Every Richard Linklater Movie, Ranked

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Although he’s made movies set in Vienna, Greece, and Antartica, Richard Linklater is as synonymous with Austin, Texas, as Martin Scorsese is with New York and Quentin Tarantino is with Los Angeles. Unlike Scorsese and Tarantino, who were obsessed with movies from an early age, Linklater fell in love with movies later in his life. First, he played football in high school and then attended Sam Houston State University on a baseball scholarship, until his career was cut short by a heart condition. He left school and worked on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. When Linklater returned to Texas, his love of movies blossomed.

He’s not without his influences, of course, but from the beginning—with his feature-film debut, Slacker—Linklater has been his own thing. He’s a filmmaker clearly influenced by European and world cinema, especially when it comes to experimental, nonlinear narrative, yet he’s undeniably American. He loves talkers and philosophers. Perhaps more than any other filmmaker of his time, Linklater mixes professional actors with amateurs. So many of his movies seem like long, late-night bull sessions. He’s fixated on trying to take deep concepts—such as the nature of time and memory, the contingencies of our lives, how we fall in and out of love—and present them in a way that feels shaggy and naturalistic.

If you believe that every decade gets one great romantic comedy—in the seventies, it was Annie Hall; the eighties, Tootsie or even Something Wild—the first of Linklater’s Before trilogy, Before Sunrise, is a good pick for the nineties. It’s a collaborative experience—with the lead actors having an enormous hand in shaping the story, as in his 2014 tour de force, Boyhood. These are movies with devoted followings.

Linklater has directed more conventional fare—School of Rock is his biggest hit, The Newton Boys is a Hollywood venture, and Last Flag Flying is a straightforward road picture. He’s based more than a few on source material: books (Fast Food Nation; Where’d You Go, Bernadette), plays (Tape, SubUrbia), or magazine articles (Bernie and his latest, Hit Man, come from Skip Hollandsworth’s stories in Texas Monthly). Almost all of them have a pleasing, unhurried pace and an affinity for their characters. Linklater just wants to hang out. And he doesn’t have a patented style; he’s a storyteller who adapts to the material.

It’s fun to imagine what one of his legion of philosophers would make of ranking his films. Your top ten among Linklater's oevure all depend on taste and appetite. The Before trilogy and Boyhood are the kinds of movies that some viewers are enchanted by and fiercely protective of, while others find them hopelessly pretentious and boring. And then there is his trio of animated features as well as the enduring charm of Dazed and Confused. Whatever your preference, it’s hard not to hear the approving sound of McConaughey: Alright, alright, alright.

SubUrbia (1996)

Apart from its evocative opening sequence, scanning the landscape of suburban middle America, there is not much cinematic enjoyment to be had in this talky adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s play. Bogosian’s heavy-handed moralizing worked in his series of one-man shows in the eighties and nineties, but it’s turgid and lifeless onscreen.

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Tape (2001)

The principal actors (Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard) in this claustrophobic three-character movie—which had an improvisational, fresh look at the time of its release, shot digitally with camcorders—grew up when Sam Shepard’s True West and Fool for Love were de rigueur in acting classes. The movie, based on Stephen Belbe’s stage play, has that same kind of intensity, with a few gotcha! plot twists of its own. Tape is a charged look at men behaving badly and getting their comeuppance, decades before the #MeToo movement. Enter at your own risk.

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (2019)

There is something painful about watching a movie that has this much ambition, talent, and skill but somehow misses the mark. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? focuses on a brilliant architect (Cate Blanchett) whose career takes a dark turn from which she is unable to rouse herself until the movie’s final act. Ultimately, the film is caught between satiric stylization and something more grounded in reality. Only a few members of the all-star cast—Laurence Fishburne in particular, in a small role—seem to connect. What could have been a delirious exercise in genius-gone-batty struggles to land—chiefly because of Blanchett’s labored, mannered performance. But there’s no joy to be had in the movie’s failings.

