One of the most intellectually curious directors working in American film today, Richard Linklater has built an eclectic filmography: shaggy indie films (“Slacker”) and crowd-pleasing studio fare (“School of Rock”), ambitious decade-long projects (“Boyhood,” The “Before” trilogy) and quick-and-easy digital video work (“Tape”), day-in-the-life teen comedy-drama (“Dazed and Confused”) and rotoscoped philosophical bull sessions (“Waking Life”).
Through it all, Linklater has maintained a consistent generosity of spirit and emphasis on intellectual and spacial freedom — his characters can’t be contained, nor should they be. With his long-awaited 12-year project “Boyhood” on the way to select theaters this week, it’s time to take a look back at Linklater’s filmography, from worst to best.
17. “Tape” (2001)
Linklater has a naturally empathetic sensibility, like a Gen-X era Jean Renoir or Jonathan Demme. So it’s no surprise that his worst films bear a sour voice, usually someone else’s. “Tape” is as exploratory in its own way as any of Linklater’s projects: made as a part of IFC’s InDigEnt project, which tasked filmmakers to make Dogme-style films on digital video for $100,000, the film sees old friends Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard meeting in a motel room, as drug dealer Hawke tries to make filmmaker Leonard admit to the rape of Hawke’s ex-girlfriend (Uma Thurman) back in high school. Hawke, Leonard and Thurman all try their hardest (you can see the sweat), but Stephen Belber’s script (based on his play) is the kind of overheated and emptily nihilistic show that gives black box theater a bad name, and the real-time format that later served “Before Sunset” only makes one wish to get away from these people ASAP. Worse, the ugly early DV and claustrophobic setting don’t play well to Linklater’s freewheeling strengths or gift for careful compositions, with every swing of the camera from Hawke’s face to Leonard’s turning everything to mush.
16. “SubUrbia” (1997)
At first glance, Linklater’s adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s play seems like a natural successor to “Slacker” or “Dazed and Confused,” bearing the same day-in-the-life structure and ensemble-driven story. But where the earlier films were affectionate, “SubUrbia” is misanthropic and deeply pessimistic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Bogosian’s earlier plays “Talk Radio” (which got its own lousy film adaptation from Oliver Stone, who’s dissed here) and “Drinking in America” prove, but a key difference is that those were one-man shows. Tasked to write something more hyper-verbal monologue, Bogosian makes each character a one-note creep or tiresome voice-of-reason. “SubUrbia” is also too packed with incident for the 24-hour period to work naturally as it does in “Dazed and Confused,” to the point where it starts to feel contrived. The game cast (Giovanni Ribisi, Nicky Katt, Parker Posey, Steve Zahn, Ajay Naidu) sometimes transcends their material, but there’s only so much they can do.
15. “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books” (1988)
Kim Newman once described David Cronenberg’s early films (“Stereo,” “Crimes of the Future”) as evidence that “it’s possible to be boring and interesting at the same time.” That describes Linklater’s debut feature perfectly. Inspired by the works of Chantal Ackerman, Linklater focuses on the day-to-day mundanity of one man (Linklater himself) traveling around and getting together with friends, with very little dialogue in between meetings. As a thesis film that shows Linklater trying to find truth in everyday existence, it’s a fascinating precursor to the equally experimental and freewheeling “Slacker.” As an actual viewing experience, it’s tedious, save for a few moments where Linklater’s Super 8 camera catches some striking on-the-fly images.
14. “Bad News Bears” (2005)
Richard Linklater’s remake of the 1976 foul-mouthed sports classic isn’t as terrible as its reputation. In an alternate universe where the original “The Bad News Bears,” star Billy Bob Thornton’s “Bad Santa” and Linklater’s own “School of Rock” didn’t exist, it might be viewed as the diverting but forgettable enterprise that it is. As it stands, it can’t help but feel like a less successful follow-up to all of those. Linklater can’t muster up the same enthusiasm or free-spirited joy that he did in his previous studio assignment, while Thornton is on craggy autopilot and never manages to recapture the glory of his other “mean-spirited drunk befriends kid” film. And while it’s understandable that the update might remove the racism of the original’s hotheaded shortstop Tanner Boyle, it also misses the point of the original’s hard-edged look at kids who were already as cynical and corrupt in their own ways. A few updates are inspired (the parents are now overprotective instead of absent), but it’s mostly just perfunctory.
