I haven’t seen many first-run movies this year, but two I checked out because of the buzz they generated on the festival circuit were Moonlight and La La Land. I wanted to like each one a lot more than I did.
Moonlight is two-thirds of a good movie. It tells the story of a gay black man named Chiron (pronounced shi-RON) at three different ages. The chapters devoted to Chiron’s childhood and teen years are gritty and compelling and transported me to a world I have never experienced nor seen on film. Unfortunately, the third chapter, depicting Chiron as an adult, plays as if someone took a Merchant Ivory film full of repressed Brits and remade it with a black cast. Nothing happens for at least 30 minutes until, I guess, Chiron decides to finally have sex. Fade to credits. Very early in the film, there’s an ambitious, unnecessary 360-degree camera shot surrounding a drug deal. Either this was the sizzle reel the filmmakers used to raise money for the film, or they blew their budget on this shot and settled for static camerawork thereafter. Either way, the third chapter, which represents nothing but inner turmoil, would have benefited from a few such camera tricks; alas, none were employed.
Similarly, La La Land opens with a dizzying, how’d-they-do-that musical number staged on a real Los Angeles freeway. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the rest of the story. The simple boy-meets-girl premise is told through unmemorable songs, vast dull patches, and an unsatisfying ending. And if you’re casting a musical, you might want to consider hiring leads who can actually sing. The weak pipes of Emma Stone (otherwise beguiling) and especially Ryan Gosling pale in comparison to co-star John Legend, a real singer who blows the roof off the dump during his brief turn in the spotlight. Gosling is supposed to be a jazz purist who has written exactly one song to prove it – a yawning piano number that’s not remotely jazzy and that he plays several times in the film to diminishing effect, reaching its nadir in the cringe-worthy final scene. Stone plays a struggling actress who beats long odds to become a bona fide movie star – yet she walks down the street unbothered by fans, slips into jazz clubs unnoticed, and Gosling doesn’t even seem to know what she’s been up to for the last five years. Moreover, as if to underscore the disconnect between the exciting opening number and the two hours that follow, when Stone finds herself in a traffic jam near the end of the film (in her own car, very unstarlike), no attempt is made to tie this scene back to the earlier one or to musicalize it in any way. I won’t spoil the ending – writer/director Damien Chazelle did that for you – but suffice it to say that, in real life, Stone would have had far better odds of ending up with Gosling than of becoming a major star.
That said, as awards season approaches and these two films have emerged as frontrunners, which one of them has the better chance of taking home the gold? Moonlight will get a slew of Oscar nominations because it’s highly original, a critics’ darling, and boasts a predominantly black cast that will allow Hollywood to avoid another #OscarsSoWhite controversy. But because no one in Hollywood can relate to the impoverished, crack-addled world of the film, it will go home empty-handed except for maybe a screenplay nod. La La Land will also get a slew of Oscar nominations because it’s somewhat original, a critics’ darling, and a love letter to Los Angeles. And because everyone in Hollywood can relate to it, it will likely win Best Picture, not unlike The Artist, another mediocre film about Hollywood.
Personally, I would like to see a more accessible and uplifting film like Hidden Figures go the distance, but I fear they launched their campaign too late. For my twelve bucks, the best film of 2016 was Deadpool, and the struggle to get it made will resonate with the Academy; but come Oscar night, it will be an honor just to be nominated.