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The Newton Boys (1998)

Linklater’s first foray into Hollywood moviemaking follows the bank-robbing high jinks of four brothers in the early 1920s. It’s a piece of young-buck energy with Matthew McConaughey in the lead, eyes bulging, trying to do his best Paul Newman as the cocksure frontman. McConaughey didn’t lack the confidence of a major star but didn’t yet have the assurance or calm to convey something more than raw charm. Meanwhile, Ethan Hawke is the slack-jawed one of the bunch, who does much hamming it up and wrestling around with his big bro, played by Vincent D’Onofrio (who has the least developed role). Skeet Ulrich, as the brother with a moral conscience, bears more than a passing resemblance to Buster Keaton. Dwight Yoakam, costarring as the brothers’ partner in crime, has the most natural (and interesting) demeanor in this western, where the stakes and the violence never seem to make an impact. The Newton Boys is a well-crafted movie, sure—but it sort of sits there, without moving you to hate it or love it.

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Bad News Bears (2005)

Again, on paper, Bad News Bears had promise: Billy Bob Thornton (Bad Santa) reprises Walter Matthau’s Buttermaker in this remake of the 1976 shaggy-dog classic—a film that is jarringly offensive by today’s standards but was a family-movie hit at the time. Minus the grubby look and unapologetic vulgarity, this version lacks both verisimilitude and punch.

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Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

This jocular riff on Dazed and Confused is set in 1980 during a three-day span before the start of a college semester. It’s trash-talking fun with the boys on the baseball team. Linklater knows how jocks think and act—he deserves credit for not prettying up their vulgarity—but these dill weeds have a forced, peacocking self-satisfaction that doesn’t jell as you’d hope.

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Fast Food Nation (2006)

If Super Size Me made you queasy, then be prepared for a horror show along the lines of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Linklater, in possibly his grimiest movie, doesn’t spare the audience from the rancid realities of the fast-food industry. This bit of muckraking features an all-star ensemble including Bruce Willis, Kris Kristofferson, Roseanne Arquette, Greg Kinnear, and younger actors Ashley Johnson and Catalina Sandino Moreno, who turn in fine performances. The film also boasts memorable turns from the saints of character actors, Luis Guzman and Bobby Cannavale. Fast Food Nation cooks up compelling outrage that will leave you sick to your stomach.

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Before Midnight (2013)

Alas, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), whose chance encounters in Europe make up Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, get together after all. The third movie in this chatty trilogy, set against a gorgeous Greek backdrop, finds the couple mired in the doldrums. The star-crossed lovers are now married with twin girls. Middle age wears on them, their youthful charm isn’t so cute anymore, and their real dissatisfactions dominate.

Their grappling with the natural problems facing long-term relationships is poignant—the sadness, resignation, and resentments feel true—but the characters are less likable than ever. These are two people who live from the neck up, though they are not especially smart or interesting. Hawke’s self-awareness, which could be forgiven in the earlier installments, is harder to take here; as they walk along, talking and talking, he rarely seems to really listen to her. Maybe that’s the point. The series is an endurance test for an audience’s ability to find their musings compelling.

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Slacker (1990)

Linklater’s debut was an indie hit, delivering a string of philosophical pearls from Austin. Filmed in the late eighties, it sets the stage for the director’s career-long interest in educated philosophers, who are interested less in conversation than in a kind of breathless holding forth. Shot in a series of long takes, the film features climate-change doomsayers and good old-fashioned conspiracy theorists—before they turned to the right of the political spectrum. Nothing much connects the action; the pace is leisurely. These are folks with time to muse and be heard.

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A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Linklater’s second animated venture adapts a short story by perhaps the greatest science-fiction writer of them all, Philip K. Dick. This paranoid, dark, flat-out-weirdo bit of slapstick, of course, contains the rapid-fire chatter of Robert Downey Jr. Keanu Reeves also stars in the film, which would have made Heavy Metal magazine fans of a previous era weep with delight.

