“Directed within an inch of its life” is typically not a comment that is complimentary to a movie or its director, and yet that is precisely the best way to generally describe the fantastic filmography of the fantastic director Wes Anderson.
While most directors try their best to capture organic acting and want their films to feel as natural as possible, Anderson takes a different tack. He constructs film-length dioramas in which every second of frame seems to be intricately planned. His characters move the way he wants them to (frequently in right angles). His props and design choices are not obvious and frequently surprising and perplexing but they are clearly his ideas. Nothing in his films happen by accident, or at least it seems that in his ideal world nothing would happen by accident.
More than any other modern director, he demands that you get on his particular wavelength in order to enjoy his movies. And for that reason, many people don’t like his work or find his movies generally off-putting. He seems to do so many things that go against the general rules of filmmaking that it seems at first glance that he must be doing something wrong. But that is precisely what makes his so exciting as a director to his fans (and I count myself as one of them). His vision is so original and so idiosyncratic that even his missteps are at least extremely interesting missteps. And when he fires on all cylinders, he creates some truly exciting cinema in an cinematic age that seems much more prone to blockbusters marked by visual and narrative sameness. In other words, he has been a cinematic breath of fresh air for the entirety of his career. And now I’m going to rank his movies:
9. BOTTLE ROCKET (1996)
Bottle Rocket is fascinating in that it is completely unlike any of the other movies that would follow in Anderson’s career. It is the only movie that feels like it is set in a real place, with this place being the American Southwest. It is also the least focused of Anderson’s movies as the central trio of this so-called crime-heist movie (played by Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, and Robert Musgrave) spend more time shooting the breeze than anything that might resemble capering. Written by Anderson and Owen Wilson during their time at the University of Texas, the whole movie has a “proof of concept” feel to it like Anderson was just trying to convince himself that he could direct movies. As a “proof of concept” of his prospects as a director in the future, this project is wholly successful. However as a film in its own right the film works, but barely so.
8. THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (2004)
With The Life Aquatic Wes Anderson shifted from being a purely quirky indie director into developing his distinctive dollhouse aesthetic as he tells the story of a Jacques Costeau-type documentarian and his elusive search for the shark that killed his partner. Unfortunately as his first stab into this magic-realism style, the movie suffers from some growing pains. It is easily his least focused film as the pacing of the story frequently drags which is truly surprising given how tightly wound and precise the rest of his filmography is. And while most of Anderson’s films mine his interests in dysfunctional families, grief, and the way childhood innocence gets replaced by disillusioned cynicism, this feels like the first movie in which the story is solely interested in exploring its themes with the setting of this movie becoming window dressing. Still these problems are minor ones and only standout in comparison to the rest of Anderson’s work. When compared to most regular movies, this thing is a beautiful kaleidoscope of a film.
7. THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007)
The last film in Wes Anderson’s early period highlights both his strengths and weaknesses as a director. His use of India as a backdrop for the spiritual and emotional growth of three stunted, spoiled, and entitled white dudes may strike some people as the embodiment of white colonialism, but in his defence the Anderson’s India does seem to have a general attitude of rolling-its-eyes at the plight of yet another group of white people seeking enlightenment in its country so there is at least some self-awareness there. And as a setting, Anderson’s India is a magnificently rendered place even as it is more an homage to Satyajit Ray’s India than it is to India itself. The larger problem with this movie is that the three main lead characters are an extremely unlikable group, making it hard to rejoice with their minor awakenings and much easier to cheer their failures. Anderson’s later movies take care to make sure that the eccentric and unique protagonists that he puts at its centre are at least somewhat relatable and definitely likeable so that audiences don’t actively root against them. It seems that The Darjeeling Limited is where he had to learn that lesson the hard way.
6. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001)
There will be some Andersonians among you who will want to hurl bricks at me for putting The Royal Tenenbaums this low on the list. After all this is probably the film that put him firmly on the indie director map, and the first to truly display his heightened reality style of filming. Following a quintessentially 1% family, it dives deep into the themes of dysfunction, belonging, and parental approval that is the hallmark of his career. And because it features nearly a dozen quirky and eccentric people and is set in a fantasy New York, the movie is never dull, frequently funny, and sometimes heartbreaking. But it also has more than a whiff of show-offiness to the whole proceeding, an Andersonian trait that will plague his middle run of movies until he fully developed his pinpoint precision in his aesthetic later on when such acts of showing off were more than justified by the craftsmanship on display.
