Baumbach. Four of Baumbach’s best five films were from the 2010’s so like James Gray and others on this list before he’ll shoot up this list in the future when I update it (I’m trying to put the emphasis on the ranking on films from 2009 or before so I can let the newer works sink in a little). Still, the nine total archiveable films for a modern auteur is remarkable and a strength of Baumbach—and though they very in quality – they’re all clearly from the pen of one of the most gifted of modern voices in cinema. A weakness would be that he’s only just started to truly excel as a visual storyteller—hard to call him a style-plus auteur (though Marriage Story feels like a breakthrough and an exception to that critique).
Best film: Marriage Story.
- Marriage Story is a gut-wrenching drama- a marriage epic – that is Baumbach’s most visually ambitious and accomplished film to date
- The film features what is probably 2019’s best acting. Laura Dern leads the talented supporting ensemble—but it’s Scarlett and Driver’s show—and I think along with Florence Pugh in Midsommar and maybe one or two elite others- are the two performances of the year
- It opens with voice-over letter reading—Driver is talking about what he loves about Scarlett’s character and then we flip and get the reverse. It’s a powerful opening and is a set-up for the strong bookend finale. It is a love-letter with strong classical music—much like the opening of Woody’s Manhattan (Allen is declaring his love for the city there of course).
- Another standout is a scene where Scarlett first meets with her lawyer played by Laura Dern. Dern’s role is great because she’s in a film with Driver and Scarlett (who again give two of the best performances of the year) and every time Dern is in the scene— she’s the one who wins the scene as an actor. That’s really all you can ask for a supporting performance. Dern owns the room. In this particular scene though, there is film form being set up. We get a very long take on Scarlett speaking. She has no makeup, this is a raw and genuine performance with a rich characterization (combination Baumbach’s screenplay and great acting) and it’s a nod to realism because it shows her going into the bathroom (in one take) and coming back after blowing her nose. We get a similar scene later with Driver meeting with his lawyer Alda at Alda’s office where Alda leaves the room to make some food. This isn’t the cooking scene in Umberto D in terms of realism but still. It grounds the film in that realism approach.
- Baumbach uses camera distance and wide shots to show the separation of the characters– sometimes with a physical divide between. This is Antonioni’s move—this is L’eclisse-lite. There’s a magnificent shot on the subway—and another in Driver’s sad and empty apartment. It’s a tiny apartment/room and the way Baumbach shoots it they look like they’re a football field apart
- though in the same room– the two leads are often shot in isolation and then edited back and forth to show how alone they are even when together
- Many of the music cues (and the two singing scenes like say Keaton in Annie Hall or Wiest and Carrie Fisher in Hannah and Her Sisters) seem to come from Woody Allen. We have the casting of Alda (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Love You, Manhattan Murder Mystery)) and Wallace Shawn as well (4 movies with Allen including Manhattan). Obviously the LA vs. NYC divide that is at the crux of this narrative is Annie Hall.
- I’ve praised Scarlett and Dern (Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty is great and perfectly cast) and rightly so- but Driver’s performance is the singular tour-de-force. His charisma and complexity. Baumbach doesn’t take sides and he is flawed just like Scarlett. It’s an incredible relationship. Driver though is given 3 unbelievable scenes. Most great actors even in an Oscar-worthy performance get 1—Driver gets 3. One is the scene with Alda in the sidebar room at the larger meeting of the lawyers. Driver breaks down and realizes he’s going to lose. It’s devastating. You are in freefall with him and feel it all slipping away. The other is the blowout fight with Scarlett in his apartment. Holy hell. This is the hotel bedroom scene from Linklater, Deply and Hawke in Before Midnight. Lastly, Driver gets the scene (which is hilarious actually) where he’s getting observed with his son and accidently cuts himself- a triumph of physical and comedic acting.
- A visual stunner is the Bergman or Agnes Varda shot from La Pointe Courte with the three of them lying bed. Baumbach frames the faces beautifully. Scarlett is crying- the son is in between them.
- In the text is a nod to Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (it’s the name of the article about their theater work).
- It probably won’t get credit for it but this is one of the better edited films of 2019. At least twice (look forward to a rewatch), Baumbach positions the camera distance far away during a phone conversation or in person conversation between the couple. Then as the tension increases we cut back and forth getting closer and closer until we are in their face. It is an extremely inspiring stylistic choice to effectively ratchet up the stakes
- In the same vein, if it isn’t the Bergman shot of the three lying in bed – the best shot in the film is the edited shot and sequence where Baumbach brings us a dissolve edit of the dueling faces in profile in close-up. It’s a jaw-dropper cinematic moment.
- It doesn’t quite belong as an artistic photograph in a museum like Antonioni’s work in say L’eclisse – but what a brilliant move for Baumbach to have the two roll a fence close while on opposite sides. Not quite as acidic as The Squid and the Whale though clearly from the same auteur. Stylistic and narrative similarities abound
- In terms of subject and some of the narrative arcs certainly there is some Kramer vs. Kramer here- both potent films and meditations on divorce. I do think visually it probably has more in common with some of Bergman’s films and not just Scenes From a Marriage. Baumbach talks opening about the influence of Persona here and his choice to shoot many close-ups (which is also Demme, PTA, Barry Jenkins).
- There’s some color choices going on in their costume I want to explore more in the second viewing. Driver is often in blue— Scarlett in Red.
- Certainly Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (an excellent film) comes to mind as well.
- Though it’s a domestic drama and character/relationship study– it is remarkably large and weighty as the title suggests. Baumbach, in reach and visuals, is looking to make the definitive movie about divorce.
