Wesley Wales Anderson, has bestowed on us nine feature films since the mid ’90s, as well as a smattering of shorts and adverts – all delightful to fans, all incredibly irritating to his detractors. Most people will know a Wes Anderson film from the soundtracks, whip pans, symmetrical shots and meticulous miniatures, but true fans will also be look out for the sibling rivalries, melancholia and crime caper plots.
With the news that Anderson will shoot his tenth movie in Angoulême, south west France in 2019, it seemed only fitting to revisit his past creations, including this March’s Isle of Dogs – out now to watch on demand. As most of us can agree, Wes has never made a bad film, so this isn’t so much a worst-to-best ranking as a superb-to-really-special ranking.
9) Bottle Rocket (1996)
What’s it about? Wes Anderson’s first film started life as a 20 minute black and white short, which is on YouTube and well worth a watch itself. He collaborated with fellow Texans, Owen and Luke Wilson, who play friends Dignan and Anthony trying their damndest to get mixed up in local crime º and the result sees the director’s well-documented quirks beginning to bloom.
It’s by far the least stylised thing he’s made, but you’ll recognise a few camera techniques and tricks. The usual Wes tropes – a crazily detailed plan going awry; double crossing; hotels/motels; the exploration of mental health, a fairly throwaway love interest and sibling-like relationships – are all also present and correct. Best enjoyed if you sort of half-forget it’s a Wes Anderson movie.
Best moment: The scenes that make up the original short show Dignan and Anthony robbing a suburban house of all its jewellery and valuables, only for the reveal that it’s actually Anthony’s parent’s house and his mother’s earrings. Not only does the escapade make it painfully clear that these two are complete amateurs, but it perfectly sets up a final act twist.
8) The Darjeeling Limited + Hotel Chevalier (2007)
What’s it about? Sometimes referred to as Wes Anderson’s most indulgent work, The Darjeeling Limited is his love letter to the films of Indian director Satyajit Ray. It follows three eternally squabbling brothers – Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody – who, a year after their father dies, go on a train journey through India as a form of enforced bonding
The arrested development dynamic of the three leads is what keeps the film just about on track (“I love you too, but I’m going to mace you in the face”) and it works best as an art nerd’s hang-out movie. Whether this one hits you depends very much on whether you like seeing slow-mo shots of dapper but dilapidated gents throwing custom Louis Vuitton trunks off the back of a moving train while having emotional epiphanies. We do.
Best moment: Hotel Chevalier, the short designed to play before The Darjeeling Limited and which ties into the main story, can stand alone as a study into privileged ennui and messy break-ups and toasted cheese sandwiches. Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman snipe and smooch, accompanied by one perfect pop moment and a sight gag for anyone who’s ever visited Paris. You’ll come out of it dreaming of one day moping about in a fancy hotel room. If only Wes Anderson directed your life, hey?
7) Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
What’s it about? It’s actually pretty risky for a director known for his idiosyncratic world-building to take on a Roald Dahl classic like Fantastic Mr Fox, but the gamble paid off. Somehow, FMF elegantly blends the two influences to give us a cheeky, stop-start stop motion animation about the war between crafty Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean.
Between this and Isle of Dogs, it’s clear that Wes’ beautiful brain goes in fresh directions when it comes to animation versus live action; the puppets and sets have a certain quality about them, so that you always know whose world you’re in. Also: shout out to Jarvis Cocker’s “diddle-dee, duddle-da” musical cameo in Petey’s Song.
Best moment: There are a lot of offbeat animals to get to know in Fantastic Mr Fox, but we’ve got a soft spot for Mr. Fox’s shortie son Ash (Jason Schwartzman again). He’s overshadowed by his cousin Kristofferson, who’s annoyingly talented at everything – but when Kristofferson needs rescuing, it’s up to little Ash, wearing a cape and a balaclava made out of a flapping sock, to “fit down there. You want to know why? Because I’m little.”
6) Isle of Dogs (2018)
What’s it about? What ever happened to man’s best friend? The central relationships in this obsessively crafted, stop-motion animation hybrid, set in fictional Japanese city Megasaki “twenty years in the future”, are between a twelve year old boy pilot and a couple of dogs. The weird beauty of Trash Island would have hipsters Instagramming multi-coloured bottle caves for days; it’s nice to see Wes having fun with language, split-screen and dog puns. Plus, new additions to the director’s usual troupe – Greta Gerwig! Frances McDormand! – go down very well indeed.
Critics are divided over whether Anderson sensitively or insultingly portrays Japanese culture here. There are Japanese collaborators on the credits –writing, acting and elsewhere – plus a good portion of dialogue is in Japanese, with only part translations. Make up your own mind: either way, it’s a feat of animation worthy of your marvel.
Best moment: If it’s purely precise ‘n’ particular sequences you’re after, look no further than the mesmerising, overhead sushi prep scene in Isle of Dogs. The plot requires a scientist to be poisoned – in this case via wasabi poison – but we reckon Wes was looking for any excuse to give Japanese cuisine his signature montage treatment, as he did to similar effect with pastries in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
5) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
What’s it about?: You know the one. Bill Murray plays at Jacques Cousteau, his Team Zissou crewmates in red hats and retro threads, hunting for the Jaguar Shark that killed one of the team, Esteban, like a loopy Captain Ahab. On board and on the seas, there’s also a pompous rival oceanographer (Jeff Goldblum), a pregnant journalist Jane (Cate Blanchett) and Steve’s estranged but always fabulous partner Eleanor (Angelica Huston).
