Moonlight

Moonlight

You gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.

Ed. Note: I’ve decided the best way to juggle the new 1001 films along with the current Best Picture odyssey, remembering that I’d need to keep each Best Picture year relatively fresh in my head for the Judging Oscar segments, is to not juggle; I’m gonna put Best Picture on hold until I’ve finished with the new additions. I technically haven’t started 1939 yet, so I’m gonna hold off on doing so until I’m done with 1001 again, and hopefully the influx of newer, (hopefully) worthwhile films will reinvigorate my odyssey once I get back to it.

I’m sure anybody reading this is aware of the hilarity that occurred at the Academy Awards this past year, when the wrong envelope was given out for the final award, resulting in the wrong film being announced as the winner of Best Picture; the producers of that film, La La Land, even fully gave their speeches before the mistake was finally made known, and the real winner was able to be recognized: Moonlight. Now, most of the shock that occurred when Moonlight’s win was uncovered was justified; La La Land went into the ceremony the overwhelming favorite to win, especially having tied the record for the most Oscar nominations for a single film, and the two other films it tied with eventually went on to win Best Picture themselves, so really it was the upset win of the night, especially with how it went down. So, did Moonlight actually deserve the win? Is it really a better overall film than La La Land? Now, having seen both films, I feel I can say: Yes, it is. It’s by a smaller margin than I was expecting going into the film, but I feel the Academy made the right decision, at least between the two films.

The film is a three-part tale of one young man, who goes by a different name or nickname in each section, growing up as a black adolescent in a drug-dealing neighborhood of Miami (the location isn’t as important as the rest, though). His mother, a drug addict herself, is hardly a positive influence on his life, and indeed he is basically without such people until a chance encounter with Juan, a drug dealer himself, who becomes the young man’s de facto role model in a much more beneficial way than you would think a drug dealer would be. Each of the three stages of the young man’s life, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, is a different story, but each shares thematic elements among the entire film. What separates Moonlight from most of the other coming-of-age dramas in recent memory is two things: the protagonist, Chiron, is both a black youth in America, as well as a gay youth in America, and it’s these two things combined that provide most of the dramatic characterization in Chiron’s story; him trying to figure out what kind of person he is, with all the conflicting influences and obstacles in his life. Despite the film’s setting and narrative, which would seem to make the story rife with conflict, there is surprisingly little of it in Moonlight, though it is there at the film’s key junctions. What there is instead in Moonlight is mood; the film treats its material with a soft touch, a quiet reverence, that amplifies the effect of the film’s importance in regards to Chiron and his growing up, but not enough so as to be inflating the story to heights it otherwise has no business being in. The cinematography is slight, but effective; the acting is muted, but with enough knowhow to flare up when it needs to to make things happen; everything about the film was perfectly paced and controlled, but not in an ostentatious way like other films (like The Revenant, which has everything amped to eleven).

I was impressed as hell that this was director Barry Jenkins’s second ever feature; it had a finesse and a control to it that most features, even of today, seemed to lack. Most of all, though, what I liked about it was how pure a film it was; how simple it was, which only seemed to enhance its effect. I can absolutely see how many people are regarding it as the best overall film of 2016; I don’t know if my opinion of it got to that level, but I certainly appreciated the heck out of this. More than anything, it was exactly what it needed to be, and it was thanks that what it needed to be was at such a high standard that it’s ending up as critically lauded as it is, I think. Kudos to Jenkins, and kudos to the Academy for recognizing this one; it was definitely worth seeing.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

The Big Short

The Big Short

Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.

One Christmas, my brother got my dad a book called The Big Short, all about the recent financial crisis of 2007-08 and how a certain few individuals came out ahead by basically betting that the whole system was going to collapse, and when it actually did, they made billions. My dad, being in the financial world, loved the book, and wanted us all to read it as well, though I never did; I just didn’t think it would be interesting or accessible to someone like me. Then I heard they were making a film from the book, and I started to wonder how they would go about doing it. The film came out, and I didn’t go see it; aside from what I’d heard about the clever and innovative style the film was told in, I didn’t think it would hold all that much of my interest, or it would be too over-my-head. Now, that it’s been added to the 1001 list, as well as getting a nomination for Best Picture, I’ve basically been forced to see it. So, now, now that I’ve seen it, what do I have to say about it? I don’t really know. I don’t know if I can put my reaction to this film into words. But I’m going to try. I do feel that I should at least try to do that.

