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Vadim Rizov

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Ranked: The Films of Richard Linklater

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From “Slacker” to “Tape,” the first decade of Richard Linklater’s career conjured the easy narrative of a director primarily interested in capturing the extremely plausible interactions of Generation X’ers talking out their values in a variety of locales and narratives. His subsequent career’s been harder to pigeonhole, but this (inevitably subjective) annotated ranking of his 17 features to date is based on the premise that at ⅔ of his work has the always interesting personality of a major director in full force.

There may be no signature “Linklater shot” — no obvious preference for symmetrical tableaux or repeated camera movements — but there’s a consistent style. Though he doesn’t avoid close-ups, shots of people’s faces (both on moving bodies or talking intently in repose) de-emphasize a strong editorial point-of-view from unusual or emphatic angles. Characters aren’t restricted behind symbolic window/prison bars or viewed from claustrophobic, high-up surveillance camera angles but move freely through largely open and unconstrained spaces. Enough time is allowed those onscreen to hang themselves by their own conversational rope, but even more time given to reveal themselves as interesting people. At their most uplifting, Linklater films can seem like a credible demonstration of humanity at its most admirably and unselfishly individualistic.

Ground rules: short films are omitted, as are his allegedly 240-minute 1991 montage of countdown reels “Heads I Win/Tails You Lose” and the rejected HBO pilot “$5.15/hr,” which I’ve actually seen but so long ago that I can’t recall it in useful detail.

17. “Tape” (2001)

Linklater had several stated ambitions for this adaptation of a very bad Stephen Belber play: the most compelling was “to rehearse the hell out of a movie and then capture it as it’s happening, almost like a documentary. So this was a chance to exercise that.” Taking advantage of the then-novel DV technology’s mobility, he dispensed with carefully planned framing in favor of quickly inventing shots from cramped motel room angles, but no amount of invention can transcend bad theater.

A ne’er-do-well 28-year-old pot dealer with violent tendencies (Ethan Hawke) reunites with his preppy high school bud, now an up-and-coming film director (Robert Sean Leonard). The pair spend the first 20 minutes dating the film to the ’90s by rehashing, in period-familiar terms, the face-off between corrupted upward artistic aspirations and openly nihilistic slackerdom: Leonard blathers about indie film and idealism, Hawke defensively asserts his right to relentlessly act like a total jerk. Then the play shifts into its real topic: whether Leonard raped Hawke’s ex-girlfriend after the two broke up.

Cyclical dialogue and returned-to points of dispute are supposed to illustrate the slippery nature of truth and shared memory, but it’s overheated and vacuous. Hawke tries very hard to be credibly unnerving and manic, Leonard glowers with the rage of a charmless prep unused to more than two minutes’ discomfort, and late-arriving third wheel Uma Thurman helps nothing. The only upside, Linklater noted in 2004, was that his first real-time movie may have “emboldened” him to attempt “Before Sunrise.”

16. “Inning By Inning: A Portrait of a Coach” (2008)

This documentary labor of love was whittled down from 600 hours of footage over the course of a year-and-a-half. The subject is Augie Garrido, who’s accumulated more wins than any coach in NCAA Division I baseball history; Linklater’s pals with him and gives the great man a soft-focus hagiographic overview. Friends and family recount their history with/rhapsodize about the man, a talking heads history intercut with Garrido’s in-practice philosophizing.

At a certain point, coaching requires serious technical minutiae that may be incomprehensible to laymen. There are no such detailed moments here (odd considering ESPN, which originally aired the film, has presumably an ideal target audience primed to appreciate such things). Instead, Garrido waxes about life, character, victory and so on, proving inspirational sports movies don’t graft on pre-existing sentimentality so much as reflect the reality of vaporous temporizing in collegiate and professional athletics. The gentle torpor is occasionally interrupted by profane, umpire-and-player-berating rants, which have been compiled into a YouTube mainstay. If you’re into almost-comical coach verbal beatdowns, you might as well view them out of context.

15. “Bad News Bears” (2005)

The original “family” classic was a hilariously toxic, alcohol-fueled blast against suburban mediocrity, ingrained racism and just about everything else on the mid-70s social table. This remake began began with the casting of Billy Bob Thornton, who then approved Linklater, and it feels very much like a vanity project aimed at transplanting Thornton’s “Bad Santa” to a PG-13 milieu, an impossible assignment half-assedly attempted. Some of the film’s updated details ring true: the original kids were mostly left for dead by indifferent parents, while here they’re often under the oppressive gaze of hovering helicopter parents. Misanthropic fun ends early, and there’s some unusually sticky sentimentality in the third act. Linklater was peppy talking about the film both during and after production, but it often feels uncharacteristically bland, with a hacky “family comedy” score to round it off.

