It would take a bit of effort and some fairly tortuous reverse engineering to see “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” which continues in limited release this week and expands next week, as anything but a departure for director Alejandro González Iñárritu, or Alejandro G. Iñárritu as his current incarnation is called. Indeed, formally it’s almost the Platonic opposite of his previous films, seemingly unfolding in one breathless, unbroken take and moving ever forward in time in a manner that, compared to the shifting perspectives and jumbled chronology that characterize the majority of his films, feels refreshingly linear.
Still, one element of his directorial approach remains constant, despite occasionally disheveled structures and blunt thematics: his ability to get very strong performances from his cast. Michael Keaton, whose turn in “Birdman” is truly of the career-relaunching variety (check out our 10 favorite Keaton performances here), is the current poster child in this regard, but in fact he’s now joined a long queue of phenomenal lead performances in Iñárritu’s oeuvre. And that’s not even including supporting actors, who in a lot of cases —thanks in large to Iñárritu’s love of multi-personality storylines— have their moment in the spotlight and then some. So while “Birdman” is an absolute cavalcade of terrific performances, pretty much every one of Iñárritu’s previous films, despite the varying degrees to which we might have embraced them overall, boasts an embarrassment of riches in the acting department.
And so we have sifted through the entire Iñárritu catalog (ok fine, there are only 5 films), and singled out the ten most memorable performances. It was an interesting exercise that at times required a degree of separation of a particular performance from the wider movie it serves, as for many of us, Iñárritu’s catalog between his terrific debut “Amores Perros” and the magnificent “Birdman” has been spotty, occasionally slipping into needless overcomplexity or blunt heavyhandedness. But none of us have ever doubted his consummate talent as a filmmaker, and his latest work is a stimulant, serving as a reinvigoration for both Iñárritu and for his audience (as we said in our review) and as a reminder of how fantastic his cinema can be when material meets performance in pitch-perfect unison. It also reminded us just how often his actors have found a way to bring out their very best for him, like they did especially in the following ten occasions.
Javier Bardem as Uxbal in “Biutiful” (2012)
If we had occasionally wished during Iñárritu’s previous films to see him and his screenwriting ex-collaborator Guillermo Arriaga concentrate on one narrative, rather than trying to weave together disconnected stories based on some thematic similarity or chance collision, 2012’s “Biutiful” came along as a summary example of “be careful what you wish for.” The film’s vehemently poetic mysticism can’t hide a sense of crushing desolation: it’s a story about a dying man mired in ever more desperate and tragic circumstances as fate conspires to pile misery upon misery on him. But its unflinching focus on its central character, whom Iñárritu uses to funnel parallel commentary on social outcasts and the psychological weight of fatherhood, yields perhaps the most extraordinary Javier Bardem performance ever. There is something about Bardem as an actor, even as a physical presence, that works brilliantly here. Perhaps it’s that he commits so totally to a role that progressively strips him of his charisma, his brawn and his vitality —all the things that make him Javier Bardem— that feels so brave. By its close, his Uxbal is little more than a ghost, a hollowed-out shell of a man, having been ground down physically, psychologically, socially, and morally by repeated evidence of his own insignificance until nothing but a pair of soulful eyes and the thinnest thread of hope for his children remains. A prime example of a truly great performance (Bardem was Oscar-nominated and won the Cannes Best Actor award) that is so dominant it casts the entire film in its shadow, the only complaint we could have about Bardem here is that he makes such a relentlessly downbeat film so compulsively watchable that we almost didn’t notice how feelbad it was until it was over.
