My Favorite Moments in the 2014 Best Picture Nominees: Birdman
Our next Best Picture nominee is Birdman.
Here’s how Oscar season works: from mid-December until mid-January, I go over what will and what won’t be nominated. Opinions are formed. It can get heated. Then they announce the nominations, and from then until Oscar night, it’s all about what’s going to win. And more opinions are formed. The problem is that nowhere during this do we actually stop and appreciate the films. They’re always seen through the lens of competition.
So what I do every year is, after all the analysis is done, and all the opinions are dealt with, I stop, take a minute, throw it all away, and just stop to appreciate the movies. I watch all the nominees again, and I pick my favorite moments (or elements) from each of them. The ultimate goal being to remind everyone that once you take away all the competition, the awards, arbitrary decisions of what film is better, what we’re left with is great cinema. And that’s what it’s all about.
Here are my favorite moments from Birdman:
5. Edward Norton
His performance is so great. In any other year, I’d give him the Oscar, flat out. He was so good. You can tell a performance is good when the character disappears for forty minutes and you’re wondering where they went and why there isn’t more of them. You gotta love the guy who’s so method he uses real alcohol in a scene where characters are drinking, and doesn’t care about ruining previews by stopping the play out of nowhere (great scene, by the way. “I’m gonna work with the chicken”). He’s full of great moments in this movie. I love the moment he goes up to the theater critic in the bar, and she asks if he’s nervous that she’ll give him a bad review. And he says, “Sure. If I ever give you a bad performance.” I love that. I love how this character, that could have been one-dimensional, is turned into a real person. They use his conversation with Emma Stone to actually get into his fears and insecurities. Which makes the performance that much better overall.
4. The conceit
An actor who used to be a superhero now has nothing going on, and decides to mount a play to try to become relevant again. And naturally, everything goes wrong. He puts all of his money into it, one of his actors is a mess, he’s sleeping with a co-star, he’s got an insecure movie actress acting in her first play, then once there’s the accident, he casts a Broadway star who ends up being a handful, and on top of that, he’s losing his mind. It’s a great conceit. And I’m not even talking about how they made it. I’m just talking about the general premise.
3. Michael Keaton
When I heard about this movie, all I really knew is, “It’s about a former superhero actor who is now washed up, working on broadway, and has his superhero character following him around. Which I loved. And I knew it was Michael Keaton, which made it more exciting, since there was the Batman connection, and he’s great and isn’t showcased enough in movies. But man, what he accomplishes in this movie, acting-wise, and technically… it’s incredible. Think about what he had to do — he has to be completely vulnerable, give this really demanding performance, essentially carrying the movie. He has to time his performance to his own voiceover and the special effects, and he has to do all of this to a scene that (presumably) doesn’t cut. So he has to know where the camera is, where it’s gonna be, what his cues are, what everyone else’s cues are, has to make sure the timing is right — he had a lot to do. And he pulls it off. There are so many moments of brilliance in his performance, the finest of which I put above. This is one of those times where I don’t think anyone else could have pulled this off as well as he did. It’s hard to picture anyone in this role.
2. This sequence
All puns aside, this is the moment the film really stretches its wings and takes off. The rest of the movie until this point takes place either in the theater or just outside (in the bar, on the roof, or in Times Square). This is where we really get into the complete mental state of the character, as everything goes off the rails. This is where we actually see Birdman, which is when Riggan really starts losing his shit. I love that image, of an actor’s character following him down the street, talking to him. And then he gets up on that roof and flies off. It’s brilliant. And then there’s that great ending, where he goes into the theater, and the cabbie is right there, keeping that fine line between what’s real and what’s in Riggan’s head. Which is a line the film threads brilliantly throughout, all the way down to its final image. But there’s something so beautifully transcendent about the way he flies all around the city. It’s the one moment in the film where the character feels free. Which is sad, since it’s also the one moment in the film where he’s at his most insane. Still beautiful, nonetheless.
1. A Single Shot
It’s the way it was shot that made this movie great instead of very good. It adds a whole level of energy to it, and a freneticism as things spiral out of control. It really puts you firmly within the mindset of your characters. Plus, it allows them to create this brilliant magic trick of a movie, and elevates it into an artistic statement that also acts as a nice balance (and sly wink) to what’s going on in the film. And it showcases the brilliant camerawork and direction of Emmanuel Lubezki and Alejandro Inarritu. The more I watch this movie, the more I love it. And everybody loves a good tracking shot. There are a couple of filmmakers who like including these kinds of shots in their movies (Joe Wright, Alfonso Cuaron), and I love seeing what they do to top themselves. Inarritu took that to a whole other level. I gotta say, outside of another Best Picture nominee that’s coming up a little later, no film made me feel more excited or more energized this year. Because nothing is more exciting than when people take risks and try new things with film.