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OPINION: Ranking Wes Anderson’s Filmography

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

By Haydn Elmore | NOvember 1, 2021

There is no doubt that Wes Anderson is one of the most creative and unique filmmakers working today. Over the years, he has evolved in his directorial style, offering new approaches and an over-the-top quirky tone in his films.

With the release of his new film “The French Dispatch”, let’s dive into Wes’ filmography and rank them from worst to best.

#9: “Bottle Rocket”

Kicking off the list is Wes Anderson’s directorial debut, released in 1996. The film is about a man named Anthony (played by Luke Wilson) who was released from a mental hospital after a nervous breakdown. He joins his friend Dignan (played by Owen Willson) to take part in an unspecified crime scheme that involves his former boss.

As typical with most directorial debuts, there are some rough edges in terms of getting his visual style off the ground. Though his distinct style, including tons of slow motion moments, pierce symmetry, vibrant color palettes, great musical choices, and distinct story structure is present in certain scenes, there are some moments where it either falls short or does not work at all. The story points that do not land, mainly certain character choices and plot threads that are played out, put this film at the bottom of the list. The film’s great cast, fun and unique style, clever sense of humor, and simplistic charm still make this a very enjoyable and promising start in his career.

#8: “The Darjeeling Limited”

Released in 2007, the film follows 3 American brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) who learn how to love and respect each other again both independently and as brothers, as they start to travel on a train voyage across India.

Despite being the 4th film he directed, “The Darjeeling Limited” shows how Anderson slowly but surely progressed his visual style. When the film needs to have the slow-motion moments, it allows us to get into the deep emotions the characters may be feeling. The color palette is filled with bright yellows and sharp blues, contrasting to the crazy and wilder moments of the film. The camera work is tight and lined with symmetry, giving you a wide scope of the excellent set pieces and the smaller scale perspectives of the characters. There are emotionally moving moments where we see the characters connecting with one another while dealing with an uneven train ride. There are some elements that do not strike the landing, mainly when the film relies a little more on the style to drive the story instead of the substance at certain scenes. When the film is trying to have a quieter moment, the slow motion and bright colors come in and try to either lighten the mood or be more poetic than it needs to be. This can create slow pacing and a lack of energy within the story structure. However, it is still a great film to watch, thanks to the chemistry of its cast, sharp humor, beautiful cinematography, and the deep, personal story rooted within it all.

#7: “Isle of Dogs”

Released in 2018, the film follows a group of outcast dogs banished to an island embarking on an epic journey to get a 12 year old boy to find his lost pet.

Wes Anderson’s second attempt at the stop motion animation world is a delightful adventure. The film is stylistically and substantively rich in detail. The stop motion animation is stunning, providing a variety of life and personality when it comes to the designs of the characters. The dogs themselves are dirty, scruffy, and messy, while the humans have a hyper-cartoon look. The landscape of Japan is glamorous and looks perfect in contrast to how disgusting and ugly Trash Island (the island the dogs in the film are \banished to) looks. Anderson utilizes the symmetry and camera movements of his previous works to their full effect here, no matter if it is a scene with high stake action and the animation follows at a fast rate, or if a scene is slowing down and the visual movement carries through. Even on a story and character level, it provides a lot more than one might expect. It is more violent than your typical Wes Anderson movie, including multiple scenes where the dogs are ruthless, and using swear words like “son of a b.” It also carries heartfelt and intimate moments, such as the relationship between Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston) and the young boy, Arati.

During the first 30 mins, the film is slow and does not get to the plot right away which affects the movement of the animation. The overall filmmaking is still-like instead of moving at a brisk yet engaging pace as he does with his other films--not everything in terms of the character work, as a lot of them are not as fleshed out as others. However, once the film kick starts its journey, it never stops moving and leaves you completely satisfied by the end.

#6: “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”

Released in 2004, an oceanographer named Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is joined by a group of friends as they embark on an adventure in the depths of the seas to discover more about Zissou’s past.

“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is a possible contender for the most underrated film in Wes Anderson’s filmography. Even though this film has gained a cult following over the years, it does not get enough attention as it should. This is one of his best works to date. His signature style is intact with this film based on the pop of colors (there are blues and oranges to reflect the marine environment), its detailed use of symmetry that allows the set pieces and characters to flow simultaneously with each other, and the unique costume design mirroring the character’s personalities. Despite all that, this is the most depressing and bleakest of his filmography. This is partly due to the main character, Steve Zissou, who is flawed and broken to the core. Bill Murray makes his character entertaining and compelling because of how he plays Zissou as optimistic while also mysterious and broken on the inside. Though the stellar supporting cast and Anderson’s creative use of film direction and set design help make this another worthwhile adventure.

#5: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Released in 2014, the film tells the story of the owner of a famous European hotel and his trusty employee on the run, as they are accused of stealing a priceless European painting and the shenanigans that go along with it.

