"SubUrbia" (1996)
Linklater has to be commended for taking on this film adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s play, if only for attempting to critically dismantle the lifestyle he’d observed since his debut. That said, what remains is a very '90s misfire that feels especially juvenile for all its philosophizing. Town-boy-made-rockstar Pony (Jayce Bartok) returns to the nondescript neighborhood he called home and briefly reconnects with former slacker friends, his appearance forcing them to reexamine their lives. The fact that most of the film plays out in front of a 24-hour convenience store minded by Indian clerk Nazeer (Ajay Naidu), whose accent makes him the butt of several jokes, should give you an idea of the cultural headspace the uniformly strong cast plays in. Giovanni Ribisi leads the charge as malcontent mouthpiece Jeff, spouting regrets about his station, or lack thereof in life, while Amie Carey, Parker Posey, Steve Zahn, Dina Spybey, and a particularly notable Nicky Katt alternately stew or rage. It’s a dated film, and while Linklater doesn’t misstep as a technical artist here, he’s fenced in by the sourpuss subject matter and the film feels unmemorable as a result. However, the soundrack is notable for being a quintessential snapshot of '90s alternative, featuring Sonic Youth, Elastica with Stephen Malkmus, Beck, Superchunk, The Flaming Lips and more. [C-]

The Newton Boys

"The Newton Boys" (1998)
Ah, the mid '90s, when indie filmmakers could get away with things that would seem impossible now. After the success of "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused" and "Before Sunrise," Linklater mounted a dustbowl-era period piece about the most notorious and successful bank robbers of the roaring '20s. Naturally, Linklater gravitated to his close associates Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke for two of the four titular brothers with Vincent D'Onofrio and one-time would-be rising star Skeet Ulrich being the other two (this being the era when Ulrich was being touted as the hot new thing on the rise). Co-starring Dwight Yoakam and Julianna Margulies as McConaughey’s love interest, Linklater's hones in on the four disparate brothers, a mixture of charming and obsessed (Mac), cocky and arrogant (Hawke), taciturn (D'Onofrio) and conservative and moral (Ulrich). While their bold and brash bank robberies make headlines, it’s an ambitious train robbery in Chicago where the long (and rather ruthless) arm of the law catches up with them. While "The Newton Boys" doesn't have a lot to say, at almost two hours long, it’s surprisingly engaging and satisfying for what it is, but it may have been the beginning of the end for the filmmaker and bigger budgets aside from “School of Rock” ($27 million budget because of its period piece setting), as it underwhelmed at the box-office. [B-]

"Waking Life" was shot on a Panaxonic DVX1000
"Waking Life" was shot on a Panaxonic DVX1000

"Waking Life" (2001)
The idea of Linklater tackling an animated film was a fairly unlikely one. Until, of course, it actually arrived, and proved to be the closest he's come to replicating his debut, "Slacker." A philosophical journey following a young man ("Dazed and Confused" star Wiley Wiggins) in a dream state examining the nature of reality, the film is in many ways Linklater looking back on his career, with several of his favorite actors (Adam Goldberg, Nicky Katt) and colleagues (Steven Sodebergh, Caveh Zahedi) cropping up, while a cameo from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine helped to pave the way for "Before Sunset." And the animation is stunning. Linklater used the relatively uncommon (at the time) rotoscope technique favored by Ralph Bakshi, filming his actors on digital video before having animators paint over them on off-the-shelf Macs, creating a genuinely unique, trippy look for the film that suits is subject matter down to the ground. It's a shame that the film doesn't quite have the content to match the style. The almost docu-drama approach leads to some insights, but more often than not, it comes across as the not-particularly inspirational ramblings of a stoned grad student, uninvolving in a way that "Slacker" never was. The existence of the far superior "A Scanner Darkly" a few years later only goes to emphasize that "Waking Life" was an experimental warm-up more than anything else. [C+]