The ensemble cast, featuring Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and Christian Bale, among others, are all involved in the financial world of Wall Street banking; not the hyper-stylized world that we’ve come to know from films like Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street, but the real world of banking as it actually was (any deviations in the film from what really happened in reality are even lampshaded by the characters breaking the fourth wall and explaining the artistic license as well as what actually did happen) circa 2005 or so. One by one, each of the ensemble becomes aware of the true nature of the “bubble” that is the American housing market and what the general entire financial system is propped up on, or figures it out themselves, and one by one, being in the financial sector, they all try and figure out a way to profit off of the impending collapse, or popping, of that bubble. Do they succeed? Yes. Is it worth it? That, dear readers, is the real question. I’ll talk about the actual film itself, and how it was made; director Adam McKay, who until now had largely been known for his comedy work and collaborations with Will Ferrell, delivers a cinematic explanation of the housing market’s collapse in the only way he can: through subversion. Characters, as I mentioned, frequently break the fourth wall, and there are several segments featuring actors completely removed from the events of the film explaining financial concepts to the audience. The film is structured as a docu-drama, but with just enough of a wry twist thrown into it to add that extra layer of “I can’t believe this really happened” to it all. And that’s the real aspect of what makes this film a winner. This film knows what it is, what it’s about, who the characters are, what kind of people the characters really are underneath; this film knows everything, and rather than just explain it straight, or even through subtext and metaphor to make it palatable, the film takes it several layers further. And that’s the point; this isn’t supposed to be palatable. You’re not supposed to relate to these characters, or root for the heroes and boo the villains. This is real life. This really happened, and the film, more than anything, wants every person who watches it to understand that, and understand it the best they can.

After the credits started to roll, I really was unsure of how to go about writing this review. I tried to think of things to say, about the direction or the editing or the cast or anything of the kind… but I couldn’t. All I could do was feel. I felt angry. I felt upset. I felt sickened. But more than anything, I just felt hopeless. This really happened. This actually happened, and everybody involved with making it happen got off completely free (except for literally one guy who went to jail, who’s mentioned at the end of the film), and they didn’t care. They just didn’t care, as long as they got what they wanted. This film gets a recommendation from me for similar reasons that I recommended Citizenfour last year; I think– no, I feel… that it is imperative that everyone who can see this film should see this film. The obligation to casting a light on these real life events through cinema that I didn’t feel with Spotlight, I felt with this film. Is it just me? It could be, maybe. But in that small area of my mind, or my heart, that still has some positive thoughts to say about humanity and people in general, I really do hope that it isn’t just me. We have to be better than this.

Right?

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Imitation of Life

Imitation of Life

Once a pancake, always a pancake!

From what I did gather in my usual pre-watch research, I went into Imitation of Life knowing as little about the actual plot as possible, so I could bend and sway with the plot however it turned without knowing beforehand how it would. I’d gotten the inclination that, contrary to other films of the era that are largely by rote and written with formulas in mind, Imitation of Life was to be a serious picture, examining race relations in an era some several decades before the Civil Right’s movement started to smolder. What I got from actually watching it was more than that; it was a little bit of the exploration of race, which was less than I expected, but it was so much more of a worthwhile film as a whole that I was frankly surprised I hadn’t heard of it before.

