Let’s get one thing out of the way: I was not the biggest fan of Annette, an overly long, pretentious story about the perils of toxic masculinity, stuffed into the confines of a musical whose music was only sometimes good. It’d be a crime to recommend that anyone spend 140 minutes diving into this convoluted web, but if one simply must, there’s only one real reason to do so: Adam Driver, who plays Henry McHenry, the film’s protagonist (no, it’s not the titular character, which I can only describe as a singing marionette doll birthed straight out of hell).
Adam Driver has been gradually establishing himself as one of our generation’s most interesting and reliable talents for the past decade. Though he was working before then, the actor’s true breakout was as Adam in Lena Dunham’s Girls, where he worked his way up from side character to main attraction on the strength of his off-kilter charisma alone. His success following that HBO hit has been near unprecedented, turning bit parts in films by the likes of Clint Eastwood and The Coen Brothers into leading roles in hallowed franchises.
A striking physical presence that can turn otherwise mundane activities — like getting into and out of a Smartcar — into headline-making events, Driver is easily one of Hollywood’s most enigmatically fascinating figures. He represents a new generation of “Leading Men” who aren’t bound by the need to play the hero; Driver often plays bad and seems to revel in the opportunities. In that way, his role in Annette is no different — it is, perhaps, his most despicable to date — but his ability to carry the film despite that only helps to further solidify his prowess. Not everyone can make bad look so tantalizingly good, but when someone can...well, you know.
With Annette now streaming on Amazon Prime, NYLON decided to take a look back at the Oscar-nominated actor’s sprawling filmography to rank the ten best Adam Driver movie roles — from small indies to blockbuster hits by some of Hollywood’s most revered directors.
10. While We’re Young (directed by Noah Baumbach, 2014)
Adam Driver is first seen in While We’re Young about eight minutes in, crunched into a lecture hall seat with a fedora obnoxiously placed atop of his head. It’s the perfect introduction to his character Jamie, a 25-year-old, New York-based hipster who’s willing to pay $60 for a special VHS copy of an unproduced documentary but is also more than happy to let his new older friends (here, played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) foot the bill at every shared meal.
In a way, While We’re Young is the closest Driver has ever gotten to his Girls character (aside from Frances Ha, maybe). Not that Jamie is a stand-in for Adam himself, but rather, it’d be easy to imagine Jamie existing in the world of Girls. A know-it-all hipster who is gleefully unaware of how offputting he may come off to people not blinded by his at-times hypnotic charisma, he’s exactly the kind of 2010s-era millennial Lena Dunham’s dramedy was so adept at lampooning. Watching him play against Ben Stiller, with Driver’s easy-going overconfidence easily striking at the barely-hidden petulance in Stiller’s seemingly calm 44-year-old man, is a joy, proving that Driver was more than capable of holding his own against some of the industry’s best. Moments where he showed his sincerity — such as when he tells a former classmate how much his poetry helped him get over the loss of his mother — are expectedly tender, especially when contrasted with pretty much everything else he does in this film. But if this Baumbach classic should be valued for anything, it’s for offering solid proof that Driver would look even hotter with an arm covered in kitschy tattoos.
9. Paterson (directed by Jim Jarmusch, 2016)
Perhaps the quietest film in Driver’s oeuvre, Paterson is also the actor’s most focused. Starring Driver as an unpublished poet for whom the word “aspiring” seems lacking, the Jim Jarmusch feature is a quiet meditation on monotony. Driver plays the title character (who also lives in the titular New Jersey town), who gets up everyday to drive a bus and spends his free time writing poetry.
Not much happens in Paterson, but the blank canvas allows Driver’s smaller character choices to stand out. Viewers become accustomed to Paterson’s frequent nervous fidgeting; I still think about the uncharacteristically boyish grin that erupts on his face when his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) tells him he's a talented poet and the hilariously stiff response he gives to a group of intimidating gangbangers threatening to steal his dog. Most impressive, however, is Driver’s voiceover delivery of his poems. The actor spits every syllable of every word out of his mouth like it’s the hardest thing he’s ever done, expertly capturing what it probably felt like for someone resigned to the fact that his favorite pastime would never be more than a hobby. As he tells his girlfriend after his dog destroys some of his work, “It's okay. They were just words.”
8. The Report (directed by Scott Z. Burns, 2019)
For me, The Report will always be known as the movie where Adam Driver ran around town in very tiny running shorts. (As I've already confessed, those were my favorite film scenes of that year.) Playing real-life figure Daniel Jones, who led the charge in exposing the CIA’s unlawful use of torture after the 9/11 attacks, Driver puts his token stoicism to great use in a thrilling film I’m still surprised didn’t get more attention than it did. (Hello, it also stars Annette Bening!)
