Just for fun, you could say the difference between the dudes who made this year’s two leading contenders for the Best Picture Oscar starts with their names: one as eye-catching as Isadora Duncan’s scarf collection, the other as forgettable as your last-but-one Geico rep’s. Alejandro González Iñárritu, who helmed Birdman, is the sort of capital-A Artist who can’t find meaning in life without hyperbole. It says a lot that Edward Norton, whose performance as the overweening Method actor taunting Michael Keaton’s Broadway cred is very funny until it gets overloaded with portentousness, has confessed that he was just imitating his director. Richard Linklater, by contrast, is so devoted to doing his lower-case, home-movie thing with the materials at hand that he cast his own daughter as Ellar Coltrane’s sis, overruling Lorelei Linklater when she lobbied to have her character killed off a few years into Boyhood’s 12-year shoot.

In other words, Birdman vs. Boyhood is one of the rare Oscar tussles to define a tension that has been basic to movies ever since Georges Méliès and nickelodeon newsreels got busy doing their respective things. On one side, you’ve got your consciously extravagant showmen/impresarios/magicians, a camp whose ultimate hero (and martyr) will always be Orson Welles. On the other are the patient recorders of life who eschew virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake even when they’d be perfectly capable of it—patron saint, the Vittorio de Sica of Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine, with Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne as the tradition’s latest avatars.

Vittorio de Sica's "Bicycle Thieves (1948)"

Welles himself pegged the difference. “In handling a camera, I feel I have no peer,” he said in 1960. “But what de Sica can do, that I can’t do. I ran his Shoeshine again recently, and the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life...” Sue me for thinking Just Life as an alternate title sums up Boyhood’s pretensions, as I Have No Peer would for Birdman’s.

Both movies are stunts—which, at one level, amounts to observing that they’re both movies. The paradox is that Linklater’s may actually be the more ostentatious one. Photographing Coltrane’s Mason from age 6 to age 18 and reuniting his screen family—Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, poor grumpy Lorelei—every year for the secular version of a Passover seder is every bit as conceptually gimmicky as Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki moving heaven, earth, and sets to make Birdman look as if it’s been filmed in one rhapsodically continuous take. It’s just that Linklater is hell-bent on making us forget his stunt. Iñárritu would be wounded if we stopped noticing his for even a second.

Of the two, I’m much more partial to Boyhood. But that’s hardly because I think its method and/or priorities are intrinsically superior to Iñárritu’s. If the “just life” school of moviemaking—which has its equivalents in literature and theater, needless to say, though not ballet or opera—has a built-in vanity, it’s the belief that its devices aren’t just aesthetically but morally superior, and indeed aren’t devices at all. That usually makes me snort, and if anything, I’m more temperamentally attracted to toybox art than the toolbox kind. Yet Linklater’s movie had its way with me and Iñárritu’s didn’t, and why? Because Boyhood does better at making good on its pretensions. That’s obviously not the same as pretending the movie doesn’t have any.

Indeed, playing apples and oranges with Linklater and Iñárritu only gets you so far. It’s not only that I dig Boyhood mainly for its triumphantly dissimulated artifice—that is, the way the seeming artlessness of Linklater’s record of Mason’s youth depends on a Hallmark Card gimmick as irresistible as it is contrived. What I like best about Birdman is its one showcase for ornery verisimilitude amid all the jacked-up screenwriting and directorial razzle-dazzle: namely, Keaton’s convincing and unsentimental performance.

Incarnating rhetorical constructs disguised as people, which everyone in Birdman is, ultimately capsizes even Norton. Emma Stone never gets out of the starting gate. But Keaton, whose character is the most rhetorical construct of them all, keeps Riggan Thomson specific and individual throughout. The whole house of cards would look a lot emptier without his ability to squeeze wiggly conceits about the artist’s lot into the mournful fist he calls his face and the veteran flintiness of one of the cagiest vocal timbres in movies.

Compared to the pseudo-visionary esoterica of Iñárritu’s earlier Meaning of Life megillahs—Biutiful, Babel, and 21 GramsBirdman is also downright whory and/or hoary in its vainglorious showbiz metaphors. Iñárritu’s rebirth as a forthright schlockmeister may well count as an improvement for those of us who’ve never put much stock in the man’s philosophical acumen. At least the Academy voters who named All About Eve the Best Picture of 1950 may genuinely have been impressed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s pensées and not just entertained by his wit. They’ve always been suckers for the idea that their craft has exportable life lessons.

So, of course, are plenty of moviegoers, because succeeding on Broadway is a far more glamorous version of wrestling with destiny than the humdrum choices Boyhood’s characters contend with. Then again, even Linklater can’t think of a way to make Mason’s adolescence resonate—i.e., justify our nearly three-hour investment in his unremarkable growing pains—other than giving him creative ambitions that retrofit the story into a portrait of the artist as a young man.

If you’re wondering when I’ll get around to guessing which one nabs Best Picture—or Best Director, for that matter—then, sorry: I don’t care. From my weary POV, the only game more inane than predicting Oscar winners is naming what should win, every critic’s favorite way of retaining smidgens of intellectual integrity while endorsing a circus they can’t afford to ignore. I’m a bigger fan of American Sniper and Selma than either Boyhood or Birdman, enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel more than I did any of the others, and think Whiplash was hands-down the funniest movie of 2014. But The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are the only two generic nominees on this year’s list, which just goes to show that following your muse has its benefits. Whatever else you might think of them, Iñárritu and Linklater sure as hell followed theirs. 

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