Sunday, February 26, 2017



How easy it is to recall the past.  It's less a sign of growing old than of being human that we can recall the way around, say, our third-grade classroom, or the route we took to get to a high-school job, even more readily than we can remember what we had for dinner yesterday.

And then there are those even more fleeting images we never imagined would get stuck in our heads but are permanently lodged there -- the view from a restaurant, a scene we saw on vacation.  We could find our way down a street we traveled once many decades ago.  The mind lives in the past as mysteriously as the heart.

The intersection of the two is where Lion takes place, in the conflicted thoughts and emotions of Saroo Brierly, who has spent most of his life safe, happy -- and lost.  In an extraordinary true story, Saroo left his tiny, poverty-ridden Indian village with his brother, Guddu, one evening in 1986, and fell asleep on a bench in a train station.  When he awoke, tiny Saroo, who was at most five years old, couldn't find his brother, and started searching a nearby train.  Unable to find Guddu, Saroo wound up 1,600 miles away from home in the overcrowded, overwhelming central station of Calcutta.

It was the beginning of an odyssey that would lead to a Dickensian orphanage and, circuitously, an affluent suburban home in Hobart, Tasmania, where an Australian couple who knew nothing of Saroo's history adopted him and raised him and another Indian boy with love and compassion.

Saroo is played as an adult by Dev Patel and as a child by the magical, captivating Sunny Pawar, who carries the weight of the film's entire first half on his tiny shoulders.  Lion gives Pawar a remarkable screen debut; how he could have been overlooked at the Oscars is a head-scratcher, especially since the film, quite rightly, is among the nominees for Best Picture and Patel has been nominated for the role he builds off of the foundation established by the little boy.

Though he is initially perplexed about how he got where he ended up, the grown Saroo spends little time contemplating his past until a conversation with friends triggers the involuntary recollection of the images he has never really forgotten.  Almost as a dare, his friends suggest he try Google Earth and some basic math to see if he can figure out where he came from.

The idea seems outlandish and even distracting at first, but soon enough Saroo can think of little else, including his parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, or his brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who has never been able to completely recover from the horrors of his own stolen childhood.

Driven by his memories, he becomes obsessed with finding his home -- and it's in these sections of the story that Lion loses just a tiny bit of its momentum as it struggles to find some conflict in his quest.  He hides his search from his adoptive parents, who otherwise seem rather astonishingly capable of providing Saroo and Mantosh exactly the sort of support and encouragement they need.  At times, Lion presents Saroo as just a bit too noble, though Patel is noteworthy for his portrayal of the haunted, lonely little boy inside the seemingly well-adjusted man.

There's also a very worthy performance by Kidman as his adopted mother, who carefully but completely destroys every theory Saroo has ever devised about why they chose to adopt the two boys.  Kidman's role may initially come across as too saintly, but she has quiet and powerful scene with Patel that helps ground the movie in an honest and non-manipulative emotion, which propels it into its final act.

As good as its latter half is, Lion is really distinguished by its bleak, painful opening hour, in which Saroo manages to survive despite breathtaking obstacles.  Director Garth Davis offers a portrayal of India is both shocking and emotionally charged; when Saroo finally gets to Tasmania, it's a relief -- and yet his Indian life is so vividly presented that Lion makes it clear what it is he misses so desperately, despite the comforts and love he finds in his adopted home.

The tug-of-war the past constantly plays with the present is what makes Lion so deeply moving, and if its ultimate destination isn't exactly surprising, it's no less affecting, particularly in the ways it finds to answer the questions that have persisted in Saroo's mind for such a long time.

Adapted by Luke Davies from Saroo's own book, A Long Way Home, Lion sustains its emotional power all the way through to its final frames and even afterward, saving a heart-wrenching revelation for the very, very end.  Lion is a beautiful movie, and though we're already almost three months into 2017 its potent enough to me want to rethink my 2016 top 10 list.  But, then, I've no idea how to choose a movie to bump -- it was a strong year for movies, and Lion is among the strongest.

Viewed February 27, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, February 25, 2017

It's 'La La Land' for Sure ... Probably

La La Land is going to sweep the Oscars this year.

