Ranked: The Films of Richard Linklater

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From "Slacker" to "Tape," the first decade of Richard Linklater's career conjured the easy narrative of a director primarily interested in capturing the extremely plausible interactions of Generation X'ers talking out their values in a variety of locales and narratives. His subsequent career's been harder to pigeonhole, but this (inevitably subjective) annotated ranking of his 17 features to date is based on the premise that at ⅔ of his work has the always interesting personality of a major director in full force.

There may be no signature "Linklater shot" — no obvious preference for symmetrical tableaux or repeated camera movements — but there's a consistent style. Though he doesn't avoid close-ups, shots of people's faces (both on moving bodies or talking intently in repose) de-emphasize a strong editorial point-of-view from unusual or emphatic angles. Characters aren't restricted behind symbolic window/prison bars or viewed from claustrophobic, high-up surveillance camera angles but move freely through largely open and unconstrained spaces. Enough time is allowed those onscreen to hang themselves by their own conversational rope, but even more time given to reveal themselves as interesting people. At their most uplifting, Linklater films can seem like a credible demonstration of humanity at its most admirably and unselfishly individualistic.

Ground rules: short films are omitted, as are his allegedly 240-minute 1991 montage of countdown reels "Heads I Win/Tails You Lose" and the rejected HBO pilot "$5.15/hr," which I've actually seen but so long ago that I can't recall it in useful detail.

17. "Tape" (2001)

Linklater had several stated ambitions for this adaptation of a very bad Stephen Belber play: the most compelling was "to rehearse the hell out of a movie and then capture it as it's happening, almost like a documentary. So this was a chance to exercise that." Taking advantage of the then-novel DV technology's mobility, he dispensed with carefully planned framing in favor of quickly inventing shots from cramped motel room angles, but no amount of invention can transcend bad theater.

A ne'er-do-well 28-year-old pot dealer with violent tendencies (Ethan Hawke) reunites with his preppy high school bud, now an up-and-coming film director (Robert Sean Leonard). The pair spend the first 20 minutes dating the film to the '90s by rehashing, in period-familiar terms, the face-off between corrupted upward artistic aspirations and openly nihilistic slackerdom: Leonard blathers about indie film and idealism, Hawke defensively asserts his right to relentlessly act like a total jerk. Then the play shifts into its real topic: whether Leonard raped Hawke's ex-girlfriend after the two broke up.

Cyclical dialogue and returned-to points of dispute are supposed to illustrate the slippery nature of truth and shared memory, but it's overheated and vacuous. Hawke tries very hard to be credibly unnerving and manic, Leonard glowers with the rage of a charmless prep unused to more than two minutes' discomfort, and late-arriving third wheel Uma Thurman helps nothing. The only upside, Linklater noted in 2004, was that his first real-time movie may have "emboldened" him to attempt "Before Sunrise."

16. "Inning By Inning: A Portrait of a Coach" (2008)

This documentary labor of love was whittled down from 600 hours of footage over the course of a year-and-a-half. The subject is Augie Garrido, who's accumulated more wins than any coach in NCAA Division I baseball history; Linklater's pals with him and gives the great man a soft-focus hagiographic overview. Friends and family recount their history with/rhapsodize about the man, a talking heads history intercut with Garrido's in-practice philosophizing.

At a certain point, coaching requires serious technical minutiae that may be incomprehensible to laymen. There are no such detailed moments here (odd considering ESPN, which originally aired the film, has presumably an ideal target audience primed to appreciate such things). Instead, Garrido waxes about life, character, victory and so on, proving inspirational sports movies don't graft on pre-existing sentimentality so much as reflect the reality of vaporous temporizing in collegiate and professional athletics. The gentle torpor is occasionally interrupted by profane, umpire-and-player-berating rants, which have been compiled into a YouTube mainstay. If you're into almost-comical coach verbal beatdowns, you might as well view them out of context.

15. "Bad News Bears" (2005)

The original "family" classic was a hilariously toxic, alcohol-fueled blast against suburban mediocrity, ingrained racism and just about everything else on the mid-70s social table. This remake began began with the casting of Billy Bob Thornton, who then approved Linklater, and it feels very much like a vanity project aimed at transplanting Thornton's "Bad Santa" to a PG-13 milieu, an impossible assignment half-assedly attempted. Some of the film's updated details ring true: the original kids were mostly left for dead by indifferent parents, while here they're often under the oppressive gaze of hovering helicopter parents. Misanthropic fun ends early, and there's some unusually sticky sentimentality in the third act. Linklater was peppy talking about the film both during and after production, but it often feels uncharacteristically bland, with a hacky "family comedy" score to round it off.

