American director Richard Linklater has established himself as one of the great contemporary directors with his distinctive narrative and cinematic styles, clearly observable in some of his fantastic films like Waking Life and Boyhood. Adopting a humanist perspective, his approach to filmmaking works in beautiful synchronicity with the themes that he chooses to explore, ranging from ordinary subjects like suburban culture to eternal mysteries like time.
Speaking about his artistic vision, Linklater once explained, “It’s like this big, difficult puzzle. And life just never felt that way to me. It kind of unfolds in a much more straightforward way that kind of makes sense later. I’m always trying to depict how the mind works, or how time flows.”
Born in Texas, Linklater stayed true to his roots and explored the spirit of the state in many of his films. His filmography is very much influenced by his early experiences. He dropped out of university to work on an offshore oil rig where he spent his time reading. He developed an interest in the world of cinema only when he returned to land. Investing his savings in a Super-8 camera and editing equipment, he moved to Austin, Texas to be a filmmaker.
On his 60th birthday, we revisit some of Richard Linklater’s best films as a celebration of a life dedicated to filmmaking.
Richard Linklater’s 10 best films:
10. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
Often called the “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater’s 2016 film is set in the 1980s and follows the adventures of a successful college baseball team as they explore a special kind of adulthood, one that is free of responsibilities. The narrative structure is fluid as the film flows from one scene to the next and celebrates hedonistic freedom.
A magical “coming-of-age” film, Everybody Wants Some!! evokes a deep nostalgia for lost youth and gives its hilarious comedy an undertone of melancholia. Speaking about the film, Linklater said, “Yeah, well it’s a continuation of Boyhood in a strange way but, time-wise and setting, it’s a sequel to Dazed. Spiritually, it’s as much a continuation of Boyhood – it’s very different, though. Everybody Wants Some!! is like a different part of me; the carousing athlete that I was.”
9. Bernie (2012)
This 2011 black comedy is a rare example of an ironic work that is devoid of any semblance of cynicism. Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black) is a local mortician of a rural town in Texas. He is a beloved resident who gets involved in a typically postmodern tale of homicide and ambiguity. The film is a philosophical investigation masquerading as a humorous character study.
Quirky and threatening at the same time, Jack Black delivers a memorable performance as a charmingly murderous mortician. Linklater’s 2012 film is actually based on true events. Bernie Tiede is a real person who was released from prison. Linklater worked with him for the film, saying, “My whole point in the movie was this: Can the nicest guy in the world actually be capable (of murder)?”
He continued: “The answer is yes. So anybody who’s too sure of their own behaviour … given the wrong relationship, who knows what anyone’s capable of?”
8. Tape (2001)
Linklater’s 2001 drama is a tense story, witty and sarcastic, that features two equally unlikeable guys, Vin (played by Ethan Hawke) and Jon (Robert Sean Leonard), in a motel room as they unravel past misdeeds. Richard Linklater manages to construct a beautifully unsettling microcosm of unparalleled claustrophobia and anxiety.
Shot on digital video in order to stay faithful to the intimacy of the script, Linklater has an unmistakable flair for mise-en-scene and editing. To add to the experience, the film unfolds in real-time, providing no relief to the viewer who cannot get out but that is how any dialectical determination should be. Like many of Linklater’s other films, Tape is highly experimental and is a unique addition to his impressive filmography.
7. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Based on celebrated sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick’s eponymous 1977 novel, Richard Linklater’s 2006 effort uses rotoscoping techniques to create a truly special world that exists somewhere between euphoria and paranoia. The psychedelic visuals work perfectly to blur the distinctions between fantasy and reality, reducing everything to the status of phantoms and hallucinations.
Linklater presents a powerful examination of the meaning of identity, truth and any other epistemological prejudices one might have. The film, which explores issues like state surveillance and substance abuse, induces interminable anxiety that never overwhelms the audience but neither does it go away.
In a 2006 interview, Linklater commented, “Technically, this is a science fiction movie but there is only one element in the whole movie that is science fiction and that’s the scramble suit–which is really more of a metaphor on identity.”
He added, “As the movie takes place in the post-9/11 world, you know, where we had John Ashcroft and guys like that kind of clamping down security, it was amazing how quick it took on that tone of government control.”
6. School of Rock (2003)
More than anything, Linklater’s 2003 subversive effort is worth watching for Jack Black’s memorable performance as Dewey Finn, a masterful musician with an undying passion for rock and roll music. He is also extremely unemployable due to his irreverent attitude. A wannabe Rockstar with an attitude problem? Go figure!
Due to an unexpected turn of events, he finds himself as a substitute teacher at one of New York’s finest schools. School of Rock challenges institutional dogmatism and attacks that inherent elitism by turning future doctors and lawyers into tiny rock and roll legends.
