JUSTIN CHANG: We don’t always agree, Guy (no two critics ever should), but it’s safe to say we’ve been more simpatico than usual over the course of this very long and happily almost-over awards season. I think we would both argue, for example, that “Foxcatcher” was ridiculously worthy of an Oscar nomination for best picture, and that its failure to nab one seems all the more inexplicable given that Bennett Miller managed to crack the much more competitive directing race. Likewise, I don’t know anyone else who had almost precisely the same reaction and counter-reaction to “Birdman” as I did — an initial thrill that almost completely fell apart on second viewing.
Clearly the industry feels otherwise, if “Birdman’s” presumed Oscar-frontrunner status is to be believed — which I fear it is, even as some of us are still clinging desperately to the hope that “Boyhood” will prevail. Whichever one of these two critically lauded auteur passion projects ends up winning, it’s worth remembering that there are still six other films up for the big prize, and while I’d happily kick at least one or two of them to the curb, overall it’s a remarkably impressive field that I look forward to digging into with you. Had the Academy seen fit to include another one of my favorites, like “Gone Girl” or “Interstellar” or “Winter Sleep” (a man can dream), I daresay the discussion we’re about to have would be a much more contentious one. Which brings me to a logical question before we kick things off: Which un-nominated film of 2014 would you like to have seen crack the best picture category, and why?
GUY LODGE: If I’m thinking purely in the realm of fantasy — or, if you will, icily immaculate, Glaswegian-set science fiction — the answer has to be Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” a film of such daunting conceptual discipline, beauty and unnerving emotional payoff that even my most treasured best picture nominees appear duly humbled beside it. It’s a fool’s game to predict which contemporary films will be pored over in decades to come, but already, the extent of the film’s critical rehabilitation in just the year following its rocky Telluride debut have me confident that a true genre touchstone has been unearthed. Again, I know you agree with me on this; I probably should have picked an example that would bear out the truth of your opening words.
In any event, I’m the first to acknowledge that the Academy would need a collective personality transplant before an “Under the Skin” would crack their ballot. Some films aren’t made for Oscars any more than Oscars are made for them, and the universe is probably more stable for that fact. With that in mind, there are any number of worthy films nominated in lesser categories — “Ida,” “Citizenfour,” “The Lego Movie,” even my beloved “Begin Again” — whose presence on the best picture ballot would lend it some much-needed stylistic breadth. There’s been much kvetching this year about the overriding whiteness and maleness of the lineup, but it’s unhappily homogeneous in other ways: Seven of the eight nominees are U.S. productions or co-productions, while the opportunities for animated, foreign-language, documentary or even blockbuster genre fare that we were promised when the category was expanded in 2009 have gone unfulfilled this year.
THE IMITATION GAME
LODGE: Certainly, one presumes Academy brass didn’t make that bold move to further clear the path for prestige biopics as dully unilluminating (and visually unilluminated) as “The Imitation Game,” though I’m not going to kid myself: Morten Tyldum’s pat, televisual imagining of Alan Turing’s life and career would still have cruised through in a field of five. To my mind, it’s the least deserving of the nominees by a considerable margin, its crucial failings more specious than its beige aesthetics or Graham Moore’s tin-eared, frequently anachronistic dialogue: The film’s timid, buttoned-to-the-neck handling of Turing’s sexuality, and its blithe gloss over the institutional homophobia that destroyed him, effectively amount to a reinscription of that very prejudice. And yet its campaign ads — craven and self-serving even by the suspect standards of these things — would have us believe that any honors “The Imitation Game” receives can be counted directly toward the clearing of Turing’s name. Is it overly optimistic to imagine that’s why the film, despite copious nominations, has come up empty at one awards ceremony after another? Almost certainly, but I’ll take it.
