Best Picture Profile: Birdman

As we come closer to the Academy Awards on February 22nd, we’ll be posting short profiles of each Best Picture nominee, attempting, in our own ways, to not only sum up what the movie is about, but why we believe it scored one of the eight coveted nominations, and why it could possibly take home the big prize come Oscar night. Enjoy!

It’s a little ironic that Birdman, a film that is at once a love letter to the purity of theatre and a giant middle finger to critics and awards, is tied for the most Oscar nominations this year – surely Riggan (Michael Keaton) and Mike (Edward Norton) are laughing about this over a glass of whiskey somewhere. That’s not to say Birdman isn’t good. Birdman is not just a great film, but a unique one – certainly one of the best eight pictures of the year, and in my estimation, one of the best two.

Birdman tells the story of Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor producing a totally ridiculous passion project – specifically, a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which Thomson is writing, directing, and starring in – while trying to get away from his superhero past. The specter of Birdman looms over him heavily, whether it’s through a poster in his dressing room, a reporter asking about Birdman 4, or a hallucinatory manifestation of Birdman following him around throughout his day, and as much as Riggan tries to escape it, he finds he must ultimately succumb to the caped crusader’s demands. In the midst of all this, Riggan has plenty more to worry about – his girlfriend’s potential pregnancy, his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter (played beautifully by Emma Stone), his unpredictable co-star (Norton, in a career performance), his worried ex-wife (the always lovely Amy Ryan), and the success of this play, which seems doomed from the start.

I’ve touched on how great the performances are in this movie, but I just need to talk about it again – this cast is so uniformly excellent that it blew my mind. Each one of them, in interviews, have spoken about director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s intense filming style, which consists of takes so long that the movie seems to be without a single cut, but clearly this group was talented enough to withstand it. (Fun fact: Keaton and Norton kept a running tally of who screwed up takes the most, and that dubious award goes to Emma Stone, while Zach Galifinakis messed up the least number.) Everyone in this movie is perfectly cast and perfectly placed; Stone gets to go grittier and sadder than ever before, Norton gets to (brilliantly) play off his “difficult actor” persona, Galifinakis gets to be quippy and smart for once, and Keaton has the opportunity to play an extraordinarily exaggerated version of himself, i.e., a superhero turned “serious actor.”

I also briefly need to mention how fun the editing and score in this film is – the long cuts and constant drum music add an element of pure insanity, which not only lets you directly into Riggan’s messy head, but makes you feel like maybe you’re losing it a little as well. (See also: Whiplash.)

This movie is a startling achievement – it’s unique, challenging and keeps your brain moving at a breakneck pace – but remains totally different from its main opposition on Oscar night, which, most likely, will be Boyhood. Do I think Keaton could possible edge out Eddie Redmayne for Best Actor? Possibly – the Academy does love a good comeback story. (See also: McConaughey, Matthew; Leto, Jared.) Do I think it’s going to win? I feel obligated to say no, only because I do think it’s too polarizing for the bulk of the Academy. Would I be mad if it did? Not at all. Seeing this movie was one of the most purely fun moviegoing experiences I had in all of 2014, and, you know, I saw The LEGO Movie. So that’s saying something.

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