With a number of celebrity deaths, the killing of Harambe, and the wildest election in most, if not all, of our lifetimes, 2016 was an absolutely crazy year. Fortunately for us movie fans, it was also one of the best film years in recent history. With so many future classic films such as: Manchester by the Sea, Fences, Hell or High Water, and Arrival, as well as major blockbusters like Captain America: Civil War, Rogue One, and Deadpool, the movies of 2016 worked as a perfect escape from the real world. However, in a year with so many great films, two stand out above the rest; come Oscar time, only La La Land and Moonlight will really be competing for the biggest prize in American film. Remarkably, these two great films could not be any more different.
Barry Jenkins (left) and Damien Chazelle (right) are two names that film lovers will hear for years to come. As relatively young directors, they have already proven themselves as two of the best new filmmakers in the industry. Moonlight is only 37-year-old Barry Jenkins’s second feature film, his first debuting eight years ago. After Medicine for Melancholy, his $15,000 debut feature, received critical acclaim, Jenkins struggled to get another film into production. When several of his screenplays were not able to get off the ground, Adele Romanski urged Jenkins to make a second film. After a viewing of the play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, he received his inspiration for Moonlight. Damien Chazelle, in contrast, has had an extremely busy few years. At only 32 years old, La La Land is Chazelle’s second Best Picture nominated film (the other being 2014’s Whiplash) after only three attempts. Both directors are true auteurs, having written and directed their respective films, giving their respective features their own distinctive styles. Like I stated previously, La La Land and Moonlight are two shockingly different movies.
For those who have not seen it, La La Land is a romantic musical starring Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist and Emma Stone as an aspiring actress. The two are star-crossed lovers just trying to make their way to the top in Los Angeles. Moonlight, on the other hand, has perhaps, a bleaker premise. It tells the story of Chiron, a young black man just trying to find his place in the world over the course of three stages in his life. The world ridicules him for his “weak” demeanor and sexuality.
As made clear by their acclaim and Oscar nominations: both films are fantastic.
La La Land’s (left) style, on the surface, is a visually appealing, cinematic musical that begins fun and lively, before spiraling into disappointment and heartache. Without delving into spoiler territory, the film pays homage to the great musicals from the 50s’ like Singing in the Rain, but puts its own unique twist on the classic love story. It uses modern technology to create stunning imagery unlike anything that could have been produced during the “golden age of musicals.” Its visual style almost seems more attuned to classic animation like Fantasia than it does to the musicals that inspired it.
Moonlight (right) is a much slower- paced film than La La Land. It grippingly explores a young man’s struggle to find his identity, making it easy to get lost in the story. You may even forget that you are watching a film! Chrion is a fantastic protagonist who is easily relatable to all, despite being constantly ridiculed for being “different.” The supporting cast is also stellar; including Mahershala Ali—who by the way gave my favorite performance of the year—Naomie Harris, and Janelle Monáe. Three Chiron actors, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes do an incredible job portraying the same struggling young man. Moonlight is a film that deserves all of the accolades that it is receiving.
The Academy has an extremely tough decision this year: on one hand, La La Land is an absolutely gorgeous technical masterpiece with an unexpectedly nuanced story. On the other hand, its basic premise is ultimately about two people who sing and dance. That being said, La La Land is ridiculously fun and with 14 nominations, proves that it is a special film. Alternatively, Moonlight is definitely 2016’s most important film. After #OscarSoWhite, it offers a little redemption to the awards show. The performances are exceptional and the story is mesmerizing.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, we cannot tell the Academy who to vote for, but may the best film win.