Wes Anderson might just be one of the most well-known and creative directors of all time. From a creative standpoint, there is absolutely no one quite like Anderson. His movies are so hard to define or group together in terms of genre, they can only be described as “Wes Andersonian.” His movies and style of filmmaking are so inventive and unique and so closely associated with the director, you can tell from a single scene that you’re watching a Wes Anderson film.
Throughout his 25-year-long career, Anderson has made a name for himself as a director with an unbelievable outside-the-box approach to filmmaking. From his symmetrical framing, colorful shot compositions, use of stop motion animation and miniatures in lieu of CGI, and the incorporation of ’60s and ’70s pop songs, his movies have remained some of the most memorable films in modern cinematic history.
With Anderson’s new movie, The French Dispatch, set for a theatrical release on October 22, we thought we’d take a look back at Anderson’s past movies. Like most great filmmakers, Anderson himself doesn’t have any bad movies as of yet, and while they’re all incredibly enjoyable films, some are slightly better than others. Therefore, rather than calling this list a ranking of Anderson’s movies from worst to best, we’ll say it’s a list ranking his movies from very good to excellent, as well as providing information on where you can currently stream them.
Image Credit: IMDB / Touchstone Pictures.
Anderson’s debut film, based on a short film featuring a similar concept, characters, and the actors portraying them (the Wilson brothers), Bottle Rocket is a buddy heist comedy that is one of Anderson’s lesser-known but still incredibly entertaining films. Pretty much everyone involved with this movie received breakout attention as a result of this film – especially Anderson and both Luke and Owen Wilson (the latter of whom also co-wrote the film with Anderson).
Bottle Rocket stars the Wilsons as two young, directionless friends who agree to pull off an off-the-walls robbery with the help of a legendary professional criminal (James Caan). It’s a pretty standard heist concept that, in a lesser director’s hands, might’ve been just another comedy crime movie, but Anderson manages to infuse a ton of his signature energy, humor, and memorable characters into the movie that helped set it apart from other forgettable crime movies and also helped him earn further recognition in the cinematic world. Martin Scorsese even named Bottle Rocket as one of his favorite movies of the 1990s.
While definitely an entertaining movie, the only reason it’s not ranked higher is the fact that, like all the best things in life — wine, balsamic vinegar, John Mulaney — Anderson seems to be getting better with age. As entertaining as it is, Bottle Rocket doesn’t quite possess the same feel, look, or tone as Anderson’s other movies — which, given that this is a debut, is totally understandable.
Image Credit: IMDB / Columbia Pictures.
The Darjeeling Limited
After the commercial failure of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson’s next project took him to India for a story of brotherhood and tumultuous family relationships. Seemingly channeling his love for Satyajit Ray, The Darjeeling Limited tells the story of three estranged brothers (Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody) who attempt to bond together on a transcontinental luxury train ride through India a year after their father’s funeral.
The movie does boast some strong acting from the cast involved. Wilson, especially, stars as the brother who suffered an accident that resulted in his desire to reconnect with his brothers on a journey of “self-discovery.” But the real highlight is the on-location filming that showcases the beautiful Indian countryside and cities the brothers travel through.
It’s a relatively quiet movie for Anderson, known for his crime capers and comedies where people either go missing or try to steal something, instead focusing on the brothers attempting to move past their differences and overcome their individual traumas and grow closer to one another as a result. It may lack the constant laughs that other Anderson movies usually supply throughout, but it has the charm and classic Andersonian style that so many of his films have.
Image Credit: IMDB / Searchlight Pictures.
Isle of Dogs
Anderson’s most recent film, Isle of Dogs, marked his return to stop-motion animation after his earlier Fantastic Mr. Fox nine years prior. Perhaps it was a smart decision to adapt another writer’s work and test the stop-motion waters out with Fantastic Mr. Fox. In it, Anderson proved that he could transfer his distinct directorial skills to animation.
With the Isle of Dogs, Anderson went one step further, creating one of his most original movies yet and translating them over into stop-motion once again. Set in a fictional Japanese city, an authoritarian ruler banishes all dogs after finding evidence of a supposed canine flu that poses a danger to the city’s inhabitants. As a result, all canines are shipped to the “Isle of Dogs,” a trash refuge on an island isolated from the rest of the city, and whose inhabitants include a pack of dogs (voiced by Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, and Bob Balaban) led by a lifelong stray (Bryan Cranston).
