Saturday, January 21, 2017


Welcome to the first DECADE OF BEST PICTURES series of reviews where we will be taking a look at a decade of Best Picture winners over the course of 10 days. In this series we will be looking at the decade of Best Pictures from 2005-2015 in reverse chronological order! This second entry will be for the 2014 Best Picture winner BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)!

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (hereinafter, Birdman) is the 2014 film from acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. The film tells the story of a washed up actor who is seeking to reclaim his artistic integrity by putting on a stage play after being written off for his earlier work playing a superhero called “Birdman.” The film stars Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and Lindsay Duncan.

I have a conflicted relationship with this film. Technically, it is a work of sheer brilliance. On top of that, it also has a lot of intriguing layers and meta-depth that make it an engaging film to watch. However, I think that the film’s message didn’t really land for me and, overall, became a piece that was largely style over substance.

Beginning with the technical elements, the direction and cinematography of Birdman are beyond impeccable. Iñárritu and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki combine to make one of the most singularly unique viewing experience as the film plays out like one single continuous shot that follows the various characters throughout the film. This was hard to fathom when I first saw it, but on repeat viewing the masterful camera work and editing only becomes more impressive. That constant motion and pace makes this film feel very raw and at the same time kinetic, thrusting the audience along with the story and keeping them wrapt throughout.

I also thought the performances in this film were superb. Michael Keaton gives a raw and interesting performance like never before. Emma Stone is better than she’s ever been. Edward Norton is used perfectly in this film to add a certain spice that elevates this film beyond what the other actors bring. I also thought that Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts disappear into their roles in a good way. There is one major moment in a bar with Lindsay Duncan, a critic, and Michael Keaton that is, from a performance perspective, one of the best scenes I’ve seen in a long time.

But this is also where I turn to the negatives. I think that Iñárritu (and the other writers) have a perspective on criticism and art that is so foreign to my sensibilities that I found the underlying message extremely off-putting. It shows a very specific artists perspective on the present state of art and takes dead aim at certain things but not in such an intelligent way that it can get away with it and have me just accept that we differ in opinion. Even in the stellar scene between Keaton and Duncan on criticism, I thought the film was revealing another personal view the writers had and it just added another layer of strangeness to it. I don’t disagree to the extent that the writers are right in this scene, but I also don’t think they’re nearly as right as they think they are. I can follow the line of thought in this film as one portraying the perceptions of certain artists about the state of cinematic art, but as a fan I found it particularly pretentious and off-putting. This just colors my perspective and because it is the story it’s telling I can’t diminish it too much for it, but I did have a problem with it in this way.

Additionally, I think the film lost a sense of what it was at the end in two ways: first, I think it steps too far into the ridiculous surrealism toward the end; and second, I think that the film choses to add a pointless tacked on conclusion when it could have ended on an extremely dramatic and poignant moment. There is a kind of dream sequence toward the end of the film that sort of betrayed much of the frenetic realism we got before with the subtle surrealism brought from the crazy voice of Birdman in Keaton’s character’s mind. This bothered me and really took me out right at the end. Also at the very end the film has an extreme and interesting moment to end only to tack on a scene that really didn’t add to the movie and harmed it for me.

Overall, Birdman is a very good film and a work of technical brilliance. I did have some story issues (or at least issues getting someone who disagrees on board) and I thought it had a couple elements at the end that hurt my final impression of the film. Definitely a film to watch though.

Ryan’s Score: 8/10

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