Sunday, January 11, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014--#1: "Birdman's" Powers of Deception Make it the Best Film of the Year

It is time. After a week and a half of constant posts, I finally reach the final entry in my list of best films of the year. First, let's take a look at the complete list (you can read the honorable mentions here):

11: Selma
10: Foxcatcher
9: Whiplash 
8: Nightcrawler 
7: Gone Girl
6: The Babadook  
5: The Grand Budapest Hotel
4: Boyhood
3: Begin Again   
2: Snowpiercer

And now for my best picture of the year. Let's get right to it. It's Birdman.

It soars to the top spot! I promise no more bird puns, but I had to make at least one.
Or, perhaps I should use its full title of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) which seems pretentious (because it is) but actually does make sense in the film. Clunky but fitting title aside, it's a film that is engaging, it's a film that is surprising, it's a film that is exhilarating, it's a film that is satisfying, it's a film that is thought-provoking. It is ambitious without being complicated. It is perfectly balanced-- with each scene giving us new insight, with story and character treated with equal importance. It is more than just a film-- it is an experience. One that thrilled me as I was watching it and continued to stay with me long after I had left the theater.

Birdman is about a former movie star named Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who attempts to restore his artistic merit by writing, directing, and starring in a play on Broadway. But, while this story is told expertly, the achievement of Birdman lies in how the story is told rather than what the story is. The best way I can describe the film is to say that it is a cinematic magic trick. The job of magicians is to use illusion to challenge their audience's notions of what is happening in front of them. This is exactly what Birdman does-- it uses various filmmaking techniques to disorient its audience, creating a spectacle that one could not have expected. Birdman  keeps us guessing, forever making us question our own perceptions of what is actually happening on screen. Birdman is not a film that wants its audience to get too complacent. When we think we have the film figured out, something happens to subvert and challenge our views. Just like how a bad magician can (and does) make some people hate magic, this film had the potential to be a complete disaster, but in the hands of director and co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, it is a rousing success. Like a well-performed piece of magic, the film is a true spectacle, that can leave a willing audience astonished.

Gaze upon the wig of Michael Keaton in all of its spectacle!

Perhaps the most blatant way that Inarritu challenges our experiences of reality is in his use of long shots. Or, should I say long shot, as the film has been shot to look like it was all done in one take. The use of these long shots in films is a tried-and-true technique which has the effect of making a scene feel more realistic. Montages and quick cuts and shorter shots within a scene tend to make us subconsciously aware of the filmmaking, but long shots simply make it seem the onscreen action feel more natural. The famous long shot that opened last year's Gravity served to make us feel like we were actually in space. The use of a long shot in Atonement showing a war scene helped make the horrors of war seem more personal to us. In perhaps the most famous long shot of all time, the opening scene of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, a bomb is placed in the trunk of a car and the camera does not break until the bomb detonates. Here, the extended long shot helps ramp up the tension as we wait for the bomb to go inevitably go off.

Filming Birdman as (almost) one take takes these principles to the extreme. It lesser hands it could feel like a gimmick, and is certainly not everyone's cup of tea, which is probably why this effect has not been attempted too frequently. The most famous, and most successful until now, film to appear to be filmed in one shot was Alfred Hitchock's underrated Rope. Here, having the film in one take makes the viewers feel like their in the same room as two murderers, and adds a sense of unease to a potentially mundane film (at least by Hitchcock's standards). The long take perfectly compliments the natural style of the film. But, in Birdman, the one long take has the opposite effect. Granted, it still is a naturalistic style and makes the action on screen feel more realistic, but this sensation is in complete opposition to what is actually occurring in the film. Birdman offers us a series of bizarre images that sit firmly in the realm of the fantastic, and which are at clear odds with the natural tone the filmmaking puts us in the mood for. It's a disorienting feeling, which makes these impossible images feel more plausible. And when I say "bizarre images," I mean both the blatant and the subtle. Blatantly strange images include the fact that Riggan appears to have superpowers. This is introduced to us early in the film--the first time we see Riggan, he is levitating in the air wearing his tighty-whities. After that, he does everything from move objects to his mind to conjure a giant robotic bird to attack New York City.

Or, you know, fly.

The film leaves all of this ambiguous--at the end we still do not know whether Riggan's powers are in his mind or a part of reality (or some mixture of the two), but this interesting ambiguity would not be possible if not for the wonderful contrast the use of long shots evokes. Then there's a street musician harbinger of sorts who plays the drums--the film has a fairly constant underscoring (more on that later) but, in one moment, Riggan and Mike walk by a street musician who is playing in time to the drum music that we have heard all along. Does this mean that the entire score up until that point has been played by this one background character? Is his presence here, now, coincidental? This drummer shows up later-- again, playing in time to the score, but this time, he is inside the theater itself where he has no business being. It's a strange moment to be sure, one very purposefully put in there for the purpose of throwing the audience off balance. On top of these clearer moments of breaking with reality, the filmmaking also confuses us with some more subtle tricks of the camera. Someone can walk across a hall, and when they get to the end of the hall, the time has changed from day to night. Someone can be talking to someone downstairs, walk up the stairs, and see that same person waiting for them on the upper lever, when they could not have gotten there so quickly. These more subtle details are perfect--your brain registers them but brushes them off, but they add to the unique plane of reality on which Birdman resides. Inarritu manages to actually warp space and time.

