Oscar Time: Why Moonlight Should Win

…though it still probably won’t.

I’ve now seen all nine Best Picture nominees, and here’s my ranking of them (in tiers). This is based on an assessment of the film’s craft, not how much I liked it (*).

At the bottom is the “flawed film that I guess a bunch of people thought was interesting,” namely “Hacksaw Ridge.” The “flawed film with great performances” tier has in it “Fences” and “Lion.” Then there’s the big tier of “really good films but just short of outstanding,” and that’s where “Arrival,” “Hidden Figures,” “Manchester By the Sea,” and “Hell or High Water” land (kind of in that order).

It’s no real surprise that “La La Land” and “Moonlight” are my top two films. They’re the ones most often mentioned as the frontrunners for Best Picture. (I would put “Zootopia” in this category as well, but despite having one more spot, the Academy didn’t put it in the running for Best Pic.) There’s been a lot of ink about “La La Land” and why it should win Best Picture (it’s a beautifully shot, well written, outstandingly acted unique vision) and why it shouldn’t (it’s fluffy and not as substantial as some of the other nominees, it’s derivative, it’s a musical for crying out loud), and to some extent I feel like I agree more with the should than the shouldn’t. But the biggest reason I think it shouldn’t win Best Picture is because that would be unfair to the actual best picture (co-best picture) of the year: “Moonlight.”

“Moonlight” isn’t flashy like “La La Land.” It doesn’t have a romantic landscape like “Hell or High Water,” or historical significance like “Hidden Figures.” But it fully realizes its world as well as any of those films, both through its cinematography and through the relationships of the people in it. The movie takes the drug dealer role, which for decades has been a stereotype, and humanizes it in the person of Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, who is the favorite to win the Oscar for his performance.

All three actors who play Chiron are terrific as well, and the direction is incredible especially in that regard. Every performance uses cues from the previous one to keep consistency in the film, leading to little moments where you recognize Chiron from the previous segment. The ambition in the film and the success with which Barry Jenkins realizes it are worthy of recognition.

My particular love, of course, is writing, and the writing in “Moonlight” is outstanding. So many films about gay relationships talk loudly and openly about their relationships and their problems, and this is out of necessity: gay films often saw it as their mission to educate the public about gay relationships and communities. But just as Mahershala Ali’s drug dealer is a real, complex person, so is Chiron a real gay man growing up in a hostile environment. When he talks about his desires, he talks in subtext and in hidden meanings. And the conversations are so well scripted, full of tension and need, that a simple dialogue between two friends has you holding your breath and waiting for what might come next.

The story is necessary, heartbreaking, and very personal, educating without being didactic. It has depth that “La La Land” doesn’t, and while “Moonlight” may not be as bold and unique in its cinematic vision, it has a clearer, deeper messsage. It’s a wonderful movie in all of its aspects. It’s a difficult choice, certainly, but I think it’s the most deserving of the Oscar this year.

(*) My list of the Best Picture nominees (plus the one that should’ve been) in the order of how much I liked them is:

Hell or High Water
La La Land
Hidden Figures
Manchester By The Sea
Hacksaw Ridge

By and large this was a pretty good year for movies. Only “Hacksaw Ridge” I thought was really flawed, and “Fences” had enough great performances that I didn’t mind its staginess and slightly muddled story. And I’m pleased that Rotten Tomatoes’ weighted ratings agree with my top four (and almost my top seven; “Hidden Figures” counts as a 2017 movie in their listing so it’s not in the 2016 best of). https://www.rottentomatoes.com/top/bestofrt/?year=2016

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