CHANG: There would be a certain poetic justice if “The Imitation Game” ended up winning as many Oscars as “The Immigrant,” thereby rendering utterly ineffectual the loathsome extremes — either tacky excess or near-criminal neglect — that have sadly come to define the Weinstein Co.’s campaign tactics. Frankly, I’m not sure which of the film’s evasions I should be more offended by: the assumption that we couldn’t handle a more honest treatment of Alan Turing’s sexuality, or that we’d be too bored to stomach even a remedial-math-level explanation of his groundbreaking discoveries and the complex processes by which he arrived at them. In a year where infinitely superior biographical dramas like “American Sniper” and “Selma” were taken to task for playing fast and loose with history (more on that later), Tyldum’s film is not only the weakest best picture nominee but by far the most historically and intellectually bankrupt. As Keira Knightley notes, “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” — so goes the fatuous refrain of a movie that evinces precious little imagination of its own.
CHANG: Things can only get better from there — although perhaps not significantly better for you, Guy, since I know you’re not particularly smitten with “Whiplash,” one of the more surprising and (to my mind) heartening inclusions in this year’s derby. It’s not my favorite of the nominees by a long shot, but of the two best picture contenders this year that subjected the eternally struggling artist to a relentless gauntlet of physical and psychological humiliation, I have to say I prefer Damien Chazelle’s film to “Birdman” by a significant margin. And I’ll happily confess that I was as galvanized as anyone else in that opening-night audience at Sundance, carried along by the electricity of the performances and the sheer visceral momentum of the filmmaking. Affecting a snarling, swaggering cynicism that looks touchingly close to idealism, even naivete, in retrospect, Chazelle posed the question of what separates the wannabes from the greats — and whether or not you think he succeeded in setting himself apart here, there’s not a doubt in my mind that he has greatness in him.
LODGE: I like what the nomination (and the multiple wins I anticipate) for “Whiplash” represent: At a time when polished mini-major indies have supplanted studio event pictures as the Academy’s favored catnip, it’s heartening to see cheaper, earthier independents elbowing their way into the race. This acknowledgement of distinct strata within the realm of non-studio cinema is a far cry from 1996, when “The English Patient” was hailed as an indie flag-bearer. People across all walks of the industry sincerely adore and admire “Whiplash”; its deserving presence in the blockbuster-inclined sound-mixing category speaks volumes. And yet I was surprised how little I felt the promised rush. For all its skittering expertise of craft, there’s a dishonesty to its characterization that denied me the emotional release for which the film — like all hard-fought art, as Chazelle’s screenplay states — strives. J.K. Simmons’ forcefully played conductor is a symbol of either constructive perfectionism or self-sabotaging sadism; despite its hell-for-leather bravado, “Whiplash” never makes a pronouncement either way, and I would argue that its fable-like construction demands otherwise. Still, I agree with you on Chazelle’s brisk, brash talent; voters could have filled this slot with any number of less vigorous alternatives.
LODGE: Marching to the beat of, well, much the same drum — and I’m not just talking about its skull-pounding soundtrack — we come to the film that has emerged, if sundry guild honors are to be believed, as the improbable frontrunner. “Oscar voters love films about themselves,” pundits claim with an eye on recent history, though “Argo” and “The Artist” are the only Hollywood-focused films to win the top prize. “Birdman” shares more DNA with “All About Eve” anyway, albeit with a hefty testosterone injection. For a film ostensibly dedicated to pricking a delusional male ego, the film (written by four men, it doesn’t feel too churlish to note) somehow manages to think even less of women; all three female principals find their promising arcs culminating in random sexual activity, while Riggan Thomson gets on with the serious business of transcendent Acting. (Is he a disillusioned good actor or an over-enabled bad one? Is his dismal-looking play meant to be an honest triumph or the emperor’s new feathers? That I still can’t tell makes me cooler than most on Michael Keaton’s mega-meta performance.)
“Birdman’s” supercilious veneer of irony means it has dual-purpose answers prepared for all these questions: It critiques industry sexism by emulating it, and calls out jacked-up artistry with its own razzle-dazzle. In that sense, it’s as critic-proof as the studio tentpoles from which its protagonist is fleeing. But I remain surprised by the extent to which the industry has embraced an insider satire that isn’t merely sour and unflattering, but scattershot in its targeting. No one emerges from “Birdman” with either credit or credibility: Hollywood eats the soul, Broadway forges it, actors are self-loathing and over-inflated, and critics are both cynical and susceptible to ersatz art. As you said at the top, “Birdman” is a pretty fun ride — even if the authentic one-take wonder “Victoria,” recently premiered at Berlin, leaves it for dust in the stunt stakes — but it’s hard to celebrate much about a film that stands for so little.
