Tag Archives: Boyhood

Favorite Films of 2014

lego

Because synchronicity has been on my mind recently, I wondered while considering my favorite films of 2014 if any of them were thematically aligned, explicitly or otherwise. Turns out they are. The ten-ish films that lodged themselves into my brain this year naturally arranged themselves into pairs or groups—some odd ones, to be sure, but nevertheless interesting. I landed on four categories, some of which could easily describe many of the listed films but felt like the right headings for the films they contain. Keeping in mind the usual disclaimer that I’ve yet to see a number of 2014 films I suspect would make this list, here are the ones that made movies fun this year. (Spoilers aplenty ahead.)

LOOKING CLOSER (h/t Jeffrey Overstreet)
Boyhood
, directed by Richard Linklater
Life Itself, directed by Steve James

I preemptively connected these two films in my review of Boyhood, but time has revealed even more. Both films concern themselves with telling the unvarnished truth: in Boyhood it’s via the yearly check-ins with Mason & Co and the focus on quotidian moments over Kodak ones, and in Life Itself it’s via the camera’s unblinking view of Roger Ebert’s sad yet dignified decline. The march of time, which these two films concern themselves with greatly, is relentless and revelatory. Its power is best seen at the extremes: zoomed in to the micro, the everyday details we can see only on foot, and zoomed out to the macro, where the cosmic, birds-eye view of things looks oddly like the micro. Isn’t it funny how images from a telescope can look like something captured from a petri dish (e.g. Hubble’s picture of the Andromeda Galaxy, not-so-ironically dubbed “Pillars of Creation”). Set up a double feature, rename them The Beginning and The End, and you’ve got an amazing portrait of life, to name-check another fine movie, rendered in the spectacular now.

A RECKONING
Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonough
Ida, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski

Let loose into their outside worlds, the Catholic priest of Calvary and the novice nun of Ida encounter the hostile brokenness of laypeople who either don’t see the need for the Church or resent it outright. These ecclesiastics—one in postwar Communist Poland and the other in modern Ireland—are spurred out from their cloistered lives by a similar commission: Get your life in order. They face a reckoning with their calling, one last chance to ponder the consequences of their decisions and make things right before destiny calls. Yet despite the gravity of their pilgrimage among the people, they mostly just listen. They absorb the pain and bitterness around them while trying to reconcile their vocation with their tempestuous milieus and arrive at peace. Can it be done? Good question.

LET’S GO EXPLORING
Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan
The Lego Movie, directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord

Multiple dimensions. New worlds. A hero destined to save mankind. Travels through black holes and time portals. An old sage with questionable tactics. Love conquering all. I wasn’t expecting two of my favorite movies of the year to have so much in common while also being essentially polar-opposite in their style and audience, and yet here we are. Who is Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar if not the Master Builder reluctantly fulfilling his destiny to save the universe through ingenuity and love? And what are The Lego Movie’s Cloud Cuckoo Land and other worlds if not the mystery planets the Interstellar crew sought for salvation? Even the final twists echo each other: Interstellar’s time-hopping tesseract and The Lego Movie’s portal to human earth reveal the handiwork of an extra-dimensional Creator and redefine everything we’d seen before. Never was I in awful wonder more this year than during these two films.

MAN ON A MISSION
Locke, directed by Steven Knight
Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle
Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky
Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho

What are you prepared to do? (I can’t help imagining that line being said in an intense Scottish accent.) The protagonists here have a mission and will not stop (in Locke’s case, literally) until it is accomplished. Locke’s Ivan and the Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical epic set a course and stick to it—come personal hell and high water—even while their worlds crumble around him and their decisions inflict suffering upon innocents. In Whiplash, Andrew’s steely determination to succeed as a jazz drummer draws blood and fractures his psyche. And Curtis, the reluctant leader of the train-bound proletariat uprising in Snowpiercer, forges forward for answers, making brutal personal sacrifices along the way. Is all this carnage worth it? Results vary, but all four of these films’ endings seem to have a similar answer.

JUST BECAUSE (Bonus)
They Came Together, directed by David Wain

Because this made me laugh so hard.

Boyhood

boyhood

With respect to the late, great Roger Ebert, I’m taking the name of his memoir and biographical documentary and giving it instead to Richard Linklater’s new epic novel of a film, for it is Life Itself.

Boyhood chronicles the young life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who at the film’s beginning is a six-year-old on his back, gazing up at a blue sky. He’s in trouble at school for shoving rocks into a classroom pencil sharpener — not because he wanted to destroy it, but because, he tells his mom after she leaves the principal’s office, he thought he could make arrowheads for his burgeoning collection. Such a small moment of innocent longing comes to typify Mason and his journey, which we get to witness throughout the rest of the film’s twelve-year time frame.

