I Watched Eleven of This Man's Movies and the Best Title I Could Come Up with was "Wessay": A Pecking Order of Wes Anderson's Feature Films
In 9th grade, I picked a DVD off a shelf in my step-mom’s basement and put it on. I remember thinking that The Darjeeling Limited was odd, and feeling like there were parts that were supposed to be funny that I wasn’t getting. Two years later, my best friend and I rented The Grand Budapest Hotel from Redbox, and all I remember is how colorful the visuals were. I really hadn’t thought about Wes Anderson since then.
This spring, I started dating a woman who is mildly obsessed with him. In June, we went to see Asteroid City in the theater. I was drawn in by the all-star cast, and enjoyed it far more than I expected to. So I decided to watch the rest of his movies, and rented all ten DVDs from the library. About halfway through the batch, I noticed myself making a pecking order in my Notes app of the ones I’d finished. When the marathon ended, I decided to flesh out the list and make a little piece about them.
I deliberately avoided reading any reviews of the films, even Amazon ratings, and only looked at the filmography section of Anderson’s Wikipedia page to keep track of the release sequence (though I watched them out of order). Knowing myself, any background context would’ve swayed my opinions about them. I wanted to watch each one cold.
So below you’ll find my rankings and reviews of each film, ranging from 1996 to 2023. Spoilers abound in all of these.
11. Moonrise Kingdom
This one stretched me the most out of all of them. The movie isn’t bad. And perhaps that’s a testament to Anderson’s canon as well – that the one I’d consider to be his worst is still better than plenty of other hits out there. And on paper, the plot synopsis sounds cute – two star-crossed lovers play pen pals with each other ‘til one ends up at a sleep-away Boy Scout-eque camp near the other’s house, located on a romantically remote island.
Except that they’re kids. They’re not teenagers, nor are they little Kindergarteners holding hands. They are middle schoolers making out and spending the night together in a tent and it’s hella uncomfortable to watch. Imagine if the romance level of the later Harry Potter books were happening when they were all first getting sorted by the talking hat. It just felt awkward and I couldn’t get past it.
The music was also sub-par compared to Anderson’s other films. He tried going ham on the purely classical score and it felt like a flop to me. I appreciated him trying something conceptual, but there are other times that I’ll detail below where he pulled off a conceptual soundtrack way better. It also annoyed me that the natural beauty of the landscape was juxtaposed with a dull score. Felt like a missed opportunity.
The redemption for this one comes from Bruce Willis. Anderson follows his trend of occasionally casting a big name outside of his usual roster for a lead role and pulling folks from his recycling bag to flesh out the rest of the cast, and this time it paid off. And to their credit, the two kids acted well too. But perhaps that’s part of what made it feel awkward to watch.
For a first film, it’s not bad. Not mind-blowing, but definitely worth watching, if for no other reason than that it’s the only one that doesn’t adhere to the signature aesthetic Anderson later develops with Rushmore, and embellishes with Tenenbaums and Life Aquatic. If I hadn’t known it was him directing, and if the Wilson brothers weren’t playing the leads, you could’ve told me it was someone else’s work.
The plot and the tone were very reminiscent of Sideways, which is really to say that Sideways was reminiscent of Bottlerocket, seeing as it came out eight years later. I think this was also a funnier movie that felt like it was trying less hard to be cool. While it follows the trope of two brothers on a road trip together, the vibe is dialed in and the characterization and backstory between the brothers is enough to keep the whole plot engaging. Owen Wilson is a lovable mess with a hankering for shaking things up, meanwhile Luke feels indebted to both his brother and the motel cleaning lady who he falls for. It’s fun and light.
9. Isle of Dogs
I would’ve ranked this one below Bottlerocket, but the technical facility that went into the stop-motion animation bumped it up for me. The story felt a little dry, and went on a little longer than his standard 90-minute cutoff point. And while the animation was impressive, I was even more blown away by that of Mr. Fox, which I watched afterward. You’d think it would be the other way around though, since Dogs came out almost a decade later. It felt like there wasn’t enough humor in the script to counteract the lack of emotion and facial expressions that you’d get with a live-action film. So the whole thing just felt a little more nihilistic and removed than Anderson’s usual fare.
8. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
I’ll give it to Bill Murray that this is his best performance in an Anderson film. He’s as close to his Ghostbusters candor in this one as he is in any of them. And there’s a particular sort of viewer who might not normally be into Anderson’s work, who I would suggest this movie to for that exact reason. But as far as Anderson films in general go, it’s here and there for me.
