It's worth admitting right in front that Birdman is nowhere near the best version of itself. Setting aside every other issue that someone could possibly have with it, it has been kneecapped by a story problem that would have been so easy to keep away from, and in fact the four screenwriters - Nicolás Giacobo, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo, and Alejandro González Iñárritu, the last of whom also directs - pretty much had to go out of their way to specifically introduce that problem. Basically, Birdman is a stream-of-consciousness narrative, put over in the most vividly cinematic language that such a particularly literary genre could possibly hope for, and there are many, many moments in the film that are only sensible if we allow that they don't represent any kind of objective third-person reality, but only the bent perceptions of the protagonist's very fragile mind. The film banks a lot on this intense subjectivity. And then, for absolutely no practical reason other than to spell out some story development that might have been achieved a dozen other ways, there are at least four reasonably lengthy scenes that take place completely outside of the protagonist's vision or knowledge. They're not bad scenes; they're crisply-written, smartly-acted, and handsomely-lit. But they completely violate the aesthetic continuity of the film, and it is a film which privileges that continuity above all else.

And yet, despite that absolute, deadly flaw, Birdman - to just once give its messy, beautiful, strangely-punctuated title in full, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - is one of the absolute keepers of 2014, for even if its execution ends up betraying its concept, that concept is so terrific that there could have been far more individual mistakes than there are, with the result still turning out to be one of the most audacious and satisfying experiences of the movie year. It's a simple little story: Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), is a faded movie star whose career hasn't recovered since his decision, 20 years ago, not to play the title character in Birdman 4, feeling that after three-successive go-rounds in the superhero's beak and wings, he was ready to move on to rich pastures. That has, after all this time, brought him to the world of Legitimate Theater, where so many former movie stars before him got to grab hold of a little bit of dignity near the end. He's the writer, director, and star of an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love", produced by his friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), co-starring his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and taking as his assistant his fresh-from-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone). The situation is rife with cause for emotional trauma and self-doubt, and that's before an accident forces him to re-cast the other male role, three days before the premiere, with Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), genius stage actor, arrogant prick, and boyfriend of the other actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), making her Broadway debut. The pressure of having a superstar performer stealing his oxygen and having to drive himself to the cusp of bankruptcy to get there forces Riggan beyond the breaking point, not that he needed to go very far. The very first image of the movie, and the very first line of dialogue, already do a fine job of dramatising Riggan's present inability to separate reality and fantasy.

So, for that matter, does the movie itself. A stream-of-consciousness narrative I called it, and that's just what it is, in the most appallingly exciting way. González Iñárritu, working with fellow Mexican expatriate and all-around cinematography superstar Emmanuel Lubezki, has fashioned Birdman to look like it takes place mostly in a single shot, seamlessly stitched together (one can notice the joins solely because of spurious camera movements that exist to hide them, not because there's ever a spot where the digital trickery is apparent; editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, major names in their own right, have done some exquisite work that goes out of its way not to call attention to itself). Lubezki knowing a thing or two about shooting breathtakingly beautiful, wonderful long takes, it's not surprising that Birdman looks gorgeous and has camera movement that's so organic and three-dimensional that the film ends up being as much of a go-for-broke visual spectacle as anything with elaborate world-building CGI; it's great as well that the artifice of theater frees him up to play with sculpted and colored lighting in ways he hasn't done in years, without giving up the skills he's picked up in using only visible light sources. The result isn't his most groundbreaking work of cinematography, though in individual shots - a cherry red exit sign surrounded by blue, an elevated shot of Broadway at dusk - it ranks with his most purely beautiful.

But anyway, storytelling. Which, in Birdman's case, is indistinguishable from the goings-on of Riggan Thomson's frenzied mind, and that's where the single-take illusion works so well: for of course, the movie taking place over many days, it's not mimicking real time at all, the way long takes do. It is a strictly anti-realist gesture, in fact, suggesting the breakdown going on in the head of the panicky artist for whom there's never enough time, the aging man who has a terrified awareness of how quickly deadlines of every sort are blasting towards him. The visual structure of the film puts us squarely in Riggan's position, as time and space compress and blur together in patently impossible ways (the usual suspects have bitched a little about how the film misrepresents actual Manhattan geography, ignoring that it also inserts continuity errors into its own internally-established geography, and failing to wonder why that might be the case). It is, I honestly think, a way of exploring psychology through visuals that I have never seen done, not in this way; but I have not seen everything.

Anyway, it's all in service to a great, unflagging character study. It can be argued that we need no more movies about aging white guys and their privileged woes; but since we have Birdman anyway, it's great that it treats that subject (the perpetual core of Raymond Carver's writing, making the film's reliance on "What We Talk About..." doubly meaningful) so fucking well. Keaton's performance is absolutely dynamite, for one thing, the best of his career by far, even without so much as nodding in the direction of the meta-casting involved in showcasing him as a guy who hasn't done much of note since appearing in a major franchise at the dawn of the superhero movie epoch. There's unlovely misery and self-loathing plastered across every inch of his performance, in his expressions and his caustic line readings, and the way that he seems to age five years over the course of the movie. The whole cast is good (the men more than the women), but it's Keaton in the hot seat, Keaton who has to create a sufficiently believable well-into-midlife crisis for the rest of the film spinning around him to feel honest and meaningful.

Despite this heavy, pathetic center, the film is giddily watchable, a chain of firecrackers driven by González Iñárritu's surprising and heretofore entirely untapped facility with comedy, and Antonio Sánchez's irreplaceable drum score, adding a relentless tension that does almost as much to suggest the disorienting momentum of these days for Riggan as the sinewy cinematography does. It's a thriller, a sitcom, a merciless drama, and a highly expressionistic depiction of paranoia and panic that is, when it's working, one of the most jaw-dropping, exciting, totally effective films I've seen in ages. Now, again, there are parts where it's not merely failing to work, it's bragging about how much it's not working. But far more often than that, it's one fire: surprising even as it feels inevitable, heartbreaking and sympathetic even as it relishes in showing off its protagonist's most awful characteristics. It's not nearly perfect, but it's as essential as cinema gets.