Emilio Echevarria as El Chivo in “Amores Perros” (2000)
Possessing enough verve, delirium and storytelling bravado to have “New Tarantino” labels circulating days after it opened, Iñárritu’s scorching debut (and prior to “Birdman,” easily his best film) set the structure for his next two films to follow. But while “21 Grams” and “Babel” were (arguably) by turns rendered confusing and exasperating by non-linear storytelling and tenuous connections, “Amores Perros” actually derives a great deal of its internal manic energy from the format, perhaps due to Iñárritu’s comfort working in his native language and in his native city. And while a pre “Y Tu Mama Tambien” Gael Garcia Bernal is terrific too, it’s the star of another strand, Emilio Echevarria (who also appeared in Alfonso Cuaron’s film, as well as in Iñárritu’s “Babel”) who really stands out. Crazy-haired, bearded and apparently indigent, pushing a junk cart around Mexico City and eschewing human company for a pack of dogs, El Chivo could be a stock background character were it not for the care with which a fascinating backstory is revealed, piece by piece. And Echevarria really lives the role of the vagrant hitman: even under the filth, clad in rags and living in an abandoned warehouse, Chivo is a creature who wears his life’s stories, most of them tragic, like a shroud. And it’s Chivo as well who undergoes the greatest arc of change, culminating in a transformation not just spiritual but physical when, seeing his own legacy of violence mirrored in the unthinking trained cruelty of a vicious fighting dog, he finds his way toward a sort of redemption. Or if redemption doesn’t quite convey, when it’s based on stolen loot and a pretty amoral attitude toward violent death, it’s at least catharsis, summed up in a heartbreakingly one-sided conversation with his estranged daughter’s answering machine that plays out with unflinching focus as he finally breaks down. It’s a melodramatic character, but Echevarria grounds him so well that we never stop to question the credibility of what’s occurring and how he’s responding, even when his motives are momentarily unclear. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that Chivo, and Echevarria playing him, is kind of the thematic lightning rod for the film, through which its real meaning is conducted like electricity.
Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko in “Babel” (2006)
A household name in her native Japan, Rinko Kikuchi has not yet attained anything like that level of fame in the West, with her biggest chance to do so, last summer’s “Pacific Rim” feeling like such a damp squib (at least performance-wise, indignant Kaiju fans). And while she led the Japanese crossover arthouse hit “Norwegian Wood,” based on the Murakami novel, and will soon be seen adding another oddball, alienated character to her repertoire with David Zellner’s arthouse hit “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter,” the best (Oscar-nominated) showcase of her talents for an international audience is still Iñárritu’s third film, “Babel.” While the film overall suffers from a disjointed feel, as it switches continents and characters and time frames but without the same intuitive rigor that made “Amores Perros” work so well, the Japan-set segment, of which Kikuchi is the star, is in many ways the most convincing. Perhaps because it’s the strangest, or perhaps it’s because it’s the one least moored to the other two subplots and the audience is therefore free to interpret it almost as a standalone narrative, Chieko’s story is compelling in its absolutely non-judgmental portrayal of a very broken girl. Of course the showy aspect is that Kikuchi has to play deaf-mute in the film (which is all about the barriers to true interpersonal communication, after all), but her expressiveness and the physicality of her performance more than compensate for the lack of dialogue. Chieko is a teenager who has just lost her mother to suicide, and whose grief and confusion conflates with her budding sexuality and her self-consciousness because of her deafness, leading to her lash out at her father and engage in deliberately lewd and sexually provocative behavior. It’s an absolute minefield of a role, tackling teen sexuality, identity, coming of age, parental resentment and the psychological toll that disability can take, yet Kikuchi is utterly convincing and completely without artifice. In Kikuchi’s portrayal, Chieko, far from the freak she fears she might be and that her behaviour might suggest, becomes maybe the most human character in a film ostensibly concerned with understanding our shared humanity.
