A Beginner’s Guide to Wes Anderson Movies

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The Grand Budapest Hotel Elevator A Beginners Guide to Wes Anderson Movies

Even if your interests don’t tend toward cinema’s indie side, you probably know Wes Anderson’s name; chalk it up to widespread critical praise, awards season recognition, or clever casting, but since making his 1996 debut with Bottle Rocket, he’s gained increasing visibility among mainstream audiences with each subsequent offering.

He’s also been the recipient of in-depth scrutiny, both positive and negative, for his specialized, immediately recognizable, brand of filmmaking. His latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has opened wide across the US, and reignited conversations about Anderson’s very particular approach to making movies.

So, we at Screen Rant saw fit to present a guide to the elements that define his movies from the 90s to today. If you’re just now being introduced to his colorful sense of disaffected whimsy, we’ve got you covered on the basics of Wes Anderson’s filmography.


Technical Precision

The Life Aquatic Murray Blanchett A Beginners Guide to Wes Anderson Movies

Let’s start with the most noticeable identifying aspect of Anderson’s work: his chops behind the camera. Maybe more than anything else, it’s the look of Anderson’s films that immediately give them away as his; it’s unlikely you’ll ever watch Rushmore, or Fantastic Mr. Fox, or The Darjeeling Limited and wonder who made it.

There are a number of factors that contribute to making a recognizable Anderson product. It’s not simply one thing or the other; it’s not the way that he captures shots, composes images, or dresses up his sets (and his characters, for that matter), but rather all of these details and more taken in total.

In that respect, this section can actually be broken down into multiple sub-categories, all captured under the same umbrella of craft. Take away one, and you inevitably change the impact and the effect of the others; that’s because Anderson creates movies that are very much the sum of their total parts, especially when it comes to how he puts them all together.


Technical Precision, Part 1: Tracking Shots

Darjeeling Limited Train A Beginners Guide to Wes Anderson Movies

Take, for example, the most widely used weapon in Anderson’s technical arsenal – the tracking shot. Put a camera on rails, and let it glide, left to right, right to left, and backwards; it’s a technique that creates movement and energy, and it’s a huge part of what makes Anderson movies feel lively even when they’re downright depressing.

Anderson first developed his penchant for tracking shots in Rushmore – specifically the aquarium groundbreaking scene – and he’s kept up with it ever since, all the way through countless moments peppered across 2012′s Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Tracking shots are essential to giving Anderson movies momentum, and arguably the most important flourish he brings to production. But what he puts in front of the camera matters almost as much as what he does with the camera itself.


Technical Precision, Part 2: Symmetry

Darjeeling Limited Brothers A Beginners Guide to Wes Anderson Movies

Just as with the tracking shot, Anderson’s deep-rooted love of symmetry in all of his shot compositions has taken shape over time. Traces of this trait can be seen in all of his early movies, of course, but cut to present, and his initial obsession has bloomed into full-blown mania.

The man simply cannot resist the draw of reciprocal arrangement of props and characters in front of his camera. This attribute pops up in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, but check out everything from The Royal Tenenbaums onward, and it becomes more and more prevalent.

Some may argue against his philosophy, instead advocating techniques that diffuse the symmetry Anderson has become known for (and which he most likely got through his love for Stanley Kubrick). But for Anderson, symmetry is a very necessary piece of his signature.


Technical Precision, Part Three: Palettes and Patterns

The Grand Budapest Hotel Revolori Ronan A Beginners Guide to Wes Anderson Movies

Layered on top of the previous two segments is Anderson’s sharp eye for patterning and for bursts of color, whether in the drab carpet that adorns the living room floor of the Tenenbaum house, or the cascade of small, red apples that decorate Felicity Fox’s dress.

The Grand Budapest Hotel takes Anderson’s love of patterns to a new level – he makes patterns out of the furniture in the titular hotel’s lobby, and litters the mountainside it sits atop with a deliberate arrangement of evergreens – and could be his most vibrant movie yet.

