Before" trilogy (meaning if you haven't seen them, you should). But with Boyhood, he's done something even more special.
Filmed over a 12-year period starting in 2002, Boyhood follows a young boy, Mason, as he grows up -- starting at age 6 and ending with his departure for college. The film uses the same actors over the entire period, including what is likely the most fortuitous bit of casting in the history of film, Ellar Coltrane as Mason.
It's hard to wrap your head around what it took for this movie to get made, and how much could have happened to derail it along the way. Linklater secured the money from studio IFC, who gave him a couple hundred thousand dollars every year to continue the work, despite never having a finished film and never requiring him to show the work in progress. (The producers somewhat miraculously stayed in their jobs at IFC the entire time.)
He had to secure the participation of the same group of actors over a 12 year period. Actors are a typically nomadic breed, tiring of projects and moving on with regularly. Children are even more transitory, gaining and losing interests all the time. (Though by casting his own daughter as the main character's older sister, Linklater at least had her sewn up.) To give you and idea of how long this film took to make, lead actress Patricia Arquette started out with no regular job, got the TV series Medium a few years into production, made that for 7 seasons across two networks, and then wrapped that series up, all within the amount of time this movie was filming. Yet Linklater was unable to secure any obligation from any of his actors, as California law sets a maximum seven year term of service for a performance services contract.
The result is pretty remarkable. A few have compared it to the documentary Up Series, but this story you watch unfold at every step of the way, during the most formative period of a person's life. The performances are superb. I've mentioned Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and the director's daughter Lorelei Linklater; regular collaborator Ethan Hawke is also a supporting cast member. Many times throughout the film, they deliver powerfully emotional performances that sweep you up in the moment and really make you feel for these characters whose whole lives you're essentially watching unfold. Three or four scenes in particular moved me more than any movie has in a long while.
But while Boyhood might be fairly called a "masterpiece," it isn't quite a perfect movie. It's rather long for one thing, two hours and 45 minutes, and does slow down a bit in parts. This occasional meandering is an expected consequence of Richard Linklater having no script going in. But then, how could he? He adapted his story along the way, according to the changes in his young star, and according to what he himself was feeling in his own life when the time to film came around each year. As such, the movie doesn't have a real, single narrative as such -- though it does explicitly own this fact in the final act.
Still, I don't think a better coming of age movie has ever been made. Where other films load up a single event in a young person's life as the one all-important moment of growing up, this movie honestly portrays the entire process. And it makes you care very deeply for all the characters along the way. If you're any kind of fan of movies, and particularly of movies that mark a bold cinematic experiment, you owe it to yourself to see Boyhood. It will certainly make my top 10 list for the year, and it deserves to be in Oscar contention. I give it an A-.