This week Wes Anderson‘s lovely “Moonrise Kingdom” is released in a sparkly new Criterion Collection edition. Coming after the left-turn that was the animated “Fantastic Mr. Fox” which followed the slightly disappointing one-two punch of 2004’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and 2007’s “The Darjeeling Limited,” many viewers (Playlisters among them) found ‘Moonrise’ not just a return to form, but one of his best films to date. Mining a rich seam of emotion that his occasionally too-precious aesthetic can sometimes put at a remove, “Moonrise Kingdom,” while gorgeous, symmetrical, and slathered in trademark whip-pans and deadpan expressions, is actually touching.
And a lot of that is in the suite of cherishable performances given by an ensemble of Anderson regulars, marked out by a few new additions. It has reminded us once again of Anderson’s facility for creating (often through costume or a physical quirk, it must be said) a coterie of memorable, offbeat characters. And so we’ve embarked on this magnificent folly: a ranked list of our top 70 (that’s seventy) Wes Anderson characters. As passionate as many of us are about his films, we all seem to be most passionate about different ones, so this was not a list arrived at lightly… you’ve been warned that controversy no doubt lies ahead.
70. Vladimir Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”)
Proof positive that the right casting can turn the tiniest role into something more interesting, the only things assistant/sidekick/factotum Wolodarsky really has going for him in Anderson’s patchiest film are Taylor’s endearingly wonky expressions. And that’s enough, really.
69. Rita (Amara Karan in “The Darjeeling Limited”)
Unsurprisingly gorgeous but surprisingly earthy for an Anderson female, no-bullshit train stewardess Rita engages in nameless copulation with Jack (Jason Schwartzman) more as means to passing the time at work than out of any real affection. Her pillow talk? “Don’t come into me.”
68. Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”)
Zissou’s producer and behind-the-scenes puppeteer, Drakoulias could easily have been a stock character but is made something more grandiose by Gambon’s blustering, irascible performance and Anderson’s innate sympathy for the character of the aging blowhard battling irrelevance.
67. Clotilde (Lea Seydoux in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
Yes, it’s a waste that Seydoux gets so little screentime as sulky French chambermaid Clotilde. Then again, how great is it that Anderson stacks his casts so much we get Seydoux’s pout in a role that’s scarcely more than an extra’s?
66. Bill Ubell (Bud Cort in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”)
It’s never less than a joy to see “Harold and Maude” star Cort crop up in anything, but his tiny role here is a particular pleasure, as we get to see his beige-clad “bond company stooge” blossom under Zissou’s gruff tutelage.
65. J. Cavalcanti (Jason Schwartzman in “Castello Cavalcanti” short)
One of a series of Prada-sponsored shorts that Anderson directed, ‘Cavalcanti’ s probably the best, not least for Schwartzman’s great performance as the racecar driver who (mystically?) crashes during an Italian road race in the town of his “ancestors.”
64. Henckels (Edward Norton in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
An actor Anderson loves to put in a uniform, Norton brings a dimension of humanity and reluctance to the role of the inspector whose duty it is to run M. Gustave down, though his personal sympathies might run counter to that.
63. Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson in “Fantastic Mr Fox”)
The effortlessly good-at-everything cousin who comes to stay and highlights all our own inadequacies and neuroses is such a well-observed character that we scarely even notice that the smart, attractive, athletic, yogic Kris is, you know, a stop-motion fox.
62. Eleanor Zissou (Anjelica Huston in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”)
Huston’s roles for Anderson do all rather conflate into one: a bitingly acerbic mother/mature love interest who has nonetheless a spiritual, hippy-dippy side. Eleanor might be the least of these, but Huston never gives less than extraordinary good value.
61. Petey (Jarvis Cocker in “Fantastic Mr Fox”)
It’s a tiny part, but for those in the know, the fact that the role is voiced by Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker gives Petey’s few exchanges, especially when he’s accused of “weak songwriting” by Franklin Bean an extra layer of self-deprecating wit.
60. Coach Skip (Owen Wilson in “Fantastic Mr Fox”)
Coach Skip may be mostly memorable for being an albino otter who explains the arcane rules of Whackbat. But that does include lines like “The twig runners dash back and forth until the pine cone burns out and the umpire calls hotbox.”
