Noah Baumbach has evolved over the last three decades into one of the best modern writer/directors in the United States. He knows his voice. He knows his lane. He knows what he knows. And he does it all very well.
12. Highball 
It was arguably ethically dubious of me to acknowledge this film in such an article. Noah Baumbach has disowned the film and got his name taken off the project. But he directed the film, and the film has seen the light of day so I decided to watch and write about it.
It is in fact a mess. It does not feel fully realized. It feels like Baumbach experimenting with doing a “vibes” movie. And the vibes are bad. Very bad. It was not a terrible concept. Following a group of people/friends over the course of three parties over time. It just never really connects. The film is possibly most notable for Baumbach casting himself in a prominent role, and Baumbach is very bad at acting.
11. While We’re Young 
I somehow missed almost every Noah Baumbach movie as a teenager and mid-20-something. For whatever reason, I just never ended up being drawn to his films for whatever reason and for an even stranger reason, I developed feelings of dislike for him based on The Squid and the Whale – a good film that I like! The human brain is a mystery.
All of that is to say, my second Baumbach film ended up being While We’re Young and my take at the time was that it confirmed all of my (extremely misguided) negative feelings of Baumbach. It was obnoxious and pretentious and sacrificed everything for the sake for some anti-millennial takedown point. Thankfully, I have moved on from this childish takeaway from the film.
Now, to be fair to younger me, this is almost definitely the weakest Baumbach film* and possibly by a significant margin. The film’s enjoyment is essentially completely dependent on the humor derived from the scenes between the two centered couples. Most of the actual emotions and ideas the film pushes really do not land much especially in comparison to the rest of Baumbach’s excellent filmography.
*That Baumbach has not disowned.
10. Kicking and Screaming 
Being 22 and fresh out of college does in fact suck! It’s a good problem to have relative to the problems of the world, but it does nonetheless suck. Baumbach does a great job of capturing what it feels like to be going through this time period in life and various specific experiences many people have.
While it is very clear that Baumbach is nowhere near fully finding his voice or visual style, you can see the beginnings of so many things here. He is much more in your face about what he is saying and trusts the audience less to get something out of it. Beyond that though, you see a lot of what made him such an interesting filmmaker ever since.
His ability to give an unflinching insight into a very specific kind of white dude is unsettling almost. Much like many films about being in your twenties, it is probably most effecting to actually watch them at that age. There is kind of a zoo animal experience when you watch this as an adult. It is not really a complaint so much as a way of saying the film does a very good job of executing a very exact story.
9. Margot at the Wedding 
Jack Black’s Malcolm (the husband-to-be from the wedding in the title) in this film proved to be one of the more fascinating characters in a Baumbach film. It is not to say that he is the most important character of the film by a long stretch but I was drawn to him on some level. There is a pathetic quality to him of course and on some level you are supposed to in fact find him pathetic. But there is a bit more to him that is important. You can see how he is a victim of this country that places such an artificial value on “status” and has such a narrow definition of “success.” Setting people up for failure and self-sabotage is such a crucial part of American Masculinity, and the path of destruction it creates seems endless. It’s one of the more interesting ideas that Baumbach explores in his work, and it is the highlight of Margot.
8. Greenberg 
Greenberg marks the most critical period of time to understand the Noah Baumbach persona.
Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, his wife (at the time), came up with the story of this film. Jason Leigh plays the ex-girlfriend of Baumbach’s stand-in (Greenberg). In the film, Stiller starts to sleep with Greta Gerwig in the first time Baumbach and Gerwig worked together. Baumbach and Gerwig start sleeping together in real life as well. Jason Leigh and Baumbach then start to divorce. In order to pay for the divorce, Baumbach has to co-write Madagascar 3. Baumbach then proceeds to co-write his next film with Greta Gerwig (in which she also stars). Just a goddamn remarkable sequence of events. Anyway, the film is also pretty good.
7. White Noise 
When I first heard about White Noise, I was a little apprehensive. Despite his recent hot streak, Baumbach has his blind spots and shortcomings, and a 100 million dollar novel adaptation seemed extremely out of his comfort zone. Little did I know (having no concept of what the Don DeLillo novel was about), this story in some ways felt like the natural next step in the broad trajectory of Baumbach’s career.
Adam Driver is a middle aged, upper middle class white academic snob struggling with navigating the various aspects of his family life including his new young wife and their Brady Bunch situation bringing children from their previous marriages together (along with the child they made together). Any fear Noah Baumbach, by adapting someone else’s novel, was leaving his semi-autobiographical comfort zone and treading into unknown waters evaporated almost instantly. By using this novel, Baumbach merely continued to look at issues he has always been interested but doing it with an absurdist high concept.
Driver is desperately trying to cling to the status quo of his life and the world as it is. His children understand something is very wrong with the world, but they have no real idea about what to do about it. When the bottom completely falls out with the
COVID-19 pandemic toxic airborne event, Driver is left powerless and without even the illusion of control over his life. His attempts to take back his power seem simultaneously infantile and fantastical. The resolution being returning to the mythical happiness of the supermarket came across like either a purgatory of his own making. There is no avoiding our final death. Our only known way of coping with it is the slow death of a meaningless and superficial life we have created for ourselves on Earth.
6. Mr. Jealousy 
This film feels like a spiritual sequel to Kicking & Screaming. Beyond using some of the same actors, it really feels like some of those original doofus guys graduating in Baumbach’s first film would then end up in Brooklyn and then cause more evolved terror on themselves and those around them. Baumbach once again here established he was able to look deeply inward into his own worst insecurities and find ways of using that to speak to the very specific experience of upper class white dudes. Eric Stoltz and Carlos Jacott managed to capture exactly what it’s like to be an idiot who somehow keep stumbling upward all things considered.
