Monday, February 27, 2017

Wrap it up: La La Land huge, but Moonlight triumphs to close out Oscars season

Writer-director Barry Jenkins celebrates onstage after his film Moonlight won Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Even after a night of sleep, it’s still hard to fathom what went down at the Academy Awards yesterday evening. Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ brilliant, beautiful coming-of-age story Moonlight took home Best Picture after an absurd envelope mix-up led to the announcement of La La Land as winner initially. We talked about the error a lot last night in the immediate aftermath. Today, I want to shift the focus back to the awards and the winners.

The biggest question is how the awards prospects of La La Land were so badly misjudged. Now, make no mistake, Damien Chazelle’s musical romance was one of the night’s bigger winners, taking home six awards, but its haul was projected to be much greater. It was nominated by and won with essentially every industry guild where it was eligible. It was widely loved. It was a box-office smash. It looked unstoppable, so what caused it to stumble at the finish line?

The most likely answer is the preferential ballot. Voters are asked to rank the Best Picture nominees 1-9. The film with the fewest votes after the first round is eliminated, and the votes are redistributed to the No. 2 films on those ballots. This process is repeated until a movie ends up with 50 percent plus one vote. The victory of Moonlight suggests that it not only appeared No. 1 on a lot of ballots but was also many voters’ second- or third-favorite film of the bunch.

Let’s take a look at how the whole evening played out:

Picture & Director

Moonlight producers Jeremy Kleiner and Adele Romanski with Jenkins
This is the fourth year in the last five Picture and Director have split. Once seen as inseparable awards – of course if you directed the Best Picture, how could you not be the Best Director? – the preferential ballot and the expansion of the Best Picture lineup have created a schism. Now, it seems like the most audacious or breathtaking film from a technical standpoint wins Director, while the most important, best-told story wins Picture.

In each of the last four years featuring a split – Birdman took home both awards in 2014 – this dynamic holds true. In 2012, Argo, a well-made thriller about nations coming together in an act of quiet heroism, took picture, while Ang Lee won Director for the visually masterful Life of Pi. In 2013, 12 Years a Slave took home the top prize, for my money the greatest film ever to win Best Picture, while Alfonso Cuarón won Director for the technically astounding Gravity. Last year, Spotlight, the handsome drama about the team of journalists that uncovered the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, won Picture, while Alejandro González Iñárritu took director for the formally brilliant The Revenant.

This year repeats that same split. While I felt Jenkins was the more deserving winner, it is hard to argue with Chazelle’s accomplishment in bringing an old-school Hollywood musical firmly into the modern age while losing none of the classical charm. Chazelle is a star on the rise, and I cannot wait to see his next picture, based on the life of Neil Armstrong and starring Ryan Gosling as the first man on the moon. I imagine another visual feast, well told. It seems likely we will see him back at this ceremony.

Jenkins, meanwhile, should get a profound career boost from this. His first feature film, Medicine for Melancholy, was trending on Twitter this morning. I doubt many had heard of it prior to yesterday’s ceremony. Eight years went by between Jenkins’ first film and his second, Moonlight. If the industry is smart, we won’t have to wait eight years for his third. I doubt we will.

The acting categories

Casey Affleck wins Best Actor for Manchester by the Sea.
These went precisely as predicted – Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) for Best Actor, Emma Stone (La La Land) for Actress, Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) for Supporting Actor, and Viola Davis (Fences) for Supporting Actress. Ali and Davis knocked it out of the park with their heartfelt, moving speeches. Stone was gracious and humble, while Affleck just seemed in utter shock. One of the best crowd reaction shots of the night came in the image of two-time Oscar winner Ben Affleck crying tears of pride and joy as his younger brother reached the pinnacle of their profession.

The screenplays

Jenkins, who was not a nominated producer on Moonlight, won his only Oscar of the night for his adapted screenplay, an award he happily shared with Tarell Alvin McCraney on whose play the film was based. Their speech was elegant, impassioned, and important. Another playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist Kenneth Lonergan earned Best Original Screenplay for Manchester by the Sea. It was a wonderful moment for Lonergan, and I know his was a victory many people wanted to see.

The crafts

Kevin O'Connell (center) wins his first Oscar from 21 nominations.
La La Land picked up four below-the-line awards, predictably winning both music categories, as well as Cinematography and Production Design. Elsewhere, the Academy spread the love at the expense of La La Land. Arrival surprised in Sound Editing, while Hacksaw Ridge pulled off a huge upset in Sound Mixing. Rarely do Best Picture-nominated musicals lose that award, or musicals in general when they are cited, but Kevin O’Connell finally made it up on the stage in another of the night’s best moments. The 21-time nominee is now an Oscar winner.