14. "SubUrbia" (1997)

"When I was making 'SubUrbia,' I thought to myself, 'This is the "Dazed" sequel that I would never make,'" Linklater said in 2001. The cast includes two "Dazed" members: the ever-bitchy Parker Posey (transcending her material, as often required to) and Nicky Katt. In "Dazed," it's Katt who famously announces he only showed up at a party to "do two things: kick some ass and drink some beer," before ominously noting "looks like we're almost out of beer."

In "SubUrbia," Katt acts more or less as the stand-in for playwright Eric Bogosian: sharp, profane, mercilessly accurate in deflating others' pretensions. (Just to balance all this perceptiveness out, it turns out his character's not just symbolically but literally impotent.) Even more than "Tape," this is uber-90s fare, and for time capsule purposes it's way more watchable than the likes of "Reality Bites" or "Empire Records," at least for half an hour. It helps that Linklater's shooting outside, with opportunities for passing cars and headlights to break things up a little. The downside is that this is (again) not a very good play, and the lead performance from Giovanni Ribisi is very weak attempt at old-fashioned young angry male grandstanding.

13. "Me And Orson Welles" (2008)

As far as biopics go, this is tolerably restrained, honing in on one moment of Orson Welles' career — his first Mercury Theater production, a 1937 staging of "Julius Caesar" updated to Mussolini's Italy — and avoiding wink-nudge references to future famous triumphs via characters named "Rosebud" or other such hijinks. The beginning, middle and ending scenes all have Zoe Kazan holding court as a realistically, blathering teen (she's pretty perfect in the part, bringing sorely needed fresh air with each reprise), while Zac Efron is smartly limited to responding.

It's not Efron's fault that he was trained and raised to be a performer of skilled but limited range, but he's hopelessly at a loss to convey the emotions of a young man with obvious dramatic talents who has a life-transforming encounter with a world-important artist. (In a simple conversation with Claire Danes, the scene rises every time it's just her in close-up and sinks when Efron pops into a two-shot.) The movie minimizes the boy idol's presence, but intermittently he has to take the underwhelming lead. The stage production at the end gives Linklater a rare chance to toy with showy, expressionistic lighting.

12. "Waking Life" (2001)

This is the kind of film that awards equal speaking time to Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and professional philosopher David Sosa. It's an unruly democracy of unequally compelling/credible voices, registered by inexhaustibly curious interlocutor Wiley Wiggins. This is solely a matter of preference, but I'm with the many who've noted the film's resemblance to dorm room late night sessions between intellectually competitive undergrads, some of whom grate or overestimate the novelty of their insights. (Former collaborator Kim Krizan spacing out: "When we communicate with one another and we feel that we have connected and we think that we're understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion").

It should be noted that the film's insanely ambitious in its own way: I've generally understood the movie to be about one guy's realization that he's dead (I could well be wrong), but there's no denying that the film's (failed, imo) intent is to transcend its slideshow of lectures and become a heady, philosophically engaging, deliberately ambiguous experience to be thought through seriously. The credibly Piazzolla-esque score, provided by Austin's Tosca Tango Orchestra, is the best of any of Linklater's films.

11. "Fast Food Nation" (2006)

For people interested in Linklater but with limited time, all the films listed above are optional; starting with this maligned title, everything's recommended with progressively fewer qualifications. Though adapted from a best-selling, much-discussed and highly polemical attack on the American meat industry on several fronts (chiefly health concerns and exploitation of illegal immigrant labor), it's surprisingly low-key throughout.

One plotline focuses on a high school fast food employee who gets involved with gung-ho but intellectually underwhelming activists who plan to change everything by releasing a group of cattle, only to find the cows won't go. It's not a subtle metaphor (rise up, public!), but it's also a funny gag, and the film's portrait of earnest youth blathering their way towards (hopeful) change is cringingly accurate. Befitting the film's unwillingness to belabor things too much, Greg Kinnear's meat company official simply disappears from the movie halfway through, since his narrative purpose (to get us from the boardrooms to the farms via an enjoyably sinister Bruce Willis cameo) has been served.

