Wes Anderson might just be one of the most well-known and creative directors of all time. From a creative standpoint, there nobody else quite matches Anderson in style. His movies so defy genre they can only be described as “Wes Andersonian.” A viewer can tell from a single scene that he's watching a Wes Anderson movie.
Throughout his 25-year-long career, Anderson has made a name for himself as a director with an outside-the-box approach to filmmaking. From his symmetrical framing, colorful shot compositions, use of stop motion animation and miniatures in lieu of CGI, and the incorporation of '60s and '70s pop songs, his movies remain some of the most memorable films in modern cinematic history. Therefore, rather than list all Wes Anderson movies ranked from worst to best, we'll say it's a list ranking his movies from very good to excellent.
1. Bottle Rocket
Anderson's debut film, based on a short film featuring a similar concept, characters, and the actors portraying them (the Wilson brothers), Bottle Rocket is a lesser-known of Wes Anderson's movies but still incredibly entertaining films. Pretty much everyone involved with this movie received breakout attention as a result–especially Anderson and both Luke and Owen Wilson (the latter of whom also co-wrote the film with the director).
Bottle Rocket stars the Wilsons as two young, directionless friends who agree to pull off an off-the-walls robbery with the help of a legendary professional criminal (James Caan). It follows a pretty standard heist concept that, in a lesser director’s hands, might've been just another comedy crime movie. Anderson manages to infuse a ton of his signature energy, humor, and memorable characters into the movie, which helped him earn further recognition in the cinematic world. Martin Scorsese even named Bottle Rocket as one of his favorite movies of the 1990s.
While entertaining, the only reason it's not ranked higher is the fact that, like so much in life—wine, balsamic vinegar, John Mulaney— Anderson seems to be getting better with age. Bottle Rocket doesn't quite possess the same feel, look, or tone as Anderson's other movies — which, given that this is a debut, is totally understandable.
From Bottle Rocket‘s camera angles, sharp dialogue, the crime caper theme, and the exploration of friendship, you can definitely tell he was already adopting his style.
2. The Darjeeling Limited
After the commercial failure of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson's next project took him to India for a story of brotherhood and tumultuous family relationships. Channeling his love for Satyajit Ray, The Darjeeling Limited tells the story of three estranged brothers (Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody) who attempt to bond on a luxury train ride through India a year after their father's funeral.
The movie does boast some strong acting from the cast involved. Wilson, especially, stars as the brother who suffered an accident that resulted in his desire to reconnect with his brothers on a journey of “self-discovery.” But the real highlight is the on-location filming that showcases the beautiful Indian countryside and cities the brothers travel through.
It's a relatively quiet movie among Wes Anderson movies, a director known for his crime capers, instead focusing on the brothers attempting to move past their individual traumas and grow closer to one another. It may lack the constant laughs of other Anderson movies, but it has the charm and classic Andersonian style.
3. Isle of Dogs
Isle of Dogs marked Anderson's return to stop-motion animation after his Fantastic Mr. Fox nine years prior to this film. In Mr. Fox, Anderson proved that he could transfer his distinct directorial skills to animation.
With Isle of Dogs, Anderson went one step further, creating one of his most original movies yet. Set in a fictional Japanese city, an authoritarian ruler banishes all dogs after finding evidence of a supposed canine flu that poses a danger to the city's inhabitants. As a result, all canines are shipped to the “Isle of Dogs,” a trash refuge on an island isolated from the rest of the city, and whose inhabitants include a pack of canines (voiced by Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, and Bob Balaban) led by a lifelong stray (Bryan Cranston).
After a young boy (Koyu Rankin) crashes on the island, the pack tries to help him, only to uncover a major conspiracy about the canine flu along the way. The Isle of Dogs has lots of imagination, with plenty of homages to Akira Kurosawa and the stop-motion animated films of the Rankin/Bass Studio (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town). Much like Fantastic Mr. Fox, the movie has great animation, and from the various camera angles and shot types, still remains distinctly and identifiably Wes Anderson.
If Anderson hadn't quite found his voice in Bottle Rocket, he seemed to nail it with his second movie, Rushmore. Again focusing on the theme of friendship—the main focus in Bottle Rocket—Rushmore tells the story of private school student Max Fischer (a young Jason Schwartzman), a gifted teenager who excels at every one of his school's clubs, yet fails his actual classes.
After he falls in love with an elementary school teacher (Olivia Williams) who clearly wants nothing to do with him, he enters into a strange love triangle between himself, the teacher, and a wealthy, depressed industrialist whom Max has befriended (Bill Murray). Anderson proved again how well he can handle difficult plotlines by creating a movie only he knows how to make.
