I went to bed just before the Academy Awards announced Best Picture because I just assumed La La Land was going to win. After all, it’s a sappy musical about a young, attractive couple trying to make it in Hollywood and no one is a bigger sucker for movies about Hollywood than Hollywood itself. But as I was pulling the covers up to my chin, I thought I’d check my phone one more time just to be sure and...holy crap, what the hell happened?
This was the first year I decided to see as many of the Best Picture nominees as I could and make my own decision about which movie should win top honors. I thought it was going to be easy. I thought Moonlight would be above-and-beyond the better movie: acting, directing, script, cinematography, sound, everything. I thought I was going to hate La La Land for its treacle and obvious Oscar seduction.
So on Saturday I saw both movies back-to-back. It turns out my decision was a lot harder than I expected.
It’s hard to find Oscar-worthy movies that are the right balance of plot-driven and character-driven without characters coming off as one-dimensional in the former and the whole runtime feeling tedious in the latter. I much prefer a movie suffer in plot than deliver bland, unmotivated characters since it’s easier to be immersed in character than story. I’ll bring up Boyhood because it’s a perfect example of very loose storytelling but compelling, believable characters to fall back on. In fact, it’s part of Richard Linklater’s oeuvre to deliver movies of this calibre, from the Before series to classics like Dazed and Confused.
Moonlight does a fantastic job of building solid characters while keeping its story strong due to the absolutely phenomenal acting of its cast (congrats, Mahershala Ali!) and its roots in stage theatre. The three-act division keeps each story contained but allowing for character arcs. Chiron’s mother, Paula, for instance, has a perfect arc across all three act while Juan keeps his to a single one. This is all separate from Chiron’s arc of self-discovery through the portrayal of three different actors. This was a genius casting move, by the way. As we all are different people in various points in our lives, so is Chiron as a child realizing who he is, a teenager dealing with who he is, and an adult accepting who he is.
La La Land
I really did not want to like La La Land, as I said. But by the second musical number, when the camera spun in circles in a swimming pool surrounded by dancing extras, I turned to my husband and muttered, “Goddamn it. This is good already.” On some level, musicals trick you into liking them with elaborate choreography and catchy songs. But on another, all that magic can mask glaring problems with the movie part of the movie musical.
La La Land definitely has fun dance numbers and catchy songs which definitely cover up its weaker spots -- as in, everything else. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are fine, and that’s it. They’re good actors; not spectacular singers or dancers. Gosling learned how to play jazz piano for his role, and his playing is mind-blowing. But Stone’s struggling Mia is an average actress playing an average actress. Their onscreen chemistry, being the third movie they’ve made together, saves them both.
All-in-all, I think Moonlight deserved to win over La La Land as it did. Though I admit to having a lot more fun with La La Land and felt a very obvious connection between myself and Mia, the movie that will stand the test of time is Moonlight. This is the first movie with both a majority of black actors and an LGBT theme to win Best Picture. Hopefully, this is a sea change for the Academy and Moonlight is only the first of many movies celebrating diversity to come to sweep awards season.