Look, I don’t take pleasure in hating on any film. As I noted on our About page, “We genuinely try our best to love every movie we watch, so know that it hurts us to give one a negative review. We’re looking for the gems in the garbage, not for films to shame.” I watch movies with the full intent of loving them, sometimes a little too eagerly, which often leads to positive reviews of questionable titles like Zombeavers and Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Internet is already full to the brim with vitriol and it’s a fairly tedious exercise to contribute to its negativity, but watch me do it anyway.
Birdman or (the Unamusing Pretension of Arrogance) is a terrible film with a truly nasty disposition. Like a wounded animal, it lashes out at every target within reach. Aging theatre types are too snooty to function; young people are narcissistic voids who bow before the false god of Social Media; average audiences are slack-jawed dullards who vapidly drool over celebrities & superheroes; more discerning critics are vindictive hacks; women are oversexed messes obsessed with their fathers & dying to make out with each other as soon as they can be alone. It’s a bitter worldview at best and a hopelessly misanthropic one at worst. However, that nasty disposition is not its Achilles heel. Birdman‘s major flaw is that as a lampoon of the entertainment industry, it’s not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. Pitch black misanthropy has worked for comedies like Happiness & Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the past, but those movies are also, you know, funny. When a film hates all of humanity and only roughly 20% of its jokes land, it’s a remarkably dire experience. Just ask That’s My Boy or Nothing but Trouble. A failed comedy is already painful enough without the hateful arrogance Birdman has in spades. If you’re going to believe yourself to be above everyone & everything, you probably should at least succeed in the most basic requirements of your genre.
Of course, I wouldn’t even be addressing a film I miserably suffered through several months ago if it weren’t for its recent Best Picture win at the Academy Awards. If it’s redundant for me to complain about a film online it’s almost reprehensible to add to the surprlus of complaints about a film that won the Oscars. Awards of that nature always have a way of splitting votes between idiosyncratic choices and allowing mediocrity to rise to the top and suffer excessive scrutiny. When was the last Best Picture win that truly felt deserved? The Silence of the Lambs in 1991? The Deer Hunter in 1978? There are plenty of enjoyable films that have won over the years, but it’s rare (if not impossible) for The Academy (and other awards-giving institutions) to “get it right”.
The 2014 awards season was particularly tiresome, however, because after a year packed with exciting cinema you’d think that Boyhood & Birdman were the only two films of any merit. They not only ate up all of the Oscar buzz; they topped almost every critical list imaginable. Boyhood this. Birdman that. They’re both films interesting in concept, but deeply flawed in execution. It’s great that two ambitious works have earned so much recognition, but there were plenty of other ambitious films released last year that were far more successful as finished products. Birdman’s Academy Award for Best Picture wasn’t an affront to the sanctity of cinema or anything as drastic as that. The film, although sour & unfunny, did have its occasionally impressive ideas and its cinematographer, longtime Alfonso Cuarón collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, provided an intense visual appeal (when the single-take gimmick wasn’t being too distracting). My problem was more that after a long, tiring award season where the same two films ate up every prize available (Boyhood, Birdman, Birdman, Boyhood) the more viciously bitter of the two claimed the final trophy, arguably the most coveted prize of them all.
Plenty of people love Birdman and that’s perfectly fine. Duh. My own Best of 2014 picks never stood a chance of sweeping the awards season anyway. The trashy charms of titles like Snowpiercer, Interstellar, The Guest, and Wetlands aren’t the exactly the kind of artistic merits that earn accolades. Part of my failure to connect with Birdman might be a basic difference in personal sentiments. Perhaps I didn’t find it funny because we’re coming from opposing POV’s and the self-righteous humor of the film worked a lot better with folks on an entirely different wavelength. Although I personally failed to appreciate its final product, the film obviously clicked with a large audience so who am I to question its validity? It only took one mind a couple hours to write this diatribe against Birdman, but it took hundreds of people several months to complete the film itself, so it seems foolish at best to continue to rage against it.
Instead of ending on an angry, Birdman-esque note, I’d like to offer a few other 2014 titles for consideration as alternate viewing. For a similar attention to striking cinematography, I’d like to recommend Under the Skin, The Double, and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears. For dark, embittered comedies with genuine laughs, I’d recommend The Guest, Cheap Thrills and Wetlands. Most importantly, if you connected with Birdman’s attack on the artificiality & sex politics of life & theatre, I highly recommend Polanksi’s Venus in Fur. It accomplishes so much more with so many less moving parts, supplanting Birdman’s strained efforts with a simplistic grace and still somehow not losing a drop of the vitriol. Despite the reductive nature of awards seasons, I’d just like you to know that there were more than two films released last year and that Birdman was far from the best among them.