"Tape" (2001)
This drama, made simultaneously with "Waking Life," reads like a filmmaking exercise -- made in real time, with the then-new digital camera, with limited sets (a small motel room with an adjoining bathroom) and only three actors, even if those actors are Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard. Based on a one-act play of the same name written by Stephen Belber and set in Lansing, Michigan, the motel room is rented by drug dealer and volunteer firefighter Vince (Hawke), who may also have a hot temper and semi-violent tendencies. He’s there in theory to support his high school friend Jon (Leonard), a documentary filmmaker who has a film in a local festival. While the two are reminiscing, an argument about the circumstances under which Jon slept with Vince’s high school girlfriend Amy (Thurman) years ago comes up. Vince coerces an incriminating confession out of Jon, which he catches on tape. Of course Vince has also invited Amy to the party, and the conversation just gets more bizarre and heated from there, ending with a neat little plot twist. This is where Linklater is most at home directing realistic dialogue that is both interesting and insightful to the human condition. He uses the digital camera to great effect, swiftly moving it from person to person, amplifying the emotions as they grow increasingly heated. Adapting theatre plays to film is not the obvious slam dunk you’d think, but "Tape" manages to capture the live feel, while also making the rapid-fire dialogue and limited setting work to the film's advantage. Linklater also gives the cast room to stretch beyond traditional “movie star” acting with Hawke in particular shining, proving once again that both he and Linklater consistently bring out the best in each other. It's not surprising that it was Hawke who approached Linklater with "Tape," and asked long-time friend Leonard and then-wife Thurman to co-star. Intended for TV, it was decided to release the film theatrically based on the final cut of the film, and it joined "Waking Life" at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.  [B-]

School Of Rock

"School of Rock" (2003)
Possibly the most purely entertaining of Linkater's films, "School of Rock" was an unexpected smash, grossing more than $100 million (four times its original production) and cementing Jack Black's place as a bankable comedic leading man. What's more is that the film succeeded without ever losing Linklater's particular point of view, visual playfulness and noted obsession with rock music. The central concept of "School of Rock" has "commercialized drivel" written all over it – a flunky wannabe musician poses as a substitute teacher and ends up teaching his students how to rock, hard – but thanks to a sly screenplay by Mike White and creative guidance by super-producer Scott Rudin, Linklater was able to flourish. One of the best moves he made was to cast the kids first and then rework the characters around the young actors, catering to their strengths both performance-wise and musically. It gives the movie an incredibly robust, naturalistic set of child performances and contributes to the movie's genial, easygoing, but never simplistic, attitude. (Dutch cinematographer Rogier Stoffers' autumnal photography also gives it a deeper level of almost collegiate sophistication; the movie looks like a corduroy blazer with leather elbow patches or a pile of freshly fallen leaves.) A big studio also afforded Linklater to indulge his love of classic rock, with a dizzying amount of artists and profoundly expensive collection of songs (including Led Zeppelin's nearly unobtainable "Immigrant Song," a track Linklater had hoped to use in "Dazed and Confused"). Linklater's direction is loose, inspired and playful (we love that title sequence), as is Black's performance, and while there's been talk for many years of a sequel (White turned in a draft and Paramount briefly announced Rudin and Linklater would return), so far nothing has materialized. Maybe it's better that way. Nobody likes a rock star who's performing past his prime. [A-]

Before Sunset

Before Sunset” (2004)
Indie romances aren't usually prime targets for sequels, but Linklater and the stars of 1995's "Before Sunrise" defied conventional wisdom to create the sublime "Before Sunset." While most cinematic love stories end with the hook-up, the story's continuation explores the aftermath of the one-night romance of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) almost a decade later. The now-older-and-wiser pair spend an afternoon on the streets of Paris, rehashing their Vienna evening from nine years ago, and it's the rare follow-up that doesn't just step up its game, but also makes the original deeper and richer in retrospect. The interaction between Celine and Jesse is revealing and real (the moment when the pair share a cab, Delpy trying, unseen, to touch Hawke, but pulling back, is one of our favorite pieces of screen acting), and the intimate script earned Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke an Oscar nomination, and the eternal affection of true romantics who aren't swayed by Hollywood's unrealistic output. There's been talk of late that a third installment might be on the way, but unless they can come up with an ending as perfect as Celine and Jesse dancing together in her apartment to Nina Simone, we're not sure we want it. [A]