While the nominees were just announced on January 24, there are already some clear-cut favorites emerging in some of the big ticket categories at February 26’s Academy Awards ceremony. For example, when it comes to Best Picture, it’s a three-horse race. When the Oscars inevitably run long and the final envelope is torn open, you’re only going to hear one of three things: “Moonlight,” “La La Land” or “Manchester by the Sea.”
These three films have been sweeping most of the smaller awards shows leading up the Oscars, with “Moonlight” and “La La Land” both taking home top prizes at the Oscars’ little brother, the Golden Globes. Even then, since the Globes have a Best Comedy or Musical (of which “La La Land” is unabashedly both) and a Best Drama category (and “Moonlight” is the best drama), they essentially split the Best Picture award in half.
This story about an aspiring actress and a struggling jazz pianist reminded me why I love movies, and why I love to go to the movies.
Writer/Director Damien Chazelle is one of the more dynamic young minds working in Hollywood today, and the follow-up to his Academy Award-winning “Whiplash” (2014) is as colorful and ambitious as it is wistful and heartbreaking, and you know what you’re in for from the very first scene — a huge song and dance number staged on an LA freeway.
“The idea was to sort of introduce the world and, I think even more importantly, begin the musical with as musical-esque a scene as we could possibly imagine,” Chazelle said in an interview with NPR concerning the opening. “Really try to announce our intentions right off the bat with a bang.”
While the ensemble numbers don’t carry the same intimacy as the solos and duets performed by the film’s co-stars, played brilliantly by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, they do act as anchors throughout the film and serve Chazelle’s purpose perfectly — telling the audience straight up that this is what the film is about; you can get off the train here or keep riding.
This is a gorgeous film to look at, there is an electric chemistry between the two leads, and the balance that Chazelle creates between hearkening back to the Hollywood musicals of old and the influencing of modern day sensibilities and situations make for one of the most fun and heartfelt cinematic experiences I’ve had in a long time. This movie is built for the big screen, and it won’t be in theaters too much longer. Make a point to catch this one while you still can.
“Moonlight” is just a special, special film. The care with which Director Barry Jenkins handles the subject matter of this movie is astonishing, and the plot is a story that isn’t heard or seen often enough: an oft-bullied African-American boy struggling with the urban environment in which he grows up, as well as some extremely personal obstacles that arise as he transforms from a young boy in the beginning of the film to a grown man by the end.
The protagonist’s story is told in three distinct chapters: the five- or six-year-old “Little,” the teenaged “Chiron,” and the adult “Black.” Each chapter introduces a new actor playing that same character, which you might think would make it hard to stay immersed in the experience, but each actor has a remarkable way with connecting with the (fantastic) supporting cast and the audience alike. It is the most seamless transition.
I can truly say I’ve never anything quite like “Moonlight.” It’s touching in the most personal way — even for someone like me, who couldn’t have had a more contrasting upbringing than Chiron. While I, and I’m sure many other viewers, can’t fully understand his struggle, there is something deeply human about Chiron’s life of hardship. There is a piece, maybe just a tiny piece, somewhere, that anyone can hang onto throughout the experience and when Chiron experiences even the slightest bit of catharsis, there is a heavy weight just lifted from your shoulders.
I had to make the trek to Athens, Georgia, to see “Moonlight” in a tiny, two-screen, independent theater (athenscine.com/intro.php) but if there’s a way to see this movie before it hits Netflix, home video and all the rest, please do it. We have to support art like this if it is to keep being created.
This is a hard, brutally honest family drama from Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan that simply presents its story to the viewer and forces them to process and ruminate on their own time, in their own way. There is no hand-holding here.
In this film, Casey Affleck’s character is forced to return to a hometown he left behind years ago by the death of his brother, leaving no one to take care of his now-orphaned nephew, played by Lucas Hedges. This pair, combined with Michelle Williams, make for an absolutely heartbreaking trio, with sensitive and subdued performances emanating from all three.
The decision of Lonergan to present his story in such an unapologetic and melancholy way is not going to leave you bounding excitedly out of the theater. It’s more of a “silent walk back to the car and somehow even silent-er drive back home” sort of affair, but that shouldn’t take away from the great performances and tremendous writing this movie is packing. At times, it honestly felt like I was eavesdropping on real people having real conversations about real events, which is a welcome change from the generic, rehash of a rehash dialogue we as movie-goers are force-fed so frequently these days.
While “Manchester” is definitely the outside shot to win Best Picture, I’m just thrilled that there are so many great films to choose from.
I know a lot of people don’t put much weight in the Oscars — and I don’t blame them; the Academy voters typically award the same kinds of movies year after year — but they do inspire a boost in audience interest (and subsequently, audience viewings) for the films that garner attention. That’s important, especially for lower budget films like “Moonlight” and “Hell or High Water,” another best picture nom that I wrote up a few months ago.
Whether you tune in February 26 or not, make a point to seek out some of these special films. They’re leading the pack for a reason.