Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on May 1, 2017, and has been updated on March 5, 2022.
Let’s get this out of the way right from the top: Wes Anderson has never made a bad movie, and — in all likelihood — he probably never will. He’s too particular, too immaculate, too in command of his craft. Of course, the fact that he has always been so sure of himself only makes it more tempting to chart the progress of his career and to measure his films against each other. Or maybe it’s just fun because there are still only nine of them, and everyone seems to have their own favorite. Who could say?
Here are all of Wes Anderson’s feature films, ranked from “worst” to best.
Christian Zilko contributed to this story.
Wes Anderson arrived fully formed (or close to it), and so much of his cinematic ethos can be distilled from the very first shot of his very first film, the camera crashing in on Luke Wilson’s young face with the confidence of a master and the exuberance of an eternal kid. And it’s really that energy that makes “Bottle Rocket” such a perfect indication of what was to come.
Yes, the film is full of Anderson’s future signatures — whip-pans, insert shots of handwritten lists, overly elaborate plans, the hierarchy of accessories that are assigned for infiltration missions (and used as measuring sticks for love) — but the director’s debut points the way forward because it’s so high on its own existence, its characters as committed to the bubbles they create for themselves as we are to watching them burst.
Anderson’s most naturalistic film by a long shot (there’s something so intolerably casual about those gray skies), this puckish caper movie sputters out at least three different times before James Caan even shows up to spark the third act, but “Bottle Rocket” is colorful even when it isn’t sparkling. Would Wes Anderson have even been possible without Owen Wilson there to translate him for us? His Dignan, dreamy and deranged, set the mold for at least seven movies to come, playing the guy in an electrified defensive coil of some kind, always trying to disguise themselves and doing such a poor job of it that you can’t help but laugh at their transparency (“What are you putting that tape on your nose for?” Bob Mapplethorpe asks. “Exactly,” Dignan replies). Thank God someone was able to see through the film’s disastrous box office performance and recognize that this was the start of something great.
Almost as indebted to Satyajit Ray and Jean Renoir as “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is to the writings of Stefan Zweig, “The Darjeeling Limited” never pretends that it isn’t the work of a white guy from Texas who was raised on the “exoticism” of movies like “Charulata” and “The River.” On the contrary, Wes Anderson’s uneven fifth film confronts that naïveté head-on, telling a story about three grieving brothers who travel to India with the half-assed hope that they can bottle up some of the country’s spiritualism and take it home as a souvenir.
Riding the eponymous train through the countryside and looking out the window like everything they see is a backdrop for their self-obsessive bullshit, Anderson’s most noxious cast of characters learns the hard way that you can’t be a tourist in your own family. Modernist to the extreme and a bit stilted as a result, “The Darjeeling Limited” doesn’t quite match the sum of its parts, but — from Bill Murray’s opening dash to Amara Karan’s unforgettable performance — the parts are pretty great.
“Oh, shit! Swamp leeches. Everybody, check for swamp leeches, and pull them off… Nobody else got hit? I’m the only one? What’s the deal?”
It’s amazing, just when he was on the verge of becoming a household name, Wes Anderson made a dry nautical epic about Jacques Cousteau being a shitty father. I mean, I’d appreciate this movie being made under any circumstances, but “The Life Aquatic” is the only Wes Anderson film that feels as though it exists for the simple reason that someone was willing to fund it.
As exhaustingly dense as “The Royal Tenenbaums,” as spirited as “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and as anarchic as “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” this expansive adventure is even better than the Adidas sneakers it inspired. Yeah, it sits uncomfortably in the middle of Anderson’s career and sometimes play like a watered down version of his previous work, but it also features Bill Murray as a vengeful shark hunter, Seu Jorge covering David Bowie, Cate Blanchett radiating right off the screen, Willem Dafoe as an over-sensitive German sailor, and Bud Cort giving us the closer that “Harold and Maude” never did.
If the two decades that brought us “Rushmore,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” felt like a passionate love affair between cinephiles and Wes Anderson, the release of “The French Dispatch” is more akin to settling into a comfortable relationship. The excitement inevitably fades when you pretty much know what you’re going to get, but that does not negate the fact that Anderson is one of the most technically proficient filmmakers working today. As his aesthetic becomes more recognizable, if that’s even still possible, the (often unfair) question of what Wes Anderson is offering beyond unique interior design choices and snappy dialogue will weigh on him more with each subsequent film.
“The French Dispatch” succeeds in part because it does not particularly try to answer that question, instead offering a light ensemble piece that goes down relatively easily and gives Anderson plenty of opportunities to work with new actors and show off the cinematic bells and whistles his devotees have come to expect. The thinly veiled tribute to The New Yorker does an excellent job of weaving multiple stories together without boring audiences, even if that means sacrificing the narrative heft of some of Anderson’s earlier films. While this was probably Anderson’s first opportunity to cast Timothée Chalamet since the young actor broke through in 2017, the pairing still felt long overdue. As did the film’s decision to partially shoot in black and white, which gave Anderson a new color palette that produced some stunning shots. Anderson’s technical precision has never been better — even if the film looks less flashy than some of his earlier work, there is no doubt that he is at the top of his game as a visual filmmaker. “The French Dispatch” did not represent a massive step forward in Anderson’s filmography, but it was not a step backward, either. —Christian Zilko