5. Mistress America 
Greenberg, Frances Ha, and Mistress America make for the classic spiritual/thematic trilogies that sometimes happen for filmmakers semi-organically. Noah Baumbach and Gerwig began their professional (and personal) partnership with Greenberg in what was initially seeming like another exploration of a corner in Baumbach’s psyche and life, but in retrospect it really kicked off looking at life through the eyes of Gerwig.
In this film, Gerwig is playing a near-30-year-old who has gone through it in her twenties and is at the crossroads of her life. After the implied fuckery she experienced in the last decade, she is trying to make the necessary moves to bring about her future. But Gerwig embodies the important and very real idea of how lonely you can be even after you fill up your life with a bunch of people and supposed experiences. “She did everything and nothing.”
Gerwig then seeks validation from an 18 year-old (and future step-sister) who knows absolutely nothing. It is the classic toxic, exploitative relationship that sometimes can happen between older people and younger people. The film then explores how there are some legit similarities between people nearing 20 with people nearing 30. There is a similar loneliness and life transition phase even if they are very different kinds. Baumbach and Gerwig conclude their semi-trilogy in an extremely fitting and loving way, as they examined the different ways in which women get absolutely mind-fucked just trying to navigate life in this country.
4. The Squid and the Whale 
“I was ready to leave a long time ago, I just didn’t know it.”
Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, like so many couples, never should have gotten married in the first place, and then they stayed together far too long.
Much like the eventual masterpiece, Marriage Story, Squid/Whale starts at the end of the marriage. The damage is done. The marriage is over, and there can be no turning back.
The difference is though unlike Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, Daniels and Linney waited an extra decade to get divorced and there is so much more bitterness all around as a result.
The bitterness is rough to watch. Jeff Daniels is just an absolute miserable prick in so many ways. You understand how he got there completely. It’s not difficult to imagine. But it does not make him any less unpleasant.
The heart of the film is not Daniels becoming less miserable thankfully (as that would have felt disingenuous). The heart is Jesse Eisenberg recognizing how sociopathic it is making him to model his behavior after Daniels. He grew up idolizing his father and has no concept of how wrong that was and how much of a monster he is becoming. It is brutal to watch. The pain we put our children through is just unimaginable.
3. Frances Ha 
Being in your twenties can be a motherfucking mess, and Frances Ha does an amazing job of capturing the chaotic feeling of being alive then. The emotional roller coaster of trying to make your way, trying to find your sense of self, comparing yourself to everyone around, unable to empathize with what everyone else is experiencing, etc. It’s all a goddamn nightmare. After years of capturing a very specific experience from the male perspective of trying to get through transitionary periods in your life, Baumbach and Gerwig manage to go on a run of films that that capture the other side of the same coin with the female perspective. A must-see film.
2. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) 
In many ways, this feels like the Most Noah Baumbach movie. His North by Northwest if you will. You got all the big themes. Children of divorce. Children of the children of divorce. Art vs. Commerce. Overly-demanding fathers. Distant fathers. Impossible-to-please fathers. Lost mothers. Ignored women. Divided families. Ben Stiller. Adam Driver. It’s all here.
The big wrinkle here is that Baumbach cast The Sandman in the main role.
While this was undoubtedly an ensemble film, the biggest heart of the film was Adam Sandler. Baumbach divided his stand-in role of himself into sides of the same coin. While Ben Stiller (always good in Baumbach films) took the thankless role of being the financially successful aspect of personality. Sandler meanwhile gets the portion that theoretically is trying to live free of solely prioritizing financial success.
Sandler does not just have to make peace with his potentially dying father but also with his own life to a much larger degree than the other characters in the film. Sandler is getting divorced. He was a stay at home dad. His only child (and seemingly, his best friend) is about to start at college. He is reconciling that he gave up his artistic passion (music) early in his life (“It was my protest.”) He is trying to move back in with his dad which is forcing him to confront all his hangups associated with his father.
It is just a remarkable performance. Sandler has such a natural empathetic disposition, and Baumbach capitalizes on it so much. Sandler looks like such a vulnerable little boy at times. You don’t feel pity for him. Instead, you recognize how he got there and how trapped he is in his own. You see how much he keeps buried down inside of him so he does not have to confront himself. It is just beautiful.
Marriage Story is one of Baumbach’s most remarkable accomplishments. He manages to dive into and satisfyingly explore so many different common elements of struggling/unhealthy/toxic/failed marriages/partnerships
The aspect of the film that is the most astounding is that Baumbach somehow managed to take what would have to be considered very traditional arcs for his two leads and managed to make those arcs completely feel organic and not in any way trite.
Johansson develops throughout the film into what can be reductively referred to as a “strong female character.” You see and hear about how much Scarlett was silenced and chose silence for herself for so much of her life and specifically in her marriage with Driver. As a result, in order to push herself forward in her life, she resents Driver and progressively sees less and less of what she loved about him. She has been conditioned by society to distrust her voice and defer to others and specifically her male partner. And she has to learn to live on her own terms.
Driver can be reductively referred to as an egomaniac narcissist at the start of the film. You see over and over again how Driver just casually dominates the room and expects things to just go his way the entire time. He cannot imagine a wold in which everyone does not cater to his needs and desires. As Johansson starts advocating for her needs more and more, Driver starts to resent her for daring to prioritize her own needs. He has been conditioned by society to expect to be the center of the universe and to learn how to do it while seeming reasonable on the surface. And he has to learn to not just look out for his needs.
Marriage Story captures the tragedy of divorce. Yes, we do a lot of damage to each other unwittingly but we simultaneously do so much damage to ourselves and end up depriving ourselves a richer life experience. This film is beautiful, and despite how painful it is at times, Marriage Story always feel compulsively watchable.