On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: The Big Year (2011)
by NIR SHALEV
Here’s a film that I hadn’t heard of until last week, but I took a chance on it anyway. It didn’t score very well with the critics and after having watched it, I can now claim that the critics didn’t get what they were looking for because they had certain expectations. That’s why it’s sometimes necessary to go into a film without any expectations.
“The Big Year” is an annual contest that involves bird watchers, known as Birders; the goal is to spot the most species of bird within a single year. They travel all around the North American continent and the hobby seems to be remarkably expensive. The three main characters are Brad Harris (Jack Black), Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson), and Stu Preissler (Steve Martin). Brad, who is divorced and living with his parents, is a computer programmer at a nuclear power plant; Bostick is the current Big Year world champion, holding a record of 732 birds spotted; and Stu is the CEO of a very successful company. When January 1 approaches the three men embark on a journey that tests their limits as human beings, not just as Birders.
At first Brad and Stu make friends, claiming that neither one is attempting the Big Year because they’d hate to have to compete with one another- and also because if no one knows that you’re competing, they wouldn’t follow you everywhere and try to trick you into going to the wrong places. Like Bostick does and on several occasions. He is a true professional and seems to have a sixth sense regarding where he’s going, what the weather holds in store, and what every bird looks and sounds like.
What’s neat about this film is that unlike traditional sports films, here we see the main characters travel across the continent, make friends, snap photos, recognize birds by the sounds that they make, and have interesting conversations. Although it never focuses on specific segments of them birding, they’re always going about it and we’re treated to a beautiful looking film that’s shot almost entirely on location. We see a terrific amount of nature shots but the protagonists are always a part of the beautiful scenery.
When they’re not on the road we witness a completely different aspect of the story. Its third act reminds us that the people that we’ve been with throughout the year are just like us. One of them has a family that supports him, another has a wife that can’t wait for him, and the third has a company that’s going through a transition period that requires a CEO’s presence.
The film is sometimes narrated by John Cleese and his speeches usually focus on shifts in weather across the world and its impact on the story, specific tough species of birds, and Homo Sapiens as a species all its own. Also, the film is wall to wall special effects; we see oceanic storms, awesome birds that are photographed up close and through impossible angles, and even floating text where needed.
The Big Year is my favorite hidden gem from 2011 and is surprisingly fast paced. Sometimes it feels deliberately like a thriller but it stars normal people and their love for birds. Here is an absorbing, enchanting, unique, colorful, gorgeous looking, and sometimes funny look at birders as competitors and simultaneously, as friends. They’re just like us, competing on basketball courts or at the Olympics, but they have a great time, require a tremendous amount of cash, and are fun to be around. And when it comes to the film’s cast, it’s rather enormous because it also features Rosamund Pike, Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, JoBeth Williams, Anjelica Huston, Dianne Wiest, Brian Dennehy, Anthony Anderson, Rashida Jones, and Tim Blake Nelson.
The Big Year is available on DVD and Blu-ray. The Blu- ray features “The Big Migration” behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, and a gag reel.
Other new releases this week: Dream House, Drive, In Time, The Mill and the Cross, The Thing