I have a background in theatre and love plays. I enjoy musicals as much as the next person, but there's a special place in my heart for a straight play and we try to head into New York once a year (although some years more and some less - it's been almost two now sadly) to catch one on Broadway. I've been able to see some really incredible theatre like Seminar starring Alan Rickman and Grace with Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon this way. I adore a "smaller" play, because it feels more intimate even on Broadway and often you get to see actors you admire truly testing their limits on stage (I have so much more respect for Daniel Radcliffe after seeing him in Equus, for example, because although I love Harry Potter, a role like Alan Strang is very challenging and he managed it quite well).
So Birdman really played to this strength, because it seemed to capture the style and intimacy you get with a play that movies just can't get in the same way. However, as much as that worked for the film, I also feel like it's what limited the film as well. The whole time I found myself thinking, "I would really rather see this on stage."
This is definitely a complex film. You have the love letter to theatre element, which is nice, and you also have incredible acting and writing. Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, and Ed Norton are all amazing. There have been some critics who have called the style of the film a gimmick, which looks like it was shot in one take (although it wasn't), but this is an extremely interesting approach. I was impressed with how they shot the film and enjoyed the sense of immediacy it gave. This also, for me, reflected that live theatre pressure in a way a movie can't, because it felt as if every scene had to be perfect to meld into the next. I know they edited the film, but I liked how the director did this to stay true to the nature of the film.
Story wise, Birdman is admittedly depressing. I'm not sure how it's a comedy, since it's basically about a man realizing his life has no meaning or value. The ending is debatable about whether it's hopeful, but I loved the way we watched Riggan fight to do something worthwhile, only to realize how hopeless it all was. It's a fairly nihilistic film, but also extremely relevant, and I think it speaks so much to the fears of everyone in today's culture. Emma Stone, who plays Riggan's daughter, at one point actually vocalizes this - that you don't matter in the same way today as you may have 20 years ago. People move on so quickly and Riggan is a washed up actor trying to regain something of his talent and his career. He's also determined to prove that he's not just a Hollywood hack, but that he values art and theatre, despite everyone encouraging him to just fall back on his success in a crappy franchise (ironic or prophetic casting choice of Michael Keaton here).
One thing the movie does well is show mental illness. It's not shown in a melodramatic Hollywood way, but instead is about the internal struggle and anxiety someone feels when he sees his life unraveling and can't stop it from happening. There is definitely so much value that can be gleaned from discussing this film and its story. I feel like it's the kind of film that resonates with you years after watching it, and that's good cinema.
Although it's not my favorite of the selections, I would be thrilled to see Birdman win Best Picture, because it's a top-tier film that does everything right. I personally want to see it on stage next, though.