Naomi Watts as Cristina in “21 Grams” (2003)
So, there’s this woman, see, and she’s a recovering alcoholic with a supportive husband and two adorable moppet children, only they get killed in a hit and run by a reformed ex-con, and her husband’s heart gets transplanted into a dying man who’s estranged from his wife due to an abortion she never told him about. The dying man starts to stalk the widowed woman, they strike up a relationship and then she persuades him to try and kill the ex-con, but when they attempt murder, the dying man shoots himself and has to be taken to the hospital by the widow and ex-con. The same ex-con who killed her husband and whom she in turn, wanted to kill. If anything can convince you of the strength of Naomi Watts‘ wired, unraveling performance as the widowed Cristina, it has to be that the plot of “21 Grams,” when unkinked and laid out flat as above, is surely the most overwrought of Iñárritu’s career (and he is no stranger to extra turns of the screw). The performance requires every single weapon in her arsenal to keep up with the film’s elaborative narrative: from gentle, hopeful and contented to grief-riven and self-hating, to furious and vengeful, to all-out hysteria. But as classically “actory” as the part is, and as eyecatchingly showy —it was also Oscar nominated— Watts commitment to each of Cristina’s incarnations is thorough and frighteningly believable, making it seem natural that any woman who had gone through such a tragedy would inevitably try on new and different personalities like clothing. Or maybe suits of armor. And it also provides a crucial mooring point for Iñárritu’s non-linear storytelling, here stretched to its most confounding limits: it’s really only through understanding where Watts’ Cristina is on her journey that we can understand where we are in the story.
Adriana Barraza as Amelia in “Babel” (2006)
Along the multi-stranded journey of his ensemble and his Guillermo Arriaga-scripted triptych of features, Iñárritu gathered together something of a repertory of actors whom he used repeatedly, among them Emilio Echevarria, Gael Garcia Bernal and terrific Mexican actress Adriana Barraza. Barraza also shows up in “Amores Perros,” and more recently has been spotted in fellow Mexican Guillermo del Toro’s TV show “The Strain,” but her most substantial feature film role to date has been as the centerpiece of the US/Mexico strand of “Babel.” One of the most overtly sympathetic of the film’s characters, as the longtime nanny to the children of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett’s characters (both of whom turn in good performances, though oddly their parts feel the least well defined), Barraza plays the role with such warmth and down-to-earth practicality that when tragedy inevitably strikes, we feel it all the more. Again grounding what might otherwise be almost too much of a stretch to believe, Barraza sells the idea that all Amelia really does is make a series of perfectly sympathetic decisions that due to no fault of her own lead to dreadful outcomes. There is not-so-subtle social commentary in her character in that, as a Mexican illegal immigrant, it doesn’t matter that Amelia is probably motivated by much more decent and generous instincts than anyone else in the film. But the colossal injustice of fate, in tandem with the entrenched forces of the political status quo, will ensure that no matter what the crime is or who committed it, she’s the one who will pay. Iñárritu may not quite pull off the overarching idea that it’s Blanchett’s character who gets the bullet but Amelia is the martyr, but Barraza’s Oscar-nominated performance suggests that he doesn’t really need to: it’s good enough to shine as a movingly human portrayal of the immigrant experience all by itself.
Brad Pitt as Richard in “Babel” (2006)
“Babel” came at a crucial point in Brad Pitt’s career, shouting a reminder from one of the highest towers of his post-’90s filmography in plain American English: Brad Pitt is a good actor. Take a gander at the megastar’s repertoire, and you’ll find it easy to draw two columns: pre-“Babel” and post-“Babel.” His work with David Fincher and his Oscar-nominated turn in “12 Monkeys” during the ’90s started to fade from memory after stuff like “The Mexican,” “Troy,” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” threatened to box him into some popcorned hybrid of action star and romantic lead in the 2000s. In comes Mr. Iñárritu, with an ensemble piece and his final instalment of the “Death Trilogy,” lighting Pitt’s way forward like a beacon, towards ‘Jesse James,’ ‘Benjamin Button,’ and “The Tree Of Life.” For the first time in his entire career, Pitt doesn’t stick out, and with his performance as Richard, for all intents and purposes a boringly average schmoe, he juggles grieving father, deflated husband, and temperamental American with perfectly proportioned poise, demonstrating how seamlessly he can camouflage his Hollywoodishness when necessary. Shedding his superstardom, with zero elbow-room to maneuver his quirky comedic talents, Pitt gives one of his simplest, most humble and achingly human performances as a man lost on foreign land, both as a husband in a tenuous marriage rocked by the death of a child, and as an American tourist in Morocco during politically unstable times. After his wife is critically wounded, the key scenes of “Babel’s” excommunicated emotions in the Moroccan segment lie with Richard, and Pitt turns away from every chance to phone it in and make a grandstanding play. Speaking of phones, the conversations Richard has on them are some of the film’s highlights, and those tricky but well-played scenes are a good indicator of the turn Pitt’s career would take after Iñárritu’s modern mosaic of miscommunication grounded his talents, and affirmed his place in the very top drawer of his generation.