CHANG: Full disclosure: I was dazzled by Alejandro G. Inarritu’s film on first viewing, with some reservations. I watched it again sometime later and found those reservations not just growing, but rapidly metastasizing, and I’m now in complete agreement with the New Yorker’s Richard Brody that the film is “an exercise in cinematic half-assedness: It tackles big questions and offers conventional answers.” Guy, you invoked “All About Eve,” but “Birdman” has none of Joe Mankiewicz’s silky wit and maybe three times the recommended dose of bile. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie set in the world of “the theatuh” that seemed less taken with the possibilities of language, or one that purported to celebrate the magic of acting while offering up so many stiffly agitated performances — and that extends even to Keaton, who’s essentially playing a coy meta-conceit rather than a concretely imagined character.
I bow to no one in my admiration for Emmanuel Lubezki, but here his swooping, soaring camera strikes me as little more than a distraction from the fundamental emptiness of Inarritu’s conception, a case of radical form disguising rudimentary content. Those long takes draw us in, but they also serve to paper over the thinness of the characterizations, the pedestrian nature of the farce and the unoriginality of the satire. I say all this, by the way, as a defender of most of the director’s past work — yes, even those crazily overwrought melodramas “Babel” and “21 Grams” (now there was a movie that actually gave Naomi Watts something to do), though like many I couldn’t abide “Biutiful.” Now he’s gone and made “Birdman,” a film heavily favored to win Oscars for best picture and director, which means that in the eyes of the industry, this is Inarritu’s redemptive moment of glory, his Riggan Thompson-style comeback. Applying the logic of “Birdman’s” own cheap but unearned cynicism, it’s a moment that feels more than a little suspect.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
CHANG: Every year brings its share of biographical dramas — prime grist for an industry that likes to conflate itself with serious themes, worthy causes, lavish historical re-creations and astounding feats of actorly mimicry. Yet this is the first year we’ve had two different films so weirdly reminiscent of “A Beautiful Mind” — in some ways, the prototypical prestige biopic (and one of my least favorite best picture winners of all time). Like Ron Howard’s film, “The Imitation Game” sentimentalizes a prickly mathematical genius while keeping certain contentious aspects of his inner life under wraps; “The Theory of Everything,” for its part, spins a portrait of how the burdens of genius and disability affect an otherwise resilient marriage. None of these films, of course, really gives a damn about game theory, or differential calculus, or computer science, or theoretical physics — they skim lightly over the surface of such concerns, reducing their subjects to the simplest emotional equations in the process. (If you wanted to learn something about Stephen Hawking’s work from a movie this year, you really had to see “Interstellar.”)
If there’s a reason I prefer “The Theory of Everything” to the other two, it may have something to do with the gracefulness of James Marsh’s direction — somewhere under all that gloss and narrative airbrushing, you can discern the soulful touch of the guy who made “Man on Wire.” But it also comes down to a simple matter of gender politics. The supportive, long-suffering wife has become such a disposable biopic trope that I found Marsh’s film genuinely compelling in its determination to actually weigh the physical, emotional and spiritual costs of Jane Hawking’s sacrifice — to suggest that her mind might be just as beautiful, or at least as interesting, as that of her more famous husband. I wouldn’t have nominated Felicity Jones for best actress (or Eddie Redmayne for best actor, for that matter), but there’s no question the character’s lead status is fully earned, or that the “Everything” in the title would feel a lot more specious without her involvement.
LODGE: Yes, that best picture win for “A Beautiful Mind” sure hasn’t aged well — a statement that became true one millisecond after the envelope was opened — but I admit I retain a certain affection for Ron Howard’s film, which has little grasp on its subject’s genius, but works as a romantic evocation of how it might feel to be locked inside such brilliance. And it’s for similar reasons that I warmed, despite my most cynical misgivings, to “The Theory of Everything” — the more emotionally intelligent of the year’s two unavoidably bracketed beleaguered-British-boffin biopics, even if it likewise has no business on a list of the year’s best films. (As a U.K. resident, it depresses me that these are the chief ambassadors for a versatile national cinema that has so much more to offer: I’ve already addressed the lost cause that was “Under the Skin,” but if it’s cuddly heritage cinema voters want, “Paddington” is there and waiting.)