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Bernie (2011)

This dark comedy has a broad, almost cartoonish tone that is closer to a Coen brothers movie than Linklater’s usual fare. Take Matthew McConaughey’s hammy theatrics—please. Based on a funny Texas Monthly feature by the great Skip Hollandsworth, Bernie uses elements of mockumentary, but the look and production design are polished. Something about the film's vibe doesn’t seem to soar, but it is not due to lack of care or attention.

Perhaps what keeps Bernie from entering the upper echelon of Linklater's filmography is Jack Black, the charismatic star. He’s a performer by nature—and excels anytime he is asked to sing—but he doesn’t seem to connect with the other actors. He doesn’t feed off of them, and his body language is uncertain whenever he isn’t doing schtick. Ultimately, he leaves an emotional hole at the center of a movie about a man whose personal touch is what makes people lose all sense of composure when talking about him.

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Hit Man (2023)

Linklater’s latest is already a hit for Netflix. It has a winning star performance by Glen Powell, who plays—what else?—a philosophy teacher who moonlights for the Houston police department in its undercover operations. In short order, this dweeb morphs into a hit man, and before you know it, he finds himself involved with a bona fide femme fatale. Or is she?

Powell doesn’t quite pull off the nerdlick character with the same elan as, say, Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent in the Superman movies. In a love scene, we see just how in shape he is, which could only be attained by a workout routine that doesn’t jibe with this dorky dude. But don’t let that spoil the fun—and if there is one thing Hit Man has in mind, it's entertaining us. Also based on a Texas Monthly story by Skip Hollandsworth, Hit Man is one of Linklater’s most amiable creations, a sly romantic comedy that wants little more than to fill us with pleasure.

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Before Sunset (2004)

Nine years after their whirlwind romantic encounter, American novelist Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French environmental activist Céline (Julie Delpy) reunite in Paris. The occasion is a book signing at the fabled Shakespeare & Co. bookstore. Jesse has written a roman à clef about their one-night rendezvous that achieves critical and commercial acclaim. They quickly pick up where they left off, this time wandering around the streets of Paris before he has to catch a flight back to the States. There is a yearning that hangs over the movie, as Jesse and Céline catch each other up on their lives, both feeling a what-could-have-been ache. Your ability to enjoy the movie depends on your capacity for watching two brainy chatterboxes pontificate as they stroll through Paris.

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Last Flag Flying (2017)

You don’t need to have seen The Last Detail, one of Jack Nicholson’s memorable seventies vehicles (which features a killer script by Robert Towne), to appreciate this sequel. Based on a novel by Last Detail author Darryl Ponicsan, this road movie about the reunion of three men who served in Vietnam together is one of Linklater’s most stylistically conventional. To be clear: That’s in no way a demerit. Last Flag Flying is about secrets, service, and brotherhood, but it is mostly about grief. Featuring a trio of excellent performances—from Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne, and Bryan Cranston—the movie is funny, outraged, and mournful. The story hits some bumps along the way, but the ache is real.

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Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood (2022)

Linklater's third animated feature is an autobiographical fantasy that takes place in the summer of 1969 during the Apollo 11 moon landing. Narrated by a pleasantly restrained Jack Black, it explores the life of ten-year-old Stan, the youngest of six children whose father is a bureaucrat for NASA. The fantasy part sees Stan doing a top-secret test run to the moon, shortly before the real mission—which is woven into the mundane chronicles of American family life. Apollo 10 1/2 may be Linklater’s most perfectly realized movie. The deadpan approach to dramatics works beautifully, and the animation frees Linklater to create a heightened reality of boredom, detail, and atmosphere.

