Prior to the expansion of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in theaters this weekend, I decided to sit down and revisit each of the acclaimed writer/director’s films in chronological order. The task was harder than I imagined, not because there were too many films to go through (he’s has only made eight movies, including Grand Budapest, so far), but because, in my opinion, Wes Anderson hasn’t made a bad movie. Each one of his works offers something a little different, but they are all thoughtful and meticulously crafted films that carefully weave between and around the lines of comedy and drama. Yet, something still has to be at the bottom, right?
Watching a Wes Anderson movie, it’s as if my childhood grew up and was inhabited by broken, but endearing people. This is a world where people read Roald Dahl, listen to Burl Ives, and take their cues from Charlie Brown. It’s a world I’m excited to revisit every time he releases a new film.
So, without further adieu…
7. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
It may be Wes Anderson’s most divisive film, but it’s the one that makes me laugh out loud the most. Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and a scene stealing Willem Dafoe are the standouts here. A pirate attack halfway through really kicks things into high gear, with shootouts and action scenes that one doesn’t normally associate with Anderson’s filmmaking.
That being said, there is something lacking in this film that I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on. Or maybe it’s not something lacking, but rather some deeper meaning or connection I haven’t found or grown into yet. It is after all about a middle-aged man suffering a terrible loss, something I can’t say I’ve experienced yet. I don’t dislike The Life Aquatic, it’s just my least favorite of Anderson’s films.
6. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
This is where Wes Anderson’s style fully comes into its own. It is also perhaps his most recognizable film, as it features many of the tropes and character types that would come to populate the rest of his films. It’s his most emotional film for sure, in fact I’d argue The Royal Tenenbaums is more of a drama than a comedy, but I’ve always had a hard time connecting to it.
That is, until the film’s final moments when the Ben Stiller character finds himself present at his father’s death. It’s a brief moment, shown in montage with only simple narration to tell it, but it’s gotten me on every viewing. Maybe it’s the increasing realization of mortality in my own family, I don’t know.
5. Bottle Rocket (1996)
Wes Anderson’s loosest and perhaps more overtly innocent film, Bottle Rocket has more in common with the slacker films of Richard Linklater than it does with Francois Truffaut and the French New Wave. It definitely comes off as a first film, but not in a bad way. While it has its fair share of flaws, you can’t help but notice the amount of talent and potential within it. You know this is all going to lead to something really special down the road.
But it doesn’t really matter that the film features little of Anderson’s signature style, because this film is all about the characters, especially its three leads (Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, and Robert Musgrave). Whether it’s their back-and-forth dialogue, the mundane Texas lifestyle they inhabit, or the way they try to make everything seem bigger than it actually is, it all feels natural. These guys really don’t know anything: they’re just a bunch of rich white kids with nothing to do. They’re children at heart, even if they do sometimes break the law.
4. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
I have a real personal connection to this film, probably because the dynamic between the three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) reminds me of my relationship with my own brothers. Not in any specific way, it’s just a sibling thing. If you have brothers, or sisters for that matter, whether you’re close to them or not, you’ll probably understand this. It’s almost unexplainable, something that is better demonstrated just by showing someone the film than by trying to describe it.
This is one of Wes Anderson’s more underrated films, and I can understand why. The back story for each of the brothers is pretty dark and emotional (perhaps even more so than The Royal Tennenbaums) and there is little, if any, plot. The film just sort of meanders around India, but I kind of like that. It’s a character study more than anything. Or perhaps a character relationship study is a better way to put it. The Darjeeling Limited may not be a perfect film, but it’s one that will continue to resonate with me.
3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Moonrise Kingdom, perhaps more than any other Wes Anderson film, is one that I would love just for the aesthetic alone. My parents were raised in the early 1960’s, the same time in which this film takes place, and not that far away from where the fictionalized setting of New Penzance is supposed take place. As a result, I grew up with a lot of the sounds and images the film uses. If one can have nostalgia for a time they weren’t even around for, then this is it for me.
But the film doesn’t just look good, it also has a great story to go along with it. Two young lovers run away from home, causing their island hometown to go into a frenzy over their search. It’s just as much about the adults as it is about the children, contrasting the lovers’ youthful ignorance with the adults’ tired ignorance.
2. Rushmore (1998)
The first time I saw Rushmore a few years back, I just didn’t get it. I thought it was good, but nothing special. Oh, how things change. Upon subsequent viewings, this film has skyrocketed up the list. For my money’s worth, Rushmore is probably Anderson’s funniest film. To pick one bit from a litany of perfectly timed visual gags and sarcastic line deliveries would be just as difficult, if not more so, than the compiling of this list (although a particular favorite of mine involves OR scrubs as a punch line).
Yet, underneath all the humor is a real sadness. The Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray characters are both still recovering from losses that happened years ago, covering up their grief in extracurricular activities and industrial business. They’re brought together by a mutual respect for each other and then pushed apart when they both realize they love the same woman, leading to a series of humorous back-and-forth revenge tactics, which just goes to show you that the best moments in a Wes Anderson film can move between comedy and drama without missing a beat.
1. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
This was my first exposure to Wes Anderson. I loved it the first time I saw it, and with each subsequent viewing my affection for it has only grown. Stop motion films like Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer or Frog and Mr. Toad have always held a special place in my heart, but Fantastic Mr. Fox is much more than an animated film. Anderson has often been critiqued for making live action cartoons, but here he isn’t finally giving into his tendencies, but rather using the medium as a way to present this story and its themes in a charming and imaginative way.
It’s also an animated family film that doesn’t talk down to its audience. Mr. Fox is a clever and at times silly character, but he’s never turned into a caricature. He’s as much a real character dealing with his own problems as Max Fischer, Steve Zissou, or any one of the Tennenbaums. And like Anderson’s previous films, Fantastic Mr. Fox carefully balances the humor and drama, acting as both a comedic caper and a character piece dealing with midlife crisis, growing up, and the responsibilities of raising a family.
So that’s that. My love and affection for each of Anderson’s films has already fluctuated quite a bit in the five years since I started following his work, and I bet if I came back to this list in another five I’d want to shift things around again. But where will The Grand Budapest Hotel fit in all of this? Which one of his films will climb up the list and which ones will fall back down? Only time will tell.
Now it’s your turn. How would you rank Wes Anderson’s first seven films? Let us know in the comments below!
Nick van Lieshout is an aspiring filmmaker and screenwriter. You can follow him on Twitter @Shout92.
The Grand Budapest is now playing in limited release and is expanding to more theaters this weekend. All of Wes Anderson’s films are available on Blu-Ray and DVD.