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Linklater belongs to the group, which also includes Steven Soderbergh and Gus van Sant, that's successfully waded into the mainstream while maintaining a sense of independence, often supplementing their smaller passion projects with money made from bigger movies. Similar to Soderbergh, Linklater's mainstream efforts tend to satisfy only the basest requirement of Hollywood cinema (that is, casting recognizable stars) while exploring ideas that don't necessarily lend themselves to conventional standards—their impersonal surfaces often belie deeper, less apparent qualities. For that reason, I often find his most showy works (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly) less interesting than his more "conventional" offerings. You can see my five favorites after the jump.
5. The School of Rock (2003) A sentimental favorite, this joyous expression of youth and artistry is a throwback to a time when mainstream Hollywood comedies didn't rely on raunch and cynicism for laughs. Funny, humanistic, and rich with character detail, the film, as Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in his review, feels like "what Jean Renoir might have come up with if he'd remade Don't Knock the Rock and cast fifth graders as the musicians." In its more serious moments, the film also makes a compelling case for alternative childhood education, promoting self-discovery and self-affirmation over standardized methods.
4. The Newton Boys (1998) Linklater transitioned into the world of studio filmmaking with this underrated crime drama. In many ways, his latest effort, Bernie (see below), is an extension of this film, as Linklater challenges the viewer to sympathize with criminals—in this case a group of bank robbers who justify their crimes by labeling crooked bankers and insurance groups as the real crooks. This is perhaps Linklater's least stylized film, but the character interplay and Bressonian structure more than make up for a lack of visual flair.
3. Bernie (2012) His latest film, but easily one of his best. Collaborating again with Jack Black, Linklater structured this deliciously dark comedy as a sort of cultural examination that explores the politics and customs of the small town of
Carthage, Texas. The film also pokes holes in the documentary form, as Linklater inserts various interviews into the film. Some of the subjects are actual townsfolk from Carthage while others are amateur actors, but it's impossible to tell which is which. This subversive component adds another dynamic to a film whose surface elements are endearing and stimulating enough in their own right.
2. Tape (2001) In my mind, the most underappreciated of Linklater's films, forever living in the shadow of the heralded Waking Life. Some critics have written this off as a simple technical exercise, which I suppose isn't an unfair assertion, but I find this formally precise drama to be the perfect example of Linklater's affinity for distilled time, constrained space, and heightened emotion. It's also one of the most suspenseful films you're likely to see, despite the fact that the whole thing takes place in a single motel room and is almost purely driven by dialogue.
1. Before Sunrise/Before Sunset (1995/2004) An obvious choice, and yes, they deserve to be treated as a single entity. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's improbable courtship seems like the sort of thing that's only possible in Elizabethan literature, but believability has never been a concern for Linklater. Instead, the films evoke an ethereal and deeply sensuous conception of romantic love, bolstered by their fairy-tale settings (Vienna in the former, Paris in the latter) and a formal realism that renders the material authentic. I'm eager to see the third and supposedly final installment of the series, Before Midnight.
Honorable mentions: Waking Life is good fun, as is Slacker. I'll admit I'm not a huge fan of Dazed and Confused, but I certainly see its appeal as a nostalgia piece.