I've been a movie enthusiast my whole life and been writing movie reviews for over 14 years.
Before The French Dispatch opens at a theater near you (hopefully) October 21st, 2020, let’s do a primer on director Wes Anderson’s previous nine films. They’re just so precious and twee.
Granted, if you’ve seen one Wes Anderson movie, you’ve seen them all. The difference being how large a part Bill Murray and/or the Wilson brothers play on any given project. I like Anderson’s movies for the most part, though I’m not the superfan your 20-something server trying to finish a screenplay while working at a local franchised eatery is.
If you know five people that call themselves cineastes, at least one of them will wax fangirl about how great Wes Anderson’s movies are. I like to think of them as live action cartoons for adults. Heavy stuff happens, but they’re usually undercut by a Wes Anderson crutch/trope that remind the viewer not to take anything that happens too seriously.
What Anderson will definitely not do is have a female lead.
So put on your seersucker suit and fashion a bowtie made from a bale of hay. If you can, make sure you ride your bike on the way over here as we rank (and by “we” I mean “I”) Wes Anderson’s movies one through nine.
If you’d like, you can play some quaint record on a vintage turntable in the background while you read this.
1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Thanks to one of Gene Hackman’s greatest performances, The Royal Tenenbaums has the depth and nuance most Wes Anderson’s movies strive for but never fully reach. At first you’re distracted by the garish colors and momentary asides (that picture in Owen Wilson’s house still makes me laugh), but Hackman’s work grounds the movie with a sense of consequence like no other Anderson film.
Among the high-caliber cast not named Hackman, Luke Wilson brings surprising depth as a man in love with his, um, sister (Gwyneth Paltrow, so dour).
You might not like Royal Tenenbaum, but by the end of the movie you do love him.
2. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
With stop-motion animation, you can see Anderson is able to cut loose, doing things he just can’t do with pesky humans. As a result, Fox feels more real than most of Anderson’s non-animation movies. You take the entire Fox family’s predicament more seriously than you do in almost any Anderson film because none of the wacky hijinks feel forced or like a director’s trademark you might watch on IMDB.
You hear George Clooney and Meryl Streep voicing animals, but at no point do you ever feel the name stars of the movie dominating the proceedings. This is a Wes Anderson movie through and through. But this time the animation is on purpose.
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
If you started watching this movie without anyone telling you the title, within 10 minutes you’d know it was a Wes Anderson film even if you’d only seen one of them previously. By 2014, for better or worse, the Wes Anderson “look” was distinctly his.
Yes, Budapest looks like every Anderson movie ever made, but it works for this movie. Budapest even has unexpected sparks of earned melancholy. Ralph Fiennes anchors the movie along with sharp but short turns by almost all of Wes Anderson regulars (I picture Anderson using snail mail to contact the actors as he’s averse to using actual phones). Too bad about that kitty.
4. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Incredibly good but rarely reaching into great. Mostly because Wes Anderson’s creative props are on full display whenever the story flags. It’s a solid enough coming-of-age story, but I never really bought into it because I never believed the children as anything other than generic Wes Anderson characters. The cartoons in Fantastic Mr. Fox feel more real than any human actor here.
Wait, those kids are going to do that once dance they do…now. Too bad about that doggy.
5. Rushmore (1998)
Wes Anderson’s second movie has stock Wes Anderson characters before they became clichés. There’s a nice balance between screwball comedy and genuine pathos. Despite the excellent cast and moments of genuine hilarity, I never took any of what was happening seriously as the entire movie felt like something the Max Fischer players would stage. That’s not a bad thing, but it does hinder the movie somewhat.
6. Bottle Rocket (1996)
Wes Anderson’s first movie is a charming cinematic trifle and it’s not trying to be anything else. You take the heist part of the movie as sincerely as the characters do, which is to say not at all. The best character, Lumi Cavasos’ Inez, doesn’t speak a word of English, but you remember her and her looks of exasperation more than you do the anything that happens in the movie. Bottle Rocket has all the strengths and weaknesses of a first movie, which adds to its charm as opposed to the manufactured whimsy of future Anderson endeavors.
7. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
The Wes Anderson movie with the most hipster title since the previous or upcoming Wes Anderson movie. Why in the world does this have a Criterion Edition? It's the shallowest Anderson endeavor so far. Every attempt at drama is undercut by forced eccentricity. It isn’t that this movie struggles to find a tone, it’s that the entire tone lends itself to the ennui Bill Murray’s character finds himself in.
You’re never bored by Life Aquatic, but you’re also never really invested.
8. Isle of Dogs (2018)
Wes Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation has famous actors voicing dogs and racist Asian stereotypes. The voice actors are well cast, but they’re in service to an average story. The Wes Anderson clichés weigh the movie down so much that you hope he’s not coasting on autopilot. Despite the animation, the quirkiness feels generic and the jokes thud as much as they land.
This isn’t a bad movie per se, but even Wes Anderson superfans would classify this as some of his lesser work.
9. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
I was wrong. This is the most hipster title ever. The only Wes Anderson movie I don’t really like as it feels like a first draft of a much better movie that will never come to pass. Three brothers bonding on a train after the death of their father feels like an episode of a middling TV drama than a full length feature. Anderson regulars Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman embody their characters ably enough but there’s so little dramatic tension and the comedy warrants minor chuckles more than actual laughs. The lowest ranked W-Anderson…by a lot.
Nine Wes Anderson films. Yet they’re all one Wes Anderson movie. Judging by The French Dispatch trailer, the new Wes Anderson movie feels like been there, seen that. If you’re a fan, you’ve already got plans to see this. If not, maybe these nine movies can help you decide.
Noel Penaflor (author) from California on July 09, 2020:
Thank you for reading. His films have a look all their own.
Matt Brown from Pasadena on July 09, 2020:
Great article! I haven't seen too many of these, but I love the artistic direction!