best film:  Ethan Hawke has the full Richard Linklater ‘Before’ trilogy to draw upon here. Boyhood (2014), also from Linklater,  has to be mentioned –  as does First Reformed (2017) from Paul Schrader. Hawke has both the 2011 (The Woman in the Fifth) and 2022 (The Northman) “winner” of the most underrated film category to at least contemplate as well. Before Sunset – the middle film (for now, hopefully there are more to come in the future) from the trilogy gets the slight nod here – but Schrader’s film feels like it may eventually win out. So this is a crowded category of superior films – even if it is lacking that one towering top ten of the decade masterpiece.


Ethan Hawke has portrayed Jesse from the ‘Before’ trilogy three times – 1995, 2004 (here in Before Sunset) and 2013.


best performance:  First Reformed is such a big film for both director Paul Schrader and lead actor Ethan Hawke. Schrader will forever be connected to those Martin Scorsese screenplays (most notably Taxi Driver) and Hawke to Richard Linklater – but First Reformed helped both to move away from the shadow of Scorsese and Linklater permanently.  Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller. Like Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) he is keeping a journal (rendered via voiceover). He calls this a form of prayer because he is often rational, and because the viewer is synched with him via voice-over (like Taxi Driver) it becomes a more and more uncomfortable bond as the film progresses and Toller unravels. If the film (and Taxi Driver and Light Sleeper) owes a debt to Bresson — a large chuck of First Reformed is indebted to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light as well. And Hawke is a revelation (even at his age and experience) in the Gunnar Björnstrand role – definitely doing it justice. If one were to combine the three Jesse performances from the ‘Before’ trilogy as one (and there is an argument for that) – that may win out in this category – but even if that were the case – having these two works dueling it out is a good problem to have for Hawke’s resume.


First Reformed – the aspect ratio 1.37 : 1 – tight – it does seem to hone Paul Schrader’s focus (and puts Hawke square and close-up). This is a major achievement for Hawke. Gone is his flippant Generation X’er perfect hair handsome, almost surfer like looseness often seen in his Linklater films. He is gloomy here, severe – he has aged. There is a line down the middle of his forehead emphasizing the ware of a stressful life lived. He has the Gunnar Björnstrand-like sternness and intelligence from Winter Light and even lights up his female admirer (Victoria Hill’s Esther looking just like Ingrid Thulin’s Marta with the glasses) by saying “I despise you.”


stylistic innovations/traits:  Ethan Hawke is the actor (started as a teen, debut in 1985, first film in the archives in 1989) most associated with Generation X. The ‘Before’ trilogy, Reality Bites, and Boyhood all sort of cement that harmonization. He has largely thrived in contemporary films (he struggled to find his footing, miscast, in Robert Eggers’ The Northman). He can easily play the creative, artistic type with a knowledge of music and pop culture. Sometimes even the shaggy dog, loser with a ton of baggage (Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). The strength of Hawke’s argument for the purposes of this list is undoubtedly that foursome of archiveable films with Richard Linklater and the First Reformed game changer of a role and performance. But do not sleep on the pre-Ida (2013) and Cold War (2018) film from Paweł Pawlikowski, The Woman in the Fifth. This gives Hawke six (6) weighty performances in remarkable films – giving him as much or more than anyone left to be mentioned on this list. The case for him is not overly dependent on his natural talents. The case against him would be some of those limitations – including the issue mentioned above in The Northman. Also, in several of the works in Hawke’s filmography, certainly the actors around him (from Julie Delpy in the ‘Before’ trilogy, to Denzel Washington in Training Day, to Jude Law in Gattaca) simply are more compelling and give stronger performances. This is yet another reason why First Reformed is so necessary for Hawke – he is the main course in Schrader’s work.


from Before Midnight in 2013 – the Generation X version of Scenes from a Marriage (1973) with Hawke and Julie Delpy as magnificent dance and sparring partners


directors worked with:  Richard Linklater (4), Peter Weir (1), Alfonso Cuaron (1), Sidney Lumet (1), Paweł Pawlikowski (1), Paul Schrader (1), Robert Eggers (1)


from Boyhood in 2014 – with this, and Before Midnight (2013) flanked by his Pawlikowski (2011) and Schrader collaborations (2017) – this five year stretch is easily the strongest piece of real estate in Hawke’s career


top five performances:

  1. First Reformed
  2. Before Sunset
  3. Before Midnight
  4. Boyhood
  5. Before Sunrise


archiveable films

1989- Dead Poets Society
1992- A Midnight Clear
1994- Quiz Show
1995- Before Sunrise
1997- Gattaca
1998- Great Expectations
2001- Training Day
2004- Before Sunset
2007- Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
2011- The Woman in the Fifth
2013- Before Midnight
2014- Boyhood
2015- Maggie’s Plan
2017- First Reformed
2022- The Northman
2022- Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery