Richard Linklater's Top 10 Movies
Richard Linklater’s filmmaking career can be defined in many ways as a champion of the American independent cinema movement, as a chameleon of the film industry navigating diverse project typologies, and as a unique self-taught storyteller. More than anything, however, Linklater’s filmography is best studied through the passage of time. Often embedded with feelings of nostalgia and roots of his Texas childhood experiences, his films express distinct connections between time and the human condition. Within his directorial style, we are often greeted with narratives taking place over the course of a single day that focus on human interactions and conversations rather than traditional plot structures. Linklater’s ability to translate the reality of humanity through unconventional yet relatable filmmaking techniques has positioned himself in a way that is both subversive to and in harmony with Hollywood. I would describe the director as all of the following: poetic, authentic, philosophical, commercial, observational, experimental, and the understanding that these descriptions can sometimes contradict one another is to understand who Richard Linklater is as a filmmaker. He is established as someone who breaks the rules in a way that makes sense. By exploring human existence through observation, Linklater defies many standard Hollywood portrayals of human beings and has forged his own path in filmmaking. Each of his films can be studied under this lens of time and humanity, but the scope of his filmography as its own crafted story is where the genuine appreciation for his work begins. And with that, here are the top 10 films of Richard Linklater’s career.
#10. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
As the first entry into my top 10, A Scanner Darkly is a 2006 film based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name. The film’s rotoscoping technique blurs the lines between fantasy and reality and uses the visual technique to induce a state of anxiety and paranoia in the audience. Technically a sci-fi film, the story tackles truth and identity in several truly unconventional methods to relative success. With Keanu Reeves at the helm, the film is certainly an underrated entry in his filmography, although it does not reach the level of storytelling success as another rotoscoped film higher on this list.
#9. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
Another film with pseudo-narrative connections to an entrant ranked on the list, the 2016 film Everybody Wants Some!! works in harmony with Dazed and Confused for its coming-of-age nature, this time a continuation of the high school format now moving into college. With the fluid, free-flowing quality of his narratives mastered at this point in his career, the film moves through time in a way that simultaneously evokes feelings of nostalgia, sadness, and comedy by weaving through the young adulthood experiences of a college baseball team.
#8. Slacker (1990)
No list of Linklater’s work is complete without mention of his second official feature film, 1991's Slacker. The film is the epitome of the director’s style and explorations as a filmmaker by following a range of characters that span from conspiracy theorists to incompetent criminals to disillusioned philosophers. Nothing appears to connect these people outside of pure coincidence of physical adjacency and the disregard for plot works to an incredible degree of success in terms of comedy and originality. In a world saturated with thoughts, Slacker gives us an early glimpse into what makes Richard Linklater tick.
#7. School of Rock (2003)
At number 7 stands the 2003 commercial comedy, School of Rock. Part of what makes Linklater’s career so fascinating to follow is his uncanny ability to shift from micro-budget indie favorites to mainstream commercial box office hits. School of Rock follows Jack Black who finds himself teaching rock and roll to a group of private school elementary-age students. Irreverent and comedic in the best way possible, Jack Black is in his core element with a performance that strengthens a heart-warming story with his passion for music. The children back up our Rockstar protagonist in a movie that is in equal part entertaining and inventive.
#6. Tape (2001)
Returning to the independent and experimental, Tape is perhaps the most unique entry to Linklater’s filmography. The 2001 film features nothing more than Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman talking in a hotel room for 86 minutes. Unfolding in real-time to force the audience into the story, what the film lacks in excess it makes up for in unsettling performances. Truly a film that makes the most out of its little resources, the three performers prove that a camera, an empty room, and an anxiety-inducing script are all that is needed to make the viewer experience extreme claustrophobia by the end of the film's runtime.
#5. Dazed and Confused (1993)
One film that is a classic staple of Richard Linklater’s filmography is the 1993 comedy, Dazed and Confused. Set in the 1970s the story takes place on the last day of school following the stormy relationships between rising high seniors and incoming freshmen. In a way that Everybody Wants Some!! fails to capture, the film oozes nostalgia and surpasses its peer “stoner comedies” by taking the audience on a journey with the characters as they navigate a day in the life filled with drugs, initiation rites, and parties. The film is liberating in its ability to stray from conventional drama and plot in place of the endless search for “cool teen spirit.” As the film suggests, “just keep livin’, L-I-V-I-N” and that is exactly what the audience is invited to do.
#4. Boyhood (2014)
Few films in the history of cinema explore the passage of time in quite the way Boyhood does. That’s because the film began filming in 2002, slowly recording the growth of its characters as the actors themselves changed and evolved over the years. Although this technique is certainly the film’s unique calling card, the honest substance of the script is truly what draws you into what is a career-defining monumental epic. Using the passage of time as the filmmaking technique itself personifies the coming-of-age experience in a brilliant and engaging manner while the characters learn about the world in real-time, their growth unfolding on-screen in front of you. Boyhood is truly a masterpiece in authentic filmmaking and an unforgettable viewing experience.
#3. Before Sunset (2004)
Reaching the top 3, we are introduced to the second installment in Linklater’s masterful Before Trilogy. The 2004 film captures the essence of its original counterpart by resuming the lives of Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) nine years after they met on a train and spent a single night together. The fact that the films themselves were separated by the same time frame contributes to the ever-present chronicling of time that Linklater has employed throughout his career, and no exploration is more potent and seamless than the transition from Before Sunrise to Before Sunset. The characters interact in a way that recalls the spirit of their original encounter, but they have gained a sense of maturity in the last decade hardened by the experiences of life and missing a bit of romanticism from the past. Linklater is able to convey the toll that time has taken on his characters while still allowing their story to develop in a way that recalls the magic of Vienna.
#2. Waking Life (2001)
At number 2 is the 2001 animated experiment, Waking Life. The only film that interrupts the Before Trilogy’s success in Linklater’s filmography is this psychedelic and philosophical masterpiece that moves through space and time in a parallel dream world, asking questions it never fully attempts to answer. The form and structure of the film are shaped like a dream in a verbally and visually innovative cinematic art of the highest order. The film never quite reaches any conclusion about its meanderings, but that is exactly the point. The narrative defies logic, and the use of the film medium has never been more original to provide a hypnotic experience of grade A mind-bending quality. Linklater consistently delves into mesmerizing dialogue, but nothing quite touches Waking Life.
#1. Before Sunrise (1995)
Taking the top spot in my personal Top 10 for Richard Linklater’s filmography is none other than Before Sunrise. Although arguments can be made for the second and third installments, the 1995 original in his famed romantic trilogy is the best and most important film of his career. The idealism and romanticism provide unparalleled moments of cinematic expression that culminate in everything Linklater has explored in his career: single-day narrative structures, human authenticity, and conversation-driven plots and relationships. Although the sequels provide quality storytelling in their unique ways, the original meeting of Jesse and Celine on the train holds up as one of the most critical moments in the romance genre of cinema. Allowing the audience to watch a pair of strangers fall in love in real time is the greatest and most heartfelt achievement in the director’s career. Something about the serendipity of the moment and the belief in fate has instilled romantic inspiration into our hearts and transports our hopes and dreams to the streets of Europe. Before Sunrise is the quietest magnum opus you will encounter, but it is the beating heart of a filmmaker’s illustrious career.