13. “Me and Orson Welles” (2008)
There’s a seed of a great movie buried in “Me and Orson Welles,” one that dispenses with the “Me” of the title and instead just focuses on the stresses of the Mercury Theater company putting on Welles’s updated take on “Julius Caesar.” Hell, that sounds more like a Richard Linklater movie than the film that exists. Alas, Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo, Jr.’s script brings in a bland audience surrogate (played with blank-faced sincerity by Zac Efron) to serve as a window into the show and inject unnecessary conflict by falling for the same woman (Claire Danes) seduced by Welles (Christian McKay in an uncanny performance). When the film focuses on the actual production, it becomes relentlessly fascinating, not to mention the closest thing to a filmed version of Welles’s “Caesar” that’ll ever exist. Pity that “Me” keeps interfering.
12. “Fast Food Nation” (2006)
Linklater’s adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s best-selling muckraker is so ambitious and intermittently powerful that it almost seems churlish to point out that a dramatized version makes zero sense. Rather than going for a no-brainer documentary approach, Linklater turns “Fast Food Nation” into what’s essentially “Traffic, McDonald’s Style,” following characters ranging from Greg Kinnear’s marketing director with a conscience to Catalina Sandino Moreno and Wilmer Valderrama’s exploited immigrants. Kinnear’s investigations into fecal matter found in burgers is often effective (especially when Bruce Willis makes a sinister cameo as one of the guys who’s hiding something), but Moreno and Valderrama’s characters are never defined as anything more than objects of suffering and sympathy, with every development coming off as too-calculated. In truth, the film’s best sequence, in which Ethan Hawke shows up as a fast-food clerk’s cool uncle, has little to do with the film’s central subject, as it briefly turns it into a spontaneous Linklater film instead of a message movie.
11. “The Newton Boys” (1998)
“The Newton Boys” is Linklater’s first (relatively) large-budgeted Hollywood film, as well as his first film ostensibly driven by traditional narrative. Neither are a natural fit for Linklater or the case of the Newton Gang (Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich and Vincent D’Onofrio), four brothers who became some of the most successful bank robbers in American history without ever killing anyone. As the brothers weren’t violent and never fought over money or women, there’s not a lot of drama in their story, and the attempts at high-stakes subplots, like a love story between McConaughey and Julianna Margulies, fall flat. Yet “The Newton Boys” is a likable film all the same, as the stars (McConaughey and Hawke in particular) are relentlessly charismatic and their attempts at robbery often hilarious. Dwight Yoakam’s supporting role as the brothers’ demolitions expert pal is particularly fun.
10. “Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach” (2008)
Linklater’s ESPN-funded documentary about University of Texas’s Augie Garrido, the most frequent winner in Division I college baseball history, sounds closer to work-for-hire than personal project on paper. But Linklater is less interested in Garrido’s successful run as a coach and more curious about Garrido’s ideas about baseball and how they apply to life. Garrido’s theory is that baseball is about coming to terms with failure, as most players will bat under .300 in a season. He’s a sometimes salty coach, particularly in his meltdowns at umpires during games, but he’s also a generous guide for his players through life, a man as filled with wisdom as he is with tough love.
9. “A Scanner Darkly” (2006)
Linklater’s second film to employ a striking rotoscoped look, “A Scanner Darkly” is more beautifully animated (if still dreamlike and bleary) but a bit less successful than the earlier “Waking Life.” Narrative has never been Linklater’s strongest suit, and the plot of “A Scanner Darkly” can be hard to follow (sometimes purposefully, sometimes not). But the film largely works anyway as a portrait of another community, one driven by the relentless paranoia and confusion that comes with addiction. He benefits from a cast of diverse personalities, from motormouthed Robert Downey, Jr. to a perfectly exhausted-sounding Keanu Reeves, that keeps things fresh even as the film wanders.