Gael García Bernal as Octavio in “Amores Perros” (2000)
If “Amores Perros” is the ‘Mexican ‘Pulp Fiction,” then Gael García Bernal, in being the film’s biggest breakout, is probably the Mexican Samuel L. Jackson. We’ve talked about Echevarría’s nuanced turn as El Chivo, the anchor to a frenzied, wonderfully wild ride, but in our view, it’s a tight race to the finish line between the former and García Bernal (billed as Gael García at the time). What truly helps make ‘Perros’ into one of the most memorable feature debuts of the past 30 odd years is its catapulting of this obscure young Mexican actor from the gutter to the stars on first launch. This is García Bernal’s first role on a feature film, which makes us dizzy with awe every time we think about it (Jackson by comparison had years of bit parts and supporting roles behind him when ‘Pulp’ came along). Octavio —hapless, manic, desperate— is a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions; in love with his brother’s wife, desperate to break free from his surroundings, and never wearing the right boots for the amount of shit he steps into. The role couldn’t have given the young gun a more suitable entrance, and the range he shows —playing doting, conflicted brother-in-law, fearless brother, proud dog-owner, and frenetic driver, among other parts— could put a roomful of veteran thesps to shame. As he laughs, charms, head-butts, worries, and bleeds his way into our hearts, we see a part of dumb exuberant youth that we can’t help but connect to, thanks to his raw and organic performance. He cut his teeth and grew his canines in one remarkable film, and he’s been impressing us ever since, including his welcome return for Iñárritu as Adrianna Barraza’s sleaze-bag nephew in “Babel.”
Benicio Del Toro as Jack in “21 Grams” (2003)
If it wasn’t clear from our Naomi Watts entry, let’s make it so: we’re not particularly smitten with “21 Grams.” With a convoluted omelette of a plot that puts all its eggs into one mopey basket, this is Iñárritu at his most mercilessly dense and uninviting. But once separated from the bigger picture, the performances are just as fierce and resonant as the ones from Iñárritu’s grander works. Benicio Del Toro is the film’s secret weapon: Oscar-nominated for the performance, it’s a turn that sits alongside the actor’s best work elsewhere, like his Javier Rodriguez in “Traffic” or Che Guevara in “Che.” Pitted against Watts’ wrung-out widow and Sean Penn’s heartlessly dejected Paul is Del Toro’s ex-con Jack, a recovering drug addict who drags his soul like a ball-and-chain and bottles a sea of guilt like a man who’s danced with the Devil at least half a dozen times. Take the scene in the jail cell, when he tells Eddie Marsan’s reverend what hell truly is, and you’ll see a man who is fully embracing the cliché of “born to play this part.” It’s a testament to Del Toro’s subtle and charismatic abilities that he makes the religiously reformed and conflicted Jack such an interesting and affecting personality; he causes the death of two innocent children, and we still root for him until the bitter end. Even if the film behaves like a self-aggrandizing vampire at times, sucking you dry then talking about it way too much, Del Toro is one of the reasons why it can still keep its heavy head above water.
Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014)
There’s a lot of talk already that the Best Actor Oscar prize is Michael Keaton‘s to lose. And beyond the fact that Keaton is overdue for such recognition, this is with good reason. Keaton is phenomenal in Iñárritu’s spectacular seriocomic look at ego, insecurity, self-worth, fraudulence and personal redemption. And forget the fun and colorful meta-textual layers: “Birdman” and Keaton are terrific with or without the existence of Tim Burton‘s “Batman.” Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor known for his decades-old “Birdman” super hero franchise and now trying to mount a credibility comeback by staging a Raymond Carver adaptation on Broadway. It’s an act of hubris and desperation, which are Riggan’s two modes —the former depicted by his cocky Birdman alter ego whispering in his ear with taunts, reminders of his greatness and ridicule regarding being a phony, his worst fear. “You confuse love for admiration,” his ex tells him in one of the many psychological digs at the actor’s fragile psyche. And of course what makes it worse is that Thomson’s motivations for being in the play in the first place are suspect from minute one. Innaritu’s picture is an unflinching look at what we hate about ourselves—or at least those who agonize over personal and creative integrity— and mines painful territory of shame, embarrassment and self-loathing. And Keaton goes for broke. “Birdman” has been described a high-wire act because of its audacious filmmaking, its brazen and caustic (and very funny) screenplay and its overall cojones, but that term applies to Keaton’s performance too. Playing a sad, pathetic narcissist clinging to what’s left of his self-worth, he’s the classic Hollywood actor who has forsaken his wife, daughter and friends for the empty shell of keeping up his fragile self-image. But he’s also a man in deep spiritual crisis: about who he is, who he was and who he could possibly become. Without sweetening up the character, Keaton makes us understand Riggan. We don’t always relate and we certainly don’t always empathize, but his struggle is so raw, and he is risking so much humiliation that it is rendered absolutely, breathtakingly human.
Edward Norton as Mike Shriner in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014)
And then there’s Mike Shriner, played by Edward Norton. He is the yin to Riggan Thomson’s yang; a smug, acid-tongued, “purist” actor whose sanctimoniousness knows no bounds. Shriner doesn’t work in movies. To Shriner, acting is holy, so he only commits to the sacredness of the stage and castigates Thomson for his Hollywood paycheck gigs, delivering seething bon mots like “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige!” And yet Shriner’s an opportunist too; stealing a personal, meaningful anecdote of Riggan’s and passing it off as his own in a New York Times profile piece where he barely mentions the play and plays up his own importance. A loose-cannon and a thorn in Riggan’s side conspiring to ruin the play by making every rehearsal about him, Mike Shriner is a brilliant, complicated self-aggrandizing snake and he’s also one of Norton’s best ever roles. The passion, level of commitment and cocky self-assuredness Norton brings to the character is both captivatingly charming and revolting in his grotesque egomania. Shriner is really a construct; another psychological toxin meant to undermine Riggan, but Norton delights and astounds, shapeshifting with feral comedic timing and a loose-limbed electricity that’s a joy to witness. “Birdman” is rightly heralded for its virtuosic camera and bravura filmmaking, but its performances are even more impressive, and Norton is so good he even threatens to steal the movie away from Keaton.
He’s directed a mere five features, but Iñárritu’s tendency towards large casts creates a lengthy list of potential candidates. We’ve capped our list at 10, but there’s plenty more where those came from. “Amores Perros” has a star in each of its segments, and Goya Toledo undoubtedly shines as the upper-class vixen Valeria, whose life and self-image shatters after the accident. Cate Blanchett is shackled by “Babel’s” restricting screenplay, but a few short scenes are enough for one to show how bitter her Susan is, even in critical condition. And “Birdman” has such a wealth of supporting characters that we could have filled half this list with picks from it alone: Zach Galifianakis plays against type as Riggan’s meek business manager —Norton recently shared a great anecdote in which Galifianakis suddenly realizes he is in a great movie (evidently a rare feat for the comedic actor)— and Emma Stone is so good she might just score herself a Best Supporting nomination too and only narrowly missed out on inclusion here. Did we mention Amy Ryan is also quietly fantastic in the film, and Lindsay Duncan’s spiteful critic is a terrifically spicy turn too? And keep an eye out in future — Iñárritu’s next picture, “The Revenant” stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. We’ll likely have to dust off this list come next year. Until then. – Nikola Grozdanovic, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez.