On Monday, we will post our final picks for the likely nominations in the big categories ahead of the nomination announcement on Tuesday. That makes this my final Oscar Watch article. There are many movies that I could write about: Deadpool (making a legitimate run at some bigger nominations), 10 Cloverfield Lane (likely to score no nominations, but such a well-made, will-written genre movie), Swiss Army Man (much too weird to score any noms), or even Moonlight (so much to say, but I think my colleague Jake Hampton make address it tomorrow. However, we wanted to make sure that we mentioned La La Land, the current Oscar front-runner by most prognostications, before we finished our Oscar Watch series for this year. Likely, if you have listened to any of our recent Rogue Auteurs podcast episodes, you know that we have great affinity for La La Land. Coming from Damien Chazelle, writer-director of Whiplash, one of the tightest, most well-made movies of the last two years, and starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, expectations were sky-high for the movie before it ever hit theaters.
Once it did roll out nationwide, buzz began to build that the movie was a perfect combination of old-fashioned musicals and modern realistic sensibilities. That proved to be accurate. The first half of the movie is an effervescent facsimile of a joyous musical from the first half of the 19th century. The second half, while not quite pulling the rug out from under you, uses that more traditional first half as a springboard into something more reflective and, in my opinion, interesting. Though it does not abandon the musical format, the songs in the second half, as well as the score, are less traditional in style. There’s a gorgeous number late in the film that Emma Stone sang live for every take. It requires her to act, sing, and emote in equal parts. The camera is moving slowly around her and the lighting behind her fades out and it is one of the most affecting moments I spent in a movie theater this year. And it feels completely new.
The movie does not disappoint as it switches gears either; it just goes to a different place than one would expect. It’s a heartbreaking, moving, wonderful place, though. Damien Chazelle, of course, owes a large debt to the many movies he (knowingly and consciously) cribs from. But he deserves all the credit for the new animal he created. The film feels wholly new, like nothing I remember seeing, and yet with so many throwback moments and vintage-style costumes that 75% of it would feel at home in the 1940s. It’s fun and it’s exciting and it is actually about something. Chazelle seems to care a lot about the idea of chasing your dreams and the effort that it takes to achieve them. He waded into those same thematic waters in Whiplash and examines it from a different perspective here in La La Land. The end left me with the most dichotomous feelings. It’s soaring and beautiful while being melancholy and devastating.
And here’s where things get tricky. Like with many Oscar front-runners before it, La La Land has begun to suffer from inevitable backlash: “It wasn’t as good as people said.” “I hated the ending.” “It’s not really a musical.” “Why is this the front-runner for Best Picture?” and on and on. In some ways, it is a tribute to the roar of praise accompanying the movie that the fatigue has set in for some moviegoers and critics. On the other hand, that sometimes opens up an avenue for other movies to swoop in and steal the movie’s thunder. (Not a big deal this year, where there are other, incredibly worthy candidates waiting in the wings, like the aforementioned Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea). In some ways, it feels unfair, though. Simply because a movie tapped into something in the zeitgeist, it should not be punished for being the favorite. But such is the nature of subjective awards. Calling someone the “Best Director” or naming a script the “Best Screenplay” or crowning a movie the “Best Picture” of the year is an impossible task, especially in light of so many differing opinions. All the awards shows can do is let their voters vote and see what happens, obviously.
There are so many awards that La La Land is likely to be nominated for: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Score, Best Song, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, and the list continues. The reason it became a juggernaut is because it is an ambitious, fully realized movie that effectively renders the joy and pain of romance and following your heart. Damien Chazelle deserves all the accolades he has received for maintaining a glorious vision throughout the production process and assembling a brilliant team to realize it. If any aspect of the movie had fallen short, it would have stuck out in the midst of so much creative excellence. But every person and every part were up to the task. Besides the categories where it is virtually guaranteed a nomination, I hope that “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” receives a Best Song nomination for paying off the entire movie in one 4-minute song. I hope that Ryan Gosling does not get pushed out of the Best Actor category because everyone believes everyone else will vote for him. I hope that the production design team gets recognized for making Los Angeles look more beautiful and quaint than it ever has before. And I hope that Justin Hurwitz‘s score, though shorter than many of the scores it is competing against, gets a Best Score nomination for using leitmotifs more effectively than any movie in recent memory.
To root for La La Land is to jump on the bandwagon. But when the bandwagon is the coolest damn bandwagon you’ve ever ridden before, it just feels right.