For the second year in a row, the best film of the year comes out at Christmas.
“La La Land” stars Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist who falls in love with an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) in Los Angeles. John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt and J.K. Simmons also star as Damien Chazelle writes and directs.
I was looking forward to this since it was announced as a Chazelle’s follow-up project to 2014’s “Whiplash” and it was set to star Miles Teller and Emma Watson. It was originally due out this past July, but got pushed back to be in award season (which is part of the developing problem with Hollywood, but that’s a complaint for another day). The film then premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August (and played at every festival between then and now) and had several weeks of limited LA and NYC releases before finally going wide, so I had heard all the hype about it by the time I sat down to finally watch it. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are arguably one of the greatest romantic pairings of all-time, and while I loved their previous two outings (“Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “Gangster Squad”), most people are mixed on them. But finally, the two are given a film that is as dorkably charming and nearly perfect as they are, as “La La Land” is gorgeous, fun and the best film of 2016.
Right off the bat, the film lets you know what it is setting out to do. It begins with Summit Entertainment’s old-fashioned opening as well as the “CinemaScope” logo. The film then opens with a massive musical number on the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange and while some of the song is hard to make out through the massive ensemble singing (it’s also one of the few times it is clear the actors are lip-synching), it is a massive sight to behold.
The rest of the film feels much more intimate, with Gosling and Stone both playing essentially the same characterizations of themselves they always do, but are both career-best performances nevertheless. Gosling is a man who is trying to keep jazz alive and start his own club, but can’t seem to find people who share his dream. Stone is an aspiring actress who feels she doesn’t get a fair shake from life, but doesn’t stop trying to chase the dream.
That’s the message of the film, dreams and the price we sometimes pay to try and obtain them. That’s what Los Angeles was and is about, really, the City of Stars, Lights and Angels. And the city has never looked better, nor more real, than it does in “La La Land.” If you have read any review of mine about a film set in LA, or carried on a real-world conversation with me for more than two minutes, you know I love Los Angeles and find interest any film that shares that love. And Chazelle’s love of the city and all that makes it unique (the traffic, the open spaces, the movies, even the sometimes pretentious inhabitants) shines through here and makes the city itself a character of the film.
The songs here are all fantastic and each can have its own argument for an Oscar nomination (the film will get one or two in that category, alongside hopefully a dozen others). I already have one song on my phone and another stuck in my head, and I know when I see this film again I will get giddy knowing certain musical numbers are coming up.
The absolute only flaw I can find with the film is a tonal shift at the start of the third act that is a bit jarring. The film stops being a colorful musical and gets serious and while the payoff makes it ultimately justified, in the moment it is a bit disappointing given the incredible hour-plus that preceded it.
“La La Land” is a love letter to so many things, from Los Angeles to the bygone era of musicals, and features two incredibly charming and heartfelt performance from Gosling and Stone. I cannot recommend this film enough, I had a huge smile on my face for a massive majority of the runtime, and the film feels completely genuine. At 31 years old, Damien Chazelle has already established himself as one of the finest filmmakers in the business, although I doubt he will ever top what he has done with “La La Land;” it is about as perfect as a film can get.
Critics Rating: 9/10