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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.