Claudette Colbert is Bea Pullman, a young widow taking care of her infant daughter Jessie by picking up her late husband’s business peddling maple syrup. One day, a black housekeeper comes to her house responding to an ad in the paper, having gotten the wrong address, but she and Bea hit it off and the woman, Delilah, decides to stay with the Pullmans as long as they can also care for her daughter Peola. From there, the film follows the makeshift family over the years, from Bea’s decision to open up a pancake restaurant featuring Delilah’s pancake recipe, to how the family makes it big when they incorporate and sell Delilah’s recipe nationwide, to how Delilah’s daughter Peola tries to use the good fortune of being fair-skinned to avoid her black ancestry, as well as her mother, when she comes of age. The first word that jumped out at me about Imitation of Life as a film was ‘professional’. Especially considering the last two films I watched, I couldn’t believe how professional everything in this film was, from how it handled itself and its plot to how well put together it was, down to the finest details and the simplest camera moves. Add to it the progressiveness of the plot itself, and it was actually quite stunning how forward-thinking the whole picture was for the 1930s. Apparently it was almost a little too forward-thinking, as the newly enforced Hays Code threatened to shutter the picture because of how it deals with the questions of racial identity, and were still denying their approval even two weeks into the film’s shooting. Thankfully, the film was made regardless, and I’m especially thankful that it was; of the films nominated for Best Picture that I had yet to see, this one is probably the first real genuine surprise find for me.

This film was as simple in construction as it could be, had barely any music to it, and a cast of arguably only one notable name, and it still not only managed to be a wonderful film, it exceeded even that by being so ahead of its time. It’s smart, it’s broad in scope, it’s amazingly well-made; I’m seriously floored that this was made in 1934, especially against other films (such as the last two I reviewed). I saw a few other reviews of this one that weren’t as glowing, that were mostly let down that the film wasn’t as serious and hard-hitting as it could’ve been about the topics of race and identity, especially compared to the later remake of this, which I can understand, but I was still bowled over by how well done this film was that a thought like that hardly crossed my mind. I’m so happy this was made, as well as nominated for Best Picture, and I’d agree with its placement even among a shorter field of nominees. The one other nominee of hers I’ve yet to get to notwithstanding, Claudette Colbert had a hell of a year in 1934.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

His world had vanished long before he ever entered it.

Man, Wes Anderson; you surely and clearly don’t give a flying fuck what people think of your films. Or, rather, your filmmaking style, to be more precise. Wes Anderson’s films somehow manage to be all the same, and yet they are all different, but none of them are as clearly enjoyable to just about any possible viewer as The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is the film that finally got Anderson an Oscar nomination for Best Director, and it’s damn easy to see why; for this film, Wes Anderson decided to go all Wes Anderson on himself, Wes-Andersoning his direction to the umpteenth degree, creating a Wes Anderson-ception effect. But still, when the result of such an act is this, to use the most appropriate word possible, delectable, then I’m perfectly willing to give Wes Anderson all the liberties he is requesting.

Befitting the Wes-Anderson-ception moniker I used above, the film’s plot is nested like a Russian doll. We open on a young girl in a cemetery who walks up to a monument of an author, then opens a book by the author with the same title as the film and begins reading. Cue flashback to 1985, where we enter in on the Author who describes how he wrote the book after a visit to the eponymous fictional eastern-European hotel in 1968. Cue flashback to 1968 where we meet the young Author (who narrates), who finds himself invited to dine with the long-time owner of the now-fading hotel, Zero Moustafa, who decides to answer the author’s inquiries as to how he became the owner of the hotel and why he is still there. Cue flashback to 1932, where we finally meet our central players: M. Gustave, played by a delightfully irreverent Ralph Fiennes, the well-regarded concierge of the hotel Grand Budapest, and the young Zero, who has recently become the hotel’s new lobby boy (complete with Lobby Boy cap), and who is swiftly taken under Gustave’s wing. Gustave ends up being framed for the murder of a wealthy aristocratic woman whom he, um, befriended, and who left him a valuable painting in her will, which draws the ire of the woman’s remaining family, particularly her son Dmitri. The rest of the film is a fluff-filled creampuff of an escapade for Gustave and Zero as they try to set about proving Gustave’s innocence, and each layer of the matryoshka doll that is the film’s narrative is resolved in turn. Really, for as big as that plot summary was, though much of it was an admitted tongue-in-cheek reference to the film’s narrative structure, there’s very little of substance that happens in this film. Well, actually, I can be even more broad; there’s very little of substance in this film, period. It is all confectionery, having you as a viewer eat all the frosting off the cake that is the film only to find even more frosting underneath. Now, normally, in the past, when I’ve described a film as all frosting and no cake, it’s been a slightly negative attribute, implying there’s nothing of real worth to the film in question. In all fairness, there’s not a whole lot of worth to The Grand Budapest Hotel either, but it’s just so gosh-darned enjoyable that the lack of substance really doesn’t matter or play a factor into the equation at all. Anderson’s frequent use of miniatures cheerfully add to this effect, implying a childlike whimsy to the proceedings, even as the characters make excellent use of Anderson’s at-times self-contradictory script, using the jarring nature of the slightly-incongruous-of-the-time-and-characters dialogue to great comedic effect more often than not. Especially Ralph Fiennes, who was positively daffy pretty much 100% of the time. And of course, Anderson’s weirdly symmetrical and rectangular compositions, which are even more so as much this time around as they have ever been in a Wes Anderson film.

