Every Noah Baumbach Movie, Ranked

Movies Lists Noah Baumbach
Every Noah Baumbach Movie, Ranked

The highest-grossing Noah Baumbach movie is Madagascar 3, for which he wrote the screenplay. The next two biggest ones are The Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr. Fox, which he co-wrote with director Wes Anderson (and are not among Anderson’s most financially successful efforts). The most popular movie Baumbach has ever directed himself is While We’re Young, a Ben Stiller-led comedy that was seen by fewer people than caught Stiller’s flops Envy or Duplex. I don’t say this to bury Noah Baumbach, but to praise the precision of his appeal—and to explain the seeming micro-management required to rank his work as a writer-director within that appeal. In other words, your “Baumbach rankings” are not exactly the endlessly relitigated stuff of Tarantino-style Film Twitter debates. Yet within Baumbach’s body of comedies and dramedies of urban neuroses, there is plenty of room to express even more individualized preference: For the early/funny stuff like Kicking and Screaming, the sometimes-acidic domestic drama of The Squid and the Whale or Marriage Story, or for the dizzying yet potently melancholy farce of Mistress America, as well as plenty in between. In these 12 movies, one of our best writer-directors carefully explores different demographic slices: Childhood trauma, freshman year loneliness, post-graduate malaise, twentysomething drifting, thirtysomething panic, parenthood and, in his Don DeLillo adaptation White Noise, an abiding fear of death. All of his films are worth watching; here’s how their various ages and stages stack up against each other.

Here’s every Noah Baumbach movie, ranked:

12. Mr. Jealousy (1997)

Before Noah Baumbach found on-screen avatars in Adam Driver or Ben Stiller, there was Eric Stoltz. It’s probably not fair to pin the slightly wan quality of Baumbach’s sophomore feature Mr. Jealousy on Stoltz, whose presence helped Kicking and Screaming get financed (and scored a bunch of laughs in the process). But Stoltz doesn’t have quite the right temperament for a Woody Allen-ish comedy of romantic deception, playing Lester, a man so consumed with jealous curiosity over past relationships of his girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra) that he infiltrates a therapy group attended by her novelist ex (Chris Eigeman). Stoltz’s recessiveness almost doesn’t matter, though, when he’s irritably bouncing off of both Eigeman and fellow Baumbach vet Carlos Jacott, playing Lester’s fussy best friend; it’s laugh-out-loud funnier than a lot of comparably “lesser” Woody Allen pictures, that’s for sure. The film doesn’t have quite the same rubber-band snap-and-sting as the best of his broader comedies, or the unsparing honesty of his darker work, yet Mr. Jealousy does have some smart observations about self-sabotaging men and the women who (somewhat inexplicably) put up with them.


11. While We’re Young (2015)

While We’re Young stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as Josh and Cornelia, a 40-something married couple living in New York City. Cornelia produces her revered father’s documentaries—the father is played by the stellar Charles Grodin—while Josh is a once-promising documentarian who has spent a decade on his latest project, which might finally get done in about a decade from now. Childless but relatively content—a couple miscarriages have convinced them that parenthood wasn’t in their future—Josh and Cornelia find their staid domestic lives interrupted by meeting Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), who are almost the perfect representation of 20-something hipsters. A free-spirited married couple who love kitschy cultural detritus like Rocky III with utter sincerity, Jamie and Darby have an enthusiasm for new restaurants, trends and enlightenment movements that shakes Josh and Cornelia from their doldrums. Though focused on Josh, who’s consumed with disappointment that he’s not a bigger success, the film views its two generations of characters with equal amusement. If Josh and Cornelia are struggling with the choices they’ve made, Jamie and Darby are grappling with the moment when they have to stop imagining a future and start reaching for it. From Josh’s perspective, Jamie is so lucky, his life stretching out in front of him. As they become friends, Josh tries to be a mentor, but really he just wants to go back to being young, when he had potential and promise rather than just being a middle-aged disappointment. Stiller has a knack for such twitchy, failed individuals, and he wrings Josh’s hang-ups for plentiful laughs. As for Driver, he successfully transforms Jamie into a comically nightmarish vision of that supremely confident, serenely unflappable younger guy we all know, a thorn in the side of our faltering self-esteem. If the performance weren’t so painfully true, it wouldn’t be so damn funny. —Tim Grierson


