La La Land
Dir.: Damien Chazelle
Martin Scorsese recently said in an interview that "the cinema that I grew up with and that I'm making, it's gone." With the advent of widespread digital technology, there may be some truth to the fact that cinema is constantly changing. When films like Tangerine, a film entirely shot on an iPhone, can find their way into the filmgoers' collective subconscious, the tide has shifted. Nevertheless, for every innovation and for every ambition, there exists the potential for decidedly un-cinematic forays into the motion picture artform. Indeed, 2016 has been no stranger to duds or cinematic catastrophes. Films such as Fifty Shades of Black and Gods of Egypt—both films that feel like they were aged like sour milk and released fifteen years too late to be relevant—were released this year, proving that Scorsese's cynicism toward cinema is at least deserved, if not entirely true.
But I'm assuming that Scorsese has yet to see La La Land.
La La Land is an entirely different kind of relic from a bygone Hollywood era, but one more prestigious and timeless. With an opening full of vibrant colors and a great musical number that calls back to films fifty years in the past, but with no love lost for the era, director Damien Chazelle immediately shows his determination to provide an aural and visual spectacle, and this focus remains from the beginning to the end of the film. Through Chazelle's direction and screenplay, he provides not only an homage to classic Hollywood lore, but also an intimate story of following dreams, not settling for second best, and staying true to yourself in the face of an apathetic, uninspired world. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker (and this is only Chazelle's second full-length feature, mind you) this task would probably be insurmountable, but Chazelle proves more than up to the task.
The film tells the story of young, aspiring dreamers Mia Dolan (Emma Stone, in a brilliant turn) and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) as they navigate not only their own dreams, but also their growing love for one another. While Mia auditions for acting roles in sitcoms, movies and plays, Sebastian plays small gig after small gig as a pianist-for-hire. Both characters have big aspirations for their careers, and both struggle with finding work, but through their romance, they are able to find strength within themselves and with each other. Rather than taking the easy, Hollywood way out, however, Chazelle grounds these characters in realism. They fight, they are both forced to make compromises, and by the end of the film, not everything is wrapped up in a neat little cliched bow.
The screenplay is airtight despite its two hour and fifteen minute run time, as Chazelle not only provides insight on the nature of finding work in Hollywood, but also in the captivating nature of the dying jazz scene and the difficulties of auditioning for roles in a city overcrowded with acting talent and wannabe Ingrid Bermans. The music, rather than be all-encompassing like in Les Miserables, occurs at infrequent, but necessary moments. The songs help not only capture the tone of the film, but also provide levity to some of the darker, more dramatic moments. Both lead actors nail the musical numbers, as well as their scenes where they have to be a dramatic couple, which Gosling and Stone (who have been an onscreen couple in two previous films) have down to a science at this point in their careers. Both actors prove Oscar-worthy in the film, though I suspect most will focus on Emma Stone's performance, as she shows more range than she ever has on screen before. This is the best acting I've seen from both of these leads. I cared for their characters throughout the entire run time, and without spoiling the ending, I was incredibly emotionally moved.
The cinematography also strengthens the film's composition as a whole. Chazelle employs vibrant colors, brilliant costuming and immersive set design to make the film one of the most beautiful cinematic experiences I've had in a theater this year. Some of the dream sequences, obviously and blatantly inspired by Old Hollywood surrealism, are beautiful to behold, such as a certain dance in an observatory, and a flashback sequence towards the end of the film. This film smartly balances its music and its normal film conversations with these surreal set pieces, avoiding looking pretentious or otherwise overdone. This film's inherent beauty, synchronized with both its music and its visuals, transcend the screen, completely immersing the viewer. I was entranced in the way a great film should entrance you, and I simply did not want La La Land to end.
La La Land is a triumph of cinema, an instant classic, and further proof that Damien Chazelle has incredible potential to be one of the great filmmakers of the new millennium. In a year desperate to prove Scorsese right, where every celebrity you love has passed on, a former reality TV host has become president, and tons and tons of pitiful blockbusters and ill-conceived sequels and franchise spinoffs have polluted the cinematic landscape, there exists a beacon, a glimmer of hope from the darkness. This film was sorely needed, and it's a film that gives this critic hope for the new year, a kind of hope that even skeptics such as myself and Mr. Scorsese could find once again.