Native Texan Wes Anderson is undoubtedly one of the most well-known and polarizing directors in American cinematic history. His work is strange, off-beat, deadpan, and often confusing. Certain fans and critics sing his praises for these exact reasons, claiming that there’s a savant-like quality to his work and that he’s constantly pushing the boundaries of the film medium. Others complain that his films are devoid of emotion and that his artsy directorial style is just a way to hide a lack of substance. Simply said, you either love the work of Wes Anderson, or you hate it.
Nonetheless, no one can deny that Anderson has had a massive impact on film culture, and many directors since have borrowed stylistic elements that Anderson pioneered. And his latest film Asteroid City is perhaps the most succinct example of his iconic cinematographic style to date. This film hit theaters on May 23, 2023, and features an ensemble cast including A-list actors like Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Steve Carell, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Matt Dillon, Liev Schreiber, and Jeff Goldblum (who plays an alien in one of the strangest cameos of his career).
So, even if you aren’t a huge fan of Wes Anderson, it’s clear that Hollywood’s elite actors just can’t wait to work with him. So, let’s take a look back at Wes Anderson’s historic career and identify the five best Wes Anderson movies he’s ever made. Feel free to argue my selections in the comments.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
The 2014 comedy-drama The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of Anderson’s most well-known films as well as one of his most critically acclaimed. The film is set at, well, a grand hotel in the mountains of the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka. In the present time, the hotel’s edifice is decaying, and its glory days are passed. However, the narrator of the film (who’s known simply as “Author”) transports the audience to 1968 and recounts his momentous visit to the famous hotel during its heyday.
The film stars Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur Gustave H., the hotel’s renowned concierge who’s been working there for decades, and Tony Revolori as Zero Moustafa, the newly hired bellhop who studies under Gustave. The film also features other regular associates of Anderson’s, including Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray. The Grand Budapest Hotel is somewhat an homage to the director himself (using Ralph Fiennes’s character as a proxy) and a love letter to the art of storytelling.
2. The Royal Tenenbaums
The 2001 comedy-drama The Royal Tenenbaums was co-written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, and it shows. The film showcases Anderson’s directorial style to a tee, and Owen Wilson’s influence is seen in the off-brand, awkward humor that illuminates the script. This film follows three childhood prodigies, all the children of a successful and eccentric man named Royal Tenenbaum, all of whom have their own unique talents.
Chas is a math and business genius. Margot (who was adopted) was awarded a valuable grant for a play she wrote in ninth grade and Richie is a tennis prodigy who expresses his love for his adopted sister through painting. However, as life goes on, they all experience great disappointment in adulthood, and they’re abandoned by their father.
However, when Royal gets kicked out of the hotel in which he’s been living, he decides to try to reconnect with his family after 22 years. Like many Wes Anderson films, the storyline of The Royal Tenenbaums is complex and involves many characters and the subtle relationships between them. Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston play the Tenenbaum parents, and Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and Gwyneth Paltrow star as the three Tenenbaum children. This is definitely one of the funniest films in Wes Anderson’s catalog, but it can also be sweet and dramatic at times.
3. Moonrise Kingdom
Personally, one of my favorite aspects of the 2012 coming-of-age film Moonrise Kingdom was seeing some of Hollywood’s most prominent actors dressed in Boy Scout uniforms. Every scene that featured Edward Norton, the famous star of Fight Club, in khaki short shorts made me chuckle immediately. Aside from that, though, Moonrise Kingdom was an incredibly unique and well-executed film.
The story is set at a summer camp on the fictional island of New Penzance, which sits somewhere off the coast of New England. However, things go awry when two young lovers named Sam and Suzy run off to a remote beach together, causing the camp counselors and local police to embark on a wild goose chase.
As always, this film has an ensemble cast full of some of Hollywood’s brightest stars. Frances McDormand and Bill Murray appear as Mr. and Mrs. Bishop, the parents of one of the lost children. Bruce Willis appears as Captain Sharp, the island’s chief of police. Edward Norton plays Scout Master Randy Ward, a rule-obsessed camp counselor. And Tilda Swinton plays a Social Services agent. The whole film is an aesthetic masterpiece, and the script is absolutely hilarious at times.
The 1998 film Rushmore is another contribution of Wes Anderson’s to the coming-of-age genre starring Jason Schwartzman in his film debut. He plays a teenager named Max Fischer, who’s rather developed for his age. He has a mature cinephile, he courts a first-grade teacher who’s way too old for him, and he has a commanding demeanor that’s impressive for a man of his age. Things change for Max, though, when he befriends a middle-aged industrialist (played by Bill Murray) who ends up having an affair with his love interest.
Discovering the affair, Max is thrust into a quest for revenge and is determined to sort out this strange love triangle. This film received mostly positive reviews from critics, who were particularly impressed by Bill Murray’s performance. In fact, Murray was nominated for and won several awards in the Best Supporting Actor category for this film. Of course, a big part of this film’s success was also the genius screenwriting and directing of Wes Anderson.
5. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Speaking of Bill Murray, the 2004 film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou stars Bill Murray as Steve Zissou, an eccentric oceanographer who’s heavily inspired by real-life French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Murray even wore Cousteau’s trademark red knit beanie throughout the entire film. The film follows Zissou and his crew on a new expedition in search of an elusive creature known as a “jaguar shark.” However, for this mission, they’re accompanied by a new crewmember named Ned (played by Owen Wilson) and a pregnant report named Jane (played by Cate Blanchett).
This film is all over the place. There’s a spa and sauna onboard the submarine. There are two dolphins that follow the submarine and are supposedly intelligent but never do what they’re told. There are a bunch of stop-motion sea creatures. There’s a guy who has no real role in the movie other than to sit on the edge of the boat and sing David Bowie songs in Portuguese. It’s all a bit chaotic. But if you’re a fan of Wes Anderson, you’ll love how quirky and strange this movie gets at times.