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These are Richard Linklater’s Best Films

Richard Linklater has been making movies about his version of life in the suburbs since the 1990s, perfectly encapsulating the ennui of Generation X in Dazed and Confused, Slackers, and the Before trilogy. Interestingly, Linklater is technically a Boomer, and yet dissects contemporary society in ways which Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z have adored. He grew up in Houston and is a self-taught filmmaker with an eye for making the ordinary extraordinary.

After dropping out of Sam Houston State University, Linklater moved to Austin, Texas, started a film club, and set out to make a feature film. His first, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, was filmed in 1988 and didn’t garner much attention. His second full-length feature film was Slacker, an aimless and philosophical flick about cynical young people, and it is here that Linklater became the darling of Austin at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, introducing the term ‘slacker’ into to pop culture.

Slacker trailer/YouTube
Orion Classics

Since that time, Linklater has found mainstream success making some of the most beloved and thought-provoking films of the last three decades. This year, Linklater will be releasing Apollo 10 ½, which is set in Houston in the summer of 1969. Written, directed, and produced by the iconoclast, the film is another of his to be animated with rotoscoping, and is billed as a coming-of-age story centered around the Apollo 11 moon landing, and stars Zachary Levi and Jack Black.

Whether he’s examining life in suburbia, two college kids meeting on a train, an unorthodox music teacher, or following one boy through his life for a decade – one thing is certain, Richard Linklater always makes us think about our lives and our place in society. Below are his 10 best films, ranked.

10 Everybody Wants Some!!

Paramount Pictures

In the 2016 film, Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater explores familiar territory – the lives of largely unsupervised teenagers. The film is set in the fall of 1980 in Texas and centers on a group of former high school baseball players now in college and trying to make the team. The only thing these teens like more than baseball is women, and the group regularly cruises the campus in a car looking for women. Fun fact, this film is a continuation of Boyhood. It picks up right where that film leaves off, with a young man moving into his college dorm and meeting his new roommates as well as a girl; however, where Boyhood was often ruminative and poetic, this film is a delightful, ribald mess of fun.

Related: Everybody Wants Some Review: This 80s Party is a Blast

9 Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fast Food Nation, released in 2006, is based on the book by Eric Schlosser that originally appeared as a series of articles in Rolling Stone. Starring Greg Kinnear, Bruce Willis, and Wilmer Valderrama, it details the story of fast-food marketing executive Don Anderson, who invented the burger called The Big One. On a trip to visit the meat supplier in Colorado, Anderson discovers that everything he thought he knew about the production of fast-food hamburgers is wrong. This film also features the cast of Linklater’s 2014 opus, Boyhood, all of whom would have been smack in the middle of filming a portion of that movie at the time – Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, and Marco Perella. Fast Food Nation fits in with the often rambling and aimless nature of Linklater’s films, but is much more urgently political and economic, utilizing the non-fiction source material to create a meticulous, though not extremely entertaining, takedown of the food industry.

8 A Scanner Darkly

Warner Independent Pictures

A Scanner Darkly is a 2006 film based on the novel from the prolific author Philip K. Dick, and probes the fascinating idea that a new drug could cause people to lose their identity. In this animated picture (which utilized rotoscoping, or filming the actual actors and then painting over the footage to dreamlike effect), Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. star as Keanu Reeves’ fellow drug users. Reeves plays undercover cop Bob Arctor, who gets hooked on the drug Substance D, which damages the brains of the people who ingest it. Reeves is brilliant as the ethically confused, tortured soul who begins to lose his identity in the face of larger structures and institutions which surround him. It is generally accepted that Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly as a thinly-veiled look at his own drug use in the 1970s and how it destroyed him, and Linklater’s film captures the desperate and destructive aspects of the novel perfectly.

7 SubUrbia

Sony Pictures Releasing

SubUrbia hit theaters in 1996 and probes the subject Richard Linklater returns to again and again – the suburban experience of American teenagers. Giovanni Ribisi, Parker Posey, and Steve Zahn star as cynical teens hanging out in parking lots discussing what they might want to do with their lives if they ever get out of the suburbs. Their worlds are shaken when a former classmate (and now pop star) appears. Linklater’s quiet and sad meditation on Generation X is one of his most subdued, but beautifully captures the restlessness of youth.

