Total Recall

Ethan Hawke's 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Boyhood star.

by | July 10, 2014 | Comments

Ethan Hawke

Much has been made of the unorthodox way Richard Linklater filmed Boyhood, working with the same cast over a twelve-year span — but it’s also worth pointing out that the cast in question boasts plenty of talent, including Linklater’s frequent male lead, Ethan Hawke. With Boyhood opening in limited release this weekend, we decided to take the opportunity to have a look at Hawke’s filmography — and although it’s as stuffed with Linklater collaborations as you might expect, there’s also a lot more going on here, including some of the most cherished movies of the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. Cast off that planet of regret sitting on your shoulders, because it’s time for Total Recall!

10. Explorers


Between 1985’s Explorers and 1986’s Space Camp, the mid-’80s were a pretty great time for young astronauts at the movies — and although neither picture did all that well at the box office, the former film has gone on to enjoy cult status. This is partly thanks to Joe Dante’s ever-effusive direction of a sweet-tempered Eric Luke screenplay about neighborhood pals who use spare parts, computer know how, and a ton of youthful gumption to man their own space expedition — but it also didn’t hurt that Dante had a terrific young cast to work with, including Hawke (as Ben, the kid who dreams of traveling into space) and River Phoenix (as his computer-wiz pal Wolfgang). Explorers isn’t without its problems, among them a final act that many critics felt was a letdown after the refreshing fun of the buildup, but it still adds up to what Film4’s Daniel Etherington called “An enjoyable, quintessentially 1980s science-fiction adventure, full of wit and crafty pop culture references.”

9. Tape


The camcorder auteur version of Old Home Week, 2001’s Tape reunited Ethan Hawke with a frequent collaborator (director Richard Linklater), a former co-star (Robert Sean Leonard, who’d worked with him in Dead Poets Society), and his then-current spouse (Uma Thurman) to deliver a tightly wound adaptation of the Stephen Belber play about an increasingly unpleasant encounter between a pair of old high school buddies, fraught with the tension caused by the fact that one (Leonard) has a budding filmmaking career while the other (Hawke) is a small-town drug dealer living in hotel squalor — not to mention their shared history with a former girlfriend who’s still in the area (Thurman). It isn’t the cheeriest viewing or the prettiest movie to look at, but as a can’t-look-away drama and an example of Linklater’s ability to successfully test cinematic limits, it’s pretty darn compelling. “Three actors yakking in a single drab interior, shot on HD video,” marveled Variety’s Dennis Harvey. “It’s unlikely this poverty-program recipe has, or ever will again, yield results quite as entertaining as Tape.

8. Waking Life


Richard Linklater sure was busy during the months leading up to the 2001 Sundance Festival. Not only did he complete Tape, the ensemble camcorder drama that reunited him with frequent muse Ethan Hawke, but he also turned in Waking Life, an ambitious blend of heady intellectual themes and eye-catching visual effects. Framed by the journey of a young man (played by Dazed and Confused star Wiley Wiggins) through a city filled with a motley assortment of blue-collar philosophers and intriguing weirdos — portrayed by “interpolated rotoscoping”-ized versions of Hawke, Julie Delpy, Adam Goldberg, Nicky Katt, and others — Waking offers food for thought and a distinctive treat for the eyes. Calling it “Exhilarating, transporting, funny and haunting — and at times maddeningly heady or narcotically logy,” Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek decreed, “Waking Life doesn’t compare to any other movie experience I’ve ever had.”

7. Gattaca


In 1996, Dolly the sheep made headlines as the first cloned mammal, sending previously sci-fi-worthy topics like genetic engineering and eugenics to the forefront of public debate. You’d think that would make an instant smash out of a futuristic thriller about a man hiding behind someone else’s genetic identity — Columbia Pictures certainly thought so — but Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca still went down as one of 1997’s more notorious flops. Hawke starred as Vincent Freeman, a genetic “in-valid” who flouts the rules preventing him from joining the space program by buying off Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a paraplegic ex-swimmer with perfect DNA, setting in motion a chain of events that puts Freeman on a collision course with a squad of detectives led by his own brother (Loren Dean). It’s undeniably juicy stuff, and it was greeted with critical applause, but audiences weren’t interested for some reason — a disappointment for scribes like James Sanford, who called it “a smart, beautifully crafted piece of not-so-science-fiction that manages to successfully mix social commentary and suspense into a generally enthralling story.”