Unless it doesn't.

Which could happen.  Since the last time the Academy Awards were handed out, there have been weirder balloting results.  So, could La La Land get trumped?

Doubtful.  But the Academy's got to be happy this year, because at long last the Best Picture nominee list has movies on it people have actually seen.  The average box-office take of the nine Best Picture nominees is $71.5 million, which is a hit by any standards.  Movies like Hidden Figures and La La Land have passionate fans -- and, especially in the case of the latter, more than a few detractors.

But much like last year's presidential race, while emotions run high for some people, there's more than a little apathy out there, which seems to have seeped into Oscar campaigns, too -- so while La La Land's sweep is almost a certainty, there's still a little suspense; if voters do more than just tick the boxes along straight "party lines," things could get interesting, though truth be told I'd be in the La La Land camp almost all the way ... and I'm guessing Academy voters will feel the same way, with just a few exceptions:

 WILL WIN : La La Land Moonlight (great movie, I'm not complaining, but what the hell happened?)
 WHY?  Go ahead, carp all you want.  You can cite all the times Oscar got it wrong (yes, we all remember Crash and Around the World in 80 Days), and you would be totally justified doing so -- but La La Land is no Crash, and even if you aren't a fan of the film it would be almost impossible to deny the pure cinematic artistry of the film, and let's not forget that this is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, not the Academy of Movies You'll Like.  To me, La La Land is the cinematic equivalent of London -- if you tire of it, you tire of life.  If there's real competition this year, it comes from Moonlight, a movie of exquisite beauty and craft, which would be the winner in a year without La La Land.  And while Hidden Figures has seen deserved popular success, look for La La Land to walk away with the big prize ... and not because Hollywood loves to honor itself, but because it's a terrific, deeply felt, beautifully made movie.

 WILL WIN : Damien Chazelle for La La Land
 SHOULD WIN : Chazelle
 WHY?  He's made an extraordinary movie.  You think the lead characters are narcissistic?  You think the movie just steals from other musicals?  Boy, you're a tough critic.  Chazelle's commitment, passion, vision and sheer technical ability may still be relatively young (he'll be the youngest Best Director winner, beating a record held for 85 years by Norman Taurog), but why does age matter?  Talent does, and the one-two punch of Whiplash and La La Land is a knockout the Academy can't ignore.

 WILL WIN Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
 SHOULD WIN : Lucas Hedges for Manchester by the Sea
 WHY?  The way Ali's presence in Moonlight transcends his actual screen time is a testament to what an extraordinary performance he delivers, and he'll be a deserving winner.  But in Manchester by the Sea, Hedges provides both humanity and humor to a difficult, depressing story.  Casey Affleck is getting the attention, but Hedges is largely why the movie works -- he's both fragile and strong, confused yet assured, and his work is what ensures that while Manchester by the Sea is tough stuff it's always revelatory.

 WILL WIN Viola Davis for Fences
 SHOULD WIN : Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures
 WHY?  Davis remains largely quiet and stoic throughout Fences, a film I found too noble and steady to be really affecting, but when Davis finally lets loose and vents years of pent-up frustration, she gets the kind of show-stopping moment that Oscar voters love.  Her work on stage won the Tony for Best Actress, and since Spencer is a previous Oscar winner, the Academy's strange unwritten rules make Davis the likely winner.  But Spencer delivers even more engaging, more satisfying work in Hidden Figures.  Of the five nominees, Spencer's work is the most crowd-pleasing -- and the most memorable.

 WILL WIN : Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
 SHOULD WIN : Ryan Gosling for La La Land
 WHY?  Affleck delivers an undeniably great performance in a standout film.  His depiction of grief and loss is -- and this is no criticism -- almost scientifically calculated to nab the Oscar.  But Gosling does everything Affleck does ... and makes it look effortless and charming.  Those are qualities the Academy rarely finds attractive in male leads: Other than Jean Dujardin in The Artist, you'd need to go back to Lee Marvin in 1965 to find a Best Actor who received the award for a comedy.  Both of these are challenging, sometimes unlikeable characters made fascinating by the work of the actors who inhabit them.

