10 Films To Watch If You Love The Cinema of Richard Linklater
10 Films To Watch If You Love The Cinema of Richard Linklater: Richard Linklater has made over 20 films in the course of his impressive career, ranging from micro-budget indie flicks like Slacker to sprawling Oscar-buzzy masterpieces like Boyhood. Although Linklater’s filmography is vast and varied in both genre and style, each film bears his signature touch. His flare usually comes in the form of naturalistic acting and realistic dialogue. But his movies by no means take themselves too seriously. Linklater has a way of exposing the absurdity of everyday life by hanging around long enough to really listen. His characters are remarkably real because of this. Linklater’s style also tends to favor a loose narrative structure. Films like Slacker and Before Sunrise (polar opposites in terms of genre) don’t possess any plot per se but are closer to a documentary-style approach. We simply watch characters hang out, chat, and interact. It’s a deceptively simple formula but incredibly effective, and it has a name you might not have heard of: Mumblecore.
Mumblecore is a subgenre of indie cinema characterized by realism, naturalistic dialogue, small budgets, and low production values. Of course, not all Linklater’s films fall neatly into that category, but you can recognize that impulse in all of them. The term mumblecore only popped into the cultural lexicon around 2005, but it’s widely known to be influenced by Slacker and other films by mumblecore giants like Andrew Bujalski and Kevin Smith. This list covers mumblecore-esque movies that are reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s style, as well as some feel-good flicks like Dazed and Confused and other films that bear that distinctive ‘Linklater vibe.’
A touching and unsettling portrayal of unchecked youth, Mid90s follows Stevie, a 13-year-old boy desperate to fit in with the cool kids. Bullied by his older brother Ian (played by Lucas Hedges) and lacking a father figure, Stevie (Sunny Suljic) weasels his way into a group of older skater boys who become his de facto role models as he navigates his newfound adolescence. Jonah Hill’s first movie is expertly observant and effortlessly natural. Like Linklater, Hill seems to possess an enviable knack for writing realistic dialogue. The characters in Mid90s look, feel, and sound like countless other skater types you might run into in real life.
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Besides his excellent writing skills, major credit is also due to Hill’s casting choices and directing finesse. Stevie and his friends are played by non-professional actors, all of whom captivate from the second they step on screen. Sunny Suljic is one of the most talented kid actors to come out of Hollywood in the last decade. Although on the surface Mid90s seems like a retrospective on the explosion of skate culture, the film also makes astute observations on the relationship between adolescence and mental health. Stevie struggles with his self-image and his childish notions of what a young man should be, and his exposure to nascent forms of toxic masculinity cast a dark cloud over his seemingly innocent misadventures. This film will have you revisiting some childhood memories with new, wiser eyes.
Kids is a nostalgia drama and a devastating tale of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Directed by Larry Clark and written by the famously eccentric Harmonie Korine, the film shocked audiences in its day and became an instant cult classic. This is a fantastic watch if you’re looking for something in the vein of subculture pieces like Slacker. But be warned: Kids is not an easy watch. Set over the course of one day and night, this film would terrify any parent. Unlike cheesy high-schooler dramas that revolve around first crushes and the foibles of young adult life, Kids reveals the darker, more insidious side of teenage-dom that, before the film’s release, was a pretty much-unchartered territory in the movie world.
The story follows Telly, a young boy with HIV who’s made it his mission in life to sleep with as many virgins as possible. We also meet Jenny, one of Telly’s ex-lovers who spends the duration of the film trying to warn Telly’s next target that she’s in danger of contracting the virus. Gritty and brutally realistic in its depiction of the dangers of unprotected sex, Kids somehow managed to raise awareness about sexual health without ever seeming preachy. It’s a cautionary tale, sure, but it doesn’t reek of the anti-abortion pro-celibacy educational ‘movies’ we were subjected to in Life Orientation or Sex Ed classes. Instead, this drama delivers its message with all the cinematic power of a Kubrick film. Unyielding, harrowing, and occasionally funny, Kids is a masterpiece every cinephile should see at least once in their lifetime.
