It’s Showtime: “La La Land” Is My Film of the Year

Shoot, now you know what’s going to be at the top of the Pantheon in my 2016 Movie Power Rankings.

What I’ll always remember even when I’m fifty and drooling away on my deathbed (I peak early) is the audience as La La Land‘s ending credits rolled. There were a bunch of old people and some teenage girls; weekday screenings during the daytime usually have a demographic that reliably leans towards older folks and I can only assume teenage girls were there because Ryan Gosling is the pinnacle of human perfection.

In any case, after a heartbreaking epilogue that stabbed at our very souls over and over and over again, there was nothing left to do but sit in an emotional haze, valiantly blink away tears, sniffle like a bunch of crack addicts, and tell ourselves everything would be okay. I saw old ladies literally suffocating themselves with tissues because they were so overcome with angst while the teenage girls sitting next to me kept gasping and muttering “oh no” as this tremendous musical ended in maybe the most bittersweet way possible.

Visually La La Land is one of the warmest films you’ll see all year. It’s easy to get distracted by the catchy and original musical numbers, stunning cinematography, intimate yet grandiose production design, and phenomenal chemistry between Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Gosling). You wouldn’t necessarily think of cynicism for something like this.

Yet it’s there nearly the whole time.

Damien Chazelle does a fantastic job in only his third directorial entry, somehow exceeding 2014’s excellent Whiplash, which one could argue is a significantly more aggressive version of this film. At the core, both films are about making it to the top, although La La Land chooses to wrap that core with a layer of romance while Whiplash flips off romance in the name of utter dedication to the craft.

There was certainly a fair amount of cynicism involved in Whiplash but one could argue there’s twice the amount here. It surrounds Mia, an aspiring actress making ends meet as a barista, and Sebastian, a musician who is passionate about a dying genre. She left college early to pursue her dreams and six years later she has nothing to show for it. He can’t hold down a steady job because he loves jazz so much he can’t stop himself from playing it even if it’s not what his boss wants.

It’s not a spoiler to say these two folks get together and they just click. They keep running into each other, which is crazy in a city as vast as Los Angeles, and eventually they end up in a great relationship. But, now you have to ask yourself what sacrifices are you willing to make for your own future… but also the future of your partner. The seductive tendrils of your dreams don’t ever go away, although Mia and Sebastian both struggle to reconcile with the reality of their situations.

Chazelle is a fucking savage though, because his idea of a resolution to this problem is to give us the worst-case scenario (that doesn’t involve death). And that’s where the second avalanche of cynicism comes in, particularly in the aforementioned epilogue.

Mia is happy. Sebastian is happy. But for the audience?

It’s devastating.

The genius of the whole thing is that the epilogue is essentially a sweeping retelling of history, a glorious case of what-could’ve-been, and that’s what makes it hurt so much more.

The violent intensity of Whiplash turned a lot of people off. They said it wasn’t realistic. I would say in this case, La La Land is one of the most sharply realistic movies of the year. To generate that type of reaction from the same movie that features spontaneous singing and dancing on a highway overpass, a posh party in the Hills, and a sequence involving outer space (!!) is not an easy accomplishment.

But, it’s the themes surrounding the story that make it so. It’s about sacrifice and love. Those two usually go together – sometimes your sacrifice is letting go of something or someone you love. It’s an eternally relevant fairytale with a sobering message at the end and it’s expertly packaged in a gorgeous original musical that is often breathtaking.

You should never forget La La Land is more than a musical, but you should also never forget how making this a musical instead of a traditional romantic comedy is part of why this is so good. For its technical excellence combined with a deeply nuanced emotional storyline (and other reasons I’ve discussed above), I’m declaring this movie my personal favorite of the year.

“Whiplash” Movie Review

Blood. Sweat. Tears.

After Whiplash premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, it immediately drew comparisons with one film: Full Metal Jacket. On the surface, it’s an odd analogy: what does a Vietnam War film have to do with a movie about a kid at an elite music conservatory?

One word: perfection.

While Full Metal Jacket focuses on the brutal process of turning drafted teenagers into remorseless, efficient killing machines, Whiplash focuses on the brutal process of turning musical teenagers into the best musicians the world has to offer. It is the pursuit of perfection, but also of leaving a lasting legacy – of being remembered in a future sea of forgotten and anonymous souls long gone.

Brutality must come with brutes and the R. Lee Ermey of Whiplash is veteran character actor J.K. Simmons as music conductor Terence Fletcher. He is always dressed in a tight black t-shirt tucked into black pants. He stands stiff and erect, with efficient movements like a Navy SEAL. He demonstrates a type of sadistic patience, weeding out the weak… but is quick to throw a chair at someone’s head when they mess up too much.

The dubious recipient of that chair is Miles Teller’s character, Andrew Neyman, who wants to be the greatest drummer alive (and still be it after he dies). Everybody wants greatness, of course, but Neyman (and Teller) put the effort into it. There’s a lot of blood – most of it’s real from the intense drumming – and there’s sweat and tears here too.

Neyman also sacrifices a girlfriend, Nicole (portrayed by Melissa Benoist), which is unfortunate because the sequence where he asks her out was so adorable, so sweet, it actually gave me a cavity. Alas, Neyman values his future plans more – a seething desire for success that is only exacerbated by his family’s general disregard towards his career path.

The act of drumming in itself is very good at increasing adrenaline and demanding attention, but director Damien Chazelle does an exquisite job in his commercial directorial debut. The camera is very active, with a variety of different shots at different angles and distances to visually stimulate the audience.

Whiplash is one of the first movies to officially enter the Oscars conversation, and it’s a strong contender. There is very real chatter in the air for J.K. Simmons to be nominated come Oscars time, although at this point, only time (and momentum) will tell.

There’s really only one significant flaw here, and it has less to do with any technical aspects of the movie, but more with the theme: practice makes perfect. Contrary to popular belief, practice does not make perfect. But apparently, Whiplash would like you to believe that, which is somewhat connected to the notion of underdogs magically pulling ahead in the end.

In reality, the real saying is twofold. The first is from Vince Lombardi when he said, “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

The second is from Bobby Robson, when he said, “Practice makes permanent.”

If you practice correctly, and diligently, you can certainly improve. But to imply that practice – no matter how vigorous – can lead to legendary status is simply a fallacy.