 WILL WIN : Emma Stone for La La Land
 SHOULD WIN : Natalie Portman for Jackie
 WHY?  It may sound sexist -- and there's probably a lot of truth to that -- but singing, dancing and laughing are apparently just a lot more deserving of awards by a woman than by a man.  Which isn't to say Stone shouldn't get the Oscar for exactly the same reasons Gosling should.  She is beyond wonderful in La La Land.  But this is a tough category, and my vote would go to Portman, whose performance is not nearly as appealing but succeeds in the near-impossible task of getting us to consider a historical figure in a way we never have before.  Portman's Jacqueline Kennedy is a tragic heroine, a woman who had to put aside her own grief, pain and disbelief for the sake of the greater good, and Portman creates a complex, haunting figure.

 WILL WIN : Moonlight
 SHOULD WIN Moonlight
 WHY?  The Academy isn't known for rewarding risk takers, so this is a satisfying choice.  Moonlight bends the rules of standard story structure and character development to deliver an unexpected result, a visually beautiful and thematically lyrical exploration of growing up and letting go that examines a character not normally even acknowledged by Hollywod -- a poor, black, gay man -- and finds something in his life that almost anyone can identify with.  Moonlight is a stunner, a movie that the Academy rightfully wants to recognize, and will with this award.  All five nominees are deserving, but Moonlight stands out for its innovation ... and for its soul.

 WILL WIN  Manchester by the Sea
 WHY?  In addition to Casey Affleck's fine central performance, the Academy will honor Manchester by the Sea's considerable impact by acknowledging its screenplay, which is not a bad way to do things.  La La Land is a more complex blend of story, dialogue, lyrics and visuals, but it's going to get enough awards this year -- Manchester by the Sea is a more conventional choice.

 WILL WIN : Zootopia
 SHOULD WIN Kubo and the Two Strings
 WHY?  Zootopia has been sweeping most of the animation awards for a reason: It's adorable and it's got a surprisingly sophisticated storyline with some pointed observations about racism and sexism.  Plus it's adorable.  In an average year, it would be a slam-dunk, but this hasn't been an average year.  Kubo and the Two Strings is a grand and glorious adventure, one that sets a new standard for visual inventiveness, engaging both the heart and the mind with an exploration of memory and grief that is as complex and rewarding as just about any film this year.


Best Foreign Language FilmThe Salesman

Best Documentary Feature13th O.J. Made in America

Best Documentary Short Subject Extremis The White Helmets

Best Costume DesignLa La Land Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Best Film EditingLa La Land Hacksaw Ridge

Best Cinematography La La Land

Best Makeup/Hair Styling A Man Called Ove Suicide Squad

Best Original Score: Justin Hurwitz, La La Land

Best Original Song"City of Stars," La La Land

Best Sound Editing Hacksaw Ridge Arrival

Best Sound Mixing: La La Land Hacksaw Ridge

Best Visual EffectsThe Jungle Book

Best Production Design La La Land

Best Animated Short Film Pearl Piper

Best Live Action Short FilmEnnemis Intérieurs Sing

Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Toni Erdmann"


It's easy to understand why Hollywood has already announced that it will remake Toni Erdmann with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig.  Here's the much-sought-after one-sentence "logline" for the movie:

An aging hippy father shocks his uptight, successful executive daughter by paying her an unannounced visit, fooling her friends and co-workers into thinking he's a high-end "life coach" while teaching her that the greatest lesson life has to offer is how to be yourself.

That's the movie Hollywood wants to make, and somewhere within its long, strange, meandering running time of nearly three hours, that movie could be buried deep within Toni Erdmann.  Then again, it might not, it's really impossible to say.

The original, German version of Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade, is not like Hollywood movies.  It's not really like most movies at all, though the one it comes closest to resembling is Sofia Coppola's luminous Lost in Translation, which has the thinnest of plots grafted on to moments of observation and insight.