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Before Sunrise (1995)

This American boy–meets–French girl European adventure is one of the most romantic movies you’ll ever see, a self-satisfied evocation of youthful fantasy. The chemistry between Julie Delpy, as a French student who once lived in Los Angeles, and Ethan Hawke, as an American wanderer, is sweet if not always convincing. The entirety of Before Sunrise could fall apart as a pretentious exercise at any moment, but it never pretends to be more than it is—and it’s always had its strong group of admirers.

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Me and Orson Welles (2008)

Zac Efron, the young star of Me and Orson Welles, seems as if he would be too current to belong in the 1930s. But even if his mind doesn’t appear to be working as quickly as his fellow cast members’, he stands straight and has an inviting presence. One nice quality of this period piece about Orson Welles, John Houseman, and their Mercury Theater—set in 1937, four years before Welles’ debut film, Citizen Kane—is that it doesn’t pander to a contemporary audience. Sure, it has a kind of history-in-slow-motion-while-everyone-is-talking-fast energy, but it doesn’t feel the need to load us up with exposition every time it drops a name, which is often. The movie showcases Welles’s staging of a modern-dress version of Julius Caesar. Christian McKay is a revelation as Welles.

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School of Rock (2003)

Linklater’s most successful commercial movie is anchored by Mike White’s charming script and the star-making charisma of Jack Black. It’s his best movie role—the part he was born to play—and the supporting cast of kid actors hold their own and rein in his hamminess so it doesn’t overwhelm the proceedings. It’s also blessed by the comedic goddess Joan Cusack. This is also Linklater’s most formulaic movie, an outlier, but it works. School of Rock’s impact extends well beyond its initial release, with the 2013 Broadway-musical adaptation as well as the short-lived 2016 TV version. It’s one of those pop hits that, with time, are considered a classic.

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Boyhood (2014)

An intimate epic shot over eleven years, Boyhood is an audacious experiment. If the filmmakers or actors had gotten sick or dropped out, the entire thing would have flopped. Some viewers couldn’t get past the movie as a stunt or were disappointed with the director’s dramatic choices. While Boyhood isn’t perfect, that doesn’t detract from its accomplishment. Linklater uses amateur and professional actors. Sometimes the dramatic scenes with the amateurs fall flat; other times they result in a heightened realism. The cast shines—and Ethan Hawke is especially good.

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Dazed and Confused (1993)

Stoner comedies weren’t in vogue when Linklater’s second feature hit movie screens in 1993. Anyone waiting for a hallucinatory, conspiratorial experience was disappointed (for that, check out Waking Life), but this ensemble comedy about the final days of high school in suburban Texas circa 1976 captures the mood of the time and place. It’s a period when the old kids haze and terrorize the young kids, from the perspective of someone who was one of the cool kids.

There are a few dustups, of course, but the violence is relatively tame; only the beatdown Adam Goldberg suffers at the hands of Nicky Katt feels scary and real. This is a tale told by the popular kids—not the neurotic losers. It’s all part of the way we were. This spiritual descendent of American Graffiti may be shallow and inconsequential, but it has a real vibe, and the buzz comes from the incredible ensemble (assembled by casting director Don Phillips, who also worked on the eighties teen classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High), including Parker Posey, Rory Cochrane, and Ben Affleck. Plus, it features the now-legendary performance by Matthew McConaughey, in a Jeff Spicoli–like turn that is as quotable as the character is true.

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Waking Life (2001)

Picking up where the hyper-articulate, super-educated philosophers from Slacker left off, Waking Life adds an essential cinematic ingredient: animation. Using the rotoscope technique, which dates back to the early days of the movie business (and has been used effectively by filmmakers as diverse as Walt Disney and Ralph Bakshi), Linklater filmed actors and then had a team of brilliant artists animate them.

“Your life is yours to create,” says one of the many learned ramblers in this expansive, kinetic vision. The movie is a surreal dreamscape populated by Linklater’s trademark theorizers; it’s an ideal marriage of ideas and vision. In many ways, Waking Life is the most Linklater-esque Linklater movie of them all.

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