Wes Anderson is at his own league of the unmatchable and prodigious levels of creativity, one that is so subtle yet so simple. Having drawn from his own life experiences and real people he knows, Anderson produces every film from a very personal view that makes his movies that much more meaningful. What has been said by great directors time and time again is to make movies for yourself, not for others, which is something Anderson has mentioned in many interviews. Each of Anderson’s films goes through a similar narrative arc, wherein comedy is essential but enough room is left for some very real emotions to take place down the road. This alone is not what makes his style unique; it is the way that he intricately weaves all the existing themes together.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Visually stunning, exceptionally well-acted, beautifully written, and masterfully executed, The Grand Budapest Hotel may well be Anderson’s crown achievement. A glorious hotel in the mountains is the location of many exciting events over the years, this is the story from the perspective of the now-owner who was once a hardworking lobby boy mentored by the silk-tongued concierge. Though the performances have already been mentioned, Ralph Fiennes is, by far, the most incredible aspect of this film as he gives no less than 100% during every moment of screen-time. Displayed on a miniature set that was carefully handcrafted, it makes for a gorgeous frame to go along with this treasure of film history.
- The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
Anderson’s sensibility and aesthetic are sufficiently distinctive that he doesn’t need to strain for extra quirkiness, but this slacker underwater romps piles on the eccentricities and affectations to the point of, well, soggy saturation it needs every ounce of Bill Murray’s laconically dry onscreen energy to balance things out. It’s not without charm as a simultaneous parody of, and homage to, the work of famed French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, and you can’t hate any film that gives us Cate Blanchett as a plummy English journalist named Winslet, but it’s a film at once busy and aimless, packed with more whimsy than wit.
- Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
With an entirely wholesome main plot that stays consistent with his theme of adventure, Moonrise Kingdom is one of his later live-action films where he really starts to get his formula down. On the island of New Penzance in 1965, there is a community that lives an abnormal, campy life, where two kids have fallen in love and decide they will run away together. As stated by Anderson in an interview with Tribute, this story is based on remembering what it was like to suddenly fall in love as a young boy and all the impulses he didn’t act on. The young character played wonderfully by Jared Gilman is much more courageous and bold than he was apparently, as the story plays out in a dreamlike fashion.
- The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
There’s a lot to like in The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson’s modestly-scaled rebound from the commercial and critical failure of 2004’s The Life Aquatic. There’s the delightful titular train, three great performances by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman as the estranged brothers at the movie’s center, and a mid-film flashback that ranks among Anderson’s most visceral gut-punches. But there’s also a lot to dislike, not least the film’s exoticized treatment of India and its people (and its the debatable level of self-awareness about this), along with some of Anderson’s least elegant tonal shifts and symbolism. (The brothers are toting their late father’s old luggage through India because they’re still carrying the emotional baggage of his death, you see!) And ultimately, Darjeeling can’t help but feel transitional and minor compared to the more coherent and controlled works that came before and after it; like his characters, Anderson seems to be finding himself again through the film.
- Rushmore (1998)
If one of the major criticisms against Wes Anderson’s filmography is that it’s insufferably smug, ‘Rushmore’ was him at least attempting to acknowledge it and make fun of it in the process. Jason Schwartzmann’s desperately reaching character Max Fischer is utterly at odds with the world around him – a common theme with Anderson’s work. The heightened sense of reality is checked by his own modest upbringing – the scenes with Schwartzmann’s on-screen father, played by the great Seymour Cassel, are by far some of the most touching in Anderson’s career. While it might not be as layered as his future work, it’s got more than enough charm and humor to keep it going. It’s a tricky thing to balance vulnerability and annoying smugness in central characters – but here, it works beautifully.
- Bottle Rocket (1996)
When Anderson made his feature directorial debut back in 1996, he did so with this crime-comedy caper about three friends planning a series of heists in the absence of any other direction in their lives. Based on a short film of the same name that he helmed two years prior, and co-written with Owen Wilson, who also stars, Bottle Rocket establishes many of the filmmaker’s trademarks from the outset — including his penchant for witty interactions, as well as his love of dressing his characters in coordinated outfits. Owen Wilson plays Dignan, the driving force; however, as his recently voluntarily institutionalized best friend Anthony, this is Luke Wilson’s time to shine. A third of Wilson, their elder brother Andrew, also pops up, because of course, he does.
- The French Dispatch (2021)
A year-long, pandemic-caused delay raised expectations for Anderson’s faux-Gallic mosaic to an extent it would always be hard to live up to. Even by the director’s standards, it’s a trifle, with its separate mini-narratives — all framed as features in the eponymous American-expat newspaper — all little more than shaggy-dog jokes. For some, it adds up to an elegiac tribute to a bygone age of journalism; to others (this writer included) it adds up to not very much at all. Still, its first (and best) segment, centered on Benicio Del Toro as an eccentric, imprisoned artist, is genuinely droll, while its design elements are frou-frou to the max.
- Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Both Anderson’s first animated effort and his first (and, to date, only) literary adaptation, and it wasn’t an obvious fit for him: quite aside from being a family film, the jagged, perverse humor of the late Roald Dahl, even in one of his more innocuous children’s books, exists in a very different dimension from the gentler zaniness of Westworld. Dahl’s tone is tricky to nail — even a titan like Steven Spielberg was defeated by it — but Anderson hit on a happy, jaunty compromise here, his own obsessive-compulsive style loosened by the scrappy, tactile quality of stop-motion animation. George Clooney’s lickety-split voice work, meanwhile, was the ideal accompaniment.
- The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Anderson’s first film to reach for “major” status mostly hit the mark, thanks in large part to a performance of wry gravitas and winking sadness by Gene Hackman that we now tend to think of as the retired veteran’s screen swansong. (Let’s not bother to remember “Welcome to Mooseport.”) Anderson loves a dense, characterful ensemble — and he certainly built one here — but he rarely lets one actor set the tone as much as Hackman does in this bittersweet, Salinger-inspired dysfunctional family saga: it has a lingering, elegiac sense of melancholy to it that no amount of gleefully tacky 1970s costume design can take away.
- Isle of Dogs (2018)
Anderson’s second foray into animation may well be his flat-out weirdest film to date. A dystopian every-dog-has-his-day adventure in which a band of abandoned mutts team up to subvert a corrupt Japanese dictatorship, it sounds frenetic in synopsis form, but turns out to be a cool, sparse hangout movie, the languid pace of which gives viewers more time to appreciate the delirious intricacy of its world-building, visual in-jokes and stark sonic experimentation of Alexandre Desplat’s score. The film walks a fine line between appreciating and appropriating Japanese culture that has understandably earned it some detractors, but it’s a curiously hypnotic experience.