8. “Bernie” (2011)
Jack Black’s eternally exuberant personality isn’t always put to the best of use by Hollywood, but Richard Linklater’s directed two superb performances from the comic actor. Dialing back the raucousness for a change, Black shines as Bernie Tiede, a closeted mortician who befriends, beds, then murders the little-loved Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, sometimes overdoing the mean-spirited old lady act) and has to be transported to another town for trial because he’s too beloved by the community. The central case isn’t quite as outrageous as the film posits, but Black and Matthew McConaughey (in an outsized Texan performance that purposefully contrasts with the other characters) are very funny in the courtroom sparring match. The film is at its best, though, when focusing on the townspeople who loved Bernie and hated Marjorie, particularly Sonny Davis, the crotchety old guy who maps out the different factions of Texas, describing the North as driven by “Dallas snobs” and Central Texas by Austin’s “hairy-legged women and liberal fruitcakes.”
7. “School of Rock” (2003)
Still, Black’s first collaboration with Linklater remains the best star-vehicle for his talents. Not so much a subversion of the Inspirational Teacher movie as it is a wilder, more free-spirited version of it, “School of Rock” plays like a bigger studio project cousin to “Dazed and Confused.” Both show Linklater’s gifts with directing young actors and assembling a near-perfect rock soundtrack, and both are immensely quotable (“Would you tell Picasso to sell his guitars?”). Most notably, both are about testing boundaries, and finding some degree of independence points in a time that forbid it, whether you’re a kid in a stuffy prep school or a man in arrested adolescence trying to find the right mixture of responsibility and freedom.
6. “Waking Life” (2001)
As much a sequel-in-spirit to “Slacker” as it is a bold new experiment, Linklater’s “Waking Life” embodies the same intellectual curiosity and willingness to listen as his breakthrough film. A free-floating drift through theories on the nature of consciousness and reality, among other things, “Waking Life” sometimes seems a little too enraptured by the ideas its subjects gab about, missing the healthy dose of skepticism in “Slacker” that mixed so beautifully with the affection for its characters. But that’s a minor complaint when taken alongside the film’s receptive nature and oneiric beauty, which comes as much from its rambling structure as it does from the vivid rotoscope images that are always ready to shift form and setting at any moment.
5. “Slacker” (1991)
Richard Linklater’s first major work inspired a number of DIY films (most notably Kevin Smith’s “Clerks”), but few were able to make episodic storytelling as fluid or as focused as he did here. Beginning with Linklater’s own rambling at an impassive cab driver about what might have happened had he stayed at the bus station, the film passes from vignette to vignette of people monologuing, some very funny (Butthole Surfers drummer Teresa Taylor as goofy woman trying to sell Madonna’s pap smear), some pathetic (a conspiracy theorist trying to push his own yet-to-be-released book on an old classmate). “Slacker” views its Gen-X characters not so much as layabouts as they are people who find purpose by looking inward when they can’t find anything outward, developing pet obsessions into world-defining theories that they’ll jabber about until someone, anyone, listens for a few minutes. The film also showcases Linklater’s gifts for unshowy, precise compositions, as in the long shot that pulls back from a hit-and-run accident to seemingly switch subjects (it’s actually the perpetrator), giving the world the first sign of a director both visually and thematically committed to exploration.
4. “Before Sunrise” (1995)
What’s now one of the most ambitious and enduring love stories in cinema history began as a modest, fleeting, non-cynical romance about two college-aged kids, American boy Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French girl Celine (Julie Delpy), who impulsively start up a conversation on a train and fall head over heels for each other during a stopover in Vienna. Linklater and co-writer Kim Krizan match the intoxicating setting with a pair of characters who are at once bright and foolish, optimistic yet nervous.”Sunrise’s” protagonists can be pretentious (Jesse especially), but at that age it makes sense that the two might be, and it’s leavened by seeing them act so openly and without judgement towards each other. Hawke and Delpy’s immensely appealing performances helps things go down more smoothly as well (no one uses Hawke half as well as Linklater). Besides, their unguarded nature paves the way for the later, more complex entries in the series, where their whirlwind romance has led them to both happiness and pain, deeper love and the need to question it.
