I used to have the best picture Oscar winners memorized, starting in 1989 when I watched the ceremony all the way through for the first time (as you can guess, I was a VERY cool kid). Clearly I thought they meant something, but as I got older they meant less and less. I’m not cynical so much as I realize it’s hard to say something is the best when it may be very different than its competition. So should Boyhood have won best picture over Birdman?
I liked it better, if that’s worth anything. I actually found it more thought-provoking than powerful or even moving. While the film does have a plot (Mason and family move to Houston, mom marries and then divorces a drunk, Mason and family move to the country, mom marries and then divorces a drunk again, Mason goes to college), it consists mainly of scenes depicting the non-events that surround these events. Linklater said that he specifically skipped these “big moments” in favor of the smaller ones. But why? I like to think it’s what Mason remembers. The film begins with him lying on his back looking at the clouds (pictured above in the poster). Is this Mason’s first memory? Why does Linklater show Mason staring at dead bird. Again, I assume it’s because it’s something adult Mason remembers, not because it has anything to do with the plot. As I watched Boyhood, however, I kept waiting for plot to take over. And it never did. But again, this is what Linklater intended. And finally, the film resists every urge to tie up its stories, save one tangential encounter involving Mason’s mom and a contractor from years before. Ironically, I thought about both how corny it would have been for Mason to revisit his first home on the way to college and find his height marks on the door frame of his first home, and what a great payoff that scene would have been. But that’s the difference between real life (I’ve never gone back to any house I’ve lived in) and a movie. Boyhood definitely identifies with the former.
The plot isn’t the only thing that feels real. Technically, the movie is equal parts documentary and fiction. The scene I think best embodies this is the baseball game Mason’s dad takes him to. The actors were actually at that game (meaning that no baseball nerds can point out that said game was clearly from 2014 for a bunch of boring reasons, although someone does try). Moreover, Linklater had no idea the Astros were going to win that game. In another movie, the screenwriter would have to decide if the Astros won or lost that game, but here it doesn’t matter – just like it doesn’t matter in real life. Put another way, if another movie wants to depict scenes in 2002, 2006, and 2010, a whole production team is required to ensure the locations, cars, costumes, music, and so on are all appropriate for those eras; Boyhood‘s production designer is real life. There will be nothing under the “anachronisms” heading on Boyhood‘s IMDB page. After seeing this, I’m not sure what I’ll think of another movie that has a recent-past setting, or that uses different actors to play the same character at different points in his life.
That said, I think Boyhood was more of a directorial tour de force than a best picture. Maybe the Oscars got it right this time.