If it’s possible to indifferent to Wes Anderson, then I am. When I’ve done this kind of work on other directors or brands, I’ve much more interested in the products either because there’s something about them that I find a kind of affront in, or because I really like them. Then again, “affront” is not really the right word for Anderson anyway. He must be one of the better known directors among people who are relatively in the know but who do not spend a lot of time wondering if they have watched the thousand movies they must see before they die or if they’ve spent more good hours on the Criterion Channel than their Film Twitter friends. But people out there must care about him! By a country mile, it is easier to find Wes Anderson lists than Paul Thomas Anderson or David Lynch lists, even though I have no idea who might suggest that Wes is a more important, more inventive, or more interesting filmmaker than Paul or David.
He fits into a very odd space indeed. He’s a little bit polarizing but I’ve never seen anyone get mad about his work, which is some kind of miracle given the invention of the Internet. He has never won an Oscar, despite having been nominated twice in Original Screenplay and Animated Feature alike. I mean, burying the lede here, but there must be more people making narrative features and documentaries than people making live-action and animated movies, which has become a very Anderson touch. Is there any other director, saving Tim Burton, who is best known for his movies’ particular style of production design? He’s certainly not a box office dynamo; only one of his movies has made more than $100 million dollars, and yet the further we get into his career the more he works with Indian Paintbrush instead of heading back to one of the big studios to get some enormous budget. Despite that, there is no equivalent “Accidental David Fincher” or “Accidental Christopher Nolan” Instagram account that I know of.
Wes Anderson is a few particular tastes. There’s the quirk deadpan of his characters, the somewhat repetitive structure of his stories, that famous visual style. In the lists, you can kind of find what people gravitate to, assuming they’re gravitating at all. Is it the laconic strangeness of something like Rushmore? Is it the sweetness of Moonrise Kingdom? Is it the dainty world of The Grand Budapest Hotel? Is there room for two or more? (Given the chilly reception to The Life Aquatic, it doesn’t appear to be Bill Murray.)
1) Search for any and all lists I could find which rate Wes Anderson’s films from Bottle Rocket to Isle of Dogs. There are some films on there which are not narrative features, so I kept it to these nine.
2) I found a combination of lists from sources which, I’ll grant, are not all the gold standard in criticism, but generally speaking I wanted something a little better than “just someone’s blog.” If a list is taken from someone’s personal rankings on Letterboxd, I note it. The list of sources, in all: Business Insider, California Aggie, Cinemablend, Cinemaholic, Collider, Concrete Playground, Cody Dericks (Letterboxd), Entertainment IE, Far Out Magazine, Zach Gilbert (Letterboxd), J.P. Glick Webber (Letterboxd), Gold Derby, The Guardian, High on Film, the Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire, Adam Kempenaar (Letterboxd), Josh Larsen (Letterboxd), Jay Ledbetter (Letterboxd), Little White Lies, Metacritic, Moviefone, NME, Paste, Phoenix Film Festival, Reel Rundown, Rotten Tomatoes, Screenrant, Studiobinder, Brian Tallerico (Letterboxd), Thrillist, They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, Ultimate Movie Rankings, Variety, Vulture, What Culture, and The Wrap. In other words, some of these are aggregators, some of these are individual outlets, some of these are very respectable and others just vaguely so…it is a weird group but it’s mine.
3) The ranking system is very simple: write down the place the movie holds on each list, get an average over the 37, low number wins.
Not that we’re here for me, but: The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Darjeeling Limited, Rushmore, Bottle Rocket, Isle of Dogs, Moonrise Kingdom. In case that’s worrisome to you, none of the thirty-seven actual critics or outlets I’ve included here have that list.
Let’s hurry and get to the list. The French Dispatch could be released at any moment!
Tier 4: Basically Raleigh St. Clair for Your Average Contributor
9) The Darjeeling Limited / Average score: 7.892
8) Bottle Rocket / Average score: 7.189
7) The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou / Average score: 6.865
Amusingly, out of all the tiers with multiple entries, this is the one that I think I’d most enjoy sitting down and watching. Obviously that doesn’t appear to hold for most of the polling group. Thirty-one lists have one of these three movies ninth; thirty have one of these movies eighth; twenty-two, a paucity by comparison, have one of them seventh. On fifteen of thirty-seven lists, these actually are the 7-8-9 in some combination. On the flipside, these three movies combine for five placements in the top four (that is, the top half) on all lists. That’s three percent. While there’s some relative praise for these movies—from these kinds of articles you always get the “oh, he’s never really made a bad movie, etc.” guff—I think there’s even some question as to how good some of these even are. I think these films suffer because they are probably the three least Wes Anderson movies of them all. In the same way that the Coens doing Ealing or screwball comedies get quizzical looks from listmakers before they shunt them aside, these three movies are dropped. Maybe, in the case of Bottle Rocket, it’s because it lacks the visual panache we come to expect. Or maybe, in the case of The Life Aquatic, there’s a stiflingly lachrymose quality to the film which lacks the breezy heist plot of half of this guy’s other movies.
