Merely mention the name Wes Anderson, and cineastes of a particular persuasion – possibly wearing berets, certainly fans of yellow Futura Bold typesets – are likely to start feeling warm, welcome tingles. They're ready to rhapsodise about perfectly-composed frames, a blend of vibrant colours and pastels and quirksome characters, brought to life by a revolving ensemble who have nailed his rat-a-tat dialogue stylings.
With Anderson's latest, Asteroid City on our screens and another film – Roald Dahl adaptation The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar – also due later this year, what better time to take stock of the director's uniquely styled oeuvre (surely the only term for his work) to date. Team Empire therefore dressed to the nines in vintage suit and put out a call via an old-timey megaphone to gather a group, ready to discuss and debate his films – of which, well, there aren’t any outright duds, but different shades of greatness. There will be side-pans. There will be unique characters. And there will be plenty of Bill Murray. Take a peek at our Anderson ranking.
11) Bottle Rocket (1996)
From the very beginning, Wes Anderson was someone people took notice of. Martin Scorsese saw Anderson’s feature debut Bottle Rocket and immediately became a fan. Anderson, he wrote later, “knows how to convey the simple joys and interactions between people so well and with such richness. This kind of sensibility is rare in movies.” Owen and Luke Wilson play buddies Dignan and Anthony, the former springing the latter out of a psychiatric unit and presenting him with an elaborate, 75-year heist plan which should set them both up for life. They start small, but during one mini-heist Anthony has his head turned by a lover and the boys’ alliance starts to crumble. It’s a tight, characterful calling card, with nascent signs of Anderson’s later distinctive style – enjoyable and well-crafted in its own right, but a precursor to bigger things.
10) Isle Of Dogs (2018)
On a pure gag basis, Isle Of Dogs could lay claim to be Wes Anderson’s funniest film. The offbeat timing that gives his live-action work its unique flavour feels all the more snappy in his animated features. There’s much to work with in his second stop-motion film – a rare Wes Anderson film that tilts into sci-fi, imagining a world in which a corrupt, despotic Japanese mayor has banished all dogs to Trash Island after a ‘canine flu’ outbreak, where they scrap among themselves for the tastiest morsels of crap slung their way. Bryan Cranston, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Ed Norton and Bill Murray voice a gang of toughs who chance upon young human Atari (Koyu Rankin), searching for his own lost dog Spots. It’s a beauty to look at, even by Anderson’s standards (check that sushi-assembly scene and be wowed all over again), but accusations of appropriate aren’t exactly inaccurate, and it’s a more lightweight entry in the Wes canon.
9) The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Wes Anderson's fifth film hasn't dated as well as the rest of his canon: with its confusing Natalie Portman-starring short film prologue Hotel Chevalier, largely unlikeable characters, and uncomfortably thoughtless colonial politics, the consensus is that it's a Lesser Wes-ser. But The Darjeeling Limited is not necessarily limited in its delights. Shot on location in the Indian state of Rajasthan, it's a stunningly handsome work, rich in colour schemes and congruous camera angles. The soundtrack, too – always a memorable element with this filmmaker – is working at full capacity here, a lovely fusion of east (original scores from classic Satyajit Ray films) and west (three deep cuts from The Kinks, among others). And Anderson finds an old-fashioned romance to the eponymous train itself, especially in the recurring last-minute dashes, filmed in glorious slow-mo, as Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman quite literally get rid of some emotional baggage.
8) The French Dispatch (2021)
Anderson loves a framing narrative, and as he’s matured he’s started shifting the frames around on his cinematic mantelpiece. It wasn’t enough to make his first live-action movie in seven years with The French Dispatch: instead, Anderson mimicked the fictional magazine of the title by telling the distinct stories carried in its pages. First, Owen Wilson introduces us to Ennui-sur-Blasé by bike, before we see violent prisoner Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) become a sensation in the art world but lose his muse (Léa Seydoux) in the process. Then a student uprising led by the revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) is covered by an infatuated journalist (Frances McDormand), and finally a policeman (Jeffrey Wright) remembers a kidnapping. The anthology approach makes it more uneven than most of his work, but it’s a marvel that he managed to juggle that many stories and characters so adroitly.
7) The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)
After a second-career coming-out party with Lost In Translation, Bill Murray’s sardonic, crumpled anti-charm acts as the rudder for Anderson’s wistful water odyssey. He’s Steve Zissou, the burned-out, washed-up oceanographer who wants to find the ‘sand jaguar’ which ate his buddy Esteban. But the search for the shark-thing and the arrival of Steve’s maybe-son Ned (Owen Wilson) gets everyone going again, as does journalist Jane (Cate Blanchett), who makes one point of a father-son-journo love triangle. It’s a lot of fun, and you can see green shoots of where Anderson – still relatively early in his career – would head from here too. There’s the stopmotion crabs and other creatures which hint at an urge to get into animation, and the absolutely stunning sequence where we swoop around Steve’s ship – a real, three-quarter replica chopped in half – is the work of a filmmaker hitting his stride.