This is Wes Anderson’s magnum opus. Now some might say, “Hey. How could this be his magnum opus if it’s not number 1?” The film falls short on tightening the story and directing in comparison to the four other films. While there might be four other films that utilized the quirky and unique directorial style, none pulled off the heart of its characters and themes better and more effectively than “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” It is the culmination of everything he has built towards as a filmmaker up to this point in his career and the film that best showcases who he is as a director. It paid off beautifully, and got the attention it deserves in terms of award circles including four Oscars wins, and a Golden Globe win for Best Picture: Comedy or Musical. The praise is well deserved. It is visually stunning, providing a variety of different aspect ratios to reflect the different time periods of the film. At one point, it can be at a 4:3 aspect ratio, but other times it can be cut to a 16:9 aspect ratio. (Quick history lesson for non-film buffs: Aspect ratio is the ratio of an image’s width to its height.) A variety of bright purple and pink colors give a classical, upper class feel to it. The large scale of it all gives the cinematography an advantage to capture every movement, every set piece, and every character moment in typical Wes Anderson fashion. On top of that, it is tightly directed, extremely funny, wildly engaging, and has phenomenal acting (Ralph Finnes is the standout from the cast). It is an all-around excellent film that would be a great choice for anyone who wants to get into Anderson’s films and find out what his quirky yet unique style is like.

#4: “Rushmore”

Released in 1998, the film is about a young, scrappy teen (Jason Schwartzman) who has a crush on his teacher, and learns that his friend (Bill Murray) is also fighting for the same teacher.

Coming off his debut “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore” is the film that put Wes Anderson on the map as a promising filmmaker of the 21st century. Anderson took the lessons he learned from “Bottle Rocket” and applied them while improving his directorial style in unique ways. The film allows for advantages within the filmmaking department, with Director of Photography Robert D. Yeoman offering a lot of zoom-in close ups and fast paced camera movement to get us into the head spaces of the characters at any given moment. Its symmetric shots puts the characters and their locations front and center; and, has muted yet vibrant colors to keep a level of realism into the story while also experimenting to get the tone and feel of what some of his later features would look like. It provides a melancholy yet captive approach to its story by offering a deeper layered perspective to its themes of growing up and characters coming to terms with the situations that affect their arcs. This provides a great balance between comedy and heart and is aided by an excellent chemistry between Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray. It is a great step-up that for sure continues to rise in his career.

#3: “The Royal Tenenbaums”

Released in 2001, this story is about a broken and dysfunctional family dealing with problems both internally and externally affecting their relationship.

If his last two films were not enough to get into the style of Wes Anderson, then “The Royal Tenenbaums'' was the film that brought that style into its full inception. Everything you come to expect in a Wes Anderson film is presented here. The film is filled with terrific performances from its ensemble cast, the highlights being Gene Hackman as the father of the Tenebaum family and Luke Willson as Richie Tenebaum. It also has an amazing visual style that utilizes zoom-ins and slow motion shots, vibrant color palettes with bright reds, oranges, and pinks and a perfect symmetric movement that has the viewer’s eyes locked to the screen with the way the characters and cinematography are in sync with each other. It also has a great soundtrack including a cover of “Hey Jude” by the Beatles and a musical cue that is ripped from “A Charlie Brown Chirstmas” of all things. The sharp screenplay provides good laughs, character depth, and thematic exploration of family relationships, dealing with self pity, and coming to terms with your own flaws while trying to be a better person to boot. All of it provides a hilarious and deeply moving experience. This marks not only one of the best films of the 2000s, but a game changer in Anderson’s filmography.

#2: “Fantastic Mr. Fox”

Released in 2009 and based on the book of the same name by Roald Dahl, the film follows a fox who plans a massive heist around robbing three farmers. Once that plan backfires and the farmers set out for revenge, Mr. Fox has to do everything he can to protect his family.

When it comes to Anderon’s first attempt in the realm of stop motion animation, this film was a knock out of the park. He brings out his iconic approach to storytelling and filmmaking and uses the medium of animation to its full extent. With vibrant warmth and fall-like colors, and a clever character design that gives a lot of personality, the animals walk a fine line between cartoony expressions and detailed realness: the fur, texture, and graceful movement of how the animation plays into every scene. It provides depth, interest, and richness in terms of its simple yet interesting story, compelling and likable characters, and themes on honesty and stepping out of your comfort zone, making it a worthwhile experience for all ages to watch and enjoy. It is creative, unique, funny, and heartfelt. It truly is, for the lack of a better term, fantastic.

#1: “Moonrise Kingdom”

Released in 2012, the film is about two young people falling in love, going on an adventure, and exploring the meaning of life at a young age.

There is an old saying that, “sometimes the most simple is the most effective”. That term can best describe “Moonrise Kingdom” and why it is the best film in Anderson’s filmography. It is a simple story about two preteens exploring the meaning of being young through the people they encounter while they explore their inner selves. Through the brilliant execution of its sharp writing that provides depth and charm to its characters and themes, the film provides heart and humor. Charming directing that provides so much of his trademark style of wide camera shots, uses of bright blues and yellows that capture the nostalgic memories of being young and in love, unique musical score by Alexandre Desplat, the symmetric camera movements with slow motion shots telling the story, and diving into the characters emotions via visuals. With excellent performances from the cast (especially from Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, and Bruce Willis being the highlights) and themes on growing up, “Moonrise Kingdom” is able to become something truly special that speaks to the inner child in all of us. It is indeed his masterpiece.

It will be interesting to see where “The French Dispatch” will be ranked amongst his filmography. If there’s one thing for sure, it will be another remarkable film from one of the most extraordinary filmmakers of this current generation.

“The French Dispatch” is currently playing in theaters.


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