Dear readers may I crave . Up till now I’ve not written about Boyhood for the simple reason that I only got round to watching it last night. Now I have, I’m thinking not only that Birdman was a more worthy winner but that its nomination should have gone to another film.
Now obviously saying, as the awards process requires, that one film is better than another is kind of stupid. Not only is such a judgement subjective, it also generally involves comparing things that are not really comparable. For example, imagine deciding, as Academy voters just did, whether Boyhood or Birdman is better? You might make judgements like Birdman is funnier or Boyhood is more realistic. But noticing this kind of thing is largely beside the point: Boyhood is not trying to be comic nor is Birdman trying to be naturalistic. The banal conclusion one generally ought to reach is that they are different.
However, there are occasions when one can compare like with like. For example, there were two films last year that told the story of explorers alone and adrift in a hostile environment: Gravity and All is Lost. The broad similarities in their plot and structure make it easier to pick out contrasts between the two films. Gravity was corny and predictable, whilst All is Lost generated far more pathos and tension. So I felt comfortable saying the Academy blew it by giving multiple nominations to Gravity but only a Sound Editing nomination for All is Lost.
This year, the part of Gravity was played by Boyhood. It received great plaudits for its central gimmick: shooting a single film over 12 years. And to be fair to Linklater, he pulls it off. Having placed himself under this constraint, he delivers a perfectly reasonable film.
That does not, however, mean that it:
Boyhood does unfortunately illustrate why generally speaking one does not make a film in scattered bursts across a decade. The film’s energy is rather dissipated, it lacks energy is rather dissipated, it lacks direction or a plot and at times feels loose assemblage of short films rather than a feature film in its own right.
Even its great strength has been done better by another film this year: Two Days, One Night. Both films depict the very ordinary in a way that is nonetheless seems cinematic. Belgian directorial pairing the Dardenne brothers share with Linklater a talent for making their camera disappear and thereby convincing you that you are watching say a meal in a stranger’s house.
However, in Two Days the Dardenne’s take pretty much the opposite approach to Linklater in dealing with time. The film takes place not over a dozen years but (as the name implies) a single weekend. During that time we follow the efforts of Sandra (played by the Oscar nominated Marion Cotillard) to persuade her co-workers to forgo their annual bonuses so she can keep her job. This framing gives it precisely the kind of form and purpose Boyhood lacks.
While I think the above point is the most important point in Two Days favour, it also benefits enormously from its central performance. While the acting in Boyhood has rightly been praised none of it matches Cotillard’s achievement. Her face is on screen in close up for the majority of the film’s running time. Yet Sandra’s personality and depression as filtered through the Dardenne’s ultra-realistic style demand that she is generally rather subdued. So Cotillard has to carry the audience through more or less the whole film while conveying a massive inner struggle in only the subtlest of ways.
It is also worth mentioning that Two Days offers a deep and affecting look at mental illness and deindustrialisation. By contrasts, Boyhoods’ attempts at tackling ‘issues’ wind up seeming more like hit and runs than a proper exploration of them.
Yet, like All is Lost the year before, Two Days only received a single nomination. It deserved better. Though I’m delighted that having been snubbed by every other major award Cotillard was nominated for an Oscar. If you’ve not seen Two Days then I’d really recommend seeking it out.