Noah Baumbach’s career nearly ended barely after it got started. After his first two movies, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming and 1997’s Mr. Jealousy, didn’t get much traction from critics or audiences — they have since, properly, been reassessed — and Highball, a low-stakes indie comedy, was released under a pseudonym, Baumbach spent eight years in the creative wilderness before finally resurfacing with The Squid and the Whale in 2005. Though his earlier films had sparkled with wit and evident affection for the literary and screwball comedies of old, it wasn’t until The Squid and the Whale that Baumbach found his true voice, drawing on painful memories for comedies that are prickly on the outside, but soft under the shell.
As a New Yorker who chronicles the lives of the tormented intellectuals, Baumbach has inevitably been compared to vintage Woody Allen, but his voice is distinctive in its relentless self-interrogation and lacerating humor. Over the 14 years since The Squid and the Whale, it feels like Baumbach’s entire creative arc has been leading up to Marriage Story, a culmination of his consistent work on marriage, divorce, and relationships inside and outside the family. After the uncompromising nastiness of 2007’s Margot at the Wedding and 2010’s Greenberg, Baumbach has allowed a little more light — though often just a little — to slip into his subsequent work, especially once Greta Gerwig came into his life as a favorite star and creative partner. She hasn’t been involved in his last two films, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Marriage Story, but Baumbach has shifted noticeably to a more nuanced and generous treatment of his damaged, difficult characters.
He’s never made a bad movie — even the movie he disowned — but the highs and quite-highs of his career tell a story of an artist who’s constantly evolving.
12. Highball (1997)
If you were to watch all of Baumbach’s movies without knowing when they were made, you’d never guess that Highball was his third feature, produced in one primary location over six days with money leftover from Mr. Jealousy. With its hard shadows and rudimentary staging, the film plays like a crude rough draft of the much richer career that followed, rounding up his troupe at the time for a semi-sophisticated comedy of manners. Though Baumbach has disowned the film, which credits “Ernie Fusco” as director and “Jesse Carter” as its team of writers, Highball now looks like a better-than-average version of the people-hanging-out-in-a-Brooklyn-apartment genre of no-budget indie comedies. Set over three different parties, the film ports over most of the Mr. Jealousy cast and is peppered with plenty of wry jokes, like celebrities (Ally Sheedy and Rae Dawn Chong) playing themselves, fielding awkward questions from the other guests, and Peter Bogdanovich doing impressions of Alfred Hitchcock and W.C. Fields.
11. While We’re Young (2014)
Through Greenberg, While We’re Young, and, to a lesser degree, The Meyerowitz Stories, Baumbach channeled his anxieties about middle age through a dyspeptic Ben Stiller, who in no case handles these changes gracefully. While We’re Young is a lighter and least substantial of the three, though it latches onto the strong premise of an older couple (Stiller and Naomi Watts) eager to recapture their diminished energy by befriending a couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) from a younger generation. The relationship/rivalry between Stiller and Driver — one a documentary filmmaker eight years deep into his latest project, the other an energized yet conniving creature of ambition — makes for fine comic tension, but the film winds up getting so sidetracked by issues of nonfiction ethics that its original point is lost.
10. De Palma (2015)
Formally speaking, De Palma is a glorified DVD special feature. Baumbach and his co-director, Jake Paltrow, simply go through Brian De Palma’s filmography in order, one by one, and ask the director of Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, Mission: Impossible, and many other stylish thrillers to share stories and thoughts about the making of each — and, if the mood strikes, some bitter rumination about spending 50 years inside and outside the Hollywood system. With that in mind, De Palma is immensely entertaining, finding the oft-cantankerous director defending showy techniques like split-screen, shit-talking other filmmakers, and sounding off about making art in an industry that never fully embraced or trusted him. Holy mackerel!
9. Mistress America (2015)
When Greta Gerwig entered into Baumbach’s films, first as a easy-going counterpoint to Ben Stiller in Greenberg, and later as the star of Frances Ha and Mistress America, it profoundly scrambled their DNA. Baumbach (and Gerwig, who co-scripted the latter two) cast her as variations on a vulnerable flake, the type of person whose personal magnetism tends to mask the human underneath the urban eccentric. Baumbach and Gerwig play keenly with that perception in Mistress America, which casts Lola Kirke as her future sister-in-law, a college freshman who reaches out to her because she has no friends in the city. Gerwig’s larger-than-life persona enthralls the younger woman, who crosses a line when she starts to write her into a short story. The misadventures lead Baumbach into the type of screwball comedy he hadn’t attempted since Mr. Jealousy, but the film is most successful as a reflection on the exploitative aspects of making personal art.
8. Margot at the Wedding (2007)
Though Baumbach’s feelings about marriage and divorce have softened in the period between The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story, which view discord from the eyes of a child and an adult, respectively, he was in a particularly pessimistic mood for Margot at the Wedding and lost some critical support in the process. Yet this stark, lacerating comedy-drama, set in a seaside Long Island that recalls Woody Allen’s Interiors, is admirable in its uncompromising look at the havoc a long-term sibling rivalry can create for everyone within the blast radius. Nicole Kidman is at her brittle best as a self-involved author who speaks with brutal candor and Jennifer Jason Leigh makes the softest of targets as her sister, who’s preparing to marry an unemployed slob (Jack Black) who may not be worthy of her. Kidman’s casual cruelty is shocking at times, like when she assesses her son’s body language (“You used to be rounder and more graceful. You’re so stiff now, so blasé.”), yet Baumbach finds the nobler, caring sides of all these characters — even if he does so stingily.
