Birdman (Or the Unexpected Best Picture Winner)

By Ryan Uytdewilligen

I am an Academy Award fanatic. I remember experiencing it for the first time when my parent’s told me Gladiator won Best Picture way back in 2001. I thought it meant that Gladiator was the most important movie of all time! Every year since then I have made a point to watch the ceremonies, often throwing a party and making predictions. I received a book about Oscar history as a gift when I was a kid and read it over and over until I could recite all the winners from memory. So I think I’ve earned the self-granted title of “Oscar guru” thanks to my knowledge and opinions. However, this year was quite different.

I pegged Boyhood to earn Best Picture because of its lengthy and daring production history and innovative structure. It won at the Golden Globes and I thought it was a pretty safe bet, albeit a very different type of movie to win. But life happens and I decided to go visit my girlfriend in Mexico City, unintentionally booking my flight for the same day the Oscars were held. I couldn’t believe I did that, but I was assured they would be recorded for me so I could watch in Mexico. Turned out they were dubbed in Spanish so I certainly wouldn’t get the full effect. We still watched them and I was banking on Boyhood, but then Birdman came out of nowhere and stole all the ones I thought Boyhood had locked down like Best Screenplay and Director. I saw Birdman and loved it, but I was very surprised by its wins. It’s so incredibly artsy, funny, and stylistically different from what’s been winning in recent years. But at the shows climax, Alejandro Gonzàlez Iñàrritu was called up a third time for Best Picture of the year.

I was shocked at first how ironic it was that I was in Mexico watching this thing in Spanish and a Mexican earned all the top awards. Then I was shocked at how the film actually won; it’s a comedy and traditionally those don’t fly at the Oscars. A very small handful of films like It Happened One Night (1934) and American Beauty (1999) have won with comedic elements but Birdman seemed different. It’s laugh out loud funny and wickedly smart in so many moments. I was happy but still a little perplexed, so I had to solve the problem and watch it right away. After tracking it down I got to watch Birdman for a second time. I was completely blown away after picking up on so much more. Upon the new viewing, I dubbed it one of the best movies ever to win.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the plot or cast, it’s basically Michael Keaton and Edward Norton playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Keaton played Batman in the 1980’s before experiencing a lull in his career; in the movie it’s basically the same thing. Edward Norton has become known for his difficult work style where he can be demanding as he immerses himself in his roles. Keaton’s Riggan Thompson wants desperately to be in the limelight again so he adapts a Raymond Carver short story into a Broadway play to get back in. Along the way he deals with his obnoxious co-star Mike Shiner (Norton), his ex wife (Amy Ryan), his daughter (Emma Stone), and his lawyer (Zack Galifianakis). Through the stress of it all, reality is blurred and he starts to become haunted by his Birdman days, utilizing special magical powers the superhero had.

Famous for its long takes, Birdman gives the illusion that it is filmed in just one, but it’s actually just long shots blended together. The actors claimed that it was incredibly hard work and takes were ruined if someone came in just a hair late. Iñàrritu originally wanted it to be one big shot but realized it would be too difficult, limiting the longest shot to fifteen minutes. Mixed with a jazzy score and a dark look as characters move quickly down the crowded and dimly lit hallways, the film is a joy to look at and hear. It’s all perfectly mixed together with brilliant camera work to create a symphony of panic and distress while they struggle to put on this play.

Besides the black and white silent movie The Artist, Birdman might just be one of the most artistic movies to win. There were certainly a lot of traditional movies like The Imitation Game in a similar style to winners like A Beautiful Mind, but Birdman really sticks out as a daring choice. It is a rare winner set in contemporary times that comments on our society, the recent others being The Hurt Locker (2008) and Crash (2005). At the same time it is also a rare winner that has fantasy elements and maybe the only won to mix it with real life. It may also be the winner with the longest takes and most ambiguous ending; it really leaves the conclusions up to you!

Birdman is also very important for its commentary and deep layers of theme. It explores new ground like self-absorption and wanting to stay relevant, especially with the new pressure from social media. It’s also a play on Hollywood stereotypes like those that Norton and Keaton have been a part of. I sort of thought that the film was a bit of an inside joke within the film community, therefore not appealing to wide audiences. The jabs it put forth at Hollywood were maybe what made it so popular with Oscar voters. And jab it did, especially at today’s superhero movies and how common they are today. Still, wide audiences seem to love it.

I left Mexico and realized what a big step this movie is for that country. Last year, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaròn took home Best Director for Gravity and now Iñàrritu followed in his footsteps. Birdman is not a Mexican film but it was put together by a Mexican team. Maybe their recent work like Birdman will shed a light on past Mexican films and help with the industry down there. Two back to back Mexican winners can only help.

Now award season is over and I have to wait a whole other year to find out what will win next. But as of now, I’m extremely satisfied. You can’t really compare this movie with past classic winners like Casablanca or The Godfather quite yet, but in the 21st Century I think it’s a pretty safe bet to call it one of the best. Few films have satirized Hollywood, social issues, and universal themes like craving acceptance within the same film. Certainly none have been done with the style and new ground that Birdman was able to achieve and break. It’s not a film for everybody but I think it’s one of the most important in many years; it just may require multiple viewings. I’m glad I was wrong about Boyhood. Birdman is the most original Best Picture winner I’ve seen since my Oscar watching days began.

Title photo: Recomendo: Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) used under CC License

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