Riggan, followed by the titular Birdman.

One of the more interesting breaks from reality in Birdman involves the character of Birdman himself. As mentioned before, Riggan himself is a former movie star, and we learn he was best known for playing a superhero called Birdman. But, it becomes clear early on that the character of Birdman speaks to Riggan in a voice that only he can hear. Initially, we only hear Birdman speak to Riggan in Riggan's dressing room, where he keeps a poster with the character prominently displayed on his wall. And we initially believe that it is the poster speaking to him--that the face of Birdman on the poster is the origin of the gruff voice we are hearing. But, then, in one pretty abrasive scene where the voice taunts Riggan while he trashes his dressing room, he hurls the poster towards the wall where it breaks. There is silence, and then all at once, the voice of Birdman says "I always liked that poster." The audience (and perhaps Riggan too) realizes for the first time that the voice is larger than the poster itself, and that the origins of the voice are a part of Riggan's own delusions. In this moment it becomes clearer that the true course of the film is plotting Riggan's descent into madness, and the character of Birdman, and his prominence in the film (up until he becomes fully realized on screen) is a tremendous gauge to help us track Riggan's constantly loosening grip on reality. The character, while believable in appearance as a form of superhero, becomes a clearly menacing figure here, with the birdlike qualities taking on a predatory, vulturelike being forever urging on Riggan's own self-destruction.

Riggan in his dressing room, the poster of Birdman watching.

We should talk about Riggan. The main gimmick of the film beyond the appearance of being one shot is the casting of Michael Keaton as Thomson. I shouldn't have to spell this out, but it's no coincidence that Michael Keaton of all people was cast to play a movie star whose career took a rapid decline after he stopped playing a famous winged superhero with a gravelly voice. Keaton's easily could have phoned it in here, and allowed the stunt casting to do the heavy lifting of his performance, but he does not, and turns in a subtler performance than I think most people would have thought the actor who played Beetlejuice was capable of. Despite all of the film's ambiguity, the movie feels grounded because of Keaton's work. He is understated, never giving away too much. Ultimately, we find that Riggan resides in a world of madness and sadness. At one crucial point (perhaps one of my favorite scenes in the film), Riggan enters a colorfully-lit liquor store to the sound of a shrieking voice raspily reciting the "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow" soliloquy from Macbeth, delivered by the titular character after his wife has died. What an apt selection--like the famed Scottish king, Riggan is consumed by grief and insanity, allowing both emotional facets to prove destructive to him and those he holds most dear. At the start of the film, Riggan seems primarily bitter and tired. It isn't until a wild-eyed Riggan fantasizes terrorizing the city that we see how disturbed this man is, and how tenuous his grip on reality actually is. Throughout the film, Riggan never behaves the way we expect him to; when Riggan catches his co-star whom he despises and his daughter kissing, we expect him to fly off the handle--which he has done for a lot less-- but instead he seems to shrug it off and goes out for a smoke. But none of these surprising choices ever feel inconsistent. These actions are not what we think Riggan would do, but they makes perfect sense once he does them, and that's because Keaton's performance is so defined and clear. We trust him. We trust that he is this tormented character we see on the screen.

Riggan, in the aforementioned colorfully-lit liquor store. See? I wasn't lying. That is the most colorfully-lit liquor store ever.

After Keaton, the next most prominent role belongs to Edward Norton, who similarly plays a role that is a caricature of himself. He plays Mike Shiner, a critically-beloved actor in the play Riggan is directing and, like Norton, is a method actor who is notoriously difficult to work with. Norton does the best work that I personally have seen from him, with a performance that proves he is very game for self parody. While Riggan is at the forefront, Mike is the film's secret weapon, and serves as a sort of multi-purpose tool--in that he serves multiple functions as the script demands, and that he is an asshole on many levels. If Mike needs to be a brilliant actor who Riggan looks up to and is envious of, that's what he can be. If Mike needs to be a thorn in Riggan's side who is impossible to work with, that's what he can be. If Mike needs to be a completely vapid attention-whore who thinks only of himself, he can be. If Mike needs to be a vulnerable and sensitive philosopher who shows keen insight and an ability to assess himself and others, he can be. If he needs to be the comic relief, he is, and if he needs to be the emotional weight of the scene, he is. Yet, Norton is able to tie all of these facets of Mike Shiner together into a consistent bundle. It feels correct when he is at odds with Riggan, and it feels correct when he is Riggan's advocate.

