Ranked: Richard Linklater Films from Worst to Best

Reassessing the director of Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, and more.

By Austin Duerst

Richard Linklater was a pivotal director of the '90s indie-film movement. His first feature, Slacker, broke new ground in terms of narrative form and dialogue in cinema, and has been a key influence on many of today's indie directors. Since then, Linklater has expanded his range while staying true to himself, created many engaging and thought-provoking pictures, whether working on a small scale or with a larger budget. With Bernie hitting theaters on November 23rd, we've ranked all his films from worst to best.  

13. subUrbia (1996)

With his first three films, Linklater earned a reputation as cinema's savviest chronicler of Generation X. A lot of that reputation was due to the intelligence of his characters, who, despite their aimlessness, often had interesting things to say. But his fourth feature, subUrbia, broke that streak, focusing on a group of twentysomethings who spend their days hanging out behind a convenience store. These losers seem less like real people than stock characters in some recently dead slacker's personal hell. It was the first Linklater film the director didn't write himself, so maybe the artless quality of the dialogue can be blamed on screenwriter Eric Bogosian, who adapted the script from his own play. Either way, the film is as directionless as its subjects.

12. Me and Orson Welles (2009)

Orson Welles was a brilliant asshole. That's pretty much all you can take from this period drama, about a young Welles' 1937 staging of Julius Caesar in New York. Christian McKay gives an amazing performance as the arrogant auteur, but it's almost too good, in that it overshadows the rest of the cast and their underdeveloped characters. The film is beautifully shot, but an attractive surface doesn't make up for a lack of substance... which brings us to Zac Efron, who Linklater seems to have cast as the lead character only for his ability to simultaneously sing and play a ukulele. The idea that his pretty-boy character could hold his own against a towering figure like Welles is kind of ridiculous.

11. Bad News Bears (2005)

After co-writing 2003's Bad Santa, screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa approached Linklater saying that he was the only one who could direct their newest script, a remake of 1976's Bad News Bears. Having always wanted to make a baseball film, Linklater accepted. But the result was disappointing: the film was a lackluster rehash, with little of the intellectual curiosity that makes Linklater's films compelling in the first place. It doesn't help that the majority of the kids in the film are bad actors, or that Billy Bob Thornton's performance seems less like an homage to Walter Matthau than like a PG-13 reprisal of his role in Bad Santa. In a buttery-popcorn way, the film's entertaining, but it could have been more.

10. Fast Food Nation (2006)

A "companion piece" to Eric Schlosser's bestselling non-fiction book, Fast Food Nation follows the interweaving story of several characters involved at various levels of the fast-food industry. Fast-food companies are cutting corners to reduce production costs, resulting in, among other things, harrowing conditions for factory workers (mostly illegal Mexican immigrants) and a questionable product (burgers tainted with cow shit). While the issues are important ones, the film's political agenda is so apparent and one-sided that you feel as if you're being lectured the entire time. The dialogue is so laden with anti-burger pontification that it's hard to view the characters as people, and not as vehicles for the film's glaring message. 

9. The Newton Boys (1998)

For his first big budget film, Linklater abandoned the twenty-four-hour time frame of his previous films and took on something grander in scope. A period piece about the most successful (and arguably most polite) gang of bank robbers of the twentieth century, The Newton Boys is carried along mostly by the chemistry of its stars (Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, and Vincent D'Onofrio), who are believable as a pack of dysfunctional but lovable brothers. The film's shortcomings can be blamed on history itself: compared to other outlaws, the Newton boys were fairly tame in their criminal pursuits. For all its charms, there are Disney movies with more of an edge than this picture.

8. A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Set in a dystopic future, this adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick novel mostly earns points for effort. Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, an undercover police officer who, in the process of spying on his friends for the government, becomes addicted to Substance D, a psychedelic drug that happens to split your brain in two. (This helps excuse Reeves' standard lobotomized delivery.) On the plus side, Robert Downey, Jr. and Woody Harrelson are hilarious as Arctor's braindead friends; the rotoscoped animation adds to the drug-fueled weirdness of the picture; and composer Graham Reynolds delivers one of the best film scores in recent memory. But for all its interesting elements, the film never coheres.

7. Tape (2001)

Movies based on plays are tricky, especially if the play in question takes place entirely in a motel room. But where a lesser director might have struggled to make a confined space interesting for the length of a movie, Linklater creatively takes advantage of every square inch. Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Robert Sean Leonard also give some of the best performances of their careers as three high-school friends who are brought together after years to discuss a secret from the past. It may not have been as big of a success as his earlier films, but Tape is an experience that stays with you, and will probably make you reconsider ever going to a high-school reunion. 

Commentarium (46 Comments)

Nov 15 11 - 3:03am
explainerguy

um, subUrbia is one of his best films. It needs a DVD release immediately.

Nov 15 11 - 3:46am
?

I couldn't finish Waking Life because it annoyed me so much. I don't get what people see in it.