If Toni Erdmann feels so often (and it does) like it is going nowhere and isn't quite sure how to get there, the measure of its success comes as it begins winding down, when the movie shocks you by making you realize just how much you have come to know its carefully created, but oddly aloof, set of characters.  Several of them come together buck-naked in a sleek Romanian apartment, where they're confronted by a massive, hairy cross between Bigfoot and a yak.  If that description sounds out-of-the-norm, wait until you see how the scene plays out -- and how sensical it all seems under the circumstances.

The reason all the characters are naked is that their host, the professionally severe Ines Condradi (Sandra Hüller), has decided that instead of trying so damned hard to make everything right, she's just going to let it all hang out.  It's very unlike Ines to try something so radical, but that's the influence of her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a man who's always been prone to practical jokes and goofy dollar-store costumes, but whose own sense of purpose and self is at a crisis point.

Ines is living in Bucharest, Romania, where she works as a consultant to help oil companies fire redundant employees.  She likes her work, and is good at it, but it's the kind of job that requires her to be Ines the Consultant at all times, and never Ines the Person -- and it's gotten to the point that Ines doesn't know who the latter is anymore.  In a corporate environment dominated by men, she's managed to become dominant, or pretty close to it.  She can see her father's unexpected visit only through her own irritated eyes -- and barely notices when her most important client takes a liking to the man.

Maybe he senses that he can help her professionally, or maybe he's just a crazy old man, but whatever the reason, Winfried stays in town without telling her.  Instead, he adopts a new persona: Toni Erdmann, frazzle-haired, buck-toothed life-coach to the executive jet set.  None of them buy it, but none of them quite know who he is, either.  He's just always kind of ... around.  And Ines doesn't unmask him: What could she say?  "Hey, boss and big new client, this is actually my dad, he's really crazy and I apologize for him?"  She lets him stick around.  And he keeps insinuating himself in her life and work in brazen ways.

The interesting thing I find writing about Toni Erdmann is that trying to piece it all together makes it sound like there's a plot, and I guess there is, you just don't really notice it while it's happening.  There are scenes about Ines's need for sexual control, and about the way she is trying to be a better and less stern kind of boss.  There are scenes in which she and Winfried try to reconcile their estrangement, and others in which she uses him as a strange sort of stage prop during a key meeting.  And then there's one very uncomfortable, but also very funny, scene in which father and daughter essentially crash a Romanian Easter party and Ines sings a karaoke version of "The Greatest Love of All" by Whitney Houston.

When it's over, she runs out of the room.  She has performed valiantly and done what her father asked, but now she doesn't want to share the same space with him.  And as so often happens in Toni Erdmann the conflict isn't resolved, the scene doesn't as much finish as simply end.  We're left to sort out our own feelings about what we've just seen.

Even its big climactic scene, in which Winfried dresses up in that huge sasquatch costume and Ines chases him through a park doesn't go for any specific emotion.  Like the rest of the film, it sets up the action and observes the results ... but doesn't try to play them for particular sorts of sentiment.  What you think of the decisions the characters make is largely up to you.  That holds true to the very final shot of Toni Erdmann, which comes after a scene of surprising warmth, compassion and happiness, and then leaves the audience not knowing quite what happened or what it meant.

Toni Erdmann doesn't want to force its own emotions on you.  It is an exercise in watching a sort of modernized cinema verité, in which what happens on the screen is more important than how the filmmakers explain or define it.

Toni Erdmann ends with a scene that makes utterly no attempt to tell you what it's supposed to mean. But everyone who sees it will have the same visceral reaction, and everyone who has that reaction will have the same emotional response.  And that is the real accomplishment of the film -- that after nearly three bewildering hours in which no character behaves (or even misbehaves) quite as we expect, in which the plot never takes us quite where we thought it would go, that after all that, it proves to have been so confident in its handling, so fully aware of its meaning that its final two or three shots combine to make an ending that rivals the muffled-whispers scene in Lost in Translation.

What exactly Ines and Winfried are trying to say to each other, just how much they are willing to be what the other one is hoping they they have become, is left up in the air.  Instead, we see Ines in her half-smile, and no one -- not the audience and not Ines herself -- is entirely certain that that expression means.

