NEW YORK — I don’t know what the best movie of 2019 is. How do you compare Martin Scorsese’s mediation on morals and mortality “The Irishman” to Quentin Tarantino’s laid-back fetish-fest “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood” to Sameh Zoabi’s soap opera-set comedy about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “Tel Aviv on Fire”? It’s comparing apples to oranges to pomegranates. It can’t be done.
So, with that out of the way, the best movie of the year, obviously, is Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.” It’s the only thing I saw that, when it was over, I felt like I’d just run a marathon.
Despite the title, it is a film about a divorce. The film is like a car-crash: You watch two mature, intelligent and caring people transform into monsters with full self-awareness of the destruction as it is happens. It’s brutal, it’s terrifying, it’s somehow funny at times and even beautiful in patches. A movie like this is very rare. For years critics have said that Baumbach is often reminiscent of Woody Allen. Years from now new filmmakers will take note if they are reminiscent of Baumbach.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are tremendous as a director and actress that are, let’s face it, clear stand-ins for Baumbach and his ex-wife, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. What’s remarkable is how the movie manages to remain balanced; you find yourself rooting for whichever character is up on the screen at the time. (Leigh reportedly read and “liked” the script, Baumbach said recently.)
Baumbach is half-Jewish on his father’s side, and his movies usually have a very Jewish feel, but always just shy of being explicit about it. Even his last movie, which starred Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler and had the very heimish title “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” didn’t have so much as a menorah in the background. It did have a Randy Newman score (as does “Marriage Story”) and everyone lived a vaguely liberal New York City life. So it’s not like anyone needs a map.
Baumbach’s parents were both writers and critics. He burst on the scene at the young age of 26 in 1995 with “Kicking and Screaming” about a group of recent college grads hesitant to get on with real life. It’s very of-its-time, talky and low-budget. I loved it at the time, but I’ll admit I haven’t seen it since. It was most notable for its zing-y dialogue. I still remember one character, played by Chris Eigeman, telling a friend not to go to Prague: “You’ll come back a bug.”
His 1997 follow-up about writers in therapy, “Mr. Jealousy,” was something of a letdown. Soon thereafter a project shot concurrently, “Highball,” was released by Baumbach’s producer, even though he demanded his name be removed from the project. Then he somewhat disappeared from the independent movie scene. “Remember that movie ‘Kicking and Screaming’?” “Yeah, I loved that one, too bad I guess that guy only had one good movie in him.”
Cut to 2004 and Wes Anderson, the precious and beloved cult director of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” comes out with what was his most ambitious and (in my opinion) most emotionally rich film yet, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” It is co-scripted by Baumbach, who will go on to work with Anderson again on “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
In 2005, Baumbach, reenergized, perhaps, from the Anderson collaboration, makes his mature debut, “The Squid and the Whale.” He cuts open a vein on screen, writing about his parents, their divorce, and growing up in a confused, “very New York” (read: Jewish) family. The young Jesse Eisenberg plays the Baumbach proxy. The movie is funny and tender and painfully real.
In 2007 he linked up with Jewish producer Scott Rudin and made “Margot at the Wedding” with Nicole Kidman and Baumbach’s new wife Jennifer Jason Leigh playing sisters. (JJL, not many realize, is Jewish, too. Leigh was born Morrow; her father, Vic Morrow, was named Victor Morozoff.)
After “Margot at the Wedding” Baumbach made “Greenberg” with Ben Stiller. He plays something of man-child nudzh who falls for a daffy younger woman played by Greta Gerwig. Here’s where things get a little juicy. Baumbach and Gerwig fell in love and now, nearly a decade later, they are still together and have a child. They are not married, but they made two spectacular comedies together, “Frances Ha” (2012) and “Mistress America” (2015), both of which Gerwig co-wrote. Gerwig is now a director in her own right, having made the highly acclaimed “Lady Bird” and the forthcoming (and spectacular) adaptation of “Little Women.”
In between the two Gerwig pictures Baumbach also made “While We’re Young,” again with Stiller, about a Gen X New York couple beginning to feel their age. There were other projects: he co-wrote the animated film “Madagascar 3,” which is actually pretty funny, and co-directed a documentary about filmmaker Brian De Palma.
Everything he’s touched since “The Squid and the Whale” has been a highlight of that year’s film calendar. But with “The Meyerowitz Stories” and especially with “Marriage Story” he has catapulted to the very top tier of American writer-directors working in cinema today.
The movie landscape is in the midst of major changes right now. Complex characters and rich, often funny writing is abundant, but on television. These stories get teased out over seasons and oftentimes peter out by the end. For feature films, it’s either superhero action movies (which have their place) or war pictures. Domestic dramas at feature length are increasingly rare.
Both “Meyerowitz” and “Marriage” were financed by Netflix, just about the only place left for mid-budget, smart, funny and sad movies for grown-ups. Both of them (and many others from his resumé) are streaming right now. Here’s hoping we get another soon.