Few modern filmmakers have established an aesthetic as distinctive as Wes Anderson. Scroll through social media on any given day and you’ll see fan-created artwork imagining some movie or TV show through his unique lens. Yet the Wes Anderson directorial touch is about more than just pristine art direction featuring actors perfectly centered in the frame.
In all fairness, his films do feature some immaculately designed sets, often centering actors perfectly in the frame. Ever since his 1996 debut Bottle Rocket, Anderson has crafted one eye-popping world after another, from the New York brownstone of The Royal Tenenbaums to the luxury European resort of The Grand Budapest Hotel. With their vibrant colors and symmetrical angles, these sets almost resemble dioramas, and even the placement of the characters within them feels achingly precise. His meticulous compositions often resemble the panels of a comic book, so it’s little wonder his style translates so well to animation.
Art direction isn’t the only thing that distinguishes a Wes Anderson film. Play any isolated minute from Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, or The French Dispatch and you’ll recognize the director’s fingerprints from the droll humor, reflexive visual flourishes, and poppy needle drops. Yet what’s often overlooked is the strong emotional core lurking underneath the meticulous craftsmanship.
As Anderson’s prestige has grown, so have his ensembles. There seemingly isn’t an A-lister in Hollywood who isn’t willing to show up in one of his films, even for just a few minutes, and over the years he’s assembled an eclectic repertoire company. His status at the Academy Awards has grown as well, and he’s racked up seven career nominations across the writing, directing, producing, and animated feature categories.
Anderson is back in theaters with another all-star comedy, Asteroid City, which premiered at Cannes to stellar reviews and has lit up the specialty box office. Let’s mark the occasion by taking a look back at every Wes Anderson film, ranked worst to best.
11. Isle of Dogs (2018)
If you’re of the mind (as I am) that Wes Anderson has never directed a bad movie, it can be difficult choosing one as his “worst.” So let’s call this the “least best among greats” slot. The director’s second stop motion animated film, Isle of Dogs centers on Atari (Koyu Rankin), a young Japanese boy on a quest to find his missing dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). Spots and his fellow pups have been sent to a trash-infested island to combat an outbreak of canine flu in a fictional Japanese city. Atari travels to the island and enlists the help of a puppy pack led by the crotchety Chief (Bryan Cranston), who proves himself to be a very good boy. As was the case with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the animation is breathtaking, especially in its rendition of Trash Island and recreation of canine fur. Plus, it’s downright adorable to hear Anderson’s stock company of actors – including Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Edward Norton – voice these loveable mutts. The film earned Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score.
10. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Bill Murray is at his near-comatose best as Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-esque oceanographer whose films have lost their spark due to general apathy. When his partner, Esteban (Seymour Cassel), is eaten by a jaguar shark, Zissou decides to track the mythical beast down and kill it on camera. He’s joined on his voyage by a motley crew of eccentrics, including his long-lost son Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), and clingy first mate Klaus (Willem Dafoe). Zissou’s ship, the Belafonte, is one of Wes Anderson’s most delightful creations, an aging vessel fully equipped with a science lab, spa, and editing room, which the director shows off with a cutaway wall. There’s no shortness of whimsy in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which features stop motion fish (created by Henry Selick), acoustic David Bowie songs sung in Portuguese, and the silliest rescue mission ever committed to film.
9. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
India is one of the most vibrant and colorful countries on the planet, so it’s little wonder Wes Anderson would want to make a movie there. The Darjeeling Limited focuses on three American brothers taking a train voyage across the country to mourn the death of their father. The oldest, Francis (Owen Wilson), has planned every detail, much to the annoyance of middle child Peter (Adrien Brody) and youngest brother Jack (Jason Schwartzman). Long estranged from each other, the brothers are all suffering their own individual crises: Francis’s face is badly damaged from a motorcycle accident; Peter is afraid of impending fatherhood; and Jack is at an impasse with his girlfriend (played by Natalie Portman in the Anderson-directed short Hotel Chevalier, which works as a prologue for the film). Throughout their winding journey, the three find a connection that has long evaded them. It’s a play on many of the director’s favorite themes – loss, familial strife, loneliness – infused with his usual wit and quirky charm.
8. The French Dispatch (2021)
Wes Anderson’s first anthology film is a cinematic tribute to the written word, utilizing color, black-and-white, animation, and various aspect ratios to bring that to life. The French Dispatch is an American magazine published in the fictional French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, run by ex-pat Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray). When Howitzer dies, the magazine ceases publication, and the final issue goes to press with his obituary, a travelog called “The Cycling Reporter” (hosted by Owen Wilson), and three short stories. In “The Concrete Masterpiece,” an art critic (Tilda Swinton) gives a lecture on a homicidal prison inmate (Benicio del Toro) who paints avant garde nudes of a beautiful bailiff (Lea Seydoux); in “Revisions to a Manifesto,” a journalist (Frances McDormand) falls in love with a dashing student revolutionary (Timothee Chalamet); and in “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” a food journalist (Jeffrey Wright) gets embroiled in a kidnapping scheme when he dines with a police Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric).
7. Bottle Rocket (1996)
The legend behind the making of Bottle Rocket is almost as exciting as the film itself: novice director Wes Anderson, his co-writer and star Owen Wilson, and their co-star/Wilson’s brother Luke Wilson brought their grainy black-and-white short to the attention of James L. Brooks, who helped them secure financing for a feature film. The result was one of the most auspicious debuts of the ‘90s independent cinema boom. A trio of wannabe criminals – enthusiastic leader Dignan (Owen Wilson), his recently hospitalized friend Anthony (Luke Wilson), and their driver, Bob Mapplethorp (Robert Musgrave) – hit the road after robbing a Texas bookstore. But Dignan’s plan to live life on the run is sidetracked when Anthony falls in love with a hotel maid, Inez (Lumi Cavazos). So many of Anderson’s hallmarks are here: the vivid colors, the quirky humor, the propulsive soundtrack. Among its most prominent fans is Martin Scorsese, who included it on his list of the 10 best films of the 1990s on “Roger Ebert and the Movies.”