5. ISLE OF DOGS (2018)
Wes Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation simply cements that he and the medium are a perfect fit for one another. This time training his eyes on a dystopian Japan of the future (which is a slightly problematic choice), he weaves a fantastical tale of the Megasaki City that has exiled all dogs to a thrash island due to a strain of dog flu that has swept through the canine population. At its most basic, the movie is about the simple tale of a boy trying to get his dog back and the innate loyalty that seems to permeate on both ends of humanity’s longest relationship. But because this is a Wes Anderson movie, it is also a sprawling tale involving corrupt politicians, activist students, and a race for the cure all while steeped in a meticulously designed setting where almost every frame hides an impossible amount of details to be absorbed in one sitting.
4. MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012)
The brilliance of Moonrise Kingdom, an ode to summer-loving Eagle-scouts everywhere, is that the films mines many of the same themes, humour, and aesthetic that Anderson has been obsessed with all of his life. But there is one crucial difference: Instead of the movie being about a bunch of disenchanted and highly affected adults, Moonrise Kingdom is a movie about a bunch of disenchanted and highly affected tweens – and as a result is much, much funnier. And because the movie is about the coming-of-age of two runaway kids, it is also Anderson’s warmest and most blatantly hopeful movie on the list. And through this film that celebrates freedom, imagination, and love, Anderson reveals about himself what we have always known all along: that he was probably the weird kid in high school and we are all the better for it as a result.
3. FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009)
While Fantastic Mr. Fox may not be Wes Anderson’s best film, it is arguably the most important in his canon. It came on the backs of two of his less successful films both from a financial and critical standpoint in The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. There was a general sense that Anderson affected schtick was starting to grow old and stilted. And so it is with some irony that turning to the world of stop-motion, which is a notoriously meticulous and slow film-making performance actually freed Anderson’s creativity allowing him to perfect the aesthetic that has become his hallmark in recent years. And of all the children’s authors for Anderson to adapt, Roald Dahl with his sardonic and often-times dark humour was the perfect choice. Fantastic Mr. Fox is hands down the best Roald Dahl adaptation, and it is my sincere hope that someday Anderson will adapt a few more of his works (stop-motion of course).
2. RUSHMORE (1998)
Max Fleischer (Jason Schwartzman) is one of Wes Anderson’s greatest creations. A student whose own ambition is seemingly unparalleled in every area of his schooling except for his actual academics (“I saved Latin! What did you ever do?”), he creates for himself a vibrant and rich schooling life that the non-jocks and non-popular kids among us could only ever dream of actually existing. Of course, Max Fleischer is also someone who thinks himself too good for the rest of his peers so that his only friend is the disillusioned and odd benefactor of Rushmore Academy Hermen Blume (Bill Murray) and his only love interest is with his completely uninterested teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). He is someone who you want to simultaneously cheer as he pursues his own idiosyncratic interests and punch in the face. Fortunately Rushmore allows you to do both.
1. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)
The only Wes Anderson movie (so far) to be nominated for a Best Picture award features all the things you would expect from a Wes Anderson movie: impeccable production design, a highly affected style that equal parts delights his fans and annoys his detractors, a cavalcade of colourful characters featuring most of the actors that have appeared frequently in his movies (and then some), and an eccentric sense of humour that will delight everyone who gets on his very specific wavelength. But there are two things that vault this movie to the top of the list. The first is Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H., the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel who finds himself embroiled in a family dispute when he inherits a priceless painting from the family matriarch (who frequented the Grand Budapest and with whom Gustave has been amorous with). Gustave is perhaps the perfect Wes Anderson character and Fiennes is the perfect person to play it as he proceeds to steal every scene he’s in. But what truly sets this film apart is that it is Anderson’s first that attempts, and successfully so, to address a real world issue as he combats totalitarianism, but in his own humorous and disarming charm that effectively raises a middle finger at those who would flirt with political oppression again, but with a smile. This is the moment that Anderson starts to train his eyes away from his own navel-gazing musings to something approaching the larger world. And at least in The Grand Budapest Hotel, this works spectacularly.