The 12 Best Richard Linklater Films

Post Author: Jeff Cubbison

Ahead of the Texas auteur’s newest release Hit Man, we go back and break down the best films of his career

Directors like Richard Linklater are unfortunately a dying breed. Throughout an impressive career spanning 21 features, the Texas filmmaker has proven to be a bit of an auteur who marches to his own beat. His best films especially feel like they come from a singular mind, and he’s certainly not afraid to take wild creative swings – baseball pun intended. A coming-of-age story about a boy filmed over a 12-year period? An adult-oriented animated film about a young man engaging in a series of philosophical discussions about sleep and consciousness? A plotless, 90-minute conversation between a man and a woman as they wander aimlessly around Vienna? There really isn’t a concept that Linklater can’t pull off, a testament to his grit and inventiveness as a storyteller.

With his new Glen Powell-starring flick Hit Man arriving today in theaters and next week on Netflix, I’m excited to reflect on the truly one-of-a-kind career that Linklater has built since the release of his debut film Slacker in 1990. Since then, he’s made his fair share of pensive arthouse films, box office flops-turned cult classics, and even a crossover studio sleeper hit here and there. His filmography is diverse, but his films all bear a number of his signature creative touches. Many of them contain very loosely structured narratives. There’s a sense of minimalism in some of his best work that has a transportive quality. He allows his shots to unravel in uncut flowing fashion, his actors to improvise, his dialogue to flow naturally, the sets, scenery, and sensory details to shine, and the soundtracks to teleport viewers to another time and place. His sense of pacing is unmatched as you’re immersed in each scene, feeling time pass just how the characters feel it.

He also touches on important, relatable themes in imaginative and profound ways; how we process the passage of time, how we parse moments from our past and reconcile the present, how we embrace the anxiety and fear of new challenges and experiences, how it’s not just okay, but better, to be different. Ultimately, you can recognize a Linklater film right away – no matter how different one is from the next.

That’s not to say his filmography is perfect. In truth, he’s had a few misfires here and there: Where’d You Go Bernadette?, Fast Food Nation, that utterly pointless Bad News Bears remake. But more often than not, those misses are indicative of a willingness to take risks, color outside the lines, and tell stories that actually matter to him. He’s made quite of few films that have won or should have won Academy Awards, but he’s never been beholden to the “prestige pic” machine. He doesn’t make films to specifically chase awards – or even box office success. The vast majority of the time, he’s telling stories that are distinct, honest, and personal to him – and at a fairly decent clip too. If any of them end up winning awards or making some money, then that’s just a cherry on top.

With the release of Hit Man upon us, let’s go through and celebrate the best works from one of the most unique filmmaking minds of the past 35 years. As School of Rock‘s Dewey Finn would say: let’s rock, let’s rock, today.

12. Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood (2022)

In stunning rotoscope-tinged animation meant to resemble old Saturday Morning Cartoons, Apollo 10 1/2 tells the story of the first moon landing in 1969 from two perspectives: viewpoint of the astronauts and mission control, and that of a 10-year-old boy living near Johnson Space Center in Houston and watching the events unfold on TV, imagining himself becoming the first person to land on the moon. Loosely based on Linklater’s own childhood, Apollo 10 1/2 is a sweet nostalgic trip full of warm humor and childlike wonder, appealing to both adults and kids alike. It’s also one of the most personal films of his career that unlocks the dreamer in all of us. Less adventurous directors might have taken a more straightforward route with this one by releasing it in live action, but Linklater’s animated take is better off for being more wondrous and fantastical.

11. Bernie (2011)

Linklater is a Texan through and through, and in his excellent true crime comedy Bernie, the small town of Carthage, Texas is as much a character in the film as it is the setting. The movie is based on the stranger-than-fiction true story of an affable, popular, mild-mannered 39-year-old mortician, played by Jack Black, who in 1996 is driven to murder his living companion, a wealthy and terribly mean old lady coldly played by Shirley MacLaine. Linklater balances the dark humor and the salacious real-life details in unpredictably amusing ways, empowering Jack Black to sink his teeth into one of the quirkiest and most memorable roles of his career. But the highlight of the film is undoubtedly the actors portraying the townspeople of Carthage, who fill in the narrative with hilarious contextual details and commentary about life in Texas via mockumentary-style interviews. One of the best comedies of Linklater’s career, Bernie is a character study, a true crime retelling, and unexpectedly, a loving tribute to and parody of small town Texas life.