This shot kind of perfectly sums up Riggan and Mike's relationship.

Both Riggan and Mike have given circumstances that mimic that of their performers. And it is not a coincidence that they're the characters who we know the most about from promotional material. If you watch the trailer (watch this one--it's pretty phenomenal on its own), you can get the sense that Keaton and Norton are playing characters who mimic their realities. So, imagine my surprise at finding that almost every other actor was playing pretty aggressively against type. Naomi Watts--arguably the next biggest star in the film--plays a mostly unknown actress who is struggling to find her confidence and footing. Emma Stone, an actress who pretty consistently stays out of the tabloids and seems to be on her best behavior pretty much always, plays Riggan's daughter Sam, a rebel fresh out of rehab.

Drugs were a bad choice, but Edward Norton was an even worse one. Stay away, Emma Stone! Stay with Andrew Garfield--you two are adorable.
Zach Galifianakis, the over the top scene-stealing comedic actor, ends up playing the least humorous character in the film, serving as a complete straight man to the wacky antics of Riggan. Then there's the role of a New York Times theatre critic whose reviews can make or break any production, and whose approval Riggan is desperately seeking. In terms of reputation, the critic is most clearly linked to Ben Brantley-- the current New York Times chief theatre critic. But, in Birdman the character is named Tabitha and she's played by Lindsay Duncan--rather than simply cast someone to play a thinly-veiled depiction of Brantley, the film goes the other route and finds its own character who they very clearly distinguish from Brantley. Even Inarittu himself is completely against type here. Inarittu is best known for his brilliant "Trilogy of Death," consisting of the films Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, which all feature grand interweaving ensemble casts and multiple plotlines. Here, the film is so laser-focused on Riggan and so small-scale and intimate, that it's amazing to think that this is the same director (and more amazing that he handles this film with as dept a hand as he did the grand sweeping non-linear anthology). So, once again, the film subverts our expectations by putting Keaton and Norton front and center, and then letting everyone be so against type.

Michael Keaton, with Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis who give performances that are very much against their usual type.

First watching Birdman, I let myself be swept up in the experience. But afterwards, I really got to consider how good this movie is. Obviously, the editing and cinematography is incredible, but every detail is done so well The art direction is extraordinary--the few moments of special effects are simply glorious and manage to feel at home in the world of the film even though they're so otherworldly--they're artsy enough to feel appropriate but not to much to be distracting. It also features one of the best flying sequences I've ever seen on film. The score, by Antonio Sanchez is brilliant--it is almost entirely percussive and, much like in Whiplash, the use of drumming helps ramp up the tension and aggression of the film. And the writing is impeccable. The dialogue feels great, but the film also manages to tackle some rather difficult issues with an almost journalistic sense of impartiality. It presents ideas for us to think about without taking a firm side. This is perhaps most present in a scene between Riggan and Tabitha, the film critic over the nature of artistic criticism. Riggan makes solid points that have been stated many times before by artists, but continue to hold water here--the critic stifles artistic creativity and their abundance of power is dangerous in that it inhibits audiences from making up their own minds. But, to the film's credit, it also gives Tabitha her own due. She is not the trope of the evil critic (even though she has some particularly harsh words for Riggan). As she argues, she is not destroying art, what is destroying art is people like Riggan who lack true innovation yet use celebrity to elevate their own projects. Both sides are valid, and the film presents them as such--it does not deal in a black and white scope and encourages audiences to think about the arguments rather than necessarily choose a victor.

Just like how, in an epic boxing showdown between Riggan and Mike there is, similarly, no victor.

There are many memorable scenes of humor and poignancy, but the bit of writing that stuck out to me is one particular scene--or, really, three scenes. Since the film is about the production of a Broadway play, we at times see scenes from that play on screen--and one scene in particular (the final scene in the play Riggan has written--an adaptation of the Raymond Carver Story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love") is shown three times. The writers had an impossible task here. For one thing, they had to write in Riggan's voice, and for most of the film we are meant to be on the fence about whether Riggan is any good as an artist or not, so the scene can't be all that good. And yet, the scene has to carry immense emotional weight in each of its iterations. It is the final scene of the fictional Broadway play, yes, but it is also heard, again, THREE times in the movie, each time under very different circumstances, and each time carrying a different meaning. The first time, the scene is incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. Riggan, at his most apathetic and already growing weary of Mike, walks on stage to find that Mike has a prominent erection (the audience notices too and begins laughing) after he tried to force himself on Lesley (Watts' character, who happens to be dating Mike at the time) on stage to make the scene more "real." The moment is quite dark, but so uncomfortable there is something almost comedic about the dialogue as the erect penis of Edward Norton derails any insight one possibly could have derived from the scene.

