Seven years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences increased the number of places on its Best Picture shortlist from five to a maximum of ten (this year there are nine contenders). But by the time the ceremony comes around every February, the category has usually become a two-horse race. Last year everyone knew that the winner would be either “Spotlight” or “The Revenant”. The year before it was “Birdman” v “Boyhood”. This year the favourites are “La La Land” and “Moonlight”.
Neither is a dead cert, of course. “Manchester by the Sea” or “Hidden Figures” could still surprise us all. But there is no doubt which two films are the front-runners, so it has been convenient for many commentators to set them up as polar opposites. “La La Land”, a romantic musical comedy written and directed by Damien Chazelle, has been labelled a frivolous exercise in escapist nostalgia, while “Moonlight” (above), a coming-of-age story written and directed by Barry Jenkins, has been hailed as an urgent political drama. In the admittedly tongue-in-cheek words of Miami.com, a website about events and entertainment in the city, the Best Picture duel is “vapid fantasy v gritty reality”.
It should be noted that “Moonlight” is set in and around Miami, so that particular website may be biased. But it isn’t an unreasonable response. The hero and heroine of “La La Land” are gorgeous, talented, middle-class and white. One of them (Ryan Gosling) wants to open a jazz club, the other (Emma Stone) wants to be a movie star. The closest either of them comes to physical danger is when the heroine spills coffee down her blouse. “Moonlight”, on the other hand, is about a bullied youngster who is gay and black, whose mother (Naomie Harris) is a crack addict and whose father figure (Mahershala Ali) is a gun-toting drug dealer. His only ambition is to make it out of high school alive. From a distance, “fantasy v reality” seems to sum up the distinction between “La La Land” and “Moonlight” very nicely.
Look closer, though, and the two films’ differences become blurred, and the similarities, in form as well as in content, snap into focus. I wouldn’t claim that “La La Land” and “Moonlight” are identical, but they have far more in common than “Spotlight” and “The Revenant”, or “Birdman” and “Boyhood”.
The key point is that neither film is fixated on “gritty reality”; rather, they’re the work of artful, ambitious directors who are revelling in everything that cinema can do and other media can’t. In both cases, there are long, showy tracking shots, blocks of pastel colour, evocative nocturnal cityscapes, and startling editing choices. Both have dream sequences, and both bring that dreaminess into the characters’ waking lives. Jenkins’s use of slow-motion and eerie sound design is more akin to Terrence Malick’s lyricism than to the stripped-down naturalism of Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers.
There is also an obvious structural parallel: both “La La Land” and “Moonlight” are divided into distinct chapters set in separate periods, a framework which supports the melancholy theme of time passing, and of life taking us to places we hadn’t planned to go. “La La Land” flicks through four seasons in a single year, then jumps ahead five years. “Moonlight” checks in on its protagonist three times, first as a child, then as a teenager and then as a musclebound man. This similarity is most striking in the films’ respective last acts. In each of them, two lovers cross paths after years apart, by which point one of them has had a child with someone else. And each of them has the viewer praying that the lovers will get together again. “Moonlight” may not be a musical, but it threatens to become one during that final segment. When its characters sit in a diner and listen to Barbara Lewis crooning “Hello Stranger” on the jukebox, the lyrics – “So glad you stopped by to say hello to me” – mirror their emotions so clearly that they might as well be bursting into song themselves.
And that’s another of the defining qualities shared by both films: soul-swelling sincerity. I’ve praised them for their bold artifice, but this factor is balanced by their even bolder rejection of irony and cynicism. If you don’t get choked up by the frank declarations of love and the quiet examples of kindness in “La La Land” and “Moonlight”, then I feel sorry for you.
Neither film is standard Oscar fare. They aren’t historical epics, or inspiring good-v-evil yarns. They don’t have sweeping battle scenes or expensive special effects or tub-thumping sermons. They are both intimate, personal indie movies about young people in today’s America, made by relatively inexperienced auteurs who have turned their own experiences and obsessions into something radiant. Anyone who hopes that one of them will win Best Picture should be just as happy if the other one wins instead.