NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: I think we’ve all been exceptionally good this year because Christmas came early with Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s masterful “Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” an experience that you won’t soon forget. Debuting at Venice and Telluride Film Festivals, the film closed an already impeccable New York Film Festival on Saturday morning for press and industry colleagues. It’s a film that resonates profoundly, and may just be the best film of 2014. From its pristine writing (by Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolas Giacobone, and Alexander Dinelaris), to its carefully constructed direction and cinematography, to its genius casting and performances, “Birdman” is just a dream of a movie.
The movie tells the story of Riggan (Michael Keaton), a washed up actor who used to play a superhero icon called Birdman. In a valiant attempt to reclaim his career, he adapts, directs, and stars in a Broadway play. With problems from one of his very method actors (Edward Norton), assistant daughter (Emma Stone), emotional co-star (Naomi Watts), overly sexual girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), flamboyant producer (Zach Galifanakis), and loving ex-wife (Amy Ryan), Riggan prepares for the breaking point of his career.
“Birdman” is so damn enjoyable and one of the most entertaining films in years. It charms not just because of its story, but because of the performances and slick way that co-writer/director Iñárritu plays with tone. It’s downright hilarious in parts, probably the funniest film of the year, and then there’s the dramatic edge that comes into play, and simply breaks your heart. Above all, Iñárritu’s “Birdman” is a celebration of cinema. It’s an audacious achievement that floors just about every aspect of film witnessed in 2014. Iñárritu already had vocal admirers from “Amores Perros,” “Babel,” and “Biutiful,” but this is his most accessible. This will move him up in the ranks with the Scorsese’s, Spielberg’s, and Eastwood’s. He familiarizes us with the stage and the theater. He makes the surroundings a very palpable character for us to know and enjoy.
At 63, Michael Keaton has been criminally underutilized in his career, despite some iconic performances. The nerd crowd will worship him as the ideal Bruce Wayne/Batman combo, while the same thick will remember his “Beetle Juice” fondly for all-time. Where Keaton was passed over was for his dramatic capabilities. I’ve beat the horse dead on mentioning his cancer-stricken father-to-be performance in “My Life” or his recovering alcoholic player in “Clean and Sober.” In “Birdman,” Keaton marries the two with an undeniable sensibility that stands as the actor’s finest to date. It’s such a studied turn, you feel the accuracy and precision in which he executes every move and mannerism of Riggan. It’s the role that Keaton has been waiting decades for. It’s the role of his career.
If we’re talking about underutilized actors, then Edward Norton needs to be mentioned. Two brilliant performances under his belt, both Oscar-nominated (“Primal Fear” and “American History X”) but both passed over for someone else, Norton is back and better than ever. A scene-stealing standout, Norton makes us realize how unspoken dialogue between characters can be just as humorous without the punchline. Emma Stone has finally arrived with “Birdman.” Criminally misused and passed over by Hollywood for “bigger name” actresses, Stone finally shows the world what they’ve been missing. In one single scene, Stone revolutionizes and captures the essence of “Birdman” with a ferocity that you couldn’t see from any other performer. She finds the heart and soul of Sam, laying her on the screen meticulously and transparent.
Though brief in screen time, the vivacious Naomi Watts, the sexy Andrea Riseborough, and the seasoned Amy Ryan make their marks exquisitely. Watts gets the most chuckles out of the ladies while Ryan has the greatest arc for us to explore. I hope and pray that Zach Galifianakis continues down a path in independent cinema. Fully realized and delivered, he layers the film with a beautiful sympathy, vocal and restrained, he finds the meaning of Riggan and presents him to us.
Emmanuel Lubezki. That is a sentence, statement, and just pure cinematic meaning nowadays. You can’t watch a movie shot by the Academy Award winning Cinematographer and not find yourself more intimately contained and available to the realm of the movies. Just one year after stunning us with “Gravity,” Lubezki allows the audience to be in the movie. We are present in every scene, every movement, and every thought that a person is having. We feel as though Riggan and the cast are interacting with us. When they’re laughing, we’re laughing, when they’re crying, we’re crying. He is an absolute magician.
This seems to be the year of the drums because Antonio Sanchez composes “Birdman” with a drum score that lays deep in my ear canals. Tapping your feet and bobbing your head, Sanchez elevates the film to new heights. Editors Douglas Prise and Stephen Mirrione may be the unsung heroes because in the film, we are nearly in one continuous take, which hardly ever gives up (at least to the untrained eye). In no way do I call myself someone who can spot a digital edit, but I spotted no more than a dozen cuts throughout. That is amazing. I’m sure there were dozens more, but you couldn’t catch them.
“Birdman” is a masterpiece (there goes THAT word). At a time where movies feel like they have to choose to between comedy and tragedy, Iñárritu’s beauty works on us from the inside-out. It’s a human story, comedy, thriller, mystery, all rolled into one. All told by a master filmmaker and storytellers. The year’s must-see experience.
The film opens in select theaters on October 17th and is distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL PRESS CONFERENCE