Every Todd Solondz Feature Film, Ranked
If there is anything that can be said with certainty about Todd Solondz, is that his films are definitely not for everyone. However, thanks to his deliciously dark humor and impassioned social commentary, the director has established himself as a visionary over the years.
Solondz grew up in Newark, New Jersey, a setting that deeply inspired many of her films. After dropping out of NYU’s MFA program, Solondz began gaining traction with his short films in the ’80s. His 1985 short, Schatt’s last shot, follows a high school student whose Stanford dreams are dashed when his gym teacher fails him for failing to shoot basketball. Solondz directed his first feature film, Fear, anxiety and depression, in 1989, but was so unhappy with its outcome that he took a hiatus from acting for five years. However, with the conviction of a lawyer friend, he returned to the cinema in 1996 with the glorious Welcome to the dollhouse. The rest is history.
Solondz’s films are often hilarious, always brutal. They capture the underbelly of suburbia and middle-class boredom – all the feelings we carry with us but are too afraid to express. Here is a list of his feature films, ranked.
8 Fear, Anxiety and Depression (1989)
Solondz was very unhappy with his first feature film, Fear, anxiety and depression, due to the lack of creative control given to him during production. However, the film still comes across as a scathing and amusing critique of pretentious art types and their various (un)hits. Solondz himself stars in the film, as an East Village playwright working on something called Despair. Stanley Tucci, in one of his early performances, also stars as a former classmate who inadvertently becomes much more successful than Solondz’s character. Although Fear, anxiety and depression was poorly received by critics upon release, it showed great promise in developing Solondz’s singular new voice.
seven Life in Wartime (2009)
2009 life in wartime was a free sequel to Solondz’s 1998 masterpiece, Happiness, with different actors playing the same characters. just like Happiness, the film revolves around the Jordan sisters and their struggles to find meaning in their very different lives. While some sequels may be dull, watered-down versions of their originals, life in wartime is no less intransigent than Happiness, and he’s not afraid to take his characters to equally dark places. Even if, this time, they find themselves in sunny Florida (as opposed to New Jersey). The film is also shot in extremely warm and vivid tones, which accentuates the film’s muted humor while making it wonderful to watch.
6 Dark Horse (2011)
2011 Black Horse tells the story of two equally miserable people who meet at a wedding. Abe, played by Jordan Gelber, is the 35-year-old protagonist who lives with his parents. He’s completely clueless with a very small filter and ends up proposing to the brooding Miranda (Selma Blair) a few days after he met. Although Solondz’s films often feel distinctly anti-romance, Black Horse does a wonderful job of capturing the real connection that exists between these two displaced people. With expert performances from supporting characters, such as Christopher Walken as Abe’s overly judgmental father, we’re helped to see just how much these two eccentrics could learn from each other. If they are willing to try.
5 Palindromes (2004)
Solondz 2004 film Palindromes is perhaps his boldest and most technically daring work to date. The film follows the life of awkward 13-year-old Aviva, who is played by eight different actors of different ages, races, and genders throughout the film. However, this is not even the most provocative feature of Palindromes. The film approaches the issue of teenage pregnancy through a very complicated moral lens, with each of its characters evolving according to their own motivations and imperatives. The film was nominated for the Golden Lion award at the 61st Venice International Film Festival and serves as a tell-all counterpart to Solondz’s other film about adolescence, Welcome to the dollhouse.
4 Wiener-Dog (2016)
Wiener-Dog sees the triumphant return of Dawn Wiener in this original story of a dachshund puppy’s journeys from owner to owner. The movie presents Succession star Kieran Culkin, as well as Greta Gerwig, Julie Delpy, Danny DeVito and various other A-listers. Like all Solondz films, Wiener-Dog is inevitably a stark dark comedy (the dog goes by names like “Doody” and “Cancer”), but there’s a sweetness to the film that remains mostly unavailable in Solondz’s other works. In Wiener-Dog, Solondz creates characters that should be wry, bitter, and weird, as is his trademark, but here the adorable pup acts as a stand-in for all their suppressed desires. Still, never accuse Solondz of maudlin.
3 Tale (2001)
2001 Narration is a unique narrative experience around the themes of anguish, frustration and inner turmoil. The film is split into two distinct parts, or “stories,” one that follows a student out to find inspiration for her writing, and the other that revolves around a struggling documentarian (played by the ever-reliable Paul Giamatti). Upon release, the film was mired in controversy over its censorship of a sex scene featuring a comical red rectangle. While many of Solondz’s other films capture the dark underbelly of middle-class suburbia, Narration is a meditative and self-reflective examination of what it is to be an artist.
2 Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996)
Solondz’s second feature film, Welcome to the dollhouse, propelled it into the public eye and remains a cult classic to this day. The film follows 12-year-old Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo), a very shy but determined girl, as she navigates life through middle school hell. Dawn has since become something of an icon within the filmmaking community, thanks to her unique brand of tenacity and naivety. Since its release, the film has received widespread critical acclaim, winning the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and an Independent Spirit Award for Matarazzo’s legendary performance. The film perfectly blends dark, uncomfortable humor with a brutally moving portrayal of what it’s really like to be in middle school.
1 Happiness (1998)
As funny as depraved, Happiness is widely considered Solondz’s unsettling masterpiece. It follows the disparate lives of the three Jordan sisters, one of whom is married in the suburbs; another as a cold and esteemed poet, and the third something of a melancholy wanderer. The three sisters, as well as the various people in their lives (friends and family, but also neighbors and lame boyfriends), sometimes hide secrets so dark that it becomes difficult for viewers to sit through the entire film. However, this is part of what makes Happiness so good; instead of mindlessly despising these characters, it calls us to empathize with them and their deep loneliness and insecurities. Every character in the film is cleverly crafted and memorable, even the pitiful Andy who is broken in the film’s opening scene. The film features a wonderful ensemble cast including the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jon Lovitz, Dylan Baker, Jane Adams, and Lara Flynn Boyle. Even if, of course, you never want to go back to it, Happiness is by far a masterpiece worth seeing.