I think I wasted everything I had to say about Wes Anderson and his newest fanciful delight of a film already, even though what I said wasn’t really a whole lot. And there you have it; The Grand Budapest Hotel in a nutshell. I did think fairly hard, though, about what rating to give the film, before I decided to be nice and give it the rating I ultimately wanted to give it. Even with that, however, there will of course be people that this film, and really all of Wes Anderson’s films, just aren’t for, and watching the other Anderson films I’ve watched, it can be understandable why these people think this way. But not when watching The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is just such an enjoyable watch that you’d pretty much have to have a heart of solid concrete to not find something to like about it. I should know; I’ve often worried about having a heart of stone myself, but it’s films like this one that serve as a nice refreshing reminder not to take absolutely everything too seriously. Give this a watch; if you like it, great, if not, I guess I can’t blame you. But your cinematic palette must be pretty limited indeed if this doesn’t satisfy your sweet tooth, at the very least.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

That’s it for 2014. Thanks for sticking around, and future thanks to anyone who visits in the meantime before the next edition comes out. See y’all next year.

Guardians of the Galaxy

"Why would you want to save the galaxy?" "Because I'm one of the idiots who lives in it!"

“Why would you want to save the galaxy?” “Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!”

Come 2013, when the new edition of the Book was to come out featuring the films of 2012, there was a rough concept that, I believe, permeated through the minds of just about all of us 1001 bloggers: would the editors of the list, as high-brow as they had the tendency to be, ignore the third-highest box office gross of all-time and unquestionably the new gold standard for the genre of comic book movie and not include The Avengers in the new edition? Well, sure enough, the 10th version came out, and The Avengers was somewhat conspicuously absent. Then the next edition came out, and it was still not there, even more conspicuously so. It seemed that the editors were going to remain steadfast in the face of overwhelming critical appraisal and audience approval and not have Avengers on the list to represent what is now undoubtedly the biggest genre in modern moviemaking. I was nonplussed about this, as I’m sure you can tell by this paragraph up to this point. In fact, I was so incredulous that, in the Letterboxd discussion for the list, when someone floated the idea that Guardians of the Galaxy should make the list, I actually tried to shoot that idea down; if The Avengers didn’t make it, what possible chance could Guardians have? Evidently the editors either wised up to their mistake, albeit in an unusual fashion, or there is no real cohesion as to their method of picking which films end up in the Book; Guardians of the Galaxy is in there, all right. Now, for an equally important question: should it be in there? Over Avengers, I don’t know, but if the comic book movie genre needed some representation, the editors could’ve done a hell of a lot worse, as Guardians is generally regarded as one of the most flat-out entertaining films of 2014.