The second time we see the scene is also comedic-- with Riggan entering from the audience in his tighty-whiteys after a series of mishaps. Riggan's seams are starting to fray here-- he is desperate and unhinged and the scene once again becomes about his own circumstances, the awkwardness of the surrounding events making the scene within the scene feel clunky and unimpressive yet again.

And then, the third and final time we see the motel scene is glorious. Unlike the other times, it is presented under the most serious of circumstances--as Riggan walks on stage we know that his life is literally on the line. The tension in the scene is remarkable. And the cast takes their time with it. For the first time, we actually absorb the words of the scene and they are incredibly sad and powerful. The lines Riggan speaks were always written by Riggan to begin with, but in this third iteration of the scene only, they seem to be coming from him. He speaks his own lines not as a character, but as Riggan himself, discovering their relevance to his situation only as he is saying them. And in them, reveals Riggan's own personal fear. "I don't exist. I'm not even here. I don't exist. None of this matters." At the end of this scene, the movie reaches a crucial point, a crucial moment. One that risked being over the line and misguided. But, instead, the moment feels incredibly earned. After one of the film's most deafening moments of silence, the Broadway audience bursts into thunderous applause, and I almost wanted to join in.

Riggan and Mike, arguing outside of the Broadway theater.

I'd like to discuss this "crucial moment," but I should mention that it is a spoiler, so if you have not seen the movie, please skip to the next paragraph. It's pretty momentous and I don't want to give it away. Okay, skip to the next paragraph...NOW! Now that it's just us Birdman-viewers and those who foolishly read ahead, you know that I'm speaking, of course, of Riggan bringing a loaded gun on stage and shooting his nose off (by the way, how great was it that his face-cast was so birdlike? You can't escape the mask, Riggan!) This moment had me on the edge of my seat. It has been foreshadowed throughout the entire film. In one of the scenes in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," we hear the characters tell an anecdote about an old man who tried to shoot himself in the mouth and missed (sound familiar, Riggan)? Mike tells Riggan that he should bring a real gun on stage to make the moment more real, which, while not a good thing, it undeniably does. Interestingly, while Mike's talk of realism is portrayed as ridiculous (his tantrum about the gin being replaced with water on stage was childish and obnoxious), Riggan's assessment that the critics love Mike proves correct--in Tabitha's review, she praises the realism of the moment of Riggan shooting himself, which Mike stated when he encouraged Riggan to bring on the gun. Further foreshadowing includes the fact that Riggan's character, of course, kills himself at the end of the play, so it makes sense that Riggan would try to kill himself at the end of the film. Plus, we know Riggan has a history with suicide. He clearly considers jumping off of a building earlier in the film, and relays to his ex-wife (an excellent Amy Ryan who shined in her two scenes) that he tried to drown himself a few years prior, only to turn back when he kept being stung by jellyfish (those jellyfish, by the way, are one of the first shots of the film, but you forget all about them until this story is told, when they instantly pop back into your mind--brilliant). Then, there's Riggan's dream about going down on a plane with George Clooney (not coincidentally another movie Batman). So, the death of our main character is foreshadowed endlessly. And yet, I could not believe it as he walked onto the stage. Every indication was given and yet it still felt like a shocking moment. And then, beyond when he tries to kill himself on stage, we cannot forget his final moments in his hospital room when he again jumps out of the window. Once again, ambiguity serves the film well, and it refuses to answer anything definitively. When Riggan's daughter looks out the window and, looking downwards, looks horrified, only to look upwards in wonder, what is she seeing? Is she seeing her father seemingly plummeting to the ground, only to swoop up suddenly in flight? Or, did she see her father splatter on the ground and, taking after her dad, have a break in reality where she mistakenly imagines that she's witnessing him flying? Is it something else entirely? There are many possible answers, and none of them are right or wrong, but all are fascinating to consider.

Emma Stone, in one of the film's final moments.

There is so much to Birdman. It is such a technical accomplishment, but it is also a philosophical smorgasbord, filled with many grand ideas with many interpretations. It is filled with so many small details that I'm sure I will keep noticing new things every time I watch. Each viewing will only bring more understanding and more appreciation of this film. So, as much as I love it, I know I will love it even more a few months from now. And, until I reach that point, this film will stay with me, like the many faces of Riggan Thomson. For he is vengeance. He is the night. He is...Birdman. And Birdman is the best film of the year.

There's so much to say about this film that I didn't even have a chance to talk about the scene where Riggan runs through Times Square in his underwear. It's a funny scene. He looks silly. But, also, I guess most superheroes run around in their underwear anyway.

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