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Ranked: Richard Linklater Films from Worst to Best

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

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. 

6. School of Rock (2003)

For a film about a hyperactive rock musician who's kicked out of his band and subsequently poses as a substitute teacher at a prep school to pay his bills, there could have been no better fit than Jack Black, whose performances in his band, Tenacious D, proved he could both make you laugh and melt your face off. An excellent script from Mike White and a cast of real-life thirteen-year-old rock savants all come together under Linklater's direction, and the film's music itself is surprisingly great. While it may not have broken new ground for the director in terms of experimentation, it's an undeniable success on its own terms.

5. Slacker (1991)

Slacker was an influential film, inspiring future filmmakers such as Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino to experiment with nonlinear narratives and dialogue that fused pop culture and philosophy. The film follows an eccentric cast of Texans in a pinball-like fashion — it stays with one character until he or she bumps into the next, then branches off to follow. Taken as a whole, the brief dialogue segments add up to a fascinating psychological portrait of what it was like to be a "slacker" in the early '90s. As Linklater's first film, Slacker has its amateurish qualities. But if you can ignore the occasional visible boom mic, the film's vision is thoroughly engrossing and unique.

4. Before Sunrise (1995)

When two young travelers (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) meet on a train and decide share an adventure with each other in Vienna, the stage is set for one of the most romantic movies of all time. Through the course of a single night, the two get to know one another, flirting the night away and sharing their views on everything from pet peeves to dreams and personal ideals. The film's minimalist tracking shots keep the focus on Hawke and Delpy's perfect performances, and what at first seems like a casual encounter turns out to be two people falling in love without the bullshit of conflict or a pop soundtrack. Anyone on the fence about traveling should be forced to watch this movie. 

3. Dazed and Confused (1993)

Linklater's second feature is one of those rare films that you could place in a time capsule for fifty years and still have it feel relevant when you dug it up. Avoiding Hollywood cliches, the observant Linklater paints his characters with all the complexities and anxieties of real teenagers. The high-school quarterback is a pothead, the nerds have no problem getting the girls, and the up-and-coming freshmen are equal match for the overbearing upperclassmen and their wooden ass-paddles. With an ensemble cast of future stars and a script that's as quotable now as it was in 1993, Dazed and Confused remains a classic look at what it's like to be young and the steps you take to discover your own identity. 

2. Before Sunset (2004)

At the end of Before Sunrise, Jessie and Céline make a promise to reunite a year later, without exchanging addresses or phone numbers. Nine years later, the two meet randomly in a Paris bookstore, where Jessie is promoting his newest novel (which may as well have been titled Before Sunrise). Set in real time, the film proceeds with the two discussing the previous nine years and the chance occurrences that prevented them from reuniting. The film is heavier than its predecessor; the two leads have matured considerably as people, experiencing new loves and heartaches, but all the while pining over the magical relationship that got away from them. Hawke and Delpy exude deep longing and regret with every line. It's a film that simultaneously breaks your heart and fills you with hope.

1. Waking Life (2001)

No film of Linklater's is as visually or intellectually stimulating as this 2001 treatise on dreams and the meaning of life. Using innovative animation software, Linklater invited thirty artists from around Austin, Texas to paint their unique styles over live-action film. The result is like an Impressionist painting come to life. Where Slacker's surrealism was limited by real-life actors, Waking Life's very lines brim with an unrestrained vitality. Whether the main character of the film is dying or having a lucid dream is beside the point; it's the journey that counts, and every viewing of Waking Life has the potential to make you think differently about your own life and its unlimited possibilities.