10. White Noise (2022)

It’s 1984 in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, an iconic novel that opens on a highway crammed to a stop with evacuating families. But in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s screen adaptation, we begin somewhere else, a little further back, in a classroom submerged in lecture: “Look past the violence!” It’s a call to action from professor Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle) to his students, and an invitation to satirical logic for us, the viewers, students in the art of DeLillian critique and maximalism for the next two hours and sixteen minutes. This plot, like all plots, “moves deathward,” as founder and professor of Hitler Studies at College-on-the-Hill Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) explains. That’s the nature of all plots, but the phrase applies in excess to White Noise. After a brief spell of normality, an “airborne toxic event” creates a pandemic that hovers ominously in the form of a black cloud over life on Earth, leaving people quarantined and displaced, uprooting the Gladneys’ mild, routine suburban life. Babette (Greta Gerwig) and Jack have seven kids from past marriages, four of whom they’re still rearing: Wilder, Denise (Raffey Cassidy), Heinrich and Steffie (the latter two played by Sam and May Nivola, children of Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer). Baumbach uses a bizarro cast of characters to freshly convey the warmth and comfort that can be found in a partnership or close-knit nuclear family. Guns—and the violence inherent in them—are a huge topic of discourse, often academically discussed as so many things are in White Noise. They kick the film off through a distinctly non-Baumbachian introduction in style—a lecture on the brief history of the weapon, our mass philosophies around it and the violence that stems from it—cut with the zip and punch of a full-fledged action sequence. Historical footage whirs by in a blur of brutality as Murray pounds his lecture into students and the montage unfolds at a breakneck pace, the coming of a new style of Baumbach. The film flexes its budget creatively and responsibly, every department offering sumptuous work, a testament to the collective experience of the creative heads and Baumbach’s keen ability to wed all elements of a film into a unified whole, no matter the style or budget. He doesn’t leave a department unconsidered. t’s tempting to say the story of White Noise—which feels massive for Baumbach—is about more than an individual, or couple, or family in New York, like all of his previous films, but it is just about a family. The setting and characters are so strange and surreal that it seems like a fantasy, or an epic, or something else expensive, but it’s a natural story for Baumbach to make a career transition through.—Luke Hicks


9. Margot at the Wedding (2007)

The adults in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding are completely dysfunctional. They’re flawed in an impressively wide variety of ways, especially when it comes to parenting, but we don’t love them for their flaws, we love them because Baumbach loves them. Most great writers maintain affection for their characters because they’re the author’s creations; they love them like children. But Baumbach loves them through their worst moments more like a child would love his parents. And it’s through a child’s eyes that we see Margot (Nicole Kidman), a mother who unabashedly doles out advice to anyone she meets, particularly her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s about to marry the less-than-impressive Malcolm (Jack Black). But as Margot tries to dominate the lives of those around her, her own is about to self-destruct. Baumbach revisits the relational angst of Squid even as his previous films’ ‘70s vibe colors the present-day Margot. Margot’s son Claude (Zane Pais) remains at the center of it all, innocence forced to carry the burden of guilt and shame his mother refuses to bear.—Josh Jackson