Toni Erdmann isn't sure what any of it means, I think.  And that, after two and a half hours or wandering around with its two leading characters, is what makes it work as well as it does.  No, we can't be sure what the meaning is, but we are reasonably confident we know whatever it is that will happen next, because we've gotten to know these characters.  We've even seen them naked.  And you know the old business joke: When you imagine everyone naked, you see all their shortcomings.  They've all got them.  Toni Erdmann takes it one step further: We see everything these characters have to offer, we see their shortcomings ... and we like them anyway.

If that doesn't tell you how deeply a film has met its goal of having you relate to its characters and come to regard them as real, dimensional people, then maybe nothing does.

Viewed Feb. 18, 2017 -- Laemmle NoHo 7


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Favorite Films: "Chariots of Fire"


If you know Chariots of Fire at all, you know its musical score by Vangelis, which transcended the movie and became one of the cultural touchstones of the early 1980s.  And you've probably seen the slow-motion images of the men running on the beach accompanied by that lushly synthesized music, which means you know, at the very least, that it's a movie about running.

But Chariots of Fire is about running only in the way that La La Land is about Hollywood or 2001: A Space Odyssey is about astronauts -- that is, don't mistake the its surface-level subject for its deeper meaning and its emotional core.

Chariots of Fire is a film I hadn't seen in many, many years.  As a teenager it had an outsized influence on me because of the way it regards passion, motivation and drive.  I saw it four or five times in the movie theater, and I don't imagine that its overt themes of religious faith and national identity mattered much to me.  Of its two main characters, I was more drawn to Harold Abrahams, the Jewish aristocrat who runs for reasons he doesn't fully understand.

Of course Abrahams, played by Ben Cross, comprehends that he runs simply because he can, because it is his talent.  But he harbors a lot of bitter resentment about the way Jews are treated in British society, and running becomes a sort of rebellion for him.  As a student at Cambridge University, he's accepted by the ruling class only to a certain extent, and throughout Chariots of Fire, Abrahams has something to prove.  His fire and drive are what drew me in way back then, and what I remembered most about the movie.

The other side to Chariots of Fire seemed, back then, to be the softer, less interesting side: the story of Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), the Christian missionary who treated his speed and athleticism as gifs from God, and who committed himself to running even above religion -- but only to a point.  During the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where Chariots of Fire reaches its climax, Liddell refused to run a key race because it took place on a Sunday, the holy day.  It becomes a test of and testament to his faith that he steadfastly refuses, even when the Prince of Wales basically commands him to change his mind.

Liddell's stunning adherence to his beliefs is, all these years later, what most captivates me about Chariots of Fire, especially living in a time when religion is used for many reasons, but rarely, it seems, for its primary purpose of enlightenment and praise.  It seems hard to argue that religion has become, to use a popular phrase, weaponized, but Chariots of Fire is a potent reminder of how the faithful can affect the world in less confrontational ways.

Chariots of Fire is a singular sort of cinematic achievement, a movie that can't be replicated, either for its beauty or for its bold and impressive commitment to its central theme of individual achievement to fulfill a greater good.  Every one of the runners in the film -- there are sharply drawn, though lesser, characters than Liddell and Abrahams -- recognizes that the singular glory of winning is less important for the individual than for the identity of England or, really, of the world.  Chariots of Fire was made near the beginning of the now global obsession with sports celebrities, and it finds a great deal to admire about the time when there were ambitions that exceeded individual success. The film frames itself as a mournful elegy to a lost time; it's aware of how much has changed.

That Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for Best Picture still takes many people by surprise.  It's the opposite of a "Hollywood" film in almost every regard, especially in the stylistic ways director Hugh Hudson tells the story.  Chariots of Fire requires patience and attention throughout, sometimes only alluding to key plot points, or relaying them through lines of dialogue that seem almost off-handed. One of its most important lines is easily overlooked: Liddell, addressing a group of his admirers, asks "Where does the power come from to see the race to its end?" then pauses and answers the question: "From within."

Chariots of Fire doesn't dwell on that moment or even push it particularly hard -- the film anticipates a certain level of intelligence from its audience, and it rewards that intelligence by being tightly structured, and beautifully written and acted.  Charleson and Cross convey such determination, such commitment to their chosen causes -- and to their shared cause of glory for their country -- that they convey the movie's strong sense of grace and dignity effortlessly.

