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Criticwire Survey: Linklater's Best and Worst

The raves of Richard Linklater's decade-plus-spanning 'Boyhood' prompt critics to muse on the high- and lowlights of the director's career.
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'Dazed and Confused'
'Dazed and Confused'

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which premiered at Sundance to rave reviews, spans 12 years in the life of its characters, and an equivalent period in its director's career, which serves as a reminder of how many styles he's attempted in a career nearly twice as long. What's the best movie Richard Linklater has made, and what's the worst?

Sean Axmaker, Parallax View, Cinephiled

Linklater's Before trilogy is really something quite special, not a film but a film cycle that grows in richness when considered together, and I might be persuaded to nominate Before Midnight as his best, but I'm wary of proclaiming it without living with it for a while. The film I always come back to is Dazed and Confused, which I loved on my first viewing and I love even more with each subsequent viewing. Whether it's his best I can't say because my relationship to the film is as much about my connection to its textures on a personal level: despite living thousands of miles from Austin, Texas, I recognized that culture, the fashion and music, of course, but also the people and the attitudes. I remember exactly where I was on May 28, 1976 and I can even see myself in the sprawling cast. It's my personal WABAC machine. As far as worst, I can't say, as I haven't seen a bad Linklater. Mind you, I never saw The Bad News Bears or The Newton Boys or Fast Food Nation. I'd be surprised if he didn't have a misfire somewhere along the line simply because of his interest in trying out different genres and approaches. 

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics a Go-Go.

Waking Life is his best, because it takes his skill at observing the quotidian, human, and absurd with irony and wit and elevates it into something transcendental. His worst: Before Midnight. Because it took a couple whom I had fallen love with in the previous two movies and transformed them into a nasty, carping, shallow pair of self-loathing losers I would hate to spend lunch with, all in a vain attempt to update and yuppify Rossellini's Journey to Italy. But I suppose such is life. But his worst judgment call may have been remaking Bad News Bears.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie minute

While I must own up to not quite "getting" some of Linklater's early work (Slackers, for instance, confused the hell out of me), I am a big fan of much of the work he's delivered since Before Sunrise. I pretty much love School of Rock, a mass appeal sweetie that is savvier than most. And let's hope people will discover Bernie, a rollicking satire, based on a true story, of a mysterious young man (a dandy Jack Black) and his relationship with the crabby Texas town matriarch, Shirley MacLaine. And, just for fun, Matthew McConaughey shows up early in his mid-career resurgence, to continuous eye-popping work. 

Dan Kois, Slate

Sunset

I have a real fondness for A Scanner Darkly and Bernie, but it's hard to imagine any Linklater movie surpassing Before Sunset in my heart. When it came out, its very existence seemed a miracle -- that these two characters found each other again, and that these two actors and one director found each other again as well. And I'll never forget my experience of watching it, holding my wife's hand, consumed with love for this couple and beside myself with fear that it would not work out for them. It's one of my all-time great moviegoing experiences.

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Pop Matters 

His best film is one of those movies whose central truth really burned me to the core: Before Sunrise. I remember seeing it with my then girlfriend in D.C. when I was in grad school, and squirming in my seat feeling increasingly more exposed and vulnerable as the film progressed. It wasn't the way I merely identified with Jesse, it was that some of what he said (esp. that scene near the end in the alley way where he laments the fact that he hasn't accomplished anything yet and feels as if he can't have a family until he does) actually informed me shit about myself I hadn't even registered yet. I can't remember five movies in my lifetime that left me called-out quite like that. And then, that absolutely perfect ending, showing the bittersweet progression of their journey in the early light of the next morning. As for his worst, just going by the films I've seen of his -- did he really direct the Bad News Bears remake? -- I would have to say The School of Rock, which I know a lot of other folks thought adorable and winning, but seemed to me to be yet another lazy showcase for the rocked-out Jack Black persona which I was already well over.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, Linoleum Knife podcast

Boyhood was one of the best films I saw at Sundance this year, but it's going to take at least one more viewing to determine whether or not it will unseat Dazed and Confused on the roster. I mean, I love Slacker and Before Midnight, but D&C is one of the all-time great one-crazy-night movies (a genre that includes such classics as American Graffiti and Sixteen Candles), boasting more future stars than there are in a big bang.