8. Marriage Story (2019)

The way that Adam Driver ends “Being Alive,” which his character in Marriage Story has just sung in full (including dialogue asides from Company’s lead’s friends), is like watching him drain what’s left of his spirit out onto the floor, in front of his small audience (which includes us). The performance starts off kind of goofy, the uninvited theater kid taking the reins to sing one of Broadway’s greatest showstoppers, but then, in another aside, he says, “Want something… want something…” He begins to get it. He begins to understand the weight of life, the dissatisfaction of squandered intimacy and what it might mean to finally become an adult: to embrace all those contradictions, all that alienation and loneliness. He takes a deep exhalation after the final notes, after the final belt; he finally realizes he’s got to grow up, take down his old life, make something new. It’s a lot like living on the Internet these days; the impossibility of crafting an “authentic self,” negligible the term may be, is compounded by a cultural landscape that refuses to admit that “authenticity” is as inauthentic a performance as anything else. Working through identities is painful and ugly. Arguably, we’re all working through how to be ourselves in relation to those around us. And that’s what Bobby, the 35-year-old at the center of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, is doing. The scene forces the viewer to make connections about their humanity, the art they’re experiencing, and the ever deadening world in which it all exists. Charlie grabs the microphone, drained, realizing that he has to figure out what he has to do next, to re-put his life together again. All of us, we’re putting it together too. Or trying, at least. That counts for something. —Kyle Turner


7. The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Borrowing themes from his previous films—children of failed marriages; characters whose bookish smarts seem to work against them; a floating sense of fatalism—The Squid and the Whale creeps ever closer to Noah Baumbach’s own tempestuous past. His parents’ faltering union isn’t just a detail used to add depth to a certain character. It’s the whole story—a gorgeous, candid portrait of the messy car crash of divorce, from all angles. “It’s hard to even put myself in the mindset of those movies anymore,” he told Paste in 2005. “With Squid, these are reinventions of people that are close to me, and this is the movie I identify with the most. It is a natural extension of what I have intended and what I feel. I trusted myself more on this one.” —Keenan Mayo


6. Greenberg (2010)

The Los Angeles of Greenberg is crammed with strip malls, old Hollywood grills and florescent-lit donut shops; a scrappy counterpoint to the glistening condos and clubs of The Hills. The city’s worn, dusty streets suit Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a forty-ish carpenter from New York visiting the Left Coast to house-sit for his brother Phillip (Chris Messina), currently on vacation in Vietnam with his picture-perfect family. While in town, Greenberg becomes entangled in a peculiar relationship with Phillip’s wide-eyed personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), an awkward twenty-something with a deficit of gumption and a surplus of overcautiousness. He also revisits a broken friendship with former bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans). But Greenberg is mostly intent on “doing nothing. Baumbach has a history of writing movies about overeducated white people who just don’t want to grow up—his narrative specialty is clearly middle-class disaffection. But Greenberg is also a remarkably funny and charming film, one which captures the vague, gnawing restlessness that plagues its characters.—Amanda Petrusich


5. Highball (1997)

An absurdly high ranking for an absurd project. Baumbach made this lo-fi comedy with leftover time and money from Mr. Jealousy, utilizing most of the same cast members—including his unofficial early-days rep company of Carlos Jacott, Chris Eigeman, Chris Reed, John Lehr and Eric Stoltz—in a triptych of stories set at three different parties in the same Brooklyn apartment. The accelerated six-day shoot was completed on schedule, but bond company shenanigans resulted in the movie going through post, and eventually released, without Baumbach’s input—which is why he took his name off of it (as director, anyway; it’s still there for his most prominent acting role to date). Highball grew out of Baumbach’s collaborations with college friends and their improv backgrounds, showcasing a riffy side of his work that was understandably tamped down on many of his subsequent films. The three-party framework, taking its loose friend group from a birthday party to Halloween to New Year’s Eve, offers just enough structure to develop a series of comic vignettes around the petty squabbles of Brooklynites attempting to fake their way through adulthood, a common Baumbach theme here turned more overtly farcical: Breaks-ups placed for laughs; partygoers hiding in closets; lizard-costume slapstick. Jacott is particularly funny as the misanthropic Felix, inexplicably beloved by his supposed best buddy Travis (Reed), and then even more inexplicably humbled in the film’s final act. Though it’s easy to look at it as an “experiment that failed,” as Baumbach has described it, Highball is more plugged in than you’d expect for a barely-released 1990s indie. It bridges the gap between Seinfeld and the Apatow-style improv influence of the 2000s—and wears its looseness more comfortably than countless more widely seen iterations of sketch-derived or improv-augmented features. It’s also nearly as quotable as Kicking and Screaming. Granted, this writer is biased, being the source of the movie’s one and only front-of-case Blu-ray blurb, but Highball might have the highest LOLs-per-minute of Baumbach’s filmography, even if he doesn’t consider this particular film a proper part of it.


4. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)

In maybe his most well-tuned chamber drama (let’s use this phrase loosely) since Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach takes time to observe the ways in which his characters run, their ambulatory gifts (or lack thereof) representing both their struggles to express their innermost selves and the ways in which they can’t escape the parents who must pass themselves—their failures, their quirks, their anger—to their offspring. One gets the sense that Baumbach wants to literalize the act of “running from” one’s deepest problems, but such tracking shots are largely played for laughs: Family patriarch Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor seeking acknowledgement in his old age, shuffles dopily down New York’s streets; Matt Meyerowitz (Ben Stiller) possesses the grace of a well-used corporate gym membership; Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler, deserving of an Oscar) hobbles around denying that he’s got a major medical problem; and Jean Meyerowitz (Elizabeth Marvel) just seems like she shouldn’t be running, Matt and Danny at one point consorting about how they’ve never actually seen her run before. In these moments, Baumbach allows the cerebral to awkwardly take on corporeal life, wondering aloud how the many themes and ideas we conceptualize (and thus internalize) break free in some sort of physical melee. It’s his tennis scene in The Squid and the Whale made feature length—and it may be the most viscerally moving film he’s ever made.—Dom Sinacola


3. Frances Ha (2012)

Frances Ha is endearing, kind and, in many ways, Noah Baumbach’s best movie since the one to come before it. One could trace his films, from his debut (Kicking and Screaming) to the one before Frances Ha (Greenberg) and see a slow but increasingly steady focus on the individual, as well as his abandonment of an ironic, sometimes caustic stance against the very characters he writes. It is as if Baumbach could only write a certain type of person—the privileged, socially crippled intellectual with either too much self-awareness or none at all—and for a while it seemed like even the writer himself couldn’t stand to be in the same room with such characters. This anger faded, and what has emerged over the course of the films he’s made with Greta Gerwig (who here plays the titular Frances) is an embrace of both the flaws of his characters, and those as a filmmaker. He has settled down and created a film imbued with love, fun and melancholy. It’s a simple joy to watch. —Joe Peeler


2. Kicking and Screaming (1995)

The thing about college graduation is that you’re expected to do something afterward. As always, though, the movies are here for us. Young filmmakers have long exorcized those one or two (or seven) years after graduation, wherein caustic anxiety about the future leads well-educated twentysomethings to enter an extended period of uselessness on their way to whatever’s next. Thus emerged this talky cousin of the coming-of-age movie, which exists mostly to comfort new generations of grads and depress older ones. In the debut feature from writer-director Noah Baumbach, a group of liberal-arts types graduate and then sit around and lament a future they don’t bother to confront: “Oh, I’ve been to Prague. Well, I haven’t ‘been to Prague’ been to Prague, but I know that thing, I know that ‘stop-shaving-your-armpits, read-The Unbearable Lightness of Being, fall-in-love-with-a-sculptor, now-I-know-how-bad-American-coffee-is thing.’” The film both celebrates and satirizes that first post-collegiate year, and it gave the world a glimpse of Baumbach’s ability to remind us all of the realness and rawness of that youthful angst. Though it declines to wrap up tidily, there’s some comfort in that, too. —Jeffrey Bloomer


1. Mistress America (2015)

Mistress America is so far Noah Baumbach’s most vivacious output, fiercer in its convictions and sense of self than anything to come before. He treats it with equal affection for his past films, but is less protective—it’s gassed with a smiling fuck-you attitude, revved up by an ’80s Euro synth-pop score from husband-wife duo Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, who provided the music for Baumbach’s Squid and the Whale in 2005, arguably his magnum opus. As exhausting as his characters can be, both agonizing in their belligerence and endearing in their complete oblivion, the adoration with which he writes them and the ferocious wit for which he’s revered make Baumbach one of contemporary cinema’s greatest character sketchers—and Mistress America falls right in line.—Melissa Weller

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