Noah Baumbach is a born indie filmmaker. The child of two critics, the New York native has become one of America’s most distinct and exemplary writer-directors of low-budget films for over two decades. Apart from brief co-writer credits for Wes Anderson joints Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr. Fox, he’s been the guiding force behind every project he’s helmed.
With the wits to write one stinging original screenplay after another and the fortitude to direct his own material competently, Baumbach has become one of the most essential modern auteurs of his kind. His filmography echoes Woody Allen in his prime – philosophizing comedy, cutting social commentary, and gems of insightful dialogue are all staples of Baumbach’s imprint. Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson and Laura Dern are lined up for his currently untitled upcoming film due to release this November, marking his second feature to be exhibited primarily through Netflix.
11. Mr. Jealousy
A modest character study exploring the mistrust and emasculation of cuckoldry (or at least the dreadful fear of it), Mr. Jealousy has ideas worth investigating but it remains Baumbach’s least developed film. However slight in structure or in crafting memorable dialogue, Baumbach still manages to make a good premise into a half-decent film.
Though he ultimately disowned the film, Highball, for all its amateurish aspects, is a respectably twee comedy. Made on the fly with money left over from the making of Mr. Jealousy, the film’s three acts focus on a group of friends over time as they participate in various get-togethers – a boring birthday, an awkward Halloween party and New Years Eve specifically. The film was shot in less than a week and also features Baumbach acting in the largest role of any of his self-directed performances. If nothing else, Highball is a testament to how much this director can accomplish with the most meager of resources at his disposal.
9. Margot at the Wedding
The middle chapter of Baumbach’s career as it stands today is one dictated by an attempt to generate empathy for at least moderately despicable characters. Nicole Kidman’s Margot may be the most difficult of these to defend. From her strained relationship with her young son to her interactions with her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh in the first of two roles in her then-husband’s films) and her future husband Malcolm (Jack Black), we see every prickly, unflattering side of our titular character. Falling on the more distinctly dramatic end of Baumbach’s comedy-drama tightrope, Margot at the Wedding is a minor moment of his career.
8. De Palma
This straightforward documentary finds our filmmaker in question celebrating and examining an American auteur from the previous generation. Co-directed by Jake Paltrow, De Palma finds Brian breaking down his entire career from his early days before his proper debut through 2012’s Passion. Honestly reflecting on his successes and failures spanning over four decades, Brian De Palma gets candid about his navigation through New Hollywood and, at its most interesting, comes clean about his shortcomings as a director. Working from the most subjective perspective of objectivity on a lengthy filmography, De Palma functions best as an adequate introduction to a fundamental American director.
7. Kicking and Screaming
Baumbach’s humble debut is laced with the themes one could expect from a young filmmaker struggling to make his voice heard – the limbo of post-college life and the aching pain of not having a damn clue what to do with the rest of your life. Many of these topics would be fleshed out better in later films, but Kicking and Screaming remains the most potent work of his early career, establishing watchable actors like Carlos Jacott, Chris Eigeman and Eric Stoltz as a regular part of his initial career.
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