But he’s always been deeply invested in both of these qualities, alternately working with muted and more sumptuous hues (as well as patterns of greater and lesser prominence) in the oceanic setting of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the Indian provinces of The Darjeeling Limited, the urban confines of The Royal Tenenbaums, and the flinty coastal backdrop of Moonrise Kingdom.


A Recurring Stable Of Actors

Rushmore Bill Murray A Beginners Guide to Wes Anderson Movies

In the nearly two decades since Anderson has been making movies, he’s managed to cultivate a regular troupe of actors and actresses who consistently appear in many of his projects.

The list is as long as it is loaded with talent; Anjelica Huston and Bill Murray (who has had roles in all but one of Anderson’s films) lead the pack as the most veteran thespians of the bunch, but they’re joined by the brothers Wilson (Luke, Owen, and even Andrew), Willem Dafoe, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Eric Chase Anderson (Wes’ younger sibling), Michael Gambon, Jeff Goldblum, Wallace Wolodarsky, Brian Cox, and many others.

Anderson’s still building up his roster, too. Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Harvey Keitel have each tagged along on his most recent two ventures, while The Grand Budapest Hotel brings in The Host star Saoirse Ronan as well as newcomer Tony Revolori and Moonrise Kingdom introduced viewers to Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman.


Family Matters

The Royal Tenenbaums Family A Beginners Guide to Wes Anderson Movies

In one way or another, family is at the center of every story Anderson chooses to tell. Above his style, above his technique, above his repeated use of the same actors, it’s the gravitational pull of family in all of its dysfunctional glory that defines the tone and atmosphere of his films.

For the best exercise in familial disharmony Anderson has ever pulled off, look to The Royal Tenenbaums; it’s a movie that starts with feuding between parents and siblings (most of it directed at the eponymous Tenenbaum patriarch), and ends with a well-earned series of reconciliations.

But you’ll find that family provides the heart, if not the conflict, for his other pictures, too – like Fantastic Mr. FoxThe Darjeeling Limited, and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. (Even The Grand Budapest Hotel revolves around family strife.)



Rushmore Schwartzman A Beginners Guide to Wes Anderson Movies

If there’s one criticism that gets thrown Anderson’s way more than any other, it’s that he’s in love with the past. It’s difficult to get around that one; whether in referencing the French New Wave, Orson Welles, or the literature of J.D. Salinger, Anderson has an obvious soft spot for bygone times.

At the same time, nostalgia informs a great deal of his work in other ways, too. He’s not the only person involved in his films with a deep-rooted fondness for out-of-date eras and cultures; many of his characters show the same inclination toward antiquations as he does.

Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel may be the two most significant examples of how nostalgia shapes Anderson’s plots, but even the characters of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums (among others) tend to long for the past.


Period Settings

Moonrise Kingdom Cast A Beginners Guide to Wes Anderson Movies

Tied to Anderson’s nostalgia, the period backdrops of all his films are significant enough that they demand individual attention.

In perhaps the ultimate display of his personal devotion to nostalgia, Anderson’s films all take place in eras that occur prior to the present. Or at least they all seem to; films like RushmoreBottle Rocket, and The Royal Tenenbaums are practically modern compared to his latter day efforts.

But even when he doesn’t directly acknowledge the time period (as with Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, for example), there’s a sheen of antiquity to all of his films. Try imagining a Wes Anderson movie set in 2014; it’s pretty hard to picture.



Fantastic Mr Fox A Beginners Guide to Wes Anderson Movies

Once you start getting in-depth with Anderson’s films, you’ll find even more common threads that tie them all together and distinguish them; connections between protagonists from one movie to another, nods to films like The Magnificent Ambersons as well as Jules and Jim, and more. But if you’re only now getting started diving into the world of Wes Anderson, this is what you absolutely need to know to get by and to understand what makes him, his characters, and his narratives tick.

