“I always viewed life as material for a movie.” – Noah Baumbach
American filmmaker Noah Baumbach is known for his beautiful work which often explores the universal aspects of the human condition through intimate examinations of inter-personal relationships. He has twice been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for 2005 effort The Squid and the Whale and, more recently, Marriage Story (2019) which earned a Best Picture nomination.
Born in Brooklyn, both of Baumbach’s parents were film critics and he was determined to become a filmmaker from a young age. His parents later divorced during his adolescence and this became a recurring that Baumbach explores in many of his films. According to Baumbach, he was influenced by films like John Landis’ Animal House (1978) and Spielberg’s E.T. (1982).
On his 51st birthday, we go through Baumbach’s filmography as a tribute to one of the top contemporary directors.
Noah Baumbach’s Films Ranked:
11. While We’re Young (2014)
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts star in Baumbach’s 2014 effort as a happily married couple who are content but are stuck in that universal stagnation of middle-age. They try to reclaim their lost youth by hanging out with a younger, free-spirited couple but they end up neglecting their old friends.
“I was thinking of more mainstream comedies like those screwball comedies, but also the more mainstream comedies from my childhood that studios used to make,” Baumbach said.
“They were more character-based and about adults and adult concerns, but they also could be broadly funny and maybe sort of pleasurable in a more mainstream way. I felt like I was kind of working within that template, so in that way I understand it.”
10. Mr. Jealousy (1997)
Mr. Jealousy is Noah Baumbach’s exploration of the insecurities that are normal in any relationship. However, in aspiring writer Lester Grimm’s (played by Eric Stoltz) case, the normal devolves into the realm of mania as he becomes obsessed with the highly successful ex-boyfriend of his current girlfriend.
Baumbach had been wanting to make the film for a long time, “It was always exactly the movie I wanted to make next. It was like—I’m making Kicking and Screaming and then I’ll make Mr. Jealousy. I was gearing up for it, and ever since that was finished I was constantly trying to get this financed and then making it. I never really stopped to think.”
9. Margot At The Wedding (2007)
Baumbach dissects the precarious dynamics of family relationships in this 2007 film which stars Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh as sisters. Their relationship is rendered volatile when Margot (Kidman’s character) decides to visit her sister with her son, Claude. Baumbach presents an emotionally violent portrait of a dysfunctional family.
While speaking about his influences for the film, Baumbach said, “It wasn’t a film that inspired me to make Margot, but I was thinking about Eric Rohmer movies and particularly movies where people go on vacations, thinking about like Claire’s Knee and Pauline at the Beach. And also movies that Ingmar Bergman made in the 60’s that also take place on an island. I like that feeling of isolation.”
8. De Palma (2015)
A joint effort from Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, this 2015 documentary focuses on the life and the artistic vision of one of the all-time greats in cinema, Brian De Palma. The acclaimed filmmaker discusses some of his best works and all his insights are enlightening fragments of his unique cinematic world.
Baumbach spoke about what attracted him to the project and De Palma’s films, “I think just the personality. That they’re so of him. I mean, they are some of my favourite movies anyway, and there are personal filmmakers I don’t like too. But I think in terms of my ‘in’ to them, before I met Brian, it was the personality of them.”
He added, “That they were just singular. And I think every movie I‘ve made, to some degree, brings me back to my childhood — even just the desire to invent something out of nothing. And Brian’s movies were part of that. They were also things I heard about before I could see them.”
7. Kicking and Screaming (1995)
This 1995 comedy drama was Baumbach’s directorial debut, featuring a group of college students who are afraid to step out of their campus and face the real world. They are caught in a state of denial, trying to avoid the uncomfortable truths of a post-graduation life.
“It was kind of a drag for me at the time because I also had been trying to get the movie made since I got out of college [in 1991] and when I wrote it these labels weren’t around,” the director said of the Gen-X/slacker label attached to his film.
“I sort of thought, ‘Oh Jesus, I thought this was about me and my friends instead of a whole fucking generation who supposedly don’t know what they want to do with their lives,’ but I was probably overtly sensitive to that kind of thing anyway.”
