With ”The French Dispatch“ hitting theaters, here’s a look at his oeuvre to date
“Rushmore,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (Touchstone Pictures; Twentieth Century Fox)
Ranking the films of Wes Anderson might be a fool’s errand because, in some respects, his films are all closely related. He makes light comedies about melancholy characters, creating exceptionally detailed productions with, more often than not, incredibly breezy plots. Anderson’s storytelling sensibilities have come to practically define the word “quirky,” and fans of the filmmaker will find something to appreciate about all of his movies. But some are more entertaining than others, some are more dramatically satisfying, and a select few feel truly magical. With that in mind, let’s rank them from worst to best:
10. The Darjeeling Limited (2007) Some might argue that Anderson has never made a “bad” movie, but even so, “The Darjeeling Limited” comes close. Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody star as estranged brothers who reunite for a spiritual journey in India, but of course they’re self-absorbed narcissists who bring chaos wherever they go. There are moments of real beauty in this movie — particular a bravura panning shot of every character in their own personalized train car, whether or not they’re actually on the train — but the protagonists are the last people you’d ever want to be seated next to on a long trip, so watching them in a movie isn’t much fun either.
9. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) Tries to do for marine biologists what “Raiders of the Lost Ark” did for archaeologists. Bill Murray stars as the title character, a scientist and documentary filmmaker whose latest voyage involves high-seas heists, deadly pirates, and all manner of fanciful undersea creatures, brought to life via stop-motion animation. It’s an endearing adventure when it focuses on the adventure, but the characters are mostly emotionally distant jerks who hide behind artifice, and the movie spends most of its time on their petty and largely insignificant personal dramas. Willem Dafoe brings this movie to life, however, as Zissou’s endearingly needy first mate.
8. Isle of Dogs (2018) With time, “Isle of Dogs” might turn out to be Wes Anderson’s finest film. For now, it’s certainly his most imaginative. It’s a stop-motion animated adventure about a near future in which all dogs have been banished to a trash-strewn island, where a pack of mangy mutts help a brave young boy find his pet. Their path is filled with adventure, whimsical asides, political conspiracies, robots, you name it. It’s as fun and as fanciful an adventure as anyone could hope for, with genuinely thoughtful subtexts about xenophobia, propaganda, racism, and plenty of other lofty subjects that Anderson rarely tackles.
7. The French Dispatch (2021) Anderson’s ode to great literary magazines may be directly inspired by “The New Yorker” but it takes on none of the responsibilities of a true story. Instead, Anderson merely inserts (and not for the first time) his own stories into his idea of a vaunted literary canon. The problem is that these stories, though whimsical and inventive, are, to a one, extraordinarily trifling. “The French Dispatch” is an enjoyable indulgence, a stylishly mottled ball of fluff.
6. Bottle Rocket (1996) Wes Anderson’s first feature film, like pretty much all of his movies, is about starry-eyed dreamers desperately trying to rework the world into something that resembles their fantastical worldview. This time, however, it’s played for comic tragedy. Luke Wilson stars as a mild-mannered stooge whose best friend (played by Owen Wilson) dreams of becoming a master criminal. They embark on a career in very modest larceny, but although it may be entertaining for the audience, it brings them no happiness. There’s a subtle melancholy to “Bottle Rocket,” an unmistakable air of self-doubt that makes it very sweet and very relatable.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Might be Anderson’s most celebrated film, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an imaginative story about a hotel concierge who inherits a fortune and then gets framed for murder, which sends the story into — as we have come to expect from this filmmaker — unexpected directions. Every single character is a scene-stealer, even if they only have a few lines of dialogue, and Ralph Fiennes absolutely commands the screen in an all-time classic comic performance. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a superb comedy, but it still lacks the emotional heft of Anderson’s greatest work.
4. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) Anderson’s oddball sensibilities took on a richer, more literary quality in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the story of a large family of geniuses who, later in life, collapse into a disappointing puddle of mediocrity. Gene Hackman stars as the estranged patriarch who returns home and tries to bring his family together with the news that he is dying. Unfortunately, he’s still a selfish sybarite who ruined everyone’s lives, so it’s not easy. The stink of failure is everywhere in “Tenenbaums” — but it’s a powerful stink, not unlike a fancy cheese, and it helps all these brilliant yet pathetic characters make a distinct and lasting impression.
3. Rushmore (1998) Another striking piece of self-indictment, “Rushmore” stars Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer, an overachieving student who gets terrible grades but otherwise can accomplish seemingly anything. He befriends a miserable millionaire played by Bill Murray, and together they sabotage each other, and themselves, as they woo a remarkable teacher played by Olivia Williams. “Rushmore” is an amusing film with an undeniably dark streak. The creativity that so often typifies Anderson’s characters becomes destructive and reveals unpleasant aspects of their personalities. But Anderson obviously has hope for these characters, and he really, really, loves staging Max’s absurdly elaborate high school plays.
2. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) Two kids fall in love and run away together in “Moonrise Kingdom,” a deceptively simple set-up for a remarkably rich motion picture. Once again, Anderson populates his film with characters who remake the world around them, but we see how little pleasure it actually brings them, and how far they are willing to go to force others to conform to those expectations. That this takes the form of “Khaki Scouts” pursuing runaway dreamers with all the zeal of Tommy Lee Jones in “The Fugitive” transforms the story’s tragedy into thoroughly charming imagery. Anderson has never made a more emotionally rich movie.
1. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Anderson has spent the majority of his career treating the art of filmmaking like the art of making elaborate dioramas, so it only makes sense that he’d fully blossom as a director in the medium of stop-motion animation. In his ingenious adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book, a fox (voiced by George Clooney) undergoes a midlife crisis and risks the security of his family to resume his old career as a chicken thief. It explodes in his face and nearly dooms every animal in the forest. Everything in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is fantastically particular, every detail is welcoming and funny, and all of it is in service of a satisfying and refreshingly zen story about finding a comfortable compromise between being an individual, and being part of a family and community. It’s mature, giddily amusing, exciting cinema.
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