The Best Picture Project — Birdman (2014)

Birdman poster.jpgDirected by Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Screenplay by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bó

Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts

In the first half of the 2010s, the Academy the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did an abrupt about face.  For most of the previous decade they’d operated as a body that preferred to give Oscars to faux-important films, e.g. Crash (2005) and The King’s Speech (2010), over truly resonant and moving work, e.g. Brokeback Mountain (2005) and The Social Network.  Then, all at once, AMPAS turned into a group that essentially rewarded itself, giving Oscars to films that threw big, fat self-congratulating kisses on the movie industry and acting in general.

Since 2011 the Oscars have given out four Best Pictures:

Since 2011, then, the Oscars have overlooked at least three films that are universally more-worthy than the winner:

  • 2011 – The Tree of Life (or Moneyball, depending on your preference)
  • 2012 – Zero Dark Thirty (although, to be fair, Argo doesn’t really offend me, even if I watch Silver Linings Playbook more than the both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty)
  • 2013 – 12 Years A Slave is the Best Picture of 2013 and anybody who says otherwise is an idiot (though, to be fair, I friggin’ love Nebraska.)
  • 2014 – Boyhood

Of course, while I throw stones, I can understand the sudden change in the Academy’s voting.  After all, between Crash and The King’s Speech, they’d feted much darker fare in a short amount of time than they probably ever had before

  • The Departed has the two main characters killed
  • No Country For Old Men is bleak as they come and has two main character and his wife both dead
  • Slumdog Millionaire has a happy ending but, if you think about it, the real takeaway from the film is the near-impossibility of escaping the rampant, unparalleled poverty in India;
  • The Hurt Locker is The Hurt Locker.

After all that bleak, how could anyone fault them for taking a few years to pat themselves on the back?

How?  Well, I’ll tell you how.  By demanding artistic integrity, that’s how.  (Thanks for letting me crib that one, Birdman).  By demanding that clearly-lesser films be swept aside because in a few short years they’ll be remembered almost exclusively for their gimmick and not the stories themselves (The Artist and Birdman).

So…

So in a nutshell, Birdman is about an actor who made bank back in the day playing Batman, er, Birdman, but who now happens to be over-the-hill and having a late-life-crisis and trying to regain his career dignity and prove he can actually act by financing a could-be-disastrous Broadway play.  Throughout the film he spars with his agent, spars with his various co-stars for various reasons, spars with his daughter, and spars with a critic determined to ruin the show.   At the end, after accidentally shooting himself in the head on stage – yeah, did I mention he accidentally shoots himself in the head on stage? – he sort of flies out his hospital room window.

Birdman?  More like Blech-man (you can have that one, Mad Magazine).

So it doesn’t take a genius to understand Birdman did not connect with me – you’d have to be blind or dumb to miss that it did not connect with me at all.  That the story was thin coffee and full of faux-truths even a grade-schooler would find trite.  That its swipes at critics and how they shit on ‘art’ for the sake of shitting on something was tone deaf and wrong.  That the ending just kind of went on and on and…and then on some more without saying anything.  That the stars were either miscast, underused or simply not up to the task – the one exception was the brilliant playfulness of Edward Norton.  To be fair, I love Michael Keaton and Emma Stone and they’ve been top-drawer in other films.  Here, though, they lacked the dramatic weight and depth and gravitas for what was required.

That being said, the film did get some things right: Inarritu made the film about as exciting as he could considering the script he gave himself was only so-so; the cinematography was fantastic; the score was exciting and managed to carry much of the film on its back; and the film makes a sly joke in totally nailing the notion that Keaton’s character isn’t up to the task of the show he’s putting on by having Keaton give a sub-standard performance as a sub-standard performer.

The Incredible Hulk poster.jpgAs a thought experiment, imagine the movie we’d have if Edward Norton played the Michael Keaton role and somebody else played the Edward Norton role.  Sure, Norton’s probably too old to be Emma Stone’s father, but given he’s an actor with the range to handle the rest of the part, I wonder what he’d have done with in.  Get him in the lead and another heavyweight in the other part?  And instead of piggy-backing on the Batman connection, piggy-back off the forced march Norton did through the Hulk movie he was in?  And how about making it truly meta and have Mark Ruffalo show up in Edward Norton’s original part, so you have the two Hulks playing off each other in a movie about an actor trying to escape the superhero movie he was in?

Genius!

Sadly, the mere notion of that film is so intriguing it diminishes the movie we actually have.

And really, in the end, that’s the takeaway – Birdman should have been so much better, but wasn’t.

Boyhood film.jpgIt goes without saying my vote for Best Picture is for Boyhood.  I don’t know if I’d give it Best Director or Screenplay to go along with the big prize – it’s curious how offended I am it lost Best Picture, but less so it lost director and screenplay – but it’s definitely Best Picture for me.  It is my Best Picture because it has a shaggy, rough-edged quality to it.  It’s Best Picture because it’s so damned charming and insightful and emotionally resonant that I forgive it’s little faults.  It’s Best Picture because it’s the kind of film where the director wanted to say something big and profound about life and then went out and fucking pulled it off.

That, in a nutshell, is why I get offended Birdman won Best Picture.  Birdman tried to make a grand statement and basically failed, whereas Boyhood tried to make a grand statement and then made it.

But, given the Academy Awards are kind of a joke anyway – a fact this Project only reinforces the further into it I get – and given the Academy prefers pretension to success, it’s no surprise Boyhood lost.

As an Aside

The Grand Budapest Hotel Poster.jpgIf we were to run a Best Picture ballot for me, I would rank the films:

  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Whiplash

I’d leave off The Imitation Game and Birdman because I didn’t think they deserved to be in this discussion.

In fact, if I had my choice, I’d put Foxcatcher in my top four, right between Grand Budapest and WhiplashFoxcatcher might have left others cold, but I rather liked it, especially Mark Ruffalo – that guy figgin’ kills it.

(Apologies for having not seen American Sniper, The Theory of Everything and Selma.  I will definitely catch up with one of those films.)

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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