Birdman dominated the Oscars last night, taking home awards for best picture, director, original screenplay, and cinematography. Directed and written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful), Birdman stars Michael Keaton as a washed-up actor who was once adored for a series of superhero movies. He is now desperately trying to regain relevance by writing, starring-in, and directing a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. As his production starts to falls apart around him, so does his barely-maintained sanity and ego.
Though the film has had tons of buzz over the past year among film critics and festival attendees, it’s a title that many people still have yet to see—including several in the JustLuxe office. So, as someone who loved the film, I’ve compiled a handy list of seven reasons why you should definitely see Birdman:
(Warning: Some of the below videos may contain curse words.)
1. The Performances
First and foremost, there is Michael Keaton. He delivers a tour de force performance that will make you completely rethink your previously-held notions of who he is and what he can do. Yes, Keaton is playing an actor who was once really famous for playing a superhero; Keaton himself played Batman in two Tim Burton-directed films. But before you think Keaton is merely playing himself, his multi-layered performance is more than that. The character of Riggan Thomson is literally haunted by his famous past self, which physically manifests as the costumed Birdman. While Riggan struggles to be taken seriously in the art world, Birdman mocks, undermines, and torments him by constantly reminding Riggan that the public sees him as a joke. This escalates throughout the film and allows magical realism to bring in some common superhero movie effects, like monsters, explosions, and flying.
Emma Stone is amazing as Riggan’s estranged ex-junky daughter. She delivers a monologue that will be shown in acting classes from now on. Though the dialogue is perfect and comments on how society now judges relevancy in terms of one’s social media persona, it is Stone’s 13 minutes of silence after speaking that is the key. The emotion that plays out on her face, moving from a frustrated self-righteous anger to a painful awareness of what she has actually said, is pure beauty and worth the price of admission alone.
The always amazing Edward Norton plays Mike, an actor who is hired to perform in Riggan’s play. Norton is essentially an actor, playing an actor, who is then playing a character in a theater production. Not easy to pull off. Mike is a last-minute addition to Riggan’s project and comes in like an earthquake. A total control freak, he is a threat to Riggan’s precarious sanity and no matter what he does, can’t be fired because his name brings an audience. He’s insane and hilarious. Zach Galifianakis brings a lot of humor to the movie as well, as Riggan’s friend and producer, while Naomi Watts perfectly plays a fragile actress with an off-screen relationship with Mike that implodes off (and on) the stage.
2. It's Funny
The collective cast brings an odd-ball humor to the film that is at once very dark and extremely funny. It won’t always be a comfortable humor and sometimes it’s awkward, but it’s real. It actually shares a similar similar tone to that of Being John Malkovich and Inglorious Basterds. They all bring humor to otherwise cringe-worthy scenes.
3. The Film Style
Iñárritu shot Birdman in a way that looks like it is all one continuous take, something that is technically different for everyone on set, not just the actors. Though the film can’t be one long take for obvious reasons, a lot of it is and what isn’t was edited to mask the cuts. Aside from a few obvious ones, it is tough to pin-point when the camera quits rolling and a fun challenge would be to watch the film with this in mind. The way the camera moves from space to space lends an unpredictable excitement, because the audience never knows what or who will appear in the frame next. It also put a lot of pressure on the cast and crew. If one shot was 10 minutes long and a character had to come into frame during the last minute, that actor had to execute the scene perfectly. Why? Because if they messed up, the entire 10-minute scene had to be redone.
Due to the tracking shot style, the audience moves with the camera and acts as the all-knowing voyeur who is thrown into every scene. As a viewer, you are forced to stay with the characters as they self-destruct, which is sometimes uncomfortable. Much like how Steve McQueen treats long takes in his films, Iñárritu simply won’t let you escape the masochistic and painful behavior of the characters on screen.
4. The Cinematography
In a very tough category that included Robert Yeoman for The Grand Budapest Hotel, Emmanuel Lubezki took home his second Oscar for cinematography (his first was for Gravity). Not only could every single shot in Birdman be framed and hung on a wall, Lubezki had to make sure the camera moved seamlessly, so as to never disjoint the illusion of continuity. The colors (sometimes colorfully crisp and other times oppressing), the positioning of actors in each framed shot, and the set design all worked together to make Birdman heaven to watch for a film buff.
5. Critique of the Film Industry
Iñárritu throws some serious shade at the movie industry with Birdman, especially to critics, making it even cooler that the film won so many Oscars. Birdman portrays critics as selfish fame-mongers who seem to get pleasure from destroying careers simply because they can. There is one in the film who chooses to lampoon Riggan’s work simply because she doesn’t like him, and why doesn’t she like him? She has no reason other than her pre-conceived notions of him as a no-talent former actor trying to recapture his glory days. She makes every single one of Riggan’s insecurities and self-doubts come to life and is the real-life representation of his self-hatred.
The film is an interesting look at the actor’s struggle between being famous and being artistically impactful, two sides of acting that rarely come together. Though Birdman and Riggan seem to want different things (one wants to be a Robert Downey Jr./Ironman type while the other wants to be an art playhouse success story), fame and recognition is at the core of both desires.
6. The Score
In Birdman, the drums act as Riggan’s own personal score, an internal soundtrack to his psychological unraveling. Not just an auditory piece of the film, the music also manifests itself physically; Mike and Riggan actually walk past a man playing the score you hear, something which only Riggan seems to notice. When his life starts spiraling out of control, the music reflects it.
7. Connection to Superhero Movies
As you know, Keaton played Batman, but his isn’t the only connection to superhero films in the casting. Emma Stone played Gwen Stacy in two Spider-Man films and Edward Norton played the Hulk very briefly in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. The audience isn’t expected to forget who is acting in Birdman, quite the opposite. The cannon of the collective cast adds another layer to the film’s magic-realism.