Noah Baumbach’s first film, “Kicking and Screaming,” hit theaters to great acclaim a full 20 years ago. Over the past two decades, he’s emerged as a leading voice in American independent cinema, with his sensibilities as a storyteller and a filmmaker now both beloved and inimitable. From his Oscar-nominated effort “The Squid and the Whale” to the critical darling “Frances Ha,” Baumbach’s consistent engagement with transitional moments — namely, our complicated relationships to growing up and growing old — has led to characters simultaneously relatable and uniquely absurd. They’re deeply flawed and melancholic but always based in reality.
Baumbach’s latest film to be released, “While We’re Young,” hits theaters this weekend. Rich with satire, and examining characters who feel out of place and out of time, it is suitably demonstrative of the director’s enduring cinematic expressions and thematic interests. To commemorate that movie’s release, as well as Baumbach’s 20th anniversary as a director, we offer this overview of the famed indie director’s filmography, ranked from worst to best.
Note that this list excludes his newest film “Mistress America,” which premiered earlier this year at Sundance (read film critic Eric Kohn’s highly positive review here) but has yet to be officially released.
8. “Highball” (1997)
Baumbach has actually relinquished credit on “Highball,” his sophomore feature which was released to very little fanfare. Despite featuring an impressive cast including Justine Bateman and Peter Bogdonavich, as well as an effective (if rough) comedic voice, Baumbach’s decision to disown this one is not especially hard to believe. The film centers on a newly married couple and their goal of throwing three massive, successful house parties in a year to improve their social life. Truthfully, it’s a weird watch, with some of the performances (notably, from several nonprofessional actors) striking an artificial note and the tone of the movie progressing rather erratically. Every once in a while, the bare-bones nature of the film presents an inspired moment — there’s a clever subplot involving a character’s half-baked sponsorship of a child in a third-world country — but for the most part, “Highball” presents a bunch of awkwardly-staged parties and interactions that ought to be a lot funnier than they are.
7. “Mr. Jealousy” (1997)
Another low-profile, easily forgettable film from the late ‘90s, “Mr. Jealousy” is more polished than “Highball,” but ultimately amounts to a half-baked concept. Starring Baumbach regular Eric Stoltz as Lester Grimm, the plot of “Mr. Jealousy” reflects its title rather closely: a lowly man tormented by visions of his dates with other men, Lester begins following the ex of his current girlfriend, who’s envious of his “famous novelist” status, and winds up in the same therapy group as him under a pseudonym. The attention to insecurity, bitterness and men in their mid-20s is certainly characteristic for Baumbach — and Stoltz handles this pained protagonist with aplomb — but the stylistic choices aren’t especially organic in execution. The narration is somewhat clumsy and, though much of the dialogue is well-observed, it’s also a tad self-indulgent. A lot of time is spent in therapy, on characters talking about and digging into themselves, and it all becomes a little heavy-handed at a certain point. All that being said, it still boasts an original premise and crafty perspective, even if the final product is too talky for its own good.
6. “Margot at the Wedding” (2007)
“Margot at the Wedding” certainly represents Baumbach’s gutsiest effort as a filmmaker, as he demonstrates an unusually pronounced aversion to both structure and likability. In that way, it’s an equally mesmerizing and frustrating watch, with Nicole Kidman’s titular narcissist and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s scarred sister Pauline practicing self-delusion and endless argumentation for a healthy 90 minutes. The film begins with Margot, an acclaimed short story writer, ready to abandon her marriage. Planning on running off with her lover, Margot realizes that he happens to live in the same area as her estranged sister, Pauline, who’s getting married. The movie lacks much of a dramatic arc beyond that premise, however: she simply packs up with her teenage son, Claude (Zane Pais), and heads to the wedding to spar. As sisters, Kidman and Leigh evoke startling authenticity, their dynamic equal parts hilarious, disturbing and achingly sad. And in those rare moments of connection, as in a classic scene in which they laugh together about a horrible memory, “Margot” comes to life. But well-executed as it may be, there’s a deep misery to the film that can’t help but affect the viewing experience — especially since the film doesn’t get very far, narratively-speaking.
5. “While We’re Young” (2014)
Now out in theaters, “While We’re Young” marks Baumbach’s latest generational study, with his ear for cadences and eye for discomfort very much on display. Ben Stiller reunites with him following their collaboration on “Greenberg,” starring as Josh, a 40-something documentarian who never quite lived up to his potential. Naomi Watts plays Cornelia, his producer wife and the daughter of a famed filmmaker. Childless (and likely to stay that way), content, comfortable and sort of dry, the couple needs a spark — and it comes in the form of a young, hip New York couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Though the film possesses a sharp bite in its exploration of generational divides and documentary filmmaking, ultimately “While We’re Young” captures an imperfect but functional marriage through a lightly satirical lens. Baumbach aims for broader comedy than than usual here, finding amusement in the sheer sight of Watts busting out hip-hop moves or Stiller rollerblading through New York City, but he still manages to create something fresh. His depiction of technology is both distinct and clever, and with this film in particular he nails a series of visual gags, from Stiller’s “youthful” appearance choices to Josh’s hilarious failed attempts at making a rambling historian seem interesting on-camera.
