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The 10 Best Performances in Wes Anderson Movies, Ranked

May 7, 2017
8 min read

Whether it is the hyper-controlling nature within them or the fact that they have that remarkable clarity that allows them to duplicate their vision on screen, truly good auteurs are a rarity. You see, unlike talented directors, auteurs don’t only helm a film project, they influence every aspect of it. Right from the early stages of ideation, auteurs have a clear sense of how a film will look and feel and more often than not, the end product ends up matching their distinct sense of style. In other words, a keen observer can just look at a film and possibly conclude which auteur’s work is it. And while that may seem like an unemphatic achievement to some, I assure you it’s not.

To make a film look and feel a certain way requires a remarkable vision and comprehensive planning from a director’s part. And to make a film ‘breathe’ in a certain way… well, that’s the stuff of genius.

Wes Anderson is, without a shadow of a doubt, amongst the finest — and most popular — auteurs working today. A unique stylist, he has made some of the most visually appealing and brilliantly written films over the past two decades. But while of that is true, there’s one more aspect to his filmmaking that doesn’t get the attention like other aspects do (especially the visuals). He, like every other prominent director that has ever lived, brings out the best out of his actors.

To a viewer, acting in Wes Anderson films may appear a little muted at times. It almost seems as if the auteur wants his actors to underplay the human emotion as much as possible. These observations, as conflicting as they might be for a traditional viewer, are not incorrect. Not in the very least. In fact, this is one of the many idiosyncrasies that have over the years become the trademark of his films. And in the process, it has led to some truly memorable performances.

Here are the best ones:

10. Jared Gilman, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’

Wes Anderson, who is popularly known for collaborating with the same actors in his films, emphatically broke the mould in this coming-of-age romance. Talented actors such as Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Edward Norton joined the director’s dainty universe for the first time. But, while all of them fit right in, it was the newcomer child actor Jared Gilman that really caught the eye.

Playing the role of an orphaned Khaki Scout who plans to escape with his romantic pen pal, the young actor was surprisingly self-assured. From his tenacity in fighting for what he believes to the expression of his persistent cynicism, his character, like most Wes Anderson characters, was deceptively multi-layered. And the actor rose to the challenge and gave the performance of the film.

9. Gwyneth Paltrow, ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’

As mentioned above, Wes Anderson revels in employing restrained characters as a cinematic tool. Depending on the scene, this can create fantastic moments of deadpan humour. It can also force the viewer to grasp the subtext of a scene and understand the complexities of a character. And this can be illustrated by Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Margot Tenenbaum’, one of the most restrained characters the filmmaker has ever conjured.

The actress, who though won the Oscar for ‘Shakespeare in Love’, arguably has given the best performance of her career in this family drama. Whether it was the measured way with which she conveyed Margot’s apparent sadness or how she reacted to her inconsiderate father, the actress sparkled whenever she was on the screen. Her scenes with Luke Wilson (who played her brother Ritchie Tenenbaum) particularly stood out.

8. Owen Wilson, ‘Bottle Rocket’

The director’s debut feature effort was not entirely flawless but it sure was a sign that a new and uniquely quirky voice had emerged in American cinematic landscape. Less importantly to some, the film introduced the world to the Wilson brothers.

Owen Wilson, who is one of the most recurring actors in Wes Anderson’s filmography, gave one of his most memorable performances in this 1996 film. The honest way with which his character ‘Dignan’ wants to prove himself, even if that drives him to break the law, makes it truly fascinating. The way with which the actor balanced the character’s innocence and simultaneous desperation is truly commendable.

7. George Clooney, ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’

“I think I have this thing where everybody has to think I’m the greatest. And if they aren’t completely knocked out and dazzled and slightly intimidated by me, I don’t feel good about myself.” If there’s one quote that can illustrate the moral complexity of George Clooney’s eponymous — and animated — character, this is it. And it is such inner dilemma that makes Fantastic Mr. Fox one of the most fascinating protagonists that Wes Anderson has ever created.

Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible if not for the actor’s magnetic voice-over performance.The actor, in addition to bringing his perfectly-timbered voice, suitably adapted to the whimsical ways of Wes Anderson. And the combination of this, along with his own acting sensibilities, made this role much more important than it would have been otherwise.

6. Luke Wilson, ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’

Yes, Ritchie Tenenbaum is a type of role that could have been played by a lot of actors—and to good effect at that. Yes, an argument can be made that it’s a pretty inside-the-box role made to look like it’s more than that by the filmmaking sensibilities of Wes Anderson. But it’s also true that no matter how many times I watch this movie, I feel intensely drawn to Luke Wilson’s character. Playing the role of a depressed and reclusive former tennis champion who secretly loves his sister, the actor did a great holding his ground. Given the quiet ways of his character and the almost inverse inner agony that he had, it is nearly astonishing how actor gave an effortless performance.

5. Bill Murray, ‘Rushmore’

Given the long-proven comic mastery of Bill Murray, it seems destined in retrospect that he became the most trusted collaborator of Wes Anderson. The ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Groundhog Day’ actor, who has appeared in each of the director’s projects following ‘Bottle Rocket’, has given one memorable performance after the other via this partnership. Of course, it all started with Rushmore.

The actor, who assumed the role of rich and lonely Harold Herman Blume, gave the kind of faultless performance that takes you aback. But that’s not the most interesting part. It’s the fact that this was the role that, after years of proving himself, finally affirmed him as a ‘serious’ actor. Yeah, he was that good.

4. Jason Schwartzman, ‘Rushmore’

As perfect as Bill Murray was as Harold Herman Blume, the real star of Rushmore is undoubtedly Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fisher. Prodigious and eccentric, Max Fisher is a seemingly common type of character when it comes to Wes Anderson films. But what really sets Fisher apart from all the prodigies the director has created — and nearly all his character creations for that matter — is his sheer self-confidence. Though unpopular and nerdy, there is an assuredness about the character that is rarely seen in the auteur’s works. What’s even more eye-catching is that Jason Schwartzman, who was a teenager when the movie was shot, was so brilliant in the role.

3. Bill Murray, ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’

If ‘Rushmore’ helped Bill Murray change some perceptions about him, ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ — along with his turn in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation — permanently cemented him as a bona fide dramatic actor. The actor, donning the role of a sad and cynical oceanographer, was once again, pitch-perfect. What really caught the eye was how despite his character’s crippling melancholy, the actor never lets it getting submerged in it. His role is also a spectacular reminder that why Wes Anderson and him are a match made in heaven.

2. Ralph Fiennes, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

You know an actor has done his job perfectly when you cannot even picture anyone else playing his role. Ralph Fiennes, who unexpectedly joined this Wes Anderson film after Johnny Depp dropped out, helped create a character so unforgettable that it nearly stole the limelight from the much-loved film itself. The eccentric yet delicate ways of Gustave H. were absorbed by the actor so well that he truly seemed to originate from a different time and place. He didn’t only take kindly to the whimsical world of Wes Anderson but it suited him so well that I have a lingering feeling that he will be back again.

1. Gene Hackman, ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’

Perhaps it is of little surprise that the director’s best film has the most affecting performance in it. Gene Hackman, playing the morally dubious and instantly likable Royal Tenenbaum, did a helluva job. It is that kind of scene-stealing performance that could easily have been a loud and repetitive ordeal if not for the actor’s confident portrayal. Though, in some ways, it is a typically multi-layered and conflicted protagonist as in nearly all Wes Anderson films. But with the aid of a sharp script and Gene Hackman’s assured performance, Royal Tenenbaum stands on his own lying feet.

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