Here’s where things get fun: the plot summary, which is so unlike any other film on the list that it becomes somewhat laughable. Peter Quill is a human abducted from Earth as a child by a band of marauding aliens known as the Ravagers. Having grown up among them, Quill is tasked with collecting one of their bounties: a mysterious object known as the Orb, which he later finds out is coveted by numerous forces in the region, both reputable and infamous. After finding out the true power of the Orb first-hand, Quill finds himself banding together with a ragtag group of misfits like himself, each with their own history and reasoning tying them to either Quill or the Orb itself, to try and keep the Orb out of the hands of one of the most dangerous forces after the object: Ronan the Accuser, who wishes to use the item’s power to wipe out an entire planet. Now, if you watched movies in the past year, regardless of how critically acclaimed they were or how elitist you may have been in the selection of films you watched, that plot summary is inconsequential to you, since you more likely than not have already seen Guardians, perhaps several times. So, to what end should I write this review, knowing full well that probably 90% of the people who would be reading it have already seen the film in question? I guess the only thing to do is to break down what the film does right so well, for the other 10% who, for whatever reason, passed this one up. First off, the script, or better said, the way the film is structured and compiled together; this film has by far one of the strongest scripts in the genre of comic book movies. Where writer/director James Gunn really succeeds isn’t just in how he structures the film, or even how he realizes the script into a nearly perfect form for the material, but in how he does all this while still making the film as wickedly entertaining as it is. The trick is in the humor; much has been made of how Gunn’s films have that streak of humor running through them, mild but knowing full well when to flare up and jab a stick into the viewer’s funny bone, and Guardians is no exception. Seeing Guardians in the theater, I was amazed at how much the audience openly laughed out loud at so many moments in the film, not because they were campy or hilariously off-putting for someone outside the fandom, but because of how genuinely amusing and funny they were, even to those outside the fandom. Gunn’s humor here is universal, his comedic timing as impeccable as his skill in the editing room, and it is largely this that I think made the film the breakout hit it otherwise would have been too niche-focused and out-of-left-field to be. Much has also been made of the film’s CGI, and how flawless it is, including the depth of character for the two of the five central protagonists who are entirely CGI-rendered; Rocket, in particular, could have merely been a quirk, a novelty of a character with no added dimension other than how much of a novelty he is as a creation, but Gunn makes a complete package out of Rocket, and the CGI artists as well are largely responsible for the success and level of sophistication that comes with all of Rocket’s mannerisms and expressions (as well as the voice acting by Bradley Cooper, who I was initially skeptical when I’d heard the casting news, but who does an absolutely phenomenal job).

So, if this film really is the most entertaining film of the year, coupled with the amazing achievement in just about every area that the film is, why the just-shy-of-perfect rating? Honestly, it’s for one reason, and it’s a reason I alluded to with my 10% comment: there’s still a certain subset of people that this film just isn’t for, at all. Either they won’t see it out of snobbery or perhaps a passing indifference, or they’ll see it and basically refuse to like it for arguably the same reasons. These people, this review is not for. I don’t think anything will change the mentality of such individuals, nor the outcome of a potential screening should they, for whatever reason, choose to have one; some people, if you’ll excuse the inconsiderate dismissal, are just like that. Everyone else, however, has already seen this, and if you haven’t, I honestly don’t know what the hell you’re waiting for; even if you’re not neck-deep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this works just as well as a stand-alone feature, and, as I’ve said multiple times already, it’s just so god-damn entertaining that you owe it to yourself to see it at least once. I’m still surprised as heck that this did actually make the list, but I’m just as pleased that it’s in there.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Boyhood

It's like it's always right now, you know?

It’s like it’s always right now, you know?

I’m a little surprised it took me this long to get to Boyhood. When it came out, I remember describing the reception to the film to several people as “second-coming-of-Christ level reviews”, considering it ended up with a perfect 100 out of 100 on Metacritic, which is virtually unheard of for a first-time release. I also remember desperately wanting to see it, but never managing to get the chance; seeing it be the massive frontrunner heading into the awards season, then watching it slowly lose momentum to Birdman; not even remembering when it was released on Blu-Ray/DVD. Well, the time just seemed right today; not to imply that finally watching Boyhood was going to amount to a chore, but the constant stream of critical praise had passed several months ago, and the film was almost three hours long. Not to mention that, from what I’d heard, the film doesn’t really have a plot, but is rather a series of moments, and all of a sudden even the critical praise Boyhood received didn’t seem to be all that compelling anymore. Now, I’ve seen plenty of films from the List that basically have the same premise as Boyhood: children or adolescents growing up, end statement, so I basically entered Boyhood wondering what else this so-called genre had to offer me, especially for 165 minutes. The answer? Nothing. Boyhood, in its basic structure and formatting, is little different from all the other coming-of-age films that litter the pages of the Book. So, why… why, I ask, is Boyhood just so gosh-dang good?

