This is going to be a series were I rank things. It’s called ranked.
To start this series off I wanted to write about the career of one my all time favorite writers and directors, Noah Baumbach. I find Baumbach to be one of the most exciting active directors in the world, perhaps this is most evident by the fact that his 2019 film Marriage Story was my favorite of the year.
Baumbach is the type of filmmaker that I love most in that he makes movies that feel like only he could make them. I tend to gravitate towards filmmakers with a unique style, and a strong voice. I enjoy being able to sense someone’s vision and impact on every scene and every line of dialogue. Baumbach, the master of the modern day R-rated dramedy, is one of these filmmakers. His poignant examinations of the human condition are awe-inspiring. He is able to create stories that are simple yet complex, specific yet relatable, hilarious yet deeply emotional, and challenging yet accessible.
Baumbach’s films explore topics such as youth, growing older, love, family, and marriage. He is able to do this in ways that I don’t think many filmmakers are capable of. He is one of the more thoughtful filmmakers around and that is evident when you watch any of his films, whether you enjoy them or not. He is able to make such specific, interesting, and effective observations on how one feels in a particular situation, or what one experiences at a particular time in their life. Not many filmmakers have in their filmography both movies that take an incredible, accurate, and truthful look at life in your 20s and movies that take that same kind of look at what life is like in your 40s, but Baumbach does. He has evolved as his career has progressed and he’s tackled different subjects along the way, but he’s always kept his unique voice throughout each of his films, which has helped him reach the level of success he is at now.
Now, without further ado let’s unnecessarily take a bunch of meaningful works of art from a brilliant filmmaker and pit them against each other for no apparent reason.
12. Highball (1997)
“I think it’s good you’re hiding out. People are pretty uncomfortable having you here.”
A complicated inclusion on this list lands at the number twelve spot. Highball was released in 1997 and made with the leftover money from Baumbach’s second film Mr. Jealousy. The film was shot in 6 days and all takes place in one location. Baumbach has disowned Highball, which credits “Ernie Fusco” as director and “Jesse Carter” as it’s team of writers instead of Baumbach, Carlos Jacott, and Christopher Reed. The film centers around a newly married couple trying to improve their social life by hosting three parties in their Brooklyn apartment. The film features an impressive cast including Justine Bateman and Peter Bogdanovich with cameos from Ally Sheedy and Rae Dawn Chong, and does have its charming and funny moments. However, it has a very low budget and an almost student film like aesthetic. It’s certainly a strange watch with many of the performances feeling off-key (notably Christopher Reed’s portrayal of “Travis”) and an unsteady tone. However, I do feel that if you go into Highball knowing what it is you can have an enjoyable viewing experience. At least for me there are enough laughs and good ideas, even if they don’t see their full potential, to get you through.
11. Margot At The Wedding (2007)
“I haven’t had that thing yet, where you realize that you’re not the most important person in the world.”
This is one of Baumbach’s more ambitious films but perhaps also his most quiet. It tells the story of a woman named Margot and her son visiting her sister Pauline to attend her marriage to an unimpressive man named Malcolm. Margot, Pauline, and Malcolm are played by Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Jack Black, who all turn in solid performances. There are a few reasons this movie ranks so low on this list. First being the lack of likable characters. Baumbach’s films work best for me when I find myself rooting for the unique yet realistic characters he creates even as they make mistakes. In Margot At The Wedding though I find myself feeling more and more frustrated by almost all the characters on screen as the movie progresses. As the two sisters that serve as the main characters in this film continue to fight over and over again I find myself becoming less interested in both the content of what they’re actually arguing about and whatever resolution may or may not be coming. My other main issue of this film is there is a real lack of energy. Many of Baumbach’s films have a very distinct energy flowing through them and a very unique tone to them. This movie feels much more bland and overall unremarkable. Baumbach is the creative force behind some of favorite movies to rewatch, however, this is a film I don’t find myself revisiting often, if ever. Despite it’s great cast and few interesting moments in it’s script, this family drama is not one I would recommend to someone who is interested in getting introduced to Noah Baumbach.
