Between them, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, managed to make the 89th Academy Awards end with a bizarre climax. Somehow Beatty was handed the envelope for Female in a Leading Role and stuttered from there toward a car crash not usually reserved for such a prestigious event. Dunaway jumped in, saw “La La Land” printed on the card, and the rest was history. Until history was corrected and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight was revealed as the true winner.
The end took away from what should have been the true climax. The Academy’s triumphant step away from the dark ages and proof that #OscarsSoWhite has been acknowledged and corrected. But that statement, and position, threatens to diminish from Moonlight as a picture. The question is: did it win purely on merit when it seemed La La Land was nailed on to clean up in all categories?
The only way to judge, is to review each film on its strengths.
Moonlight, while being grounded in the harsh reality of Little’s life in the hood from the beginning, still manages to achieve stunning visual work. The rotating camera from the opening scene plants the viewer in a Boyz in the Hood world painted on an artistic canvas. He is befriended by Mahershala Ali’s Juan. He took the Oscar for this role last night, and it’s clear to see why.
The scene when he is teaching Little to swim is as immersive a piece of cinema you’ll see this year, matched by its supposed simplicity.
But nothing in Moonlight is simple. It’s a layered movie that takes Little from the bullied confused pre-adolescent to the isolated teenage version, Chiron. Here the movie explores the themes of sexuality that have become the main tag attached to the project. It wouldn’t work if it was just an exploration of this topic. Themes are compounded by his crack addict mother, isolation, and the powerful but fleeting connections Chiron makes.
By the final act, Chiron has become Black. A fully-grown man. Hardened by the world and his experiences. He is now the drug dealer and the mood of the film manages to again pour sympathy onto its protagonists. He’s assured as a man while still removed from others and life.
For a film that handles dark issues, it also has a tender side. With it, comes a great hope.
There isn’t a weak performance from any of the cast, the tonal shots and soundtrack throughout bring the vision close to ideal.
The big rival for the Oscar, La La Land, had more than soundtrack going for it. It’s a musical. Well, kind of.
It starts as one, setting its stall out with a number straight from the top. It’s unashamedly nostalgic for a by-gone era of Hollywood. Characters even refer to this with a tongue-in-cheek exchange. If you had no clue Damien Chazelle was the director, you’d soon ask the question. Jazz references from Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, and the recurring loops bring back memories of Whiplash.
However, the first section of the film remains in the musical mould. Emma Stone took home the Oscar for Best Actress for her Mia, it’s questionable if this in hindsight was a case of sharing the love. La La Land tied for record nominations yet drew many blanks. She is good in this role, but is she better than Natalie Portman’s turn in Jackie? This writer has to say she isn’t.
But Gosling and Stone do share a good chemistry. It’s not obvious to begin with. You slowly get sucked into their chase of a shared dream. With it, come the recurring melodies that will make even a musical skeptic leave the cinema humming.
For a film that sets out to be a throwback, it does eventually become a contemporary offering. You’ll be forgiven for thinking at the halfway point the musical idea has been shelved. It’s also at this moment the movie starts to find its heart and voice.
This isn’t a failing. Chazelle is a great filmmaker and knows when to push and pull the audience. The closing chapter of the film presents an ending that the Oscars debacle on stage last night gave a tip of the cap to. It also questions if this was a movie about Hollywood for Hollywood or if it pays homage to the perceived simple lives that pursue love above everything else.
It could be that such ambiguity made judges opt for Moonlight when the two were so closely matched but one had a clear and important message.
If we were to split heirs, it could be argued Moonlight starts strong then levels out. The narrative jumping as it does, mean blanks have to be filled in, and the final act leaves one wondering if the Chiron we knew would have become this version. But we see that the essence of Little is still there. Still, the conclusion isn’t as explosive as what precedes it.
La La Land on the other hand, gains momentum the further into the film it gets. All the seeds that have been sowed throughout – musically, visually, emotionally – are brought together for an ending that surpasses expectation.
It means either film would have been a worthy winner and there’s something fitting that, for a time, they both knew what it felt like to be declared Best Picture.
You can’t have a tie in the Academy Awards, but this comes as close to one as you’ll ever see.