Believe it or not, Wes Anderson has been making movies for two decades now: The director who once defined youthful, oddball outsiderism is now a veteran, a giant…an institution. But what’s most remarkable about his career — consisting of seven features, and a healthy number of shorts and commercials — has been its staggering consistency. Over these twenty years, Anderson has been meticulously building his own very unique world, and as his new film The Grand Budapest Hotel opens today, we decided to look over Anderson’s career and rank his major works. Where do your favorites place?
It has many eloquent defenders, but, sorry: This is the one outright disaster in Anderson's body of work. Somehow, the director's highly-controlled aesthetic doesn't quite survive the collision with location shooting, and the ironic tale of a trio of mourning brothers traveling the outer reaches of India is muddied – as if the director stepped out, saw the sun and breathed the air, and suddenly didn't know what to do with himself. It has its moments, to be sure – the opening scene is wondrous – but The Darjeeling Limited is, ultimately, a messy dirge, an admirably personal work undone by clunky symbolism and tonal incongruity.
This is the short that started it all. It got the feature version of Bottle Rocket financed and began Anderson's career, as well as the career of his childhood friends Owen and Luke Wilson — so we have to give it loads of credit just for that alone. It's an engaging little film, and an interesting look at the director's style in embryonic fashion. It's rough, black and white, 16mm – at first glance, a far cry from the kind of maximalism that today cries out "Wes Anderson." But peer closer and you'll catch the visual whimsy and the casual precision that would become his signature. Yes, it's hard to look at this and predict, say, The Royal Tenenbaums. But it's clearly the work of a young man who is about to do great things.
Designed primarily to be a tribute to Italian cinema, this is one of the most visually striking of the director's works. An Italian village at twilight finds itself playing host to a stranded American Formula One racecar driver, blesed with the oh-so-Wes-Andersonian name of Jed Cavalcanti (Jason Schwartzman). As the outsider waits, he realizes that this where his people come from. Mixing perfectly timed sight gags with a generosity that hearkens back to the glory days of Fellini and Pietro Germi, it's a slight work, but very generous and warm.
"I wonder if he remembers me." When a scene in which Bill Murray talks to a shark can make you cry, you know you're in the hands of a master. The Life Aquatic is half a masterpiece: As a tale of a man whose highly controlled life is upended by the son he never knew he had, it's an achingly sad meditation on mortality, manhood, and extinction. As a tale of adventure on the high seas (Kidnapping! Gunfights! Pirates!), it's a bit awkward, with the ping-ponging plot points never quite working up to the dizzying heights of comic suspense the film so clearly wants to achieve. Still, its accomplishments seem greater and greater with each passing year – a movie about aging and irrelevance, made by a young man exploring the boundaries of his style.
Anderson’s breakthrough feature – not to mention the movie that introduced most of us to Jason Schwartzman and to Bill Murray, Serious Actor – is a coming-of-age movie in reverse: A young man has to learn not to grow up too quickly. But Rushmore does suffer a bit from the fact that it seems to focus at times on the wrong character: Schwartzman is great and all, but the problems of Max Fischer, precociously busy Grade F student, don’t quite plumb our inner darkness the way Herman Blume’s midlife crisis does. We’re more interested in the Vietnam vet, successful businessman, and divorced dad who’s reached his limits with the world. The film established Anderson’s exacting style, but today, seen in the light of his later films, it feels downright Neorealist. That’s not such a bad thing. The best, however, was yet to come.
Of course Wes Anderson made an animated movie, and of course it was delightful. Even the director's detractors admit that this is one instance where his style perfectly matched his material – in this case, Roald Dahl's beloved children's story about the mischievous Mr. Fox and his battles with the farmers whose crops and coops he regularly raids. But utilizing stop-motion animation, Anderson didn't just make a kids' movie; he made a Wes Anderson film, combining fable-like storytelling with demented wit and turning Dahl's curious little tale into a charming heist flick.
For a guy who never acts in his own films, Wes Anderson makes for a surprisingly relaxed presence in front of his own camera. Filmed as part of American Express's program of hiring high-profile filmmakers to shoot credit card commercials, this is so meta it hurts. In a seemingly endless lateral tracking shot, Anderson eats a sandwich and talks to the camera while also dealing with the many headaches and decisions that are part of a Wes Anderson Movie Set: Stuffed tigers, impeccably burning cars, a crane dolly, a 357 Magnum with a bayonet, a precocious young girl with a tennis racquet, Jason Schwartzman, and an ill-timed flock of birds. Forget AmEx; as far as building brand awareness goes, this is a triumph of Brand Wes Anderson.
Anderson's latest might feature his most complicated narrative to date – a political-thriller-cum-frothy comedy-cum-historical epic about cross-border intrigue, all in a pre-war Europe of the director's own imagination. But look closely and you'll see a figure that has heretofore not made an appearance in his films: Evil. Alongside Willem Dafoe's black-shirted assassin, there's a darkness scurrying in the edges of this otherwise hilarious and bright farce. Much as Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, released on the eve of World War II, indulges in frivolity in its depiction of a world that's about to come to a brutal end, so too does Grand Budapest give us a world that has laid the groundwork of its own obliteration.
Probably the best of Anderson's shorts – too bad it was paired with The Darjeeling Limited, the worst of his features – this lovely little concoction starring Jason Schwartzman and Natalie Portman is an elegant auto-critique, the tale of a hotelbound sad sack with an obsessive need for precision and an inability to say what he wants to the woman he clearly loves. Are these characters tired of love, or hopelessly in love? And what, ultimately, is the difference? A mini-masterpiece of brevity and melancholy.
After the disappointment of Darjeeling, some expected Anderson to pull back on the Andersonisms: "Leave the color-coded artificial worlds to animation, as you did with Mr. Fox, Wes, and come deal with the messy world of real humans!" But in this, his first honest-to-god feature-length romance, Anderson doubled down on the stylization, presenting one of his most vibrant and beautiful works to date. A lovers-on-the-run movie, with overt references to Badlands, Thieves Like Us, and Pierrot le Fou, as well as a tale of unapologetic childhood romance, it feels at times like a manifesto.
When Bottle Rocket first came out, it felt so distinct – so laid back in its storytelling, so offbeat in its characterizations — that it seems odd to acknowledge now that it's the least characteristic feature film of Anderson's career. The chocolate-box arrangements and perfectly-diagrammed plots of his later films are nowhere to be found here. But Bottle Rocket still has the most emotionally resonant relationship in all of Anderson's films, thanks in part to the brilliant casting coup of getting the Wilson brothers to portray best friends – both their affection and their dysfunction comes through in intangible, almost mystical ways. No less a luminary than Martin Scorsese named this one of the 10 best films of the 1990s; we're inclined to agree.
Rushmore might have been Anderson’s breakthrough feature, but as the years pass, The Royal Tenenbaums has come to seem more and more like his most enduring masterpiece. Observe how Anderson juggles the large amount of characters and the sheer amount of story he has to get through in this diffuse, intricate tale of a wounded family of grown-up wiz kids and their adorably opportunistic father (Gene Hackman). For all the flamboyance of his cinematic style, Anderson also has a minimalist streak as well: He likes the purity of an emotion expressed directly and simply. The sheer range of human drama here is astounding: It’s a movie that grows up with us. We’ll still be watching it when we’re seventy.