Wes Anderson films tend to tap out at about the 1 hour 40 minute mark but Steve Zissou is given just about two hours to find the Shark and like our sardonic explorer, it’s a little flabby around the middle. The Life Aquatic deals more skilfully in majestic moments than human drama, though, and it’s these that will stick with you.
Best moment: Steve Zissou walking the length of the Belafonte, all tricked out in party lights, to contemplate the news that he has a son Ned (Owen Wilson), who is also on the boat and wants to join his crew, while Seu Jorge’s cover of David Bowie’s Life on Mars plays on.
4) Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
What’s it about? Years after Rushmore, Wes returned to high school with this tale of Sam and Suzy, two kooky sweethearts who run away together, causing havoc among their effed-up parents, foster parents and scout leaders. On the surface, it’s all elaborate bird costumes, scissor violence, camping jokes and Tilda Swinton referring to herself as ‘Social Services’. But Moonrise Kingdom spends a lot of time looking at how sad, confused adults can both abandon and come to the rescue of sad, confused teens. Plus, Edward Norton’s adorable as Scout Master Ward, and the treehouse game here is seriously strong.
Best moment: Chances are you’ve seen Sam (Jared Gilman) showing off his sweet moves to Françoise Hardy’s ‘Le Temps de l’Amour’ as it plays on a beachside record player. And look, that’s magic right there. But in this scene, Sam also channels The Darjeeling Limited’s Jack – after Suzy romanticises the orphans in her books to the orphan in front of her, he’s all like, “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
3) The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
What’s it about?: The movie that turned Wes Anderson movies into event movies – and nabbed him his first Best Director Oscar nomination – The Grand Budapest Hotel expands the definition of family to include mid-century hotel staff in fictional Zubrowka. The stacked cast is a who’s-who of Wes regulars, but it’s Ralph Fiennes (doing funny as concierge M. Gustave) who steals every scene he’s in.
Grand Budapest’s story within a story framing gives us wistful-squared, along with the usual escape plot, secret lovers and family feuds. These are sculpted into a film ostensibly about a dead heiress and a very valuable painting. There’s also a hell of a lot of pale pink and Alexandre Desplat’s distinctive score has already had an influence on indie movie soundtracks. This is Wes at his most over-the-top and accessible – somehow simultaneously.
Best moment: The Society of The Crossed Keys montage gives us both a barrage of killer cameo concierges (Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Waris Ahluwalia) and a series of master-apprentice, father-son style micro interactions to complement the main M. Gustave and Zero buddy pairing. The running “take over” joke is pure Wes – silly, immaculately styled and yet still central to the heart of the movie.
2) Rushmore (1998)
What’s it about? Geeky growing pains with an over-achieving twist, Rushmore takes high school precociousness to new extremes. If you’ve gone back to Bottle Rocket expecting more fully formed Wes, direct your attentions instead here – to the extra-curricular clubs, stage plays and attempts to save Latin of one Max Fischer, played by a very young Jason Schwartzman.
His frustrations are by turns familiar to most teens and too ridiculous to question, set of course to classic- and indie-rock songs. Max’s newfound friend, depressed industrialist Herman Blume (Bill Murray), acts just as much of a child when it comes to girls and the love triangle at the centre works in a way Wes doesn’t always nail (see also: our number one pick). The script is so charming and quippy that it’s not hard to see why this is still many fans’ favourite of the bunch.
Best moment: Any point where Max is being especially petulant sings, but our go-to is Rushmore’s restaurant scene. Max has invited his mate Herman and teacher/crush Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) to dinner to celebrate one of his productions, and Miss Cross makes the mistake of bringing her boyfriend, a doctor played by Luke Wilson. Max obviously gets drunk off one drink, insults Dr. Flynn’s “nurse’s uniform” and then when he’s corrected that they’re OR scrubs, retorts “O R they?” In that moment, Max is all smart-ass teenagers.
1) The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
What’s it about?: This is widely seen as Wes’ best film – and, well, sorry to be basic, but we just so happen to agree. The Royal Tenenbaums, right down to its titular anti-hero dad, is just too easy to love. With a wry script co-written with Owen Wilson, one of the greatest ensemble casts of all time and set in a gloriously nostalgic, shabby chic New York City, it’s a story of a family of geniuses who just can’t get it together.
Tenenbaums has got everything: romance, redemption and Ben Stiller in a red tracksuit, not to mention Gwyneth Paltrow making up for about 50% of the rest of her output in one iconic, cigarette-smoking, bath-loving character. Sure, it’s endlessly quotable, both verbally and visually – have you seen that colour palette – but it’s the pain and sweetness at the centre that will keep you revisiting this 21st century classic.
Best moment: No, it’s not Margot stepping off the Green Line Bus in a slow-mo reunion, or friend of the family Eli Cash crashing his car into 111 Archer Avenue with his face painted. This is a film about dysfunction and expectation and belonging. It’s Eli (Owen Wilson), in a moment of drug-fuelled desperation, turning to patriarch Royal (Gene Hackman) and admitting, “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, you know”, to which the exiled head of the family replies, “Me too, me too.”