1.) La La Land
dir. Damien Chazelle
In my lifetime, I’ve seen maybe a few thousand different films. I’ve seen hundreds of tragedies, some of them pretty gut-wrenching. I’ve seen my share of horror, and my share of tragedy. However, with even the most harrowing of films, I’ve never been able to shed a tear. Not one. Not ever for a single tragedy, although I did come very close with Grave of the Fireflies. I suspected it was a because of a defect or something missing in my internal wiring. This lingered in the back of my mind for decades: Maybe there’s something wrong with me. For years, I wondered if I would ever find a movie that would bring me to tears. And if I did find a movie that could get me to tears, what kind of nasty sorrow would have to be on display to get me to that emotional point?
The reason why I preface my review with this tidbit is because the floodgates finally opened with this movie. The movie that brought upon my personal waterworks was not a violent, harrowing reflection on war, nor was it a deeply troubling introspective look into human evilness. The movie that got me after thousands of tries was a movie called La La Land.
Upon its first few minutes, La La Land introduces itself as a film that is light and fluffy enough to have its own opening number take place on the 105 and 110 freeway interchange. Commuters jump out of their cars into full song and dance mode. I melted into glee watching this. Maybe it’s because I commute to downtown LA almost everyday and sometimes take the same freeways, for I found this opening sequence way more exhilarating than most any other musical opening number. In Old Hollywood, this scene would have been shot against a phony backdrop in the comfort of an air-conditioned studio. The opening dance routine on this freeway interchange seems to be done entirely in a single shot, and if it isn’t, it sure is flawlessly edited. I’m astonished by how impressive it is. Consider how much money it costs to shut down a freeway and the strain and hassle it causes commuters to be delayed. It’s incredible to see how seemingly effortless the choreography came together here. Again, I emphasize it was done in a seemingly single shot. I never imagined the 105 and 110 freeways to be used as an impressive Fred Astaire type of dance number. But it works, and it’s lovely. This is a film that loves LA, even its horrendous traffic and bright sun in the dead of winter.
La La Land is a musical that lacks the overabundance of backlogged songs. It’s not a 4-hour Broadway musical adaptation squished into a 2 ½ hour long film. You won’t have to check your watch every five minutes and say, “Yup, it’s about time for another musical cue.” Instead, the movie uses its musical numbers sparingly like a spice to enhance specific moments of the film. Inside the film is a rich drama, but only on occasion it will use music as a punctuation. And because it doesn’t adapt anything, it isn’t beholden to having the story serve the music; it is the other way around here. As it was with Singin’ in the Rain, some of the best movie musicals are the ones that are specifically written originally for the screen. The film uses its camera aggressively, for it has just as much to say as the writing and the actors. We aren’t watching a musical that speaks only the language of Broadway stage-work here; we are watching a musical that is fluent in cinematic language.
The film uses a trope that is quite common to most musicals. A young woman comes to Hollywood with dreams of becoming an actress. A musician struggles with pursuing jazz, a genre that he feels is dying. The two serendipitously meet at an ad nauseum pace. They discuss their dreams, they support each other, and fall in love. All of this so far is typical of the kind of story that Hollywood keeps insisting on making. The place where this film diverges, however, is in the authenticity of way it discusses passion. It’s about modern young people who come to Los Angeles, who are comfortable with being a bit poor, and pursuing their dreams, while being overwhelmed with all sorts of possibilities before them. As a struggling jazz musician, should he settle down with playing more lucrative music, even though he lacks the drive for it? How exactly he is supposed to save jazz if its primary audience is getting old and dying? To save a dying medium, do you twist its contents and turn it to make it a hybrid monstrosity that can sell in today’s market? Or should you simply just let the dream die a beautiful death?
And as for the actress’s story, we get to see her perform for a sea of casting directors. She gives really beautiful performances which are suddenly interrupted by a director’s text messaging. She works up a quivering lip and gets tears in her eyes, then someone bangs on the door to announce the all-important coffee run. Her story is about humiliation. There’s no pain quite like putting yourself entirely out there in a performance, in a dream, or in a passion and having the response be lukewarm. I’ve been there, and it’s a beating that very few have the endurance for. To continue to endure failure after failure is an exercise in masochism.
And as for these two sweet-hearts getting together, La La Land is not so much a tale of star-crossed lovers, but rather it is a movie that kind of notices, gee, look at how many other paths these stars can potentially cross. It is about possibility. The sadness of it is in the roads not taken. Somewhere is the ghost of Robert Frost nudging these two to look all around them and see paths of leaves no step had trodden black. If Chazelle’s first movie, Whiplash, asks “What does an artist have to gain in order to become great?” then La La Land takes the theme to the next level and asks, “What does a great artist have to sacrifice to remain great?”
The movie dug deep and hit a raw nerve in me. I saw a lot of myself and my wife on the screen. I saw my own path, my own choices, my own pursuits, my own passions and my own decisions that I have made in coming to LA. It was all up on the screen and I was watching something very personal. It hit that deep nerve and just kept going. If this is the only movie I have ever seen that has made me cry, then I think that amounts to real significance. It broke a wall that thousands of other movies have never been able to breach. It was not suffering that made me cry. It was beauty.
Whether it wins a gazillion Oscars, or none at all, this is the film that had the greatest emotional impact on me. It did me a service that I have been wanting for so long; confirmation that I am not actually a robot, that I have real feelings that I can emote and express. I think I really confused the people sitting behind me, because I could hear them whispering, “OMG. Is he crying?” But to hell with it, I didn’t care. The movie got me to such a tender point that I’ve never experienced with any other movie. This is the best film of 2016, and the one of the few from my whole life that will remain the most personal to me.
The Whole List, from beginning to end:
- La La Land
- Swiss Army Man
- The Witch
- The Handmaiden
- Hell or High Water
- Hail, Caesar!
- Love and Friendship
- Manchester by the Sea
- The Nice Guys
- The Lobster
- All the Way
- Sing Street
- Hacksaw Ridge
Links to the whole list:
Part 1 (#20-16) here
Part 2 (#15-11) here
Part 3(#10-6) here
Part 4 (#5-2) here