Hacksaw Ridge also picked up Editing, with the Academy falling in love once again with the big, flashy action sequences of a wartime action picture, and the Academy reaffirmed its love for costume designer Colleen Atwood, who seemed genuinely bowled over by winning her fourth award. It was the first Oscar for the Harry Potter series, as well. Suicide Squad won Makeup and Hairstyling, a deserved honor for the wonderful artists who went home with the award but a certification of Suicide Squad as perhaps one of the worst Academy Award-winning movies in history, certainly recent history. The Jungle Book’s Visual Effects win was well deserved for an overall underrated movie.

While I was of course pulling for Lin-Manuel Miranda, who seemed to be having a great time last night, in Original Song, it is hard to argue with a La La Land win. However, I do wish “Audition (The Fools Who Dream” had pulled ahead of winning composition “City of Stars.” “Audition” really is the film’s signature number. Composer Justin Hurtwitz won for both Song and Score, and Chazelle has to be happy his longtime buddy won for their collaboration.

Of the nine Best Picture nominees, three were shut out completely with Lion going 0-for-6, Hell or High Water 0-for-4, and Hidden Figures 0-for-3. La La Land led with six wins, while Moonlight finished second with three, all in above-the-line categories. Hacksaw Ridge and Manchester by the Sea each earned two awards, while Fences and Arrival went home with one apiece. No film outside the Best Picture lineup won multiple awards, which since the expansion of the category has been the norm.

Documentary, Foreign, Animated, the Shorts

Apart from Moonlight’s Best Picture victory, I was most overjoyed to see my No. 1 film of the year take home Best Documentary. Director Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America is a towering achievement and one of the finest examples of the form. I could not be happier for him and am so pleased the Academy saw fit to recognize this film’s monumental achievement.

Iranian-American astronaut Anousheh Ansari accepts on behalf of Asghar Farhadi.
While politics were front and center all night in host Jimmy Kimmel’s material, the speeches, and the films, nowhere were they felt more than in Best Foreign Language Film. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman brought home the gold, but the filmmaker chose not to attend the ceremony in protest and out of respect for his countrymen and peoples all over the world unfairly targeted by the U.S. president’s inhumane and frankly un-American immigration ban.

It is an open question whether the controversy raised the film’s profile in voters’ minds and made it the must-vote-for movie in the category over early frontrunner Toni Erdmann. The political climate, however, should take nothing away from Farhadi’s film, which is an astounding achievement, and its victory provided another of the night’s brightest moments. Iranian-American astronaut and entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari accepted the award on Farhadi’s behalf and read a speech from the filmmaker blasting the travel ban and exalting the shared humanity that defines us all.

Best Animated Feature was also a triumph for shared humanity with Zootopia, Disney’s fable about overcoming racism and prejudice, taking the award. Award co-presenter Mexican actor Gael García Bernal took the opportunity onstage to blast the proposed border wall, a politically charged moment that was perfectly in keeping with the evening’s theme.

Also keeping with the theme were wins by Sing for Live Action Short – a film about joining together to confront abuses of power – and The White Helmets for Documentary Short – another show of support by the Academy for the peoples of the Middle East. Meanwhile, Piper finally put Pixar back on the stage for Animated Short after a 15-year drought for the company. It is a truly great film, both as a technical marvel and a touching tale of parenthood.

The final analysis

Our last “final analysis” before we close the book on this Oscar season. It has been a tumultuous year, to say the least. World events have rightly overshadowed the cinema to some degree. I understand how for some it can be difficult to care about handing gold statues to mostly rich people, but for nearly half of American history, the movies have been there for us. Through two world wars, Vietnam, and Iraq. Through a Great Depression, a Black Monday, and a Great Recession. Through 20 presidential administrations and now a 21st. The movies aren’t going anywhere, and I don’t see anything wrong with celebrating that.

Moonlight is a wonderful winner, whose ultimate message of empathy is among the most important we could have in these trying times. I hope many more people discover this fantastic little film as a result of this award. Like 12 Years a Slave before it and Schindler’s List and Casablanca, its victory means something and will stand the test of time. The world is a disturbing place right now, filled with hate and fear and deep feelings of mistrust. Moonlight is a film that allows us to step into the world of another and love, not hate, embrace, not fear, and understand one another deeper than perhaps we could have before. In short, it is a perfect film for the here and the now.

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