Why “Moonlight” is Really Good, but “La La Land” is Better

By | February 27, 2017

Quick Note About Last Night’s Oscars: I nailed literally all the big categories except Best Picture, correctly predicting Mahershala Ali, Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Casey Affleck, Moonlight’s Best Adapted Screenplay, Manchester by the Sea’s Best Original Screenplay, Zootopia, and Damien Chazelle’s Best Director win. So some of this post may be affected by “Moonlight” screwing up my prediction record, but I truly did think “Moonlight” wasn’t really as good as “La La Land” even before the awards started.

Moonlight…I am not saying this isn’t a good movie. Most of my reviews have given it something close to a B+ rather than anything close to a negative review. It’s a nice, small, character-driven film about finding yourself but is it really a better movie than a thousand other character-driven indie-films about finding yourself? “Moonlight” is a lot like a less melodramatic, finessed version of “Precious” or a higher profile “Middle of Nowhere” (Ava DuVernay’s best film) or more ambitious “Pariah.” The difference between “Moonlight” and any of those films is timing, and the Academy’s desire to send a political message. [In any other year, it would feel weird for “Good Will Hunting” to beat “Titanic” or “Precious” to beat “Hurt Locker.”] It let a small movie become the mythically “gay black movie,” and send a clear fuck-you to the Trump administration or people who don’t much like gays or black people. But the thing is: Moonlight isn’t really a very daring film towards black homosexuality. It’s actually very timid and skittish towards portraying black homosexuality. “The gay black movie” features one shadowy beach hand job, one closing-film hug, and endless scenes of bullying or misery or the lead character being called a faggot. The all-black audience I saw the film audibly booed during the gay-intimacy scenes, and it was clear the film probably should’ve pushed its audience harder. But this year a small film about finding yourself got to stand-in for Oscar snubs of “Brokeback Mountain” or the Oscars-so-white controversy. And to me it seemed like a lot of people cheering this movie on social media may not have actually seen it.

La La Land…Although “Moonlight” finally reaches for transcendence in its final moments (the ending is uplifting), “La La Land” starts there and works its way backwards. It may seem like a sell-out, corporatized, feel-good “white jazz” movie about “nothing” but the people saying that clearly missed the point. Ironically, the same people giving “Moonlight” too much significance are making “La La Land” sound too frivolous. It’s really a movie about escapism not providing much of an escape, and a hidden longing to create art in a world that is losing interest in art. To me, Emma Stone singing “Audition, Fools Who Dream” (which is a better song than “City of Stars” which won best song, but whatever) is a more full-throated, soul-touching vision of what it means to struggle to get people to care about you than “Moonlight” ending with a slightly timid hug. To me, it seems like “La La Land” is being punished because so many films about Hollywood have won recently (“Argo,” “The Artist,” “Birdman”), but it’s drastically better, edgier, touching, and more relevant than “The Artist” or “Argo.” “La La Land” isn’t just celebrity navel-gazing or Hollywood’s self-importance, it’s a much more universal film than that.

Verdict: Although I do like “La La Land” more than “Moonlight,” both movies are worth seeing, and this is nowhere near as egregious as “The King’s Speech” beating “The Social Network” or any of Oscars most famous Best Picture flops. I just hope more people actually watch these films.

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