The highlight that pushed me to rank it as high as I did is the soundtrack. Brazilian musician Seu Jorge sings an entire covers album of Bowie songs in Portuguese that will destroy you. No one ever covers “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide,” and his rendition was *insert chef’s kiss*. His classical guitar playing is intricate yet effortless, tropical yet brooding. I am in love.
Owen Wilson as Murray’s son (or maybe not son – also a drab-feeling plot line to keep circling back to) felt clumsy and odd. I didn’t buy into the romance of the movie, but the nautical theme was at least something different and was visually engaging. We also get a little glimpse of the movie-within-a-movie narrative that Anderson will eventually circle back to full-on in Asteroid City.
7. The French Dispatch
The animation of Isle of Dogs and Fantastic Mr. Fox, plus the latter’s younger target audience, both felt like bold risks to take as a director. But making a feature film of vignettes with The French Dispatch was the risk that, to me, paid off the most. While I can’t say that every single one of the shorts blew me away, perhaps that’s part of the beauty of the film, and why I ranked it high. The ones that I was into, I really loved, and I felt like they could’ve stood alone as short films (the balance of power dynamics and gender roles, plus the theme of what it means to be an artist and to consume art in the short about the incarcerated painter were golden). And the ones I didn’t like were compensated for by the cohesive tone that made them all feel like they fit together. The introduction of new characters, problems, and plot lines every few minutes also kept the pace engaging in a way that felt different from the acts or chapters that would typically mark the beats of Anderson’s features.
6. Asteroid City
This was the only one where I felt like I needed to watch it a second time to do it justice. I really enjoyed the meta-narrative of the play happening within the film, and I know that there are pieces of that component, and its interaction with the main plot, that would feel like Easter eggs in a second viewing.
While the theme of family dynamics was certainly a recycled idea, I enjoyed that Schwartzman’s crew was different enough from the Tenenbaums, or any others with that theme, that I was able to get invested in their plot lines. And throwing in some big name cast members with some of the Anderson vets like Schwartzman and Brody was a real treat. I don’t care what anyone says – Steve Carrell absolutely stole the show. Sure, Jeff Goldblum is his usual quirky self, and Tom Hanks was great too, but I just couldn’t get over Carrell trying to fit into the emotionally muted tone that Anderson so often seems to aim for, and still getting me to laugh out loud in the theater with his character’s little anecdotes. His lines were much-needed splashes of water on that little desert set.
5. The Darjeeling Limited
Between this one and Budapest, Darjeeling was the one I remembered more of from high school. I remember the setting and it being about brothers, but mostly I remember finding it odd. This go around, I definitely found it quirky, but laughed a little more and felt more inspired at the end. What I found funnier this time wasn’t necessarily one-liners that I had missed the punch lines of as a teen, but the subtle instances of situational irony that the brothers kept finding themselves in.
Wilson, Schwartzman, and Brody really hit their stride as a trio in this one. I loved how often each of their respective characters would bubble up to the surface with their little backstories. That level of depth made the script feel like it was based on a novel, but in a good way. And while I liked Anjelica Huston more in Tenenbaums, she did a good job adding some humor to the story in the eleventh hour.
The Prequel with Schwartzman and Natalie Portman, Hotel Chevalier, was fantastic. Conceptually, I loved that it could stand alone as a short film, and that Darjeeling could do the same as a feature, but that watching them in succession gave Schwartzman’s character a richer backstory that justified some of his choices in the exposition of Darjeeling (i.e. it made me see him hooking up with Amara Karan’s character on the train as less of a horn-dog move and more of an emotionally driven one).
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox
I saved this one for last, thinking that because it was a kids’ movie, it would be the cheesiest one of the lot. First off, it’s not even really a kids’ movie. Yes, it was rated PG and they made a whole deal out of using the word “cuss” as a cutesy stand-in for any actual profanity in the script. But I’d have a hard time imagining a kid under the age of 12 getting much out of this one. That being said, perhaps part of what drew me into it and pushed me to rank it far higher than I expected to, was what Anderson’s attempt to make it a kids’ movie drew out of him as a director.