14. “SubUrbia” (1997)

“When I was making ‘SubUrbia,’ I thought to myself, ‘This is the “Dazed” sequel that I would never make,’” Linklater said in 2001. The cast includes two “Dazed” members: the ever-bitchy Parker Posey (transcending her material, as often required to) and Nicky Katt. In “Dazed,” it’s Katt who famously announces he only showed up at a party to “do two things: kick some ass and drink some beer,” before ominously noting “looks like we’re almost out of beer.”

In “SubUrbia,” Katt acts more or less as the stand-in for playwright Eric Bogosian: sharp, profane, mercilessly accurate in deflating others’ pretensions. (Just to balance all this perceptiveness out, it turns out his character’s not just symbolically but literally impotent.) Even more than “Tape,” this is uber-90s fare, and for time capsule purposes it’s way more watchable than the likes of “Reality Bites” or “Empire Records,” at least for half an hour. It helps that Linklater’s shooting outside, with opportunities for passing cars and headlights to break things up a little. The downside is that this is (again) not a very good play, and the lead performance from Giovanni Ribisi is very weak attempt at old-fashioned young angry male grandstanding.

13. “Me And Orson Welles” (2008)

As far as biopics go, this is tolerably restrained, honing in on one moment of Orson Welles’ career — his first Mercury Theater production, a 1937 staging of “Julius Caesar” updated to Mussolini’s Italy — and avoiding wink-nudge references to future famous triumphs via characters named “Rosebud” or other such hijinks. The beginning, middle and ending scenes all have Zoe Kazan holding court as a realistically, blathering teen (she’s pretty perfect in the part, bringing sorely needed fresh air with each reprise), while Zac Efron is smartly limited to responding.

It’s not Efron’s fault that he was trained and raised to be a performer of skilled but limited range, but he’s hopelessly at a loss to convey the emotions of a young man with obvious dramatic talents who has a life-transforming encounter with a world-important artist. (In a simple conversation with Claire Danes, the scene rises every time it’s just her in close-up and sinks when Efron pops into a two-shot.) The movie minimizes the boy idol’s presence, but intermittently he has to take the underwhelming lead. The stage production at the end gives Linklater a rare chance to toy with showy, expressionistic lighting.

12. “Waking Life” (2001)

This is the kind of film that awards equal speaking time to Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and professional philosopher David Sosa. It’s an unruly democracy of unequally compelling/credible voices, registered by inexhaustibly curious interlocutor Wiley Wiggins. This is solely a matter of preference, but I’m with the many who’ve noted the film’s resemblance to dorm room late night sessions between intellectually competitive undergrads, some of whom grate or overestimate the novelty of their insights. (Former collaborator Kim Krizan spacing out: “When we communicate with one another and we feel that we have connected and we think that we’re understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion”).

It should be noted that the film’s insanely ambitious in its own way: I’ve generally understood the movie to be about one guy’s realization that he’s dead (I could well be wrong), but there’s no denying that the film’s (failed, imo) intent is to transcend its slideshow of lectures and become a heady, philosophically engaging, deliberately ambiguous experience to be thought through seriously. The credibly Piazzolla-esque score, provided by Austin’s Tosca Tango Orchestra, is the best of any of Linklater’s films.

11. “Fast Food Nation” (2006)

For people interested in Linklater but with limited time, all the films listed above are optional; starting with this maligned title, everything’s recommended with progressively fewer qualifications. Though adapted from a best-selling, much-discussed and highly polemical attack on the American meat industry on several fronts (chiefly health concerns and exploitation of illegal immigrant labor), it’s surprisingly low-key throughout.

One plotline focuses on a high school fast food employee who gets involved with gung-ho but intellectually underwhelming activists who plan to change everything by releasing a group of cattle, only to find the cows won’t go. It’s not a subtle metaphor (rise up, public!), but it’s also a funny gag, and the film’s portrait of earnest youth blathering their way towards (hopeful) change is cringingly accurate. Befitting the film’s unwillingness to belabor things too much, Greg Kinnear’s meat company official simply disappears from the movie halfway through, since his narrative purpose (to get us from the boardrooms to the farms via an enjoyably sinister Bruce Willis cameo) has been served.

Read the top 10 on page 2!


Categories: Lists

Tags: Austin, Before Midnight, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Bernie, Dazed and confused, Ethawn Hawke, Jack black, Ranked, Richard linklater, School of Rock, Slacker, Tape

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