Chariots of Fire continues to impress.  It's a film that deserves rediscovery, one that is more than 35 years old but hasn't aged at all -- even its much-parodied theme song still works beautifully.  Chariots of Fire grows richer with age.  It seems entirely fitting that its own fond and melancholy look back at two men who were filled with the courage of their convictions has turned it, over time, into a film that is defined by its own.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Catching Up: "Captain Fantastic"


Instead of celebrating Christmas, the Cash family celebrates the birthday of liberal linguist Noam Chomsky.  The smallest among them, who is about seven years old, reads The Joy of Sex, while the oldest celebrates his 18th birthday by stalking and killing a deer, which becomes their dinner feast.

They live together in the vast and mountainous forests of Washington state, where many years the father and the mother decided to spurn the ways of modern society and raise their family away from the rest of the world.

When Captain Fantastic opens, the family seems more or less happy and well-adjusted under the leadership of their father, Ben, who's played by Viggo Mortensen in a role that is perfect for him.  Mortensen has always seemed like a free spirit, a borderline hippy, the kind of actor and artist who wants to be able to express himself freely in every part of his life.  That's the kind of character Ben is -- but there are some strange things going on, like the military precision he uses on his kids.  They seem less like children than experiments.  And there's the question of what happened to his wife, who is missing.

Her absence, it turns out, is what gets the story going.  After a long and detailed look at the way the Cashes live in the forest, Ben and his son Bo (George MacKay) set out on one of their infrequent excursions to the nearest general store, where Ben makes some money by selling crafts the kids make.  Before they leave, Ben promises to check on the status of the mother, who has been hospitalized after suffering a mental breakdown.  It's worse than that, though -- Ben gets word that his wife has died.

So, the family, after this extended preamble, venture out in their old school bus, which they've named "Steve," and makes a journey to her funeral, which will be held in New Mexico.  Their fish-out-of-water trip makes up the bulk of Captain Fantastic, which is as weird, quirky as the family itself.

The best parts of Captain Fantastic -- and there are a lot of them -- play off of our own discomfort with Ben and the choices he has made for his kids.  These are odd and unusual people, and the the movie doesn't hide from its gently leftist ideology that maybe it's them and not us who has got it figured out.

But it's smart enough to offer more than a few hints that the guy may be a genuine crackpot, a less angry but no less dangerous version of Allie Fox from Paul Theroux's great novel The Mosquito Coast.  And really, his liberal hippie ways aren't that far off from a right-wing survivalist nutjob.   Mortensen plays Ben with a much softer, more open-hearted vibe, but Captain Fantastic can never shake the fact that it's not quite as concerned as it should be with the real possibility that he's mentally unhinged, that his kids are incredibly smart but dangerously unaware of the world.  They've had a lifestyle and world-view foisted upon them by a father who claims to encourage free thinking.  Son Bo is so fearful of his father that he hides acceptance letters from leading schools, afraid of what the man will think.

While it has the outlines of a serious and thought-provoking drama, Captain Fantastic largely plays its plot for smiles (like the Chomsky-themed non-Christmas), sometimes even real laughs (like the sex-curious youngsters).  It's a little too light to be really thoughtful, but it's filled with themes that demand an intensity it can't quite achieve.  A scene between Mortensen and Ann Dowd as his mother in law, in particular, just gets going when it ends abruptly, missing an opportunity to push both the wilderness-living radical and his consumerist mother-in-law to places they hadn't thought to wander.

Still, Mortensen and the kids (MacKay gets the most screen time, but they're all terrific) deserve credit for making Captain Fantastic feel real and vibrant, even when it's easy to wish writer-director Matt Ross knew exactly what he thought of his characters and the choices they made.  It lacks the awareness of movies like Wild or Into the Wild, which provided more of an understanding of what drove its characters away from society in the first place.  Captain Fantastic doesn't have the weightiness of those movies, but it does have a weird spirit and a certain joy all its own.