10. A Scanner Darkly (2006)

For three films in his career, Linklater utilized rotoscoping technology, shooting scenes in live action and painstakingly converting every frame into a style of animation that blurs the line between real and surreal. Five years after Waking Life, Linklater returned to rotoscoping with the psychedelic sci-fi thriller A Scanner Darkly. A faithful adaptation of the novel by Philip K. Dick, Scanner is a bit of a stylistic outlier in his career. It portrays a near-future dystopian L.A. – fraught with rampant drug addiction and intrusive high-tech government surveillance – and an undercover DEA operation that unravels into a paranoid fever dream full of conspiracies, delusions, and deceit. Linklater’s visuals underscore an ominous world of chaos and deception – surreal art-pop imagery that makes you feel like nothing is quite what it seems. The film walks a thin line between frantic humor and tragic bleakness via dark, zany dialogue and bonkers supporting turns from Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and a bug-eyed Rory Cochrane. Although it’s a bit convoluted at times, and perhaps a bit too style-over-substance, A Scanner Darkly is a worthy ride that proved Linklater was capable of taking wild experimental risks.

9. School of Rock (2003)

School Of Rock may not be Linklater’s best film, but it’s definitely the biggest hit of his career, anchored by a career-defining performance from Jack Black. It also holds up strongly today, though it’s one of the few mainstream studio films on his resume – bearing the hallmarks of a more formulaic, plot-driven endeavor than what we’re used to seeing from him. Nonetheless, Linklater puts his own stamp on it, and the film is a total crowdpleaser, following Black’s washed-up rock musician Dewey Finn as he cons his way into a substitute teaching gig before promptly transforming his tightly-wound private school students into kick-ass rock stars who compete in a local Battle of the Bands. The film captures a few of the touchstones of Linklater’s style, including a killer soundtrack and charming performances from precocious child actors (hello, Miranda Cosgrove!). School of Rock is brimming with empathy and nostalgic rock n’ roll swagger, conveying the timeless message that it’s okay to be different or an outsider – a theme that Linklater clearly embraces throughout his work. And special props to Joan Cusack, who steals the film as the hilariously frazzled and neurotic Principal Mullins. A ’00s comedy classic.

8. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

23 years after his career-making opus Dazed and Confused, Linklater directed the “spiritual sequel” Everybody Wants Some!!, a deeply underrated film following a team of college baseball players in Texas as they party and chase girls in the week leading up to the start of fall semester in 1980. Like many of his films, it’s a loose, fly-on-the-wall hangout flick – soaked in atmospheric period detail, and overflowing with testosterone and (period accurate) toxic masculinity. The soundtrack, sets, costumes, production design, and hilarious banter help conjure a wholly immersive viewing experience – making you feel like you’re a member of the team as they go out and dance at a disco, mosh at a punk show, square-dance to Cotton-Eyed Joe in a country bar, and occasionally ponder some of life’s most burning questions. The cast includes a number of future stars such as Wyatt Russell, Zoe Deutch, and Glen Powell in a scene-stealing breakout turn. Based on his own experiences as a ball player at Sam Houston State, Linklater knows exactly how to run Everybody Wants Some!! through layers of nostalgia, finding humor and meaning in the small things along the way.

