I’m concerned that placing Richard Linklater’s Boyhood atop my list doesn’t truly convey just how impressive I find it. After all, in a tally such as this there’s no differentiating a close call from a blowout, no column of “Games Back” to illuminate the level of distance between the victor and the runner-up. So let me share a little mental exercise I’ve been performing almost from the moment Boyhood‘s closing credits start to roll. I’ve been trying to figure out the last movie that topped one of my year-end lists that I think might outrank Boyhood if chronology got jumbled and they were released while the same calendar hung on the wall. My most conservative estimates goes back less than ten years, to the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. Sometimes I stretch back to Wes Anderson’s 1998 feature, Rushmore, a film for which I have helpless affection. A remarkable amount of the time, I convince myself that Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Goodfellas is the last film that I can honestly term as unequivocally better. So yeah, I may very well be prepared to say Boyhood is the best film in a span that very nearly covers twenty-five years. I guess that makes my point clear enough.
By now, the genesis of Boyhood and its unique, perhaps unprecedented production is well-established. Shot over twelve years, it endeavors to depict nothing less than the experience of the title, capturing with agonizing patience the way one individual changes — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually — through the course of growing up. In doing so, it also captures the shifting dynamics of those lives around him, the heavy disappointments and minor triumphs that mark the passage of time. In lesser hands, this could have easily been a nifty gimmick and little more, but Linklater, the finest cinematic humanist since Jonathan Demme, uses his technique as a vital means to dig for greater meaning. Most notably, Boyhood wisely, perfectly considers the way memory shapes an existence by collecting experiences, many of them not the ones that immediately announce themselves as life-changing. The most traumatic moment of household violence can carry just as much weight as the youthful discovery of a bird’s remains, cruel mortality lurking in the dirt behind a shed. These shards of experience eventually cohere into a life. Linklater’s attentiveness to that simple truth is rare and admirable.
The director’s strong sense of empathy naturally leads the actors to tremendous opportunities for measured, heart-rending work. Linkler’s regular collaborator Ethan Hawke finds beautiful nuance in a father who evolves from scruffy ne’er-do-well lost soul to sturdy, tamed family man, somewhat to his own regret. Meanwhile, Patricia Arquette delivers a performance that well outpaces anything she’s done before, getting at the fraying spirit of a woman called upon to thanklessly persevere across years of single parenthood temporarily relieved by romantic partnerships that only make matters worse. As the siblings who literally grow up on screen, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter, recruited in part because he was sure he’d always be able to get her to return for the yearly shoots) hold the screen with the unassuming honesty of amateurs. One of Linklater’s smartest approaches is his clear decision to continually adjust the film’s trajectory to suit the slowly blooming abilities of his youngest actors.
Boyhood largely succeeds because none of its enormous ambition seeps into the film’s storytelling. Linklater doesn’t punctuate big moments or emphasize the novelty of time passing. There are no graphics explaining how many months have gone by, nor does he give into what must have been the mighty temptation to accompany the closing moments with a montage reminder of how the characters — and the actors — aged during the course of the film. He lets the film be plain and true, confident that precisely what had been accomplished will be self-evident. There’s no emphasis on the momentousness of it, no jubilant celebration of the film crossing the finish line after the marathon of its making. Such self-congratulation would be intrusive and ultimately redundant. The experience of Boyhood is profound enough.