2016 was a bad year. The worst ever, some say. The temptation to stay connected with news of the ghastly modern world is constantly combatted by a desperate desire to escape it all, and there is no happy medium. Our collective need for diversions, entertainment, and comfort is at an all-time high, and the titles alone of the two most highly-acclaimed films of the year indicate as much. Both Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) and La La Land (Damien Chazelle, director of 2014’s Whiplash) are reflections of the struggle to reconcile the harsh reality of our environment with the harmonious reverie of our own unique dream worlds. That time between night and day, the space between sleep and consciousness, the jarring separation of the present world and fantasy—both La La Land and Moonlight seek to take us there while we watch our heroes slip and fall in and out of this space, and both succeed spectacularly.
Based on a college thesis play entitled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight tells the story of Chiron in three stages (with three fantastic performances in three chapters of his developing identity, “Little”, “Chiron”, and “Black”) as he grows up in War-on-Drugs-era Miami and copes with his toxic home life, relentless bullying, and the growing awareness that he is gay. Only a few moments of light find their way into Chiron’s largely wordless intake of the world and characters around him, and this defining trait of reticence further underlines his dissociation from them all. The film’s silence is as crucial as its dialogue (perhaps more so), leaving as much emotion and intelligence in the space between spoken words as in the words themselves. Two beams of peace penetrate Chiron’s disconnected world: the welcoming home of Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe); and the friendship of Kevin (also played by three different actors) as the two boys grow up together in similar situations but vastly different outcomes.
The film succeeds in some ways that only a film could—with effective use of editing, effects, score, etc.—but knowing the film’s theatrical origins, it is not difficult to discern its relationship with theater. The performing self and philosophical significance of pretending to be someone else, to become a different person, is of the utmost importance in the theory of acting and in Chiron’s story, particularly in the “Black” chapter when Kevin sees what kind of person Chiron has made himself in order to avoid repeating pains of the past. While the film’s supporting roles (Ali as father-figure Juan, and Naomie Harris as Chiron’s drug-addicted mother) have garnered significant awards attention, Moonlight’s ensemble cast is a pillar of its all-around success as it drives home the relevance of the story’s onstage origins—the stakes at hand for every performer in any live performance, the spectacle of assuming roles for an intended audience. The high strings, bass and piano of Nicholas Britell’s classical score elevate the gray urban landscape, enhance the movie’s natural grace, and make Chiron’s painful youth into something beautiful, almost in such a way that suggests the story might be best told as a ballet or opera. At its most dreamlike, Moonlight makes exceptional use of low-light, shadow, music, and color. Pinks, purples, and greens make up some of the movie’s most beautiful shots, heightening the quiet underwater sensation we are often left submerged in, while the significance of black and blue (in relation to race, nicknames, the title, and the unseen bruises—physical and emotional—of Chiron’s childhood) is not lost on us.
Placed next to a dramatic film as serious, artful, and heartbreaking as Moonlight, it is somehow both surprising and not surprising at all that La La Land is the other major cinematic success of this year. The two top Oscar contenders have already received or been nominated for a huge number of awards, sharing praise for excellence in direction, screenwriting, cinematography, effects, editing, and music, with La La Land attracting a bit more attention for their leading actors, costumes, art and production design, and Moonlight critics focusing on the outstanding ensemble cast and supporting actors. The differences are obvious: Moonlight is a profoundly moving coming-of-age drama, while La La Land is a vibrant attempt to revive the style of early Hollywood musicals; Moonlight’s cast, setting, and story is comprised entirely people of color and the LGBTQ community, while La La Land pays tribute to an undeniably white and heteronormative era in film history. At opposite ends of the cinematic social spectrum, the two films are complementary in a way, two sides of the same coin (which, if I were willing to go off on an extended metaphor tangent, I would say is “America,” or something like that). When seen as one entity of exceptional storytelling in modern film, these two wildly different movies work together to establish broader themes of what is shared among audiences everywhere, no matter what kind of story they relate to, or what kind of movies they see—themes of humanity, escapism, and the importance of the individual in such a big, aching, beautiful world as ours.
La La Land makes no secret of its theatricality. Allowed by the nature of its chosen genre to make loud and bold those elements of spectacle quietly present throughout Moonlight, the musical romantic-comedy is starry-eyed and lavish, knowingly sentimental and lovely in its excess. Following the narratives of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and nostalgic jazz pianist Sebastien (Ryan Gosling), there is no shortage of classic movie winks and nods to make abundantly clear the deliberate onstage and even stereotypical quality of its performance. Sebastien takes Mia to see Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) at one point, cementing its open Hollywood infatuation and binary gender norms, while Stone’s singing is reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe—breathy and in-tune, but secondary to her radiant physical presence. The movie is centered in that dream-state of imagination that renders hardship tolerable, that fosters hope in even the most hopeless of ambitions—and what better setting to serve as the backdrop for stories of those foolish, faithful dreamers than the urban embodiment of these contradictions, the real, physical L.A. L.A. Land itself, Los Angeles? The opening number (“Another Day of Sun”) affectionately introduces us to the character of the city in a traffic-jam song-and-dance which notably lacks appearances from either of the leading stars, following a tradition which may confuse and annoy newcomers to the genre, but surely delight those familiar enough with the rituals of musical theater to recognize the vast number of influences in the huge crowd opener, full of anonymous voices from people of the city clad in full primary-color costumes, dancing dreamily and dramatically out of and on top of their cars.
As in Moonlight, light and color play essential roles in La La Land’s successful depiction of people in the real world attempting to live in fantasy. Bright, solid colors represent those young hopefuls like Mia and her roommates as they try to make themselves stand out in a sea of other people trying to make themselves stand out. As Mia’s story and development as an actress transition from naïvely optimistic to serious and productive, so does her costume scheme change from intrepid blues, reds, and yellows to more mature blacks and whites. The association between dreams and water exists strongly in both films as well, with the same twilight hues of pink, purple, blue and green, often in low-light, to suggest without ever explicitly depicting (aside from Chiron’s meaningful experience learning to swim and float with Juan) feelings of floundering, drowning, being stuck inside a fishbowl or able only to peer into one from the outside. The camerawork in both movies is similarly remarkable: in Moonlight, for the simultaneously human and heavenly mix of handheld shots and stunning slow-motion; in La La Land, for the near-constant smooth movement of the camera, gliding up, down, and around our two young stars as they sing and dance through their story. The planetarium scene shows the film’s unabashed dream-state more clearly than any other, as Mia discovers she can step into the air towards the stars, and Sebastien neither hesitates nor looks terribly surprised as he lifts her higher and joins her in the simulated sky for a silhouetted waltz.
It was mainly the impending awards season that motivated me to try and write about what seemed to be the most widely-praised films in America this year, but I now find myself convinced of a genuinely meaningful relationship between La La Land and Moonlight and their overlapping critical acclaim. There is something to be said for a pair of films which can appear to be so different, so unrelated, so—literally—black and white in comparison, but which actually coexist in the same dream world, born in the same human imagination doomed to deal with what is often a cruel and bleak reality and find some way to escape it. Granted, La La Land is slanted more towards imagination while Moonlight is more firmly rooted in reality, but their inverse narratives almost strike a balance; Moonlight ends on a note of hope and contentment, while La La Land finishes with an unexpected disappointment. Both endings, however, are earned and fitting, each confronting the reality within the dreams that kept our heroes away from both delusion and despair and steered them, instead, into a constant state of possibility.