4. “Greenberg” (2010)
No, this didn’t just birth the great collaborative relationship between Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. “Greenberg” is a consciously small-scale slice-of-life, its low(ish) stakes giving way to an impressive balance of unsentimental humanity and bittersweet comedy. In one of his finer comedic performances, Ben Stiller plays Roger, a jaded loner who’s just left New York for Los Angeles after a nervous breakdown. He house-sits for his brother, and frequently clashes with Florence (Gerwig), the family dog-walker. “Greenberg” glides along until its hilarious and cringe-inducing climax. But Baumbach holds our attention throughout — small in scope as it is big in execution, the collaboration between Stiller and his director is a fascinating one. Roger’s alienation at a house party, or his wistful, aimless attraction to Florence, is so specific and affecting that it hits a nerve each time. “Greenberg” recalls “Margot at the Wedding” in the sense that it’s both incredibly unyielding and somewhat meandering, but it surpasses that film by fashioning a more freewheeling viewing experience. By replacing the nastiness of “Margot” with the ache of loneliness, “Greenberg” attains surprising emotional resonance.
3. “Kicking and Screaming” (1995)
Even for Baumbach, the director’s debut feature “Kicking and Screaming” has an intensely personal feel to it. It stands out as one of Baumbach’s stronger efforts less because of its surface qualities and more due to its hyperactive energy — a ruthlessly-engaging string of jokes that sneakily deepen its characters’ personalities. The film, shot with a naturalistic style at Occidental College, follows a group of recent college graduates who seem incapable of moving on with their own lives. Much of the movie is a tightrope walk, as this conversation-heavy indie frequently wanders around trite Generation X discussion points before smartly pulling back. Baumbach’s dialogue here is especially distinctive, as it captures aimless background chatter with razor-sharp specificity — he’s consistently able to underscore such moments with meaning while avoiding anything explicit — and always infuses his characters’ rapport with hints of longing and pain. It also might be his funniest movie, with a young Josh Hamilton giving a fantastic performance in a lead role and familiar faces like Parker Posey popping up in delightful bit parts. “Kicking and Screaming” is undeniably rough and very much a first feature — but that’s largely why, even 20 years later, it feels so special.
2. “Frances Ha” (2012)
This widely-acclaimed comedy represented a major breakthrough for Baumbach on several counts. Gorgeously lensed in soft black-and-white, “Frances Ha” delivers a sweeping exploration of New York City that remains the director’s most visually-stimulating film to date. The director’s chronicle of the fading relationship between Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) is stingingly real. Much of this movie rests on Gerwig’s shoulders, and the writer-actress more than rises to the occasion. Relentlessly funny and lovable, her Frances is as memorable a cinematic creation as we’ve had in quite some time. Like “Kicking and Screaming,” “Frances Ha” centers on the relatively simple concept of struggling to move on, but it’s a humane and polished evocation of the idea. With a twinge of melancholy, “Frances Ha” observes human frailty through a script of immense generosity, providing a welcome respite from the bitter characters of “Greenberg” and “Margot at the Wedding.”
1. “The Squid and the Whale” (2005)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a 21st century film as ruthlessly satirical as Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.” It remains, and likely always will remain, his definitive film: empathetic but not treacly, funny but never aimless, sad but never quite pessimistic. Again drawing from his own experiences, Baumbach infuses this modern classic with an intellectually rigorous understanding of father-son dynamics. Even more impressively, he understands how to convey them in cinematic terms. The story deals with a couple on the brink of separation: Joan (Laura Linney), a short story writer, triggers her past-his-prime novelist husband Bernard (Jeff Daniels) to move out after her years of infidelity finally catch up with her. They’re working out the details of their divorce — how to divide time between their two kids, not to mention the family cat.
The movie is predominantly told from the perspective of 16 year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, in a breakout role), Baumbach’s stand-in. Through him, the director tracks the confluence of parental failures, successes and everything in-between as internalized by the kids. By envisioning a family of writers, Baumbach is able to expose the role of words — how they can hurt, entertain, and inspire — in the process of growing up and growing old. Walt idealizes his father, a (very) well-read scholar who instills in him the concept of “minor Dickens” and introduces to him the term “Kafkaesque.” He follows his advice to “play the field,” even if it’s a direct reflection of the bruising that came out of his dissolving marriage. And, speaking of words that sting, he calls his mother a “whore.”
“The Squid and the Whale” represents Baumbach at his very best because it seamlessly fuses the personal with the literary. Set in 1986, the film is shot mostly in the family home, with special attention paid to the towering bookcases, the rustic furniture and the positioning of each of its residents during family meetings. Sad and comedic tones constantly intertwine. The words of Bernard become the words of Walt, but not without a slight (albeit hilarious) miscalculation in the transfer. The confusion of adolescence, the bitterness of middle-age and the indescribably unifying traits within any family are all realized with piercing clarity. And the film concludes on a fairly optimistic idea: We absorb what’s useful from our parents, and after a few embarrassing tryouts, discard their most notable flaws. Baumbach’s final product is cathartic, mainly because it acknowledges the natural imperfections inherent to family life. True to form, he reaches for deeper truths through a series of ridiculous circumstances ranging from cashew-inhalation to taking credit for Pink Floyd songs. That’s the beauty of “The Squid and the Whale,” and in turn, of Baumbach as an artist: nothing is ever taken too seriously, but anything is up for discussion.