Ranked: Damien Chazelle Films from Worst to Best

Daniel Rester ranks all five of Damien Chazelle's films from worst to best, including films like 'La La Land' and 'Babylon.'

Damien Chazelle was only 32 when he won the Academy Award for Best Director for La La Land (2016), making him the youngest winner in the category ever. After making his indie debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2010) and working as a writer for hire for a bit, he gained attention after making Whiplash (2014). The success of that film led to La La Land getting made, a musical project he had been wanting to make for years. Following the immense success of La La Land, he gave audiences First Man (2018) and now Babylon (2022). Here’s how I rank Chazelle’s five films from worst to best. 

5. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench  (2010)

Chazelle’s debut feature shows his love for jazz and musicals right out of the gate as he tells the story of a trumpeter falling in and out of love with a woman in Boston. He made Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench for only $60,000 and on black and white 16mm film stock, using handheld shots in a cinéma vérité style. The film also marked the beginning of Chazelle’s collaboration with Justin Hurwitz, who does fine work here with the music; Hurwitz has composed the scores for all of Chazelle’s films. There are lovely individual moments in Chazelle’s feature debut (including a meet-cute on a train and excellent jazz recording and tap dancing scenes) and the non-professional actors all do quite well. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench lacks momentum and can be dull at times, but it also shows the sparks of things to come from Chazelle. Grade: B (7/10)        

4. Babylon  (2022)

Babylon is an epic comedy-drama that shows the rise and fall of filmmakers during the transition of silent films to talkies in the 1920s and 1930s. Sex, drugs, and movies make up the majority of Chazelle’s frenetic film. It’s overlong, messy, and polarizing, but a lot of individual scenes work excellently, such as one where Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) struggles to adapt to microphones on a soundstage. Brad Pitt shines as a movie star past his prime and newcomer Diego Calva impresses as a man who struggles to help Nellie. Chazelle’s direction and the technical aspects are all aces, but Chazelle’s screenplay here holds the film back from being truly great. Grade: B+ (8/10)

3. First Man  (2018) 

First Man found Chazelle stepping away from his comfort zone of jazz, musicals, and the likes to tell the story of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and Neil Armstrong’s life. Emotionally detached but expertly crafted on a technical level, First Man tells its story in a straightforward but polished manner. Ryan Gosling gives an understated performance as Armstrong, leading a fine cast; Claire Foy is a standout as Janet, Neil’s wife. The moon landing sequence is riveting. First Man was nominated for four tech category Oscars, winning for Best Visual Effects. Grade: A- (8.3/10)

2. La La Land  (2016) 

Chazelle’s dream project brought to life, La La Land is a love letter to old Hollywood musicals while also managing to feel modern with its handling of its core relationship between jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and actress Amelia (Emma Stone). Like with Whiplash before it, La La Land explores the love and loss found along the way in trying to accomplish difficult goals, though this film is a bit warmer in approach. The film is dazzling in design and execution from scene to scene, and Gosling and Stone have wonderful chemistry as the leads. Its only big fault is that it has zero supporting characters who make an impression. The film was nominated for a mammoth fourteen Oscars (famously being declared Best Picture by mistake when Moonlight (2016) actually won), winning six for Best Director, Best Actress (Stone), Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, and Best Production Design. Grade: A (9.2/10)   

1. Whiplash  (2014) 

His sophomore film that put him on the map and still his best work, Chazelle’s Whiplash is a firecracker that shows the positive and negative effects of obsessive determination. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons give electrifying performances as a jazz drummer and his abusive teacher who pushes him to his limits. Chazelle gets you to root for Andrew Neiman (Teller) even as he makes questionable choices in his quest for greatness. It’s a complex film thematically but also always entertaining and energetic. Whiplash also features some of the best film editing ever put to screen, courtesy of Tom Cross; the whole picture has great rhythm and the final scene in particular is a masterclass in cutting. The film deservedly won Oscars for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Supporting Actor (Simmons) and was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (based on a short Chazelle made to gain funding for the feature). Grade: A (9.5/10)

Written by
Daniel Rester is a writer for the We Live Film portion of We Live Entertainment. He is a Southern Oregon University alumnus and has a Bachelor of Science degree with a double major in Communication (Film, Television, and Convergent Media) and Emerging Media and Digital Arts. He has been involved with writing and directing short films for years. Rester also won 2nd place in the Feature Screenplay Competition in the 2015 Oregon Film Awards for his screenplay "Emma Was Here," which is currently in post-production and will be Rester's feature directorial debut.

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