The Darjeeling Limited is absolutely the whipping boy of this group of whipping boys, although, curiously enough, it’s not the aggregators that are placing it ninth. Metacritic puts Bottle Rocket and Life Aquatic beneath it; so does Ultimate Movie Rankings, though in the opposite order; Rotten Tomatoes just puts Life Aquatic below it. Yet on individual list after individual list, it gets that ninth slot. There’s a dismissive quality to the Darjeeling Limited commentary. Where Bottle Rocket is definitely being given the “It’s his first movie, let it live” treatment and Life Aquatic seems to inspire some level of consternation when it’s ranked low, Darjeeling Limited simply gets placed here without much fuss.
What they do have in common, of course, is that these are the three least Wes Anderson movies, whether or not you would agree that they are the three worst Wes Anderson movies. Bottle Rocket feels more like “mid-’90s indie fare” than it does “Wes Anderson.” Darjeeling Limited comes out very near to The Brothers Bloom, Rian Johnson’s movie which also stars Adrien Brody as a disgruntled younger brother finally having it out with his older brother now that they’re adults. Anecdotally, I think the two are easy to get confused just in terms of IMDb synopsis. And The Life Aquatic appeals to me in large part because it is so snappish compared to your average Wes Anderson film. There’s a violent quality to it, one which Bottle Rocket shares in its multiple scenes which are more “burglary” than “heist,” and that violence acts as a counterpoint to the more traditionally Anderson-crystalline elements which otherwise come through loud and clear in Life Aquatic. In short, I think that unhappiness, which the film centers on, turns people off when they’re looking for a fairly light Anderson lark. The Guardian puts it ninth and notes that Steve Zissou is “a bit of a grump.” Writing for the Phoenix Film Festival, Jeff Mitchell finds that the movie isn’t much fun. I think that “not fun” bit is probably true, but I also think that’s kind of what’s wonderful about Life Aquatic or what’s unexpected about The Darjeeling Limited. I’ll just plug my own ranking again and move on.
Tier 3: Another Teen Movies
6) Isle of Dogs / Average score: 5.730
5) Fantastic Mr. Fox / Average score: 4.486
4) Moonrise Kingdom / Average score: 4.027
First off: yes, Fantastic Mr. Fox wins the stop-motion crown over Isle of Dogs, and by a fairly wide margin at that. The idea that someone might be airmailing a stop-motion film sounds totally ludicrous, but that’s basically the impression I got from Isle of Dogs, so I’m glad to find that that Mr. Fox is well ahead on points, about as far ahead of Isle of Dogs as Isle of Dogs is ahead of The Life Aquatic.
I wonder about these as teen movies because it really feels like they’re being directed towards an audience which hasn’t yet gone to college. Rare are the animated movies made in this country which are made without an eye towards an audience under the age of 18 (and yes, I’m emphatically including stuff like Sausage Party in this calculus). The two stop-motion films, being made in the typically kid-friendly style of Laika films or Wallace and Gromit, don’t quite escape that. As for Moonrise Kingdom, there is a cheery, upbeat affect to this movie which either strikes the reviewers as really sweet and lovely (as in Entertainment.ie, which goes for “hopeful,” or in Paste, which cops to “precious”) or, well, precious. Screenrant sees a film which is “insincere and forced” compared to his other work, where Variety finds a cute story “wispy in practice.” All the same, I don’t know how you watch Moonrise Kingdom past age 16 or 17 without thinking it’s almost condescending as a romance in the same way that people look at preschoolers of opposite sexes playing together and feel compelled to say they’re boyfriend and girlfriend.
There are certainly defenders of each of these films. Isle of Dogs has the fewest partisans on its side—of the nine movies here, it’s the highest-ranked one without a single first-place vote—but the other two both log a couple first-place votes.