After a young boy (Koyu Rankin) crashes on the island in search of his lost dog, the pack tries to help him, only to uncover a major conspiracy about the canine flu along the way. Isle of Dogs is an extremely imaginative movie, with plenty of homages to Akira Kurosawa and the stop-motion animated films of the Rankin/Bass Studio (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town) that Anderson said were huge influences on this movie. Much like Fantastic Mr. Fox, the animation in this movie is well done, and from the various camera angles and shot types, still remains distinctly and identifiably Wes Anderson.
Image Credit: IMDB / Fox Searchlight Pictures.
If Anderson was trying to find his voice and signature style of storytelling with Bottle Rocket, he seemed to be on his way to finding it with his second movie, Rushmore. Again focusing on the theme of friendship — the main focus in Bottle Rocket — Rushmore tells the story of private-school student Max Fischer (a young Jason Schwartzman), a gifted teenager who excels at every one of his school’s clubs, yet routinely fails his actual classes.
After he meets and falls in love with an elementary school teacher (Olivia Williams) who clearly wants nothing to do with him, he enters into a strange love triangle between himself, the teacher, and a wealthy, depressed industrialist whom Max has befriended (Bill Murray). With a plot like that, it’s a miracle Anderson made this movie as well as he did, proving again how well he can handle difficult plotlines by creating a movie only he knows how to make and very few (if any) other directors would be brave enough to take on.
The movie boasts the acting talent of Schwartzman and Murray, both of who would go on to be frequent Anderson collaborators and who give excellent performances that range from lighthearted comedic talent to more dramatic anger, frustration, and pain (especially in the second half of the film). Stylistically, Rushmore feels much more like a Wes Anderson movie than his debut Bottle Rocket, showing just how far Anderson had come over the course of one movie — though he would eventually full-on embrace his signature style of filmmaking with The Royal Tenenbaums, his next movie.
Image Credit: IMDB / Touchstone Pictures.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Frequently ranked as one of Wes Anderson’s most popular movies, The Royal Tenenbaums was the first movie that fully showcased Anderson’s talents as a director. The first film where you can take one look at it and go, “Oh, that’s a Wes Anderson movie” — something you’d be able to do with all of his movies post-Rushmore—The Royal Tenenbaums tells the story of a Salinger-esque family of gifted overachievers.
Growing up, the Tenenbaum children were prodigies, before each of them eventually hit a career-halting slump in their middle age. When their distant father, Royal, (Gene Hackman in one of his best roles before he retired in 2004) tells the family he has stomach cancer, he attempts to reconnect with his children (Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow) and their mother (Anjelica Huston).
Featuring an absolutely stacked cast (something that would become another staple of future Wes Anderson movies) that also boasts the talents of Bill Murray, Danny Glover, and Owen Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums is a fantastic comedy-drama that explores the intricacies of family. It may be a little dark at some points and contain somewhat uncomfortable content that might be a little offputting (Luke Wilson’s character is in love with his adopted sister, played by Paltrow), but it’s still an incredibly complex movie that has a ton of lighthearted humor and some very serious subject matter (including a character’s attempted suicide).
Image Credit: IMDB / Buena Vista Pictures.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Fantastic Mr. Fox is a unique entry in Anderson’s filmography (unique even for Anderson, that is). Rather than going for another original project, as he had done with all of his movies so far, he opted to adapt the Roald Dahl children’s story, as a stop-motion animated film. The decision to do stop-motion was not an altogether unsurprising one (he had previously used miniatures and stop-motion animation in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), but given his previous movies had such a distinct style, his actual choice to adapt a novel was a surprising one.
However, Anderson couldn’t have picked a better children’s novel to adapt, with Dahl’s characters, story, and sense of humor all blending perfectly to Anderson’s strengths as a director. Obviously, Anderson had to pad the film a bit with some added material in order to stretch the relatively short children’s book into a full movie, but the additions managed to complement Dahl’s original underlying material incredibly well, all the while retaining Anderson’s signature style of filmmaking.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is a wonderfully entertaining, lighthearted movie perfect for the whole family. Like all of Anderson’s work, it also boasts a fantastic cast of voice actors, including George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Jason Schwartzman, as well as supporting cast members Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, and Owen Wilson.
