With the release of Isle of Dogs, 48-year-old director Wes Anderson already has nine movies in his catalog since Dignan first developed his 75-year plan in 1996’s Bottle Rocket. No other director in that span has developed a more instantly recognizable style as Anderson: distinctive color palettes; elaborate, symmetrical sets; quirky supporting players; impossibly convoluted plots. And no one is better at blending melancholy and humor. There is real tragedy in these stories—and real passion—but neither hope nor sadness slows down Anderson’s wry wit. His characters are deeply flawed individuals, often with dysfunctional relationships and an absence of self-awareness. But they unfailingly capture our sympathies with charm and originality, whether kids, adults or stop-motion animals.
His fans are as devoted as any other living filmmaker. I know people who’ve seen Bottle Rocket more than 100 times or have a tattoo of Max Fischer riding on his Yankee Racer. And I’m no exception—I can’t think of another director whose every movie I have and will continue to see multiple times. But ranking those films is difficult. Even among the Paste Movies staff, there’s no real agreement about which of these is the best. So the following ranking relies mostly on personal preference, and I can’t promise it won’t keep changing over time as I routinely rewatch his catalog.
So here is a snapshot of every Wes Anderson movie, ranked worst to best:
Set on a train trip through India, longtime Anderson compatriots Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman join Adrien Brody as a trio of brothers in Anderson’s fifth film. The setting may be new, but the themes are familiar. Family bonds are tested. The overbearing presence of parents is felt. Gorgeous, stylized shots and striking color palates are presented. And little victories are won. Owen Wilson’s character Francis recalls a more competent version of Dignan with all his scheming. And in the end, a distant parent continues to disappoint. If the location was the most “exotic” of his films, India as a place and a character isn’t trivialized and still feels very specific and real. If all Wes Anderson movies are a little the same, there’s still nothing like a Wes Anderson movie. —Josh Jackson
Isle of Dogs may be the closest Wes Anderson will ever get to a sci-fi film. Of course he would use stop-motion animation to make it. Set 20 years from now, amidst the ultra-urban monoliths of Megasaki City—a Japanese metropolis that also seems to be Japan, or at least a Westernized idea of the small island nation—the film begins care of a decree by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), a boulder of a man with equal ties to an ancient lineage of cat-loving aristocrats and to organized crime and political corruption. Due to a vaguely described epidemic of “dog flu,” Kobayashi bans all dogs to Trash Island, a massive byproduct of technology and futurism, beginning with Spots (Liev Schreiber), the guard dog of 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin), who also happens to be the Mayor’s ward after Atari’s parents died in a horrible accident. The emotional weight of Isle of Dogs depends on knowing exactly what that bond between dog and human can mean, how deeply and irrationally it can go. At the core of Isle of Dogs is that kind of best-friendship: No matter how far we advance as a civilization, how disastrously we atomize and digitalize our lives, we’ll always have the devoted dependence of a dog, our immutable companion across the vast wasteland of human history. Anderson and his animation team find the film’s soul in these dog’s eyes. Unfortunately, however charming Greta Gerwig can be as Caucasian foreign exchange student Tracy, and however noble Tracy’s actions raising a small army of politically active prepubescents, there’s no denying the white savior narrative saturating so much of Anderson’s fantasia. Whatever Japan represents for Anderson and his cohorts—an overcrowded environment, humanity at the cutting edge, humanity at the edge, period—Isle of Dogs, a good film we should watch and rewatch for the next 20 years, can’t seem to shake itself free of what could have been. —Dom Sinacola
A once-famous oceanographer and explorer, Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) now can barely bother. He feels things quietly, but deeply. And throughout The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Murray plays the sad wash-up as he has so many roles in this late phase of his career, like a classic Pixies song: Zissou possesses a chilly, utterly subdued state of being towards the insanity around him, until his frustrations burst to the surface with a brilliantly cutting line like, “Son of a bitch, I am sick of these dolphins.” Murray’s enigmatic preference for keeping his characters’ emotions close to their chests provides ample contrast between sardonic humor and something sincerer, even during big action sequences, like when the Zissou team rescues Jeff Goldblum’s Allistair Hennessey (“Steven, are you rescuing me?” Murray’s response, a pained half-smile and barely-there head cock, is deadpan brilliance). It’s arguable Anderson helped Murray initially make that marked 180 from his constantly talking, wisecracking comedic personas in classics like Ghostbusters or Caddyshack, and, in my humble opinion, The Life Aquatic is undoubtedly the most fruitful of his and Anderson’s collaborations. —Greg Smith
Wes Anderson’s trademark ironic eccentricity and Roald Dahl’s vaguely menacing but entirely lighthearted surrealism combine to form Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s first animated effort, which uses the same maddeningly traditional stop-motion techniques as Isle of Dogs. It’s ostensibly a children’s film (Mr. Fox and his family and friends try to outrun the mean farmers), but rather transparently aimed at their parents, who likely read Dahl’s books in grade school, remember stop-motion when it didn’t feel vintage, and have followed Anderson’s work for years. But Fantastic Mr. Fox is broader and more straightforward than any of Anderson’s other films. The tale has been greatly expanded from the Dahl original to cover familiar Anderson themes of family, rivalry, and feeling different. And with its lush autumnal palette and hijinks worthy of Max Fischer or Dignan, the result is a film that only Wes Anderson could have made. —Alisa Wilkinson