The movie boasts the acting talent of Schwartzman and Murray, both of whom would go on to be frequent collaborators in future Wes Anderson movies, and who give dynamic performances that range from lighthearted to more dramatic anger and pain.
5. The Royal Tenenbaums
Frequently named as one of Wes Anderson's most popular movies, The Royal Tenenbaums fully showcased Anderson's talents as a director for the first time. The Royal Tenenbaums tells the story of a Salinger-esque family of gifted overachievers.
Growing up, the Tenenbaum children were young prodigies, before each of them eventually hit a career-halting slump in their middle age. When their distant father, Royal (Gene Hackman in one of his best roles) tells the family he has stomach cancer, he attempts to reconnect with his children (Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow) and their mother (Anjelica Huston).
Featuring a stacked cast (another hallmark in Wes Anderson movies) that also boasts the talents of Bill Murray, Danny Glover, and Owen Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums explores the intricacies of family with quirky comedy.
The Royal Tenenbaums also spelled a different phase in Anderson's career, with the director having found his voice, directorial style, and the deadpan absurdism that would come to define his career.
6. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Fantastic Mr. Fox is a unique entry in Anderson's filmography (unique even for Anderson, that is). Rather than going for his usual original project, he opted to adapt the Roald Dahl children's story, Fantastic Mr. Fox, as a stop-motion animated film.
Anderson couldn't have picked a better children's novel to adapt, with Dahl's characters, story, and sense of humor all blending perfectly to Anderson's strengths as a director. Obviously, Anderson had to pad the film a bit with some added material in order to stretch the story into a full movie, but the additions managed to complement Dahl's material, all the while retaining the signature style of Wes Anderson movies.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is an entertaining, lighthearted movie perfect for the whole family. Like all Wes Anderson movies, it also boasts a fantastic cast of voice actors, including George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Jason Schwartzman, as well as supporting cast members Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, and Owen Wilson.
7. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Very loosely based on famed French adventurer and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou follows the eccentric titular deep-sea explorer (Bill Murray) who attempts to hunt down and destroy a mythic shark that has killed his best friend. Along the way, he must overcome his crew's growing concern about the mission, his fading success, and his relationship with the son he never knew he had (Owen Wilson).
One of Anderson's most underrated movies—it bombed at the box office and garnered mixed reviews from critics upon release—Zissou has gone on to achieve a cult audience. Though it grows serious at times, the movie never slows down in its pacing.
Zissou also boasts some distinctive visuals and effects, including numerous fictional stop-motion sea creatures (the shark that Zissou is hunting is a whale-sized shark with orange spots known as a “jaguar shark”), and also offers some fantastic performances from Murray, Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, and Jeff Goldblum.
8. Moonrise Kingdom
What Anderson did for India in The Darjeeling Limited and would later do for Japan in the Isle of Dogs, he managed to do once again, this time for the 1960s idyllic New England island village. Moonrise Kingdom focuses on a pair of preteens (a bookish Boy Scout [Jared Gilman] and an introverted bookworm [Kara Hayward]) who fall in love and agree to run away and live together in the woods.
Hot on their trail, though, is the boy's Scout troop (led by Scout Leader, Edward Norton), the girl's over-worried parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), and the island police chief (Bruce Willis). As usual, the film features a wonderful cast, but the standout performances come from the two young stars, who manage to display the intricacies and awkwardness of adolescent romance.
Like Anderson's previous movies, Moonrise Kingdom captures the world of the 1960s in a fantastic, overdramatized way (the locations in the movie look like the setting to some 1960s sitcom). For fans of Wes Anderson movies, or movie fans in general, this is a must-watch.
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Anderson might have made a perfect movie with The Grand Budapest Hotel. Everything about it is great—the ensemble cast, the performances they deliver, the script, the music, the staging. Looking at this movie and comparing it to Anderson's earlier works, especially Bottle Rocket, underlines how far the director has come in his unique approach to filmmaking.
Set in a fictional 1930s Central European country, the movie focuses on an aspiring young lobby boy (Tony Revolori) who hopes to gain employment at the prestigious Grand Budapest Hotel, managed by the legendary concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). After one of Gustave's elderly lovers (Tilda Swinton) passes away, she leaves him a valuable Renaissance painting, which her son (Adrien Brody) attempts to steal from Gustave at all costs.
This movie is pure Anderson, featuring hilarious performances from Fiennes and Brody, and a star-studded supporting cast.
Even by Anderson standards, this is a movie unlike anything other. The Grand Budapest Hotel explores themes of friendship, family, responsibility, loyalty, and young characters growing up in chaotic settings. American movies may explore these themes all the time, but not like this.