7. Waking Life (2001)

Waking Life is definitely not for everyone, but from a purely aesthetic standpoint, Linklater achieves everything he sets out to do. The first of three films that Linklater conceived through rotoscoping, the film traces and dissects countless academic ideas behind sleep and lucid dreaming. Here, the curious main character, played by Wiley Wiggins, wanders through a series of vivid dream-like realities wherein he encounters people who engage with him in insightful philosophical discussions, occasionally punctuated by false awakenings that inject a tiny bit of nightmare fuel into the proceedings. It’s a bold experiment from Linklater, eschewing any and all plot conventions in favor of a series of semi-vignettes that drive home a sense of wonder and curiosity behind many of life’s most heady intellectual concepts. Ironically, Waking Life might put you to sleep if you’re not in the right mood, but it’s an eye-popping and thought-provoking jaunt nonetheless.

6. Slacker (1990)

Now we enter “all-time classic” territory. The micro-budgeted indie film Slacker was Linklater’s debut feature, and it proved to be a true breakthrough for the young director. The film takes place over a single day in Austin, Texas, visiting with a series of random misfits without lingering too long on any one person before moving on to the next: A UFO buff, a Kennedy conspiracy theorist, a young hipster woman selling a Madonna pap smear (played by Butthole Surfers drummer Teresa Taylor), and many other eccentric figures who, in one way or another, convey varying feelings of social exclusion and political marginalization. On a smaller scale, the film demonstrates a number of the stylistic touches that Linklater would go on to perfect. A loose, fly-on-the-wall narrative taking place over a single day. Quirky hipster characters who pop in and disappear in vignette-like fashion. Long, rambling conversational dialogue that doesn’t really go anywhere, but highlights a sense of “real life” naturalism. A landmark in indie filmmaking, Slacker is a hangout movie where you’re wandering around, meeting new people, chatting them up, then moving on with your life – a small microcosm of how life actually unfolds.

5. Before Midnight (2013)

The final film in Linklater’s beloved Before trilogy picks up nine years after the events of Before Sunset, following Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), now a couple, as they vacation in Greece with their twin daughters. But unlike the first two installments, Midnight is steeped in poignant, sobering reflection – as Jesse and Celine now find their relationship at a crossroads. Linklater, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated script with Hawke and Delpy, brings the story of their love to a moving conclusion – once again through the characters’ invigorating, intense interactions and conversations about life, love, longing, and regret. Whereas Sunrise and Sunset portray Jesse and Celine’s journey through a lens of giddy infatuation and “what could be” hope, Midnight is the reckoning between fantasy and reality, and the realization that although their love is imperfect, it is still real, and therefore beautiful. Midnight is the least re-watchable of the three Before films, only because it’s so emotionally devastating at times. But that’s what makes it the perfect ending to arguably the greatest trilogy in cinema history (take THAT Star Wars and Lord of the Rings).

4. Boyhood (2014)

There’s almost no director that has captured the passage of time better than Linklater has. Whether its through films that occur over a single day (Slacker, Dazed and Confused), or sagas unfolding over 18 years (the Before trilogy, whose films also take place over a single day), Linklater’s innate sense of pacing allows viewers to feel time unravel exactly how the characters in his films feel it. He took that concept to a fascinating extreme with Boyhood, which took him a whopping 12 years to complete from start-to-finish. The film depicts the childhood and adolescent years of Mason Evans Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane) as he grows up in Texas with his divorced parents (played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) and sister (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei). Boyhood shot for a week at a time, once a year from 2002 until 2013, with Linklater developing the script along with the actors throughout production – tinkering and adjusting based on the previous year’s footage and changes to the actors as they aged. The result is an enthralling and piercingly real examination of what it means to come of age.

Some have criticized the film’s story, arguing that it fails to transcend the perceived “gimmick” – the actors aging along with their characters – but I wholeheartedly disagree. In my opinion, the central narrative is emotionally gripping, profound, and as fly-on-the-wall natural as film gets. Additionally, fantastic performances from Arquette (who won the Oscar for Supporting Actress), Hawke, and Coltrane – who deserves extra credit for really growing into his role from ages 6 to 18 – make this film a one-of-a-kind classic. It once again proved Linklater’s ability to push cinematic boundaries and his willingness to expand his own horizons as a filmmaker. And if you thought he couldn’t one-up himself, think again. He’s currently deep into production on an adaptation Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along, whose story unfolds over the course of 20 years. Guess how long that film’s gonna take to finish? The commitment is absolutely unreal.