Bottle Rocket introduced us both to the singular world of Wes Anderson and the unique charm of the Wilson brothers. The film about a pair of friends planning a series of ambitious heists in Texas expands on Anderson’s first short of the same name, shot four years earlier. Co-writer Owen Wilson’s Dignan was the prototype Anderson protagonist with visions of grandeur and not enough common sense or self-awareness to back it up. Most adults who’ve forgotten to grow up are either repulsive in their adolescent behavior or the butt of the joke, but Dignan retains a certain boyish likability for all his crazy scheming. The original humor and stylistic quirks that feel so familiar now felt refreshing in 1996. And the music—a mixture of Mark Mothersbaugh score and classic rock (this time Rolling Stones and Love)—set the template for most Wes Anderson films. —Josh Jackson
The relationship to Anderson’s influences—how and maybe even why he makes his work—is what this film is all about. There are direct allusions to films that have popped up frequently in Anderson’s oeuvre: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Man Escaped, L’enfance nue and many Lubitsch films. But more importantly, the film seems to be about his relationship to directors (and also writers) that have influenced him. Gustave, with his dandyish and shy hard-living ways, may be a stand-in for Anderson, but only the way that the Amex “director” character of his commercial, modeled on outlandish heroes, is Anderson. “To be frank,” Mr. Moustafa says of Gustave, “I think his world vanished long before he entered it.” In this first film in which Anderson has sole screenwriting credit, he seems to be everyone. He is also, of course, the Author, both in the form of the man who is telling this tale, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and his fictionalized self (the Jude Law character) that met his characters and lived among the ruins. But Anderson is also Zero Moustafa, an eager apprentice to his hero. In the most poignant line in the film, Moustafa says about his mentor, “After all, we shared a vocation.” The same line could be said of Anderson and all the directors he references. —Miriam Bale
Rushmore introduced the world to Jason Schwartzman and helped pivot Bill Murray’s career from broad comic to art-house juggernaut. An unlikely inter-generational love triangle leads to one of the most entertaining feuds in filmdom. Schwartzman’s Max Fischer is an ambitious yet academically underachieving student at the prestigious Rushmore Academy in Houston, and Bill Murray plays wealthy industrialist Herman Blume. The two strike up an unexpected and unconventional friendship, but both end up falling for Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a teacher at Rushmore. When Max goes too far in trying to prove himself to Ms. Cross by breaking ground on a new building without the school’s permission, he’s finally expelled and ends up in a soul-crushing public school. To make matters worse, he finds out that Herman has begun dating the object of his desire. As with Bottle Rocket, Ruhsmore was co-written by Owen Wilson who, like Max, was expelled from a prep school. He and Anderson began work on the script long before Bottle Rocket was filmed, and Rushmore contains even more of the DNA found in the rest of Anderson’s catalog. Few films remain re-watchable into the double digits, but this one just keeps getting funnier. —Josh Jackson
Where much of Wes Anderson’s past work can come off as chilly and detached, Moonrise Kingdom exudes a warmth and innocence generated by the earnest adolescent romance at its core. The year is 1965, and the sleepy New England island of New Penzance is stirred to action when Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and local resident Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) run away together. Sam is gone by the time we arrive, so all the expository characterization we learn is from what others say about him: His fellow Scouts dislike him, and his foster parents don’t want him back. By the time we catch up with him, he certainly looks the part of an “emotionally disturbed” orphan: slight of frame with heavy black glasses, a coonskin cap and a shadow on his upper lip, his uniform plastered with merit badges, both official and homemade. But Sam is full of surprises: He’s a quite skilled outdoorsman, and when he reunites with the mod girl with whom he’s been exchanging letters for a year, he matter-of-factly hands her a bouquet of wildflowers and begins imparting survival tips. Likewise, Suzy is an unexpected rebel with a volatile streak that upsets the balance among her lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and three little brothers.Delightfully, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola avoid clichés at every opportunity. The forces that would typically work to tear Sam and Suzy apart instead rally behind them, perhaps infected by the conviction of their love, which never wavers, even in argument: “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Moonrise Kingdom is whimsical and, yes, precious, but it is so in the very best sense of the word. —Annlee Ellingson
Wes Anderson’s first two films took place in the Texas of his youth. The Royal Tenenbaums moves his storytelling to his adopted city of New York. And the story is one that bridges childhood and adulthood and the tremendous effects one has upon the other. The “Royal” in the title refers to Gene Hackman’s character. Royal Tenenbaum is the patriarch of a family of childhood prodigies: Chas (Ben Stiller), a math genius with a head for business; Richie (Luke Wilson), a tennis star; and adoptive daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), a playwright. The movie begins with Royal announcing his separation from his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston) before picking up years later with the children having gone on to great success and failure. As Etheline prepares to re-marry to her longtime accountant (Danny Glover), Royal announces that he has stomach cancer and attempts to reconcile with the family he abandoned. The family disfunction and struggle for redemption would become hallmarks of Anderson’s oeuvre, but here, with a talented cast that also included frequent collaborators Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Kumar Pallana, the auteur’s gift for wringing humor out of hopelessness is unmatched. As every piece of set dressing, every item of clothing seems and every symmetrical camera frame seems painstakingly managed, the characters are spiraling out of control; their despair is deeply felt, and their redemption serves as a euphoric release. It’s a beautiful movie both visually and emotionally and remains Anderson’s crowning achievement after all these years. —Josh Jackson