There are a few signature names thrown around when describing the emergence of American independent film. Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith – all responsible for iconic films that forever redefined not only what movies can be about, but how they can be made. Pertaining to this movement, Richard Linklater deserves recognition as much as anyone. The man is responsible for more bold, daring experiments that most directors could ever hope to create.
The best Linklater films are documents of a time. Whether now or then, these movies represent a career fitting for a time capsule. Often equipped with similar characters discussing similar themes of identity, existentialism, philosophy, and corporate injustice, Linklater’s films are remarkable testaments that continue to impress. He’s one of my favorite American filmmakers, one that will always, thankfully, challenge me.
We hear stories. Tales of UFOs, JFK’s assassination, lucid dreams, and so on. We watch people. People who run over their mother with their car, then wait patiently for the police to arrive. People who complain about The Man, the fallacy of corporate America, and on and on. And what do these collective vignettes amount to? A lasting imprint of a very specific time and place. A representation of us, back then. A
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Linklater has said his only hope for Dazed and Confused is that, years from now, audiences might confuse it for a film made in the ‘70s. Instead of watching a movie about 1976 made in 1993, Linklater wants Dazed and Confused to be an authentic representation of the time it depicts. Well, it’s been two decades, and I can confidently assert that Linklater is well on his way to achieving his goal. Dazed and Confused simply feels real. Through costume, music, and dialogue, sure, but for me, the strength of the film is in its raw and talented cast. Everyone in the vast ensemble is on point, with the notable scene-stealer being Matthew McConaughey, who, with virtually no acting experience, helped define a generation with endlessly witty quips. You don’t just watch Dazed and Confused, you experience it. A
Before Sunrise (1995)
Such is the story of Jesse and Celine, the impossibly charismatic couple featured in Before Sunrise. Jesse and Celine (played with perfect chemistry by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) talk about nothing, but, in effect, talk about everything. There’s a stream of consciousness to their dialogue that evolves as organically as real life. The result is one of the finest, most sincere encapsulations of love I’ve ever witnessed on screen. I love falling into their world. A
This is a sentiment shared by one of the angsty characters early in subUrbia, and it’s the general attitude highlighted throughout the film. The film is essentially 24 hours in the life of a handful of friends stuck in suburban hell. They hate where they live for various reasons, and are not hesitant to preach as to why. Spending most of their time chilling behind a convenience store, these friends bitch and moan and plead for a cause. A cause that can spring them from this dread, and cast them into the real world.
If I’ve made subUrbia sound like a whining pity party of somewhat-privilege kids, don’t worry, it’s not. Well, at least not to those who value it. In many respects, the film is an angrier Dazed and Confused. Whereas the kids in Dazed are shown with their lives ahead of them, the people of subUrbia have met life head on, and are disheartened by the outcome. The film is by far the angriest feature Linklater has ever made, and I seriously dig its anguish. A-
The Newton Boys (1998)
The movie tells the true story of the Newton Gang, a band of brothers who exercised their irritation with the system by robbing banks. Despite the talented cast (including McConaughey, Hawke, Skeet Ulrich and Vincent D’Onofrio), The Newton Boys suffers from having a predictable plot that grows rather dull. It’s a worthy effort (especially as Linklater’s first period piece), but containing nothing very lasting. B-
Waking Life (2001)
Rather famously, Waking Life was filmed with cheap digital cameras, edited on modest computers, then tediously “rotoscoped” in post production. So, Linklater shot the movie as normal, then spent months animating it, giving the film an appropriate fever dream quality. I’ve often heard how people grow frustrated by Waking Life because they get lost trying to follow it. But I’ve always thought that was kind of the point. A-
Tape is such a film. Set entirely in the confines of a shitty motel room, Tape begins with Vince (Hawke, arguably never better) chugging beer feverishly. Jon (Robert Sean Leonard) arrives and we gather quickly that they are old buddies who haven’t seen each other in a long time. But something about Vince is off. There’s an eagerness in his voice, an aggression to his personality. He has an agenda, and we desperately await its reveal. Vince soon brings Amy (Uma Thurman) into the conversation, much to Jon’s dismay. Amy is the girl they both dated in high school, and Vince wants to know why Jon’s relationship with her ended so abruptly. After a while, Amy arrives and, well, hell, what’s the fun in ruining more?
Linklater and the actors rehearsed Tape for three weeks before shooting for six days on a small soundstage in New York City. Because Linklater was one of the first filmmakers to wholly embrace digital technology, the project was swift, but challenging. I respect the hell out of the way Tape was made, but the beauty of this film is in the evolution of its story. There are no tricks or gimmicks, just enthralling writing that always keeps us on edge. When we think we’ve figured it out, there are always more layers to unfold. A
School of Rock (2003)
Before Sunset (2004)
Nine years after Jesse and Celine’s first meeting, the two reunite in Paris and spend 80 minutes falling back in love. But Before Sunset is far from a fairy tale. Jesse and Celine have moved on, lived their separate lives, launched careers, had kids, found life partners. But what we slowly learn is that they’ve always had this respective itch for each other. This teasing question of “What if?” What if they met back in Vienna like they promised? What if they ran into one another when both living in New York City? What if Celine showed up to Jesse’s book signing in Paris?
What if. A+
Bad News Bears (2005)
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Fast Food Nation (2006)
Still, a pair of notable cameos help temporarily save the film from itself. One is Ethan Hawke, showing up to wax philosophic (as Linklater’s characters often do) about the corruptibility of The Machine. The other is Bruce Willis, who steals the film with seven minutes of screen time and helps puts the entire movie into perspective. B-
Me and Orson Welles (2008)
Why then, does the movie spend so much time with a young kid (played somewhat aimlessly by Zac Efron) looking to make an impression on Welles? Sure, I get it: the movie is indeed called Me and Orson Welles, but the most compelling part of this film is Welles’ character. I could frankly do without the rest. B-
Matthew McConaughey has been killing it these past few years, to the point where it is getting difficult to pick a favorite role of his. Bernie stands out because literally every single thing that comes out of his mouth is utterly priceless. It’s written impeccably, and delivered to excellence. And he’s only one part of what makes this movie so worthy. B+
Before Midnight (2013)
How can Linklater, Hawke and Delpy think they have more to add to this story? How can they create something equally as unique as the first two, without the risk of damaging a movie franchise so beautifully unique? But then I got to thinking: they were brave and smart enough to do it before, and perhaps they’ve done it again.
I’m writing this brief synopsis mere hours after seeing the film (my full review can be read here) and all I’m willing to reveal at this point is that, yes, they’ve done it again. They’ve risked everything and created something profound. Again. A
Boyhood hasn’t been released yet, but it deserves to be talked about as much as any film Linklater has already made. In 2002, Linklater began filming a movie about a boy growing up. Every year since then, he spends a few consecutive weeks assembling a small crew and filming more of his story. Unknown actor Ellar Salmon is the boy in question, with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette playing his parents. Same actors, only they are aging in real time. Linklater has said his film will document the boy from age six to age 18. Twelve years. In real time. Filming is almost complete, and I can hardly wait to see how the final film turns out.
The audaciousness to even consider making Boyhood is exactly why I respect Linklater as much as I do. Without him, American film simply wouldn’t be what it is.
Dazed and Confused
A Scanner Darkly
The Newton Boys
Fast Food Nation
Me and Orson Welles
School of Rock
Bad News Bears
Just Plain Bad