Most years, watching the Oscars is about rooting for your favorite movie and feeling vindicated when it wins, or sulking and thinking bad thoughts about out-of-touch Academy voters when it loses.
Not this year, though. This year, my allegiance is torn.
Part of me hopes “La La Land” wins all of the 14 Oscars for which it’s nominated (a record it shares with “All About Eve” and “Titanic”) even though it will likely end up with a total of eight or nine.
But another part of me wishes “Moonlight,” which has eight nominations, pulls a “Rocky” and scores an upset by winning Best Picture, even though it will probably have to settle for two or three awards.
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Here’s the thing, though: Whichever one of the two movies wins, I’ll be happy.
On the surface, “La La Land” and “Moonlight” couldn’t seem more different. One is a glitzy fantasy starring famous actors (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) in which characters break into song and float through the air like magic. The other is an intimate, soul-baring drama about a young man struggling to define his sense of masculinity and identity in a hostile, unforgiving environment.
But look closer, and you start to see similarities. Both are relatively low-budget affairs: “Moonlight” was made for $5 million, while “La La Land” cost $30 million — a much bigger number, yes, but still small when compared to the price of just the marketing costs of an average Hollywood studio production.
Both movies went through long incubation periods (six years) and are deeply personal works drawn on the life experiences of their writer-directors, Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) and Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”), who both happen to be under 40.
Both films were shot in anamorphic widescreen, and each opens with a long, uninterrupted shot that primes the stage for the movie to come. In “Moonlight,” we see the drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) drive through the streets of Liberty City and check in on one of his street vendors when a group of kids runs through the frame, chasing the scared and bullied Little (Alex Hibbert) into a crack den. In “La La Land,” people stuck in a traffic jam on an L.A. highway climb out of their cars and belt out “Another Day of Sun,” a song about the relentless optimism of people trying to break into show business.
“La La Land,” of course, relies heavily on its score to work its charm — the movie’s a musical, after all — but “Moonlight,” too, uses music shrewdly, particularly the symphonic score by Nicholas Britell, whose orchestral arrangements are a radical departure from the hip-hop soundtracks normally used for films about black inner cities.
“Moonlight” and “La La Land” are nominated for Original Score — another indication that Academy voters recognized the merits of both movies, and another example of why I won’t be annoyed by the Oscars this year, unless something like “Arrival” somehow manages to win Best Picture.
It won’t, though. Even though “La La Land” has grossed almost $350 million worldwide and its soundtrack hit the no. 2 spot on the Billboard album chart, a lot of people seem to hate the movie. They really, really hate it. They take to social media to point out how Gosling and Stone can’t dance, or how the songs are unmemorable, or how Chazelle doesn’t understand the appeal of the old movies he’s cribbing from, or that the movie is condescending and cold. Some critics have gone to hysterical lengths to tear the film down. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen people refer to the film with some variation on “Blah-Blah Bland.”
The vitriol is curious — it seems disproportionate to what “La La Land” sets out to do. “Moonlight,” meanwhile, hasn’t received nearly as much analysis or dissection outside of Miami, where pretty much everyone is beaming with pride over the film, even those of us who had nothing to do with its making. “Moonlight” has sold $21 million worth of tickets — a strong showing for such an artful, eloquent film that tackles difficult subject matter.
But not many people seem interested in discussing the issues “Moonlight” deals with, not even the Hollywood Reporter’s new hire Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who chose to focus his debut column on — yep — “La La Land.” Maybe tearing down a colorful, spirited musical set in a fantasy land is easier than reflecting on the homophobia and harsh economic and cultural plights “Moonlight” delves into.
Whatever the reason, forgive me if I won’t be upset whether “Moonlight” or “La La Land” wins Best Picture. Both are worthy, and both will endure long after the awards are handed out. The really aggravating thing about this year’s Oscars is the fact that Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” — easily the best film I saw in 2016 — only earned a nomination for cinematography. What’s up with that, Academy?
The 89th Academy Awards will air at 8:30 p.m. Sunday Feb. 26 on ABC.