As we slam headfirst into full-blown Oscar season I am up to my armpits tracking buzz on various films and catching them at the local megaplex or art house theater if and when I’m lucky enough for them to come to town. Sometimes they come and go so quickly that you never even knew they were there. That is certainly not the case with the two most recent Oscar contenders I checked off my watch list.
Birdman and Interstellar are high profile movies starring high profile actors. I believe both of these films will be nominated for best picture and a whole lot more. But this article isn’t about Oscar predictions. I’ll wade into that pond in a few months.
These films are like fraternal twins. They don’t necessarily look alike but they have the same genetic makeup. Different but the same. First let me talk about how very different these two films are.
Birdman tells the tale of an actor (Michael Keaton) who once played an iconic superhero in a blockbuster franchise that tries to revive his career by writing, directing and starring in his own Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Interstellar is the story of a team of astronauts led by Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who travel through a wormhole in search of a new home planet because Earth has been struck by a voracious blight making it increasingly more uninhabitable.
I was amazed to see that Interstellar’s budget was almost 10 times that of Birdman. Not because Interstellar doesn’t look like it cost every bit of $165 million, but because Birdman looks like it cost way more than $18 million. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu made a jaw-droppingly good movie for less than what Christopher Nolan got paid for directing Interstellar. But this is where these movies stop being so different. What really struck me is what makes these movies so similar. Both of these filmmakers deftly crafted very personal stories and dynamic character development inside a visually stimulating movie vehicle.
During both Birdman and Interstellar I was astounded by the visual experience. I was truly and literally in awe, but never at the expense of the heart of the story or the characters. I think cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work in Birdman is some of the best I’ve ever seen and will win him his 2nd straight Oscar. The first of which was for Gravity which is interesting because Gravity was also such a visually stimulating film however it didn’t quite deliver making a full emotional connection between the audience and its characters… or, rather character… singular.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy Gravity. On the contrary. Here’s what I said back in February.
Beyond the technical marvel is the heart-pounding story and fantastic performance from Sandra Bullock. This film is much, much more than just visually amazing. It is the classic story of voyage and return and it is told very well. Taking the medium to a new level is just the icing on the cake.
I thought it would win best picture last year. Maybe it would have if it had been able to make a deeper emotional connection. Who knows? It’s a great film. But what I can say is that where Gravity was a little off the mark, both Birdman and Interstellar hit the bullseye.
I am thrilled that as the film industry continues to make movies more and more visually mind-blowing, that film makers like Alejandro González Iñárritu and Christopher Nolan aren’t sacrificing things like emotion, character development and good old-fashioned storytelling to do so.
I once saw an interview with a well-known, Academy Award nominated screenwriter and director. I don’t want to embarrass him so to protect his identity I’ll just refer to him as George L. In this interview George L. explained how he had really become more of a “visual filmmaker” and that dialogue really wasn’t important to him. My friends, that is absolute insanity. I won’t mention what they were, but the last 3 movies George L. made are proof positive that being just a “visual filmmaker” is a great way to make terrible movies.
González Iñárritu and Nolan get that and I hope that the critical and commercial successes of Birdman and Interstellar will allow filmmakers to keep using the technical advancements that allow for eye-popping special effects as a tool for great storytelling with compelling characters not just for blowing stuff up (I’m looking at you Michael Bay). We’ve had enough movies that are visually amazing for the sake of being visually amazing. Filmmaking is storytelling and fantastic CGI is no substitute for great writing.
But sadly I know how things work. No matter how much money Birdman and Interstellar make. No matter how many Oscars these films win, and they will win several. Nothing is going to stop James Cameron from making 3 Avatar sequels and people will still line up from here to Neptune to see Michael Bay blow things up. Why? Because explosions are cool.
If you’re into that, good for you. Art is subjective and nobody should ever tell you what art you can and can’t like. I’m just glad with movies like Birdman and Interstellar being made films with a great story and complex characters with real emotions aren’t relegated to the “depressing-black-and-white-one-room-with-two-people-talking-over-dinner” genre and the action-packed, visual stimulation of big budget CGI isn’t just so two Transformers can beat the crap out of each other. It’s the best of both worlds.
OK. Your turn. What’s more important to you when going to a movie? The special effects and visual experience? Or the acting, dialogue and story? Comment below or on the Twitter machine (@cmselby). Also, take a minute to jump on the Captions Facebook page and click that like button. It’ll do ya good.