All 9 Charlie Kaufman Movies, Ranked

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Everett, Alamy

Charlie Kaufman has always been an anomaly. He is, for starters, an unusual success story: Toiling for years in relative obscurity punching up the margins of network sitcoms, he emerged fully formed — creatively speaking — with his first produced screenplay, 1999’s Being John Malkovich. The kind of audacious, big-swing comedy even established industry giants would have trouble getting made, the film was rapturously received by critics and scored multiple Oscar nominations, including for the man who dreamt it into far-fetched reality. Kaufman’s work was so acclaimed so quickly that he became the rare screenwriter regarded as something close to a household name without the word “director” affixed on the end of his title (at least not initially). These days, he looks like a special case in a less heartening way: How did the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind become a struggling artist, fighting to get projects off the ground?

Kaufman’s waning Hollywood fortune probably has a lot to do with how anomalous his work is, too. While his wildly inventive ideas made him the toast of the town (and the go-to screenwriter for established artists looking to move into making movies), they also betrayed an imagination maybe too dark and strange for the studio system. Beyond their ambitious, brain-bending hooks, Kaufman’s movies are remarkably consistent in withering worldview, following characters tortured by their inadequacies, their philandering appetites, the impossibility of artistic creation, or all of the above. Since moving into directing, he’s only plunged deeper down the rabbit hole of those obsessions; his films have become weirder, sadder, and less readily accessible, which helps explain the trouble he sometimes has getting them funded.

But as Kaufman has mostly tilted away from the mainstream that once improbably embraced him, his work has remained fiercely intelligent and idiosyncratic — dramas and comedies that put no dent in his reputation as the most gifted screenwriter of his generation, with the increasingly formidable filmmaking chops to support his vision. He remains a true one-of-a-kind, and even when not directing his own scripts, his fingerprints on the material are unmistakable. Just look at the films he wrote for Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and George Clooney. Or, for that matter, his most recent, unlikeliest project: the DreamWorks animated movie Orion and the Dark, new to Netflix.

Kaufman’s mad genius runs through all nine of the features ranked below — the ones he wrote, the ones he wrote and directed, and even the small handful that don’t quite spark. Every one of them feels like a portal into his mind. Together, they paint a picture of an oeuvre unlike any other, unique in ambition, philosophical rigor, and existentially madcap sensibility — a career as anomalous as the artist behind it.


Human Nature (2001)

The one howler of Charlie Kaufman’s career. Though this punishingly unfunny satire was made after Being John Malkovich, Kaufman wrote it around the same time — maybe even before — and it often plays like a clumsy dry run to that brilliant breakthrough. Certainly, there’s a glimmer of Malkovich in the farcical love triangle of infidelity and insecurity that entangles a libidinous researcher (Tim Robbins), his secretly hairy lover (Patricia Arquette), and a modern Tarzan (Rhys Ifans). Game though the actors may be, they’re not playing characters so much as walking illustrations of Kaufman’s notions about, yes, human nature. (Newsflash: We’re all animals, baby.) Meanwhile, director Michel Gondry makes his inauspicious feature debut, carting over very little of the impish visual inspiration of his music videos. All told, it’s a failed experiment from two of cinema’s most inventive mad scientists. Only some structural audacity — like framing the story around three different voice-overs, including one from beyond the grave — hints at the heights Kaufman and Gondry would reach when they collaborated again.


Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

“It’s a movie I don’t really relate to,” Kaufman would later say of this playfully sinister quasi-biopic, released a few months after Human Nature (and mere days after Adaptation). What the screenwriter objected to was how George Clooney — stepping behind the camera for the first time — sanded down the edges of his script, adapted from the “unauthorized autobiography” of Gong Show creator and self-proclaimed CIA assassin Chuck Barris. Rewritten without Kaufman’s involvement, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind became a diverting curiosity (thanks, in no small part, to Sam Rockwell’s amorally charming star turn as Barris), but its scenes of possibly hallucinated spy-game skullduggery barely inform the backstage material. Which is to say, watching the movie is like channel-surfing between a vaguely plotted Cold War thriller and an eccentric showbiz memoir — two movies connected only by the glib half-joke that it takes a cold-blooded sociopath to succeed in TV Land. The irony is that the most plainly sanitized of the films bearing Kaufman’s byline is also, easily, the weirdest thing Clooney has ever directed; the movie star’s fussy approximation of Coen brothers zing is a lot more fun than the “classical” bores he’s almost exclusively made since.