10. Mr. Jealousy (1997)
“I hate it when people don’t live up to their stereo-types.”
Noah’s second film stars frequent Baumbach collaborators Eric Stoltz, Chris Eigeman, and Carlos Jacott as well as Annabella Sciorra, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. The movie is centered around Stoltz’s character who has had a problem with jealousy in relationships his whole life and follows his struggle to deal with this issue while dating Ramona, portrayed by Sciorra. This film boasts an original premise executed fairly well by Baumbach. As with many of Baumbach’s film perhaps it’s most impressive achievement is his ability to use realistic characters and sharp, witty dialogue to explore relatable themes and specific aspects of the human condition. This film is really about the insecurities of men in their 20s and Baumbach’s perceptive and precise approach to this idea is what makes him such a special filmmaker. Mr. Jealousy utilizes narration that I don’t think is executed all that well. I feel Baumbach’s film live within the dialogue between characters and the viewer can learn everything he/she needs to through that finely crafted dialogue. So, a narrator guiding us through one of his films felt sort of misplaced and just didn’t work for me here. However, it certainly didn’t ruin the movie for me. Mr. Jealousy remains a smart, funny, incredibly perceptive film that may not be perfect or the most meaningful work of Baumbach’s career, but is definitely deserving of watch.
9. While We’re Young (2014)
“For the first time in my life I’ve stopped thinking of myself as a child imitating an adult.”
This 2014 film is Baumbach’s second with Ben Stiller in the leading role and follows a middle-aged married couple (Stiller and Naomi Watts) and how their lives and careers change when they meet and start spending time with a younger couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Perhaps nothing shows my admiration for what Baumbach did this past decade as much as the fact that this film, which I do really enjoy, ranks lowest on this list amongst the 6 films he released between 2010 and 2019. While We’re Young was Baumbach’s follow up to 2012’s Frances Ha and though I don’t believe it reaches anywhere near the heights that film did, it is still an enjoyable dissection of middle-age anxieties. As with almost all of Baumbach’s films this movie is filled with stellar performances, Adam Driver steals many of the scenes he is in with his quirky and at times eclectic portrayal of Jamie. This film’s observations on what reluctantly aging can do to one’s career, relationship, and friendships all feel both incredibly thoughtful and truthful. A criticism, however, can be that some of these ideas feel like they don’t reach their full potential because the movie is stretched a little thin and gets bogged down by some other, seemingly less important, issues or ideas. Ultimately, this is a light and enjoyable film with a lot to say about growing older, and the back and forth between friends turned rivals Josh (Stiller) and Jamie (Driver) is enough to keep you entertained throughout.
8. The Meyerowitz Stories (2017)
“It was like walking barefoot through broken glass to get a milkshake. I loved the milkshake, but, you know, my feet were bleeding.”
Next on the list is another film with Ben Stiller in a leading role that explores themes of coming to terms with who you are as a middle-aged person. The Meyerowitz Stories also stars Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, and Emma Thompson. These performances are all outstanding, however, I must give attention to the relative unknown Grace Van Patten who plays Sandler’s daughter in the film and really impressed me when I first saw it. The film is about an estranged family reuniting and follows the three adult siblings who have always struggled to get along. The film is really an exploration of family and parenting though. It focuses on how family dynamics can become fractured over time and the work it takes to mend these issues that can build over years or even decades. Once again, this is a film that blows me away with Baumbach’s understand of human beings, and his ability to create very specific and unique characters and circumstances that are somehow also incredibly relatable and poignant.
7. Greenberg (2010)
“I’ve gotta stop doing things just because they feel good.”