- After one viewing I do believe it to be Baumbach’s best work- a Must-See film—top 5 of the year quality
total archiveable films: 9
top 100 films: 0
top 500 films: 0
top 100 films of the decade: 3 (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, Marriage Story)
most overrated: Not a thing in this category for Baumbach. Though Baumbach doesn’t have a film that has emerged on the TSPDT top 1000 list yet his best three films are doing well. If you take out documentaries (which I do) The Squid and The Whale is #6 for 2005 on the TSPDT list. Frances Ha is #8 for 2012 – not terrible. And Marriage Story is #6 for a stacked 2019 on TSPDT.
most underrated Mistress America. There are 43 films from 2015 listed on the TSPDT consensus list of the best 21st century films and somehow this film from Baumbach (with a truly outstanding Greta Gerwig) isn’t one of them.
gem I want to spotlight : The Meyerowitz Stories
- Amongst the many pleasures it serves as the best Dustin Hoffman performance in at least 20 years (Wag the Dog) and perhaps closer to 30 years (Rain Main in 1988). His Harold is such a mess of ego and insecurities
- Sandler’s best work since Punch-Drunk Love– he’s singled out by almost every critic for his work here- he’s an genuine character, such authenticity- even more so than his work in Punch-Drunk Love. I’d love to see him work with Baumbach again
- The Hoffman character is the films patriarch and I see so many similarities with the Jeff Daniels character in the squid and the whale He uses, hilariously, the phrases “feather in my cap” and “it’s a minor work of mine” which I’m pretty sure Daniels did as well. The film is really nothing new- just an updated retelling of the same from Baumbach which many true auteurs do. The film is certainly part squid and the whale (his own work) and owes much to other family drama films (everything from David O. Russell’s work to royal tenenbaums (the casting of stiller as the business-minded son with father issues…hello!) to Hannah and Her Sisters from Woody Allen.
- Love the Emma Thompson line about Willem Dafoe being a former lover- had me laughing
- Adam Driver’s scene with Stiller is hilarious, Sigourney Weaver’s scene is really just a cameo of her introducing herself. Candace Bergan has 40 seconds on screen but delivers her line so well- it’s a poignant moment
- It’s a Dustin Hoffman movie so we have him running here through the streets of NYC (at age 80) just such a wink by Baumbach to cinephiles—I love it. I even think a few of Sandler’s more anger-laden outbursts may be a wink to punch drunk love– not as sure on that one
- Narrative skeleton given form through the chapter breaks of the characters names in white
- Werner Herzog hilarious reference (naming of the dog)
- The family feels so realistic
- “your kid looks like the young boy in kubrick’s the shining”
- The highlight of the film is the lunch between Stiller and Hoffman—absolutely uproarious – “it’s my protest”
- The visual style isn’t as loud and vibrant as most top-10 of the year quality films (it’s not the squid and the whale or frances ha upon first viewing) is given breathe with the dynamic editing choices—mainly—Baumbach chooses to cut right in the middle (back-middle) of yelling or arguing
- Baumbach uses Sandler’s musical talents and fondness for music
- Characters often talking past each other and repeating their own same lines and stories like real people do but is rarely seen in cinema
- Recommend/ Highly Recommend border upon first viewing
- He’s an auteur (maybe THE auteur) on divorce, — other themes include characters with angst, insecurities, brilliant (and often scathing) dialogue
- New York is the setting and a character in most of his films- they’re literate films, autobiographical, intellectual—certainly a Woody Allen acolyte—and his best work (Marriage Story) makes me think there’s a little Ingmar Bergman here (I want to see if some of the brilliant visuals in Marriage Story stick before calling them “traits”) and that’s Woody’s hero as well
- Family dysfunction- not dissimilar from peer and sometimes co-writer (on Wes’ films) Wes Anderson—I think David O. Russell is a decent comparison as well
- Marriage Story
- The Squid and the Whale
- Frances Ha
- Mistress America
- The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
- Kicking and Screaming
- Mr. Jealousy
- While We’re Young
By year and grades
|1995- Kicking and Screaming||R|
|1997- Mr. Jealousy||R|
|2005- The Squid and the Whale||MS|
|2012- Frances Ha||MS|
|2014- While We’re Young||R|
|2015- Mistress America||HR|
|2017- The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)||R/HR|
|2019- Marriage Story||MS|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives
I somehow had no clue that he has been around for 25 years. Beatty should get in ahead of him, no? Tracy and Reds are better than The Squid and The Whale. Such different films, wish he had made more.
@AP — Thanks for the comment. When I was reading up on Baumbach and Squid and the Whale it does seem like a number of critics had forgot about his two films in the 1990’s and treated it as his debut. There was a large gap between Mr. Jealousy and Squid.
As for Warren Beatty— he’ll up coming up shortly on the list — those two films are very impressive– but if they weren’t both starring Warren Beatty (and even with that) I think it’s pretty hard to tell that he directed them. So for him it is all about the filmography and that’s not the case for Baumbach. Even through three films — Baumbach had a distinct voice
@ Drake- Have you seen White Noise.
What did you make of it.
@AP- Have not had a chance at it yet- maybe as soon as tonight here – or at least within the next week. How about you?
@ Drake- I watched it. Very odd film. It has it’s moments of brilliance. Too much happening really. Wil need another viewing to make sense of it all.
@AP- Interesting- I mean with Baumbach, Driver, Gerwig- I’d be seeing this if it were a 10/100 on metacritic. Thanks for sharing.
@AP- a good, short piece here https://www.gq.com/story/white-noise-in-praise-of-the-unfilmable-novel