Birdman vs. Boyhood: A Comparative Review

​2014 has certainly been an interesting year for film. Buzz surrounding the Oscars seems to be at their highest in a few years, what with so many stellar candidates for all the top awards. As opposed to previous years where particular films clearly stand out above the rest to win each and every award, it seems this year there’s been a real challenge for the films, each and everyone clearly deserving of their nomination at the very least. In the end, it was Alejandro González Iñárritu’s black comedy Birdman that ended up taking the top spot in the 2015 Oscar awards ceremony.

​Prior to these awards, it seemed the main two fore-runners for the Oscars’ Best Film and Best Director fell towards Iñárritu’s Birdman and Richard Linklater’s fantastic 10-year project Boyhood. Both films offered up incredible scope of filmmaking and direction, but both in very different ways. Linklater’s Boyhood saw the director going to great length to create a phenomenal piece of unique cinema history, whilst Iñárritu’s Birdman saw the director pushing forward every creative element possible in filmmaking. Both films feature incredibly artistic merits for very different reasons, both putting themselves forward as ideal candidates for Best Film and Best Director. In the end, Birdman won both awards, amongst others. But why is this? Was Boyhood simply not as good as Birdman? What was it that Birdman had that gave it the final push forward over Boyhood?

​Perhaps it’s worth looking over the merits of Boyhood as a film before delving deep into its flaws. At the end of the day, Boyhood will always stand out as a cinematic masterpiece, a 12-year project that arguably came out better than it could have ever have been conceived. The sheer scope of this project, from its initial idea to its creation and then the final result show amazing amounts of dedication to the crafting of the project. Boyhood was always conceived as a long haul of a project, born from the idea of Linklater wanting to tell ‘the story of a parent-child relationship that follows a boy from 1st through to 12th grade and ends with him going off to college.’ A film of this scope was arguably inconceivable. Whilst there is an underlying plot to Boyhood, what will happen during the course of the film to bridge together the gaps from the beginning to the end? Linklater’s solution was to adapt the story as it happened to his principle actor Ellar Coltrane. The result makes Boyhood not just an account of growing up, but one with elements of Meta, being aware of itself as it happens. We see here the true dedication to the craft of the project, with Linklater being totally prepared to change and morph his initial idea based on real-life occurrences. Few directors seem to have this ability to create based on very little, which easily positioned Linklater at the top for the Best Director award.

​As well as conceiving this truly remarkable project, we evidently see in Boyhood a real sense of everyone immersing themselves in the project like none-other. As the film progresses, we get a sense that this is a true family unit, one that exists in this very lifetime. Every actor and actress seems to understand the scope of the project, and even if they didn’t, they certainly seem like they do. There’s some truly exceptional performances in the film, mostly from the adult characters who become a part of the world the young children are thrown into. Brilliant performances from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette drive the film forward, presenting us with incredibly envisioned characters. And of course, at the forefront of the film are the two young children – actor Ellar Coltrane, and Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater. As well as showing us the lives of these two young people evolve over 10 years, we see in a meta-sense the abilities of these two young performers evolve as well as they become more and more invested in a project they’ve been working on for most of their lives thus far.

​Linklater’s plot is one that burst forth from the reality of life, showing us real-life events of simply growing up, being a part of a family, starting school, leaving school and making friends etc. We see as audiences so much we can relate to, which is perhaps one of the main focal points of the film itself. What truly stands out for me is the fact that we’re shown from the very beginning a divided family, where both the mother and father have strayed far away from each other and live their own lifestyles, teaching their children lessons based on their own unique experiences. This is a plot we see in other films, and to mind it brings about memories of the 2012 drama What Maisie Knew, where we’re shown the story of a young girl torn between two parents both desperate to be better than the other. What was refreshing though was how Linklater showed us another reality, one we don’t often see in cinema, where both parents are simply as good as each other. By the end of the film, there’s no petty fighting or squabbling between the two parents, but instead respect and understanding for each other, where each is grateful for everything they’ve done for their kids. Of course, reality isn’t always as idealistic as Boyhood presents in its final scenes, though it is a reality that is so often shunned or ignored when it comes to cinema.

​So If Boyhood has managed to achieve so much, why did it not win the Best Film and Best Director awards? There’s evidence of wonderful direction as well as production of a truly remarkable film. It’s perhaps an area of dividing opinion, but there are many reasons why Boyhood didn’t earn its Oscar whereas Birdman did. Looking at the strengths of Birdman comparatively with the film Boyhood, we can perhaps see reasoning as to why it was concluded that Birdman was awarded Best Film.

