Even though it’s only July, it’s hard to imagine watching a better-made movie in 2014 than “Boyhood.” Shot in secret over 12 years, director Richard Linklater captures the journey, and struggles, of growing up — his lead actor Ellar Coltrane ages in real time, from 6 to 18 onscreen. No other film has ever been made this way. Coltrane could have bailed from the project once he hit puberty, since even the strictest contract couldn’t keep him on a project for so long, but he stuck it through to the end (along with Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who play his parents).
For millennials and movie buffs, Linklater, who is 53, is one of the most influential directors of the arthouse boom of the early ’90s. When I recently interviewed Chris Evans, he said he modeled his upcoming directorial debut, “1:30 Train,” on “Before Sunset.” You could argue that Linklater, who was influenced by the French New Wave, is partially responsible for the talky way in which so many of our stories are now told (from “Blue Valentine” to the upcoming Daniel Radcliffe romantic comedy “What If” to HBO’s “Girls”).
But because Linklater often tells more intimate stories, on smaller budgets, he’s never been nominated for an Oscar in the director category. Is it because Hollywood still thinks of Linklater as a niche filmmaker? Or maybe it’s because his movies aren’t always easy to categorize. Like the equally experimental Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers, who have been showered with awards, he’s dabbled in all genres of film, often working with his muse Ethan Hawke. Remember the micro-budgeted “Tape”? (It’s probably best to forget “The Newton Boys.”) Linklater’s best movies are “Dazed and Confused,” the “Before Sunrise” trilogy (especially “Before Sunset”), “Waking Life” and “School of Rock.” But “Boyhood” is his crowning achievement. No other American director has done a better job of capturing the verisimilitude of ordinary life.
For me, my favorite performance in “Boyhood” is from Patricia Arquette. She starts out in a happy marriage, survives a divorce and radiates so much love for her two children (the daughter in the film is played by Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei). And it’s breathtaking to see — in a business so horrified by wrinkles — a woman age on film, and only look stronger and more alive in the process.
The movie industry is understandably worried about this summer’s plummeting box office. “Boyhood” isn’t going to compete with “Transformers 4” or “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” but it’s an important reminder of why we go to the movies, for the stories. Only a filmmaker as soulful as Linklater would imagine a scenario where he spent 12 years unravelling a single narrative, and then actually go out and accomplish that. It seems premature to write about awards season in the summer, except that Linklater is so overdue. “Boyhood” shouldn’t just earn Linklater his first director nomination. He should be the favorite to win.