Thursday, January 15, 2015

Oscar Watch: Boyhood

Boyhood is that film: that one in every batch of Best Picture nominations that's really difficult to describe with any accuracy to someone not already familiar with it.  That's not necessarily bad or good: Tree of Life was a godawful, boring, indescribable mess, while Nebraska was a charming comedy that was surprisingly impossible to explain in a manner that would do it justice.  Boyhood is a great movie, one that captures the ins and outs of life, of growing up, of growing old, of maturing, of making decisions and living with their consequences, of making and breaking connections, of creating families and living with the family you've got, all while nothing of any real note occurs on the screen.  See?  It's a difficult one to capture.

Normally, I try not to watch Best Picture-nominated films at home because if I haven't seen them in the theater, I inevitably will at AMC's Best Picture Showcase.  Besides, great cinema should be viewed from a row of seats on a large screen.  However, I'd already become curious about this film pre-nominations and had picked it up on PPV, though I hadn't taken the time to watch it until now.  And I'm kind of glad I did: Boyhood, with its very intimate scope, actually works pretty well playing in your living room.

Boyhood sprang from the same locus of experimentation in Richard Linklater's brain that brought us Waking Life in 2001.  In case you don't remember it, Waking Life used animation overlaying actual filmed dialogue of people discussing dreams to give the entire movie a very dreamlike quality.  This time, Linklater wanted to make a movie about childhood, found he couldn't decide which part of childhood to cover, opted to do all of it, and twelve years later finished the film.

The movie is largely carried by the quiet charisma of Ellar Coltrane, who fortunately turned out to be quite a good screen presence after originally being cast in this at age 8.  He's joined in his twelve year journey to adulthood by hard-working mom Patricia Arquette, who has a tendency to chew scenery when her character's not busy making poor life choices; roguish dad Ethan Hawke, who somehow turns out to be the stable, responsible one; and sister Lorelei Linklater (Richard's daughter), who is unfortunately to this movie what Sofia Coppola was to Godfather III.

There's a direct cinema feel to Boyhood, albeit not in the cinematography, which is often gorgeous.  Much of the movie has Ellar's Mason and his family dealing with relatively mundane things, such as moving, making friends at school, entering and exiting relationships, and spending time with each other.  Individually, these scenes are not edge-of-your-seat excitement.  The beauty of Boyhood as filmcraft is how each of these annual check-ins with Mason and family coalesce into a discernible arc for each character, just as the dots on a Google Maps display collectively form a navigation route.  At each point, you can look back and see clearly how the characters got there, and you have a decent idea of what's coming next.

Yet that doesn't make the film predictable, because it's not the plot that's important -- it's what the characters think and feel and say that makes the movie.  At different times, Linklater's characters discuss the meaning of life, the purpose of their experiences, and what it means to be happy (and whether one can truly be happy).  There are not the great western philosophers espousing wisdom from on high here -- in fact, the movie would suffer greatly if Linklater attempted that.  These are the words and thoughts of very believable everyday people, creating a cinema experience that invites the viewer to take part in the philosophical discourse as well.  And I think that was part of Linklater's aim, crafting a philosophical response on life and aging on the part of the audience in much the same way Waking Life evoked thoughts on the fabric of reality.

Boyhood received several well-deserved nominations.  Clearly it deserves to be in the mix for Best Picture as a successful experiment in the form and process of film making.  However, I have to question whether it will merit the top spot because, while it's certainly innovative and groundbreaking, I'm not sure it feels important, which is often where I look in selecting Best Picture.  Ethan Hawke did a fabulous job as Mason Sr., earning him a supporting nod, though he's up against stiff competition.  Arquette received a nomination for supporting actress, but I'm very lukewarm to that nod -- in a film packed to the gills with understated, natural performances, her over the top moments seemed jarring.  Linklater's nominations for directing and screenplay were clearly well-earned, though I'll wait to see how both stack up to the well-reviewed competition before making a call.  Sandra Adair's nomination for editing is not only well-deserved, she's my early favorite for the Oscar.

There were no original songs in Boyhood, but it has a stellar soundtrack stretching across the years it was shot, capped by the appropriately named Family of the Year's "Hero".  And that's not even counting Linklater's incredible idea of The Beatles' Black Album, which I now want to own on CD -- someone make it so!  I need to listen to it while I contemplate the meaning of life.  What is this all about?...

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