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Slackers, Stoners and Scanners: Richard Linklater’s Films, Ranked

In honor of his epic ‘Boyhood’ hitting theaters, we rank all of this pioneering indie filmmaker’s work from worst to best

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Richard Linklater's ambitious, acclaimed, experimental coming-of-age film Boyhood offers yet another reminder that this filmmaker has, for more than three decades, built up a career that brims with inquisitiveness and anything-goes sense of invention. Unlike so many others labeled with the ominous words "Great Artist," Linklater's work displays a generosity of both spirit and process; he's notoriously collaborative and prefers a go-with-the-flow vibe on the set. All that has resulted in an amazingly diverse body of work – from early indie hits like Slacker and formal experiments like A Scanner Darkly to studio comedies like The Bad News Bears and the unclassifiable wonders of his Before trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. 

See Where 'Slacker' Ranked in Our 30 Greatest American Indies List

As his 13-years-in-the-making magnum opus to childhood comes out this weekend, it makes sense to look back on this American original's career and revisit both his hits and misses. Here are Richard Linklater's 17 feature films, ranked from worst to best. You don't have to go through all of them, but it'd be a lot cooler if you diiiiid.

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17

‘The Newton Boys’ (1998)

This ambitious comedy/drama/gangster film about a real-life family of bank robbers in the 1920s certainly means well, and the notion of Linklater taking on an old-school, star-studded epic sounds great on paper. But the indie filmmaker's strengths are mismatched to the story he's trying to tell, and his characteristically laid-back style gives way to a forced boisterousness that feels way off. Though his best movies give their casts plenty of room to roam, he's clearly a little too in love with his Newton crew (Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Julianna Marguiles, Vincent D'Onofrio, Skeet Ulrich) to restrain them; the result quickly ends up tipping into actorly self-indulgence. Add in a rather overbearing use of contemporaneous music and a cavalier attitude to plot development, and you wind up with a movie where the past doesn't really come alive so much as get trotted out like sepia-toned show pony. Period pieces are rarely Linklater’s strong suit, and you can kind of see why here. Even he tends to cringe whenever the film is mentioned.

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16

‘SubUrbia’ (1996)

If part of the greatness of Dazed & Confused lies in its ability to mull over big ideas without ever feeling weighty or bogged down, here's a perfect example of the opposite: A movie that strives to tackle the State of Things Circa Right Now and can't lift itself off the ground. Adapting Eric Bogosian's 1994 play about a group of disaffected teens hanging out over the course of one eventful night, Linklater seems lost; you'd think talky-teen angst would be right up his alley, but he never figures out what he can add to the mix. Giovanni Ribisi's angry young man comes off as hopelessly whiny, while Nicky Katt's nihilistic pseudo-greaser (who, naturally, understands people better than they understand themselves) is just plain loathsome. Even Steve Zahn, who stands out as their excitable pothead rollerblader pal, seems to be trying too hard. You don't want to spend any time with these people. Is that part of the point? The film can't decide.

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15

‘Bad News Bears’ (2005)

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Linklater, who had recently done wonders with inappropriate adults and misfit kids (see The School of Rock), matched to a post-Bad Santa Billy Bob Thornton in lovable sociopath mode — and they're both remaking the 1976 Walter Matthau little-league baseball classic. This Bears 2.0 has its moments, and Thornton delivers a few great lines ("You can love [baseball] , but it don't always love you back…it's kind of like dating a German chick."), but it's still little more than a semi-forgettable footnote to the director and star's stronger, more defining work. Linklater doesn't treat the original's root-for-the-underdog storyline with stifling reverence, thankfully, yet he never quite figures out the right tone for his version. You're left wondering if the film needs to be darker and edgier, or more kid-friendly. Bad news, indeed.

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14

‘Inning by Inning: Portrait of a Coach’ (2008)

You can see why Linklater was drawn to chronicle the life and career of University of Texas Longhorns baseball coach Augie Garrido, besides the obvious Austin connection and the director's lifelong love of the game. (He attended Sam Houston State on a baseball scholarship until a heart condition forced him off the diamond.) Garrido is a guy who likes to play mind games with his players, and he's also something of a dugout philosopher. Indeed, the best parts of this ESPN Films documentary on the "winningest coach in Division 1 NCAA history" lie in watching the subject's unique (and often profanity-laced) ways of inspiring his team. At the same time, the in-house, talking-heads doc format makes this film seem curiously anonymous; it feels like it could have been made by anybody, rather than an artist who usually excels at complex, funky stories of complex, funky guys.