As for his worst, I'm sure a lot of people will go after The Bad News Bears as a movie that no one, particularly Linklater, needed to remake, but I'm going to go with subUrbia, which sees the director chafing against someone else's material far more than Bears does. But even lesser LInklater merits a look.

Jordan Hoffman, ScreenCrush, New York Daily News

Richard Linklater's best film is Boyhood.

I say this because it may be true, but also to jab a finger in the eye of all the critics who didn't get off their ass and send themselves to Park City. You think you're the only one who has to lay out-of-pocket before you can earn from an event? Staff positions are gone, man -- get over it. The costs and the altitude sickness ought to buy some bragging rights.

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

Bernie

Richard Linklater is why I live in my apartment building. When I interviewed him in 1991 for Slacker, it was in what would become my future home. (I was friendly with Ethan Hawke's mother; I lived around the corner from her at the time.) As such, I've always felt a "personal connection" to Linklater's work. However I don't have a bias towards him (or Hawke). I was one of the few folks disappointed with Before Midnight, even thought I think Before Sunset is one of their best collaborations. I appreciate his taking chances with rotoscopic films like Waking Life, which I did not much care for, although I quite enjoyed A Scanner Darkly. I forgive Linklater for remaking The Bad News Bears (a childhood favorite of mine), and not his "worst" film. I expect he made that film so he could do Fast Food Nation, an ambitious and not entirely unsuccessful film. I may be alone in my enthusiasm for it. I mention all this to indicate that Linklater is always interesting as a filmmaker even when he falters. But that said, I regard the enervating action-comedy The Newton Boys as his weakest effort. It simply failed to deliver on its considerable promise. As for his best film, I think Bernie is probably Linklater's masterpiece. Not only did he create an archly funny character study about a murderer, he coaxed a truly unexpectedly fantastic performance from Jack Black, who got to let loose in Linklater's School of Rock, of course, and a guilty pleasure.

Alan Zilberman, Tiny Mix Tapes and The Atlantic

The best Richard Linklater film is Before Sunset, and the worst Linklater film is The Newton Boys. Quite simple, actually.

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

I'm going to play the political game of not answering the question you asked, but instead answering the question I wanted you to ask. Focusing on "worsts" just depresses me too much; while I'm no great fan of Fast Food Nation or Tape, his least successful films are at least interesting. And there can be no such thing as a single best movie from the director of the Before series; it's absolutely impossible at this point for me to separate them into discrete entities. So I'll choose to reply that Before Sunset,Before Sunrise and Before Midnight collectively comprise not just the best cinematic work by Richard Linklater, but one of the most compelling cinematic projects ever in its scope, re-invention of its characters and sheer entertainment value.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, Variety

In lieu of favorite films (I have a soft spot for almost every Linklater film, who even when his films may perhaps elude certain qualities of that define "good" films somehow always makes curiosities worth exploring in depth), here are some of my favorite pieces of criticism on Linklater's films: Jonathan Rosenbaum on Before Sunset, Kent Jones on Waking Life, Adrian Martin on Slacker and School of Rock, Philip Lopate on Before Midnight.

Bears

Robert Levin, amNewYork

First the caveats: I haven't seen Boyhood or, gulp, Slacker (I know, I know; I've already put myself in film critic jail. I'll remedy this soon). That being said, I can't really pick a single favorite Linklater movie. I can, however, conclusively point to my favorite Linklater movies: the Before trilogy, brilliantly acted and written, and collectively imbued with the truth of what it means to fall in love with someone: It's not the initial excitement of romance that defines a life together, but the ways you endure the struggles and heartbreaks that follow. Linklater's worst? The Bad News Bears, I guess, which is fine for what it is but my thoughts on it mirror what Roger Ebert wrote about Oliver Stone's U-Turn: "I was reminded of a concert pianist playing "Chopsticks'': It is done well, but one is disappointed to find it done at all."

