Why Moonlight Deserves Best Picture Over La La Land
After getting a recent message from Tumblr user @fewger and reading a bunch of Oscar-related articles, I have discovered that I hold the semi-unpopular opinion that Moonlight deserves Best Picture over La La Land. So, I feel obligated to go to bat on this, so let’s have a chat, y’all.
The debate between La La Land and Moonlight brings me back a year to last year’s Grammy Awards, where the Album of the Year award was given to Taylor Swift’s 1989 over Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a move that shocked many. One hand, you had a collection of pretty well made pop tunes that can make even the most Swift-cynical person, like myself, tap their toes. 1989 was a fun album with a lot of celebrity gossip theories and some admittedly great songs. On the other hand, there was the magnum opus that is To Pimp a Butterfly, which blended together modern and older styles and used some daring techniques to paint a poetic, detailed picture of growing up in places like Compton while struggling with race, mental illness, and self-identity. In this album, Lamar provided a glimpse into a lifestyle that many of us will never ever experience or truly understand and was unafraid of showing the ambiguous morality of this life.
My, this is all starting to sound a little familiar, hm?
The thing is, it’s true that La La Land is a feat of filmmaking. Honestly, just getting the green light, producers, and the big budget it had was a huge task in and of itself. As it is, the musical numbers are impeccably executed, from cinematography to choreography to music and lyrics, and it’s damn charming to boot. I genuinely love and enjoy this film, and God knows I don’t like to knock Chazelle, whose previous feature, Whiplash, was an intensely personal experience for me. However, what La La Land accomplishes, it does with a pretty decent budget, whereas Moonlight accomplishes more with next to nothing. Hell, even the musical moments of Moonlight have as much, if not more, impact than many in La La Land, from the “Every N—– is a Star” opening (just another element it shares with Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly) to the heart-wrenching impact of “Hello Stranger” to the haunting moments created by the chopped-and-screwed score.
Now, let’s hit the two biggest, most noticeable (even to an untrained eye) elements of filmmaking: performances and story. Moonlight shines brighter in both.
In La La Land, Gosling and Stone have both achieved quite a bit. They’ve learned to dance in all sorts of styles, sing, and even, for Gosling, learned piano from scratch. These aren’t easy tasks, I’ll grant you, but when you look at the actual acting performance that marries these elements to the characters, it’s just not very exciting stuff. Gosling and Stone have great onscreen chemistry, but these characters aren’t a departure for them. Stone is basically playing a slightly different version of herself, while Gosling is just great at being Gosling. (And this is in no way me throwing shade at Ryan Gosling; the man is a damn delightful actor with incredible comic timing. I genuinely love his work.) So, there’s not a real acting challenge here, just a bunch of side challenges. However, this is the kind of performance for which the Academy goes crazy, where transformation is achieved through a means that is not really acting.
Meanwhile, Moonlight is built on a foundation of superb, nuanced performances from a cast of smaller parts. There are beautiful character interpretations from Ali, Monaé, Harris, Holland, and the three Chirons (Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes). These actors are directed superbly by Jenkins, so much so that none of the actors playing Chiron ever met before or during filming to discuss the character, but still play him with an uncanny similarity. It’s ingenious directing, and the actors’ work is transformative, moving, and worthy of reward. However, most of them, except Ali, will go without.
Now, we come to story, which we all know if the most crucial element of a movie. Without a good story, it’s not going anywhere. And it’s definitely where Moonlight proves its importance over La La Land.
La La Land is about a couple of privileged dreamers in Los Angeles who sacrifice relationships for their goals. Let’s be honest, guys: this isn’t at all original. I can think of many films, shows, songs, other musicals, even musicals within other musicals, etc. etc. with a pretty dang similar, if not identical, concept behind them. And yeah, we’re all dreamers, and yeah, we can all find something relatable in the wonderful feeling this film conveys of wanting to fulfill your dreams. However, the self-centered, self-praising nature of this film makes it an easy choice for Hollywood people, whose egos demand to be stroked and whose backs need to be patted. Meanwhile, Moonlight brings a cinematic voice to a kind of person we rarely see onscreen. We watch him grow, learn, lash out, hide himself away, and, finally, accept and, in doing so, love. It’s a gorgeous tale that resonates deeply with anyone who’s struggled with who they are, and Chiron is a vulnerable character within many of us can find something of ourselves.
Someone once said that all cinema is, at its core, about identity. Moonlight has a way of opening the audiences’ hearts and touching them where they’re most vulnerable. Its story is strikingly universal. On the flipside, La La Land, while perfectly executed, resonates with a very specific group of people. Moonlight is original, singular, impossible to categorize.
La La Land is for some; Moonlight is for all.
That’s why Moonlight should win Best Picture.