A quirky mumblecore classic, Clerks is a day-in-the-life film about two convenience store clerks, Dante and Randall. The movie equivalent of an anthem for retail workers everywhere, this Kevin Smith feature is delightfully unpredictable and unabashedly weird. Linklater and Smith are both credited as directors who helped pioneer the Mumblecore movement. They’re also widely considered to be the fathers of low-budget independent cinema. Smith famously made Clerks for under $30 000 and Linklater’s Slacker was made on an even tighter budget. Of course, Linklater came first historically. But when we talk about mumblecore classics, it would be sacrilegious not to mention the cult favorite that is Clerks.
As is the case with many mumblecore flicks, there is little plot to speak of in Clerks. Customers come in and out of the store and Dante and Randall simply do their jobs, sometimes badly. But the magic of the film comes from the absurdity of its characters, each of whom is entirely novel yet eerily familiar. Working in a convenience store may be dead boring, but Clerks shows us just how entertaining human life can be.
Tangerine by Sean Baker follows two trans sex workers, Sin-Dee and Alex, on an odyssey through the streets of Los Angeles. While hunting for Sin-Dee’s rumored to be unfaithful boyfriend Chester, the two friends have a chaotic evening involving a slew of hilarious side characters. Sean Baker, like Linklater, has a keen eye for casting nonprofessional actors. Kitana Rodriguez is magnificent as Sin-Dee and Mya Taylor’s Alex is equally unforgettable.
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Interestingly, the film was shot on an iPhone 5 of all things, and that’s not the only guerilla filmmaking trick in Baker’s artillery. The director ‘discovered’ Rodriguez and Taylor on the streets of LA and worked closely with them to develop the roles of Sin-Dee and Alex based on the actors’ real-life experiences as sex workers. I think I speak for all film nerds when I say that there is nothing more inspiring than a micro-budget feature made in unconventional, inventive ways. Films like Slacker and Tangerine give us hope that one day we might make the hallowed transition from critic to the creator.
Melvin Goes to Dinner (2003)
Based on the stage play “Phyro-Giants!” by Michael Blieden, Melvin Goes To Dinner is a brilliant indie film directed by Bob Odenkirk. The film invites us to dine with old friends Melvin and Joey, who are later joined by two acquaintances, Alex and Sarah. As the story progresses, the four friends enjoy dinner together and converse about everything from the inane to the profound. Like some of the other films in this list, the dialogue in MGTD comes off as incredibly natural, as if the actors were simply chatting with each other and good old Odenkirk happened to be standing nearby with a camera. But the prolonged conversation in this film isn’t just realistic — it’s intoxicating. Being privy to the private chit-chat between friends is one thing; listening in on a juicy dinner party is quite another.
As the characters sip wine and gradually let go of their inhibitions, we as the audience feel ourselves opening up to them just as they are opening up to each other. Odenkirk seems to possess a rare gift for making us feel at home in a stranger’s world and a fictitious one at that. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be longing to get an invite to dinner with Melvin and the gang.
Being John Malkovich (1999)
If you’re a fan of Waking Life (Linklater’s outrageously philosophical feature about lucid dreaming), Being John Malkovich is a must-see. Directed by Spike Jones, every beat of this film is somehow weird, wonderful, and repulsive all at once. I simply could not take my eyes away. John Cusack plays the protagonist Craig, a puppeteer struggling to support himself and his wife Lottie (Cameron Diaz). Somehow, Craig discovers a portal into the mind of the renowned stage and screen actor John Malkovich. Meanwhile, both Craig and Lottie develop feelings for the dazzling and fiery Maxine, in one of Catherine Keener’s most memorable roles. The characters head down a trippy rabbit hole as they each become obsessed with occupying the space behind John Malkovich’s eyes.