Ali Arikan, RogerEbert.com

I think he is a talented dude with a singular vision, and his "nineties" sensibilities endear him to me perhaps because of some sort of kinship I feel with that approach. Slacker and SSchool of Rock are his best films, and I revisit them often. Even though the Before pictures are equally great, I just think they're way too sad. Midnight fucking destroyed me. I don't think he's ever made a bad film, but I am not the biggest fan of subUrbia.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

For me, Richard Linklater's best movie is Dazed and Confused, with the Before trilogy and Bernie making up a top five. The reason that Dazed and Confused takes the top spot for me is because it just has this perfect time capsule feel. I'm only in my mid 20's (moving quickly towards my -- shudder -- late 20's), but it felt like I was nostalgic for that time period. That and it's got an amazing soundtrack and is hilarious as well. As for his worst, I've never actively disliked anything that Linklater has done, but I suppose the least of his works would be Bad News Bears. It's not bad, but it's pretty much as forgettable a movie as he's capable of making.

John DeCarli, Film Capsule

Though I haven't seen all of Linklater's films, 2013's Before Midnight seems to represent a new high point in Linklater's varied and fascinating career. The sensitive way he investigates time and weaves it into the fabric of the Before series is thrilling, and the conceit only gets more interesting with each film. That's why I have such high hopes for Boyhood, Linklater's newest time-based experiment. While I have nothing against Linklater's less overtly serious material, Bad News Bears is by far his least interesting film. He seemed roped into an unfunny and claustrophobic Hollywood premise, and, unlike with School of Rock, was unable to inject much humanity into it.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, Movies by Bowes

Best: Dazed and Confused, which is one of the most perfect movies ever made about being young, with an astounding ensemble cast and soundtrack. Endlessly rewatchable, too. Worst: His Bad News Bears remake is a bit pointless, although even it isn't outright bad by any means. Even at that depth there's still a sense that someone who knows what he's doing is running the show, even if he's not having his best day.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

Fast Food Nation

Best: Fast Food Nation takes the appealing intersecting character arcs of Dazed and Confused and the philosophical musings of Waking Life and the Before films and applies them to an entertaining, intelligent examination of the fast food industry. The blending of greatest-hits styles allows Linklater (with source material author Eric Schlosser, an ideal collaborator) to approach this complex issue from multiple angles in order to more accurately present its difficult nature.

Worst: The Newton Boys is more dull than truly bad. I haven't seen it since it was in theaters and don't remember outright hating it as much as gradually losing interest. Still, if that's your worst film, you're pretty well off.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

Whenever I'm asked to name a director's best film, I feel reluctant to choose one from the beginning of their career, because there's a subtle suggestion that they peaked early on. In Linklater's case, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. So with that caveat, I'll pick Dazed and Confused as his best. Aside from being funny, having a terrific before-they-were-famous cast, and making great use of '70s music, this is one of those films where you fundamentally feel the director through the material. It's such a personal work, one that Linklater obviously connects with, and that gives it a power that is quite rare. As for his worst, I have to choose his pointless remake of The Bad News Bears. I love the original; my parents took me to see it when I was eight years old, and it taught me how to swear. It's a sharp, hilarious, politically incorrect satire. Linklater's remake softened the edges and watered down the satiric stuff. This was especially disappointing, given that he doesn't typically seem like the sort of filmmaker who'd be interested in doing such things. I suppose a couple of Linklater's other pictures could technically be described as "worse," but they were at least ambitious failures, whereas The Bad News Bears just felt like paycheck-cashing. 

Andy Crump, ScreenRant, Go, See, Talk!

Waking Life

Ranking the best films of Richard Linklater's career is difficult; the tempting answer is "all of the Before movies", but that's cheating even if they do feel like three chapters in one great novel. Linklater, for the sheer variety of stories he's told, has almost become known solely as the proprietor of that romantic, adult trilogy, but he's never been better or more creative than in Waking Life. That this intellectually challenging film never became quite as universally recognizable or beloved as the Before series makes sense -- for as philosophical and dense as the saga of Celine and Jesse gets, it doesn't quite reach the same heights as Waking Life, Linklater's gorgeously realized dissertation on the nature of dreams and the meaning of life. 