​Birdman offers up a cinematic masterpiece different to that of Boyhood. Whereas we were offered an amazingly envisioned project with Boyhood, Birdman offers up an incredibly artistic drama, where effort and care due and attention aren’t just in the project’s concept, but in the whole production of the project itself. Whereas Boyhood allowed its product to just occur, Birdman comes across as a clearly envisioned project down to the very last detail. We see immense amounts of effort going into every single element of filmmaking, from the writing of the script, to the filming process and right up to the editing of the film itself. Films where every single detail is meticulously planned are in short supply, and more often than not the result can come across as somewhat pretentious, or at the very least one particular element fails to work and ruins the whole project. In Birdman, just about everything seems to work well, showing a filmmaking project where every single person involved, from the actors to the crew, from the cinematographer to the editor, from the writer to the director, have all bought into this project and go to great strides to fully present the director’s vision to the best it can possibly be.

​Breaking down each element, Birdman‘s writing is one of considerable interest. The plot of the film sees failing actor Riggan Thompson (played by Michael Keaton), attempt to put on a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. There’s some very clever writing going into the script, outlining a slow descent into madness from an actor striving to be relevant, but seemingly despised by everyone he meets. Somewhat like Boyhood, though in a different context, we have elements of meta-humour thrown into the film in very subtle doses. The casting of Keaton as an actor struggling to become relevant, after becoming famous for a string of superhero films, mirrors Keaton’s own life performing as Batman in Tim Burton’s versions of the story. It gives a sense that some of the maddening struggles to actually present oneself as a capable actor are mirroring Keaton’s own struggles, and perhaps add relevance to Keaton’s choice to perform in the film. More elements of Meta comes from a supporting performance by Edward Norton, an arguably very well established actor whose own character is one of a famous theater actor. It’s hard to say the elements of Meta that are intentional or not, though they certainly feel like they are, showcasing a smart vision that adds elements of humor well beyond that of the film itself.

​As well as brilliant writing, Birdman boasts phenomenal cinematography, of which cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki deservedly won the Oscar for. Birdman shows incredible artistic design of filmmaking, stringing together long takes in such a way that edits are masked, making everything feel like one incredibly long take, once again adding abstract elements of Meta when we compare it to theater, a major plot point to the film.

The cinematography is nothing short of phenomenal, where the film flows beautifully from scene to scene. Such cinematography requires extensive planning, showing immense dedication from the film’s crew to the production of the film itself. Although Boyhood wasn’t about artistic vision, the cinematography of Birdman is relevant in showing incredibly crafted filmmaking, one that clearly shows a very meticulously planned vision. As well as wonderful cinematography, Birdman‘s soundtrack also stands out in positive ways. Although being one that would be hard to enjoy on a CD, the soundtrack to the film, composed by Antonio Sánchez, features solo drum performances, falling into an arguable free-form Jazz category. The soundtrack intertwines seamlessly into the film, moving everything along at a wonderful and enjoyable pace. At times, the non-diegetic elements of the soundtrack transform into diegetic as we’re shown glimpses of a character playing drums within the film itself. Little elements like these intertwine post-production elements into the film universe, making everything feel like a part of a whole bigger picture, and showing once again the amazing conception of the project. Such a film requires incredibly extensive rehearsals, showing dedication from each and every actor who truly utilize their talents to the best of their abilities in presenting the director’s vision. Each actor and actress stands out wonderfully in their own right, each getting really involved in their own character and giving out some amazing performances. Whilst this works well for Birdman, it’s here we see an element that Boyhood arguably got better. During the course of Boyhood, we seem to forget we’re watching actors and actresses, and we become immersed in the performances of people we start to believe are real. Whilst the performances in Birdman are phenomenal in their own right, it’s sometimes difficult to remove the vision of the actor and view the character instead.

