Best Wes Anderson movies: From 'Bottle Rocket' to 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
The meticulous Wes Anderson has made nine movies, which stands above the rest?
In terms of visual style, few directors working today are as immediately recognizable as Wes Anderson. You can tell almost instantaneously if you’re watching one of his films from the intricate, almost dollhouse like settings to his increasing use of unique aspect ratios and, generally, if you see either Bill Murray or Owen Wilson on screen.
Anderson is one of the more unique American directors to come about in a long time, treating audiences to 10 movies thus far. But which is his best?
Sticking with just his feature films, none of his short films (sorry fans of the original Bottle Rocket), here is how we’ve ranked Wes Anderson’s filmography to date.
10. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Not starting off with any real controversy here, as The Darjeeling Limited is widely regarded as Wes Anderson’s weakest outing. Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman star as three brothers who attempt to reconnect a year after their father’s funeral as they travel across India by train. Anderson’s oddball characters generally work best when they are firmly in their own world, be it fictional or exaggerated, but in The Darjeeling Limited the main trio are entirely out of place as they interact with the people and culture of India. In a filmography that features mostly hits, The Darjeeling Limited sticks out as a rare misfire from Anderson.
9. The French Dispatch (2021)
Anderson's ode to journalism, The French Dispatch is broken up into three sections depicting stories that were published in the titular magazine at the center of the film. While each story has its own unique quirks, they struggle to form a truly cohesive movie. The French Dispatch has a fantastic performance by Jeffrey Wright, a fantastic animated sequence and the trademark dry wit of Anderson, but the structure never lets the movie truly build on any momentum; not least of all because its middle section is its weakest.
8. Isle of Dogs (2018)
Anderson returned to the stop-motion animation style that he so wonderfully took to with Fantastic Mr. Fox in Isle of Dogs, though it was always going to be tough to live up to his first animated outing. That’s no slight against Isle of Dogs, which is a fun, incredibly made tale of a boy trying to find his dog that was exiled to the titular island with the help of a ragtag group of strays. The reason that it sits so low in this list is one, something had to, and two, when picking between Isle of Dogs and Fantastic Mr. Fox, I’ll always give the edge to the latter.
7. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou was the first Wes Anderson film that I saw, so it will always hold a special place in my heart, but in terms of his overall work it is definitely one of the lighter, less essential entries. Bill Murray leads the cast as an egotistical Jacques Costeau-inspired sea explorer out for revenge against the shark that ate his best friend. The supporting cast is great, as usual, with Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, Jeff Goldblum, Waris Ahluwalia and Seu Jorge. It very well may be one of Anderson’s most broadly funny films, but it lacks the same kind of depth that Anderson’s best films have.
6. Rushmore (1998)
Rushmore is a film that many Wes Anderson fans would put forward as one of his best films, but some of its elements, including the romantic pining of Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer for his teacher, played by Olivia Williams, has managed to keep the film at a bit more of distance for me. Rushmore is critical though in terms of Anderson’s filmography for bringing in two of his frequent collaborators, Schwartzman and Bill Murray, who probably gives his best performance in an Anderson movie here.
5. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Adapted from Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel, Fantastic Mr. Fox raised the level of detail that Anderson was able to employ in his films, as he and his crew utilized the stop-motion technique to hand-craft every element frame by frame. Anderson’s wit also expanded the film from its children’s novel origins and made it widely accessible to audiences of any age. It’s a shame George Clooney and Meryl Streep, who voice Mr. and Mrs. Fox, haven’t been able to team up with Anderson for a live-action film to date, but their work in the film fits in so easily with both the world of the story and Anderson’s usual troupe of actors. Hopefully Anderson will continue to return to stop-motion animation from time to time as he has proven a master of it with his first two entries.
Bottle Rocket (1996)
Wes Anderson’s first feature film (based off the short film of the same name), co-written with Owen Wilson, Bottle Rocket predates Anderson’s ability (financially) to craft sets that truly place his unique characters in their own little world, so instead they simply reside in your typical looking motel or factory. Why this is not a hindrance for Bottle Rocket is the creation and performance of Owen and Luke Wilson’s lead characters, Dignan and Anthony Adams. Dignan’s misguided code and worldview works against a realistic backdrop as he is destined to fail, while Anthony, still an odd duck himself, is more grounded and serves as the audience surrogate. Anderson’s style has grown so much since Bottle Rocket, but the film remains an incredibly impressive debut and very much of the filmmaker we know today.
3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Moonrise Kingdom is an underrated gem from Wes Anderson. The story of two youngsters who fall in love and run away into the woods in a small New England town is the thru line, and source of inspiration, of a story that deals with relationships of all kinds, be it husband and wife, parents and children or even among friends. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward star as the young lovebirds, Sam and Suzy, but performances from Frances McDormand and Edward Norton are the film’s highlights, while Tilda Swinton and Jason Schwartzman steal the show with their quick cameos. Anderson’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars.
2. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
When you think of a Wes Anderson movie, more likely than not the first one that comes into your head is The Royal Tenenbaums. The director’s breakout film, The Royal Tenenbaums became a bit of a cultural touchstone (how many times have you seen people dressed up as the Tenenbaum children for Halloween?). This story of a dysfunctional family is more than its window dressings, as wonderfully strange as those are, with a fantastic cast featuring Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Kumar Pallana. The film is about accepting your family for all their faults and loving and supporting them anyway, which made it a kind of balm for audiences when it was released in the winter of 2001, but also gives it a timeless quality.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Creating his own country gave Wes Anderson a freedom to build the world of The Grand Budapest Hotel that is rich in detail, foreign but welcoming; not least of all because of the performance by Ralph Fiennes as the titular hotel’s famed concierge. Fiennes gives one of the best performances in any Anderson film (the best for my money) as a man who strives to be civilized in every aspect of his life, even as the world crumbles around him at the outset of war. Other new Anderson players including Saoirse Ronan and Tony Revolori fit like a glove among staples Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe. Anderson’s story within a story within a story structure also allows him to raise the bar in terms of style, playing with different aspect ratios throughout. Both technically and thematically, Anderson has never been better than he was in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
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Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.