Director Spotlight: Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson is eccentric. His style is recognizable and pleasing to the eye: popping colors, awkward dialogue, and symmetrical framing. He usually employs stacked casts consisting of actors such as Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Anjelica Huston. His latest outing, The French Dispatch, is now playing in American theaters and taking audiences by storm. Because of this, I thought it would be an appropriate time to look back on the distinctive filmmaker’s filmography. So let me put on my khaki scout uniform and lace up my Team Zissou Adidas shoes: my Wes Anderson ranking has arrived.


10. Bottle Rocket (1996)

I can confidently say that Bottle Rocket is the only Wes Anderson movie I don’t like. It’s Anderson’s feature film directorial debut, and he doesn’t have the budget for hasn’t showcased his trademark style, but I feel as if the movie was trying too hard to wow me. The story follows two con artist best friends who are unprofessional con artists who aim to build a master heist to please their boss. While planning it, one falls for a motel housekeeper, thus disrupting the plan in the process. Starring brothers Luke and Owen Wilson in the leads, the film pretty much launched their careers. However, Owen’s performance came off as if he had never acted before. Luke, meanwhile gives an acceptable performance as he plays off his brother’s quirks. Even then, his acting couldn’t save the movie due to the script's forced bickering and awkward dramatic timing. The story tries to be a crime film, and it takes itself more seriously than it should. Unfortunately, it tries too hard and thus fails.


9. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

The Life Aquatic is flawed from a story perspective. Its plot isn't something I can gravitate toward, even if there are occasionally clever jokes and distinct incorporation of Sellick's stop-motion animal animation. Bill Murray and Owen Wilson shine once again in the titular role and as Zissou's potential son, respectively. There are also great supporting performances from Willem Dafoe playing Steve’s German first mate, Seu Jorge as a crewmate who sings David Bowie in Portuguese, and Cate Blanchett as a pregnant journalist writing a story about Steve. The performances should be enough to make The Life Aquatic another memorable Anderson outing, but the characters aren’t worth cheering for as much as characters from some of Anderson’s other works. The Life Aquatic may not be the most substantial Anderson movie, but it still has its visual charms.


8. Rushmore (1998)

Marking his first collaborations with Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray, Rushmore tells the tale of extraordinary high school student Max (Schwartzman). He attempts to win the affection of a new teacher, played by Olivia Williams. Max befriends a grown businessman (Murray), who seems to mirror his values, but he also ends up falling for the new teacher. Competition ensues as Max deals with his rigorous school life and the threat of expulsion.

Still in his early days, Anderson doesn’t quite find his footing with his visuals. However, Rushmore does nail the ungainly dialogue within its screenplay, which is co-written by Anderson and Owen Wilson. Schwartzman shines by catching Max’s youthfulness, a role he played at the ripe age of 18, paving the way for offbeat youth performances in future Wes Anderson movies. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jared Gilman and Tony Revolori got inspiration from Schwartzman's performance for their respective characters.


7. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

The Darjeeling Limited follows three brothers, played by Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman, on a spiritual journey one year after their father’s death. Irrfan Khan and Anjelica Huston also have minor roles that contribute in some capacity. Brody, Wilson, and Schwartzman prove to have significant fraternal chemistry in the close-quarters environment of their journey. However, the limited number of characters is somewhat of a weakness for the film, as the back-and-forth isn't as interesting as Anderson's projects with large ensemble casts. Here, with the three leads, The Darjeeling Limited can only say so much with so little plot. Of course, Anderson’s idiosyncratic style saves this movie from total mediocrity. I recommend checking out the short film Hotel Chevalier, which acts as a prologue to this movie.


6. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Another dysfunctional family drama, The Royal Tenenbaums is what I consider to be the first film to cement Anderson’s unique aesthetic. This is where we first see the symmetrical cinematography and eye-catching color schemes that set the pace for the filmmaker’s later compositions. The movie is a drama about a successful yet broken family led by Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston as patriarch and matriarch. Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow play their children, embodying eccentric personalities, clothing styles, and personal traumas. Exploring the existentialism of life, The Royal Tenenbaums contemplates the fragility of life and points out that we shouldn’t ruin our tight bonds (particularly, familial bonds) by acting selfishly. Everyone in the family plays their part well, with Hackman, Stiller, and Paltrow as stand-outs.


