To say it hasn’t already won the hearts of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences – and the movie scene in general – with its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations would feel like a false statement.
But if history has anything to say about it, a victory for “La La Land” in the Best Picture race isn’t a total lock. Cinephiles will remember last year, when it seemed the Leonardo DiCaprio-Alejandro Iñárritu vehicle “The Revenant” had all the momentum, before the journalism drama “Spotlight” stole Oscar gold in the biggest category.
“La La Land” is critically revered and audience-adored, and viewing it through the scope as a tribute to classic Hollywood, it would be a risky gamble to bet against it as the film the Academy names the best of the year on Feb. 26.
But here’s a case for the movie that very well surprise everyone on Oscar Night; at least, those who haven’t experienced it yet. Whether the Academy recognizes it as such or not, “Moonlight” – the $1.5 million indie project by Barry Jenkins that explores masculinity and identity in crack-riddled Miami – is the best picture of the year. And it deserves to be named the Best Picture of the year.
It isn’t that seemingly every element in “Moonlight” works so perfectly and cohesively that it feels like living, breathing poetry.
It isn’t that the film – somewhat miraculously, seemingly effortlessly – makes three very different, very unknown actors portraying one character legitimately feel like one person at three different stages of his life, a la Boyhood without the gimmick.
It isn’t that (well, ok, it’s a tiny bit this) honoring “Moonlight” as the year’s best film would serve as a stamp of recognition of its masterful nature, on a night when it will be very difficult for the drama to pick up Oscar gold in anything outside of the Best Supporting Actor race for Mahershala Ali.
It’s the fact that, while it’s so easy to watch “La La Land” and imagine it taking place in the ‘50s if you remove the iPhones, “Moonlight” is so completely in tune with its time and place and setting. Even as it takes place more around the turn of the century, its subject matter couldn’t be more simultaneously relevant and timeless.
In an age when historical dramas and Hollywood-worshipping throwbacks have become synonymous with Oscar bait, “Moonlight” instead represents something so different, so inherently human in its intimacy and relative small-scale nature that it’s almost a wonder it was recognized by the Academy at all.
The story of Chiron over three distinct phases of his life isn’t an easy watch, but a substantial part of that is because it’s made in a way that we haven’t seen very much before in film, if at all. It’s a hauntingly beautiful portrait of urban America, one that it seems we’ve been waiting on for a long time, like a distant stretch of land that we can see for years from the ocean before we final reach its lush shores.
There’s extremely little dialogue in “Moonlight,” probably as much over its entire running time as the first 30 minutes of “La La Land.” When characters do speak, Jenkins’ screenplay makes every word count, but it’s the long looks between them that speak volumes more the subject matter than any movie not from the silent film era.
Whereas “La La Land” tells a story of big dreams and the sacrifices we take to reach them in the brightest of lights, “Moonlight” contemplates much more basic urges, ones that are almost primal in their longing to answer a simple question: Who am I? And it does so without wasting nary a single frame, each beautiful shot as engrossing as anything conjured up by Damien Chazelle.
At a time when, on a political and social level, so much is being made about identity, sexuality, masculinity, and the interweaving of the three, “Moonlight” simply screams 2017, in its art and in its spirit. And it does so much in the same way “Pulp Fiction” is associated by so many with 1994, “The Social Network” earnestly captured the early 2000s, and “E.T.” the paranoid, childlike wonder of the ‘70s.
None of those won Best Picture, either.