Greenberg receives the top spot on my list in terms of Baumbach and Ben Stiller collaborations. Greenberg is not only Baumbach’s first collaboration with Stiller, but also with the wonderfully talented Greta Gerwig (much more on her to come). The film is about a middle aged man (Stiller) house-sitting for his very successful brother and the relationship that he develops with his brother’s assistant (Gerwig). I’m getting a little sick of typing this but once again the performances are stellar. You can’t take your eyes off of Gerwig while she’s on screen, however, it’s Stillers portrayal of the complicated, narcissistic, at times insufferable but ultimately sympathetic Roger Greenberg that carries you through the film. The film is alive when these two are on screen together and their chemistry is a huge reason it works as well as it does for me. The portrayal of the Roger character is so specific and effective. The feeling of loneliness that fills much of this movie is palpable. You are really able to experience and understand the journey the characters go on and the emotions they feel. There are enough hilarious, poignant, honest, emotional, touching, uncomfortable, and cringe-inducing moments to keep you invested throughout the entirety of the film.
6. De Palma (2015)
The 2015 documentary co-directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow chronicling the work of acclaimed director Brian De Palma lands at number six on my list. This film literally consists of Brian De Palma going through his filmography chronologically and features him talking and clips from his films, that’s it. Yet, for cinephiles it is an absolutely enthralling experience. De Palma is a gifted storyteller and clearly feels comfortable enough around Baumbach and Paltrow to give his unfiltered and honest opinion about his own work, his critics, other filmmakers, and the film industry at large. The movie is as informative as it is entertaining. I get a great deal of pleasure listening to De Palma describe different camera and framing techniques, as well as looking back on some of his most memorable shots of his film career. This is not a documentary that everyone will universally enjoy. But, if you love cinema and you love learning more about both the technical process and the history of it I cannot recommend this film highly enough.
5. Mistress America (2015)
“I’ll probably end up doing something depressing, but young.”
Mistress America is the second film co-written by Gerwig and Baumbach. Gerwig also stars in it alongside Lola Kirke. The film’s plot focuses on Tracy (Kirke), a lonely college freshman, whose life is changed when she starts spending time with her daring and bold soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Gerwig). This movie utilizes Gerwig’s charm as an actress, as well as Baumbach’s wittiness, and insightful qualities as a writer and director incredibly well. The film explores ideas of sisterhood and friendship, as well as what it’s like to idolize someone and what happens when you ultimately betray that persons trust. Many of Baumbach’s films deal with the intricacies of romantic relationships in ways only he can, however, Mistress America looks at what it’s like to fall in love with someone in a non-romantic way. It’s quirky and energetic tone engage the viewer throughout. In this film, Baumbach and Gerwig create characters that you relate to, get frustrated by, laugh at, laugh with, and sympathize for. The almost screwball-comedy like section of this film that takes place in a Connecticut Mansion in the third act is outstanding. I find it to be wildly entertaining and filled with the kind of silly, weird yet smart comedy that make Gerwig and Baumbach collaborations so exciting.
4. The Squid and The Whale (2005)
“The whole thing’s very complicated.”
This heartfelt, yet ruthless comedy about a family of four finding their way through divorce earned Baumbach his first and only Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Even with the great success of 2019’s Marriage Story some may still consider this to be Baumbach’s best film. While it does not reach number one for me it is still an incredible film I have deep admiration for. The story centers around the separation of a married couple played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney and the effects this has on their two sons (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline). As he’s often known to do Baumbach draws on his own life experiences to execute this near-flawless film. The film is primarily told from the perspective of Eisenberg’s character, which is believed to be a stand-in for a young Baumbach. This was a real breakout role for Eisenberg who excels as an unsure teenager who acts like he knows more than he does, and is forced to face some harsh realizations as the movie progresses. Though Marriage Story and The Squid and The Whale explore a similar subject manner they are very different movies and each have a lot to say. The Squid and The Whale is more about how a divorce can affect children and is able to take a very comedic approach, but also an incredibly heartfelt, emotional, and thoughtful approach. This is a brilliant family drama that highlights the skills of its filmmaker in a remarkable way.
