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.