Wes Anderson’s latest cinematic creation, “The French Dispatch,” has earned invitations to screen at both the Cannes Film Festival and the San Sebastian Film Festival. However, within the extensive Anderson filmography, where does this film find its place? Ten films into his illustrious career, Anderson has forged one of the most unmistakably stylized bodies of work among contemporary American auteurs. From his distinctive color palette to his framing techniques and idiosyncratic sense of humor, an Anderson film is recognizable from a considerable distance. Nevertheless, a cohesive body of work doesn’t necessarily imply uniformity, and, in the eyes of this critic, Anderson has experienced both highs and lows. This assessment delves into how his films measure up thus far and traces the evolution of his signature whimsicality over the years.
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9. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Following the whimsical antics of “The Life Aquatic,” this meticulously designed picaresque was intended to mark Wes Anderson’s return to the profound familial themes and emotional depth reminiscent of “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Unfortunately, the film’s disjointed narrative, revolving around three estranged brothers attempting to reconcile during a disrupted spiritual journey through India, failed to resonate or evoke genuine emotions. The portrayal of privileged male self-absorption lacked a certain self-awareness, and despite the vibrant, beautiful hues of the geographical backdrop, the film’s final impact felt colder than intended.
Twee factor: 8/10. While there is a degree of irony in its portrayal of Western spiritual charlatanism, it falls short of achieving a sufficient level of it.
8. The French Dispatch (2021)
A pandemic-induced delay of one year heightened expectations for Anderson’s pseudo-Gallic collage to a level that would always be challenging to meet. Even within the director’s distinctive style, the film is a trifle, with its discrete mini-narratives, all presented as articles in the titular American-expat newspaper, amounting to little more than elaborate jokes. Some viewers perceive it as an elegiac homage to a bygone era of journalism, while others, including this writer, find it lacking in substance. Nevertheless, the film’s initial (and most compelling) segment, featuring Benicio Del Toro as an eccentric, incarcerated artist, exudes genuine humor, and its design elements are extravagantly whimsical.
Twee factor: 10/10. Set entirely in the fictional, pastel-painted town of Ennui-sur-Blasé — what more could one ask for?
8. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
Anderson’s distinctive sensibility and aesthetic render him exempt from the need to strive for additional quirkiness. However, this laid-back underwater escapade, geared towards the slacker spirit, heaps on eccentricities and affectations to the point of, well, saturation — it heavily relies on every ounce of Bill Murray’s dry onscreen energy to restore balance. While serving as a charming dual parody and homage to the renowned French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, the film introduces a level of busyness and aimlessness, laden with more whimsy than true wit.
Twee factor: 7/10. Slightly tempered by its potential appeal to a stoner audience, but let’s face it — its marine life is crafted by Henry Selick.
7. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
This might be an unpopularly low rating for a film that many consider the director’s most endearing, but I have to admit that Wes Anderson’s whimsical 2012 Cannes opener, a tale set in the 1960s about first love between two introverted New England adolescents, has left me rather indifferent. What seems to be a poignant narrative on paper turns surprisingly delicate in execution: Anderson treats his young protagonists more like charming dolls than genuine, flesh-and-blood youngsters. Named Sam and Suzy, the characters, once the suspicion sets in that they might be named after the amorous creatures in Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love,” become challenging to disconnect from that notion. Nevertheless, the film is impeccably lit and shot, standing on par with the visual excellence characteristic of any Anderson film.
Twee factor: 10/10. The title essentially conveys everything you need to know.
6. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
This marks both Wes Anderson’s inaugural foray into animation and his sole venture into literary adaptation. It wasn’t an obvious undertaking for him, considering the film’s dual status as a family-oriented production and a cinematic interpretation of the late Roald Dahl’s work. Dahl’s jagged, somewhat perverse humor, even in one of his more innocuous children’s books, occupies a distinct realm compared to the gentler zaniness characteristic of Wes Anderson’s universe. Nailing Dahl’s unique tone is no small feat — even a cinematic giant like Steven Spielberg struggled with it — but Anderson achieved a harmonious compromise, infusing his own obsessive-compulsive style with the scrappy, tangible quality of stop-motion animation. George Clooney’s brisk voice work served as the perfect complement.