Still, Marsh’s film deftly, and sometimes even lyrically, negotiates its own limitations. In contrast to the televisual BBC veneer of Tyldum’s film, Marsh has conceived this story, albeit modestly, as cinema: Its shimmering images rather vividly reflect Hawking’s own agitated state of consciousness. And while I wish Anthony McCarten’s screenplay were more than notionally interested in Jane as an individual — between church choirs and medieval Spanish poetry, we get her Tinder profile, not her personality — I agree with you on its unexpectedly even-handed virtues as a love story. All that, and damn it if Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones aren’t pretty and winsome and very, very good. I’m not made of stone.
LODGE: If there’s one film on which our agreement may come as more of a surprise to readers than any other, it’s Clint Eastwood’s umpteenth return to artistic form — if only because “American Sniper” has prompted more heated debate in the media (and, of course, on the rhetorical landmine of Twitter) than the rest of the nominees combined. It has also grossed more than the rest of the nominees combined, something that can’t usually be said for lightning-rod cinema that actively invites post-screening discussion. It was Telegraph critic Tim Robey who described the film as “a Rorschach test for perceptions of the Iraq War,” which I think is quite correct: Terse to the last, Eastwood has framed Chris Kyle’s story from a respectful distance, and with a dry practicality that could be interpreted either as brutishly approving or coldly condemnatory, depending on how roused or riled-up viewers prefer to be.
I can’t claim to have seen the same film as those dismissing “American Sniper” as pro-military propaganda. Such a reading is obtusely insensitive both to Eastwood’s highly controlled technique, free as it is from gung-ho artifice, and the piercing flashes of psychic pain in Bradley Cooper’s astonishing lead performance — which I know we’re both hoping will pip Redmayne and Keaton to the best actor post on Sunday night. But neither is it anything so simple or familiar as an anti-war film, weighing up as it does the relative risk, damage and compromised political gain inherent in the act of killing, on either side of the cross-hairs. I gasped when Eastwood chose to show us Kyle’s most conflicted and controversial execution onscreen; it turns out the saturated “war-is-hell” genre still has the capacity to surprise us, one of many reasons I’m glad this scrupulous, unlovable film is here.
CHANG: Tim’s Rorschach comparison is spot-on, given that some of the more hysterical charges of jingoism directed at “American Sniper” seemed to tell me more about the writers and their political views than they did about the movie. (And that’s a charitable read on my part — I imagine some of them weren’t reviewing the film at all, but rather Eastwood’s widely derided performance at the 2012 Republican National Convention.) To be fair, the right has more than done its part to bear out the accusations of the left, laying claim to “Sniper” as some sort of flag-waving poster child; just as I was writing this, an email popped into my inbox from the GOP-backed polling firm Vox Populi, informing me that “despite the controversy surrounding the film, ‘American Sniper’ is still America’s pick for best picture.” Now that’s jingoism, and in tone or intent, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the conflicted, despairing movie I saw and reviewed in November — and boy, am I grateful that I was able to weigh in before this particular online screaming match ignited.
I’m also grateful for critics like Manohla Dargis, Ty Burr, Joshua Rothkopf, John Powers and David Denby, among others, who astutely saw “American Sniper” for the mournful, tough-minded, unresolvable portrait of war that it is — one coolly fascinated by military codes and rules of engagement, and one perfectly consistent with Eastwood’s endlessly complex, career-long inquiry into violence as a grim and inextricable aspect of the national character. There’s a reason even the film’s critics recognize it as his best work in years: Spiritual mosaics and ’60s rock musicals may never be Eastwood’s strong suit, but sobering, morally ambiguous war stories very much are. He’s completely in his element here, demonstrating a formal command so breathtakingly precise (OK, fake baby aside) that his subtlety clearly eludes his detractors and partisans alike. And nowhere is that subtlety more pronounced than in Cooper’s quietly wrenching performance: If there’s a reason I don’t buy the charges of unexamined hero worship, it’s simply that Chris Kyle may be the protagonist of “American Sniper,” but he never once struck me as its hero.
