Birdman, currently in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars (of the other nominees, I've seen American Sniper, which I would also endorse above and beyond its apparently compulsive popularity), is a remarkable experience.
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and starring Michael Keaton, it joins a growing list of films that take a more surrealistic approach to film storytelling. You may know it best as the movie that trades on Keaton's two turns as Batman as well as his subsequent relative obscurity. Since 1992's Batman Returns, his most notable projects have been 1996's Multiplicity (an attempt to remind everyone that he was previously a comedic actor) and various supporting roles (including a turn in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown).
Gonzales Inarritu, I'm convinced, pursued Birdman partly out of frustration with critics. My personal previous experience with him was the excellent Babel, a comparable experience to the more acclaimed ensemble dramas Traffic and Crash. Birdman is in part a statement about how critics find it difficult to give credit where credit is due because they're often too busy fixating on something other than what they're supposed to be reviewing. In Birdman it's the main character's past as a superhero. In the case of Babel it was that there had already been two acclaimed version of that story template.
Ironically, Birdman's chances at winning an Oscar this year are improved by how it continues a different tradition entirely. Several, actually. One is that it continues a trend the Academy previously relished in the career of director Darren Aronofsky, who this year angered critics by creating Noah but previously pleased them with efforts such as The Wrestler and Black Swan, both of which depicted the later careers of performance artists struggling with their futures. Black Swan in particular is relevant to Birdman in Natalie Portman's Best Actress-winning main character, who experiences a problem similar to the one in Birdman, in that reality is something that is frequently interrupted by fantasy sequences.
Birdman is similar to The Wrestler in another regard, in that it is a film that will garner critical acclaim for a genre far more frequently used to receiving none of it. The Wrestler, of course, features Mickey Rourke as a professional wrestler.
In Birdman it's superheroes. Christopher Nolan's Batman films, The Dark Knight particularly, with Heath Ledger's Best Supporting Actor win, being probably as close as any superhero movie will come to experiencing such acclaim directly. The same goes to other effects-driven genre films other than the anomalous Lord of the Rings films, capped by Best Picture-awarded The Return of the King.
Keaton is supported by two other actors familiar with superhero movies, Emma Stone and Edward Norton. Stone has appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, while Norton was The Incredible Hulk (for one movie; no doubt he sympathized a great deal with Birdman's main character in walking away from a lucrative franchise). They're joined by Naomi Watts, a member of the Gonzalez Inarritu repertory (she's also appeared in 21 Grams), Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Ryan.
Birdman follows another Academy-friendly tradition, taking a look behind the scenes of a production, whether in film (The Artist) or the stage (Shakespeare in Love). That alone ought to assure it excellent odds at capturing Best Picture.
It's also known for appearing to be one long tracking shot, which is an especially tricky thing to pull off. Children of Men garnered praise for one such sequence, while Russian Ark is another film that took on the full challenge.
Birdman interested me from the moment I heard of it, which is something There Will Be Blood also did, but in this instance, the end result is as satisfying as I thought it would be, much as how many movie-goers experienced Gravity.
There's a lot to love about it, and despite all the traditions it continues, Birdman still manages to be a wholly original experience.