59. Serge X (Mathieu Amalric in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
He never meant to betray M. Gustav, but “those fuckers” who killed his club-footed sister were threatening his life and… what is essentially an expository character is crammed with whimsical detail and offbeat backstory that, as ever, conceals the thinness of Anderson’s plotting.
58. Jack’s Girlfriend (Natalie Portman in “Hotel Chevalier” short)
The short that accompanies “The Darjeeling Limited” is probably a better film than the undisciplined main feature, not least because of this unusually sexy and explicit turn from Portman as Jack’s (Schwartzman) mysteriously bruised, enigmatic but soulful on/off girlfriend.
57. Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave in “Bottle Rocket”)
A risk-taker growing an entire marijuana crop in his backyard, the industrious, well meaning but dumb Mapplethorpe is the third wheel in the “Bottle Rocket” gang: he’s only there because he has a car and a wealthy family. Plus he doesn’t like Dignan and is weirdly loyal to an older brother who treats him like garbage.
56. Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller in “The Royal Tenenbaums”)
It’s quite something that math/business genius Chas, played by Stiller, dressed permanently in striped red tracksuit, tailed by his overprotected mini-me sons and harboring deep resentment at his thieving father, should place so low. But that’s the overstuffed ensemble of ‘Tenenbaums’ for you.
55. Agatha (Saoirse Ronan in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
Played with quiet conviction, it’s a shame that Ronan’s Agatha wasn’t a bit more central to the real action of ‘Grand Budapest’, but the sweet baker girl with the facial birthmark is still a lovely addition to Anderson’s underpopulated gallery of female characters.
54. Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman in “Moonrise Kingdom”)
An unusually in-betweeny character for Schwartzman in an Anderson film, slick Cousin Ben, the perma-sunglassed dude who works at the rival Scout Camp and performs a non-legally binding wedding ceremony for the star crossed couple, is nonetheless a hoot despite his truncated screen time.
53. Dr. Nelson Guggenheim (Brian Cox in “Rushmore”)
Anderson’s take on the irascible, crusty-old-dean headmaster character in “Rushmore” doesn’t stray too far from the formula on paper, but gets a boost due to Cox’s lovely air of baffled resignation when confronted with Max’s (Schwartzman) more egregious follies.
52. Inez (Lumi Cavazos in “Bottle Rocket”)
The Paraguayan housekeeper and object of Anthony’s high school-like affections, Inez (played by the luminous lead from “Like Water For Chocolate,” a rare hispanic W.A. character) may seem underwritten, but idealist though she is, she’s self-assured enough to slam on the brakes when romantic intoxication turns to chaos.
51. Felicity Fox (Meryl Streep in “Fantastic Mr Fox”)
We’re not sure why Streep hasn’t had a live-action role for Anderson yet, but until that inevitability, her beautifully understated voice work as the gracious, unswervingly sensible Mrs. Fox will have to do. Surprisingly, Streep was a replacement after Cate Blanchett dropped out.
50. Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”)
Perhaps a little underwritten for an actress of this caliber (it’s a shame that she’s not yet had a second trip to Wes World), heavily pregnant journalist Winslett-Richardson, caught in a love triangle between Zissou and Owen Wilson’s Ned, still lets Blanchett mine a rich vein of pre-parental neurosis.
49. Henry Sherman (Danny Glover in “The Royal Tenenbaums”)
The new man in Etheline Tenenbaum’s life, her long-time accountant Henry doesn’t get a huge amount to do in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but Danny Glover gives a lovely interior life to the man, ever-dignified in the face of Royal’s insults.
48. Bert Fischer (Seymour Cassel in “Rushmore”)
John Cassavetes staple Seymour Cassel was a regular in Anderson’s earliest movies, but found his best showcase in “Rushmore,” as Max Fischer’s sweet-natured barber father, who doesn’t quite understand his son and his eccentricities, but loves him all the same.
47. Mr. Bishop (Bill Murray in “Moonrise Kingdom”)
Perhaps the most muted of Murray’s creations for Anderson, Mr. Bishop is the neglectful father of lead Suzy, seemingly sunk into a deep depression and finding it difficult to care even that his wife is having an affair with the local cop. It’s not the actor’s finest hour, but he still elevates what he has.
46. Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble in “Rushmore”)
Once the star of “Dennis The Menace” with Walter Matthau, Mason Gamble showed some deft comic chops as Max’s best friend (turned frenemy, turned friend again), who suffers the school curse of having a hot mom. He’s a marine biologist now! The actor, not the character.
45. Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams in “Rushmore”)
Alluring teacher Rosemary doesn’t ever quite develop past being a prize for Max and Blume to compete over, but Olivia Williams brings both a melancholy and a spikiness to the character that makes her much more interesting on the page, and she’s got great chemistry with her co-stars.
44. Author (Tom Wilkinson/Jude Law in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
He’s mostly a framing device, certainly, but the unnamed Author of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (played first by Tom Wilkinson, then Jude Law) makes a big impression, in large part because of the uproarious moment when Wilkinson yells at his son.
43. Dudley Heinsbergen (Stephen Lea Sheppard in “The Royal Tenenbaums”)
Coming straight from “Freaks & Geeks” (Sheppard played Harris on the beloved show), Dudley, the research subject of Bill Murray’s character, suffers amnesia, dyslexia and color-blindness, but does at least have great hearing. He’s a scene-stealer, even if the role is tiny.
42. Future Man (Andrew Wilson in “Bottle Rocket”)
So gigantic in size and stature that he seems like a specimen of perfection of the Future, the elder Mapplethorpe is a bully who incessantly picks on his sibling, but deep down, this ago dominance is a mask for his insecurity and need to connect.
41. Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky in “Fantastic Mr Fox”)
Voiced by “Simpsons” screenwriter and long-time Anderson pal Wally Wolodarksy, Kylie is Mr. Fox’s super, his best friend/sidekick, and his personal assistant. Fiercely loyal but often disappearing into a trance, he’s the source of some of the film’s best absurdist gags.
40. Ash (Jason Schwartzman in “Fantastic Mr Fox”)
An alternate reading makes this film the story of plucky Ash coming of age and becoming more secure in his father’s love, with Schwartzman giving the character a surly fragility that makes him so typical of teenagers, vulpine or otherwise.
39. Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
There’s maybe no greater service Anderson has performed for cinema than reclaiming Jeff Goldblum, and in their third collaboration he gives one the all-time great reactors one of the great reaction lines: “Did he just throw my cat out of the window?”
38. Badger (Bill Murray in “Fantastic Mr Fox”)
Short of doing a ranking only of Bill Murray’s Wes Anderson characters and giving them their proper due, suffice to say that the slightly delusional “demolitions expert” lawyer Badger only languishes in the 30s because we don’t get to see Murray’s gloriously hangdog face.
37. Madame D. (Tilda Swinton in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
A triumph not just for the always-triumphant Swinton, but for maybe the greatest Old-Lady makeup ever, the plummy-accented Madame D, whose death kicks the whole insane plot of “Grand Budapest” into gear, is an indelible creation despite minimal screen time.
36. Pagoda (Kumar Pallana in “The Royal Tenenbaums”)
One of two appearances on this list for Anderson talisman Pallana (there could have been more), Pagoda is the Man Friday to Royal’s Crusoe, serving and investigating for him, being his truest friend and confidant, all in recompense for stabbing him in a Calcutta bazaar.
35. Anthony Adams (Luke Wilson in “Bottle Rocket”)
In “Bottle Rocket,” Dignan is the mind, Bob the cynical heart and Anthony is the soul. Tender and naive, he’s a beautiful loser described as “like a paper blowing in the air.” His head is entirely in the clouds, until he’s cleaning up Dignan’s mess, making it impossible not to love him.
34. Jack (Jason Schwartzman in “The Darjeeling Limited”/”Hotel Chevalier”)
The sensualist of the three ‘Darjeeling’ brothers, Jack is also the writer and the peacemaker between Francis (Wilson) and Peter (Brody). Therefore he’s a little passive, but when the focus is on him, like in “Chevalier’, he’s a great portrait of self-absorbed dissipation.
33. Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”)
One of Wilson’s best naifs in one of the Anderson’s least satisfying films, Ned Plimpton is Zissou’s newfound adult son (or is he?) who experiences a gradual disillusionment with his famous father, only to be let down by last turn of the story.
32. Laura Bishop (Frances McDormand in “Moonrise Kingdom”)
Call it Anderson maturing, or McDormand magic, but Mrs. Bishop is a rare Anderson bird: complex but not so mysterious she isn’t also real. And even if she’s dallying with Willis’ “sad, dumb policeman” it’s her sparring with Walt (Murray) that feels most truthful.
