. For his trademark needle drops, The Kinks provide three of the film’s most wonderful moments. “Strangers,” in particular, speaks to the complex relationship the three brothers hold with one another: bound by blood and by circumstance, but separated by their collective guilt and regret over the way their paths have swayed. Yet as they march down the dusty roads of India, mourning the loss of a child robbed of his youth, the lyrics speak to so much: “Strangers on this road we are on, we are not two, we are one.”

 

2. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The Royal Tenenbaums is The Godfather of dysfunctional family films. The verbose character descriptions – tennis prodigies, math and business geniuses, ingenue playwrights – are more potent and intimate than ever, giving us flesh-and-blood human beings, inevitably raising the stakes in the process. The story of resentment, pride and independent talent yearning to break free rings true, in the portrait of three gifted kids growing up away from the shackles of their neglectful, egotistical parents (yet in true Wes form, even these parents are wonderfully three-dimensional, complete with a show-stopping turn from Gene Hackman). Luke Wilson is the best he’s ever been as Richie Tenenbaum, and one mournful scene set to Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” is, without a doubt, the most powerful musical sequence Anderson has ever put to screen. It’s an existential battle of wits, a wry look on life and death and how illness can change the morals of a person, that knows exactly when to lean into solemnity and when to make light of things. Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson are compelling and heartbreaking in turn. It’s a film about failing to perform the roles you’ve been assigned: father, lover, brother, genius. Everyone has to live with the guilt and insecurity like that – only a bird, something so far removed from the emotional makeup of these humans, can fly away from it.

 

1. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Learning to tame and protect a wild animal gives Wes Anderson his most glorious film to date. It wasn't his story to begin with, yet the way he places Roald Dahl’s unforgettable characters on the screen is beautiful reflective of his humour, creativity, complex feelings, and never-ending ambition. He leans into his strengths and idiosyncrasies with an impossibly detailed landscape of trees and tunnels and factories, where George Clooney’s Mr. Fox (an inspired casting choice) is stealing food and protecting his family. The film leans into the emotional response and release that comes with such star power, while letting Anderson explore more experimental, rugged aesthetic treats in the world of stop-motion, too. We finally get to see the mechanics of it all – it’s less liquid-smooth than usual, which makes it easier to love. There is one line, in particular, as Mr. Fox muses about his own inflated ego and debilitating insecurities, where he confesses that he has this thing “where everyone has to think I’m the greatest. If they’re not knocked out and dazzled and slightly intimidated by me, I don’t feel good about myself.” It’s a piercing revelation – one that feels raw and brave for someone like Anderson, who seems to be challenging what we’ve come to expect for over 20 years while still aspiring to be more beautiful, more intelligent, and more thoughtful than ever. There’s real vulnerability: the glimmer of an imperfect soul looking to do better while recognising just how much he cares about the validation of those who are always watching him. He’ll let wonderful wild animals dance for their survival, and will cherish their true nature, their pure talents. Nobody has done it better.

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