Spotlights

Noah Baumbach Filmography: Retrospective and Ranking

Noah Baumbach’s career spans over twenty years; his filmography—we’ll be hearing a lot about that—includes a slew of interesting and diverse pieces, many quite different and unique from one another. But what has been most fascinating in my recent deep dive into the writer-director’s filmography is the underlying and sewn together connections and links they share. When taking nearly an entire director’s filmography, especially someone like Baumbach, you get a very complex picture of the artist, and I would argue Baumbach’s filmography as a whole body of work is stronger than any of his films individually. Baumbach is known for his naturalistic and quirky dialogue. The personal and almost autobiographical aspect his pieces display make his films stand out from many writer-directors working today. His films operate in a light mumblecore field, that has ties to that genre, but also stands different from it. Baumbach’s filmography, when put together as a larger body of work, constructs a timeline and history of the artist, with similar characters. Characters who go through various stages of adult life. Growing up, leaving college, being unemployed, starting a family, losing a parent, getting old.

What is most noticeable from nearly all his films are characters who reflect each other, impersonate one another even. Take Jeff Daniels’ character in The Squid and the Whale, for example. Dustin Hoffman appears to be doing a very close impression of Daniels in The Meyerowitz Stories. This goes for almost every work Baumbach has made, and taking the body of work into consideration, an analysis gives a greater depth and meaning to the themes and ideas he is trying to explore which adds further context and intrigue to Baumbach’s films.

What follows are ten of Baumbach’s films ranked favorite to least. I have left out Highball and Conrad and Butler Take a Vacation, as well as any he only co-wrote:

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1. The Squid and the Whale (2005)

The Squid and the Whale is one of the most honest and hard-hitting films, not only in Baumbach’s filmography, but in cinema. The intense portrayal of a separating family is scathing hot but is portrayed in such a way that there is a touching and moving nuance to the whole act. Every character feels vivid and real. Their dimensions as dynamic humans scream off the screen, causing an almost awkward feeling of uncertainty to whether this piece is a fiction or just flat out documentary. Daniels and Jesse Eisenberg give the best performances from any actor in any of Baumbach’s work, save maybe Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha. Insane, emotionally charged moments are compressed into tiny actions or passings. The Squid and the Whale is a masterpiece in Baumbach’s career, and few other films reach its levels of character depth and writing.

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2. Frances Ha (2012)

The film which Baumbach and Gerwig fell in love making, and it shows on screen. A handful of films capture what it is to be in your 20’s in the city and hold such a caring and loving focus on the female character the way Frances Ha manages. There is a simplicity and beauty to the whole action of the film. Frances’ character is conflicted, lost, and wild. This is also a magnificent piece in the unofficial Gerwig trilogy, the other two, of course, being Lady Bird and Mistress America. A particular connection to this film is the wandering unsure soul who rustles endlessly in Frances’ heart. The black and white in this as well plays a complicated and interesting dynamic. It is warm almost as if not existing. One of the most beautiful films Baumbach has ever shot.

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3. Mr. Jealousy (1997)

Baumbach’s career can almost be split into sections. Mr. Jealousy takes the cake in being the best of his early work, however. Offbeat, witty, and full of what has become Baumach’s familiar quirks and oddities, Mr. Jealousy is not a traditional Romantic Comedy, but it is better for not following all the tropes and conventions. A truly revisionary piece, Mr. Jealousy can be likened to the hit 500 Days of Summer, which also revised the genre and played against the tropes. Some strong editing and style cues and ideas can be traced directly to 500 Days of Summer, which is a great compliment. Aside from The Squid and the Whale, this, along with Kicking and Screaming, seemed to be his most autobiographical pieces. Where his life and ‘Baumbach character’ stand out very strong and clear.

