Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the best film of the year. There’s been a lot of great films this year, and there will probably be more in the next two-and-a-half months, but I can’t imagine how anything will top Birdman. It’s as unique as Boyhood, as thrilling as Snowpiercer, as witty as The Lego Movie, and as assured as The Grand Budapest Hotel. But more than best of the year, Birdman might rank among the best movies I’ve ever seen. At the least, it’s one of the best movies that’s also perfectly designed for my particular taste.
I haven’t seen director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s previous films (though they’re now high on my to-see list). It seems like this is a radical break from his older filmography of serious tragedies and melodramas. Birdman is dark and twisted, following the self-destruction of a mentally ill former superhero actor, but it’s also incredibly funny. It’s a “meta” comedy about the film and theatre world, enhanced by spot-on casting (the ex-superhero is played by Michael Keaton, while Edward Norton steals the show as a pretentious method actor threatening everyone around him with his demands for “realism”), but even beyond the acting in-jokes, there’s an unhinged sense of fun to the whole affair that had me smiling and laughing throughout when I wasn’t gasping.
Iñárritu’s film feels like the product of influence from his fellow “three amigos”, Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron; you can see the magical realism of Pan’s Labyrinth and the technical mastery of Gravity taken in new directions. There’s also the influence of Hitchcock’s Rope and Sokurov’s Russian Arc, the closest matches to this film’s grand formal experiment. Iñárritu, working with Cuaron’s standby cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, doesn’t go as nuts as Sokurov’s single 96-minute shot, but, outside of one notable sequence, Birdman is designed entirely in long takes, blended together by hidden edits. When Hitchcock did this in Rope, the effect was of a play put on film; here, the unbroken atmosphere of the theatre is combined with cinematic freedom of movement. How many shots are stitched together into the film? I’m curious. There’s a scene with strobe lights where you could easily hide a cut, the use of a video playing in one room transferring to the same video playing in another location, and a couple moments where the camera movement was just impossible enough to suspect CGI being used to blend shots, but if there’s more edits than that, major props to Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione for making their editing work so perfectly invisible.
Birdman opens in NY and LA this Friday, and expands nationwide over the following weeks (plays at Kendall and Coolidge starting October 24th). I urge you to see it: there’s so many laughs and thrills packed into this movie that I dare not spoil for you. Keaton, Norton, Emma Stone (playing Keaton’s out-of-rehab daughter/assistant, the most sympathetic role in the movie and who deserves major recognition for the look on her face in the final scene alone), Iñárritu, Lubezki, Antonio Sanchez (whose percussion-heavy score becomes a character in and of itself) and the film itself should all be shoe-ins for Oscar nominations. Wins? Hopefully, but there’s the possibility this movie is too weird, too funny, too experimental for the Academy’s conservative tastes. It doesn’t need awards to be recognized. It’s gonna be a classic.