There were certainly recurring themes (a family of big personalities going through a period of conflict and re-examination) and character tropes (an angsty teenage son, a father who doesn’t give said son enough attention) of Anderson’s work in the film, particularly compared to Tenenbaums. But what he gains by trying to make something palatable to a wider age demographic, and by trying to stay true to the tone and message of Roald Dahl’s book, is a warmer, far funnier endeavor than most of his other work.
I don’t think it’s ironic that the only other film of his that comes close to being this funny is, in fact, Tenenbaums. There are funny moments in Life Aquatic or Bottlerocket, but this one really strikes out with some seriously funny, subtle moments whose nuance, again, makes it feel like less of a kids’ film and more like a heart-warming one with a tone that his other films only grace.
Within the first scene of the film, the stop-motion animation was remarkably more impressive than that of Isle of Dogs. I’m sure there are numerous technical aspects to the production of these type of movies that will forever be lost on me, but I will say that the speed of the animation (i.e. the foxes running through elaborate scenery) and the details in the characters and sets was impressive to the point that I was actually surprised to read the release dates after watching both and seeing that Mr. Fox came out first.
Another interesting aspect that came out of finishing the marathon with this film in particular was that it had a scene that mirrored one in Asteroid City. The blocking and tone of the scene with the couple standing out on a balcony and having a deep conversation about their relationship toward the end of Asteroid was strikingly similar to Mr. and Mrs. Fox talking about the future of their relationship in a scene toward the end of the film.
There are moments in certain climactic scenes of Anderson’s other works that feel emotionally redemptive, but this one carries those feelings throughout and manages to do so without feeling cheesy or campy. It’s almost like if someone went and took the adult innuendo of a movie like Shrek, and made a whole film that was a less vulgar version of that. The Beach Boys and occasional Stones songs in the soundtrack also worked great. I came in with low expectations, and this one really left an impression on me.
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Colorful indeed, perhaps even the height of the Anderson aesthetic. That alone would be enough to get this one to the middle of the ranking, but the story is what brings it up to the top three. While we once again see some recycled staple actors mixed in with new blood like Ralph Fiennes, the ensemble cast on this one was really curated to deliver. I love that he didn’t go for the dysfunctional family plot, but instead managed to focus on two or three strongly defined characters, each with their own timeline. It was heartfelt, but witty, and the visuals are stunning.
2. The Royal Tenenbaums
As a child of the ‘90s, I couldn’t get past picturing Huston as Morticia Addams. She was fantastic though, and so was everyone else. Despite ranking it second overall, this one takes the cake for storytelling. It’s quirky and offbeat, and it feels like the first movie of Anderson’s OG set that not only continues with his established aesthetic, but also lays the groundwork for the plots of many of his later films (i.e. stories about dysfunctional families of needy weirdos). That said, the stacked cast of the Tenenbaum family definitely helps paint this particular batch of needy weirdos as both likeable and interesting.
Each sibling’s backstory lends to beautiful, airtight characterization. There were no dud roles. But what made me love this one so much was the intersection of their plotlines as they each try to move through their pasts under one shared roof. Gene Hackman plays the whiny, narcissistic father brilliantly. His character’s impact on his children serves as the impetus for each of their respective grudges against the world, and there’s nothing I love more than Ben Stiller parading around and yelling “what’s going on here!?” (Seriously, though – other than Zoolander, what have you seen him in where he’s not at least kind of playing that guy?). Each sibling’s childhood trauma, compounded by their newfound grievances against one another, makes for a hilarious watch. Let’s put it this way – this is the only one where I’d buy the Criterion Collection edition.
Luke Wilson’s character’s attempted suicide was the only scene in any of the eleven films that truly bothered me. Maybe it wouldn’t for the lay-viewer, but I found it pretty intense and graphic. While it served a purpose in his plot line with Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, I could’ve done with a little less gore and skipped the visuals of his wounds in the tent scene that followed the hospital visit.
Despite being my top choice, I may have the least to say about Rushmore. I think I just got a gut feeling from watching it. The soundtrack was fantastic, the acting was great, and knowing that this was only Anderson’s second outing really impressed me. The visuals and the script were both a massive leap from Bottlerocket. The whole prep school setting made it feel like Dead Poets Society, but Schwartzman’s character is coated with the edginess of Jack Black in School of Rock, and the ennui of Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys. Beyond that, I don’t really have a lot of objective ideas about what made it great. Maybe I’m just a sucker for rebellious schoolhouse dramas. Great characters with great lines, particularly Schwartzman and Murray. And the soundtrack is killer. That’s it – just go see it.