“Movies," Roger Ebert said, "are like a machine that generates empathy.” The dreams and ambitions that drive us are the common threads binding two 2016's best films, Moonlight and La La Land. Both films are significant Oscar contenders, but neither needs a statue to be "legitimized," as both movies follow those threads along very different paths to bring us into the lives of their characters. The two films are more complementary than surface readings would suggest. Each puts classic filmmaking technique into new context, together creating an empathetic portrait of American life that is more than the sum of the two parts.
Set aside obvious commonalities, such as a bold use of color and strong musical currents, and these movies seem like virtual opposites. Moonlight, a three-part story about a young gay black man, is visually dreamy but also crushingly matter of fact. La La Land — a musical in which Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play an unlikely couple whose creative ambitions collide with their romantic relationship — is seemingly an uncritical love letter to Hollywood. Ultimately, however, it becomes a study in romantic and creative ambition, with the sacrifices and failings that result from pursuing one over the other.
Each film is bold in its own way as each reinvigorates classic filmmaking techniques for new audiences. Some of La La Land’s major influences are obvious. Its vivid Technicolor-like images openly revamp familiar moments from musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, and Sweet Charity. In the film’s somewhat “realistic” song-and-dance numbers, and its attitude toward creative life, there is also a current of influence from a second wave of films — musicals such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and A Woman is a Woman — which reappraised classic Hollywood musical ideas for the more critical and cynical 1960s.
Moonlight’s images have a slightly dreamlike air about them and a tendency to frame characters in ways that emphasize their uncertainty. Yet it is by far the more “real” film of the pair — almost brutally so. Where La La Land deals with the threat of failure, Moonlight is affected by the very real threat of violence as young Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) comes to terms with his family and his sexuality in a community that offers little support. The film swims in the same waters as neorealist movies like La Strada and Bicycle Thieves, which offered unblinking looks at life after WWII. Those movies also tended to wallow in the poverty of their characters, which Moonlight does not do.
Director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton draw more inspiration from Wong Kar-wai films such as Chungking Express and In The Mood for Love. The slight haze of overexposure that characterizes Wong’s movies becomes a shimmer of Miami heat in Moonlight. The glow of the images does nothing to ease the threat of violence faced by Chiron as he takes tentative, wary steps towards the love he craves. With no support in a community that does not accept gay black men, Chiron is left to fend for himself in every way. He's nearly lost in the process.
Mia and Sebastian, the characters played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling respectively in La La Land, yearn for a creative fulfillment — the sort of thing that doesn’t even seem like a distant dream for Chiron. The cultures and communities of each film are separated by more than the miles between Miami and Los Angeles. Conceived separately, it is absurd to read one as a comment on the other, but the patchwork portrait of America created by watching the two films back-to-back is an unplanned reflection of the disparate classes of modern America.
Yet Moonlight and La La Land share common language, as characters in both films seek to achieve dreams that seem out of reach. These people all question the legitimacy of their dreams, even their personalities. The spectre of personal failure that looms before each is equally as powerful, no matter the disparity between their positions in American life.
The language of filmmaking, and the relationship each film has to the movies that came before it, draws the two stories closer together. We see these lives clearly, and whether we like the characters or not — Gosling’s belligerent Sebastian is a particular challenge — the experience is significant. Even Sebastian has something to offer as we get to follow him through the process of coming to terms with failures and bad decisions in a climactic musical fantasy.
Moonlight is more subtle and dignified — and to my eye more effective — as it depicts queer black men with a rare honesty and care. Moonlight’s power is in the way it invites us to peer around the corners of the film’s major events. Rather than diving into melodrama, Jenkins keeps his distance from some of the major events in Chiron’s life, such as the death of an important figure and the difficult days that follow the end of his high school career. It gives the character space to breathe and consequently to grow in our minds.
La La Land approaches its characters' ambitions with more familiar notes and texture, and the relatively inviting open arms of the musical form. But there’s a fragile bitterness to the movie, whether in the barely concealed irony of the opening song — which glosses over the potential for daily failure with forced cheeriness — or the persistent unhappiness of everyone in the business that Mia aspires to. (See the scornful auditions; actors arguing after a take as Mia and Sebastian stroll past; even the street murals in which movie icons are poorly painted as ugly, blobby caricatures.)
It hurts that La La Land mishandles important moments, as when Mia takes the spotlight dancing at a jazz club – perhaps a moment we're meant to understand is seen through Sebastian's eye, or perhaps only a bit of tone-deaf exuberance. But these two films are powerful together, in their bitter and uplifting collective understanding of American life from two divergent perspectives, and through the storytelling that can bridge the gap between them.