CHANG: Reductive as it is to pit two remarkable films against each other, there’s no denying that “American Sniper” and “Selma” have spent much of this season as unlikely bedfellows, starting with the night the two films premiered virtually back-to-back at AFI Fest. The feeling at the time was that Eastwood’s film had been roundly upstaged; initial reactions to Ava DuVernay’s skillful, superbly honed dramatization of the civil rights movement were through-the-roof ecstatic, as much for its artistry as for its currency in the post-Ferguson era. Since then, of course, “Sniper” and “Selma” have arguably undergone severe reversals of fortune; it was “Sniper” that emerged from its political firestorm unscathed with more than $300 million in box office, massive cultural cachet, six Oscar nominations and (some believe) a real chance at an upset victory. Meanwhile, it’s hard for those of us who love “Selma” to regard it without a lingering sense of defeat — heartened by its respectable $48 million haul and two Oscar nominations, but disappointed by the smear tactics that may have cost DuVernay and David Oyelowo the directing and acting nominations they so richly deserved. That isn’t just a blow to the cause of women and people of color in the industry; it’s a blow to the recognition of excellence in general.
The larger consolation, of course, is that however many gold statuettes it does or doesn’t acquire, DuVernay’s film remains one of the most fiercely accomplished to emerge this year, and I have no doubt that its most significant and lasting work still lies ahead of it. Some have pointed out, not without irony, that “Selma” is precisely the sort of rousingly intelligent populist filmmaking the Academy typically likes to honor, which runs the risk of making it sound far more ordinary than it is: Simply to watch Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo enact the Kings’ intimate marital drama, their faces and bodies warmly lit by the superb cinematographer Bradford Young, is to behold a gorgeous level of craft — of elegant image making and grounded, deeply humane storytelling — too rarely afforded African-Americans and other minorities inside or outside the studio system. If this is conventional filmmaking, then why does it feel so profoundly radical? I just realized I’ve reached my limit and I haven’t yet written a word about LBJ — and you know what, I think I’ll keep it that way.
LODGE: The hullabaloo over “Selma’s” portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson — hardly a damning one, in my view, but one both critically and empathetically frustrated by pedantic political process — has been disheartening far beyond its short-term impact on the film’s Oscar campaign. To take a film to task for daring to interpret history, and not merely transcribe its incontrovertible facts, is to deny both storytellers and their audience any capacity for individual understanding. We both came down quite hard on “The Imitation Game” earlier, and I certainly disagree with key decisions Graham Moore made in his characterization of Alan Turing — but our response when so provoked should be questioning rather than censorious, and I think a lot of the anti-“Selma” mudslinging crossed that line. And at a time when state legislative committees are placing strictures on the teaching of Advanced Placement U.S. History in classrooms — one screening arena in which I would hope and expect DuVernay’s film to live eternally — this whole ugly episode seems more than a storm in a teacup.
Returning to the comparatively small potatoes of the Oscar race, however, I still think the blame for “Selma’s” faded fortunes lies less with its vociferous detractors than with its studio minders. Much has already been written about Paramount’s campaign mismanagement, from the late sending of screeners to ill-prepared historical defense against attacks that were patently inevitable; I remain convinced that a couple of weeks might have made all the difference to the nomination count for a film that, among Oscar voters, was more under-seen than under fire. For that reason, the #OscarsSoWhite meme, fiercely pointed as it was, didn’t strike me as wholly fair. (Surely the industry, rather than the Academy, should take the rap for the fact that it only took one film underperforming to leave the field so ethnically imbalanced; as it is, Mauritania, the tiny nation behind Abderrahmane Sissako’s luminous foreign-language nominee “Timbuktu,” contributed almost as much black-themed cinema to the race as America did.) Is it now churlish for me to complain that “Selma” looks likely to be rewarded on Sunday for its only aspect — Common and John Legend’s climactic protest anthem “Glory” — that I found tonally gauche and thematically on-the-nose? Perhaps, at this point, the symbolic value of any gold for this intellectually and aesthetically rigorous film outweighs the specifics.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
LODGE: I can think of no elegant segue from the white-hot fury of DuVernay’s film to the pink-frosted friskiness of Wes Anderson’s Continental romp, which is all to the good: These are the extreme internal contrasts for which the best picture category should strive. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a film that mourns the past as persuasively as “Selma” bids it good riddance — though needless to say, we’re not talking remotely equivalent pasts here. Wry title cards in Anderson’s film inform us that the imaginary republic of Zubrowka was “once the seat of an Empire,” which sets the tone for a story of diminished glories and last bastions: Anderson (and, of course, his extraordinary production designer Adam Stockhausen) has constructed the eponymous hotel as a kind of reflector of disappearing grace, beauty and decorum in 20th-century Europe, with Ralph Fiennes’ delicious Monsieur Gustave its quiet curator and finally defeated upholder of standards. (In a casualty-ridden best actor battlefield, Fiennes may be the name I miss most of all.)
