Prior to seeing Moonlight on Saturday, my two “best” pictures for the year were the rousing, throwback to old Hollywood musicals La La Land and the deeply affecting, painfully human Manchester by the Sea. Last night, Moonlight inexplicably (and awkwardly) won best picture, and I have to say that in the three horse race (actually, four, because Hell or High Water is every bit the film as these three), I would have been happy with any coming out on top. Moonlight, however, distinguishes itself from the others in a few critical ways.
First, let’s put La La Land to the side, not with short shrift, but simply as a “which one of these doesn’t belong and why?” entrant. I’m still captivated by Damien Chazelle’s light and vibrant revival of the Hollywood musical, but it is a different animal and one that I think suffered from an early over-exuberance that gave way to more serious and deeper fare, as well as a time-worn presumption that LA would be unable to resist rewarding itself (with the assistance of Price Waterhouse and a befuddled Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, LA almost pulled it off).
Hell or High Water was a sneakily political film with rich turns and deep roots , but ultimately, it was a heist and manhunt pic; Jeff Bridges was a derivation of the Tommy Lee Jones character in No Country for Old Men; and the film was as much about desolate Texas as the characters hurtling towards each other on its dusty roads.
So, my eggs were in Manchester’s basket. Casey Affleck’s tortured yet reserved and meticulous performance was one of the best I’ve ever see on film, and Kenneth Lonergan’s depiction of what a family means in its whole and then in its shattered parts, along with its stubbornly non-Hollywood ending and countenance, sold me. Best film of the year.
Then, Moonlight. The story of a young black kid (Chiron) from Liberty City wrestling with not only a forbidding environment but his own sexuality was tender and poetic. Also, I found it just a tad more interesting, in that it depicted a world and a struggle not often covered in film, and it elevated restraint and finesse to its highest form. While not as moving as Manchester, in part due to a more ambitious and necessarily distracting style, the films are very similar in capturing a character at different stages of his life, changed by trauma and haunted by doubt.
The film is also blessed by numerous strong performances. Though nothing approximating Affleck’s turn, the three actors who play Chiron as a boy, a teen and later as an adult all were deserving of the Best Supporting Actor nod given to Mahershala Ali, who plays the Cuban crack dealer who puts Chiron under his wing.
The quiet, unhurried moments in the three non-musicals are the ones I found most impressive, moments where you filled in the blanks and never felt even nudged to a conclusion or resolution.
I don’t know which of these films is the best of the year, but they are all great.