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4. Kicking and Screaming (1995)

Baumbach’s style and writing is very familiar, but Kicking and Screaming is the clearest in being an artist’s early piece. There is a raw and primitive force beneath every beat in the film, an unleashed energy in the writing and scenes. Unlike later films, Baumbach’s quirks and freedom go untethered and unchecked. This makes for some misses and off moments, but overall a romantic and fun movie. There were some clear references and moments that felt a little too ‘ah-ha’ and self referencing. Kicking and Screaming is a very private and closed movie that almost feels like it was made for someone, but then again, that can be the best of cinema. Being so intimate and detailed it is almost alienating. Kicking and Screaming falls on the right side of this line.  

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5. The Meyerowitz Stories (2017)

At this point in Baumbach’s career, we know what to expect. And it is no surprise that much of The Meyerowitz Stories feels all too familiar, just older. What this film does is build a perspective over the whole of Baumbach’s career. What we have seen throughout his filmography is an aging, a growing up of these characters. In The Meyerowitz Stories, it is the family in The Squid and the Whale, but all grown up. Dustin Hoffman’s character puts out his best Jeff Daniels impression. This is both great and a flaw, however. In the greater picture it is fascinating to see all together but alone it almost feels alienating and foreign. The Meyerowitz Stories still manages to put Baumbach’s dialogue and wit on full display and holds some of the best moments between characters in any of his films.

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6. While We’re Young (2014)

A solid piece in the Baumbach body of work. There are some definite ‘ah-ha’s’ and nods to growing up that were not present in earlier works. And a particular awareness of aging and falling out of the ‘mainstream’ that feels quite self-referential. What is intriguing about watching a director’s films together is you are able to put them together to see the larger picture or story. While We’re Young falls on the later years of Baumbach’s life and career. The film feels like such and explores this in a self-aware way that both works and doesn’t. The film is one you can definitely nudge into the Baumbach timeline, and it fits nicely. It is a real shame that Adam Driver is not in more of Baumbach’s films because he can play the best Baumbach character. Pretentious, prick, and not sure why you’re even friends, but for some reason you are.

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7. Mistress America (2015)

Gerwig is forever a doll and a marvel of a character. There is a quirky bubbliness and individuality always restless just below the surface of her characters. In Mistress America all this still holds true, but it just feels off and strange to see her in anything other than a completely lost wandering soul. It is not my least favorite of her performances, we’ll get to that film later, but it is not her strongest. By this point the idea of the writer getting in trouble for what they have written being too true for a loved one has been done and done. Mistress America certainly holds this moment to a hot spotlight but still feels overdone and tired.

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8. De Palma (2015)

A documentary felt both perfectly fitting for Baumbach to tackle and also wrong, but in De Palma, he manages to pull off an interesting character study and analysis of a director’s filmography. Sound familiar…?

I was surprised to see that Baumbach did a documentary on Brian De Palma, because initially these two directors are on very different spectrums on the scale for cinema. I honestly have not seen much of De Palma’s work—but who knows, maybe we will have a De Palma retrospective one day—but this documentary was a fascinating dive into a single director’s work. An interesting irony I had while working on this whole piece on Baumbach is it kind of felt like this documentary. Looking at a single artist’s work and trying to connect it all and give the whole body of work some context. I had a lot of fun exploring a single director’s entire filmography; it gave me a greater appreciation and understanding of the larger picture. This doc is very closed and focused, and at times narrow, but not always to a complete fault.

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9. Margot at the Wedding (2007)

A mixing of Young Adult and the typical quirky Baumbach. A very interesting and complex portrait began to take focus in his whole filmography. This is a much bleaker, dryer, and harsher worldview. Not unrecognizable, but a definite departure from other films. There were familiar characters, some throwing raging fits over a simple game. Margot at the Wedding is an interesting piece that does not boost his filmography but does add to the larger construct of the Baumbach character and family.

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10. Greenberg (2010)

This was one of the most challenging and toughest of his films. There were many little moments and points I wanted to love, but the relentless awfulness of Ben Stiller’s character was never enough to pull me back to actually being able to enjoy this piece. It is not only a challenge to watch alone, but it may be one of the most off-putting in his filmography. It isn’t clear where to situate this in the Baumbach resumé. Greta saves this from being a full-on trainwreck, but even then her character is still awful. To me this was the least Baumbach film that Baumbach has created.

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