Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Richard Linklater: A Retrospective

Of all the great, deserving, American filmmakers that haven’t won the Best Director prize yet, Richard Linklater is up there with the most deserving. His filmography is as original and diverse as any of his generation. In 2014 he released quite possibly the best movie of his career. To many of us it’s unthinkable that the Academy might fail to honor such a landmark in American cinema with Oscars for Best Picture or Best Director. It stings when any great film is denied its place in the ranks of Best Picture winners, but we can regard it as inauguration into a pantheon of films just as prestigious: “Do The Right Thing”, “Goodfellas”, “The Player”, “Pulp Fiction”, “The Shawshank Redemption”, “Fargo”, “L.A. Confidential”, “Saving Private Ryan”, “Traffic”, “Lost in Translation”, “Sideways”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “There Will Be Blood”, “The Social Network”, “The Tree of Life & Zero Dark Thirty”. Whatever happens on February 23rd, Boyhood will join an ever-growing list of classics.
1) Boyhood, 2014
You’ve heard and read countless raves for this 12-years-in-the-making masterpiece; what else is there to say? Linklater used everything he learned in his 25 year career to make this movie. The pacing, the direction, the editing, the writing and the acting are all what we’ve come to know as Linklater-esque. There’s an every-growing maturity that is starting to comfortably creep into his work and, believe it or not, I think the man has many more great movies to come. What touched me most about “Boyhood” wasn’t just the sweet performances – especially by Arquette – but the way he makes the movie flow in such an organic and beautiful pattern. Many think it was about a boy growing up, but the film hit me hardest when it dealt with the bond between mother and child. It hit notes that felt so personal to me.
2) Waking Life, 2001
“Waking Life” is where Linklater decided to take huge risks and make personal, innovative cinema. It came out in 2001 when the theme of dreams and identity was very prevalent at the movies with the release of “Mulholland Drive” and “Memento”. Shot in Rotoscope and delivering vibrantly alive images, the film was a breakthrough for Linklater, unafraid to delve into topics that would become a source of obsession for him in the years to come: The meaning of life, dreams, freewill, consciousness and many more existential questions are at the heart of the movie. Its images linger in your head for weeks, months, even years – with every frame soaked in colors and palettes that have no limits to the shapes, sizes or imagination that can be used.
3) Dazed and Confused, 1993
This was the breakthrough. The first time I saw this movie I knew I had seen a damn-near classic. The atmosphere envelops you and makes you feel like you actually know every single person on-screen. The attention to detail is astounding. You are there in 1976 Texas, on the last day of High School for the graduates of Lee High. There are so many different characters, and so many different plots that, in a way, the film seems to feel plotless. This was a sign of things to come for the young Texan filmmaker. Although this was a big studio picture, the narrative structure was anything but conventional, focusing more on character than actual storyline. Linklater’s 25 year obsession with the passage of time is very apparent here as the film seems to take place within a 24 hour time frame and uses that to further explore the routes many of the characters are about to take in their lives. 
4) Before Sunset, 2004
5) Before Midnight, 2013
Celine and Jesse.  It started with “Before Sunrise” and then continued with the beautiful “Before Sunset” and capped off with the mature, pessimistic “Before Midnight”. Richard Linklater’s trilogy of romance in European cities has been building a solid cult following for more than two decades now.  “Before Sunset” is a masterful examination of love, family life and conversation.  Never has an audience wanted an on-screen character to cheat on his wife more than when Jesse shows up at Celine’s apartment in the climactic scene. Celine is indelibly played by Julie Delpy and Jesse is superbly played by Ethan Hawke. Linklater and his two actors wrote the screenplay, much of it clearly improvised, from the artists’ own experiences and points of views. This organic style brings a real sense of authenticity to the films. These movies ask us questions about love that many studio movies refuse to ask. Is our view of love as a society conflicted, disjointed? Or can we really love someone eternally, in a “forever” sense of the term? How much can we compromise until we end up losing sense of ourselves and our own independence? There is not one answer to any of these questions. Linklater is a curiosity seeker who asks more than he answers and the way “Before Midnight” ends makes you wonder what can possibly happen next. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Celine and Jesse.
6) The School of Rock, 2003
In “Boyhood”, Ethan Hawke’s dad creates a Post-Beatles “Black Album” mixtape for his son. Something tells me it’s something Jack Black’s riotous imposter substitute teacher Dewey Finn would do for his class in “The School of Rock”. Just like Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous”, this is Linklater’s love letter to rock and roll. A passionate, studio-backed project that did exactly what it had to do and did it in such an expertly crafted way. Black’s Dewey Finn is a firm believer of the power of rock and roll – he wants to pass down his knowledge to the classically trained school kids he substitute teaches.  “I have been touched by your kids… and I’m pretty sure that I’ve touched them”, Finn exclaims to a horrified group of parents whose jaws drop at the comment. We get what he’s saying; he’s just passin’ the torch, man. 
7) Tape, 2001
The passage of time gets dealt with again in this semi-experimental film that, with “Waking Life”, kickstarted Linklater’s second phase as a filmmaker after the ill received “The Newton Boys”. Taking place inside a hotel room in real time, “Tape” stars Linklater muse Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and an incredibly powerful Uma Thurman. In the ensuing hours our trio dissects a painful high school memory that may or may not be true. Linklater, the Auteur, is in full display here with the film’s themes of memory, time and place taking center stage. However, the most fascinating aspect of Tape is that you don’t fully know what is real and what is not. Some characters may be lying or might have just perceived events in a different way.  The 86 nail biting minutes the filmmaker lays out are thought provoking to say the least. This might just be the hidden gem of the Linklater canon. 
8) Bernie, 2012
Tackling the real-life story of a Texan man who shot and killed a “companion” in the back, you might expect one of the darker films in Linklater’s filmography. Suffice to say that what we got instead was quite possibly the most likeable murderer in cinema history. Bernie Tiede, as played by a never better Jack Black, was a well-liked church going fella who didn’t seem to have a bad bone in his body. What led to him committing such a terrible crime? Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth’s screenplay tries to dissect the events and come to an understanding. However, like most of the director’s movies, the answers don’t come easy; in fact, there might not even be many by the time the movie is done. It’s a fascinating look at human nature and, if at first it seems distant from his other movies, it couldn’t be more relevant to the themes he’s been seeking out his entire career. 
9) Slacker, 1991
Here’s where it started. This classic Gen-X film was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress just a few years ago (and for good reason). Here is a director defining a generation, speaking volumes about human weirdness and connection.  “Slacker” is a film that flows from character to character on the streets, apartments and cafes of Austin, Texas. It is plotless, aimless but nevertheless mesmerizing in its random meetings and conversations that seem to connect to one another in unique, original and trippy ways. It isn’t hard to consider “Slacker” a ‘Stoner Classic’, but to call it that would also take away from the fact that it can be appreciated sober, as an organic exercise to open up your senses and make you think hard about our conscience and subconscious. 
10) Me and Orson Welles, 2010
Linklater’s ode to the stage came and went faster than any movie he has released in his 25 year career. This despite solid reviews and an incredible performance by Christian McKay as a rambunctious, youthful, Orson Welles trying to prove his worth by staging a play of “Julius Cesar”. The film takes place in 1937 New York and the attention to detail is beautifully rendered as Linklater gives us something he’s never given us: a period piece. This is a pleasingly simple but satisfying dramedy that pays tribute to one of the giants of our time and worked as a breather for Linklater, in between all the thoughtful dialogue-driven works of art he seems to consistently deliver effortlessly.

Blog Archive