10. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Anderson’s Indian train jaunt met the quota in terms of colourful compositions and visual panache (what better vehicle for his famous tracking shots than a train?), but exposed a privileged viewpoint that Anderson often struggles to shake. There was something distasteful about following three wealthy, troubled, white American brothers (metaphorical Louis Vuitton luggage in tow) across a landscape that seemed airbrushed of real-world poverty for the sake of hipster-friendly visuals, with an Indian boy’s drowning acting as a catalyst for their healing.
9. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Let’s face it, Bill Murray’s Cousteau-like ocean explorer is a bit of a grump. He spends most of the film in a morose funk, brought on by his family baggage and his obsessive quest for the “jaguar shark” that ate his partner. And along for the ride is a crew of famous faces who seem to have nothing to do. Despite the lavish cutaway-ship set, the bespoke Adidas trainers, the nonsense sea creatures (designed by Henry Selick) and the rest, the film’s most lasting element was Seu Jorge’s Portuguese-language Bowie covers. That’s a sign of failure.
8. Bottle Rocket (1996)
Compared with its successors, Anderson’s 1996 debut is practically a Dogme film. Unencumbered by budget or mannerism, it has a freewheeling roughness, the snappy dialogue and witty details hinting at bigger things to come. A ramshackle, slightly shallow tale of three friends whose commitment to a life of (petty) crime is not matched by their competence, it was also the debut of Anderson’s Texas buddies Luke and Owen Wilson (the latter steals the show) – an auspicious, if flawed, beginning.
7. Hotel Chevalier (2007)
It’s only 13 minutes long but Anderson’s single-location two-hander – ostensibly a warmup for The Darjeeling Limited – proves that he can do perfectly well without the bells and whistles, perhaps better. There’s practically nothing to it: Jason Schwartzman is holed up in an expensive Paris hotel room; Natalie Portman visits for a last goodbye. Peter Sarstedt’s Where Do You Go (To My Lovely)? plays on the iPod. But this minimal story captures a moment, and there’s a sense of what went before – and what will come after. He should do more like it.
6. Isle of Dogs (2018)
Anderson’s return to stop-motion is his most obsessively detailed film yet, with possibly his most out-there story: stray dogs quarantined on a Japanese trash island? Snout flu? Cat-loving bureaucrats? Robot attack dogs? Yoko Ono? And why set it in Japan anyway? “Why not?” seems to be the answer. Anderson’s mining of Japanese culture is largely deep and respectful, taking in futuristic postwar pop culture and traditional arts alike. There is still space among the sprawling voice cast for Anderson’s English-speaking regulars, plus a few Japanese names (speaking Japanese), and the familiar deadpan comedy is intact, even if the literally shaggy dog story lacks a sense of purpose beyond celebrating its own construction. But what construction!
5. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Anderson’s shtick was starting to look a little repetitive by his seventh feature: the isolated location (check: a New England island, with scout camp); the idiosyncratic style details (check: Françoise Hardy played from a portable record player); the fractured family; the doll’s-house set design; the orthogonal camerawork. But the story they are in service to here is rather sweet: two naive kids elope, despite their tenuous grasp of love, conversation or outdoor survival – what could be more romantic? It might have lacked substance – a perennial Anderson complaint – but it had charm.
4. Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
If you want a straightforward Roald Dahl adaptation, you don’t go to Anderson. Dahl’s countryside classic is merely the jumping-off point for a parable that’s as much about growing up, settling down and facing parental responsibilities as foiling farmers and stealing chickens. But its wayward mischief arguably captures some of Dahl’s essence. Anderson found his dream medium in stop-motion animation, where absolutely every visual element and split second of comic timing can be controlled. Who knows what Dahl would have made of American-accented creatures, badger real-estate agents and the madeup sport of “whackbat”. But plenty would have been familiar: Anderson modelled elements on Dahl’s own Buckinghamshire home. It’s a kids’ movie for grownups, but we’re fine with that.
3. Rushmore (1998)
The story of a precocious man-boy who stages wildly overambitious theatre productions but feels his talents are underappreciated – what could have inspired you, Wes? Rushmore is Anderson’s most focused story and also his darkest, with a willingness to skirt close to difficult subjects his later films sometimes dodge. Its hero, Max Fischer (Schwartzman), could be the anti-Graduate. He’s a brooding outsider student who develops a crush on an older woman, but Olivia Williams’s widowed schoolteacher isn’t much of a Mrs Robinson. Besides which, Max has a grownup rival for her affections in the form of Bill Murray, who also becomes his father-figure – awkward. Max isn’t much of a graduate either, but he’s a great character. He throws himself into extracurricular activities (cue Andersonian montage), sports a preppy blazer and an unearned sense of superiority, but his academic grades are terrible. It plays as a dry, stylistically daring coming-of-age comedy, but it could just as easily have been a horror movie.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
By this stage Anderson’s troupe of star players and his grandiose design ambitions had grown so big, he had to build a hotel – in fact, an entire fictional country, Zubrowka – to accommodate them. His 1930s-set caper is like a cake from its own Mendl’s patisserie: crammed with richness yet light as a feather; and, of course, beautifully packaged. It finds a trump card in Ralph Fiennes. Traditionally a dramatic heavyweight (and Harry Potter villain), he sets the comic tone here: clipped and courteous, but prone to surprising expletives and bursts of violence, Fiennes’ consummate hotel concierge, monsieur Gustave, sets the busy story in motion, initially thanks to his sexual penchant for wealthy, elderly women, which leads to an inherited artwork, a trumped-up murder charge, prison breaks, mountaintop chases – how does he pack it all in? Anderson literally went to town on this one. Everything is exactingly designed, from the wedding-cake Alpine hotel to the pink patisserie packaging, the postage stamps to the tassels on the room keys. In Zubrowka, they would call it a Gesamtkunstwerk. But beneath the confection there is also a sense of history and loss – not only for the characters personally, but also for interwar Europe and its crumbling aristocratic order.
1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Its influence has now seeped into the culture, but cinema had seen nothing quite like this when it came out in 2001. So fully formed was Anderson’s aesthetic vision, he seemed to be some kind of savant. He could craft a story of literary breadth with vivid characters (and marshal an intimidating star cast). His deadpan wit was so hip it hurt, and his dazzling command of visuals and music made more established film-makers look amateur. Peter Bogdanovich compared him to his hero Orson Welles: “Wes is one of those rare picture-makers who can see the whole movie in his head long before he shoots.” In many ways, Tenenbaums remains Anderson’s most complete movie. Like Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, it is an eccentric story about a family of eccentrics, but at heart an unhappy one, and therefore entirely relatable. The father (Gene Hackman) is a liar and a scoundrel. The mother (Anjelica Huston) is long-suffering and too smart to put up with it all. Their three children (Luke Wilson, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow) were all prodigies who lost their respective directions, if not their talents for accessorising. And they’re all brought back together in their hulking New York homestead to compete for each other’s attention and affections. The yearning romance between Wilson and Paltrow’s characters, in particular, is the most sincere and mature of all Anderson’s movies. And it’s all the better for Paltrow’s Lacoste dresses and panda eyeliner, Wilson’s headband-and-sunglasses combo, and a choice soundtrack cut like Nico’s These Days. Style and substance came together beautifully to form a movie that is both breathtakingly precise and poignantly heartfelt.