What makes a movie "the best"? To be honest, that's not something that can be rightfully determined. Obviously we have award shows and online lists and reviews, but film is art and art is really whatever the artist wants it to be but unlike a painting or sculpture, film is also entertainment. So to say something is better at being art or is more entertaining can truly only be opinion based.
Of course if enough people agree on something being the best, it's usually considered the best. Even if not everyone agrees and as we all know that's really impossible. We say The Godfather is a great movie or the best because a majority says so. That's democracy.
As for my opinion, I say a movie is good when it does something really well and everything else ok. Take for example There Will Be Blood. The acting, especially from the lead is outstanding, while the rest of the movie is pretty good. I say a movie is great when everything goes above and beyond. For example, The Godfather has a very well written script, great acting from the legendary cast, amazing cinematography, excellent directing, and I could go on.
These are the standards I judge my movies on. I try not to be a prude or a hyster but I admit I have my moments. I feel like I fall between two types of film lovers. My friends who tend to lean more towards the art aspect of a film, see me as more of a popcorn flick kinda guy, while my friends who are in it for the entertainment of it all, seem to think I'm too strict with my taste. I honestly love it all. Give me a great summer blockbuster followed by an amazing award winner.
So what the hell does any of this have to do with Boyhood? Well, in case you weren't aware, Boyhood has received massive critical acclaim. The film has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and 100 on Metacritic. So if there was such a thing as the best, this would definitely be a candidate. That is, if it wasn't for the select few who don't like the film. Obviously there are the 2% of critics who don't and the user score is 13% short of perfect.
I'm one of the first to say some people just want to hate on things that are so popular. That they're just disagreeing for the sake of argument or to reduce the swelling of the movie's metaphorical head. So I wanted to see for myself. Is this movie as great as everyone says or is it a pretentious piece of art house cinema?
First and foremost, the thing that stands out the most is how Boyhood was made. For those of you who don't know, Boyhood was shot between 2002 and 2013. The cast and crew met for a couple weeks every year until production finished. This, to me, is genius.
Taking this risk, with a very well constructed script in hand, has the potential for an outstanding movie. Unfortunately, Boyhood feels like there was a general idea or an outline for the entire project and then each year the scenes were formed and the plot was developed year by year. This results in many plot points being resolved shortly after being revealed or just not talked about again. While this concept makes the film feel truer to life and able to adapt with the times, it doesn't make for very compelling storytelling.
(Now I'd like to warn you that this review will contain spoilers. So...SPOILER ALERT!)
There doesn't seem to be much of a story arc to Boyhood and not much character development. Most characters are pretty flat. They're just normal human beings, being normal human beings. While problems are presented to the characters, it doesn't seem to faze them as much as it should, with few exceptions.
The flick has two alcoholic step dads, the first is also abbusive, verbally and physically. Two scenes after seeing the results of physical abuse towards the mother and just after the drunk stepfather throws his glass at our protagonist, we are treated to a scene where the mother solves this problem by grabbing her kids and leaving. This is done with minimal effort. They almost walk out the door while arguing. Then, we never see that character again. Problem solved.
We also get told a lot about conflict that we don't get to see. Like the mother and father's divorce. It happened and we get little insight as to why. Also the divorcees argue once in the movie and it barely effects the children. One of the biggest rules of film is show, don't tell.
That's probably my biggest complaint. Little to no conflict. A 15 year drinks and smokes pot with his friends, mom kind of asks and just shrugs her shoulders. The second alcoholic step dad gets angry at the boy, then he's never spoken of again. He literally disappears and is only referenced once as one of "a string of drunks".
Things also seem too easy for characters. With the exception of the bratty daughter, no one is putting up any kind of resistance when someone tries to do something. College scholarships are given out on a whim and teaching jobs are achieved without putting forth that much work.
Also the movie seems to prepare us for drama but nothing results from it. One scene teenagers are breaking boards and throwing saw blades like ninja stars. I was expecting at least a minor cut with some blood but nothing results from this other than some homophobic dialogue. Another scene the main character is driving and he's being shown a picture of a dog off of someone's phone. The shot of the phone lingers. So you'd assume he was going to crash or lose control. Then nothing. Scene changes.
With a shorter run time, a plotless movie wouldn't be as big a deal. So long as we have something to grab onto, like likable characters or some drama. Perhaps a cliché plot with more melodrama instead of a mostly uninteresting, aimless script. At nearly three hours you start to see scenes that could easily be cut and the point of the movie would still be upheld. The film itself should have ended when he's driving off to college but then it continues for a few more scenes. If it did end when he was on his way to "adulthood" I feel it would have tied the entire thing into a nice bow. Almost as if it was saying, "here was a snapshot of a young boy's young life or his 'Boyhood'".
One thing that caught my attention every time it happened was when they'd focus on something that was of that time era. Usually it was a video game or a song. I like the idea but every time it would happen, it would take me out of the film. Like obvious product placement in films like Man of Steel or any Sony Picture. Maybe if it wasn't done as much or the shots didn't hold for as long as they did. It kinda screamed, "Look! Halo 2!!! Remember that?!? It must be 2004!!!" I think it would have benefited more from subtle mentions of the main character's age or school grade mixed with modern references.
Going back to characters and acting, I think the acting, overall, is fine. Nothing outright bad, except when the daughter is complaining about running away from the abbusive step-dad and having to leave everything behind at a moment's notice. Also I can't stand that character. I don't know if I should congratulate the actor for a great performance or if it was just her playing herself. Since she was 7 when shooting began I'm going to assume the latter.
