If you read my review of Boyhood, the presumptive favourite for the Best Picture award at the next Academy Awards, you know that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the movie (It’s great, just not the best movie of the year, in my opinion). Knowing this, you may be itching to think what movies I think are good enough to displace what some are calling the best movie of this current decade?
I’d say Birdman is a pretty solid bet (And Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America…).
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Produced by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan, James W. Skotchdopole
Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo
Genre: Black comedy
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts
Music by: Antonio Sánchez
Plot: Birdman revolves around a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. The play is being written and directed by Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who is also starring in the lead role. Riggan used to be one of the biggest actors on the planet, back when he was the star of the crowd-pleasing Birdman franchise, which he left after the third movie, languishing in obscurity ever since. His bid for newfound relevance is being threatened by prima donna actors (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts), his temperamental daughter (Emma Stone) and his own overblown ego.
Alejandro González Iñárritu has made a name for himself in Hollywood, directing weird, dark foreign movies that are nonetheless accessible for mainstream audiences, such as Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Birdman is Gonzalez’s first entirely English-language movie, and has gained quite a bit of publicity since debuting at the Venice International Film Festival in August. In many ways, this is a turn towards more conventional storytelling for the director, as he sacrifices his trademark epic, non-linear. intertwining storylines for what is essentially a frequently darkly comic character study of Michael Keaton (Kinda).
That doesn’t mean Gonzalez doesn’t try to put his own personal fingerprint on this movie, because it has his heavily stylized fingerprint all over it. The usual orchestral score music one would find in most award-bait movies is replaced by some maniac frantically playing the shit out of his drums, even making several appearances throughout the movie itself. Instead of conventional film editing, that is, carefully selecting shots and arranging them into sequences to create a finished movie (Like a loser) Gonzalez decided to go the really strange route of, through extremely clever editing, making the entire movie look like it was filmed in one continuous take, with no noticeable separation between scenes. It’s weird. It’s unconventional. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before.
I FUCKING LOVE IT.
The frantic pace of the music, editing (And the movie as a whole, really) really compliments the rest of the, relatively short, film perfectly. It’s very rare that the fact that a movie felt longer than its runtime is a compliment to the movie, but in this case, it absolutely is. This movie throws SO much stuff at you in its two hour runtime, which would get boring and/or exhausting if every. Single. Goddamn. Thing that happened on screen wasn’t so visually captivating, or if damn near every line of dialogue spouted by the fascinating characters wasn’t so interesting and/or intellectually stimulating.
I do mean that last sentence, by the way. As I was leaving the theatre, so many themes from the movie were swirling through my mind, and none of those themes felt tacked-on for dramatic effect. The dilemma of fame is brought up. The idea of staying relevant and the human desire for immortality is referenced abundantly. Blockbuster movies versus “high art” mediums too. Hell, even the usual theme of a parent-child relationship gone sour is fitted in among all this other stuff. And you know what? It’s all done fucking beautifully. As much as I loved 12 Years a Slave last year, and it was my favourite movie of 2013, and as much interesting things it had to say about the human condition, I can watch it maybe once every six months or so without getting horribly depressed and angry at humanity in general. What I’m getting at is: As great as 12 Years a Slave is, it doesn’t have very much immediate replay value. In fact, more often than not, I just want to put it out of my mind after watching it.
Right after watching the matinee showing of Birdman, I was fully prepared to pay full price for an evening ticket, just so I could analyze the movie’s themes again. The only thing that prevented me from doing so was the fact that I had already spent all my money on comic books by the time evening rolled around.
I guess what i’m trying to say is that I think that a movie about the harrowing conditions that slaves faced in the United States before the civil war wasn’t as interesting to me as a movie where this happens:
Admit it, you can’t take your eyes off of Edward Norton’s bulge either. It’s okay, none of us can.
Good storytelling can go to shit without good characters, though. Thankfully, this movie delivers on that front as well. All of these main characters are written so well that by the end of the movie, I genuinely like each of them, and want to see everything go well for them, even when they’re being the biggest collection of dickbags on the planet (Which is often). Zach Galifianakis erases my memory of his crappy turn in Are You Here with a great performance as Riggan’s lawyer and best friend, while Naomi Watts is also great as a first-time Broadway actress trying desperately to make something of herself.
The three performances that seem to be attracting the most Oscar buzz, however, are those of Keaton as Riggan Thomson, Norton as a superbly talented, yet pompous asshole of a method actor who could make or break the play and Emma Stone. As much as I hate mindlessly conforming the the general consensus, I’ve gotta say that I agree with everybody else. They’re all fantastic, and I would be more than happy to see them nominated come January.
However, while Norton and Stone seem to be facing some very stiff competition from their peers, Michael Keaton is straight up eating the competition alive. It’s great to see Keaton back doing prominent work again (Not that he was dead in the water or anything, it’s just he wasn’t as big of a name as he was back when he was doing Batman), and even better to see him totally owning a role that is pretty obviously meant to be portrayed by him, even if it’s not always a portrayal that most would consider flattering. Needless to say, he absolutely kills it in this movie. Even if I do joke that it’s basically Michael Keaton playing Michael Keaton, he still disappears into the role and breathes life into what could have easily been a pretty phoned in performance. The only real competition that I’ve seen so far that can really stand toe-to-toe with him is Eddie Redmayne, but more on him later.
Overall: Watch this movie. Do it. Drop whatever you’re doing, drive to whatever independent theatre is showing it in your hometown, pay full price, and plunk your ass down in the theatre seat to watch it. I guarantee you will not regret it.