The two consistent traits in Alejandro González Iñárritu's body of work are his directorial virtuosity and his ability to get 100% commitment from his actors. What makes Birdman such a refreshing change of pace is that he turns these gifts towards comedy rather than wallowing in despair. The result is one of the most unexpected and richly enjoyable larks of the cinematic year, even if the director's occasional grasps for profundity threaten to puncture the fun.
While Emmanuel Lubezki's constantly swooping camerawork and the gimmicky single-take structure is technically impressive, the film really comes alive when everything settles down and Birdman's ace ensemble goes to work. Keaton is perfect as the actor trying to escape the shadow of his superhero past, but the real star turn here is from a hilarious Edward Norton as a self-important thespian whose commitment to reality is taken to absurd lengths. Iñárritu doesn't pull off all of his grand gestures and he unfortunately fudges the ending, but when this strange bird is flying it really is something to behold. [Philip Concannon]