William Hopper’s review published on Letterboxd:
The Unjustly Forced Dichotomy of 'Moonlight' and 'La La Land'
(Not a Review, Just Something I Had to Write)
Tonight, while writing this, I’ve just come home from my fourth time seeing 'La La Land' in theaters. And right now, 'Moonlight' is playing for me here in my living room— it’s my third time watching it. If someone were to ask me, right now, to decide a favorite between the two films, I would go with 'Moonlight'. That’s not to say that I find 'La La Land' to be a substantially lesser feature, I just prefer it a bit less due to some aspects of the film which I find mixed: the first scene has some issues with lighting (chalked up to the basic fact of it being one-shot and taking part on a real life Southern California freeway), occasionally shots will go in and out of focus (again due to a large portion of the film consisting of long takes), sometimes the main two actors just don’t sound as good as the rest of the (likely highly, highly trained) ensemble, and (in one scene in particular) the dubbing is off. My issues with the film stem from some of its technical aspects, which isn’t to say this is technically a poorer movie— in reality its probably one of the most ambitious visually of this decade. But it comes with the territory that a smaller and more intimate film like 'Moonlight' would undoubtably be more consistent, if perhaps not as obviously impressive, as far as its technical elements are concerned.
I only find reason in further expressing what I do and don’t enjoy in this film because of the sort of criticism that has been leveled against 'La La Land' in think pieces and Facebook arguments in the last few months. I've noted that there’s been a strange tendencies from these sources of comparing it to 'Moonlight'. I only call it strange because there is, in my mind, zero overlap between the two features. Maybe they in relation present some sort of deep shared 2016-attitude of sort, although I just don’t see it. If 'Moonlight' is a film of ‘the now’, then I do think that its fair to call 'La La Land' a film fascinated with a ‘back-then’. Some people in comparing the two flicks have taken this dimension to mean that 'Moonlight' is the progressive film, and that 'La La Land'— by mere extension of also being a major awards contender, is the opposite. I’ve seen people saying that by having a black man (his race, from my perspective, is not integral to his role) play a very slightly antagonistic character in a film that features a white man (again I don’t see his race playing any sort of aspect in the movie) performing jazz— a traditionally black art form, is racist. I recall a friend online sharing an article that argued something along these lines, and that friend demanding people to explain how they could ever enjoy such a problematic film. I’m not here to further the discussion on this subject, the subject has been discussed to death at this point, and now that awards season is officially over I’m just glad that I will probably never have to read anything on this subject again.
If there’s one negative review on 'La La Land' that I would like to point people towards, it'd be some of the comments that director Anna Biller has expressed towards it on Twitter in the last few months. If you’ve seen Biller’s most recent film, 'The Love Witch', you know her affinity for capturing not only the feel of a by-gone genre but its look to near perfection. Thus, some of her commentary on a movie that is very much trying to do the same rings seems very much warranted, even if I don’t always see eye to eye with them— writing “The few transcendent moments of 'La La Land' work because of the mimicking of Demy, and not because of any inner urgency of the script”, "the lighting in the opening number of 'La La Land' is arbitrarily lit, with half of the faces going black depending on where the sun is”, and, “'La La Land' creates unrealistic conflicts to generate an unearned tragic ending that simulates the tragic ending of 'Umbrellas of Cherbourg'”. And while Biller does have some comments on race in the picture, I find her above reasonings to be much more compelling— but then thats just me trying to shy away from this becoming a look at this subject as much as possible. This isn’t to say that I dismiss good discussion on the subject of race in respect to the film or to Hollywood movies in general or films that are and aren’t considered award worthy, but I find that high quality is sorely lacking in most assessments of race as it strictly applies to 'La La Land' at this point in time.
The point is, even as far as race is potentially explored in both films, I have yet to see people comparing each films exploration without demonizing 'La La Land' to an unfair degree. I want people to criticize this movie to the best of their abilities, I want to have to look at my held opinions on it and put them to the test against what others can level against it. I simply feel like people immediately jumping on the film for its presentation of race to be avoiding real discussion on its cinematic qualities, especially considering how extravagant those qualities are presented in the movie. Want to compare 'La La Land' and 'Moonlight'?— do it on a subject other than race: what about masculinity in general, or modern relationships, or how each film pays tribute to old classics, or maybe on a technical aspect like how music is used in both or what certain long takes represent in each. Tackle something like these comparisons I just churned out, add something new to this very heated conversation that can be argued. Think about it: Person A says “'La La Land' is racist, 'Moonlight' is better because it's not that”, Person B says “no”, A- “what about those characters in 'La La Land' though”, B- “I don’t see that at all”— legitimately, there is no end to this discussion at present time because the arguments I see are all just so flimsy and surface. I do however still think it odd that these two polar opposite films are being compared to one another with such angry fervor in the first place, but I suppose if there’s two films which are being treated with so much energy, it’s a good thing its two of the best that last year gave us. But I remain stanch in the idea that just because you prefer one to the other doesn’t mean the lesser in your eye needs to be described as the most horrible film ever. From a year that offered very little for me in terms of a consistent stream of good movies, at least we got two with a bit of energy behind them. Go to work, tear these movies down, whether separately or in comparison to one another, just do it in a bit more of an interesting fashion.
But like with all film criticism, that's just my opinion, man.