6 Waking Life

waking life
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Waking Life was released in 2001, and like many Richard Linklater films, stars Ethan Hawke. Linklater’s daughter Lorelei also appears in the animated film about the existential meaning of one man’s dreams and how they relate to his Waking Life. The movie took just three weeks to shoot, but another 15 months to animate. The film raises big questions about the nature of reality, the purpose of political action, the function of art, and much more, but doesn’t exactly answer them, preferring to instead let viewers discover their own truths. The film also features characters from other Linklater films, including Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from the Before trilogy.

5 Slacker

Orion Classics

Slacker is not just classic Richard Linklater, it’s classic American cinema, being one of the first films to really kickstart the American independent cinema movement in the ’90s. The 1991 film mines the playground Linklater knows well – the alternative culture scene in Austin, Texas. The movie follows, again, in classic Linklater fashion, a day in the life of a group of Austinites, from the oddballs to the outcasts to the social misfits. The film is incredibly unique, paying homage to Bunuel’s Phantom of Liberty by following one character’s story for a brief amount of time until she interacts with a different character, at which point the film follows them. None of the characters of Slacker have traditional names; instead, they are called Roadkill, Running Late, Should Have Stayed at Bus Station, Espresso Czar, and so on, reflecting the interconnected and iconoclastic lives of twenty-somethings who are still trying to find their identity.

4 School of Rock

School of Rock trailer/YouTube
School of Rock trailer/YouTube

School of Rock features Jack Black as Dewey Finn, a guitarist who had been kicked out of his band. To make ends meet, he takes a job as a music teacher at an elementary school where, over the course of the story, he turns the rag-tag band of students into a rock band. Through his students, Finn beats his depression and finds a sense of purpose again. School of Rock is undoubtedly Richard Linklater’s most mainstream film, and probably the only one the entire family would enjoy. It’s delightful and inspiring without being the kind of sentimental garbage the director shies away from so intensely. Linklater also cast Black, who was perennially the sidekick/supporting actor throughout his career, as the lead in the film, and Black wholly delivered, launching his career to true stardom.

Related: #Jack Black Trends After Inspirational School of Rock Scene Goes Viral

3 Dazed and Confused

Teenagers hang out in Dazed and Confused
Gramercy Pictures

“Alright, alright, alright.” No list of Richard Linklater’s best films would be complete without this ode to the very groovy (and stoned) high school culture of Texas. Dazed and Confused, like most of Linklater’s films, takes a very loose but specific look at the last day of high school in 1976. The 1993 film launched the career of University of Texas at Austin alumni Matthew McConaughey (along with Ben Affleck and Renee Zelwegger). He played Wooderson, who graduated from high school before the film takes place, but just can’t move on; he, and the film, are perfect metaphors for nostalgia. McConaughey famously delivered the line, “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.” When Dazed and Confused debuted in cinemas, it was a certified bomb, bringing in only $2 million more than it cost to make the film. However, in the ensuing decades, the movie has become a cult classic and many of its lines have become part of our pop culture lexicon.

2 Boyhood

Boyhood trailer/YouTube
Boyhood trailer/YouTube

In Boyhood, Richard Linklater and his cast (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Ellar Coltrane) undertook an epic cinematic project the likes of which mainstream Hollywood had never seen before and hasn’t seen since (though Linklater is now trying). Coltrane plays Mason and the story is told through his eyes over 12 years of his life. The cast and crew reunited each year for 12 years to tell the next part of the story until it was finally completed and released in 2014. The film is both a nostalgic look at the past and a hopeful ode to the future, which is classic Linklater. It’s one of the most detailed, intimate character studies ever made.

1 The Before Trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight)

Before Sunset
Warner Independent Pictures

In 1995, audiences were charmed by a small, very personal look at two college-aged strangers who meet on an overnight train traveling from Budapest to Vienna. The American man, Jesse, was played by Ethan Hawke. The French woman, Celine was played by Julie Delpy. The two twenty-somethings had just that one night to get to know each other before Jesse boarded his plane home to the U.S. The movie was Before Sunrise, and it redefined the romantic film for American audiences, proving that it didn’t have to succumb to tired tropes and mushy fluff.

Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy reprised their roles as writer/director and stars with two subsequent films over the next two decades, with 2004’s Before Sunset and 2013’s Before Midnight following the pair as they age separately and together in a strange, beautiful relationship which takes them to middle-age. Linklater deftly handled the transitions in the lives of his characters through the three movies, which form a perfect trilogy (which is a relief, considering a fourth film won’t be happening). Altogether, they present a story of love that has ebbed and flowed over the decades with the power of a fleeting connection you just can’t let go of.

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