In a well written story, usually a character or characters go on a journey. This is often referred to as the hero's journey. We see this in classics like the Godfather, Star Wars and Casablanca. For point of reference I'll also talk about a more recent film that isn't one of the greatest of all time, Gran Torino. In these films, the characters go from one type of person (Michael Corleone as someone who wants nothing to do with the family business, Luke Skywalker as a innocent farm boy, Rick doesn't care for anyone but himself and his bar and Walt as a racist old curmudgeon) and as the events of the film occur, the characters, naturally or unnaturally, evolve (Michael takes his father's place as the Don, Luke destroys the Death Star and is a rebel hero, Rick risks his life for the woman he loves and Walt gives his life for his new friends). Character development makes them believable and relatable because most of us have had events happen that change us. We also adapt to or reject our environment and learn from the people around us. Whether for better or worse. Boyhood doesn't have that.
Mason, the main character, starts as a little boy who's only real conflict comes from his bratty sister and his step-dad forcing him to cut his hair (which was also resolved when a cute girl says she thinks it's "kewl"), he becomes a boring, directionless teen and ends up an adult with only a slight purpose.
Now sometimes a narrative will have its main character be a blank slate. This way we can put ourselves into their shoes and feel like we're apart of that journey. A character like Marty McFly or Harry Potter are examples but with them, there are major events happening around them. They participate with these events and they grow and evolve.
One of my favorite types of stories is the origin story. I love the idea of a person or character being who they are because or their origin. It's like a chemical reaction. Kill a rich kids parents and with some determination and training you get Batman. Spoil a child and you might get a Veruca Salt. Life is about all of this. If my parents punish me growing up, I'll learn to behave, respect others and use the lessons I've learned through my 30 years of life from dozens of wise and ignorant people to be the person who I am. The thing we refer to as the soul is more than likely this thing forged in the fires of life.
Almost two hours into the movie, boyhood tries to do this. It tries to say we become who we are by the lessons we learn. The idea of "growing up, you have very little control over what happens to you" is brought up. That's very true but again there wasn't much conflict and no struggle from Mason. Adult figures in Mason's life, mostly masculine, give speeches about who he should be but it kinda felt too little too late. If these speeches were sprinkled throughout the movie it would have worked much better. This is why I say a well crafted script would have been a better idea. Assuming that wasn't the case.
For the first two hours, Mason just goes with the flow. Finally in the last hour he begins to talk more. He actually shows a personality. Unfortunately it's not much of one but he starts to talk about things he's interested in. He begins to care about what's happening to him. Although, it usually goes like this: Mason isn't doing something right or putting enough effort into it, someone says he needs to work/try harder and apparently he does.
There's one scene I want to randomly talk about. It's towards the end of the movie. Mason, his mom and his sister all sit to have lunch and out of the blue the waiter comes up to the mom and thanks her for changing his life. This is the resolution of an earlier scene where the mother is talking to, I assume, plumbers and she says to one of them how smart he is and how he needs to do something with his life. Both scenes felt so random and tacked on and how he comes up to her in the later scene just happens. No build up. No "oh my gosh! Aren't you...?!?"
So obviously this sounds like I hate the movie. Honestly I don't. I watched the whole thing on my phone with a 5.5" screen in segments because I didn't have almost 3 hours to sit and watch it on the TV in my apartment. There was something about this movie that kept me going. Kept me wanting to finish it. Could it be I just wanted to say I saw the whole thing before judging it? Maybe but overall it wasn't a painful watch. Alien 3? That's a painful watch. Took me a dozen times to finish it and I only wanted to, to say I've seen all of the series but with Boyhood I did care enough to continue. I wanted to know what would happen to these less than interesting people.
Now I've talked a lot about what makes a movie great or even just good but neither of those things matter nearly as much as, "Will anyone remember or care about his movie in 10, 20 or even 100 years?" The worst thing a movie can be is forgettable. We may laugh at how bad Batman and Robin or Battlefield Earth is but we still talk about them. Think back to some great movies you've seen when you were a kid. I mean really think. I'm sure if the 7 year old you brought up a movie you've seen you might go, "oh man! I completely forgot about that one!" I recently watched "What About Bob?" It's a hilarious movie that I loved growing up but I'm sure it's been publicly forgotten thanks to more memorable Bill Murrey films.
To answer the question "Will we remember this film however many years down the road?" I say no. If someone else makes a better movie using this idea or comes up with a better idea, it will, at best, be remembered as the first and not much more. It won't hold cult classic status like Linklater's Dazed and Confused. A movie I love, by the way.
So what's so much more memorable about that film? Like Boyhood it's also a coming of age story but every character is interesting, whether we like them or not. We feel like we're going on the journey with the leads because they're relatable and conflicted. They're struggling with life's problems like, what do I want to do with my life? Who am I as a person? What's actually important in life? Will I get my ass beat by Ben Affleck? True problem solving characters who are developing into something new. Real struggles teenagers face while growing up.
Whether it wins the best picture Oscar or goes down as just another nominee won't be determined until February 22 but what I love about this movie is someone tried to do something different. Someone had an original idea and went for it and it was successful, critically. Hopefully this will inspire more originality instead of copy cats looking to make a quick buck. While I love the popcorn film, I just love movies and their ability to create new worlds and ideas and their ability to inspire the followers to aim higher.
I give Boyhood a