31. Wes Anderson (Wes Anderson in “American Express” commercial)
We’ve extolled our love of Anderson’s commercial before, but it bears repeating: in case we were in any doubt that Anderson’s world is a fully imagined one in which he views even himself as a quirky, nonsensical character, this slyly self-parodic turn quashes it.
30. Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston in “The Royal Tenenbaums”)
Credit to Anderson for often giving his older female characters actual personalities, not to mention sex lives, but enacted by the ineffably sexy Huston, here Etheline is believably both a matriarch and a paramour twice over.
29. Ludwig (Harvey Keitel in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
His second collaboration with Anderson after his small turn in “Moonrise,” here Keitel gets to go all-out as Ludwig, the hardened, bald, heavily tattooed fellow inmate of Gustav’s who is flattered when the escape plan map he’s scrawled shows “great artistic promise.”
28. Francis (Owen Wilson in “The Darjeeling Limited”)
It doesn’t particularly hang together as a film, but ‘Darjeeling”s portrait of brotherhood is cherishable, and Wilson, cast a little against type as the bossy, take-charge older brother, is a particular treat, playing most of the film bruised and bandaged to boot.
27. Jopling (Willem Dafoe in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
If Anderson’s characterization is sometimes accused of being cartoonish, you won’t find too much evidence to the contrary in Dafoe’s terrifically fun live-action Muttley (to Adrien Brody‘s Dastardly). Even to the point that he kills a cat (as well as several people).
26. Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray in “The Royal Tenenbaums”)
Heartbroken neurologist and oft-cuckolded husband of Margot, apparently St. Clair was modeled on the recently deceased Oliver Sacks. But Murray brings a soul-deep melancholy to the role, as well as an irresistible interaction with his test subject Dudley, that makes him entirely his own man.
25. Rat (Willem Dafoe in “Fantastic Mr Fox”)
Another of Anderson’s stock characters given a great spin by one of his regulars, here Dafoe voices enforcer/factotum Rat, who serves as security for nasty old Franklin Bean. As often with this sort of sidekick, his snivelling deviousness kind of eclipses the real baddie.
24. Pele Dos Santos (Seu Jorge in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”)
An inspired flourish in ‘Life Aquatic’ saw Brazilian singer/songwriter Seu Jorge perform covers of David Bowie songs as part of the film’s fictional universe. He has little to do otherwise, but remains one of the most memorable aspects of the film.
23. Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori/F. Murray Abraham in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
If you’re going to sell us on a big story-within-a-story-within-a-story format, better make sure the chief storyteller is as grizzled and enigmatic a raconteur as F. Murray Abraham, and the younger version is played with the kind of bright-eyed, joyous freshness that newcomer Tony Revolori brought.
22. Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson in “The Royal Tenenbaums”)
Poor Richie, the Bjorn Borg-esque ex-tennis star who is suicidally lovelorn for his own sister, might be the most tragic character in Anderson’s rogues gallery. And it’s a showcase for the more dramatic, albeit droll, talents of Luke Wilson, who manages to sell incestuous desire as strangely romantic.
21. Social Services (Tilda Swinton in “Moonrise Kingdom”)
Somewhere between Mary Poppins and a Satanic nun, the unnamed, immovable object that is “Social Services” is given gleeful life by a brilliantly stoic Swinton. Threatening a child with electroshock therapy or unflappably fielding phone calls, she’s a perfectly sly comment on an impersonal, uncaring system.
20. Patricia Whitman (Anjelica Huston in “The Darjeeling Limited”)
The second, and in our mind superior, of Angelica Huston’s Anderson matriarchs, Patricia Whitman, haunts “The Darjeeling Limited” long before she turns up at the very end of the film: she’s the end point of the journey of her three children, bringing them to the “Black Narcissus”-style spiritual retreat. Almost unrecognizable in short-cropped grey hair, spiritually pretentious but also sincere, she ties the whole film together, embodying aspects of all three of her sons, and proving to be a classically slippery Anderson parent figure, disappearing into the night just when they think she’s back in their lives.
19. Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis in “Moonrise Kingdom”)
We’re so used to seeing a version of Bruce Willis on screen who’s phoning it in that it comes as a positive shock when he turns up and acts. And not just acts, acts the hell out of a movie, as in “Moonrise Kingdom,” where the action star gives one of the most memorable performances. Stuck behind thick glasses, and a little podgy in a way that we’re not used to seeing with him, he’s a thoroughly sweet, thoroughly nice guy battling a deep loneliness, particularly as he realizes that his lover (Frances McDormand) isn’t going to leave her husband for him. Willis does get to play the hero by the end, but it’s so much more hard-won coming from such a relative sadsack.
18. Dmitri (Adrien Brody in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
It’s a little depressing to see the sort of straight-to-video action movies that Adrien Brody’s been making these days, but his finest moments of late have been with Wes Anderson, even though the performances have been as different as you can imagine. First up, it’s his devious villain in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Pencil-mustached, with a hair-trigger temper and very shouty, it seems on the surface a broad and ridiculous role. But Brody, and his director, layer in something else: that as much as this cat-throwing madman could be a figure of fun, he’s also a fascist, a symbol for how dangerous someone like this can be when left unchecked.
17. Sam (Jared Gilman in “Moonrise Kingdom”)
One of the two troubled leads of “Moonrise Kingdom,” Sam is an orphan boy raging at a world that wants no part of him. And it’s not too difficult to blame the world: Sam (played by the terrific Jared Gilman) has as little time for them as they do for him, an introverted kid who wants to burn everything down, a sort of junior Clyde Barrow whose only light in his life is his Bonnie, Suzy. Abandoned by his fed-up foster parents, and understood only by a fellow misfit like his Scout Master, his grandest running-away-gesture to date ends up with a happy ending, as he escapes the clutches of Social Services, and gets a new father figure in the shape of Bruce Willis, no less.
16. Abe Henry (James Caan in “Bottle Rocket”)
For much of “Bottle Rocket,” Mr. Henry is like a mythical figure, and it’s not until the second half that the legendary crime mastermind — who has devised a landscaping business as a crime front — appears. A friendly con man, Mr. Henry uses his various warm charms to hoodwink friend and foe, though he always sticks up for the underdog as intoned in his spirited “the world needs dreamers” monologue. “Bottle Rocket,” in addition to its many other qualities, also provided Caan with a very welcome showcase in the middle of a kind of wilderness period for the actor.
15. Peter (Adrien Brody in “The Darjeeling Limited”)
You knew that Adrien Brody was going to fit nicely into Wes World when he could star alongside Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, two actors who’d been with the director since day one, and outshine them both. The middle child of the Whitman family, he’s to some degree the most ‘normal’ of the three — less of a would-be lothario than his younger sibling, and less manipulative than his elder one. But as we discover that Peter’s left his heavily-pregnant wife at home, and is freaking out about fatherhood, Brody’s low-key hangdog charm becomes a perfect fit for the universe, and proved to be one of the actor’s most watchable performances ever.
14. Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”)
We may be out of step with the general sea-change(!) re-evaluation of ‘The Life Aquatic,’ but, though it looks great, we’ve never wholly got on board(!!). But even we can admit it has elements as good or better than anything Anderson’s done, and one of them, coming close even to the tremendously laconic, ambivalent Bill Murray title character, is Jeff Goldblum’s first appearance for the director as Zissou’s arch nemesis, Alistair. The man to whom all the things for which Zissou struggles so hard come naturally, even espresso machines and ex-wives, Hennessey is the exact mixture of smugness, suavity, and actual charm that’s guaranteed to infuriate the infinitely more shambolic Zissou.
13. Suzy (Kara Hayward in “Moonrise Kingdom”)
The other half of the central runaway pair in “Moonrise Kingdom,” and arguably the most dangerous, Suzy doesn’t have the excuse of dead parents to be angry at the world — she has a family, even if they ignore her most of the time. But angry she is, to the extent that you suspect she’d burn it all down if she could. Vacillating between head-in-a-book introversion and blind, near-psychotic fits of rage, she’s nevertheless found a tender soulmate in Sam, and the pair entered the annals of great lovers-on-the-run (and she became one of Anderson’s best-drawn female characters) as a result.