Viewed Feb. 5, 2017 -- VOD

Another Visit to "La La Land"


A few weeks back, when Barack Obama was still the president and a relative sense of sanity still prevailed, there was a general consensus that La La Land was some sort of movie miracle.

Times have changed.  There's been an all-too-predictable pre-Oscar backlash against La La Land, driven by the same kind of backstabbing politics -- the reason we can't have nice things.  There's a constant whisper in the air that La La Land can't really be that good.  So, clever SNL skits aside, it's my cinematic civic duty to tell you something: Yes, La La Land is really that good.

I'm all for the sudden Oscar push for Hidden Figures, because that's a terrific movie with some great performances and a real sense of verve.  It's just, well, La La Land isn't simply better; La La Land is a damn near perfect movie, one whose seeming flaws are in fact its real virtues (that long John Legend song notwithstanding).

Spoiler alert: I'm about to give away some key plot points to La La Land, so if you haven't seen it, just know you're missing one of the finest films that's likely to be made in your lifetime.  Oh, what's that?  You're one of those, "I don't like musicals" people?  OK, fine.  I understand, you don't like the idea of people bursting into song and dance even though you're probably likely to do exactly that when you're alone in the house -- you're just embarrassed by the expression of emotion through something as charming as musicals.  In that case, don't see La La Land -- and skip Christmas, sunsets and giggling babies, too, while you're at it; you, my friend, are not simply a curmudgeon, you're just a mean person.  You have my permission to skip La La Land

But as I watched La La Land for a third time tonight (bypassing the week's January-dregs new releases), some things came floating to mind as effortlessly as Sebastian and Mia in the planetarium.  These are the criticisms I've been hearing recently of La La Land, and my thoughts on them:

The singing is so ... weak.  They needed real singers.
Perhaps you are missing the point of La La Land, which is not, as SNL wants to have us believe, that these are "real people" singing in their real voices.  The movie is about jazz, just as writer-director Damien Chazelle's last film, the astonishing Whiplash, was -- and that jazzy, swingy, aimless feeling needs to suffuse the songs.  Does the opening number lack the impressive voices of, say, a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical?  Yeah.  Making La La Land into a "real" musical, one with "real" actors would have made it impossible to tell the story of struggling people.  They've got "real" singers, by the way -- Emma Stone more than held her own on Broadway in Cabaret, and Gosling started his career as an actor who could sing.  They're all terrific ... and all of them, including the "chorus," are given very specific kinds of ranges.  From its first moments, La La Land makes it clear that it will be a musical that plays the songs on its terms, and does so brilliantly.

There aren't really enough songs to make it a 'real' musical.
The singers aren't as good as they should be, but there aren't enough songs?  That's like Alvy Singer's joke in Annie Hall about the two ladies complaining about the food at a restaurant: It's terrible, says one.  The other agrees: "And such small portions."  The reason we'd like to see more songs in La La Land is because the ones that are there are so good.  And trust me, the more they get into your head the more they stay there.  An original musical (a rare commodity in Hollywood, and increasingly anywhere) starts with songs you've never heard.  To get to know them requires listening to them over and over, and the La La Land soundtrack proves that they are songs that get better with every successive play.  It's a fantastic song score.

Ryan Gosling's character is a total jerk; Emma Stone lacks a strong character.
Yes, Ryan Gosling's character, Sebastian, is self-absorbed, arrogant and difficult to work with.  Perhaps you miss the scene where Keith (John Legend) tells him exactly that.  Sebastian shrugs: "Tell me something I don't know."  The movie's entire story is built on the notion that he and Emma Stone's Mia don't really hit it off, partly because the first time they met (technically the second) he was a complete jerk to her.  The movie isn't about true love, you may have noticed.  It's not about a love-at-first-sight spark.  Sebastian is self-absorbed.  Mia is flailing (though the movie makes it clear she's actually a very good actress).  A guy who can't think of anything but his craft and a girl who thinks, "Maybe I'm not cut out for this" -- those aren't two people who are going to last long together.  La La Land is not about the romantic destiny of two people to be together.  That is not this movie, I feel obligated to say it again, because ...

