After viewing La La Land at the Venice Film Festival in August, Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter proclaimed that “If you’re going to fall hard for Damien Chazelle’s daring and beautiful La La Land, it will probably be at first sight.”
Little else could account for La La Land’s meteoric ascension from critically acclaimed Whiplash (2014) follow-up to Oscar front-runner. Less than a week after the Venice Film Festival, La La Land opened the Telluride Film Festival where it received not one, not two, but three standing ovations during the course of its 2 hour run-time.
At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, La La Land continued to collect accolades including the People’s Choice Award – an early indicator of Oscar gold. A mere four months later at the Golden Globes, La La Land was still cleaning house, taking home all seven awards for which it was nominated. On the outside it appeared as though nothing had changed but under the surface La La Land fatigue had started set in.
The run wasn’t quite over yet. While Ryan Gosling went home empty handed, Emma Stone took home the Best Actress trophy at the SAG awards. The streak continued as La La Land took home five big awards at the BAFTAs, indicating with near certainty a full coronation at the Oscars in late February. These suspicions were confirmed after a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations were bestowed upon the musical giant.
All signs pointed to Best Picture. It was just a matter of time.
Time turned out to be La La Land’s biggest rival. Had the Oscars been handed out at Telluride or TIFF, there is little doubt that La La Land would have taken everything home. But as Gosling and Stone sang and danced through awards season, the honeymoon period drew to a close. One by one La La Land’s critics started to gain traction – did it really hold up on a re-watch? Was the ending really that great?
Audiences and critics started looking for an alternative. If not La La Land then what? After its release in early February, posts started to appear speculating about Hidden Figures potential, which would go on rule the box-office. The climate was ripe for an upset, now it was just a matter of which film could pull it off.
All the while, Moonlight waited in the wings and campaigned to be runner-up. Tucked within La La Land’s shadow, it reaped the benefits of La La Land’s criticism. Where La La Land’s characters were shallow, Moonlight’s were three-dimensional, where La La Land’s ending was emotionally manipulative, Moonlight’s was thoughtful and raw.
So why did Moonlight win?
First we have to look at how voting works within the Best Picture category, which is the only category that doesn’t use the “winner take all” model. Instead Best Picture uses a preferential voting system where Academy voters rank the nominees according to their preference. After that the method is a first-past-the-post system, which in this case is the first flick to surpass 50% of the vote.
After the first tally (everyone’s #1 choices), the accountants check to see if any film has reached the coveted 50% minimum. No? Back to the drawing board. At this point the film with the least number of #1 votes gets scrapped – it’s no longer in contention – and all of those ballots are now recounted using the #2 film in the place of #1. This process continues until one film hits 50% of the vote and is awarded Best Picture.
As Daniel Joyaux of Third Man Movies pointed out in his correct prediction of a Moonlight Best Picture win before the ceremony, the key to unlocking Best Picture is looking at which movies will likely get the least number of votes. Once the movies that will be first out of contention are identified, a prediction can be made based on what voters who liked those movies might have liked second best. Confused yet? From a numbers perspective, Moonlight won because it had more #2 votes than La La Land had #1 votes.
The second factor – the one that I think has gotten a bit lost in all of the kerfuffle around that big mix-up – is the depth and relatability of Moonlight’s characters and the expertly written script.
As a female caucasian 20-something, I probably fall more into the La La Land target audience than Moonlight. They’re both human stories – I get that – but I’ll be the first to admit I’m more likely to stick on Crazy Stupid Love than Boyhood on your average Saturday night. But – and here’s why I think Moonlight had the edge over La La Land – I was more emotionally involved in Moonlight and its characters while watching the film and, perhaps more importantly, in the days after having seen it.
Moonlight transcends its target audience through a thoughtful, quiet, and subtle script that builds and builds on characterization and drama. Take this scene in which Chiron gets revenge on a relentless bully:
I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of using quietness as a stand-in for depth in a character but in Moonlight it works. Perhaps almost entirely because when it finally pays off Chiron stays in character, remains quiet, and reacts physically instead of verbally. There’s no emotional manipulation at work here – no score, no dialogue – if you feel something it’s because you have, at some point, started to care about Chiron’s journey.
In comparison take this closing scene from La La Land in which Mia and Sebastian exchange final knowing glances:
This scene follows a montage of Sebastian and Mia’s potential lives together and unlike Moonlight it does rely on some level of emotional manipulation. From a storytelling perspective the filmmaker doesn’t trust the audience to understand and care about the implications of the main characters’ decisions without being explicitly shown. The viewer only really starts to realize how much they want to see Sebastian and Mia together after they are shown that version.
Because of this the scene from La La Land lacks any real emotional depth – the kind that comes from implicit storytelling – exactly the kind that you feel when that chair makes impact in Moonlight. It’s the basics of storytelling: show don’t tell. La La Land tells, Moonlight shows. Showing means you have something to come back to when you mull the movie over in your mind the next day at work, while falling asleep, while checking a box on a voting ballot.
This is why La La Land was never in real contention for Best Original Screenplay. It’s the reason why La La Land drew audiences in at first sight but ultimately fizzled. It’s the reason Moonlight came out victorious – because it was a slow burn. Each time you think about it, there’s another layer to peel away. By the time the end credits roll, La La Land has nothing left.
In the end it’s pretty simple. La La Land lost because it peaked too fast without the substance to maintain its pace. Moonlight campaigned to be everything that La La Land wasn’t and like the fable, slow and steady won the race.
Both script snippets were found here. If you are interested in reading more about the way that the Academy tally’s Best Picture votes, you can check out Third Man Movies blog post on the subject or this article.
The Guardian had a good article concerning the critical backlash against La La Land, which you should check out for more details. Articles concerning La La Land‘s awards run up to the Oscars include the following: TIFF People’s Choice Award, The Golden Globes, SAG Awards, the BAFTAS
All pictures are respectfully borrowed from Moonlight‘s IMDB page.