Outsiders might dissent (the internet is full of trolls after all), but when it comes to critics and the Oscars, only two movies mattered in 2016: La La Land and Moonlight. Watching one or both of these films perhaps qualified as a transcendent experience; or maybe you thought them too self-indulgent or cloying. The truth is what you think isn’t all that important. Because the decision is in and from a national perspective these two movies were best, or in Oscars’ translation, “the ones we all agreed upon the most.”
La La Land and Moonlight are one-two in this imaginary horse race—or 1A-1B, or top two, or whatever semantic musing you choose because the point is no one will concede the tiniest of details when it comes to either movie.
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Since internet debates tend to firebomb any middle ground, you’re either for/against one of the two. If you love La La Land, you hate Moonlight, and vice versa. (If you don’t care, or dislike both, you’re a nihilist, a zombie without feelings, and your opinions aren’t accepted here; i.e. playing Switzerland is sus.) Just like your children, you have a favorite. La La Land fans, your position has been reduced to this:
La La Land is for sappy nostalgists, who clearly don’t know musicals—otherwise they’d have noticed the derivative numbers and mediocre song-and-dance from Stone and Gosling. The film reeks of white privilege, white messiah complex, and pure, plain white-ness. It disavows any “real” Los Angeles, culturally speaking, but also true Los Angelenos, who burst with racial and sexual diversity—unlike this mansplaining movie. John Legend’s the bad guy for expanding the genre of jazz toward pop inclinations while this white boy shouts his secular neo-bebop love but plays elevator music ditties? Please. This movie is a joke unaware of its own punchlines.
For Moonlight, meanwhile:
Moonlight is a social justice warrior anthem choked through another regurgitation of Hollywood’s favorite story: the victim narrative. Sad boy is sad, we get it. Clinical and conservative in its approach to displaying queer love—poor Chiron receives one sandy handjob and that’s it? No wonder white guilty liberals adore it so. They can shout its praises from a distance and never confront the actual act. Dreadfully sentimental, it serves as pandering, self-righteous panacea to every other diverse narrative Hollywood has denied, to #OscarsSoWhite, to every racial injustice everywhere. You feel good for loving Moonlight so much? Congratulations, you’re supposed to.
Now. Both these wide-brush criticisms cycling across feeds and media verticals are disputable and puffy. They limit each movie to What It Says and Whose It For, two rather confining avenues to judge any film. Particularly by a certain crowd, this narrative pitting the two movies against one another binds each into symbols used to discuss a swath of other Important Conversations swirling around the culture. Whichever one wins will secretly serve as validation of publicly-held beliefs about race and class, as well as settling the ongoing The Way Things Were vs. How Things Are Now debate.
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And how boring and useless is that? Whatever political goals either film has have mostly been accomplished. With La La Land receiving 14 nominations and Moonlight eight, it guarantees these will be and will remain films casual moviegoers believe they must see. As pious and/or as petty you might be regarding the Oscars, undeniable is their ability to shine spotlights on movies otherwise brushed over. Sometimes that leads to Oscars shining spotlights on Spotlight and we all lose. (In retrospect, that now seems par for the course in 2016.)
For all the sleazy appeal of awards season, a two-horse race can settle into similar tactics drunken sports fans practice: talking trash about your opponent. My team (i.e. my movie) is better because yours sucks for reasons x, y, and z. But maybe this type of message pierces most clearly through all the other ongoing noise. It is, after all, the chosen method of Donald Trump, the newly inaugurated President of our country.
I think there’s a very superficial read of La La Land that does injustice to what [director] Damien [Chazelle]’s doing in the film, and it’s convenient because these are tough times to make a superficial read of that film. But it’s like, no, this is America. This is what this shit is. You gain something; you sacrifice something else in the gaining of that thing. I mean, that’s dark stuff.
Neither film is without flaw. La La Land does leave audiences with a bittersweet taste: Intractable dreamers may accomplish those goals, but lose someone more precious in the process. However, are we really not supposed to believe Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian is kind of a hipster douche? To focus on just one moment, there’s the gaudy “Start A Fire” performance, where thousands cheer on John Legend’s synth pop, and Seb appears dissatisfied while Stone’s Mia is mortified. Isn’t it all hollow, asks our main characters. Well, no, it looks damn fun. You could argue that’s the point and ties into the movie’s thesis—an unwillingness to adapt and update classical sensibilities will leave one cold and forever confrontational with the world—but it’s a large ask for Chazelle to make.
On the other hand, Moonlight does reveal how civil structures and black pathologies can steal a child’s sense of intimacy and the impact nature has on nurture and how nurture affects one’s nature. It’s soaring and tender within a grounded, callous world. But when Chiron as the drug dealer “Black” reveals to previous lover Kevin he hasn’t touched another man, let alone another person, since their midnight tryst on the beach, it’s a hard moment to buy. (Strike that—I guess that point is distinctively not hard, if we’re being honest.) The Chiron we’ve witnessed is curious of people, always chasing others’ affection. A male swelling with desire, perhaps still sexually confused, would never stumble into a strip club living in Atlanta? Are we just supposed to ignore the city’s cultural impetus there? When Moonlight focuses so acutely on being a product of one’s environment? Was Chiron so ravaged by loss of love that he wouldn’t be inquisitive during that large swath of time, and explore some Midtown bars? Nothing at all?
While the admission is meant to underscore Chiron’s deep scars, it seems antithetical to everything we know about the character. For Jenkins, it’s a rare misstep.
Both movies are great. I enjoyed each immensely. But by reducing either into cultural treatises, and demanding one way chosen over the other, we deny the empathetic power each film graciously strives toward. Each is deserving of its praise. One winning does not qualify the other as loser. You can be lost in the moonlight and waltzing through la la land. Neither is such a bad place to be.