If you’re wondering where to start, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore are the two best jumping-off points that balance between Anderson’s now-established style and a sensibility that may feel more familiar to uninitiated viewers. Alternately, you can just dive right in with The Grand Budapest Hotel, perhaps the most “Wes Andersony” movie Anderson has ever made.


The Grand Budapest Hotel is now playing in theaters.

Follow Andy Crump on Twitter @agracru
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  1. Honestly never knew he directed Fantastic Mr Fox until a few weeks ago when a review for The Grand Budapest Hotel mentioned it.

    • Now that you know, re-watch Fox with films like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Royal Tenenbaums in mind. (Or watch all of those with Fox in mind.) They all link up in so many ways, visually and thematically, that it’s kind of stunning.

      • Might do that.

        Loved Tenenbaums and Steve Zissou though, brilliant films.

  2. I watched The Darjeeling Limited and wondered who was going to give me my two hours of my life back and then I cursed the man who made it more than I wondered who he was..so you appear to have been right. :(

    • Many people find his style old fashioned, really bland, and/or boring. It’s a perfectly valid reaction to have to his films.

      I think they’re great though. I love the quirkyness of them and his ridiculously hilarious protagonists and other characters.

    • I’ll be honest, I never, ever recommend The Darjeeling Limited as a good testament of Anderson’s skill; it’s boring, a film that totally loses any sense of narrative in its (admittedly impressive) stylization. I honestly thought I was done with Anderson after that one. Then Fantastic Mr. Fox came along, and, for me at least, he’s been on a roll ever since.

      If I’m being frank (and when am I not?), I really only bothered with using images from that film just because they demonstrated the affects and effects I wanted them to.

      • The only one I haven’t seen yet is Bottle Rocket, but I first watched Darjeeling and was extremely impressed – I would say it’s one of his most underrated gems, along with the Life Aquatic, which seems to be panned just for the sake of panning something.

  3. I LOOOOOVE WES ANDERSON MOVIES!!! I agree that Rushmore and Bottle Rocket are an excellent way to become acquainted with his film style. The first film of his I ever saw was Fantastic Mr Fox. I was drawn to it because I loved the book as a child and the trailer looked very quirky and funny. I loved it and later watched all of Anderson’s films, they’re all great.

  4. The Life Aqautic with Steve Zissou is a masterpiece.

  5. I like this article a lot! Wouldn’t mind if it became a regular piece exploring many directors old and new. I’d love to learn more about directors and their signatures and what makes their movies their own. Please make this a reoccurring piece!

    • I agree!! Do one for Darren Aronofsky before Noah at the end of this month. I’d love to read one on Nolan or Tarantino or something.

  6. I really enjoyed this article and found it to be very insightful. I have always intended to dig into Wes Anderson and this has just given the basics to do it so thanks. Also more articles on the introduction of writers/directors would be great.

  7. Wes Anderson is most definitely one of my favorite directors. And his troop of regulars are just brilliant.

  8. Is it just me, or was the ending of Life Aquatic not a nod to Buckaroo Bonzai?

  9. great article….thanks a lot!!

  10. In this article, it states that Anderson never defines the time for Moonrise Kingdom, yet directly above is a picture from the movie that reveals the date to be the summer of 1965. Also, the author of this article failed to mention that another unique characteristic of Anderson’s shot compositions are how they work in 90 degree angles.

    The G.B.H. also explains the time in which the film takes place.


    Nate Graham

  11. It was well worth writing an article of such nature as the only other writer/director with such a consistent style, that I can think of, is Woody Allen.

    However, I’d like to point out that, in my opinion, you missed or at least didn’t highlight the most distinct aspect to his style of film making;

    It’s the script writing along with it script being directed into a particular tone and intonation that really is his key signature… along with the techniques you highlighted.

    But much like Woody Allen, the writing and intonation are practically identical in each film, it almost becomes tiring, except that his films are generally exceptionally good… much like Woody Allen.

