Despite railing against the obsoleteness of the Academy Awards every year (and the Globes and SAGs, etc.), I always tune in. This is, perhaps, the plight of the critic—to know that the Oscars are in no way, shape, or form a proper reflection of the best of American/English-Language cinema (to say nothing of international films), and yet, to be fascinated by the politics, predictions, and ultimate reveals of what the Academy deems “best” each year. They are pointless, sure; but they’re also pretty damn engrossing.
This year isn’t much different from others, in that we have a two-horse race for Best Picture, and a clutter of think-pieces following what it would “mean” for each to win (or lose). I won’t make any predictions here—our chief film fan has already posted his picks—but I think that the type of the discussion fostered by the two front-runners, Moonlight and La La Land, says more about what we want the Oscars to be than it does about the state of America films, or how the Oscars really impact our culture.
Both Moonlight and La La Land are great films. They are made with singular vision (no surprise that their directors are going head to head in that category as well) and offer their respective audiences completely unique experiences. La La Land is the sort of homage film that outdoes its originals by subverting and tweaking just enough of the original formula to feel new (in an odd way, it reminded me of how a younger, less-violent Tarantino might have approached a Singing in the Rain tribute); Moonlight is intensely focused, small, and personal. It’s a walloping film. Neither film is perfect—more on that later—but you’d be hard pressed to really argue that either isn’t good. They are both exactly the sort of thing that pulls in accolades this time of year, even if they couldn’t be more different. Which is what makes discussing them, and their competition against one another, so tricky.
Moonlight is the more important film. That shouldn’t really be up for debate. It’s an intimately black film about black lives, the type of material that rarely gets shown in any sort of mainstream, Hollywood release. La La Land is more flashy, certainly more “fun” (though that’s not exactly the point), and a sort of full-blown coming-out party for the talents of director Damien Chazelle, who already showed flashes of auteur-in-the-making with his debut, Whiplash. It doesn’t hurt that La La Land is about Hollywood, which is Hollywood’s favorite subject.
La La Land, Summit Entertainment
The line of thinking seems to go like this: a win for Moonlight would represent a step forward for an organization plagued by years of #OscarsSoWhite. It would be the socially aware choice, and more than that, it would validate the existence and production of films dealing with minority characters and storylines. A win for La La Land would represent Hollywood being Hollywood, awarding a glitzy portrait of itself the top prize and skirting any responsibility to address the social moment, or to at least acknowledge and partially rectify its apparent slant against nontraditional, minority-led fare.
That’s a solid beat to write about, but I’m not really sure it’s the case. For one, the winner of the Best Picture statue doesn’t necessarily hang around any longer than the loser, so assigning a social responsibility or significance to a win (or loss) for one film doesn’t necessarily mean anything. A few years ago, we had a showdown between a movie about our present moment, The Social Network, and more traditional (though not as bad as the blowback would make you think) Oscar-bait, The King’s Speech. Social Network lost, but went on to be the far more present film. The big example here is always Crash’s upset of Brokeback Mountain, the rare case where both movies were socially conscious, though Crash was more of a baseball bat of easy morality and sentimentalism, while Brokeback Mountain was a far more subtle, nuanced, and ultimately devastating look at its subject matter. Brokeback lost, but again, has endured far better than Crash. At this point, Crash probably isn’t even the most well-known movie named “Crash” (thanks, Cronenberg). We can also count the scores of classic films that were completely ignored by the Academy, and then compare them with the fate of The Artist, which swept everyone up with its charm, took home all the precious metal, and was never heard from again.
The point being: it’s nice to win the award, but your shelf-life and cultural relevance aren’t determined by winning. Looking at the history of the results shows that it isn’t that the Oscars don’t care about rewarding social relevance, it’s more that they’re just bad at deciding what the best movie is. This goes the other way, too. Consider Avatar, the thoroughly enjoyable and technologically brilliant FernGully remake, which has somehow outlived the vastly superior Hurt Locker, which beat it for Best Picture and seems like a film we could all do well to watch now, during this age of perpetual war in the Middle East.
Should Moonlight win, it won’t mean that the Academy has learned anything about social or cultural responsibility or importance. If La La Land takes it, it likewise is not a rebuke to black cinema, given that Moonlight seems far better positioned to outlast La La Land in terms of cultural relevance. How you feel about what wins is more about what you want from the Oscars, and the movies in general. Do you want something small, difficult, and important, or something crisp, joyful, and sweepingly classic in its romance? This boils down to what we go to the movies for: do we want to be challenged, or entertained? Both of these films do both, but their proportions are probably flipped in how much of each they do. The question that divides them, and their respective cheering sections, is this: When we enter the cinema, do we want to be reminded of the world around us, or swept out of it in a fit of fantasy?
Moonlight, A24 Films
They also each have their own flaws. Moonlight’s three-act structure, each third of the film taking place at a different age in the protagonist’s life, goes a long way toward building up the idea of a lifetime of suffering and struggle, but it also keeps a bit of a distance from its characters. There are sections—particularly the high school passage in the middle of the film—that we want more of, if only to dig deeper into an already incredibly realized world. La La Land’s faults are easier to see, and many of them have already been written about ad nauseam. Sebastian’s white-jazz-savior complex can be viewed in a lot of different ways (and there are plenty of articles out there covering it, so I won’t waste your time here on it), and the fact that it takes place in a Los Angeles that is extremely homogeneous in terms of race and class certainly doesn’t help. But the film has some other notable ideological problems. It has several chances to really subvert itself and what its characters want (especially for Mia’s character), but it takes the easy way out more often than not. That’s not a problem if Chazelle wanted to make a dreamy, romantic musical and not a rebuke to the fantasy of the films he’s using as inspiration, but it may rub some viewers the wrong way. Do we want suffering and challenge, or romantic notions of good things coming to those who keep auditioning?
For my money, Moonlight is the better film, though I can’t argue with anyone who prefers La La Land. I loved it as well. Given that Green Room isn’t up for best picture, and the rest of the field (including personal favorites Arrival and Manchester by the Sea) has fallen back, I’ve resigned myself to being okay with either of these films winning. Moonlight moved me in a way that is hard to do (my wife maintains I’m soulless for never crying during a film—and just so we’re clear, I didn’t during Moonlight either, though I came close); La La Land filled me with a sort of dumbstruck joy I wasn’t expecting. I imagine that Moonlight will last much longer than La La Land in terms of public consciousness (though nowadays that can depend on what streaming services get a hold of it first), regardless of whether or not it wins. What’s important to remember is that though we may prefer one, we don’t have to hate the other, which is what this kind of competition can encourage. (That is, of course, unless you genuinely hated one of them.) The point is to remember that this is all a show, and that regardless of what happens, you’re only feeling what you’re feeling because of what you already want from the cinema. Accept that and enjoy it, or just tune out. The Oscars will march on with the same irrelevance that they always have with or without you.