Maybe this was because of its unflinching re-enactments of particularly heinous acts of government-sanctioned torture or maybe it was its dialogue, which could sometimes feel overly erudite and government-insidery. But Driver presided over all this with a contained performance that only grew more intense as the film went on. As Daniel’s frustration gradually grew, you could feel it in the actor’s eyes, in his posture, in the tenor of voice. Yet, this was all done with a noticeable sense of restraint. Even at Daniel’s lowest, most understandably frustrated moments — such as when he’s framed in an effort to defame his research and get him taken off the case — he exhibits a surprisingcalmness. It’s a tricky balance to achieve, but one that feels properly suited for someone used to navigating our government’s bureaucracy and all its accompanying secrecy.
7. Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, 2017)
Though Driver injects elements of humor into most of his performances, many of the actor’s most beloved roles fall more on the dramatic side of things. (Look no further than his two Oscar-nominated performances.) Which is why, I guess, I’ve always relished those roles where Driver could fully step into his comic shoes. Enter Logan Lucky, a hilarious film by Steven Soderbergh where Driver plays Clyde, a one-handed bartender with a southern drawl. One of the film’s titular brothers, Clyde spends the duration of Logan Lucky trying to break his family’s “curse” by attempting to stage a lucrative heist during a huge NASCAR race.
Though Channing Tatum, as Clyde’s older brother, is a more central character, it’s Driver whose performance I remember the most. (Which is saying a lot, given the whole Daniel Craig of it all.) Some of Driver’s scene-stealing prowess can be credited to Jules Asner’s witty screenplay, which gives the actor inherently funny lines like, “Did you just say cauliflower to me?!” But without his seamless delivery, letting these lines slide out without a slip of irony, much of the humor would be left on the page. Not everyone can keep a straight face while asking, “Would you give me my arm, please?” — but the ones who can certainly make a lasting impression.
6. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (directed by Terry Gilliam, 2018)
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is nowhere near my favorite film starring Adam Driver, but the actor’s performance in the 2018 effort can never be denied. One of many actors attached to the film over its 20-year journey to the screen, Driver proves the perfect lead for Gilliam’s mind-boggling fantasy. As the once-revered, now-jaded director Toby, Driver is required to operate on a number of different levels throughout the film’s overstuffed 132-minute runtime.
Yet his ability to do so, jumping from serious drama to slapstick comedy at the drop of a hat, is expectedly impressive, showing a range he had only hinted at individually in previous efforts. Thanks to the time-jumping structure, Driver could be despicably cocky in one scene and cluelessly scared in the next. He was lucky to have a more-than-game scene partner in Jonathan Pryce, but where Pryce’s performance was deliberately over-the-top at all times, Driver’s hinged on the juxtaposition between Toby’s privileged brashness in the past and his abject paranoia in the present. Then, there’s also that moment where he screams, “Fucking batteries” while sandwiched between two filthy mattresses in the middle of the desert.
5. Silence (directed by Martin Scorsese, 2016)
Not many actors would be hand-selected by Martin Scorsese to star in the director’s long-gestating passion project — but then again, not many actors are named Adam Driver. In Silence, Driver plays Garupe, a Portuguese priest who, along with his friend and fellow priest Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), travels to Japan to search for his long-lost mentor while also trying to spread the gospel of Christianity. Driver notably underwent a severe physical transformation to get into proper “shape” for the film, losing more than 50 pounds to depict the emaciated body of a starving priest doing everything in his power to remain undetected by the strict government. But his performance, which is undeniably the actor’s most solemn, is way more than that.
Clocking in at almost three hours, Silence can often be a grueling watch, and this is only compounded by its thematic focus on ideas like blind faith, endless pain, and willful suffering. But Scorsese deserves kudos for swapping out his usual on-screen suspects for faces as fresh as Driver and Garfield, who both bring a surprising level of palpable desperation to the forefront of their deliberately troubled roles. Garfield has the flashier role overall, but Driver never wastes any of his screentime. Garupe’s death scene — which starts with him screaming out into the ocean and ends with him being drowned by a stick — remains one of the film’s most affecting.
4. BlacKkKlansman (directed by Spike Lee, 2018)
BlacKKKlansman was largely known for John David Washington’s breakout performance, establishing the son of Oscar winner Denzel as his own force to be reckoned with in the next generation. But while Washington’s depiction of real-life Black cop Ron Stallworth was indeed noteworthy, I was overall more impressed with Driver’s contributions to the film as Flip Zimmerman, the Jewish officer who acts as the public face for Washington’s mouthpiece in the pair’s undercover investigation into a local Colorado branch of the Ku Klux Klan.
Like the best Driver performances, this dramatic role features a fair share of comedic moments. (I’m personally fond of how he responds “Camaraderie?” when a Klansman asks him to repeat something he just said.) But the beauty of his performance here is in his ability to make a split character feel like one whole. Driver is required to make Flip Zimmerman, the non-racist Jewish officer, and Ron Stallworth, the racist white Klansman who wants to eradicate the Black (and Jewish, and queer) race, feel radically different — but Driver does so while also allowing brief flashes of his real self to pop up within his fake persona. It’s tricky, but the actor, like always, is up to the task. Though I’d argue that several of the performances on this list were Oscar-worthy, there’s something oddly fitting about Driver’s first nomination coming for this. Spike Lee and Adam Driver was a team-up I didn’t know I needed, but now that I’ve seen it once, I’m desperate for more.