    What we differs from Allen’s films, though, is we don’t have the film makers personality on display in the film… but we can guess that if he doesn’t speak and act like Bill Murray, he certainly aspires to. Bill Murray is the personality tone of Anderson’s films as Woody Allen is to his own.

    It less palatable with Wood Allen films, though, for example, when you have Scarlett Johansson, or who ever his lead is, taking on Woody Allen’s persona.

    Thought this worth mentioning as I expect a lot of ‘the magic’ of Wes Anderson’s films start at his writing desk.

    Ivan Sarkin

  12. I have been follow Wes Anderson’s work for almost twenty years and this guy is GREAT! I’m born in the early 70′s so I have always preferred movies and music from the 80′s John Hughes was the only writer producer that I could say by name. Then I came across the dejerrling Express. My first thought was “what the f” this movie is great! Not my typical stoner movie I prefer comedy that makes me think??? Then I came across the Fantastic Mr Fox and again the same reaction. At that point I wanted more. Bottle Rocket made me a loyal fan. Being from the hood..lol nobody knew these movies so I didn’t have anyone to discuss them with so I forced family to watch The Royal Tenenbaums. That’s when I finally felt it wasn’t just me this dude Wes Anderson was really turning me on! The Wilson was hot at the time and he had Bill Murray down with him. Rushmore was weird because I think Jason S is weird but still loved it. Then comes my Stevezie. I am a member of the Zissou Society for life! This movie actually replaced my beloved Sweet 16 in my heart. I must own every collectors edition movie he puts out. Every person I force to watch his movies with me that me in the end. The only thing I would say to was after thank you is put some black people in your movies!!!!

  13. Love your article. The Royal Tenenbaums is still my favorite and I would have recomnded that for a start, it was the first one I saw. Rushmore had far more negative reviews, vehement ones. I wouldn’t see that until you know more about him, it was offputting.

  14. The hotel is one of the central characters of this wonderful film. The Belleview Biltmore in Belleair Florida is one of the last of these majestic and historic iconic masterpieces, sadly last week the town commission voted to have it demolished!!! Why oh why did Wes Anderson not consider this location…choosing the “White Queen Of The Gulf” on the roll of historic preservation would have saved an incredible monument!!! Wes, your art team recreated a place that already exists from the Victorian architecture to the Tiffany ballroom the long beautifully carpeted hallways and coverted from oil to electric chandeliers. Anyone with the funds to produce a movie with so much nostalgia and remembrance of this elegant era please, please look at the Belleview Biltmore before it is gone forever!!!!
    Sent from my iPad

  15. After seeing Moonrise Kingdom, I wanted to see more of the genius of Wes Anderson. I tried to watch Bottle Rocket, Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, and Grand Budapest Hotel. I simply could not bear to watch more than 20 minutes of any of them.

    That said, Moonrise Kingdom is and most likely will continue to be the best movie I have ever seen, or ever expect to see. The story hit me on a level I cannot explain or even really understand. The music was perfectly chosen, and immaculately timed. The known actors were cast in roles so far from what I had seen any of them play, and fit their roles so perfectly that it was surreal.

    I could go on and on about how deeply this film struck me emotionally, but would sound like a ridiculous weak minded sentimentalist. I am not. Even when I was a kid, I did not cry when Old Yeller died.

    But when Suzy looked down the chimney at Sam, I cried. I never felt that happy for any fictional characters.

    I do not understand why I cannot tolerate the other movies by Anderson.

  16. The Budapest Grand Hotel reminded me of what Pee-Wee Herman-Gillian-Kubrick collaboration might look like. Hwr, this was very good guide for us, uninitiated to Anderson movies.

  17. I’ve just watched The Grand Budapest Hotel and I have a few questions. I don’t know anything about Anderson so I did a little research but I couldn’t find which is his ideology… he just tells stories and that’s it? Is it all about the esthetic? Please explain, I’m still learning and I’m definitely not a hater, I really liked the movie. Thanks!