12. Mr Fox (George Clooney in “Fantastic Mr Fox”)
Suave, smooth, and a little bit hapless: if George Clooney was every going to play a Wes Anderson character, it had to be Mr. Fox. Reaching the midpoint of his Jack Foley from “Out Of Sight” and his Ulysses Everett McGill from “O Brother Where Art Thou,” Fox is a born schemer, a charismatic figure who’s the smartest man in the room, except for when he isn’t, a hyper-masculine dude who has to face life without his tail. As selfish and self-centered as the best of Anderson’s character, but with an unusually heroic streak as well, it’s a role tailor made for Clooney, and makes us hope that he and Wes might team up in the live-action world at some point soon.
11. Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”)
You don’t necessarily identify Willem Dafoe with comedy. You associate him with being Jesus, or being terrified, or having his dick bludgeoned by Charlotte Gainsbourg. But that’s why his performance in “The Life Aquatic” proved to be such a revelation. As Steve Zissou’s loyal right-hand-man Klaus (complete with a decidedly Werner Herzog-ish accent), Dafoe uproariously steals the movie: a thoroughly capable sailor who’s nevertheless a desperately needy child, who’d die for the man he sees as his dad, but desperately needs his approval too. Dafoe’s always been a great addition to Anderson’s film — his skeezy Rat in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” his chilling killer in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — but this is definitely their finest hour together.
10. Kumar (Kumar Pallana in “Bottle Rocket”)
The terse and deadpan funny Kumar Pallana instantly made his mark in the Wes Anderson universe as Kumar in “Bottle Rocket,” a crackerjack thief and safecracking expert member of the Lawn Wrangler criminals. Unfortunately for him, he has a spell of dementia during their heist, loses his touch, and generally falls to pieces much to the dismay of crime organizer Dignan. But Kumar pretty much steals every scene he’s in — much like he continued to do in most Anderson movies ever since, often without uttering a word.
9. Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton in “Moonrise Kingdom”)
When a new member joins Anderson’s “rep company” of actors, it often seems to refresh the director, while usually showing another string to the actor’s bow too: that was certainly the case with Edward Norton’s genuinely surprising, completely charming turn in “Moonrise Kingdom.” Ludicrously outfitted in an adult-sized scout uniform, and negotiating scenes that involve trapdoors and treehouses and exclamations of “Jiminy Cricket! He flew the coop!” Norton displays a hitherto rarely mined comic ability. It’s his absolute command of Anderson’s ridiculous yet winsome tone that gives Scout Master Ward’s subplot (about earning the respect of dismissive peers) almost as much resonance as the lovers-on-the-run main story.
8. Dignan (Owen Wilson in “Bottle Rocket”)
The most conniving and shrewd of all the “Bottle Rocket” dreamers, the leader and organizer of the gentle losers and underachievers of Wes Anderson’s debut, Dignan, is still one the filmmaker’s best characters: incredibly ambitious, super naive to the point of delusion, and totally inept, which makes for an amusing and complex psychology of a daydreamer with so much hope, he lies in order to get everyone to the step often extended to self-deception as well (“They’ll never catch me… because I’m fucking innocent” goes the classic line). But it’s ultimately that beguiling, mischievous, and fox-like glint in Dignan’s eye that captures the soul of “Bottle Rocket.”
7. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”)
Bill Murray has appeared (or lent his voice) to every one of Anderson’s films since 1998. He might have given a better performance (arguable, but see below…), but no Anderson film rests as heavily on the actor’s shoulders as “The Life Aquatic.” His Cousteau-aping biologist, forever clad in his iconic blue shirt and red bobble hat, is a selfish, egotistical shit even by the standards of Anderson’s characters, but the charisma, faint desperation, and, ultimately, heart that Murray brings somehow makes Zissou palatable. He might have little idea of the consequences of his actions, but he does spend the movie tracking down the shark that killed his partner, and learns enough (through finding a surrogate son in Owen Wilson’s Ned) that he lets the creature go, resulting in one of the director’s most moving climaxes.
6. Eli Cash (Owen Wilson in “The Royal Tenenbaums”)
If there is a core trinity of W.A. actors, it must be Schwartzman, Murray, and Owen Wilson. And of all the roles that Wilson has taken for the director, Eli Cash, the ‘Tenenbaum wannabe’ and genre Western fiction writer supposedly modeled on Cormac McCarthy and Jay McInerney, is our pick of the crop. Because despite the ten-gallon hat and being “very much so” on mescaline a lot of the time, Eli is one of the subtler characters in Anderson’s repertoire, a drolly comic take on an almost Ripley-like personality, whose dazzled envy leads him to drug abuse and clumsy attempts at manipulation, yet there’s always something pitiable and relatable in his interloper status.
5. Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow in “The Royal Tenenbaums”)
Anderson might not really be known for his women, but he does create some memorably secretive and alluring feminine foils. And the ur-Anderson female in this regard is Paltrow’s Margot, married to Raleigh (Bill Murray), lusted after by Eli (Owen Wilson), incestuously desired by Ritchie (Luke Wilson), and understood by no one. Covetably dressed, fetishizably made up, with a buried wit that’s drier than the Atacama desert, Margot is really the only Anderson woman that we could conceivably see as a lead in her own right, and more than any other character apart from Royal, it’s Margot who fuels and embodies the Tenebaums’ various neuroses.
4. Herman Blume (Bill Murray in “Rushmore”)
We’ll always love Bill Murray whatever happens — “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day” alone assured that. But the 1990s were not a great time for the star, with movies like “Larger Than Life,” “Space Jam,” and “The Man Who Knew Too Little” stinking up his CV. Fortunately, along came Wes Anderson and “Rushmore,” irrevocably changing his career, and making him not just a comedy legend, but also an indie icon. There’s a throughline to Herman Blume from Murray’s great anti-authoritarian characters of the 1980s, as if Peter Venkman had sold out to the man, but Anderson brought out something new, playing up the deep sadness and disappointment at the universe that had always been there, and pushing him into the mid-life crisis phase of his career, as a man who finds a new lease of life, not always constructively, in his frenemy-ship with an ambitious teenage boy.
3. M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
We do need to stop being surprised when Ralph Fiennes, a.k.a. Great Shakespearean, a.k.a. Voldemort, a.k.a. Amon Goeth, does something lighthearted, but it is still a pleasant discovery when he’s so damn good at it. His M. Gustave is a wonderful creation, zany when he needs to be, arch and almost effete at times. Though also a womanizer and a cad, he’s shot through with the same sad nostalgia for disappearing times that gives ‘Grand Budapest’ its lovely melancholia amid all the Lubitschy hi-jinks. Like all our top picks, Gustave has depth beyond Anderson’s obvious surface pleasures.
2. Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman in “Rushmore”)
While any of our top five picks could have challenged for the number on spot, and might win on another day, the one we’re genuinely gutted at having to move aside is Max Fischer. This character, more than any other, defined Anderson’s approach early on (stories of misfit, oddly sincere, completely anachronistic outsiders) and gave Jason Schwartzman his entire career (it was his very first role). Max’s wild pretension and overweening precociousness make him difficult to root for, yet Anderson and Schwartzman both undercut the character’s self-importance with just enough skewering humor that it’s impossible not to love the delusional, romantic fool.
1. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman in “The Royal Tenenbaums”)
Perhaps it’s inevitable that, with so many of Anderson’s regular troupe (much though we love them) feeling like known quantities, our number one slot would go to an actor who only appeared once for him. Then again, when that actor is Gene Hackman, making one of his increasingly rare late-career appearance (he’s only done 3 films since) in a role specifically written for him, who can argue? As terrific as much of ‘Tenenbaums’ is, it’s Hackman who is its heart, and where the other heavily aestheticized characters can seem a little like (delightfully) shorthanded versions of the roles as written in what is probably Anderson’s best-ever script, Hackman’s innate talents make him arguably the best example of transcending Anderson’s potentially smothering style. We get the paradox: in this list of Wes Anderson’s greatest characters, we’ve chosen the performer who most breaks out of Anderson’s silo as our favorite, but maybe here, of all places, such droll contradictions are the order of the day.
Who else? This list may be 70 characters strong, but we just know some of you are sputtering with rage at someone we’ve overlooked (indeed A Certain Someone behind the scenes here may never fully forgive us for not including “Bottle Rocket”‘s Applejack, while some of us are miffed at the exclusion of Bob Balaban‘s narrator character from ‘Moonrise’). Shout out your neglected favorites, or put up your dukes about the ranking in the comments below — just do keep in mind that there are probably as many different versions of this list as there are readers, and, as the unfailingly polite Wes Anderson always does, keep it civil, eh?
— with Rodrigo “What This List Needs Is More ‘Bottle Rocket'” Perez