There are few modern day directors with such an instantly recognisable style as Wes Anderson. His most recent release, 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel made it eight feature films as director and showcased a filmmaker of supreme confidence. It also cemented his place as one of my favourite directors. Such is the pleasure his work has given me that when trying to rank them in order of enjoyment it is very much a list of eighth best to best rather than worst to best. Here is my attempt, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
8. Bottle Rocket (1996)
Anderson co-wrote Bottle Rocket, his debut feature with regular collaborator Owen Wilson (this also marks Wilson and brother Luke’s feature film debut). The story sees Anthony (Luke) rescue his friend Dignan (Owen) from a voluntary psychiatric unit only to become embroiled in his generally inept attempts to begin a life of crime.
Due to it’s low budget Bottle Rocket feels unpolished in a way that makes it stand out from Anderson’s later work and it struggled to find an audience on first release. It did garner positive critical response though and it is easy to see why. The ‘house style’ of Anderson isn’t quite clear yet, but there are early indications of the character relationships, snappy dialogue and offbeat humour that make his work so distinctive. For a debut feature it shows the promise of better things to come, a promise that Anderson delivered.
7. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
By the release of 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited Anderson was well into his stride. Wilson again stars this time alongside other Anderson regulars Jason Schwartzman and Adrian Brody. Though there are a number of impressive cameos these three shoulder the bulk of the movie in a slight deviation from the bigger ensemble casts of his two previous movies. Wilson plays Francis, who having just survived a bike crash attempts to reconnect with his estranged brothers, played by Schwartzman and Brody, on a journey of personal discovery.
The Darjeeling Limited contains all the offbeat humour you would expect of Anderson brought in a very low-key package. The plot is at times inconsequential and instead stands as a series of moments and set pieces and as a result it is unlikely to win over anyone yet to warm to his particular style of film-making, but as always with his work there is a wit and assuredness that is never boring.
6. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
I know a number of people who look upon Anderson’s first animated feature as a disappointment. In many ways I can understand why, as if you are looking for a straight adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic book in the manner of the delightful 1996 Matilda then this isn’t quite that. His style is so vivid and all encompassing that it usurps the plot even when working with an adaptation rather than his own script. Here that’s no bad thing as he creates a truly beautiful, visually stunning piece. The tone and visual palette so evident in his films lends itself beautifully to the stop-motion animation, a technique he would return to in one of the most memorable scenes of The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The plot takes the basic premise of Dahl’s children’s book, Mr. Fox frustrating the local farmer’s by stealing their chickens. Here though Mr. Fox is initially seen as a reformed family man who is then drawn back to the excitement of his previous criminal lifestyle and the subsequent effect this has on his family and friends. It’s a satisfying extension of the original story and benefits from an excellent voice cast including George Clooney in the lead role supported by Meryl Streep and regular Anderson players, Schwartzman, Wilson and Bill Murray.
5. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Anderson’s third movie continued his writing collaboration with Owen Wilson who also joined a remarkably strong ensemble cast. It sees Anderson really hit upon the formula that will become his modus operandi for all the films that will follow. Gene Hackman stars as the titular Royal Tenenbaum who attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife (Anjelica Huston) and children played by Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and a returning Luke Wilson by feigning terminal illness.
With a simple enough plot idea taking a back seat to the oddball relationships of a large cast this is Anderson hitting upon a winning formula that at the time of it’s release felt brilliantly original. He would take this approach and further refine it in later work, but there is a reason The Royal Tenenbaums is still so highly regarded and appears in a number of top film lists.
4. Rushmore (1998)
Anderson’s second movie (and second co-written with Wilson) sees him work with both Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray for the first time. Schwartzman plays teenager Max Fischer who becomes embroiled in a love triangle involving his much older friend played by Murray and his teacher played brilliantly by Olivia Williams.
After the unpolished charm of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore is a far more confident movie and stands among Anderson’s best. The cast is fantastic and it’s no surprise that the two male leads became regular collaborators as they are clearly at home with the stylised dialogue so familiar to his films. Rushmore garnered huge critical praise and led to the bigger budget release of The Royal Tenenbaums.
3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Moonrise Kingdom represents quintessential Wes Anderson. The whole film feels like a celebration and a vindication of the oddball, the quirky and the outsider. Sam and Suzy are two unhappy 12 year olds who following a chance meeting become pen pals, fall in love and hatch a plan to run off together. Conducting the search for them are Suzy’s parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), Sam’s Scoutmaster (Edward Norton), the local Police Captain (a very un-John McClane Bruce Willis) and eventually Social Services (a brilliant Tilda Swinton).
Moonrise Kingdom continues Anderson’s style of blending it’s humour with an innate sadness in it’s large cast of characters. It manages to do so with a confidence far greater than previously seen and injects more warmth and heart than in much of his back catalogue, once again claiming critical acclaim in the process.
2. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
The Life Aquatic once again sees Bill Murray come to the fore as the titular Steve Zissou an oceanographer who sets off on a desperate mission to find and kill the shark that ate his partner. Typically he is supported by a brilliant ensemble cast that sees Wilson and Huston return and Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett and Michael Gambon join the company.
Of all Anderson’s films The Life Aquatic received the poorest critical response and was also deemed a disappointment at the box office so my decision to place it at number two on my list is possibly a surprise. It may be born slightly of nostalgia given that it is the first of his film’s I saw or it could simply be the joy of Murray’s performance, but I would argue there is a huge amount to enjoy here. It has a more cynical edge to Moonlight Kingdom, which I nearly placed above it and that is perhaps inevitable with Murray in the lead, but as a window into the unique style of the director it may be the most vivid.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Not only do I believe Anderson’s most recent work to be his best film so far, but it stands among my favourite films of all time. With nine Oscar nominations, including a first for Anderson as Director, a hugely positive critical response and a personal best box office return in the U.K. I clearly am not alone in thinking that.
Ralph Fiennes leads the cast as Monsieur Gustave concierge of the titular hotel. The plot is a complicated tale that is difficult to boil down into a simple synopsis. That in itself indicates The Grand Budapest Hotel is far more plot driven than a number of his previous films. All the self-assured confidence evident in Moonrise Kingdom is taken to another level here as the film bounces along with endless supplies of wit and humour. Fiennes clearly relishes his role and is an absolute revelation as is Tony Revolori as the faithful lobby boy Zero. The ensemble cast almost reads as a ‘best of’ Anderson’s previous films with Goldblum, Dafoe, Swinton, Murray, Wilson, Schwartzman, Brody and Norton all appearing in roles of various sizes.
The Grand Budapest is an absolute joy. It is a film I can happily go back to at any time and leaves me looking forward to seeing what Anderson’s next work, Isle of Dogs, a second animated feature scheduled for 2018 will bring.