Choosing his worst is far easier: Bad News Bears, a movie that's utterly lifeless from beginning to end. Linklater, for maybe the only time in his career, feels totally disinterested in his material, and while the cast avail themselves well enough, they're not so efficacious in their respective roles that they overcome Linklater's own lethargy behind the camera.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

My favorite is Dazed and Confused. While it's often said that nostalgia is dangerous, especially when it comes to keeping ones critical faculties in check, but it was the first of his that I really fell for, and I discovered it at precisely the right time (my mid-teens). Speaking of the dreaded "N" word, as in the case of American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused makes me nostalgic for an era from before I was even born. A special mention must go to the underrated Me and Orson Welles though, if only for Christian McKay's fantastic Welles impersonation. As something of a connoisseur of Welles impersonations I rank this as amongst the best. As for least favorite, well, that's a little more difficult, given that there's quite a few that I'm cold on. Sacred cows aside (I've never been a big fan of the Before... series) I'm going to opt for his pair of rotoscoped animations, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. While I respect the intent from a creative standing, on a practical level I find the style physically repulsive and migraine-inducing.

Sean Chavel, Flick Minute

Before Sunrise continues to have legitimate reasons as to why it could be the most romantic movie ever made, and because of the richness of the dialogue, you can keep listening and listening to it over and over. His worst? I'm still not sure as to why Linklater made the Bad News Bears remake.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

I haven't seen The Newton Boys so I'll say that's his worst film. Even though I've heard it's underrated. His best? Yeesh, I don't even have an opinion but I've got to have an opinion so I'll say.... hmm.... jeez... Waking Life. Yes, definitely Waking Life. It's a movie that feels like it's always going on. When you walk away from it it's still playing in the ether, floating down every once and a while to tap us on the shoulder to remind us to consider the infinite and -- wait, what am I saying? -- Before Midnight is his best film because of that ten-minute shot in the car. The rest of the film is a beautiful warm comforter you want to wrap yourself in as well, but that ten-minute, or however long it is, shot single-handedly restored my faith in modern cinema, "It still happens!" I thought, "Filmmakers do still make films about people!" I rejoiced. So, definitely, his best film is A Scanner Darkly. Wait, what just happened there? I mean Dazed and Confused. There, that's better...

I've always had this problem. I am unable to pick a favorite anything. I think it started when I was little and heard the concept of a Best Friend. It seemed like such a sad lonely thought to me. What about the other friends? I thought in my little child brain. I also didn't have any friends which compounded the problem. I'm just thankful for Linklater's work as I am thankful for all the works of passionate filmmakers obsessed with this ridiculous medium of expression who's very existence was dependent on the invention of the sewing machine. (Why did I make a Pulp Fiction reference while discussing Linklater?)

Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com, Film Threat

It's so hard to choose. While I think Dazed and Confused may be his best film overall, none of his work earned my #1 spot on a year-end list until 2013 with Before Midnight. That film perfectly displays Linklater's growth as a writer and director, capturing something about the development of a relationship that no other work has come close to in years. It's a masterpiece. As for the worst, there's NO contest -- Bad News Bears is nearly unwatchable.

Josh Spiegel, Sound on Sight

Maybe it's a testament to the quality of his filmography, but I find it easier to pin down my choice for Richard Linklater's worst film than his best, if only because he's made so few bad ones. The worst is his 2005 remake of Bad News Bears, which attempted to combine a bit of Billy Bob Thornton's gruff and vulgar charm from Bad Santa with the kid-centric but uncondescending fun of School of Rock. It's a rare failure on both counts. For Linklater's best, I'll go with Dazed and Confused, which is exceptionally intelligent, funny, and emotional. We only get a couple of hours with the group of kids celebrating the end of their school year, but each of them feels fully realized by the time the credits roll. It may not be as wistful and romantic as the Before trilogy, but I can't deny the raffish entertainment of Linklater's earlier work.

Her

Q: What is the best film in theaters?

A: Her

Other films receiving multiple votes: Inside Llewyn DavisThe Wolf of Wall StreetStranger by the LakeAmerican Hustle.

This article is related to: Criticwire Survey, Richard Linklater, Sundance Film Festival


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