6. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Thirty seconds into The Darjeeling Limited, the action on screen is passing by in slow motion, and The Kinks begin to play over the title card while a despondent looking Bill Murray looks out at the audience. So much here feels borrowed from Anderson’s earlier films that he might as well have been following a checklist. (Dialogue delivered like a doctor giving a patient bad news? Check. Jason Schwartzman, Angelica Houston, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson all making appearances? Check.) Anderson’s always had his tropes, but his earlier films — even The Life Aquatic — all try to bring some new elements to the table. Unfortunately, The Darjeeling Limited is where his style starts to feel like a schtick.
5. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
Exceedingly frustrating to watch, The Life Aquatic has many of the things we love about Wes Anderson movies — exceedingly dry humor, beautiful shots, a killer soundtrack, and of course, Bill Murray — and it still falls flat. Liking Steve Zissou is tough, because he’s a selfish jackass. Which is fine. Not every film needs to have a likeable protagonist. But the film goes for an emotional payoff that would require you to have some sympathy for Zissou to work, and you don’t, so it doesn’t. Still, there are flashes of brilliance throughout the film; the final confrontation is eerily beautiful, and the soundtrack (consisting almost entirely of Brazilian David Bowie covers) is inspired.
4. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Story-wise, The Royal Tenenbaums is the director’s most ambitious effort, covering the complicated relationships of a large ensemble cast. Add to this the fact that almost all of the characters are played by veteran, big-name actors, and Tenenbaums instantly seems much grander in scale than Anderson’s earlier efforts. Gene Hackman’s Royal is equal parts conman and curmudgeon, but Hackman makes you root for him despite all his transgressions. Owen Wilson also shines as the drugged-out novelist desperate to be a member of the Tenenbaum family. Sadly, Anderson newcomers Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow seem out of place. Almost affectless, Paltrow looks like a child whose parents are forcing her to do something she doesn’t want to do. That actually suits the character, but she never shows us more than that, so Margot never feels like more than a well-dressed cipher. Beloved though it is by those who saw it at the right age, Tenenbaums also lent ammunition to critics arguing that Anderson had more style than soul.
3. Bottle Rocket (1996)
Sure, it doesn’t have stop-motion animals, cutaway facades, or fancy panning shots, but that doesn’t stop Bottle Rocket from being both thoroughly entertaining and really good. The dialogue is razor-sharp; with Owen Wilson, Anderson really brought his A-game to the script. While it’s obvious that Anderson was severely limited budget-wise, he still does a great job of establishing what would be come his trademark visual style. Even at this early stage of his career, you really got the feeling that he was going to go on to do some really special things behind the camera. But Bottle Rocket also has a lightness that Anderson’s later films sometimes bury in production design.
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Speaking of production design, Fantastic Mr. Fox is almost all production design. Luckily, that production design is breathtaking. There is so much detail packed into every frame and into every deliberate fox footstep that you can’t help but feel the immense love Anderson and crew must have had for the source material. Animation aside, this is basically the same Wes Anderson you’ve grown to love (or hate), and it’s doubtful that watching Fantastic Mr. Fox would change your opinion of his work one way or the other. But there’s just nothing out there that looks or feels quite like this film; everyone should see it at least once. (Oh, and Bill Murray plays a badger. So that’s cool.)
1. Rushmore (1998)
“What’s his name again?” “Max Fischer.” “Sharp little guy.” “He’s one of the worst students we’ve got.” With that, we are introduced to the gloriously preoccupied protagonist of Rushmore, and to Anderson’s best film. Everything here clicks. Jason Schwartzman plays his role perfectly, such that you want to give Max Fischer a hug as much as you want to punch him in the face — but actually, the characters are all written so well, there’s something to enjoy about each of them. You can identify with Mr. Blume’s anomie as much as with Max’s desperation, and the love interest, Rosemary Cross, feels more like a real person with her own needs than the obscure objects of desire in other Anderson productions. But beyond the central triad, you get some of Anderson’s most memorable supporting players, including the ginger twins, who look like they’re out of some kind of South Park/Stanley Kubrick hybrid, and the oddly violent Scotsman with an arsenal of weapons tucked up his sleeve. This is the film that best ties together Anderson’s meticulous whimsy and his sympathetic understanding of human foibles.