3. Kicking and Screaming (1995)
“I like that you drink. I like a bartender who drinks. Otherwise I feel like I’m being poisoned.”
Number three on my list is Baumbach’s first film, Kicking and Screaming. The film that announced Noah to the world centers around a group of friends trying to figure out life during the year after their graduation from college. What makes this film special are the observations a young Baumbach makes in this film. He was 26 at the time it was released and it obviously is a very personal film, which draws on a lot of his own experiences. I have not seen another movie that explores this time in a person’s life so accurately. Like many of Baumbach’s films the movie utilizes a comedic tone and witty dialogue but also takes it’s characters and subject matter seriously. The reason I believe there are not many movies about this time in life, or at least not many successful ones, is because of the difficulty that comes with making a movie focused on lost, and unambitious characters. Baumbach somehow pulls this off masterfully though. The film is filled with great performances from Baumbach regulars. Kicking and Screaming may land at number three on my list but it would probably be the first movie I suggest someone watch who has never seen a Baumbach film and wants to know where to start.
2. Marriage Story (2019)
“Listen, if we start from a place of reasonable, and they start from a place of crazy, when we settle, we’ll be somewhere between reasonable and crazy.”
The most recent film in Baumbach’s filmography falls into the number two spot on my list. The very personal, and in many ways autobiographical film about family and a marriage breaking up was my favorite film of 2019. Utilizing two incredible lead performances by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson and a plethora of spectacular supporting performances by experienced actors, Baumbach takes a highly compassionate and keen look at what going through a divorce is really like. I was obviously already a huge admirer of Baumbach’s work before the release of the film yet I still found myself completely blown away and in awe of what he was able to pull off with this film. The way he is able to tell a story about divorce and somehow not only fill it with great comedic moments but also with a great deal of empathy, warmth, and at times even hope and optimism will never cease to amaze me. Marriage Story seems like such a challenging movie to make. For starters, he spent a great deal of time focusing on the legal aspects of a divorce and somehow made that wildly entertaining. Also, he was able to fit in some of his very best comedic moments in the same movie as his most emotional moments. And lastly, he made a movie about divorce that is really about a family staying together and it worked. It felt like Baumbach could not hit a false note in this movie. Everything he tried seemed to work. Obviously, a lot of this credit also has to go to the stars who I really do believe are doing some of the best work of their illustrious careers. Marriage Story felt more polished than any Baumbach movie before it but that didn’t take away from his charm or his voice as a director, instead, it just felt like a huge step forward for a filmmaker who had already achieved incredible highs in his career.
1. Frances Ha (2012*)
(*Frances Ha first premiered on the festival circuit in 2012 but did not receive a theatrical release until 2013.)
“Sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.”
My number one Noah Baumbach movie is 2012’s Frances Ha. This, in my opinion legitimate masterpiece, is the first film co-written by Baumbach and Gerwig. Gerwig stars in the film as well and it is her lively, charming, and brilliantly awkward performance of Frances that enthralls you from the first scene to the last. There is an energy to this film that I find so appealing. It makes revisiting incredibly satisfying each and every time. The story centers around a woman living in New York City in her 20s trying to chase her dreams, dealing with the difficulties of friendships and relationships, and struggling with everyday life. For such a lonely film, there is such a joy and excitement that flows through it and draws you to its main character. It feels somewhat strange to put this as number one on a Baumbach list because so much of the story feels like it was authored by Gerwig and brought to life by her performance. However, I would argue that the directing is perhaps the best of Baumbach’s career. This movie is visually stunning and that is one of the main qualities that makes it such an entertaining and enjoyable experience. I must mention the supporting cast as well, Mickey Summer, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen, and Grace Gummer all do a tremendous job and each of them finds a way to fit into this world perfectly. I find this movie to be extraordinary and inspirational. It also probably makes me laugh more than any Baumbach film. It’s a perfect representation of what he does best and that combined with Gerwig’s contributions make this film a masterpiece and a modern day classic.