Nov 15 11 - 10:13am
Stu

I'm with ?. Waking Life felt like listening to college sophomores, enthralled by their first philosophy course, passing the pipe while effusing about...you know...*life*...'n' shit.

Nov 15 11 - 2:20pm
Myke

I understand this criticism, but I think that's what makes it fun. It's just a bunch of people getting together and talking about life with some amazing visuals thrown in. That's kind of why I disagree with it being #1, though. As fun as it is, it's basically just an animated Slacker (no disrespect to either). When Linklater actually has something he needs to say, we get Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise/Sunset, A Scanner Darkly, etc. Waking Life is a lot more enjoyable if you view it as an amiable little experiment, the kind mainstream American cinema could never accommodate.

Nov 15 11 - 9:00am
Myke

Oh come on, Waking Life #1? Maybe in another director's filmography, but this is Linklater we're talking about. Almost every other film on the second page is better than it. And I LOVE Waking Life. I even got it for a girlfriend of mine because it was so great and I felt like it had to be shared.

But that's the point. As good as it is, Linklater has done even better. I think Before Sunset is one of the few films of the last decade or so that I feel comfortable calling a modern masterpiece (and there will always be a place in my heart for Before Sunrise, which lodged itself firmly inside me before I got so cynical). And there's nothing I can say about Dazed and Confused or Slacker that hasn't been said already.

The man's some kind of genius, and I don't think anyone's going to realize it until he's gone. Reverse Shot did a wonderful symposium on him a few years back (around 2004, in fact, which was when Before Sunset premiered), but that's the closest he's gotten to getting the recognition he deserves. There are few greater tragedies in American film than the last few years of his career, both the projects he ended up doing and the ones he could not secure funding to do. I hear Bernie is good, though, so hopefully this means Linklater is coming back for good. We are all much worse off for his absence.

Nov 15 11 - 1:32pm
Ciccone

Myke, yes I agree with everything you are saying about Before Sunrise & Before Sunset. I would have them #1 and #2. The problem is I have no idea which would be #1.

Nov 15 11 - 2:15pm
M&I

@Myke: How could Waking Life have been #1 on another director's filmography?

Nov 15 11 - 2:58pm
Myke

As in, it's such a good movie that it would be the magnum opus in any other director's filmography. But Linklater's talented enough that Waking Life isn't even his best film. It's just one of his many top films. Sorry, that was a little unclear.

Nov 15 11 - 4:48pm
M&I

I think the top 5 are at least arguably his best films, whatever order they're in

Nov 15 11 - 5:08pm
Myke

Agreed.

Nov 15 11 - 8:42pm
haircut

Richard Linklater is no Jason Reitman am i right people?

Nov 15 11 - 11:54pm
Myke

Actually you are! You're very right! Thanks for repeating a stance I mentioned in an unrelated Comment thread! I do indeed hold differing views on different independent American filmmakers!

Seriously though, if you want to play this game, explain to me in what ways Reitman's lazy, smug, visually inert, intellectually shallow films stack up against Linklater's work. Because to me it's a pretty damn steep dropoff from Linklaterland to Reitman's execrable output. In fact, as long as we're discussing Reitman in relatios to Linklater, I'd say Linklater spent most of his career broke his back breaking down walls that let Reitman even have a career in the first place.

Nov 15 11 - 11:56pm
Myke

**relation, for God's sake. And **breaking his back breaking down walls.

Nov 22 11 - 1:35am
haircut

Is this Rian Johnson?

Nov 22 11 - 2:33am
JudoBitch

Just stop haircut. And you too, Myke. Before you hurt yourselves.

Nov 23 11 - 12:37am
haircut

The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over.

Nov 15 11 - 10:23am
BrosephofArimathea

Before Sunrise/Sunset > other normally shot films >>>> CG wankery

Nov 15 11 - 11:13am
Zoe

I know I am in the minority, but A Scanner Darkly is still one of my favorite movies even if it isn't the most cohesive. Putting my personal preferences aside, I would have to say that Before Sunset would be #1 on my list as far as his best executed and most timeless film.

Nov 15 11 - 1:33pm
JustinT

For me there's Dazed & Confused, Sunrise and Sunset -- and then all the rest. Suburbia and Slacker have merit and and are worth seeing for some; some of this other films are decent, and some are frankly not great. But that goes for any director. I couldn't stomach Waking Life though appreciate the intent, and I wanted to really like A Scanner Darkly, but just couldn't. Let's hope his best work lies ahead.

Nov 15 11 - 1:50pm
ZTown

I like all his movies, but I'm probably in the minority in saying that Waking Life is one of my favorite films. None of the video stores in my town own a copy anymore because people rent it out and never return it, so I've had to buy it numerous times, as I also have friends who borrow it and never give it back.