Read the top 10 on page 2!

10. "Bernie" (2011)

The talking heads scenes (both non-pro natives of Carthage, Texas and totally credible professional performers) are evocative of small-town Texas at its most endearing, with exhibitions of local vernacular whose eccentricities are cultivated for their own sake. In this mostly comic small town murder story, this language is sometimes used to reactionary ends (to describe a gay man: "that dog don't hunt"). The casual flashes of homophobia are, along with its more innocuously colorful dialogue, all straight from its journalistic source. The unquestionable authenticity is diluted by the actual story, which requires awful, demanding harridan Shirley MacLaine to make amiable, closeted Jack Black's life hell.

Such scenes aren't fun to watch, and Linklater (as often the case with actively unpleasant material) seems to wish he was elsewhere: the actual murder scene is histrionic and turgid at the same time. Matthew McConaughey appears in both the straight narrative scenes with the talking head segments, and (despite being a native small-town Texas himself) makes the rare miscalculation of playing overly broad rural caricature, nearly destroying the attempt to link the two narrative modes. The carefully evocative interview tableaux — a mustached older man with a Lone Star open on a park table near a lake, a lean-faced lawyer whose nameplate (reading "Scrappy Holmes") is nestled between a metal duck and a pair of wood-carved horses pulling a wagon — justify the entire film.

9. "It's Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books" (1988)

This undervalued first feature works through a number of strong influences. There's Chantal Akerman's steely static gaze at the horrific mundanity of the everyday (as in her bemused/utterly alienated look at grimey New York in 1976's "News From Home"), here similarly trained on the enervating affectlessness of travel at its most Amtrak no-frills. (One shot invites us to stare out the window at unremarkable passing scenery, eventually transferring our attention to the glass's reflective surfaces.)

The attentiveness to people and vehicles in motion and the emphasis on American geographical cross-country travel owes much to the structuralist, non-narrative road trips of Linklater's friend and inspiration James Benning (a relationship documented in this promising forthcoming documentary). The occasional manifestation of droll, near shaggy-dog humor stemming from aimless hanging-out (as in the scene below of Linklater valiantly attempting to say the title in Russian) seem related to Jim Jarmusch, whose 1984 "Stranger Than Paradise" cast an unavoidable spell on American independent film. But "It's Impossible" is more than the sum of its influences, a successful stab at finding something to be hypnotized by in an undisturbedly boring existence.

8. "The Newton Boys" (1998)

More or less instantly written-off on its release as a financially unsuccessful lightweight vehicle starring ephemerally famous young men in over their heads, the bracingly eccentric "The Newton Boys" has a deserved cult. Given Matthew McConaughey's recent renaissance (and seen without titles such as "Larger Than Life" or "A Time To Kill" fresh in memory), his turn as the ringleader of a bank-robbing gang of brothers ranks about with his comeback work for easy charisma tempered by flashes of discomfiting impulsiveness. The tone is of an eccentric genre-tinkering auteur effort like Robert Altman's 1974 "Thieves Like Us," which turned claustrophobic noir into an atmospheric amble through Depression America.

As in that film, Linklater combines meticulous attention to period design detail (financed with his first Hollywood money) with rowdy bouts of actorly goofing, mostly affable male bravado sometimes bordering on loutishness. There are unusually show-off-y bits like a robbery montage scored to the Bad Livers' bluegrass score with dreamy shots of dollar bills floating in the air, or a swooningly direct love-at-first-sight dolly shot straight into the face of hotel magazine stand girl Julianna Margulies.

7. "Before Sunrise" (1995)

This introduced the world to Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), whose whirlwind day-night-day romance takes them around Vienna. They can both be annoying (more him than her, establishing), but the film's beauty is in watching them connect regardless. At the time, it doesn't seem to have crossed anyone's mind that the two characters would have a strong enough afterlife to merit revisitation every nine years, and the movie charmingly derives importance from a superficially wispy encounter. The romanticism is relatively pure and almost fully indulged, making it my least favorite of the three films for personal temperamental reasons.

6. "School Of Rock" (2003)

Easy to imagine as an extremely grating Jack Black vehicle: left unchecked, he's an unrelenting Tasmanian Devil of panicked shouting. The story is more or less a straight inspirational teacher saga: slacker loser gets job teaching music to kids, teaches them chops and self-actualization while himself learning self-respect. There would've been a way to make this the tone-deaf equal of the likes of "Kindergarten Cop," and the film's success is due to the believability of its child actors and Linklater's usual de-emphasization of Big Moments, treated with the same restraint as the kids-and-Black connective tissue that's the film's real interest.

