» Movies » Oscars 2017: Much ado about a thing

Oscars 2017: Much ado about a thing

By Raja Sen
Last updated on: February 28, 2017 15:43 IST
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The Oscar race is over, and here’s the good news: both La La Land and Moonlight are genuinely commendable and worthy films, writes Raja Sen.

IMAGE: Moonlight's Mahershala Ali and La La Land's Ryan Gosling at the Oscars. Photograph: Kevin Winter/ Getty Images

The best film won. Until it didn’t.

Or, depending on where you stand, vice versa. 

The Oscar race is over, and here’s the good news: both La La Land and Moonlight are genuinely commendable and worthy films: one resurrected a genre with grand razzmatazz, the other was the ultimate underdog.

Your mileage may vary in terms of aesthetic preference, but even if the film you were rooting for lost, this was never going to be an appalling injustice on the scale of The King’s Speech ousting The Social Network, or Crash beating Brokeback Mountain. (Honestly, merely typing those last four words still hurts, and I remember groaning about it 11 years ago.

The bad news is that by treating these Oscars like a two-horse race between a couple of diametrically different movies, we reduced it to something tawdry and unnecessarily competitive, as tasteless as a Presidential election.

It is all very well to champion one film and cheerlead it on, but the 'versus' negativity brought with it insufferable nastiness: to be with Moonlight, you had to be against La La Land -- and vice versa -- and the pettiness got unbearable as the award season intensified. 

Moonlight is a soft, gentle film -- a quiet, thoughtfully made indie, made on a shoestring budget -- where silences speak volumes and where a filmmaker plays poet. The screenplay is exquisite and I suggest you hunt it down to read it because, to me, it’s better than the film itself. While I’ve pointed to my issues with the film in my review, it is without question a stunning accomplishment for a $1.5 million feature to walk away with the most watched award in entertainment. (Actually, thanks to the dramatic flub at the end, it’ll probably go down as the most watched prize-giving of all time.) 

The backlash against La La Land has been moronic.

I haven’t heard one single compelling argument against that grand glitzy musical save that it is a grand glitzy musical, which sounds an awful lot like saying we don’t like Michael Jordan because he plays basketball. The preposterous notion that a white filmmaker can’t make a film about jazz with white lead actors is itself racist, for this -- as I elaborated in my love-letter of a review -- is not a film about jazz but a film about those who love jazz.

'People love what other people are passionate about,' Mia reassures Sebastian in the film, basically revealing director Damien Chazelle’s aesthetic belief system. Jazz is as much, if not more, about those who listen to it than it is about those who make it. And when the trumpet solo is truly tight, everyone’s invited. 

Also, if you think it’s about a white man saving jazz, you couldn’t be more wrong.

It’s about a deluded nostalgist who thinks he can rescue jazz clubs by building one. He isn’t the future but -- to him -- he believes he’s being pure. And in his world, with that intent, he’s being true to himself. He isn’t saving anything, and the film even calls him out on it.

Unobservant people have grumbled about the scene where Sebastian complains about jazz being relegated to background music while himself relegating it to background music, and this is not just intentional but fiendishly clever.

'This is almost immediately countered by a scene where background jazz takes over and talks over people,' I wrote in my review. 'Not just any people, mind you, but people sitting around a dinner table proclaiming a home theatre better than a real one.' This is a film, made a certain way, in love with experiencing things a certain way. 

The other broadside against La La Land I’ve encountered in many a thickheaded editorial is that it treasures dreams over love, and this to me is not just a truism, but a mission statement.

What do we choose to prize?

The important thing is both characters get to make a choice, and that’s what makes the ending perfect. I’ve watched the film over and over, and while that overwhelming what-if finale ripped me to shreds the first couple of times, it gradually felt more beautiful than tragic. The fact is that sometimes those who come along and change our lives aren’t necessarily the loves of our life. Sometimes their destiny is not to be ours but -- perhaps more importantly -- to help us find ours. Sometimes we need a rock to hold onto in order to roll. 


IMAGE: Jimmy Kimmel. Photograph: Kevin Winter/ Getty Images

The Oscars were, for the most part, satisfying.

I dug Jimmy Kimmel as a host, largely because he never tried too hard. He was sharp and sly, political in unsubtle ways and predictably Damon-baiting. While he didn’t dazzle with any genius at any point, it was clear he was around to have a good time.

This was the most slacker-like an Oscar host has been -- which is very different from the James Franco disaster -- and Kimmel hits just the right level of irreverence. He was infectiously casual, enough to make the Academy unbutton its collar for a night. 

I have already picked out the big Oscar mistakes and the top moments, and I even ranked the Best Picture nominees (external link) in case you’re wondering which film is second best this year. 


IMAGE: Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. Photograph: Kevin Winter/ Getty Images

Spare a moment, now, to consider how truly and emphatically weird things could have gotten at the Oscars. Imagine if Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had announced another film altogether. 

As I speculated in an Oscar podcast I did with Rohini Ramnathan and Sudhish Kamath, what if Warren Beatty had been given the Best Editing envelope, say, and Dunaway was made to read out the name of a different nominee, say, Hacksaw Ridge? Picture, if you will, an immediately belligerent Mel Gibson up there with his suit-sleeves rolled, brandishing unearned Oscars at helpless but rightful claimants, refusing to budge while saying all kinds of things about sugar and semitism. The mind reels. 

Listen to the podcast here.



Instead, we had grace from La La Land and gratefulness from Moonlight.

The big film accepted defeat and the little film won.

Ryan Gosling stood on stage and snickered at the sheer insanity of the moment. And why not? The sickening election is over, there is no more oneupmanship, and these films can now be judged for what they are instead of being pitted against one another. All is well with the world of the movies.

It is a world where absolutely anything can happen and, as Emma Stone sang in La La Land’s standout track, Audition, 'a bit of madness is key.'

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Raja Sen / in Mumbai