Moonrise Kingdom is in the top three on just over half of the lists in the sample, and while Mr. Fox can’t keep up with that pace, it does have one fewer bottom-three vote than Moonrise Kingdom and the happy benefit of no last-place votes. David Ehrlich’s rankings on Indiewire feel like a good place to look in terms of the high praise that both of them can garner from the most feverish keyboards. He calls Moonrise Kingdom a “pre-pubescent Badlands” and compares Anderson’s ability to make a movie about kids without necessarily making it for kids to Bresson, Miyazaki, and Bergman. (David Ehrlich would presumably not think much of my take on Moonrise Kingdom.) As glowing as that is, he still has it two spots below his top film, Fantastic Mr. Fox, which he finds slightly less quotable than Casablanca.
I think this tier is where the rubber meets the road for you vis-à-vis Anderson as one of our better directors. If the impression these films give is that they are effervescent and charming and beautiful, then you’re likely to rate him pretty highly compared to his cohort. If these films come off as pretentious (oh, that word) or wooden or saccharine, then the likelihood that the rest suffer for you definitely goes up.
Tier 2: The Poles of Wes Anderson
3) Rushmore / Average score: 3.162
2) The Grand Budapest Hotel / Average score: 3.108
I got to wondering about whether Wes Anderson is on the upswing or the downswing, critically speaking, so I made a little graph.
The graph is playing a little trick on us; the negative trend line is, given the data, a positive sign for Anderson’s notices. But on the whole it’s not got much slope on it at all, presumably because no one liked Life Aquatic or Darjeeling Limited right in the middle of his career thus far. What anchors this graph is the closeness, in preference if not in years, of Rushmore and The Grand Budapest Hotel. No movies are closer to each other than these two, and with just five hundredths of a point separating them, that’s one of the closest marks between movies I’ve got among any in my data set. To put it another way: add up the total placements for Grand Budapest (115) and Rushmore (117), and the difference between them is basically the difference that one list makes. Grand Budapest, which was floating in the four-spot for a fairly long time, ended up getting a really strong rush at the end, and a fairly cool reception for Rushmore in the last fifteen lists or so I compiled sealed the deal.
They are still, as far as I can tell, the polar ends of Anderson’s career with a symmetry that would have to please even the man himself. They are his second and second-to-last movie, at least until The French Dispatch happens. Rushmore is the apex of his satirical ability, an alarmingly sharp treatment of just the kind of little drips who are liable to get into Anderson movies from a young age; Grand Budapest is the apex of his dollhouse aesthetic, resplendent with gorgeous working models, aggressive costumes, and a cast of thousands. Rushmore is not the best-reviewed of the Anderson oeuvre, at least not by this measure, but check out best of decade lists from the hip crowd—Time Out, the AV Club, Paste, Slant—and you’ll see it rated highly. The Grand Budapest Hotel, despite getting no small amount of praise from critics, is noteworthy on the reception end for being the breakthrough Wes Anderson feature at the Oscars; at the 87th Academy Awards, only Best Picture and Director-winning Birdman did as well, with both films going four for nine. That the group I’ve managed to plumb has come up with the two of them right next to each other like this is a happy result. This being a Wes Anderson post, I wouldn’t dare to call it a coincidence.
Tier 1: The Compromise Candidate
1) The Royal Tenenbaums / Average score: 2.568
“Compromise candidate” sounds a little demeaning, and I think I’m definitely overstating matters. The Royal Tenenbaums ranks first on eighteen of thirty-seven lists, which is very good. Grand Budapest has nine first-place votes. Rushmore has more five first-place votes but the mode for that movie is 2 and not 1, as it is for the other two. So no, “compromise candidate” is not really the right term for a film which is, based on this group of voters, pretty clearly Wes Anderson’s top film. (To compare to some other lists I’m still working on, the distance between Anderson’s first-place and second-place film is greater than the distance between John Carpenter’s or David Fincher’s.)
If there’s a movie between the two just beneath it which it hews closer to, it must be Rushmore. Like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums is set in a contemporary milieu where you can find the color gray, and it functions best when it’s funny mixed with sadness as opposed to indulging in the occasionally zany slapstick of Grand Budapest. Royal, like Max, is first and foremost an object of derision for us; Monsieur Gustave is frequently an object of curiosity or pity, but disdain is not meant to be first on our minds in relation to our main character. If there is a way that The Royal Tenenbaums moves more towards Grand Budapest, it’s in sprawl, the way that it floridly introduces the many characters who we’ll need to keep up with over the course of the story. That combination is what makes it a compromise of sorts, a gesture to the best of both worlds, and personally I’m inclined to agree with that assessment.