On Birdman and Boyhood

During the lead-up to the 87th Academy Awards, most Oscar prognosticators agreed that the contest for Best Picture had become a bout between two heavyweights. In one corner was Boyhood, a Richard Linklater film twelve years in the making that depicted a young man’s journey from age six to the first day of college. In the other was Birdman, a movie from Alejandro Iñárritu about a washed up movie star trying to hack out a career resurrection as a playwright and stage actor. Both pictures were strong contenders backed by staunch advocates.

Of course, as so often is the case in any popularity contest, many of the biggest proponents of each film turned into the biggest critics of the other. Boyhood detractors complained that although a twelve-year production timeframe was an impressive feat, it didn’t necessarily make for an impressive final product. They also belittled the script for being overly long and underdeveloped, largely improvised on a year-by-year basis. Meanwhile, Birdman opponents dismissed the film’s seamless aesthetic, designed to look like one long take, as more of a technical gimmick than an artistic endeavor. Moreover, many rolled their eyes at the prospect of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, comprised of several old white men who ascribe relevance within the acting and writing industries, being won over by a fictional old white man struggling for relevance in the acting and writing industries. The hot takes continued long after the Oscars, too. After Birdman won Best Picture, several editorials claimed that the Academy had just made its biggest mistake in decades, arguing that Boyhood will long be held up as a far more deserving candidate. On the other hand, gametimebro’s own editor-in-chief Keith boldly claimed in a recent podcast that Boyhood winning Best Picture would have been the single worst Oscars travesty of all time.

Buried by all of the divisive commentary, however, is an important development. In either case, whether Birdman or Boyhood had won Best Picture, the Academy was set to reward a truly unique and original movie with its highest honor. This is something the Academy almost never does anymore.

Consider the rest of the 2014 Best Picture field. American Sniper was a lightly fictionalized biographical account of a soldier who struggled with posttraumatic stress disorder. The Theory of Everything was a lightly fictionalized biographical account of a theoretical physicist who struggled with motor neuron disease. The Imitation Game was a lightly fictionalized biographical account of a computer scientist who struggled against a society’s deeply-rooted homophobic prejudices and their legal ramifications. Selma was a lightly fictionalized biographical account of a Baptist minister who struggled against a society’s deeply-rooted racial prejudices and their legal ramifications. Without passing any qualitative judgment on any of these films or their respective abilities to impress, inspire, or otherwise resonate with audiences, it is not unreasonable to suggest that there’s a fairly standard formula for Best Picture nominees.

This has held true for several years now. Take an actual person with an interesting story, boil it down into three tidy acts, season the whole thing liberally with dramatic license, and you’ve got something resembling a typical contemporary Best Picture nominee. In 2013, five such honorees came from the same recipe: Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, Philomena, and Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. Likewise, in 2012, the top three contenders for the prize were Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty, all of which were based on real things that actually happened. The previous two years saw similar nominees in Moneyball, 127 Hours, The Fighter, The Social Network, and 2010 Best Picture winner The King’s Speech. Each of these films depicts a real-life motivated individual overcoming an assortment of odds and accomplishing something meaningful. The setting and the details may differ from case to case, but every single one of them shares the same loose narrative shape and structure. At some point, the entire subgenre begins to feel stale, predictable and laden with clichés. In this respect, the Best Picture category has become woefully oversaturated by the same old stories year after year.

Even worse, the “feel good biopic” is just one variety of unoriginal movie; the Best Picture races have become inundated with many other types of late. Book adaptations, remakes, and autobiographical memoirs have dominated the nominations in recent years, to the extent where it’s easiest just to list the rest of the nominees in order to illustrate this point. In the past ten years, seventy-five movies have been nominated for Best Picture. What follows is a yearly breakdown of every wholly original example without any prior basis either in the real world or elsewhere in fiction:

2005 – Crash

2006 – Babel; Little Miss Sunshine

2007 – Juno; Michael Clayton

2008 – [none]

2009 – Avatar; District 9; Inglourious Basterds; A Serious Man; Up

2010 – Black Swan; Inception; The Kids Are Alright

2011 – The Artist; Midnight in Paris; The Tree of Life

2012 – Amour; Django Unchained

2013 – Gravity; Her; Nebraska

2014 – Birdman; Boyhood; The Grand Budapest Hotel; Whiplash

That’s twenty-five nominees; out of seventy-five total, just one third of the movies considered for Best Picture by the Academy in the last decade have been novel creations based on original ideas.

All of this brings us back to 2014, and to Birdman and Boyhood. In an era when biopics and adaptations reign supreme at the Oscars, this recent two-horse Best Picture race was itself a victory for originality and ingenuity in filmmaking. This isn’t to say that adapted works are inherently uninspired or unimaginative; indeed, many of the greatest films of all time, from 12 Angry Men to The Godfather to The Shawshank Redemption, have come from the creative elevation of lesser source material. Still, it’s particularly laudable when a film starts out as an entirely blank slate. Adapting a story is merely retelling it, whereas Birdman and Boyhood were nothing but unrealized concepts before they were made into movies.

Furthermore, neither Birdman nor Boyhood could really work in any other medium. Novelize Boyhood, and you’re left with a series of fractured episodic anecdotes that span one man’s unremarkable childhood. Turn it into a stage play, and nobody ages, robbing the illustrated temporal essence from the whole idea. Take either approach to Birdman, and the continuous-take editing no longer exists. Plenty of books and theatrical performances have played out as a free-flowing stream of consciousness; part of what made Birdman work as well as it did was its ability to bring that narrative device to the screen. Neither film is flawless, and criticisms of each one are justified, but ultimately their status as the top dogs in this year’s Oscar race should be something that film buffs everywhere can get behind.

The Stanpoint is a semi-regular feature in which Steve shares an opinion related to topics from recent gametimebro podcasts, reviews, and musings.

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