Although it wasn’t a critical success, Linklater considered it a learning experience that he had fun with, “School of Rock was a movie the industry brought to me, and I saw something in it and risked that failure.
“I enjoyed it and grew from the experience. If that had been my second or third film I would have been doomed. Some people have a hit and want to do something like that and it’s their destiny.”
5. Slacker (1991)
Slacker, Linklater’s second film, is a fascinating observation of an assortment of weird characters, ranging from aspiring artists and philosophers to incompetent criminals and crazy conspiracy theorists. Richard Linklater presents us with a surreal world that is saturated with ideas but is crippled by inaction.
Linklater conducts an objective analysis of the consequences of unabashed nihilism, something that only results in disillusionment and malaise. Slacker is fiercely original and funny and the absence of a linear narrative only strengthens the concepts that Linklater appears to be exploring.
“The idea of Slacker came to me at about 2 in the morning, on a long drive,” Linklater explained. “The narrative structure hit me in one shot — why can’t you tell a story moving from one character to the next? I was 23, in love with cinema, and its possibilities.”
4. Waking Life (2001)
Far more experimental than A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life jumps from one meaningful question to the other without letting the gravity of its words take effect. Structured like a dream and featuring a similar rotoscoping animation, this is Linklater’s misunderstood masterpiece. It starts all sorts of conversations but never really concludes any.
By the end of this psychedelic experience, we cannot help but appreciate the mesmerising environment of confusion that Linklater constructs. Deeply philosophical in nature, Waking Life will always be proof of Richard Linklater’s unwavering originality.
“Like everything I do, it came from real life. Believe it or not, a movie that’s so unreal takes all its cues from personal experience,” Linklater commented. “That really happened to me, it was a really formative lucid dream, like in the movie, that series of false awakenings. It seemed to go on for weeks and weeks, and got creepy near the end.”
3. Dazed and Confused (1993)
One of the most memorable films of the 1990s, Dazed and Confused is set in 1976 and is a far superior exploration of the hedonistic irreverence of youth than his 2016 film, Everybody Wants Some!!. It is an art house film that pretends to be a drug-addled comedy in order to slip into mainstream consciousness.
Watching Dazed and Confused is a liberating experience because it does not tremble in the apprehension of the responsibilities of the future. Rather, it is a spectacular altar on which the worries of the future are sacrificed for the pleasure of the present.
Linklater elaborated on what the film was supposed to be, “I thought the 1970s sucked. Dazed was supposed to be an anti-nostalgic movie. But it’s like trying to make an anti-war movie – just by depicting it, you make it look fun.”
He added, “I wanted to do a realistic teen movie – most of them had too much drama and plot but teenage life is more like you’re looking for the party, looking for something cool, the endless pursuit of something you never find, and even if you do, you never quite appreciate it.”
2. Boyhood (2014)
Boyhood is Linklater’s very own epic, there is no doubt about it. The fact that it was filmed over a period of 12 years with the same cast only contributes to the monumental ethos of the mundane that Linklater captures so brilliantly. Boyhood is a literal “coming-of-age” film but it is so much more than that. We are presented with the human experience of growing up in an honest and engaging way.
Films often indulge in imparting platitudes and sermonize their audience with ideological affinities but Boyhood is truly unique because it makes us feel like the film itself is trying to figure things out along the way, learning and growing. Richard Linklater’s 2014 masterpiece was critically acclaimed as well as a commercial success, winning multiple BAFTA Awards and Critic’s Choice Awards. Patricia Arquette even won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Linklater reflected, “[Boyhood] goes beyond that. With every film, you’re excising a story that you’ve been obsessed with. This is still revealing itself to me. I don’t have any answers now.
Adding: “But I did have a wonderful deepening of everything about life: growing up, parenting. Every movie, you’re getting a degree in whatever that subject is. This couldn’t be more life-affirming. It was a great way to spend 12 years.”
1. Before Trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013)
His most celebrated work(s), Linklater’s critically acclaimed trilogy is the culmination of his career-long experiments with the concept of cinematic time. The three films, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), chronicle the evolution of Celine (played by Julie Delpy) and Jesse’s (played by Ethan Hawke) relationship.
“Jesse and Celine are constructs,” Linklater said while speaking about the main characters of the trilogy. “They’re not Ethan (Hawke) and Julie (Delpy), and they’re not me. They’re these written parallel worlds, saying something about different phases of life, or the times we’re living in, or just what it’s like to be a person, how you physically change, how you mentally change, how you’re still the same person but kind of not.”
Extremely intimate in nature, the films put together a realistic portrayal of a relationship, from the magical first encounter to the disillusionment of middle-aged romance. Linklater masterfully uses the passage of time to shine a light on the manifestation of entropic forces which slowly dismantle grand ideas like love and replace them with the heartbreak of ordinary life.