Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014) was the big winner on Oscar night, taking home four awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Set almost entirely in a Broadway theatre, it's about the struggles of an ageing movie star Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) to stage a 'meaningful' play, thereby atoning for the vacuous comic-book Birdman movies he made purely for the money in Hollywood. Naturally, the fact that Keaton once played Batman lends the film a distinct life-imitating-art edge as it gleefully pokes fun at the machinations of Hollywood and the up-their-own-arse actors who populate it. Keaton in particular is terrific as the star on the verge of a breakdown, with good support from Edward Norton as an obnoxious method actor and Naomi Watts as his put-upon girlfriend. In depicting Riggan's fragile mental state, there's also a playfully odd element to proceedings which lends the film a certain magical realism, right through to an ending which will no doubt baffle/delight in equal measures. The real achievement here, though, is that the film is seemingly filmed as one take. There are hidden edits to create that illusion, so it's not as amazing as Russian Ark, for example, but it's still a pretty impressive technical feat, with carefully choreographed action and several how-did-they-do-that moments, all of which resulted in a richly deserved Best Cinematography Oscar. It also won Best Original Screenplay, although it's not as original as some would have you believe. Woody Allen's Stardust Memories similarly ridiculed/celebrated actorly angst to better effect in the 1980s, whilst Robert Altman's The Player utilized long tracking shots and blurred lines between film and reality when it satirized the movie industry in the 1990s. In the end up, as good as Birdman is, it reminded me of one of those magicians producing birds from nowhere; entertaining and skilful work, with impressively tricksy presentation, but lacking a really long-lasting impact. That constant drumbeat soundtrack also gets annoying very quickly.
A pretty constant drumbeat also infuses Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014), which snared the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for JK Simmon's ferocious performance as a tyrannical, bullying school band leader who terrorises a talented student (Miles Teller) into being the best he can be, but at the distinct risk of cracking up. This does a pretty good job of re-locating the keen-student/angry-mentor relationship more often seen in sports/war dramas to the world of jazz drumming; think of it as Drum Metal Jacket. It's true that beyond the confines of the drum kit, it's less successful, dabbling with a half-hearted romantic sub-plot and a little family drama, but the head-to-heads between the two leads is compelling stuff, with fully committed performances as it builds to an exciting drum solo climax. No, really, it does! Animal would approve.