They could have wound up together if they had just tried harder.
No.  You've misunderstood this easy-to-understand movie, you've applied your own notions of how movies are supposed to portray romance.  The key to understanding La La Land is to look at it a second time knowing what you learn at the end: Mia and Sebastian cannot be together.  If they fall in love and acquiesce to the notions of true romantic love, one of them has to lose.  This seems easy as the film begins -- Mia just needs to become Sebastian's little wife and let him make the money.  But that will only solve one problem.  Sebastian goes out of his way to make Mia attend her audition, the one that changes her life, because he knows that even though it will pull them apart, it will give them each the chance to fulfill their ambitions.  They simply can't do it together, no matter how tempting it might seem.  And that's the emotionally rough part of La La Land, the bit that ties it together with Whiplash: One way or another someone's going to lose.  And it's going to hurt.

What hurts is that 15 minutes in the middle, when the movie slows to a crawl.  They should have cut that part out.
But then they would have cut out the movie's soul.  Mia is a little ahead of Sebastian in worrying that the relationship is doomed, but she thinks there's still hope as long as he gives up the touring.  But he reminds her the touring is what she told him he should do -- his big dream of his own club will just have to wait.  This is the "practical dream."  And this scene, the one at the dinner table in Sebastian's apartment, drives some people loony.  The movie slows down to a crawl.  The fun saps out of the movie.  It's no longer light on its feet, it's gloomy, it's sad, it's serious, it's not romantic.  And that is precisely why it's there.  Lose this scene and nothing makes sense.  Mia gets up to leave not because she's angry at what Sebastian has said, but because that is all there is left to do.  Each has taken the other as far as they can ... well, almost.  If it weren't for that uncomfortable dinner scene, we wouldn't have the tears-down-your-face delightful one of Sebastian driving to the house in front of the library.  That slow, careful scene of troubling emotions is what the movie spins on.  Its pacing is completely different than the rest of the film, and that's exactly as it should be.

OK, fine, I'll accept all of that -- but it's just really OK, it's not great, it's not like those MGM musicals in the 1950s, right? 
No, you're right.  It's better.  Because it has found a way to recreate homages to those films (and most every other significant musical ever made) and still do something important, do something the film stresses needs to be done with every art form -- it pushes cinema forward.  By looking at the beautiful past of moviemaking, it borrows the right language and the right techniques, but still manages to create a film that has much to say about our own lives, about where we are today in the modern world, our desire to see things stay the same and our relentless pushing ahead into an unknown future.  And it does all of that with singing, dancing and beauty.  It's not Singin' in the Rain or American in Paris, sure -- but it belongs with them.

Well, you just like it because you're from L.A.  You know, that liberal bubble, that place that reveres itself to the exclusion of the rest of the world.
I love it -- and I do love it -- because I came here with a dream.  I've fulfilled parts of it, much is still left undone, but I came to L.A. for the same reason anyone comes here ... or goes to New York ... or London ... or Paris ... or gets out of their little town in rural Ohio and moves to Cleveland.  Or even just wishes that one day he or she could do that.  La La Land is about all those people.  It's about the people who came to L.A., specifically, because they had an ambition: they read comic books as kids and now write or direct or star in super-hero movies.  It's about the people who came here because they loved Schwarzenegger movies and wanted to write the best action movie ever.  Or saw Star Wars and wanted to be the next George Lucas.  La La Land is not just about actors and singers -- it's about, as Mia's final song says, "the ones who dream."

That's all of us.

Whether you're just starting out and hope this is the way it goes, or you're wildly successful and remembering how it felt.  Whether you're an enormous failure but like recalling your early moments of optimism, or you're just a middle-aged kind-of-made-it-but-not-quite ... or you're someone who never mustered the courage to do that crazy thing you wanted to do, La La Land makes you feel better about even having tried, about simply having thought of it.

And it's a stark, unexpectedly tough reminder that if you do get it, you're going to have to be giving up something else.

On top of all that, it's the most visually ravishing, most carefully constructed, most satisfying movie released last year -- and 2016 was a year with some honestly remarkable films.  They are all worthy, they are all good.  It's just that La La Land soars above them.