Nov 15 11 - 2:53pm
faulknersaysrelax

I'll agree and join that minority. That film is, first of all, downright beautiful in a way that you can't achieve with "normal" camera work. Secondly, it's just mind-blowing, and not in a "pass the pipe" kind of way, though it does fall into that at points. It's an incredibly comprehensive look at multiple philosophical viewpoints, and that turns a lot of people off, I think -- they're all too willing to write it off as juvenile without assessing the impact it could actually have on their life.

Nov 15 11 - 1:54pm
Stewie

SubUrbia is a steaming dog turd of a movie, but I also think A Scanner Darkly was a better movie than its ranked here.

Nov 15 11 - 2:05pm
Alan Coffee

You've got some balls putting an animated movie as Linklater's #1 Mr. Duerst. The kind of balls that could do BMX tricks on a tricycle, no doubt, but misguided balls nonetheless.

Bad News Bears 4 ever.

Nov 15 11 - 4:09pm
nope

It's kind of depressing that so many people dismiss any serious discussion of philosophy as the domain of stoners and college freshmen.

With that said, I can't believe A Scanner Darkly didn't crack the top 5. I love that movie. But then, I'm not sure which of the top 5 I'd bump...

Nov 15 11 - 4:10pm
z

Waking life makes me dizzy... the visuals are simply too nauseating. The philosophizing is neat enough, although it is very college dorm room banter-y.

Nov 15 11 - 4:16pm
Els

Before Sunset and Before Sunrise are just perfect. Dazed & Confused and Waking Life are really good. School of Rock & Slacker are pretty good. And all that is fact!

Nov 15 11 - 4:51pm
cELLulane

Very profound, Els. That could have been the list right there.

Nov 15 11 - 6:11pm
JMC

I thought I was the only person in the world who loved Tape!

Nov 16 11 - 3:22pm
1q84

Agreed

Nov 17 11 - 3:04am
Gozuntite

School of Rock is a classic. I hope they make a sequel.

Nov 17 11 - 10:45am
El-Tipo

My own ranking would be:

(1-4 the masterpieces)
1. Before Sunset
2. Dazed and Confused
3. Slacker
4. Tape (certainly the most underrated)

(5-8 are good, yet slightly flawed films)
5. Waking Life
6. SubUrbia
7. Before Sunrise
8. A Scanner Darkly

(9-10 are just unnecessary; neither particularly bad or good)
9. Fast Food Nation
10. School of Rock

(11-13 the only ones which could be considered objectively mediocre or just plain bad)
11. The Newton Boys
12. Bad News Bears
13. Me and Orson Welles (couldn't even finish this one)

Nov 18 11 - 2:40pm
Historical Note

Like the write up on Me and Orson Welles. That movie was pretty bad, and made me think differently about Welles as a person.

Nov 19 11 - 10:57pm
Falling For Legends

Can't wait for Bernie.

Nov 20 11 - 11:57am
Kamron

You know what, I'm very much icnilned to agree.

Nov 20 11 - 10:28pm
JD

I love Slacker because I am not from and have never been to Austin and yet I know every single person in that movie. It has a universal and timeless quality that's kind of comforting in a way.

Nov 21 11 - 3:02pm
csuojlz

COcQ07 owislbicerza

Nov 22 11 - 2:21am
Tippy4u

I think it's funny that no one really disagrees with the bottom half of this article, and by that I of course omit the people who said that SubUrbia was a good movie, because their opinions don't really count, do they?

Nov 22 11 - 2:22am
Giovanni's Tippy

Their on that naked Giovanni tip, no?

Nov 22 11 - 2:23am
Tippy4u

Kid's trying to agree with me and still can't spell

Nov 22 11 - 2:23am
Giovanni's Tippy

His balls look funny in that movie.

Nov 22 11 - 2:25am
Alan Coffee

Linklater should have rotoscoped them and given his balls philosophical dialogue. Then the movie would have made #1 on this list.

Nov 22 11 - 2:36am
Rosa

Would have made #1 on my list :p

Nov 28 11 - 5:15am
Vic

Waking Life gets deeper and richer every time you come back to it, especially if you go a few years between viewings. Was really glad to see it on top. List was pretty dead on though I think Before Sunrise has the edge over Sunset, personally. Maybe that'll change when I hit 30. Cant wait for the next installment. Also, dont get all the SubUrbia haters. Its far from a great film but I definitely knew those characters growing up. Definitely better than the One For Them that was Bad News Bears.

Dec 02 11 - 12:25pm
SW

Linklater is my all-time favorite. I'll admit, I'm part of the minority who was thrilled to see Waking Life at #1.

Dec 25 11 - 10:42am
MTS

They agreed to meet 6 months later (not 1 year).

Aug 29 12 - 9:57pm
SSL

I loved Scanner Darkly, the way the trippy animation represented the paranoia and drugged out reality of the story. And I think keanu' s blank was perfect here, and Robert downy was at his riot- best. Also love before/after sun films deeply. definitely some of the best representations of love on film - very charming and moving.