​There are many amazing elements to Boyhood, but as a film it doesn’t seem to have given the same amount of care due and attention to every bit of filmmaking in the way Birdman did. Taking each element separately, Boyhood’s cinematography is one that is perhaps a little basic at times, not really showcasing any artistic merit at any time. The film’s soundtrack works in its own right, though it is mainly a compilation of indie-rock tracks as opposed to a thought-out soundtrack created to accompany and support the movie itself. A main flaw in Boyhood is in its free-form style, which seems to just flow along wherever the film takes itself, which is admirable in some ways, though it does at times leave the film without a plot to follow. We can find merit in many areas of Boyhood, which will always remain a cinematic masterpiece, though without the same care to filmmaking as Birdman perhaps highlight why it was unable to achieve the Best Film award at the 2015 Oscars. We see evidence that every single element of filmmaking has been carefully planned and expertly pulled off by the crew involved in the making of Birdman, which comes across as an incredibly artistic vision of a film.

​So in essence, did Birdman deserve to win its award? The answer is yes. Did Boyhood deserve to win the award too? Also yes. Both films are clear artistic visions that only come around every once in a while, both deserving of every bit of praise they have coming to them. Whilst some people might be angry at Birdman for winning the Best Film Oscar over the very deserving Boyhood, we can perhaps start to see the reason why such a film won its award. It’s been an incredibly tough year for all the awards ceremonies, what with so many wonderful films all coming out at around the same time, all featuring amazing acting, writing, directing etc. It was pretty much anybody’s game, but in the end Birdman managed to push itself over that final hurdle and win Best Film. Does the fact that Birdman won its award make Boyhood any worse of a film? Of course not! Boyhood might falter at times, though it will remain a cinematic legacy of Linklater’s, a film that will most likely go down in history and be remembered for years and years to come. Its legacy outshines that of any award it can be given, and perhaps as such, it never even needed to win Best Film at all. Birdman‘s achievements arguably deserve recognition at this point in time, where cinema is slowly becoming bloated with absurd films where there’s no effort in any filmmaking process at all. Boyhood on the other hand, will most likely find its recognition in many years to come, perhaps when it gets selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It certainly seems likely…

Gareth Watkin, Film & Music writer at Seroword

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11 Comments

  1. Yeah you know my feelings on Birdman. I was not a fan but I respect your point of view. It will be interesting to see which one history remembers best.

  2. I agree with you. Boyhood is a beautiful movie but Birdman is earth-shattering. Here’s my take on this year’s biggest Oscar surprises: https://nataliahvjustino.wordpress.com/2015/02/24/biggest-2015-oscar-surprises/

  3. I disagree, but appreciate the discussion. Nice post!

  4. We were divided on this one at Assholes. Matt was Boyhood all the way; I was pulling for Birdman. I totally appreciate Boyhood and I admire it for many reasons, some of which made for a slightly less engaging film. At the end of the day, I just enjoyed watching Birdman more. And shouldn’t that count for something?

  5. Boyhood = an average film with a brilliant concept/idea behind it. Birdman = Brilliant through and through.. 🙂

  6. Excellent analysis, thanks! I enjoyed both but, much like you discussed, for very different reasons. Awards are awards, individual impact is another matter entirely.

  7. While Boyhood was a fantastic idea and will probably be remembered for its filming over 12 years with the same actors, Birdman I think will be just as well remembered. It also was a great risk along with Boyhood and it reaped the rewards. I mean it’s pretty out there thinking to make a movie look like it was shot in one whole unedited shot. And that they actually filmed the Times Square scene with Michael Keaton in his undergarments with no extras and all normal bystanders is nothing short of phenomenal. It was just a crazy film that ended up being one of the most beautiful, interesting movies I’ve ever seen. All credit to Boyhood for it’s amazing idea but all my love goes to Birdman

  8. I see Boyhood in a similar light as American Hustle from last year. It was a great movie that probably finished in second place in a lot of awards. It will be remembered for a long time but couldn’t quite overcome Birdman

  9. Probably little late to write about both the film’s Oscar journey but read your article and couldn’t stop myself to say that for me Boyhood wins, I could not relate to Birdman as I did with Boyhood. For me a film is a directors vision and just by that logic Boyhood wins. Birdman surely has a great story and has been done well but I get a feeling its success has more to do with its stories resemblance with Michael Keaton’s own life so I would say it has a great casting. 10 years is a long time with cinematography and its technique having changed a lot, might be the reason why the exploits in Boyhood in this department is basic. To me it looks deliberate effort. This is done to make sure when the movie is released its overall look has a synergy. Of course another area which greatly must have improved the linearity is post production. Boyhood story could have been better but then again how may of us have adventurous life?

  10. Great article and relatable. It has very much incited a desire to immerse myself into both of these immensely well-done cinematic worlds again.

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