3. Hungry Hearts (directed by Saverio Costanzo, 2014)
Much ado is (deservedly) made about Driver’s performance of “Being Alive” in Marriage Story, but not enough people talk about the actor’s similarly affecting singing in Hungry Hearts, which he does entirely in Italian. Shockingly, this isn’t even the most impressive thing he does in the film, where he plays a new father pitted against his mentally unstable wife in a war of how best to raise their newborn. Driver plays the more sensible party, but he does a great job illustrating the growing frustration his character feels about his wife’s refusal to provide their infant with the proper sustenance to ensure a healthy life. Driver’s ability to switch moods on a dime comes in especially handy in this film, showing a man haplessly caught in between his devotion to his wife and his determination to protect his child.
In many ways, Hungry Hearts feels like the precursor to his Oscar-nominated Marriage Story — it, too, tracks a relationship that was once loving but has recently turned volatile; similarly, it also manages to find those rare moments of loving affection that still exist between the two. But while Marriage Story could feel deliberately over-the-top at times, Driver’s performance in Hungry Hearts stands out for its ability to find extreme emotions in an otherwise unflashy film.
2. Marriage Story (directed by Noah Baumbach, 2019)
Last year, I said I thought Pain and Glory’s Antonio Banderas deserved to win the Best Actor Oscar over Joker’s Joaquin Phoenix — and while I stand by that, I’d be remiss to not mention that I would have also accepted an award for Driver in Marriage Story. By the time Driver put on the shoes of Charlie Barber for this 2019 Netflix drama, the actor had already worked with director Noah Baumbach on three different occasions (in Frances Ha, While We’re Young, and The Meyerowitz Stories), so maybe it’s not so shocking that his turn as a successful but arrogant New York theater director navigating a particularly thorny divorce and custody battle felt like such a grand culmination of all the characters he had constructed for films past.
Unlike other films on this list, Marriage Story feels like it was written for awards season accolades — the blowouts Driver shares with his screen partner Scarlett Johansson are craftily heightened, specifically designed to build in intensity, allowing both actors to show off their obvious range. (It’s why their biggest fight endures as a meme two years on. It’s why “you should be upset that I had a laugh with her” immediately conjures a mental image.) But these scenes would feel indulgent without the milder, more lighthearted moments surrounding them, and Driver is just as great operating on these lower frequencies. Yes, there’s the “Being Alive” performance, but there’s also the way he gamely contorts his body while dressed in an Invisible Man costume or the tenderness he shows in just about every scene with his put-upon son (Azhy Robertson). Baumbach doesn’t make Charlie the easiest character to like, but Driver, by finding the humanity in his extremely flawed persona, turns him into one that’s impossible to forget.
1. Annette (directed by Leos Carax, 2021)
I know, I know. Given my stated distaste for this new Leos Carax film, it makes little to no sense why I’d include it in the top spot of my rankings of the best Adam Driver films. But in many ways, it’s exactly that distaste that has allowed me to see the brilliance in Driver’s performance. As insufferable as this film could often feel, I couldn’t help but be drawn into Driver’s complex main character. Henry McHenry’s fall from beloved outré comedian to despised exemplar of toxic masculinity is the film’s strongest feature; watching this troubled man’s already-unhinged stand-up sets slowly descend into dark, depressing musings on the ephemerality of love and the inefficacy of lasting connections is mesmerizing, even if it is also frustrating. Sure, it’s not hard to detect the film’s allusions to similarly disgraced funnymen like Louis C.K., but Driver doesn’t rest on mimicking someone else’s story. Henry’s story is his own, and the actor does the impossible bringing a shakily-written character to vivid (if often conflicted) life.
A few great things Adam Driver does in this film: put on a green leather jacket while determinedly walking down a Los Angeles street during the film’s opening (and best) musical number, pull down his shorts to show his bare ass to an entire audience of fans, prepare for a set by boxing himself in a mirror while simultaneously smoking a cigarette, unnecessarily squeeze a banana out of its peel, talk to a singing marionette doll like it’s a real person, and, yes, of course, perform cunnilingus on Marion Cotillard in between brief bouts of singing. In no other film has the actor seemed so game to go for broke with every movement, willing to expose himself both figuratively and literally. By the time he’s reached rock-bottom in the film’s closing scene (where, as one Twitter user pointed out, he does look shockingly similar to RuPaul in Drag Race acting challenges), we’ve watched his full fall from glory — and though the film fumbles overall in its depiction, the blame can’t be laid at the feet of Driver. If anything, Annette would have suffered even more if not for the actor’s fully-committed performance. To which I say, bravo, Adam Driver. Bravo.