From Slacker to Boyhood: Ranking Richard Linklater's Movies

Today, Richard Linklater's acclaimed Boyhood (which we love) opens in select cities. (It'll be expanding next week and be practically everywhere by mid-August.) To celebrate, we decided to rank all 16 of the man's commercial features, and what we hope you'll notice is that over a 23-year career, he's had one hell of a success rate. (It's not just impressive how many good movies he's made—it's kinda miraculous how few outright stinkers are on his résumé.) From Slacker to Boyhood, he's been one of America's best and most consistent directors. And he's only 53.

16. The Bad News Bears (2005). Uniting Linklater and a post-Bad Santa Billy Bob Thornton—complete with that film's writing team—surely sounds like a great idea, so it's still a surprise how limp and haggard this remake turned out to be. Thornton looks more bored than anything, his director can't muster up much enthusiasm to hit all the familiar plot beats, and the kids aren't even that cute. It's also strangely bloodless: It's as if neither Linklater nor Paramount—this was considered a bit of a studio follow to the hit that was The School of Rock—had much desire to get legitimately Bad Santa-level dirty, which sort of defeats the whole point of a remake in the first place.

15. SubUrbia (1996). It's not surprising why Linklater was interested in adapting Eric Bogosian's play for the big screen: The story of a bunch of shiftless young people over the course of one semi-memorable night echoed Slacker and Dazed and Confused. But while SubUrbia has its moments—Parker Posey, no surprise, is aces as a sexy music publicist—the overwhelming feeling is that Linklater has already explored this terrain, and done it better. Still, the movie now stands as a sort of perfect mid-'90s time capsule: characters have serious debates about the notion of "selling out," there's a great Sonic Youth song on the soundtrack, and hey, look, Steve Zahn is in it. (He had first played the dopey, hopeless Buff onstage.) And, in its laid-back way, SubUrbia is one of Linklater's more despairing films: You can't quite shake the fear that most of these hip young people may vanish into oblivion before they have a chance to grow up.

14. Fast Food Nation (2006). Linklater certainly has displayed a social conscience in his films, but he's not a fire-and-brimstone muckraker, which made him an odd choice to adapt Eric Schlosser's bestseller about the American food industry. The film's an odd mix of Altman-esque overlapping storylines and a series of self-righteous lefty polemics that grow exhausting even if you agree with them. None of the various stories congeal into anything all that compelling, and there are times it teeters perilously on the edge of "Crash, but with nutrition rather than racism." It does feature a riotous Bruce Willis cameo in which you sense that Willis is the only one in the movie who doesn't think he's the bad guy.

13. Bernie (2011). We'll confess: We're a bit baffled by the critical love for Bernie. The story is overly confused and mannered; the interviews with local townsfolk feel disjointed and a little condescending, Jack Black tamps it down a little too much, and it features the only bad Matthew McConaughey performance during the McConaissance. The movie's a little too clever by half: It wants us to reflect on the weirdness of its real-life story without ever investing in it. It's the rare Linklater movie that doesn't seem entirely in command of its tone.

12. The Newton Boys (1998). Linklater's first big flop, this story of Texas bank robbers in the 1920s—four brothers played by McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, and Vincent D'Onofrio—never really gets out of the starting gate. In what would become a bit of a pattern when trying to do his own spin on genre movies, Linklater never warms to the conventions of a Western. He wants to upend our expectations, but he never does much more than that: We spend most of the movie waiting for a Western that never arrives. And this was also the next in a line of truly dull McConaughey lead roles that would last for almost a full decade. It's a movie about badass Texas bank robbers that is mostly boring, a feat it would seem impossible for Linklater to pull off.

11. Tape (2001). The better of Linklater's two adaptations of plays, Tape could almost be his In the Company of Men, in which men's darker qualities come slithering to the surface for all to see. Stephen Belber's script concerns three high school friends reunited in adulthood: Ethan Hawke's drug dealer Vince is convinced that Robert Sean Leonard's documentary filmmaker Jon raped Vince's girlfriend (Uma Thurman) after they had broken up. Thus sets in motion a series of confrontational, stage-bound conversations inside a hotel room, all shot on low-grade digital video to amplify the queasy factor. Probably nobody's favorite Linklater film, Tape is nonetheless gripping, not to mention a reminder that he can deliver taut psychological dramas when he desires. So many films his canon salute our better natures: This one stands in stark contrast.

10. A Scanner Darkly (2006). Or, Waking Life: Philip K. Dick Edition. Using the same rotoscope animation technique as he incorporated in Waking Life, Linklater turned the sci-fi author's mind-bending novel into a philosophical, trippy, let's-all-hang-out whatzit perfectly embodied by Keanu Reeves' post-Matrix "whoa"-ness. Truth be told, thrillers aren't exactly Linklater's métier, but he does a terrific job conjuring up a sense of dread that alternates between being darkly funny and quietly unsettling. And he's helped by a pretty great cast: Winona Ryder has never been sexier, and if we need a reminder that Robert Downey, Jr. is one fantastic bugged-out actor, A Scanner Darkly provides all the proof we need.

9. Me and Orson Welles (2008). Linklater has made movies based on plays (SubUrbia and Tape), but his best theater piece is this adaptation of Robert Kaplow's fictionalized account of a young Orson Welles' ambitious 1937 Broadway staging of Julius Caesar. Funny, romantic, and just the right amount of fluffy, Me and Orson Welles (like a lot of Linklater productions) is tickled by the energy generated from precise, searching individuals, and the film's highlight is newcomer Christian McKay's inspired portrayal of Welles. It's not just that the actor perfectly replicates the prodigy's mannerisms and speaking style: It's that McKay understands the mix of genius, arrogance, and childlike enthusiasm that makes Welles such a towering, beguiling creative force to this day. And, you know what? Zac Efron ain't too shabby in it, either.