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Being John Malkovich is one of those films you’ll mull over for days, weeks even, attempting – usually in vain – to unravel its mystery. Then again, the ludicrousness of the film and its somewhat impenetrable meaning (if any) is part of its cultish charm and timeless appeal.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
For an upbeat comedy about high-school malaise a la Dazed And Confused, try the 1986 classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Starring a charming and baby-faced Matthew Broderick, the film follows Ferris, his friend Cameron, and girlfriend Sloane as they skip school and embark on a series of zany misadventures. Things get more complicated when Ferris’ high school principal begins spying on him, convinced that Ferris isn’t as sick as he claims to be.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a beloved teen comedy and an easy watch if you’re tired of re-watching Dazed (and if you’ve already seen Everybody Wants Some). The plot consists mainly of Ferris being whacky, hanging out with his friends, and getting up to no good. There’s also an unmissable scene starring a young Charlie Sheen as a leather jacket-wearing cool-guy-slash-drug-addict, the existence of which, in 2021, is almost too ironic to bear. This easygoing hangout movie doesn’t have anything particularly clever or interesting to say about teen life, but it’s a feel-good flick to perk you up on a hard day.
Happy Christmas (2014)
Despite the title, this movie isn’t a regular feel-good movie for the holidays. Happy Christmas follows Jenny (played by Anna Kendrick) when she moves in with her brother after a break-up. Jenny tries to get along with her brother’s wife, Kelly and struggles to adapt to living with the couple and their newborn baby. Director Joe Swanberg had the actors improvise all of the dialogue in this film, an approach Swanberg is known for. He’s often mentioned in the same breath as directors like Noah Baumbach due to his naturalistic mumblecore style.
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Anna Kendrick seems to thrive under Swanberg’s direction, taking her particular brand of awkward, self-effacing candor to another level. One scene involves Jenny and her brother’s babysitter, Jerry, getting violently stoned together, which is probably the most cringe-worthy ‘high’ scene I’ve ever come across. Kendrick was born for the role and Melanie Lynskey is brilliant as Kelly.
Mistress America (2015)
Mistress America is a coming-of-age story about Tracy, a college first-year student who’s struggling to make friends. When Tracy’s mother gets engaged, she inherits a cool older step-sister, Brooke, who Tracy is instantly fascinated by. If you’re in your ‘20s and feeling out of place in the world, Mistress America will soothe your angsty heart. Tracy (played by Lola Kirke) is the perfect 18-year-old: highly impressionable, jaded, and insecure. Indie darling Greta Gerwig (a frequent star in Baumbach’s movies and his wife) plays the unforgettable step-sister Brooke, who is hilariously vain and transparent, enjoying Tracy’s admiration just a little too much.
This is a good watch if you liked Dazed and Confused but you’re not in the same age group as the characters anymore. Mistress America is all about university despondency and the general weirdness of leaving home for the first time. Director Noah Baumbach is often cited as one of Linklater’s contemporaries and the guy to popularize the mumblecore movement in the late 2000s. The story includes some truly laugh-out-loud moments, and there are plenty of unexpected turns in the plot that are just delightful.
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
I have to throw in one more Baumbach film for good measure, so let’s talk about this arthouse indie from 2005. The Squid And The Whale is a black comedy about the lives of the Berkman family. When parents Joan and Bernard separate, their sons struggle to cope with the fallout. The story is brutal, revealing the different ways the Berkman children react to their trauma. Whilst Walt (played by Jesse Eisenberg) acts out by hilariously “writing” a song for the school talent show (which turns out to be “Hey You” by Pink Floyd), his younger brother Frank experiments with beer and starts masturbating at school.
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All this sounds somewhat innocent on the surface, but Baumbach depicts the boys’ coping mechanisms in a disturbing manner. I remember feeling worried about these kids the way you might fuss over a younger sibling. And the film makes for a somber reminder that children are delicate creatures we often fail to provide for in meaningful ways.