(2014 - Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone)
What impresses me most about Birdman is its fluidity amongst the never-ending on-screen brokenness. Every character is fragile and fighting perceptions of self-worth, confidence, validation, reality, and truth. So what better way to underlay the present than to give the illusion that the entire film is done in one two-hour take. In a film that is all about risk and truth, the single take approach brings clarity to a film in the riskiest way possible. We glide from one character to the next with no break, no cut, and no chance to catch one’s breath.
Normal film conventions are there to create a false sense of space and continuity. So what happens when we aren’t given that luxury that every movie and TV show awards us? It’s jarring. It’s uncomfortable. It’s honest. It’s an enhanced version of theatre. Quality single takes have been popular among film fans and filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón, and a host of others. As an audience member, they are always technically impressive, as recently seen in True Detective, Fargo, or Gravity (which cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also shot). They are the anti chaos-cinema. But as more and more filmmakers choose to shoot long tracking shots, the luster has worn off. Do filmmakers do it so they can show off and pat themselves on the back for adding “style” or do they do it because they are fans when other filmmakers pull them off and want to mimic them? I think that’s the case in certain circumstances; heck, if I had the budget and time to do one in a film – why not, right? Birdman isn't the first film to simulate the entire film being done in one shot, as Russian Ark and Hitchcock's Rope have attempted it. But, as Roger Deakins says, “Sometimes you watch a film and you see a big elaborate shot and think, “I wonder what that would look like if you played it on a close-up and a reverse.” You know, a close-up on an actor and a point-of-view. It would have had more power.” I think that’s a great point and something to consider, but that is definitely not the case in Birdman. I can’t imagine this movie being filmed any other way. This movie lives and dies on that camera.
This ensemble comes out in a fury and full of actors on top of their game. Michael Keaton gives the performance of his career as Riggan, a washed-up mega-franchise Hollywood actor searching for an artistic comeback so he can feel important again. What better actor to play this role than Keaton, who himself, was in a big budget superhero franchise over 20 years ago? If he’s not a slam-dunk for the Oscar I have yet to see who could be. Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone are all superb, hilarious, and heartbreaking. Even the supporting cast (Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan) has depth and purpose. No matter the type of film, if a cast is as talented and as on-point as Birdman’s, the movie will be a blast to watch.
Everything, from the writing (of both the film and the play within the film), to the jazz infused score, to the cinematographic challenges, to the lens choice, helped underscore the mind games that actors play in their fragile psyches. Yes, this film is an overarching satire on Hollywood as well as Broadway theatre, but it’s best when it’s intimately exploring the actor’s process and just how messed up it can be. When a profession is competitive and dependent on people liking you, it’s hard to be truthful and take risks. Or in Ed Norton’s case, it’s harder to be truthful in real life than on stage. Birdman is full of both humor and poignancy. Its darkness and duress comes in the form of Birdman’s voice inside Riggan’s head. Lines get blurred as we try to figure out what’s real and what isn’t, right alongside Riggan’s psychological deterioration, and ends up being a hell of a lot of fun. Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) made a fun movie? It's hard to believe.
Birdman is no gimmick movie. It’s an experience unlike any other brought to us by craftsmen at their very best. It may very well be the best movie of the year.