Mason, Jr. is a young boy at the turn of the millennium, living with his older sister Samantha and mother Olivia; the father, Mason, Sr. is absent, apparently in Alaska. From there, we follow young Mason’s life as he grows before our eyes, deals with the events of his life, fosters relationships both with his family (including the occasional appearance by Mason, Sr.) and with others, and generally gives us a slideshow of… wait for it…… Boyhood. Yes, I went there, and I feel bad about it. So, for those who have been utterly without electricity and running water for all of last year, Boyhood separates itself from the rest of the coming-of-age films by actually following it’s cast for the duration of time that the film takes place in, all 12 years of it. We meet the younger Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, when he is 6 years old, and we literally follow him as he ages all the way through high school and goes off to college; director Richard Linklater, always known for being an out-of-the-box director, got the cast and crew together for a handful of days of shooting a year for 12 years, so the cast, from Mason to his dad, mom, and sister, all age on the screen naturally. It’s an excellent novelty, but of course, there has to be more than just merely the novelty of the shooting premise to keep a film above water, let alone garner a slew of awards and nominations and make it onto the List (but then again…). So, what does Boyhood have to offer? I really, honestly, cannot say. I’m left at a complete loss as to what Boyhood really does offer as a film for the average viewer, or even the more fervent moviegoer who may have seen films like it before. But, and here’s the kicker; this does not mean that you should go without seeing Boyhood, quite the opposite. Even with my complete inability to ascertain exactly what made Boyhood separate from the pack, there was a magical quality about what was going on on the screen that was impossible to ignore. Here’s my best estimate as to what Boyhood actually has to offer: timelessness. It is a portrait of time itself, life itself; to experience Boyhood is to experience life, one particular phase of the life of one family, moment by moment, and year by year. It is as average as can be, with no frills or goodies like plot devices or dramatic turns or a Hollywood narrative. And that’s exactly the way it should be. What Boyhood is really offering is what we all experience, succinctly edited into a 165-minute feature film. Sure, the acting from the kids in the beginning can be a little stilted, and I would probably echo those who have said that Patricia Arquette won her Oscar for pretty much one scene near the end of the film, and even though people generally dislike Ethan Hawke, I thought he did a wonderful job here, but it’s not even really about the acting, and nor is it really a nostalgia factor; it’s a literal factor, a now factor, that has never before been successfully captured on celluloid, and who knows, may never be accomplished again.

So, if Boyhood is basically the literal cinematic encapsulation of the very experience of life as we all generally live it, then why go to the theater (or, now, rent/buy it for home viewing) to see it? Haven’t I decried other films for taking the same road that Boyhood takes, being so like regular life that they are boring as a result, and have no entertainment value? Yes, I have, and I did so in what I can only now admit as my ignorance; I assumed it was merely the genre of “lifelike cinema” that was the problem, but it’s not, and Boyhood is the example that proves that it isn’t. What all those other films tried to do but failed so rudimentarily at, Boyhood achieves. But, how; how does it manage to do so where all other films before it have failed? Once again, I answer with the only answer I can come up with at the moment: I have no idea at all. This review has been frustrating to write, because I really cannot put into words what Boyhood is, or why it works, or why someone should see it. Everything in the equation that makes up Boyhood is basic at the bottom and top level, and it should not add up to anything that is worth watching. But, still, it is. Why should you see Boyhood? Because it is unique in all of cinema, an experience you will likely never have had watching a film, but you have likely experienced in your life: life, and all that comes with it.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

I've got a chance to do something right. I gotta take it.

I’ve got a chance to do something right. I gotta take it.