6. Mistress America (2015)
Greta Gerwig stars as Brooke, an adventurous New York City screwball who rescues her younger future step-sister, Tracy (played by Lola Kirke), from being lonely by involving her in mischievous antics. The film is a charming depiction of a couple of adults avoiding the seriousness their age demands.
“I think Brooke wants to be successful,” Baumbach commented on Greta Gerwig’s character. “She wants to be rich. She wants to be able to live in New York in the way she imagines fancy people do. She exists on the margins but in a certain way is the centre of… when she goes out at night, she can feel like the centre of the world and the centre of attention. She talks a good game. She’s a hustler in that way.”
5. Greenberg (2010)
Ben Stiller is fantastic as Roger Greenberg, a New Yorker who agrees to look after his successful brother’s house after suffering a mental breakdown. He tries to connect with his old friends but ends up finding a kindred spirit in his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (played by Greta Gerwig). Both Stiller and Gerwig received Independent Spirit Award nominations for their wonderful performances.
Baumbach revealed, “The notion of this character was a character I had written versions of in the past in fragments. I’d written a play that had a character that had some similarities to Greenberg. The character Florence also was a woman I felt I knew a lot in life, but I hadn’t really seen in movies and then I had Los Angeles.
“Those really were the three elements that I went about exploring and over a period of time and with Jennifer [Jason Leigh]’s input and collaboration it sort of shaped itself.”
4. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)
Baumbach’s 2017 inter-generational drama investigates the complicated relationship between arrogant artist Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) and his son Danny (Adam Sandler), who moves in with him after Danny’s separation from his wife. The film earned several nominations at the Cannes Film Festival.
The director explained, “I was interested in family mythologies, and how parents can form their own definitions of what success means, and their kids grow up brainwashed. It’s like deprogramming to try and get rid of it. It’s just a universal human struggle.”
3. The Squid And The Whale (2005)
The director’s acclaimed third feature is a semi-autobiographical comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family and studies the experiences of two young brothers growing up in 1980s Brooklyn as they cope with the divorce of their parents. Baumbach was nominated for his first Academy Award for his script and won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Screenplay.
Baumbach reflected, “Right before I started to write The Squid and the Whale, I kind of found myself at a position where I think like my career ambition had sort of exceeded my sense of self. So I sort of in some ways had to figure out who I was at a filmmaker after I had already become one.”
2. Marriage Story (2019)
Baumbach’s latest effort is also his most personal. He conducts yet another examination of a crumbling marriage, a recurring motif in many of his films. Theatre director Charlie Barber (played by Adam Driver) and his actress wife Nicole (played by Scarlett Johansson) find themselves in a loveless marriage and the try their best at navigating the difficult process of divorce. Marriage Story earned Baumbach his first Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and his second one for Best Screenplay.
“I was very moved by it,” the filmmaker said. “It’s extremely personal for me, but it really became this thing where I felt like everybody was bringing themselves to it.”
Adding, “Because I’ve gone through a divorce and also been through it as a child, there are things from my experience that of course I could draw from. But it also gave me a real opportunity to talk to friends of mine. I mean, so many people have gone through this experience, and it’s not spoken about a lot.”
1. Frances Ha (2012)
Noah Baumbach’s finest work is a delightfully awkward, New York slice-of-life film about an aspiring dancer Frances Halladay (played by Greta Gerwig) who struggles with the hardships of adult life: employment, making plans for her future and the loss of her best friend who decides to move away. Gerwig won a Golden Globe Award nomination for her beautiful performance as Frances.
“I wanted it to feel like a first film, quick and scaled down. That’s the spirit of it – a certain kind of regeneration. But it’s a kind of starting again, as opposed to starting for the first time,” Baumbach said.
He also acknowledged Greta Gerwig’s contribution, “In making this, I was led by Greta. Things were clear to me in large part because of knowing Greta. And it became clear to me that I was motivated by a desire to protect this character. I wanted the movie to be as buoyant as she is.”