Image Credit: IMDB / 20th Century Fox.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Very loosely based on famed French adventurer and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou follows the eccentric titular deep-sea explorer (Bill Murray), who attempts to hunt down and destroy a mythic shark that has killed his best friend. Along the way, he must overcome his crew’s growing concern about the mission, his fading success and egotism, and his relationship with the son he never knew he had (Owen Wilson).
One of Anderson’s most underrated movies — it bombed at the box office and garnered mostly mixed reviews from critics upon release — Zissou has gone on to achieve a well-deserved cult audience. It’s an unbelievably fun movie that grows serious at times but never slows down in its pacing or action.
Zissou also boasts some incredible visuals and effects, including numerous fictional stop-motion sea creatures (the shark that Zissou is hunting is a whale-sized shark with orange spots known as a “jaguar shark”), and also offers some fantastic performances from Murray, Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, and Jeff Goldblum.
Image Credit: IMDB / Touchstone Pictures.
What Anderson did for India in The Darjeeling Limited and would later do for Japan in Isle of Dogs, he managed to do once again, this time for the 1960s idyllic New England island village. Moonrise Kingdom focuses on a pair of preteens (a bookish Boy Scout, played by Jared Gilman, and an introverted bookworm, played by Kara Hayward) who fall in love and agree to run away and live together in the woods.
Hot on their trail, though, is the boy’s Scout troop (led by Scout leader, Edward Norton), the girl’s over-worried parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), and the island police chief (Bruce Willis). As usual with an Anderson movie, the film features a wonderful cast, but the true acting highlights come from the two young stars, who manage to perfectly display the intricacies, innocence, and awkwardness of adolescent romance.
Like Anderson’s previous movies, Moonrise Kingdom is a great feel-good movie, perfectly capturing the world of the 1960s in a fantastic overdramatized way (the locations in the movie look like the setting of some 1960s sitcom). For Anderson fans, or movie fans in general, this is a must-watch — and what’s more, given the young age of the two lead actors, younger audience members might view this as a great starting point when setting out to watch all of Anderson’s films.
Image Credit: IMDB / Focus Features.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Anderson’s most recent live-action film, The Grand Budapest Hotel is flawless. Everything about it is great — the ensemble cast, the performances they deliver, the script, the music, the staging, everything. Looking at this movie and comparing it to Anderson’s earlier works, especially Bottle Rocket, it’s truly amazing to see how far the director has come in embracing his vision for film and indulging in his unique approach to filmmaking.
Set in a fictional 1930s Central European country, the movie focuses on an aspiring young lobby boy (Tony Revolori) who hopes to gain employment at the prestigious Grand Budapest Hotel, managed by the legendary concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). After one of Gustave’s elderly lovers (Tilda Swinton) passes away, she leaves him an extremely valuable Renaissance painting, which her son (Adrien Brody) attempts to steal from Gustave at all costs.
This movie is pure Anderson, featuring hilarious acting from Fiennes and Brody, and a huge cast that has even well-known stars appearing in supporting roles (Owen Wilson appears briefly as Gustave’s replacement, Edward Norton plays a police inspector, and Bill Murray appears as the leader of a secret society of hotel concierges).
Even by Anderson standards, this is a movie unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It’s pure entertainment through and through that never slows down, exploring themes of friendship, family, responsibility, loyalty, and young characters growing up in chaotic settings — all things common in Anderson movies, but arguably best captured in this movie.
Image Credit: IMDB / Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Since his debut film with 1996’s Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson remains one of the most visionary directors of the modern age. His distinct style of filmmaking, from his movies’ subject matter to the cinematic style in which he tells those stories, no director is even remotely similar to him at all (see the SNL skit “Wes Anderson Horror Trailer” or the “Three Directors” episode of Family Guy that uses Anderson’s filmmaking style to find out what exactly we mean by this). Like all great directors, Anderson’s entire filmography is full of equally fantastic movies, and a serious case can be made listing pretty much any of these films definitively as Anderson’s “best.”
With The French Dispatch set to release on October 22, we look forward to seeing where the movie will be ranked on this list, but no matter what, we’re sure it’ll be distinctly Wes Anderson — and that’s definitely not a bad thing at all.
Image Credit: Raffi Asdourian / Wikimedia Commons.