A key scene involves Black performing a "Math Song," a goofily improvised/underthought effort with his voice often approaching Tenacious D falsetto. The usual hack move would be intercutting close-ups of Black mugging and disbelieving youth goggling, but Linklater keeps the camera two classroom aisles back, following the pacing Black from side to side, intercut with restrained close-ups of the participating kids. Throughout, Linklater coaxes uninspired plot beats to similarly surprising life.

5. "Before Midnight" (2013)

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Though as tonally microcalibrated to exclude emotional false notes as the other two installments, I'd suggest a niggling problem with this third installment is that after nine years of coupledom, Jesse and Celine have so much backstory to either glancingly/bitingly allude to or delve into at bitter length. There's a synoptic neatness to their conversations that — compared to the free-flowing getting-to-know-you of the first film and the tense sparring of the second — foregrounds narrative construction in the interests of parceling out information to an unavoidable but distracting degree. Returning to one condensed day rather than real time, the film gets through a lot of fascinating material, but the air of spontaneous discovery is gone. Still: pretty good!

4. "A Scanner Darkly" (2006)

The unlikely elements generally flagged include the sci-fi genre (a one-off) and the rotoscoped animation (improving on "Waking Life"'s straightforward trace-overs with a more richly colored environment more prone to disorienting visual changes in people and interior spaces alike). Despite these visual fillips "A Scanner Darkly" is one of Linklater's most narratively conventionally films, with a plot that rises and climaxes in reasonably normative fashion, in which no digression is totally pointless and lots of plot has to be gotten through. Linklater handles the huge amounts of material expertly and maintains equal momentum while depicting strong negative emotions — monologues on death and depression, free-floating paranoiac morbidity — normally the element most likely to awkwardly stop his work dead in its tracks.

3. "Before Sunset" (2004)

The most consistently tough-minded of Linklater's films has Celine and Jesse addressing their very real points of incompatibility and thrashing out the differences (real or protested while stalling for time) in their memory of their one shared night — but only after an hour of wandering around, carefully sparring through nothing statements. It's an agonizing way to prolong tension, with both characters and viewers aware of the momentous emotional stakes not being acknowledged in any conversational exchange or body language. The lighting and landscapes are deceptively soothing, a guiltless Paris travelogue whose final act of all-out, total honesty is the most excruciating sustained dramatic passage of Linklater's career.

2. "Slacker" (1991)

"Slacker" outlines one of Linklater's favorite recurring obsessions at the beginning, when he takes a cab and wonders about all the movie plotline possibilities never taken, for an example using what might have happened if he stayed at the bus station, then falling so in love with the hypothetical resulting adventure he wishes he'd really stayed there (the entire "Before" trilogy's emotional highlights — possibility, disappointment, and attempts to recapture an original state — are here in miniature).

Steeped in period flavor as it is, it's also true to its particular Austin, Texas locale, populated by (among others) libertarian loons, ranting conspiracists, and a band guy who pays so little conversational attention he responds to a girl's story about just getting out of rehab by asking her if she wants to be put on the guest list for his band's show tonight. The movie offers up a wide range of jabbering weirdos existing in their own worlds, politically neutered and meticulously dissecting their inessentiality.

1. "Dazed And Confused" (1993)

Part of the reason this vivid summer-of-'76 24-hour recollection works so well is because of what it leaves out. On Criterion's DVD edition, you can watch deleted scenes including a heated argument about the Vietnam War, a sign-of-the-times checklist item Linklater wisely excised, choosing to use period specifics only as peripheral signifiers of an intensely recalled, inevitably solipsistic high school experience. The movie depicts one great party night while conjuring an almost palpable haze of remembrance; nearly everyone on screen has one tossed-off line or bit of business to remember them by.

In his Bressonian notes to the cast, Linklater instructed everyone to bring one such item to the production, and as the good times pile up, each plausible individual element becomes part of a platonic, group-recalled crazy night, equally studded with small, justifiable resentments. This is the Linklater ideal: a wide group of voices somehow melding into a briefly unified transcendent hum, in the most modest possible circumstances.