In its own eccentric way, then, the film says a lot more about the social, economic and psychological damage — much of it irrevocable — wrought on multiple nations by the Second World War than a number of more self-identifying, Oscar-tailored Holocaust dramas. I hope I’m not the first to suggest a double bill pairing it with Pawel Pawlikowski’s exquisite best foreign-language film frontrunner “Ida,” which offers its own original take on this seemingly well-tilled narrative ground — to stylistically opposed but comparably elegiac effect. So I’m surprised by those who dismiss “Budapest,” however affectionately, as froth. I’ve largely been resistant to Anderson’s charms in the past — and, yes, may have tossed the words “twee” disdainfully in his direction — but for me, this is the first film in which his instinctive affinity for nostalgia acquires genuine thematic purpose and resonance. Perhaps I’m getting marzipan-soft in my early-middle age, but I was moved. I also laughed. A lot.
CHANG: I may have been even less of an Anderson fan than you were, Guy, perpetually fed up with the exquisite emptiness of his lovingly hand-stitched worlds and the moribund daddy issues with which he insisted on saddling his characters — one of many reasons even his widely beloved stop-motion adaptation of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” left me cold. (My eyes were as tickled as anyone else’s, but my inner Roald Dahl fan protested, quite loudly.) But the sheer loveliness of “Moonrise Kingdom” marked the beginning of a turnaround for me, and now his latest film strikes me as a staggering, almost evolutionary leap: Deliriously eccentric, intensely mannered, and so mouth-wateringly gorgeous it makes you want to lick the screen, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” represents the purest quintessence of Wes Anderson — a gaudy, glistening Hungarian sponge cake of a movie that should by rights be utterly exasperating, and instead turns out to be an unmitigated delight from start to finish.
It’s a cardinal rule of mine that you should always be willing to let a filmmaker surprise you, even one you’ve written off in the past; for that reason, few things have given me more personal satisfaction all year than the ability to say, with the joy of the newly converted: “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a wonderful, wonderful movie — a masterpiece, in fact — and I wouldn’t mind in the slightest if it managed to score an upset victory for best director and/or picture, in addition to the screenplay Oscar I imagine Anderson rightly has coming to him. To be fair, I haven’t heard too much dissent on what has become the writer-director’s biggest commercial and perhaps critical success to date; if the word “trifle” has been thrown about, it’s been in the purely confectionary sense. People seem to grasp that there’s far more to this movie than meets the eye (which is saying a lot, because what meets the eye is glorious). Indeed, in an awards season dominated by so much short-sighted talk of the filmmaker’s obligation to the facts, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” offers the most artful rebuke imaginable: It demonstrates that a film can take extremely imaginative liberties, drifting from one fantastic flight of fancy to the next, and still tell us significant, even shattering truths about history.
CHANG: So here we are at last, Guy: the best picture nominee we agree is the most deserving of the lot, and my own personal pick for the best film of 2014. I didn’t see anything else last year that I loved more, or that inspired in me this almost parental degree of protectiveness. So while I’ve just about run out of things to say, let me add this: To hell with the fools who have dismissed Richard Linklater’s captivating, career-defining miracle of a movie as little more than an unremarkable indie stunt. It’s simply the latest version of that noxious “my kid could paint that” argument that philistines have always used to dismiss innovation in every medium, and it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how movies work in general and how “Boyhood” was made in particular.
