By going in reverse order with this series, I begin with some difficult choices. It is far easier to pick a film that represents, say, 1920, as history has given us a better idea of what defined an era and as certain films enter the public memory. But what will be the defining characteristics of 2015? This is a task made especially difficult by the fact that we are less than a week into the year, meaning that I have to be clairvoyant on top of being an overambitious film blogger.
It would be tempting to just pick a film with selfies and Twitter in it and sleepwalk through so many words talking about our narcissistic material age as you have read a thousand times from a thousand people more equipped to diagnose a social malaise than I. I also could have written about ‘The Interview’, and was tempted to do so as a film ripped from today’s headlines. However, I want to set a precedent in talking about films that only could have been made in the year they were made. Although the reaction to ‘The Interview’ is new, the film’s content certainly is not, with the film doing nothing not already done by the North Korean kidnap storyline from season five of ’30 Rock’ in 2011. Plus, honestly I just could not make myself sit through a Seth Rogen when there’s a whole awards season of strong-looking films clambering for eye space.
So my choice is the hotly Oscar-tipped ‘Birdman’. In a year where ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron’ is set to mint medium-sized country money this May, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s magicical realist tale of an ex-superhero actor played by an ex-superhero actor making his Broadway debut could not be more prescient.
As a sign of how much the comic book movie has become a backbone of cinema, consider that ‘Age of Ultron’ marks the 11th in the Avengers series in just over 11 years (‘Avengers Assemble’, ‘Captain America’ ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’, ‘Thor’, ‘Thor: The Dark World’, Iron Mans 1, 2 and 3 as well as ‘Hulk’ and ‘The Incredible Hulk’). Whether this trend is for better or for worse is a separate question, but Iñárritu’s answer is clear; in a sequence where BirdmanKeaton shows CurrentKeaton what a modern Birman revamp snarkily titled ‘Birdman: Rise of the Phoenix’, would look like, it is shown to be a real travesty of a film, but a travesty of a film featuring a monster so out of ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’ that you just have to hope Michael Bay wasn’t taking notes.
‘Birdman’ also confronts this superhero movie theme with some pitch perfect casting representing three decades of superhero movies. Obviously the Birdman of the title is a transparent cipher for Keaton’s Batman, right down to the deep ‘I’m Batman’-inspired voice of the Birdman himself when he starts appearing to Keaton’s character. On top of this, however, we have Edward Norton of 2008’s ‘The Incredible Hulk’ playing what Hollywood rumour says is an exaggerated version of himself and Emma Stone of the two latest Spiderman films playing Keaton’s estranged daughter (if this a way of saying that the Keaton-style superheroes are estranged from our modern versions? That is for the comments section to decide.)
This would have been a pretty good movie had Iñárritu merely made a film about what credibility means for an actor after what this film nicely calls (in an occasionally patchy screenplay) ‘taking the cape’, but he actually gets through this stuff quite early with a neat joke about Robert Downey Jr. and an odd Spiderman-featuring hallucination sequence near the end of the film. What the director instead mostly set about doing is a stylistic experiment as brave as the one at the centre of ‘Birdman’’s most likely Oscar competitor, ‘Boyhood’. Put simply, the film is filmed as if in one single take. This was fairly impressive in Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ where he managed to do it in a single room, but Iñárritu manages it across several blocks of Manhattan.
What is most remarkable about this is how little the director allows it to change his use of space and time in this film. An unambitious director…well, an unambitious director wouldn’t try an ‘as one take’ structure at all, but a slightly ambitious director would let this style confine him to a small location over real time. But through some ingenious editing and canny digital trickery more interesting than a million CGI robot dinosaurs, we are taken through several days, as well as taken on the balcony of the theatre, through Times Square and onto the rooftops and skies of New York and back down again. As much as this film represents 2015 as it is, let it also act as a lesson to later filmmakers that CGI done right can make a great film almost perfect.
I say almost perfect due to a few qualms about the script I have already mentioned, as well as a sequence where CurrentKeaton in dressing gown waiting to go on stage manages to get this gown caught in a fire exit so has to walk outside through Times Square without it. In such a radical and interesting film there is no place for a plot point similar to what happened to Teri Hatcher in an early episode of ‘Desperate Housewives’. But otherwise it is an immaculately executed film that acts as a perfect declaration of where we are now both in the cinema, in theatre (it’s a minor detail but the subtle use of a ‘Phantom of the Opera’ sign in this film is one of my favourite moments) and in celebrity. A very welcome start to my ‘100 years, 100 movies’ challenge, and one I enjoyed far more than I feel I am going to enjoy my next choice, 2014’s ‘Gone Girl’, where I will look at the modern state of misogyny in movies.