La La Land swept the Golden Globes and set a new record doing it. No other movie collected 7 Globes before, and only 2 merited 6 (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next, Midnight Express). This paints a huge target on La La Land’s back going into the Oscars – or more likely, on Damien Chazelle’s. If he wins best director there like he did at the Globes, he’ll be the youngest person ever to do so.
La La Land is a superb movie and its merit is splashed across the screen in dazzling technicolour. It’s technically perfect, visually dizzying, and directed with evident love. The one things that’s easy to overlook, however, is the screenplay. Which is why there were some raised eyebrows when it took the Globe for that as well. A movie like La La Land doesn’t necessarily need a great script, it just needs a bridge between big, magical movie moments. But Damien Chazelle offers more than that. He doesn’t just write characters who randomly break out into song and dance. He writes true characters, people who speak to each other with nuanced emotion, raw around the edges, honesty we can all identify with.
Mia and Sebastian are fairly classic types, starving artists. But the dialogue between them establishes them as outsiders, oddballs. There is specificity to their oddness that makes them jump off the page: she drives a Prius, so generic among the Hollywood set, he drives a classic car, that’s maybe a little like him, a little like the jazz he loves so much, finicky, temperamental, requiring work, not easy to love.
Chazelle lays the groundwork for the emotional reality of the film. The script earns it. When Mia and Seb waltz literally up into the stars, our hearts take the leap along with them. We don’t hesitate, we are ready. We have been prepared by the excellent writing and also by the fully fleshed characters brought to life by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. But we feel it just as truthfully when the relationship begins to disintegrate.The scene in the gritty little apartment when the smoke alarm goes off, romantic dinner burned, is about as grueling as it gets. And when we finally get to the climax of their imagined life together, the attention to detail pays off. If you’ve been paying attention, all those little moments added up to something. It’s Chazelle’s fluidity between vision and execution that pulls us headlong into this bittersweet romance.
Certainly, as a writer-director, Damien Chazelle pulls off exactly what he intends. Two other of this year’s nominees accomplished the same: Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins and Manchester By the Sea’s Kenneth Lonergan are both writer-directors as well, and it’s no surprise that they were Chazelle’s biggest competition. Sean was pulling for Jenkins, in fact, calling Moonlight’s writing “tight” – and I knew just what he meant. There’s no fat in the script. Everything is precise, the chapters discreet. As writer-director, he trusts his audience to make certain leaps with him, and these small revelations help us to feel a part of the story. Jenkins pulls us in by showing us not just who this person is, but why he is, how he is. By showing rather than simply telling, we have so much more empathy and understanding, and this depth is what we really respond to in Moonlight. The character is so specifically written that even though we may have very little in common with him, we recognize the universality of his struggle and for a moment, we can slip into his skin. I’m glad Moonlight was rewarded with Best Picture, Drama and in truth, I would not have been disappointed had it garnered Best Screenplay as well. It truly is some remarkable writing.
Manchester By The Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, is also a major accomplishment in terms of writing. Its main character Lee (Casey Affleck) is a man so paralyzed with pain that he rarely speaks. Every word in the script therefore counts doubly; Lonergan must convey everything with hardly anything, and he knows that because there is little dialogue, we are paying close attention to every word. Lonergan has the courage to present us with a very un-Hollywood story of grief that is not vanquished. There is no character arc, there is no redemption or triumph, certainly no happy ending. The script bravely presents us with the painful notion that not everyone will overcome.
The last two nominees were no slouches either. Tom Ford is nearly a writer-director himself, having personally adapted Nocturnal Animals from Austin Wright’s novel, Tony and Susan. It’s a very layered script, requiring a boundary between “real life” and “the novel” that sometimes blurs. It’s part psychological thriller, so it needs to keep a pace that grips us, titillates us, without ever leaving us behind. Ford deviates importantly from the source material, strengthening it in the process, at least in terms of film making. He sets it in a vapidly stylish world where the plot can work as a further metaphor for vanity and aesthetic, perhaps a nod at Ford’s own critics.
Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, a man not well known for writing until he burst on the scene with his impressive 2015 effort, Sicario. Hell or High Water is a smaller, quieter movie, at once a throw back to Westerns of yore, and a timely commentary on today’s economic crisis. He counts both these movies as part of a trilogy about the “modern day American frontier.” Sheridan never studied film or writing but seems to have learned his craft by appearing on loads of television shows, some good (Sons of Anarchy, Veronica Mars), others not so much (CSI) and learning to spot the difference between them. He knew Hell or High Water would thrive on authenticity, and he wanted to give the audience something to take home and chew on.
There are no losers in this bunch. Awards are subjective, and you may prefer one of these over La La Land. But La La Land is not undeserving. It’s a beautiful film that doesn’t take any short cuts.