Twee factor: 6/10. With Wes at the helm, animating woodland creatures, it retains a distinctly twee essence, but Dahl’s influence introduces an edginess.
5. Bottle Rocket (1996)
Not surprisingly, Wes Anderson’s debut film stands out as his most atypical. In every frame, you witness the newcomer striving to carve out his distinctive visual and tonal style, all the while being influenced by the scruffier and less stringent trends prevalent in the mid-1990s American indie movement. The outcome is a fumbling Texan heist tale, resembling early Tarantino but with a more neurotic twist. Undoubtedly, it is the director’s most uneven work, yet it exudes a lively, if somewhat messy, vibrancy that surpasses the more polished and mannered nature of some of his later creations. Additionally, it marked our introduction to the scuzzy and unconventional allure of Owen Wilson. While it may not stand the test of time as admirably as one would hope, its appeal is evident, explaining why luminaries like Martin Scorsese were impressed.
Twee factor: 3/10. Despite the typical quirkiness of the 90s, Anderson aimed for a more crisp execution in this outing.
4. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Anderson’s initial attempt at a film with “major” aspirations largely hit its mark, owing much of its success to the performance of Gene Hackman. His portrayal exuded wry gravitas and winking sadness, a rendition that is now often remembered as the retired veteran’s poignant screen farewell (let’s conveniently overlook “Welcome to Mooseport”). While Anderson typically revels in crafting dense, characterful ensembles, rarely does one actor, as much as Hackman does here, dictate the overall tone of the film. This bittersweet, Salinger-inspired dysfunctional family saga lingers with an elegiac sense of melancholy that not even the gleefully tacky 1970s costume design can fully dispel.
Twee factor: 6/10. The pastel velour surface may appear more precious than the beating heart beneath it all.
3. Isle of Dogs (2018)
Anderson’s second venture into animation might just be his outright weirdest film to date. Set in a dystopian world where every dog has its day, the narrative unfolds as an adventure featuring a group of abandoned mutts teaming up to undermine a corrupt Japanese dictatorship. While the synopsis suggests a frenetic pace, the film reveals itself as a cool, sparse hangout movie, allowing viewers ample time to savor the delirious intricacy of its world-building, visual in-jokes, and the stark sonic experimentation present in Alexandre Desplat’s score. Striking a delicate balance between appreciating and appropriating Japanese culture, the film has understandably garnered detractors, yet it remains a curiously hypnotic experience.
Twee factor: 8/10. Each eccentric detail seems meticulously placed for the auteur’s personal amusement.
2. Rushmore (1998)
A quantum leap beyond “Bottle Rocket,” this film showcases Wes Anderson’s manic energy evolving into a more refined storytelling confidence. In this tender coming-of-age tale, Anderson introduces his most enduring and endearing onscreen alter ego, Max Fischer. Max is a bright, brash, big-thinking, and socially inept high school misfit navigating an awkward first crush on a kind schoolteacher. Max’s ambitious school plays mirror Anderson’s own soaring creative ambition, finding a perfect scale in this sophomore effort. The film earns bonus points for kick-starting Bill Murray’s career comeback and establishing one of the director’s most cherished collaborations.
Twee factor: 7/10. While Max himself exudes a certain twee quality, the film is self-aware and embraces it with affection.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
No, the Academy doesn’t always catch up with filmmakers at the right moment, and neither does the public. However, the first Wes Anderson film to receive substantial Oscar recognition (and surpass $50 million at the box office) is undeniably his finest work—a towering, intricately layered, and exquisitely frosted celebration gateau with a big, aching heart at its core. It achieves the ideal balance between Anderson’s restless formal clutter—emerging as his most visually stunning film to date—and his more contemplative intellectual side. The film’s skewed, imagined historical escapade evolves into a poignant exploration of the fleeting comforts of nostalgia. In his role as a debonair hotel concierge sensing the end of his own era, Ralph Fiennes delivers the most richly layered performance in the Anderson canon.
Twee factor: 10/10. A pastel-pink cornucopia of tweeness, perfectly aligned with its delicate worldview.