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13

‘Me and Orson Welles’ (2008)

An impressionable high schooler (Zac Efron) lands a dream job working at the Mercury Theater on the eve of Orson Welles's legendary 1937 modern-dress production of Julius Caesar, which turned Shakespeare's play into an allegory about fascism. It's a fascinating premise, seeing a classic moment of theater (and auterist myth-making) from the eyes of a bystander, except the frivolous, skin-deep treatment Linklater gives it slowly deflates the film's promise. The film does contain one genuinely brilliant performance – Christian McKay doing a wonderfully charismatic and spot-on Welles. But Efron has almost no presence as the lead; indeed, the movie seems to cut around him at times, compounding a sense of emptiness at its center.

 

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12

‘It’s Impossible to Plow by Reading Books’ (1988)

Linklater shot, edited, and starred in this 8mm project as a young man traveling around the country and hanging out with friends. It's technically his feature-film debut, and was largely unseen until it was included as a supplement on the Criterion Collection's DVD release of Slacker. There's no story and not much dialogue either — yet the film's very aimlessness is its point, albeit in a way different than its far better-known follow-up. (The best comparison might be Richard Lester's short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, an imaginative lark-cum-creative free-for-all that would directly lead to A Hard Day's Night.) If Slacker privileges fleeting connections, this one is a lot more opaque, clunkily working themes of alienation and removal. It's very, very rough, but as a portrait of a great artist learning his craft, still quite interesting. 

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11

‘Fast Food Nation’ (2006)

Anyone trying to adapt Eric Schlosser's non-fiction expose of America's eating habits and the fast-food industry would have their work cut out for them, and Linklater (working off a script co-written by Schlosser) aims to turn it into one of his Altmanesque multi-character, multi-storyline frescoes. Some parts work better than others: A storyline involving migrant workers and brutal slaughterhouse conditions is compelling, while one involving a group of activist college students comes close to Dorm-Room Ideology 101. But without any real outrage to fuel its take on the buying and selling of less-than-happy meals – be it of the satirical or the strident kind – the film's diffuse narrative mostly falls flat.

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10

‘A Scanner Darkly’ (2006)

Richard Linklater doing a cartoon sci-fi movie — right, got it, of course! Actually, by utilizing the same rotoscope animation technique that made Waking Life so wonderfully otherworldly, Linklater turns this dark Philip K. Dick story into a trippy meditation on altered states, police states and the ever-shifting concept of the self. Keanu Reeves is perfectly cast as the undercover narcotics cop whose identity has been divided by a dangerous and ubiquitous new drug. Visually, the movie is a wonder, and its constantly changing surfaces heighten the sense that you're trapped inside a mind losing its grip on reality. But if it works as an existential nightmare, it's occasionally less successful as a narrative. Because there is a story here, too, and is Linklater avoids telling it in a blandly straightforward way, he never quite manages to tell it in a satisfying way either.

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9

‘Tape’ (2001)

This one has an undeserved reputation as a noble failure – partly because, at the time, it felt like an experimental one-off next to the seemingly more ambitious Waking Life. It's a three-character chamber drama that starts off with old high school friends Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard reconnecting on the eve of the latter's attendance at a local film festival. So far, so Off-Broadway; then it goes into incredibly dark territory as they begin to reminisce about a girl (Uma Thurman) they both coveted. The three actors are excellent – especially Hawke as the wild-eyed, vengeful man whose intentions are gradually revealed as the story progresses. This is a surprisingly tight, suspenseful little movie: Experimenting with video at a time when video still looked fairly dreadful, Linklater brings an intensity that one doesn't ordinarily associate with his work. 

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8

‘Before Sunrise’ (1995)

At the time, this little tale of a young American (Ethan Hawke) and a young Frenchwoman (Julie Delpy) falling in love after waltzing around Vienna for a day seemed like an evocatively romantic trifle. But Linklater and his actors would reunite for two more features (see higher on this list) and chart that relationship over the years – showing how it developed in ways both tender and sad, fascinating yet ordinary. Taken on its own, this first one is indeed lovely, if perilously close to being precious to a fault; you also wonder how Delpy's savvy, sensitive traveler could fall for someone who comes off like a typical Gen-X blowhard in love with the sound of his own voice. Still, the later films would put their meet-cute encounter into perspective, giving this first film of a trilogy a nice retroactive glow.

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7

‘Bernie’ (2011)

This sly, true-crime comedy-drama about a small-town funeral director (played, magnificently, by Jack Black) and his odd relationship to a wealthy, curmudgeonly widow (Shirley MacLaine) came and went in theaters. It deserved better then, and demands attention now. What could have been a tonal hodgepodge in the hands of any other director becomes a weirdly generous, very precise piece of Southern Gothic. The real attraction here is Black, though. He plays the lead character with what could best be called earnest insincerity. You can never quite pin down his motivations, or where his Good-Samaritan facade begins and ends— and that's what makes the film so riveting and so haunting.

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6

‘Slacker’ (1991)

Shot on a dime (almost literally), Linklater's breakthrough indie feature – a plotless, aimless, but nevertheless mesmerizing wander among the misfits of Austin – is still marvelous, somehow both meditative and spontaneous. There are folk singers, conspiracy theorists, and, famously, a woman carrying around what she swears is Madonna's pap smear. And Linklater's always-inclusive camera flits from oddball to oddball, letting each have his or her moment before moving on to the next thing. That sounds schematic, but it isn't. Like several of the director's films, Slacker got tagged as a movie best seen under various recreational influences, but in truth, it's one film that you absolutely don't need mind-altering substances for — since it alters your mind for you.  So many movies have tried to forge connections between disparate characters. Slacker goes one better, using the sheer diversity and breadth of human weirdness to suggest that maybe we're not so much connected as we are all just one big crazy ever-changing self. 

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5

‘Before Midnight’ (2013)

In the third installment of the Jesse and Celine Saga, the two lovers — now vacationing together in Greece with their kids — struggle with the fact that the spark in their relationship is in danger of dying out. It's a pleasantly corrosive movie, showing how the very ordinariness of life can breed contempt. In previous films, the characters were either meeting or reconnecting, so their chattiness made sense; here, there are a handful of exchanges that feel like they've been forced by the needs of the movie rather than the reality of the situation. But by its final act, as one character becomes increasingly desperate for the romantic illusion to live on while the other contemplates hitting the brakes altogether, the film has become a quiet heartbreaker. 

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4

‘Waking Life’ (2001)

Could this be the most divisive of Linklater's films? To some, it's a shallow, late-night bull session gussied up with visual gimmicks. To others, it's a mesmerizing journey among different people's conception of what it means to be alive. But could it possibly be [gasp] both? As Linklater stand-in Wiley Wiggins dreamily drifts through different characters ruminating – sometimes nonsensically – on the nature of existence and relationships, the film doesn't seem to be interested in philosophy so much as curiosity. The fact that we wonder about such things, Linklater suggests, is at the heart of being alive. The rotoscope animation definitely makes the whole thing more visually palatable, but that's not a cheat; rather, it adds to the fluidity with which the film incorporates different moods and states of consciousness. Admittedly, not every viewer will have the patience for this kind of mental wandering. But whether it's being playful, insightful, or superficial, you can't help but be amazed that a film like this ever got made in the first place. 

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3

‘School of Rock’ (2003)

It had "throwaway hack-job" written all over it: Jack Black as a fake substitute teacher who winds up starting a rock band with a gaggle of elementary schoolers. But Linklater, screenwriter Mike White, and Black himself turn this otherwise disposable idea into an extended riff on the joys of acting/rocking out. It's hilarious, and Black is beyond perfect as the wannabe-rock-god and overgrown-child who finds the perfect audience in these tykes. For all the cuteness, this film embodies rock and roll – it's all about embracing your inner weirdo and asserting yourself in a world of chaos and uncertainty. And as with his best films, Linklater doesn't try to illustrate profundity; he lets it come to him. Also: Joan Cusack, as the school's initially uptight principal, brings so much humanity to such a boilerplate part that she virtually becomes the second lead.

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2

‘Before Sunset’ (2004)

The sheer greatness of this second installment of the Jesse and Celine Saga sneaks up on you. The young lovers of Before Sunrise find each other again, many years later. They spend a day wandering the streets of Paris and talking about life before Jesse, now an author, has to catch a plane back to America. But this time, their back-and-forth has the stirrings of wisdom: Though still young, these people have now lived through regret and disappointment – even as they've achieved some of their most hoped-for dreams. It's probably the ideal distillation of Linklater's fascination with philosophical rambling, as well as a perfect example of his generosity as a director, working with Delpy and Hawke to create one of the most compelling romantic journeys in all of cinema.

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1

‘Dazed and Confused’ (1993)

How hilarious was it that Linklater's teen-movie masterpiece was marketed primarily as a stoner comedy when it first opened? ("See it with a bud!" the ads blared.) That’s not a completely off-the-mark description, exactly, but it's kind of like calling Citizen Kane a movie about a snowglobe. In this portrait of the last day of high school in an Austin suburb in 1976, Linklater lays out an entire ecosystem of adolescence: Love, drugs, bullies, acceptance, not to mention the sense of promise and overall uncertainty that the future holds for these kids on the cusp of the Reagan era. Plus it contains so many great actors, caught right before they hit it big: Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, Renee Zellweger, and, of course, Matthew McConaughey as Wooderson, both the saddest and funniest one of all — a good-old-boy grown-up who's never stopped macking on high school chicks. (Because Wooderson's glory days are clearly behind him…and because the ladies still pick up what he's putting down. All right, all right, all right!) It's a great American film, but it's also fleet, charming, funny, and affectionate — the sort of movie that contains multitudes. You could disappear into it for weeks on end.