For the sake of this argument, “Birdman” and “Boyhood” were the two contenders, pitted by the media against each other, partly for dramatic intensity and also because they both involved impressive technical experiments.
I reviewed “Birdman” and “Boyhood” and gave them both an A. For all the flack I gave my colleagues for preferring “Birdman,” I enjoyed it. It was an intellectual puzzle I saw twice to pry out its minute and meticulously placed details. Every minute in “Birdman” is a pulsing nerve center of soundtrack, writing and, of course, cinematography. And the cinematography is riveting — nothing Hitchcock hasn’t done, mind you — but it barrels the movie through its psychological labyrinth of artistic anxiety. “Birdman” is an example of form marshaled to function with militaristic precision; it’s never superfluous or sybaritic, except as an intentional representation of Michael Keaton’s (“Beetlejuice”) own grandiosity. But even as “Birdman” ’s form is careful to never overwhelm content, form makes “Birdman.” This is a paean to the well-oiled machines that create art — the story is secondary. It’s a film’s film.
And so I reveal my very unfashionable hand: “Birdman” didn’t stick to me. Yes, audience effect should theoretically not be part of a movie’s critique, but for all its formalistic brilliance, “Birdman” is the equivalent of reading a brilliant modernist poem, something undergirded by a frame of perfect logic and organization. “Birdman” delights in its difficulty. Even as “Birdman” uses its tour-de-force camerawork and jarring drumbeating soundtrack to transform the screen into a psychic state, it rejects any emotional association with its protagonist.
Any other year, that would have been OK. I’m outing myself as an unapologetic sentimentalist when I say “Boyhood” clung to me far beyond the hot summer afternoon I saw it, and that’s why I champion it as the winner between the two.
I was talking to a fellow editor yesterday who felt that “Boyhood” ’s lack of storic importance disqualified it from something like the Oscars. I don’t love the Oscars (didn’t even watch them, oops) but I vehemently disagree that we need history to be stretched out on screen for an Oscar. But if that’s the case, “Birdman” still isn’t the frontrunner. Both films are accounts of trivial, yet taken in wildly different directions. If “Birdman” tamps its storyline about — let’s face it — a run-of-the-mill midlife crisis with untenable drama, “Boyhood” refuses to impose its story with artificial narrative. Its ‘gimmick,’ as I said in my review of the film, isn’t a gimmick. It dissolves into the screen after the first few time-jumps, allowing life to swell like never before to the screen’s surface. Where “Birdman” never lets you forget about its camera, “Boyhood” creates temporary amnesia of form.
And for those 165 minutes, I felt swallowed up by “Boyhood.” There are few similarities between Mason Jr. (newcomer Ellar Coltrane) and me; we consider ourselves ‘creative-types’ and didn’t love high school (who did?), but that’s it — he’s an adolescent Texan boy with divorced parents. Yet mapped on the screen, his moments strung together in the constellation of life resonated with mine, too. Quiet sorrows, like Mason Jr.’s disciplinarian stepfather shaving off his beautiful head of hair unfold against the muted joys, like having a great conversation with a girl at a party, along with the funny, mundane and ugly. There are moments of triumph, but this isn’t an epic retelling of life. Everything in “Boyhood” is contained within its ordinary bounds.
This could seem effortless, or even accidental, but “Boyhood” is held together nonetheless by a near-perfect invisible structure that rivals “Birdman” ’s. While the physical changes in “Boyhood” ’s cast are certainly the most apparent, this filming process allowed an experimental form of writing. Richard Linklater completed the script as he shot, rewriting the script after reviewing the footage from the most previous year. The result is a script which reflects on and absorbs itself as it grows. As Mason Jr. developed, the script too underwent its own parallel coming of age.
“Life doesn’t have a plot, and neither does ‘Boyhood,’” is what I tell people who complain that the movie is pointless. That’s pithy, but by granting life a screen, unfettered by climaxes and rising action and foreshadowing (notice how Linklater denied that college love-interest Nicole (Jessi Mechler, “Morganville”) was the same Nicole who passed Mason Jr. a note in middle school), “Boyhood” runs headlong into that sensation most movies may only graze if lucky: seeing life, not just imitated, but created on a screen.
This veers into debates of art: is it to reflect or shatter reality? To comfort or to disorient? Normally, I gravitate towards the disruptive qualities of art, work like the Dadaists who Walter Benjamin said “turned art into a missile.” And “Birdman” reminds me of the transformative gears of art, of its ability to pummel and reshape reality. But “Boyhood” uses its quietly brilliant form for other uses. Watching “Boyhood” fills me with that deep and corny feeling of solidarity with the human species.