Orion and the Dark (2024)

What’s stranger than the arrival of an animated Netflix family film written by Charlie Kaufman? How about the fact that said film is both safe for all ages and instantly identifiable as a Charlie Kaufman script? You can definitely hear his voice in the anxious narration of Orion (Jacob Tremblay), a grade-school worrywart who lays out his laundry list of phobias and existential dilemmas though a racing inner monologue akin to the one Nicolas Cage delivers in Adaptation. And then there’s the framing device, a metatextual element that allows the writer to gently rib the coddling conventions of typical children’s entertainment while also sincerely meditating on storytelling as a way to make sense of your fears and your offspring’s. Expanding a 40-page picture book into a Pixarian fable was probably more of a work-for-hire assignment than a passion project for Kaufman. But he manages to put his neurotic spin on the material all the same — even as the plotting and especially the animation sometimes veer a little too close to studio-cartoon boilerplate.


Anomalisa (2015)

There’s nothing conventional or family-friendly about Kaufman’s other foray into animation, a technical marvel that applies remarkably detailed stop-motion to an intimate drama of crippling midlife crisis. Adapting his own audio play with the help of co-director Duke Johnson, Kaufman unfurls the depressive tale of a motivational speaker (David Thewlis) plagued by a rare condition that causes him to perceive that every person he meets has the exact same face and speaks in the same voice, which happens to be Tom Noonan’s. But on a business trip to Cincinnati, he encounters a beguiling exception, a young woman blessed with the pipes of Jennifer Jason Leigh. While many of Kaufman’s films leap into elaborate (if anguished) flights of fancy, Anomalisa narrows its scope to conversations within a single hotel, over a single night spent in the company of a selfish, lost specimen whose psychological disorder is really a metaphor for general alienation and the way narcissistic unhappiness can flatten the whole world into interpersonal wallpaper. As for the amazing animation, it becomes a distancing device, meant to challenge our capacity to connect to the “people” onscreen. Whether it’s possible to become invested in Kaufman’s fragile human scenario may depend on your reaction to an awkward, tender sex scene, the most sexually explicit use of puppets since Trey Parker and Matt Stone incensed the MPAA.


I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

If there’s a defining line of dialogue across Kaufman’s brainy filmography, it’s probably what Jake (Jesse Plemons) says to girlfriend Lucy (Jessie Buckley) at the top of this discombobulating Netflix nightmare: “It’s good to remind yourself that the world’s larger than inside your own head.” The subsequent road trip to meet his parents challenges that assertion, objective reality gradually coming unglued as names, relationships, and chronology shift around the lovebirds. Though not as radical an adaptation as, well, Adaptation, Kaufman’s take on a slim, scary novella by Ian Reid is a model on how to channel the power of source material while making it your own; the way he preserves a hoary twist ending Donald Kaufman would love, while also abstracting it into a surrealist reverie of dream ballet and densely specific parody, is nothing short of miraculous. I’m Thinking of Ending Things may lack the delightful comic flair of the filmmaker’s funnier, more revered movies, but it’s further proof that there’s a whole world inside his head — and a real case to be made that, in multihyphenate terms, his command of the camera is catching up to his celebrated gifts at the keyboard.


Being John Malkovich (1999)

After years of failed spec scripts and projects that went nowhere, Kaufman finally emerged from the sitcom trenches without compromising his cracked creativity one bit. It’s frankly astonishing that the Hollywood machine got behind such an absurdist fantasy, the unlikely story of a pathetic puppeteer (John Cusack, never better) whose attempts to cheerfully cheat on his wife (Cameron Diaz) with a co-worker (Catherine Keener) lead him straight into the noggin of a famous character actor. Hilarious and deeply sad in about equal measure, Being John Malkovich could be called Being Charlie Kaufman for how it functions as an urtext of the writer’s preoccupations, including the maddening labor of being an artist, the bumbling desperation of male desire, and the fluidity of identity (gender and otherwise). Of course, what makes this maybe the most exhilarating debut of the ’90s is that it announced the arrival of two postmodern visionaries. Would Kaufman’s metaphysical slapstick work so well without the guiding hand of its interpreter, music-video hotshot Spike Jonze? The film is a portal into his big imagination, too — the first in a line of soulful high-concept triumphs he’d make with and without Kaufman.


Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Kaufman unfiltered. Which is to say, by finally directing one of his own scripts, the writer lost the tempering influence of voices outside his head and was free to dive deeply into his obsessions and anxieties. Too deeply, some would say: To the detractors, his decades-spanning story of a theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) beset with physical and psychological maladies is the very definition of pretentious overreach. But to get on the wavelength of Kaufman’s most bugfuck odyssey is to recognize how he applies his usual conceptual gambits — including, in this particular case, a stage show that’s an eternal work in progress, art imitating life for years upon years — to capture something universal, a fear of mortality that extends beyond the boundaries of his specific hangups to the issues of humanity on a whole. Anchored by Hoffman’s bravely internal and unglamorous performance, which gained new shades of tragic, retroactive pathos after his death, Synecdoche, New York can be as exhausting as the grueling act of living. It also achieves exactly what its tortured protagonist aspires to across the sprawl of his temporally disoriented existence: a statement, “harsh but truthful.”


Adaptation (2002)

There was probably no simple way to make a movie out of a nonfiction book about flowers. But only Charlie Kaufman, perhaps, would have the gumption — or the pure desperation — to work that challenge into the movie itself. In Adaptation, Nicolas Cage is “Charlie Kaufman,” an introverted screenwriter wrestling with the task of adapting the Susan Orlean best seller The Orchid Thief for the big screen — just like the real Kaufman did when he caught the same assignment. Has Cage ever been funnier, exuding self-doubt and self-loathing through voice-over and his very pores, and offering complimentary notes of unearned confidence as the writer’s fictional brother, the blissfully unburdened yin to his insecure yang, Donald Kaufman? With him in the lead and Jonze back in the director’s chair, the film becomes the most ingenious of stunts: a meta ouroboros of a comedy that reflects on its own genesis even as it captures the spirit of the book it’s eccentrically interpreting. Just don’t try this at home, screenwriters. It takes a thinker of Kaufman’s magnitude to make self-indulgence so uproarious.


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

What if you could erase someone from your memories, completely wiping away all mental traces of an old boyfriend or girlfriend, along with the pain they caused you? It’s a premise so clever and resonant, almost anyone could get a good movie out of it. In the hands of Kaufman and Gondry, bouncing back from the folly of Human Nature, this Philip K. Dick–worthy conceit facilitates the quintessential romance of 21st-century cinema — a dazzling caper about the inextricable agony and ecstasy of love. Gondry supplies a bottomless reservoir of amazing special effects to visualize the mechanical amnesia process, as Joel (Jim Carrey, effectively and affectingly cast against type) relives his defunct relationship in reverse, the cerebral custodians working their way back to his meet-cute with Clementine (Kate Winslet, playing both a stubborn free spirit and the subjective phantom impression of the same character). Yet all the artisanal sci-fi magic of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is scaffolding, there to support a rather startlingly profound study of the human condition, and our enduring willingness to risk deep emotional torment in hopeful, maybe foolhardy pursuit of happiness. The ending is so bittersweet and so romantic — so unforgettable — that even Lacuna Inc. couldn’t remove it from your memories. Most of Kaufman’s movies can blow your mind. This one shatters your heart, too.

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