7. Greenberg (2010)
It’s like a Godzilla vs. Bambi scenario: Ben Stiller, the Greenberg of Greenberg, as a narcissistic prick who’s looking after his brother’s house in the Hollywood Hills, and Greta Gerwig as the friendly and endlessly accommodating dog-walker who gets sucked into his orbit. Stiller’s character hits bottom in a scene where Gerwig and Rhys Ifans — excellent as an ex-bandmate whose life was ruined by him stepping on a major-label deal — arrange a unwanted birthday surprise at a restaurant that ends with him shouting, “Sit on my dick, asshole!” Yet Stiller and Gerwig have a yin-and-yang chemistry that brings out the best from both actors, and it slowly becomes possible to sympathize with this hurtful man, who’s been laid low by his own misfortune and genuinely wants to overcome his self-destructive tendencies. Gerwig is the catalyst for that change, but also a fully realized character in her own right, a caretaker who’s learning to look out for herself.
6. Mr. Jealousy (1997)
Released the same year as Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, Baumbach’s massively underrated second feature didn’t get nearly the acclaim or the indie box office, but it was the far more perceptive and funny treatment of male jealousy and the self-destructive pathology that goes along with it. Baumbach stages Mr. Jealousy like an old-school screwball comedy, with Eric Stoltz going to insane lengths to obsess over his current partner’s (Annabella Sciorra) sexual history, including enrolling in group therapy with her ex-boyfriend (Chris Eigeman). Those group-therapy sessions are complicated further by Stoltz’s best friend (Carlos Jacott) wanting work done, too, and eventually turning up with an inexplicable British accent. The droll omniscient narration is a treat in itself (“Lester gritted his teeth. Ramona had a life before him.”), but beyond the intricacies of the script’s design, Baumbach locks into a perceptive treatment of man whose hangups are so extreme that he inevitably grows jealous of himself.
5. Frances Ha (2012)
Baumbach is such a personal filmmaker that it’s hard to think about Frances Ha in relation to his other work, since it gives itself over so completely to its co-writer and star, Greta Gerwig. Perhaps it’s best to consider it a love letter of sorts, an 86-minute comedy that has the look and feel of a French New Wave film, but keyed into Gerwig’s boundless energy and spontaneity and the fly-by-night quality of an unsettled twentysomething in New York. As Gerwig pinballs from apartment to apartment, losing a boyfriend and a dancing gig and a closeness to her best friend, Frances Ha nonetheless admires her willingness to drift as the wind (or her instincts) take her. When he shows her dashing down the street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” — an homage to Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, itself a New Wave-inspired pastiche — there’s a sense of true freedom that’s usually far out of reach for a Baumbach character.
4. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)
Complicated family dynamics have been the norm in Baumbach’s films since The Squid and the Whale cleaved a family of four, and The Meyerowitz Stories feels like a companion piece, as if these children of divorce have themselves become divorced with children — and old pains and resentments and sibling rivalries have followed them deep into adulthood. There’s a deliberate jaggedness to Baumbach’s design, suggested by the “New and Selected” title that sounds like an anthology and by edits that consistently cut a beat or two earlier than expected. Yet piece by piece, the film builds around Dustin Hoffman’s performance as a so-so artist whose sculpting exhibition brings together three grown-up children (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel) who haven’t always gotten along. Their mini-dramas are full of combustible moments and prickly comedy, but Baumbach ultimately lands on a touching optimism about the power of family ties and the possibility of reconciliation.
3. Kicking and Screaming (1995)
Perhaps the truest moment of Baumbach’s career: Rather than sweep up the shards of glass on the kitchen floor, a character in Kicking and Screaming lays down a small, hand-written sign that reads “BROKEN GLASS.” There are probably more quotable lines in Baumbach’s debut than all his other films combined, but what makes Kicking and Screaming special are observations like these, which perfectly capture the rudderless lives of recent college graduates who drift along as townies rather than face a scary and uncertain future. (But oh those quips: Bring up Prague, Friday the 13th, monkey movies, or bowhunting in casual conversation, and fans of the film will surely jump on it.) It isn’t easy to make a film about characters with no ambition — or at least with no ambition greater than a bartender (Eric Stoltz) who’s been taking random college courses for 10 years running. But Baumbach has created a comic touchstone for the educated and inert.
2. The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Following the twin disappointments of Highball and Mr. Jealousy, it took Baumbach the better part of a decade to climb back with The Squid and The Whale, and he returned with a newfound sense of purpose, drawing on his childhood for a wrenching comedy about a family falling apart. Staying close to the perspective of a 16-year-old, played by Jesse Eisenberg, Baumbach focuses on the specific hassles of joint custody and what it’s like for kids to have their loyalties to each of their parents tested. Eisenberg’s relationship to his father (Jeff Daniels), a failed novelist and pompous academic, leads to an inherited misogyny that hurts his mother (Laura Linney) and his girlfriend (Halley Feiffer) and, finally, himself. It’s perilous to draw a direct line between what happens to this family and what happened to Baumbach himself as a child of divorce, but his sensitivity to the scars it can leave and the mistakes young people can perpetuate rings painfully true.
1. Marriage Story (2019)
For Baumbach to call a film about divorce Marriage Story says everything about the hard-won perspective he brings to failed unions, which have been a theme that has dominated his work since The Squid and the Whale. With obvious allusions to his own marriage with Jennifer Jason Leigh, which ended after eight years together, Baumbach casts Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a New York stage director and an actress whose struggles to divorce lead to bitter repercussions, particularly regarding custody of their son. Baumbach understands divorce as an absurd process that’s designed to bring out the absolute worst in people, leading to scenes of wrenching emotion, but Marriage Story is wise about the possibility of people coming out stronger on the other side. There’s no shortage of characters hurting each other in the film, just as they do in Margot at the Wedding or Greenberg or other acrid Baumbach comedies, but he arrives at a more generous, forgiving destination in this film that’s taken him a career-long journey to reach.