6. Dead Poets Society


A four-time Oscar nominee and one of the defining dramas of the late ’80s, Dead Poets Society found Robin Williams toning down his eminently bankable manic persona in order to anchor this late ’50s-set tale of non-conformity and self-belief with a performance of surprisingly subtle strength. As prep school teacher John Keating, Williams led a young standout cast that included Hawke, Josh Charles, Robert Sean Leonard, and Gale Hansen, as well as dependable grown-up supporting players such as Kurtwood Smith, Norman Lloyd, and Lara Flynn Boyle. A resounding $200 million-plus hit that entered the phrase “O Captain! My Captain!” into the popular lexicon, Poets also found purchase with critics like Moviehole’s Clint Morris, who assured readers, “If you’ve done some living, every cockle of your heart will be touched.”

5. A Midnight Clear


A Christmas-set WWII drama about the mounting tensions at an American GI camp, A Midnight Clear didn’t have much of a prayer at the box office in April of 1992, no matter how intriguing its cast may have been — and it was plenty intriguing, featuring standout work from Hawke and Gary Sinise, as well as solid performances from Peter Berg, Arye Gross, Frank Whaley, and Kevin Dillon. But if it missed its shot with audiences, it still resonated strongly with critics, who turned in largely positive reviews; in fact, as far as Jon Niccum of the Lawrence Journal-World was concerned, A Midnight Clear is “one of the most underrated films of the ’90s.”

4. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead


A powerful late-period triumph for director Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead offered Hawke an opportunity to deliver some of his best work surrounded by masters — not only behind the scenes, but in front of the cameras, where he shared screen time with a powerful ensemble cast that included Philip Seymour Hoffman, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, and Michael Shannon. Although the results were far from an easy watch, that clammy feeling you have while viewing Devil serves a purpose, adding a memorably pungent component to the film that Variety’s Lisa Nesselson called a “wrenching tale [that] has something for anyone who likes their melodrama spiked with palpable tension and genuine suspense.”

3. Before Sunset


Before Sunrise wasn’t a huge hit, but it acquired cult classic status, and Hawke formed a bond with Julie Delpy and writer-director Richard Linklater — so much so that the trio never really let go of their Sunrise roles, with Hawke and Delpy playing their characters in Linklater’s rotoscoped 2001 drama Waking Life while the three of them periodically returned to the idea of a sequel. That follow-up finally arrived in 2004 with Before Sunset, which finds Jesse and Celine meeting up again nine years after the events depicted in the first film and spending a memorable afternoon together in Paris. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the passage of time had dimmed neither the duo’s chemistry nor diminished their characters’ story potential; as Christy Lemire appreciatively observed for the Associated Press, “It’s a lovely, beguiling little film — a rare treat during this overheated season of blockbusters. It’s also an unusual example of a follow-up that doesn’t seem forced, but expands effortlessly on the original.”

2. Before Midnight


Nearly a decade after Before Sunset and almost 20 years after Before Sunrise, Hawke and Julie Delpy concluded writer-director Richard Linklater’s trilogy the same way they started it — namely, by offering a frank, naturalistic look at love in its various stages. As with the previous two installments, Before Midnight leans heavily on its stars’ chemistry — and once again, they prove more than up to the task, lending rich dramatic hues to a movie that, in lesser hands, would seem like little more than a lot of self-indulgent navel-gazing. For critics hoping for a clear-eyed take on midlife domesticity and filmgoers who just wanted to see the next chapter in Jesse and Celine’s story, Midnight proved every bit as lovely (and sometimes just as dark) as its title; as Moira MacDonald wrote for the Seattle Times, “Though Before Midnight is often uncomfortable to watch, it’s never less than mesmerizing — and ultimately, a joy to walk with this prickly but fascinating couple again.”

1. Before Sunrise


Looking at this list, it’s hard not to wonder if maybe Ethan Hawke should only make movies with “before” in the title — or barring that, always co-star with Julie Delpy. The duo’s richly rewarding on-screen courtship kicks off with Before Sunrise, in which Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) meet on a train and spend a night walking and talking through the streets of Vienna, developing a bond even as the hour draws nigh for Jesse to begin his scheduled journey back home to the U.S. It isn’t the flashiest premise for a film, but it obviously didn’t need to be — Before Sunrise enraptured critics, made romantic filmgoers swoon, and spawned a trilogy that slowly unspooled over the ensuing two decades. “Hawke and Delpy keep the tone not only afloat but mesmerizing,” enthused Phil Villarreal for the Arizona Daily Star. “So natural are their performances that it seems impossible not to believe they truly are soulmates who are locked in a doomed, all-too-short affair.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out Boyhood.

Finally, here’s Ethan Hawke narrating a short history of New York City’s High Line park:

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