Damien Chazelle’s celebrated musical ‘La La Land’ is expected to pick up wins for the majority of its record-equaling 14 nominations at this Sunday’s (26 February) Academy Awards – but should it win the biggest prize of the night?
A Best Picture win for ‘La La Land’ remains more than likely, with bookies still considering it the odds-on favourite, but behind it sits Barry Jenkins’ heartfelt drama ‘Moonlight’: a very different, but no less deserving film.
If Jenkins’ tale of masculinity and love in a tough Miami neighbourhood shocks the world and wins Best Picture this weekend, it would be a win of astonishing significance in numerous ways.
‘La La Land’ is superb (here’s an article I wrote about it in January saying just as much) but it’s also a very easy film to like and a very easy film for the Academy to reward. More often than not films about actors, Hollywood and the craft of filmmaking, such as former Best Picture winners ‘Argo’ and ‘The Artist’, do well, and ‘La La Land’ is in a similar mould even if it is a better film than those two examples.
‘Moonlight’ on the other hand is about a life far removed from Tinseltown’s $10,000 dresses and pristine red carpets. It’s a coming-of-age drama about a young gay black man handled with a sincerity and tenderness that paints a picture of life and life’s struggles that all can relate to.
Were ‘Moonlight’ to win Best Picture, it would also have a significant political and societal resonance, and not just because of its sincere relevance in a world that appears to be trying to make it increasingly difficult to find and be who you are. The context of its production, its release and of this year’s Oscars is important too.
The #OscarsSoWhite controversy that engulfed the past two Academy Awards ceremonies has thankfully not returned this year, with an encouraging number of thoroughly- deserved nominations for people of colour in front of the camera and behind it.
A win for ‘Moonlight’ would represent some form of vindication, and recognition of the contributions to cinema people of colour continued to make during a time when the Academy chose not to acknowledge their work.
The story too, which tackles a subject rarely depicted on the big screen (homosexuality in black communities) deserves recognition.
It’s a credit of the film’s masterful quality that protagonist Chiron’s story will resonate with everyone, whether they’re gay or straight, black or white, young or old, man or woman. It concerns an overlooked corner of society but tells a universal story, and that’s the point.
To put it simply, ‘Moonlight’ is a better film than ‘La La Land’, but it’s also unfair to directly compare them. They’re completely different. The former may not be as purely enjoyable – I imagine most viewers, including myself, would sooner see Chazelle’s joyful musical a second time – but ‘Moonlight’s cinematography is more sumptuous, its script defter and its message more significant.
One is an escapist fantasy about well-off dreamers that has just enough grit in its teeth to stop it being too saccharine, while the other presents an entirely believable story about real hardship in a truly cinematic form that accentuates its emotional maturity and heart-rending humanity.
‘La La Land’ may be a vibrant ray of sunshine the world needs more of right now, but ‘Moonlight’ strikes deeper, tapping into the reasons why this world needs love and compassion more than ever. This is why it deserves the Academy’s recognition on Sunday, but truthfully it’ll be a considered a masterpiece either way.