In keeping with my seeming tradition of starting off each new batch of additions with the Best Picture winner, let’s get right into 2014’s big winner: Boyhoo– I mean, Birdman. Truth be told, I was convinced that Boyhood had Best Picture and Director wrapped up, right up until about a week before the ceremony when Birdman suddenly gained a significant bit of steam (either that, or the novelty of Boyhood’s premise had worn off). Not to discount what Birdman ultimately is, but the Academy tends to be rather stuck in the present in their attempts to be timeless with their decisions for who or what film wins Oscars, and I fully expected them to go with the apparent timelessness that Boyhood captures. The Academy, however, seems to have had other ideas; Birdman took home the top prize, along with Director, as well as two more for its screenplay and cinematography – more on these later. I haven’t seen Boyhood yet, so I can’t yet say which film would’ve been the better choice, but I’ll say one thing: I ended up buying Birdman when it came out, entirely on a whim that I would enjoy it, and I’ve watched it multiple times since then. Those who have followed this blog should likely recognize that as probably the highest praise I can personally give a film, and Birdman warrants it; it is fully entertaining in the best of ways, and technologically amazing in more ways than that.

Riggan Thomson is a washed-up has-been of an actor, formerly famous for playing a cinematic superhero called Birdman for three films before he gave it all up. Now he’s on Broadway, hoping to reinvent and reignite his image and fame by adapting, directing, and starring in a play based on a short story by Raymond Carver. Thing is, he’s not fully aware of how out-of-his-element he really is, and the variables that make up the equation of his current life, from his fresh-out-of-rehab daughter to a volatile and unpredictable method actor added last-minute to his production to a scornful and bitter theater critic determined to ruin Riggan’s only chance at proving himself all seem to be slipping out of his grasp. Oh, and on top of all that, he might have telekinetic powers. If that sounds like a heck of a sell, it’s because it is; Birdman takes arguably three great premises and somehow mashes them all together into a single linear storyline about one central character, and makes it all work to such an amazing level that it is quite frankly no wonder the film got the rave reviews and accolades that it did. Much has been made about what Birdman supposedly (or not) has to say about the theater world, from its relationship to film to its relationship with the critics, and there is apparently many layers of subtext underneath the surface level of this picture. I’m not going to focus on that; it’s already been done, and much better than I could ever have. Instead, I’m going to focus on why I ended up loving Birdman as much as I did: because it’s so goddamn entertaining, that’s why. The script is so rich in dark comedy, not to mention that it chooses to focus on the theater industry, that I couldn’t help but have a small smile on my face throughout the entire picture. The cinematography, where the film is shot largely in long takes and edited together to look like the entire film (save the ending) is one seamless take, is almost as much of a novelty as Boyhood’s premise, but it’s a great indicator of why Birdman won so many awards for its cinematography where Boyhood’s premise was largely passed up; because it rises above merely being a novelty. Emmanuel Lubezki won his second consecutive Academy Award for this cinematography (after Gravity), and it was such a shoo-in that the other nominees became mere talking points in comparison. The acting is excellent across the board, from all the major players, but of course, it’s Michael Keaton’s show here, and he is absolutely spectacular, and the film wouldn’t have worked half as well with a lesser actor (the added humor of casting Batman in the role of a washed-up former superhero actor is simply icing on the cake). And oh my god, that drum score; here’s where my personal opinion threatens to color my viewpoints a little too unfairly, because I cannot fathom the Academy’s reasoning behind passing this one up for a nomination for Best Original Score. This was the film’s major omission at the Oscars that year, and every viewing of this film, with the drum score punctuating every beat of the film with incredible panache, just serves to highlight that omission.

As I said, I bought Birdman on Blu-ray when it came out pretty much entirely on a whim. Now, having seen it not only once, but several times (including again just to write this review, even without needing to), I’m damn glad I did pick it up. There’s still a little part of me that’s confused as to how this managed to win over Boyhood in the top two categories, but I’ll take it; this film is just so entertaining that the awards it garnered almost don’t matter. Of course, that it did garner a slew of awards is just gravy. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is apparently a very dour director, which I can’t attest to having only seen two of his films before this one, but it becomes even harder to imagine when one watches Birdman; the film is such a finely-wrought farce that it threatens to bleed into whatever perception of Inarritu a cinephile has, especially watching the extra features on the home release and seeing how jovial he is about the film and the production. Taking into account the fact that everything on-screen was practiced, rehearsed, and timed exactly to ensure the perfection of each long take, and that he managed to pull it all off, he certainly deserved his Best Director win as well. I think at this point it should go without saying, but if you love the entertainment industry, theater or film, Birdman will be almost required viewing for someone with a full appreciation of everything it has to offer.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10