To state that the film wouldn’t have been as effective if it hadn’t been shot over 12 years — if young Mason had been played by multiple actors, or perhaps with a motion-capture assist (because really, who didn’t watch “Boyhood” and think, “That was good, but I wonder what Robert Zemeckis would have done”?) — is not only to miss the point of the experiment, but also to exaggerate the film’s novelty at the expense of its deeper achievement. It is to completely overlook the tremendous sensitivity with which Linklater and his collaborators sculpted their characters from year-to-year, faithfully observing and recording the passage of time, and allowing their own personal evolution to shape those details into a singular work of resonant, deeply inhabited fiction. You cannot, in short, separate “Boyhood” from the process by which it came into being.
As Jack Black aptly noted at this year’s Golden Globes ceremony, “Boyhood” doesn’t announce Linklater’s arrival as a great filmmaker; he’s been one for decades. And if there’s a reason why I feel more invested than usual in seeing him lauded — and why a victory for the showbiz-flattering ostentation of “Birdman” would feel like a painfully missed opportunity — it’s that the Academy almost never honors a guy like Linklater, a hardcore cinephile who has triumphed again and again over the prison of conventional narrative, whose films are bracingly steeped in the rhythms of ordinary life, and whose boldest authorial signature is his beguiling modesty. I’d like to believe that, whatever happens on Sunday night, he will have more chances at the sort of industry acclaim he has long deserved but never pandered for, and that his brand of quietly truthful, emotionally perceptive filmmaking may yet be recognized. “What’s the big deal?” the naysayers will continue to wonder. But as “Boyhood” so wisely reminds us, it’s not the big deals in life, but the little ones, that really and truly matter.
LODGE: And you thought you had run out of things to say, Justin! My first impulse upon reading everything you’ve just written was to copy, paste and co-sign, but that’d be poor journalistic form. I agree that this feels not just the right moment to honor Linklater but, potentially, the only moment: A versatile low-to-mid-budget director who nonetheless doesn’t trade in traditional awards fare, he has almost inadvertently strolled into the Oscar race by virtue of his project’s sheer nerve and unrepeatability. (Oddly, it’s when he sails closest to the middlebrow — as in 2008’s impersonally proficient “Me and Orson Welles” — that he winds up pleasing the fewest people.) I’m reminded of when Steven Soderbergh, another American auteur at once iconoclastic and up for anything, effectively gave Academy voters a rare, two-pronged chance to hand him a statuette in 2000. That they took it, upsetting DGA winner Ang Lee in the process, surprised many onlookers at the time — but with hindsight, who isn’t glad Soderbergh has an Oscar? This feels a comparable window of opportunity, and I’d be genuinely sorry to see it pass us by. It’s not just that “Boyhood” is a marvel in and of itself, but that it represents an apotheosis of all the tonal virtues (not least that laconic Texan humor) and formal preoccupations (condensing the time-lapse conceit of his “Before” trilogy) for which we’ve long valued its maker.
Yet it’s the unruffled modesty with which Linklater’s film — and distributor IFC, finally shepherding a big-ticket awards player after years of worthy releases — has entered the fray that seems to have caused aggravation in certain corners of the industry. “Boyhood” is an accomplishment at once vast and unassuming: It doesn’t announce its own importance, because it’s specifically concerned with lives that add up to more than the sum of their unremarkable parts. IFC’s calm but confident campaign has perhaps been confused with smugness by those who prefer their prestige films to underline precisely what makes them prestigious. No one’s yelling “Honor the Man! Honor the Film!” with regard to young, placid, unapologetically uncertain Mason or his decent, highly fallible parents. Nor is the film actively selling itself on its own novel but casually executed stunt. (And yes, I did say “novel”: I’m not sure why those who keep bringing up Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series are willing to lay aside the not-inconsiderable differences between documentary and narrative cinema for the sake of paper-thin argument.) Some appear to feel that a best picture contender as theoretically improbable as “Boyhood” needs to justify its own presence in the derby, but surely its tender human truths make their own case. Win or lose, this is the best picture nominee I imagine myself growing older with, well past its 12-year remit.