8. The School of Rock (2003). The biggest hit of Linklater's career by a country mile, it's the perfect example of how to do a family comedy that kids and adults can love that doesn't pander to either one. The Sarah Silverman/Mike White subplot doesn't really work, but everything else is golden, especially Jack Black, who has never been better. (It's the platonic ideal of a Jack Black role: showy, over-the-top, musically oriented, and huge-hearted.) And every single kid is the best. The final musical number is crowd-pleasing at its best.

7. Slacker (1991). Not really Linklater's first movie—that would be It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, which is included on the Slacker Criterion set—this early-'90s calling card inspired Kevin Smith to become a filmmaker and was one of the first Sundance sensations. And, if we're being honest, it hasn't entirely held up. A portrait of a group of random Austin residents discussing conspiracy theories, dreams, and Madonna's pap smear, Slacker retains its freewheeling, look-what-movies-can-do energy, but what was once innovative and liberating now feels somewhat amateurish. In other words, it contains the promise of what Linklater could do—easygoing characters, simple-yet-profound scenarios, a wonderfully laid-back philosophical bent—which he would then perfect in later films.

6. Waking Life (2001). Maybe there are better movies about dreams, but Waking Life is probably the best at capturing what dreams feel like. Foggy, beautiful, and a little disorienting, the rotoscoping technique, in which live-action scenes were animated over, gave Linklater the freedom to refine Slacker's musings, producing a richer, more troubling examination of life, death, suffering, and whatever the hell it is that Timothy "Speed" Levitch is babbling on about. We can't even imagine the number of stoned dorm-room debates Waking Life inspired, but we're still amazed it opened the door for those weird Charles Schwab commercials.

5. Before Sunrise (1995). The most heated debates we had putting this list together was where to rank the three Before films, both against each other and against all of Linklater's films. We did both agree that the first is the least of the three, though that's hardly an insult. In a way, the movie has suffered as the years have gone on because its two sequels are in fact responses to the moony romance of the original; the swooning naiveté of this film is one of its primary charms, and the other two films existed in part to shatter that very naiveté. (Watching it in the mid-'90s made you believe in the perfect love; watching it now makes you shake your head at these crazy kids.) That doesn't stop this from being gloriously romantic in an almost religious way; even when you know what's coming, you still can't not believe in these two.

4. Dazed and Confused (1993). Hands down Linklater's funniest movie, it's nostalgic without ever pretending that the mid-'70s were any sort of good ole days. Packed with one gem of a scene after another—seriously, there isn't a moment in the movie that doesn't feel perfectly observed—it's a movie about the '70s that has proven timeless. And lord, that music. There are at least 10 actors in this movie (ranging from Milla Jovovich to Adam Goldberg to Ben freaking Affleck) who are better in this than they would ever be in anything else again, but now and forever, it's all about McConaughey's Wooderson. Nations have risen from the backs of worse men.

3. Before Midnight (2013). One of our happiest moments in any Linklater film was the opening of Before Midnight when we discovered that, yes, Celine and Jesse had ended up together. And then we realized that the movie hadn't even started, which is entirely Before Midnight's point. The notion of what "ending up together" really means is explored at length, with a lot of barbed humor and some dark accusations, over the course of the film. But this final (maybe?) installment of the Before series is about more than love. It has to do with realizing that some of your youthful aspirations probably aren't going to materialize. It's about reflecting on the way that actors we've seen over a span of years are getting older and somehow wiser and more themselves as time goes by. (Is there any doubt these movies are what Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy will be remembered for?) And it's about realizing that love, just like everything else, is something that has to be worked on forever—it's never finished. And maybe it's actually worth it.

2. Before Sunset (2004). The perfect mix of the romantic idealism of the first film and the caustic reality of the third, this one—at 80 minutes, Linklater's shortest film—follows Jesse and Celine in real time through Paris as they reconnect nine years after the events of the first film. Hawke and Delpy have the exact right balance between intimacy and suspicion, as well as a knowing sense that they're not quite old enough to be too old for this. (Again.) Mostly: This is about two smart people who are desperately in love with each other but aren't quite sure what to do about it, or whether they should even acknowledge it. Which makes the ending, in which they silently come upon the answer, feel triumphant, a victory for following your heart, no matter what the cost.

1. Boyhood (2014). Maybe we're jumping the gun by putting this at No. 1. (Masterpieces occasionally fade over time.) But since this movie is all about time—how it rushes by, how it changes our perspective, how there's so much of it and also not nearly enough—we'll take the risk. So much has already been written about this Sundance standout that it's practically begging for a significant backlash. (Our great fear is that, after hearing months of Boyhood hype, people will expect miracles from a movie that couldn't be gentler or more unassuming.) Nonetheless, this film seems to be a grand summation of everything Linklater has done: the rambling musings of Slacker and Waking Life; the chronicling of aging and love in the Before trilogy; the precise portrayal of youth in Dazed and Confused; the effortless, good-natured charm of The School of Rock. Throughout his career, Linklater has often come across as the nicest, least pretentious philosophy grad student of all time, the dude in the rumpled shirt constantly wondering what it all means, man. Boyhood is his best stab yet at an answer.


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