Masculinity dominates this year’s Best Picture race. From the pool of eight nominees, there are historical leaders of speech and thought, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Stephen Hawking. War heroes of different shades in Chris Kyle and Alan Turing. Richard Linklater’s vision of a boy entering adulthood.

Then we have the artist: the self-absorbed, self-punishing crusader for greatness. My vote in the Best Picture race is for Birdman, the most energetic and bombastic movie of the year. And it surprised me after watching Alejandro González Iñárritu’s other movies grow increasingly more morose: 21 GramsBabel, the interminable Biutiful. Suddenly, with Birdman, Iñárritu reveals a raucous sense of humor! His backstage melodrama pokes fun at its own self-importance, reveling in that sinister milieu of desperate characters and hard-boiled dialogue: the Broadway theater.

Now, if a community troupe gave the script a cold reading, we’d only hear a mash-up of purple emotions and ludicrous twists. And for a theatrical immersion, there are inaccuracies. Critics don’t go to plays on opening night these days. But executed on screen by Iñárritu, the movie becomes a carnival ride.

Michael Keaton brings a newfound gravitas, an understanding of his age and his legacy. He sends up pompous thespians and stars like Orson Welles and Richard Burton, and yet he’s more honest than a man like Welles ever managed to be on film. Keaton seems to understand his role in movie history, and he repurposes his bag of tricks: those wry, bemused line readings from Batman; bugged-out eyes from Beetlejuice. It’s the performance of 2014, making sense of the whole wild movie. Edward Norton is no slouch, of course; and there are equally delightful turns from Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, and Zach Galifianakis.

Birdman 1

The most technically impressive actor of last year, though? That’s Miles Teller, as talented at drumming (or faking well enough) as he is inhabiting a compelling narcissist. In Whiplash, Teller’s character Andrew is a first-year conservatory student, but not your standard wide-eyed novice. He doesn’t want friends; he tells his girlfriend he doesn’t have time for her. He practices until his hands bleed, then keeps going.

It’s swell to see veteran J.K. Simmons finally get his due for his terrifying instructor, Fletcher. The art of snappy comebacks still lives: “Were you rushing or were you dragging? If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will gut you like a pig.” Simmons one-ups every football coach in every inspirational team movie who pushes kids because he cares. Fletcher does not care about you. He wants to make a legend.

I’ll be watching for the next movie from director-writer Damien Chazelle, who makes Whiplash into a tightly focused duel between two men. Teacher and protegee are two sides of the same coin, their tunnel vision set on their music, and neither will risk backing down. The last ten minutes are a technical feat on the level of Birdman‘s single-shot camerawork. Why do we sit through so many polite “for your consideration” movies when there are passion projects like this?

In the words of Fletcher, “That, to me, is an absolute tragedy. But that’s just what the world wants now.”


For Your Consideration: 

Birdman: Best Picture, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Director), Michael Keaton, Edward Norton — and the camerawork and visual effects.

Whiplash: Best Picture, Damien Chazelle for writing and directing, Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.

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