3. Before Sunset (2004)

If Before Sunrise was a meet-cute, then Before Sunset is a most satisfying reconnect-cute. Here, Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine reunite in Paris nine years after meeting and spending a single magical night together in Vienna. As they roam Paris and catch up with each other’s lives, they ponder the “what-ifs” – each recognizing how deeply affected they were by their initial meeting. They’re now older, wiser, but have a lot more to lose (and win?). Could them meeting again be a new chapter in an epic love story? Linklater lets Hawke and Delpy’s unreal chemistry do the heavy lifting, their natural banter taking us on another swooning journey through a picturesque European city. Before Sunset was lauded upon its release, earning Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy an Oscar nomination for their screenplay, and I think most fans of the Before trilogy would name Sunset as their favorite of the three. While it’s not quite my favorite, I totally get it; it has a beyond-perfect ending that gives the audience exactly what they want. “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.” If you know, you know.

2. Dazed and Confused (1993)

“You cool maaaan?” Dazed and Confused might as well be considered the Citizen Kane of teen comedies. Linklater’s snapshot of teenage life in 1976 in the Austin, Texas suburbs is another laid-back, zoned-out, fly-on-the-wall, low stakes slice-of-life thrill ride drenched in atmosphere detail – as intoxicating and addicting as the substances that its main characters consume. Again, the plot is loosely structured, following a large swath of idiosyncratic high school characters as they party the night away after their last day of school. Dazed is one scene after another of pure, reckless abandon. It’s also peppered with colorful insights and absolute vibes from start-to-finish. Despite being hailed by critics, the film was a box office disappointment, but has since become so popular that it’s transcended its own “cult film” status. While Slacker put Linklater on the map, it was Dazed and Confused that proved his chops as a leading cinematic voice of his generation with an enviable directing style to boot. Seriously relatable, endlessly quotable, featuring a killer period soundtrack, and packed with memorable performances from a number of future stars (Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, and more), Dazed is the most fun and re-watchable film of Linklater’s career. “Alright Alright Alright.”

1. Before Sunrise (1995)

A young, sarcastic American man meets a young, free-spirited French woman on a train traveling from Budapest to Paris. Along the way, they flirt, crack jokes, and in a very short amount of time, sincerely connect with each other – as much as two strangers can in that scenario. The train stops in Vienna, and the man, Jesse, has to get off. He’s catching a flight home early the next morning, and with no money for a hotel, he plans to wander around Vienna all night until he has to take off. In a spontaneous move, he asks the woman, Celine, to get off with him. Celine, after a brief moment of hesitation, takes a leap of faith and joins him. What then follows is just about the greatest love story ever captured in film.

With Before Sunrise, Linklater leveled up in a way few could have predicted. As Jesse and Celine wander around Vienna – drinking in dive bars, meeting eccentric locals, debating the nuances of sex, love, and romance – audiences are given a front row seat to a beautiful romance that feels like it’s unfolding in real time. Linklater frames and edits his shots in sparse, minimalistic fashion, giving viewers the feeling like they’re invisible observers, eavesdropping on our two main characters in these cute, humorous moments of candid emotional intimacy. As Jesse and Celine, respectively, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s magnetic chemistry is utterly breathtaking; you could watch their characters fall for each other over and over until you’re reciting their lines by heart. Sunrise implores audiences to reconsider the little moments in life, and how profound and impactful they can be; those random interactions, chance encounters, and happy accidents that can change your life before you even realize it.

For Linklater, the film unlocked a whole new level of critical praise and industry renown, while solidifying a distinct style and worldview that would serve as the blueprint for the rest of his career. Before Sunrise – in addition to the two other films in the trilogy – is a cinematic miracle. Ten minutes in, just as Celine takes Jesse’s hand and gets off the train with him, the film successfully grabs you by the heart and pulls you in – hook, line, sinker. It’s not just an all-time romance film. It’s one of the greatest films ever made, period.