6) Asteroid City (2023)
Anderson’s newest joint ramps up the mid-century Americana to intergalactic levels, as a Junior Stargazer event in the desert turns into something altogether more Close Encounters. Tom Hanks and Scarlett Johannson join the Anderson troupe for the first time, and Johannson in particular is great: world-weary and vulnerable, with a bitter aftertaste. It’s the most advanced example yet of Anderson taking his beloved framing narratives and stapling them around the place too: we also get the story of a beleaguered playwright, hopelessly besotted with his leading man, and trying to pull together a story before opening night. As he was back at the start of the Anderson era, Jason Schwartzman is the point man holding everything together as widowed photographer Augie, and doing it as immaculately as ever.
5) Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
It’s a mark of how high Anderson’s critical stock was that George Clooney and Meryl Streep jumped aboard to voice Mr and Mrs Fox in Roald Dahl’s tale of the chicken-stealing vulpine gadabout. When The Foxes move to a new home, they’re in the sights of notoriously anti-fox farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. There are lots of Andersonian tics added to Dahl’s story: Mr Fox is a newspaper columnist since retiring from thieving, and one with a strained relationship with his kid which is only made worse when a high-achieving cousin called Kristofferson moves in. The only way to get his mojo back? Raid the farmers’ stock without her indoors finding out. But Kristofferson gets captured, and it’s up to Mr Fox to bust him out. This is Wes at his most carefree and buoyant – and the stop-motion animation is stunning, not only as meticulously designed and handcrafted as his live-action features, but full of invention too.
4) Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
This story of runaway sweethearts is as close as Anderson has yet got to making a genre movie (though Wes Anderson movies are kind of a genre to themselves). It’s your classic coming-of-age jam: orphan Sam and wealthy, slightly frightening Suzy are two gifted 12-year-olds who bond at summer camp in 1964, and can’t bear the thought of being apart. So they run away together, and found their own camp called Moonrise Kingdom – but the adults are after them, led by Bruce Willis’s Captain Sharp. It’s also not yourr classic coming-of-age jam, though. As a particularly brilliant montage of their letters to each other shows, Sam and Suzy are quietly angsty, burning dog kennels and bricking windows, and there’s a feeling that a particular kind of autumnal, innocent Americana is being hunted down with them. It’s gorgeous to look at, and Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are perfectly judged as the young lovebirds.
3) Rushmore (1998)
You can’t understate how important Jason Schwartzman’s turn as frighteningly motivated but academically undercooked schoolboy Max Fischer is to the whole Wes Anderson project. Schwartzman set the Anderson tone perfectly as the very intense school kid Max, who’s on the verge of being kicked out of his prestigious school when he falls for the widowed Rosemary (Olivia Williams) and decides to try to woo her. Except, he’s 15 years old, and he’s bested by local businessman Herman Blume (Bill Murray, then effecting a hard reset on his flatlining career with quirky bit parts). Max isn’t one to be put off, though, and a rapidly-escalating war between him and Blume gives us one of Anderson’s best needle-drop moments: a surprise bee attack, a destroyed bike, and some cut brakes, set to The Who’s ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’.
2) The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
There have been many miracles of casting in Wes Anderson movies. But he hit the motherlode when he paired Ralph Fiennes with Monsieur Gustave H, the concierge of the glamorous Grand Budapest Hotel. M Gustave seduces the elderly clientele at the hotel, and is left a valuable painting in the will of one of his paramours. Unfortunately, her son is furious, and has Gustave arrested for murder. Despite the jailbreak and multiple murders, The Grand Budapest Hotel could have been a confection – literally: the action stops to include a recipe for choux pastry and creme pat at one point – but the romantic subplot and Gustave’s deep love for the hotel ground things. It’s no coincidence that the soundtrack to all those TikTok parodies came from Alexandre Desplat’s harpsichord-heavy score: for many, this is Wes in his absolute pomp.
1) The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Wes’ breakout movie was a defining indie movie for a generation – and still stands as his greatest work. Gruff, hard-driving and terminally unavailable New York patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman, in his last truly great role) gets his kids back together – formerly gifted, now emotionally drifted – when he announces that he’s dying. Chas (Ben Stiller), once a maths whizz, is now an overprotective dad and widower. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow, with Nico-style eyeliner) hasn’t written a hit play in years, and former tennis prodigy Richie (Luke Wilson) is on a post-breakdown cruise. The results are funny, droll, and sometimes devastating. Anderson sometimes gets a bit of flak for being too arch and buttoned-up for his own good, but there’s a real emotional wallop here – especially for tortured Richie – a deeply human streak to offset all that perfectly-manicured style. That ‘Hey Jude’-assisted prologue is peak Wes too: pithy, good-looking, funny and richly layered. There are no teams, Chassy!