5. The French Dispatch (2021)

An affectionate depiction of journalism and its many facets, Wes Anderson’s latest outing is definitely his most ambitious. Here, Anderson goes above and beyond by creating a black-and-white and color film. Occasionally, that creative choice comes off as inconsistent when switching between the two. Regardless, Anderson goes for a movie that is vastly different in its style and tone compared to the rest. It’s an anthology movie, which usually doesn’t work for me because I prefer one storyline to follow, with the exception being in the case of intrinsic character connections that establish the bigger picture (i.e. Magnolia). With that in consideration, I wasn’t intrigued all the way through as the storylines differed in pacing from the typical Wes Anderson fable. Yet, the stories themselves aren't bad in any capacity. I don’t know how Anderson does it, but that man continues to prove his creative genius in handling the plot creatively. Following four different stories covering art, politics, and food, The French Dispatch resonated with me as it reminded me why I’m pursuing being a writer.


4. Isle of Dogs (2018)

One of his lesser-known works, despite it being his most recent release, Isle of Dogs is another stop-motion entry for Anderson. Isle of Dogs may not have the charisma or well-crafted intrigue of Fantastic Mr. Fox, but it does work as a fun “boy and his dog” tale. Set in a dystopian Japanese city that banned dogs in the wake of a spreading canine influenza, Isle of Dogs follows a pack of dogs helping a boy find his dog before it’s too late. Scored perfectly by Desplat, the music provides heavy taiko drums and other instruments of Japanese culture. Isle of Dogs finds a first-time collaborator in Bryan Cranston who voices a stray dog helping the main character locate his own. Cranston fits right into Anderson’s style and gave the best performance in the film. Returning collaborators include Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Tilda Swinton. Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, and Liev Schreiber are standouts as newcomers to the world of Wes, lending a hand to the boy and his canine team along their journey. Interestingly, Isle of Dogs acts as a film where half of it is “show don’t tell.” Some of the dialogue is in Japanese, but it’s never translated for the viewer. It’s an unusual feature to have on display here, but I feel it works to the film’s benefit.


3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Moonrise Kingdom was my introduction to Wes Anderson, and I’m very glad it was. I saw the film at the ripe age of 16, at the time when coming-of-age movies were my favorite genre. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward play Sam and Suzy, two adolescent lovebirds who run away from their dull home lives to be together. They’re eventually discovered by a team of investigators and legal guardians consisting of Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and newbies Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Bob Balaban. Here, Anderson captures the innocence of youth perfectly by crafting a love story that is equal parts charming and uncomfortable. Gilman and Hayward showcase chemistry that’s rarely seen in child actors. Moonrise Kingdom also tackles themes of divided families as Sam and Suzy come from rough upbringings and handle them fittingly throughout. By the time the final shot appears, the movie has delivered on a healthy bout of nostalgia that viewers can’t help but smile about.


2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Coming in second is The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film some would consider Anderson’s magnum opus. Ralph Fiennes stars, and shines, as Gustave H., a womanizing hotel concierge who must obtain a painting handed down to him from a deceased lover before it’s too late. Every Wes Anderson cliché you can think of is on full display here, from the dense visuals to the awkward dialogue. Everything in this movie works like clockwork, and I’m still dumbfounded about how Anderson pulls it off. Not only does Fiennes give a powerhouse of a performance, but the very underrated Tony Revolori offers a career-defining performance as Gustave’s mentee Zero. Willem Dafoe plays an assassin, and he has undoubtedly the funniest moments in the film. Adrien Brody plays the primary antagonist willing to take down Gustave at all costs, while Saoirse Ronan plays Zero’s agreeable love interest, Agatha. Each character, no matter how small, gets the opportunity to shine. Once again scored by Desplat, this movie features a delightful soundtrack that went on to take home an Oscar.


1. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at the final movie in Anderson’s incredible filmography. Fantastic Mr. Fox is the zaniest, kookiest, most aesthetically pleasing film out of the bunch. George Clooney and Meryl Streep star in this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic 1970 children’s novel. Wes Anderson pulls out all the stops to make an appropriate film adaptation complete with an autumnal color scheme and memorably crafted character designs. Clooney and Streep shine as Mr. and Mrs. Fox, a dynamic duo with fantastic chemistry. Streep beautifully plays off of Clooney’s sly wise-cracks.

The supporting cast includes the usual suspects of Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, and Jason Schwartzman, along with Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Michael Gambon, and Brian Cox. However, the cast isn’t the only vital thing Fantastic Mr. Fox has going for it. Tristan Oliver’s cinematography soars as the symmetrical artistry is on full display. Every single shot could be framed and hung on a wall (i.e., the waterfall shot, the wolf scene, etc.) without a second thought to its worthiness. The energetic storytelling and stunning visuals give Fantastic Mr. Fox the extra boost to be my personal favorite Wes Anderson movie.


Wes Anderson has conjured a cult following since he first came on the scene with Bottle Rocket. People have called him a modern-day auteur, and for good reason. His work should be studied by filmmakers and film historians everywhere. The style he has created for himself is one that successors can only attempt to replicate. With the success of The French Dispatch, Anderson will no doubt keep his crown as the king of quirk.

-Tyler