Most Hollywood biopics take the “greatest hits” view of their subject’s life. They often glide over childhood to establish some running themes before skipping to adulthood to get to the “real” or familiar story: J. Edgar and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom are recent examples of this. But Linklater, he of the intimately expansive Before series, he’s a deep-cut kind of guy. Rather than, say, making a pit stop in childhood on the way to adulthood — where supposed Important Things happen and Life Lessons are learned — it’s as if he rented a place in town so he could stay as long as necessary to really understand where he was, akin to a documentarian or journalist. Linklater the director seems not like the guy at the party who enters with a bang and works the room all night with a procession of drinks in hand, but the one in the corner talking to one person all night about everything — mutual acquaintances, pop culture arcana, and the familiar tropes of life we often don’t know we share with others until we share them with others. He has an eye trained on the truth.

Boyhood unveils its truths deliberately and episodically, year after year adding new dispatches from the front lines of Mason’s life. These dispatches are often celebratory, sometimes jarring, but mostly they catalog life’s banalities, the tiny triumphs and tragedies that accumulate into something approaching a story. In an interview with The Dissolve, Linklater says Boyhood is “all about the little things that don’t have a place in a movie. … This is all the shit they cut out of [a] movie.” This isn’t Beatles 1, a compilation of greatest hits with all the very best the band offered; it’s the Anthology series, a deep dive into the band’s catalog that juxtaposes alternate cuts of the classics hits with obscure and ordinary songs that never get radio play.

The film zooms in to the granular level and stays there, preferring to consider some of the moments that won’t make the slideshow at high school graduation. He makes a virtue out of seeing the cosmic in the quotidian, not unlike, as Brett McCracken noted, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which considers similar connections between a Texas boyhood and the cosmos. Malick employs a much greater visual artistry than Linklater does in general, and with Boyhood specifically, but both filmmakers are concerned with the long game. They delight in capturing the beauty of detail and the rich story such details can tell.

Boyhood captures not just a person but a time and a place. The film is indeed the step-by-step story of a boy’s emerging from boyhood, but it is also a profile of a place. In the literal sense this place is Texas, where Mason — an often frustrated member of an itinerant family — lives in various homes and goes to various schools, haunting the backyards, basements, and back alleys that seem to draw boys in their restless wandering. In another sense the place of boyhood is psychological: it’s a confining, often confusing place where hyperactivity is stifled, where self-determination is chimerical, where the specter of sexuality haunts every interaction with girls and informs (poorly) the vulgar sex talks with other boys, where you’re constantly being told what to do, and where your well-being is almost always at the whim of adults who may or may not deserve such a vital power.

I’m very familiar with the place Boyhood lives in. Excepting a few key differences, I saw so many moments in Mason’s story, little and large, that harmonized with my own.

When as Mason’s mom drove him and his sister away to a new city he saw his neighborhood friend biking behind them as a last goodbye, I saw in my mind the dreadful day my childhood best friend from down the street moved away with his family, and the weekend before when we had one last sleepover and wore our Batman pajamas and wrestled with my dad.

When Mason aloofly played video games on an enormous Apple iMac G3, I saw my fifth-grade computer lab where I wrote a short story about mice playing games and found refuge from my teacher who assigned essays as punishment for peccadillos instead of for teaching us how to write better.

When Mason and his step-siblings were barred from drinking soda by an oppressive father yet in the next scene walked home from school with Cokes proudly in hand, I felt the exhilaration of sneaking to Walgreen’s one summer with my friend to buy candy forbidden by his mother and eating it all in a fury before returning home.

When Mason’s biological dad brought him to an Astros game against the Brewers, I reminisced about trips with my own dad to County Stadium (and then Miller Park) in Milwaukee to see those very Brewers and get autographs during batting practice in between stadium hot dogs.

When Mason entered middle school and hung with kids who clearly were bad influences on him yet offered friendship and camaraderie in the fight against the seeping oppression of puberty, I remembered my own struggles with peer pressure and in crafting an identity that fit in the nebulous space between family, friends, and myself.

When Mason’s high-school photography teacher lectured him condescendingly in the dark room about his aimlessness and impractically whimsical photos, I recalled clashing with a teacher freshman year who was as frustrated by my antagonistic apathy as I was by her overbearing personality.

When I saw Boyhood, I saw my life itself. I saw an hourglass full of sand that drains way too quickly. I saw how every little moment is another grain we can add to give us a little more time, but only if we take the time to appreciate them. “Love all of God’s creation,” exhorts The Tree of Life, “both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.”

Driving to college through the Texas desert, Mason stops at a gas station to fill up. He pulls out his camera and starts shooting the little things he sees around him: the architecture, the people, the sky… photography teacher be damned. Once again he’s the daydreaming kid considering the clouds, but now with the accumulated knowledge from a boyhood survived. He’ll soon be filing dispatches from new places — college, career, marriage, fatherhood — ever adding to the hourglass new grains of sand, each a story of life in itself.