I have never been more excited about an upcoming film than I am for Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch.” Apart from being a huge fan of his work, I’m curious to see what he does with his first live-action film since “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in 2014. We’ve had to wait a bit longer than usual, thanks to the release being pushed back about a year, but that’s given us plenty of time to revisit some of his earlier work. If you want to know what films to watch before “The French Dispatch,” or if you’re new to the director and want to know the most important of his works, here’s are what I think are the five essential Wes Anderson films.
1. “Rushmore” (1998)
While his 1996 debut “Bottle Rocket” has its charms, Anderson’s second feature, “Rushmore,” is the better, more important film of his early years. It follows high schooler Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, “The Darjeeling Limited”) as he gets involved in a love triangle involving his teacher (Olivia Williams, “The Sixth Sense”) and an older parent at the school (Bill Murray, “Lost In Translation”). The film is where many of Anderson’s stylistic tendencies start to come into their own — like his use of ’60s pop music, symmetrical framing and color. With a bit more emotional depth than his debut, “Rushmore” is better equipped to handle the balance between darkness and joy that permeates the rest of his work. A stellar Bill Murray is the highlight of a cast that includes a few future Anderson regulars — like Luke Wilson, Schwartzman and Murray himself. It’s the film that put Anderson on the map and is, therefore, essential viewing when going through his work.
2. “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001)
My personal favorite of the Anderson oeuvre, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is the filmmaker’s first big ensemble piece. The cast features many Anderson regulars, including Anjelica Huston (“The Addams Family”), Luke Wilson (“Old School”), Owen Wilson (“Wedding Crashers”) and of course Bill Murray. But the core plot revolves around the unparalleled Gene Hackman (“The French Connection”), who plays the wealthy patriarch of a broken family trying to put the pieces back together. Anderson again plays with the tonal balance of darkness and fantasy, this time taking them both to further extremes than in his previous films. This creates several heartbreaking and touching moments for each of the family members. “The Royal Tenenbaums” was a smashing success and cemented Wes Anderson as a household name after breaking through with “Rushmore.”
3. “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004)
Anderson followed up the biggest hit of his career with what would become his biggest flop. After being handed a $50 million budget, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” completely bombed at the box office — grossing a measly $34 million worldwide. Anderson teamed up with co-writer Noah Baumbach (“Marriage Story”) to make this deeply personal, wonderfully weird homage to French explorer Jacques Cousteau. However, it seems audiences at the time were just not ready to go this deep into the Anderson rabbit hole. The film’s main plot involves Steve Zissou (Murray) hunting down a jaguar shark after it eats his best friend, but the heart of the film is the father-son dynamic between Zissou and his newly discovered son Ned (Owen Wilson). Despite the closed-off emotionlessness of many of the performances, the film is by far Anderson’s most emotionally raw work. It creates an overwhelming sense of melancholy that looms over the film’s bright, colorful presentation. It’s messy, but it’s an important piece in Anderson’s filmography that would help him differentiate between what works and what doesn’t work about his stylistic and tonal tendencies.
4. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)
While I did want to put “Moonrise Kingdom” here instead, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a more essential Wes Anderson work because it showcases his talents in the medium of animation. Anderson and Baumbach once again team up for a more straightforward, streamlined adaptation of the classic children’s novel by Roald Dahl. They are able to imprint many of their tonal trademarks on the story, but the most impressive part of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is its gorgeous stop motion animation. So much effort and care was put into creating beautiful landscapes and wonderful costumes for the figurines. Every shot is meticulously detailed and expertly framed. You can even tell in his later live-action films that he uses a lot of the same techniques he picked up when making “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — like using bright and saturated colors more overtly. Not only is it a great film to watch in the fall, but it’s an important landmark in Anderson’s career.
5. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014)
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is Anderson firing on all cylinders. There may be certain films in his filmography that offer more emotional resonance (like “The Royal Tenenbaums” for me), but I don’t think you can deny that this film is Anderson at his absolute best. It’s a culmination of everything he had been working on throughout his entire career. It’s the joyful, youthful charm of “Rushmore.” It’s the stellar ensemble work seen in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” It’s a more subtle and focused version of the melancholic/comedic blend of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”. And it’s the meticulous detailing and beautiful shot-framing perfected in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Moonrise Kingdom.”
It’s no surprise that a film this perfect would become the biggest hit of Anderson’s career, grossing $172.9 million worldwide — more than twice his second-highest-grossing film. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is everything that makes Anderson’s films work, making it the most essential one.
Wes Anderson is a particular filmmaker. His attention to detail is unparalleled, and the choices he makes are bold and end up working more often than not. Some of his films can be a bit messier than others when narrative or tonal choices don’t mesh with his very fantastical style, but fans of his work tend to love him even when he isn’t at his best. Buzz for “The French Dispatch” seems to be good ahead of its release, and if you want to check out more from Wes Anderson before or after you see it, these five films are a great place to start.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at email@example.com.