6. Asteroid City (2023)
Wes Anderson’s obsession with layered narratives reaches its apex with Asteroid City, a nesting doll film within a play within a TV special. The year is 1955, and the fictional desert town of Asteroid City is hosting a Junior Stargazer convention. Among the visitors is Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer who hasn’t yet told his children that their mother has died. Some truly out-of-this-world events force the tourists to shelter in place, and Augie falls in love with movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), who’s staying in the hotel room across from him. This is all the brainchild of playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), whose work is being mounted on a live television production hosted by gravelly-voiced Bryan Cranston. Schwartzman and Johansson have dual roles as the actors playing their characters, who have their own offscreen dilemmas. As it folds increasingly in on itself, Asteroid City becomes a meditation on why we’re drawn to storytelling in the first place, and the void it fills in our lives.
5. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Wes Anderson’s films have always had a storybook quality to them, so it’s little wonder he’d excel at what is essentially a children’s fantasy. Although sprung from his imagination, Moonrise Kingdom almost feels as though it were adapted from a YA bestseller, with the world of grown ups viewed through the eyes of burgeoning adolescents. (Anderson earned an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay, co-written with Roman Coppola.) Set in 1965 on the fictional New England island of New Penzance, it’s a love story about a pair of eccentric 12-year-olds – orphaned Khaki scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and moody bookworm Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) – who meet one summer and decide to run away together the following year. The two make a home in the woods, and the town’s adults – including Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Suzy’s parents, Edward Norton as Sam’s Scout Master, and Bruce Willis as the island’s Police Captain – form a ragtag search party.
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
You could hardly ask for a better marriage of director and subject material than Wes Anderson and Fantastic Mr. Fox. In adapting Roald Dahl’s children’s classic into a stop motion animated film, Anderson filtered the book’s iconic illustrations (courtesy of Quentin Blake) through his own unique lens. His script, co-written with Noah Baumbach, also dramatically expands the story to include his favorite theme – family problems – and infuses it with his signature ironic wit. George Clooney voices Mr. Fox, who puts his wife (Meryl Streep), his son (Jason Schwartzman), and their fellow animals at risk by stealing chickens and cider from farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. The all-star voice cast (including Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Owen Wilson) bring these miniature creatures to life, while the intricate production design and costumes make the case for why animated films should be considered for Oscar nominations in those categories. (It ended up with two bids – Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score.)
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Anderson is at his most visually inventive with The Grand Budapest Hotel, pushing the boundaries of color, design, and even aspect ratios. It’s a comedy of epic proportions, spanning decades and employing a massive ensemble. Ralph Fiennes is front and center as Monsieur Gustav H., lead concierge at the titular luxury hotel that hosts the creme de la creme of 1930s Europe. Gustav ensures the guests have all of their needs met… including in the bedroom. When an elderly dowager (Tilda Swinton) dies and leaves him a small fortune, authorities suspect foul play. It’s up to Gustav’s protege, the lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), to clear his boss’s name. As per usual with Anderson, there’s a tinge of melancholy lurking underneath the farce, as he mourns the loss of elegance that would befall Europe with the rise of fascism. The film reaped nine Oscar nominations, including three for Anderson (picture, director, and original screenplay) and four wins (art direction, costumes, score, and makeup and hairstyling).
2. Rushmore (1998)
If you didn’t know a Max Fischer in high school, chances are you were one. In Rushmore, Jason Schwartzman delivers a star-making turn as the world’s most precocious teenager, a suit-and-tie clad scholarship student at the prestigious Rushmore Academy. Max spearheads all of the school’s extra-curricular activities, from the beekeeper’s society to the fencing club, even directing school plays adapted from R-rated movies like Serpico. Yet his grades don’t match his intelligence, and he’s in danger of getting expelled by Headmaster Guggenheim (Brian Cox). Rather than hitting the books, Max sets his sights on wooing newly-arrived first grade teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). He seeks help from millionaire industrialist Herman Blume (Bill Murray), only to wage war on his middle-aged mentor when he begins an affair with the teacher. Wes Anderson’s distinctive style had already solidified with his sophomore feature, which remains one of the sharpest, funniest, and most creatively daring films of his career.
1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
When it comes to selecting the best title in a director’s filmography, sometimes the obvious choice is the correct one. That’s certainly the case with Wes Anderson and The Royal Tenenbaums, the most nakedly emotional film he’s ever made. Gene Hackman stars as Royal Tenenbaum, the rascally, long-estranged patriarch of a once great family of geniuses. His children – financial whiz Chas (Ben Stiller), playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and tennis star Richie (Luke Wilson) – have all bottomed out, and his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), is looking to marry her accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover). Flat broke and kicked out of his hotel, Royal decides to patch things up with his family, who don’t exactly want him back. Anderson and Owen Wilson’s Oscar nominated screenplay populates the film’s quirky world with a host of supporting players straight out of a Preston Sturges comedy, including Wilson as the Tenenbaum’s drug-addict neighbor Eli Cash and Bill Murray as Margot’s clinically depressed neurologist husband Raleigh St. Clair. And, of course, the family’s multi-storied home is breathtakingly designed. It all adds up to a funny, quirky, and surprisingly moving film, one that firmly placed its director in the upper echelon of moviemakers.