With “Last Flag Flying” arriving in theaters, we’re taking on the not-so-simple task of ranking the movies of genre-hopping director Richard Linklater. The top titles on this list could rightfully be called modern classics, but every one of his films somehow evokes the heartfelt philosophy of his hypnotic “Waking Life”: human interaction is the highest form of spiritual communion.
20. “Bad News Bears” (2005) The 1976 original was a true product of its time, with an all-star lineup led by Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal, but this unnecessary remake just felt like it was trying too hard. By 2005, the sight of an aggressively un-PC Little League coach (Billy Bob Thornton) encouraging outrageous behavior in his young team seemed less subversive than sad.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
19. “Fast Food Nation” (2006) When truth is stranger than fiction, why turn it into fiction? Linklater admirably attempted to create a multi-course meal out of Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book, but the movie’s many threads felt disconnected and lacked the power of Schlosser’s stomach-churning fast-food facts.
18. “Last Flag Flying” (2017) An impressive cast (Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston) is ill-served in this stagy drama about weary Vietnam vets reuniting to reflect on their lives. Earnest, but underwhelming.
Detour Filmproduction/The Criterion Collection
17. “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books” (1988) Linklater’s experimental debut is hard to find and tough to get into. But if you can track it down (try Criterion’s “Slacker” set), it’s a pretty cool precursor to the aesthetic and philosophical themes that still interest him. As the director wanders through life and the country, we’re invited to tag along on the journey. Plotless, but hardly pointless.
16. “Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach” (2008) The title says it all: This doc about Linklater’s friend Augie Garrido is a straightforward tribute to the former Texas Longhorns baseball coach. It doesn’t transcend its focus, but it succeeds on its own terms and is worth a watch for anyone interested in the subject.
15. “Everybody Wants Some!!” (2016) A boys-will-be-boys lark, in which a bunch of mostly-likeable unknowns play collegiate baseball stars circa 1980. Without any truly standout moments, though, it ultimately comes across as a minor-league “Dazed and Confused.”
Lions Gate Films
14. “Tape” (2001) A love it-or-hate it experience that will depend largely on your tolerance for being locked in a single room, in real time, with grandstanding frenemies Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard. Uma Thurman provides a necessary balance, and there’s no doubt this one sticks with you afterward.
13. “Me and Orson Welles” (2008) The “Me” is Zac Efron, as a wide-eyed young actor who stumbles into a major Broadway production in 1937. But if you see this nostalgic theatrical bauble, do it for the “Orson Welles,” as played by Christian McKay with an unforgettable ferocity.
Twentieth Century Fox
12. “The Newton Boys” (1998) Linklater’s understated Western is as easygoing as Matthew McConaughey’s drawl. The payout isn’t huge, but it’s fun to follow the bank-robbing brothers (played by McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, and Vincent D’Onofrio) as they try not to behave too badly.
Sony Pictures Classics
11. “SubUrbia” (1996) Linklater has always been an actor’s director, and it’s undeniably entertaining to watch him deftly juggle differing personalities in this adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s play about post-adolescent angst. Parker Posey, Steve Zahn and Giovanni Ribisi are among the disillusioned twentysomethings with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
Warner Independent Pictures
10. “A Scanner Darkly” (2006) This trippy adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story revisits the innovative rotoscope animation of “Waking Life,” but adds a lot more action. Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder are among the apparent drug addicts in a nightmarish dystopia that constantly doubles back on itself. Since this is a Linklater movie, the sci-fi set pieces are less Michael Bay than “My Dinner With Andre.”
20th Century Fox Film Corp.
9. “Waking Life” (2001) It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for Linklater fans. No movie he’s made better encapsulates his themes than this inventively animated, existentialist rap session. Best watched in a college dorm room, late at night.
8. “Bernie” (2011) This layered dark comedy provides an ideal showcase for Jack Black, as a beloved Texas mortician who shocks everyone by befriending an unpopular small-town widow (Shirley MacLaine). Of course, it’s what happens later that really counts. A still-hidden gem, and well worth discovering.
7. “School of Rock” (2003) If only all family films were actually this much fun for the whole family. Jack Black couldn’t be more in his element, as a middle-school substitute who teaches his students how to rock, while learning a few lessons from them, too.
6. “Slacker” (1991) Linklater’s surreal calling card served as a mash note to the weirdness of his beloved Austin, Texas, an affectionate call-out on Gen-X self-absorption and inspiration for a generation of indie filmmakers. A decisively specific time capsule that still feels insightful, original and utterly relevant.
5. “Dazed and Confused” (1993) You didn’t have to graduate in 1976 to relate to the characters in this timeless celebration of adolescent madness. Whether you connect with the stoners, the jocks, the new kids or the outcasts, there’s no denying that Linklater perfectly captures the heady nightmare we call high school. The pitch-perfect cast includes newcomers Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Renee Zellweger.
4. “Before Sunrise” (1995) Anyone who’s ever fallen in love will relate to the pure exuberance of the first entry in Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. It’s in the surprise that suffuses Ethan Hawke’s face after he realizes he’s experiencing something new. It’s in the tentative joy behind Julie Delpy’s eyes as she wonders whether to trust someone else. Even their irritating narcissism is indispensable; it’s the honesty that makes these movies so essential in the first place.
Sony Pictures Classics
3. “Before Midnight” (2013) It’s one thing to thrill to the exhilarating connection of new love. But will you also have the patience and courage to revive it once it fades? That’s a tough question, and this is surely the toughest of the “Before” movies to watch. (Each was shot nine years after the last.) It’s also the most incisive and -- depending on one’s stage in life -- the most haunting, too.
2. “Boyhood” (2014) It would be easy for a formally experimental filmmaker to prioritize style over substance. But Linklater succeeds on all fronts here, having filmed his cast over the course of a remarkable 12 years to capture the titular experience. (Thanks to poignant turns from Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, the movie might just as aptly have been called “Parenthood.”)
Warner Independent Pictures
1. “Before Sunset” (2004) It comes down to this: Has cinema ever given us a more substantive expression of romantic love than the “Before” trilogy? Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Linklater’s collaborative soul mates, find their purest connection here, in the brief but beautiful space between youthful naiveté and middle-aged cynicism. Throughout the movies’ decades-long history, their intimacy and truthfulness have repeatedly served as the ultimate retort to Hollywood bombast.