3. “Before Midnight” (2013)
That need reaches its peak in the third film, “Before Midnight,” which sees Celine and Jesse as a middle-aged couple vacationing in Greece with their twin daughters. Gone is the spontaneity and freshness of their initial romance, replaced by a more mature and familiar level of intimacy. Linklater, Hawke and Delpy (now acting as co-writers) keep up the amiable, soul-searching conversations that made their previous relationships, but they steep them in a greater experience and knowledge of what it takes to keep love alive over the years. Then, in a bravura sequence that notably takes them away from the Peloponnese vistas and traps them in a luxurious but closed-off hotel, a decades’ worth of petty resentments and questions boil over, with the previously vivacious Celine growing more confrontational and pragmatic about the state of their relationship while Jesse shifts from romanticism to passive-aggression. “Before Midnight’s” denouement is more hopeful, and it’s earned because what precedes it is so brutal in its truthfulness and so seemingly ready to tear Celine and Jesse’s fans’ hearts out.
2. “Dazed and Confused” (1993)
Eminently rewatchable, “Dazed and Confused” features Linklater’s most fully-realized community. It has its share of breakout actors (Ben Affleck as cruel senior O’Bannion, Matthew McConaughey as the charismatically predatory Wooderson, Parker Posey as queen bitch Darla), but its less well-known performers are equally wonderful, from Christin Hinojosa as sweet, awkward freshman Sabrina to the criminally underemployed Rory Cochrane as Slater, whose stoned conspiracy theories about Martha Washington being a pot-growing UFO fanatic and a “hip, hip lady” remain a comic highlight. At first glance, “Dazed and Confused” is one of the ultimate hangout movies, with each scene containing a wonderfully-observed detail like a senior tossing an incoming freshman a beer after taking part in traditional summer hazing. Upon repeat viewing, it’s a look at a confusing time in everyone’s life, with friendships and boundaries tested, sometimes for the better — Mitch getting a hell of a night and a Get Out of Jail Free card from his mother — sometimes for the worse — Adam Goldberg’s neurotic Mike being beaten and humiliated by alpha male Cliff (Nicky Katt). It also contains some of Linklater’s most impressive (yet still restrained) filmmaking, as in a final juxtaposition of a blissful, drunk freshman and the senior who helped make his night, both having gained a small but spectacular victory
1. “Before Sunset” (2004)
Richard Linklater’s shortest film is also his most pointed, retaining the sense of spontaneity that made “Before Sunrise” so exhilarating while gaining a wiser, more bittersweet perspective. Set nine years after the end of “Before Sunrise” in Paris, where Jesse is ends a book tour for his novel based on their night of romance, the two meet once more, only now they’re more guarded, trying to catch up without prodding at old wounds and feelings. Where the earlier film had more than a few hints of Eric Rohmer’s influence, the sequel comes closer to Rohmer’s understanding of humanity’s complexities. They’re both still young, but a lot of the youthful possibility is gone, and they can only pick up from where they left off by hurting other people. The film is as known for its lovely Steadicam shots of Paris as it is for its characters’ spirited conversations about their needs, but its greatest moment (the greatest in Linklater’s filmography, really) comes in a final stretch in Celine’s apartment, where Celine delays Jesse’s departure with a waltz song about their youthful dalliance. Perhaps it comes out because Jesse pushes her to sing it, or perhaps she’s subconsciously asking for him to push her to sing it. Either way, it’s a moment that’s at once filled with hope and anxiety, longing and reticence, and Linklater concludes on an ellipses that, had the trio chosen not to continue with the nearly as sublime “Before Midnight,” would have served as a satisfying ending in its own right.
Odds and Ends: Richard Linklater has a handful of curios in addition to his major works, from the failed HBO pilot “$5.15/hr,” about minimum wage workers, and his debut short “Woodshock,” a concert documentary more interested in the audience than the concert. Perhaps most notable is the Hulu series “Up to Speed,” focusing on quirky tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch (who’s also featured in “Waking Life” and Linklater’s short “Live from Shiva’s Dance Floor”). Enjoyment of the series will largely depend on one’s tolerance for Levitch’s nasal voice and aggressively twee ideas (my own: low).