With the calendar turning to 2017, we knew we wanted to highlight one of 2016’s best cinematic offerings—even if its place in cinema history was far from being solidified. There were a number of worthy candidates over this strong year, but ultimately Damien Chazelle’s nostalgic Hollywood musical La La Land was the choice. The film has become a favorite among both audiences and critics, leading to near-record box office returns while in limited release [now over $22 million while on less than 1,000 screens] and talk as an Oscar favorite. La La Land is definitely a crowd pleaser, with its huge musical setpieces and charming stars, but it is a rich and artfully made film, as well.

La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as a pair of struggling artists who meet, fall in love, and reinforce each other’s biggest dreams. Stone plays Mia, a young woman who was inspired by her beloved aunt and the old classic romances to leave her small Nevada town to make it big in Los Angeles. She’s been worn down by the grind of auditions featuring dozens of women who look exactly the same and her crappy barista day job servicing the stars on the studio lot. Gosling is Seb, a talented but elitist pianist who dreams of owning his own jazz club that will stick to the old traditions whether or not the consumer base really cares. Without the needed resources, he scrapes together his life by playing terrible restaurant gigs and in an 80s cover band.

Through these characters, its setting, and the idealism of Hollywood, La La Land is a love letter to many things: the classic musicals of Astaire & Rogers and Gene Kelly, the classic romances of Bogart and Bacall, jazz music, movie theaters, the city of angels, and more. Its nostalgia isn’t hidden, sometimes directly called upon through choreography or by its characters, shone in bright colors and under the year-round sunshine. That isn’t to say that La La Land is always upbeat. Like nostalgia usually goes, it is also mournful and melancholy, realizing that the things it longs for are no longer in vogue. The film wonderfully pulls you in with its shiny beats before wonderfully heart-breaking conclusions. No other films this year has held such broad tones so confidently.

After Damien Chazelle’s breakthrough sophomore feature Whiplash, I wondered if the young filmmaker would be able to make a great film outside his music and jazz wheelhouse; if he would be able to find the same narrative energy without the energy of the music and without the types of characters he so clearly knows. After seeing La La Land, though, I’m fine with letting him stick to what he knows. The film’s first musical number, shot on a jammed Los Angeles overpass, is a bravura display that introduces the tone and scale of the film even before its characters. We then pivot to a peppy “getting ready for a party” number reminiscent to something from West Side Story. I’ve heard nitpicks that the film starting with its two most upbeat numbers tips the narrative scale a bit, and I can’t totally disagree. The film takes great care, however, to cast a incredibly diverse musical scenes—Seb’s somber piano displays and the couple’s wonderful tribute to Astaire and Rogers are just as memorable to me. As a whole, the sequences encapsulate all the emotions felt by the characters, the joyous highs, the bittersweet lows, and everything in between.

We typically use the phrase “technical marvel” to describe films that are on the cutting edge of style or technology—whether larger-than-life epics or groundbreaking films that first employed basic instruments of film in new ways. La La Land, being so rooted in nostalgia for genres and film styles that were popular decades ago, certainly isn’t “cutting edge,” but it is one of the most distinct looking and well-made films of recent years. From camera work to production design, the film is intricately staged and not just in the big musical setpieces. The characters’ apartments, the Los Angeles streets, the jazz clubs, the over-cramped parties, everything looks perfect, but still within the narrative.

The most distinct stylistic flourish is the use of lighting, which may not be unique but feels special. At moments throughout the film, the brightly colored backgrounds dim until they fade away, creating a literal spotlight on our protagonists, usually in a moment of emotional impact or performance—the pinnacle of this technique comes during Mia’s audition with her showcase song “The Fools Who Dream” and Seb’s final piano setpiece. When the sets are fully lit, they are bathed in beautiful colors, sometimes green, sometimes blue, setting the bright emotional tones in the image.

Can we talk a little about the ending? So much of my appreciation of La La Land comes from its final scene, so please allow for spoilers. In the film’s postscript following a “Five Years Later” title card, we find that Mia and Seb have both reached their dreams and found great professional success, but at the cost of their relationship. In a bit of magical realism, we see the course of their relationship replay, a shared idealistic fantasy that you’d probably see in the movies. We are so used to hyperbolic romances that prioritize the love over everything else—or, at the very least, allow for the characters to have it all. But that’s not La La Land In other doomed romances, there is an emphasis on tragedy; the death of love is as great as the death of a loved one. La La Land is somehow able to be a classic love story with the realization that is is OK that love doesn’t always work out. That, despite what the movies often tell us, one particular love isn’t always the ultimate goal. Mia and Seb can find another, start families, live their dream lives, without each other. That doesn’t mean their time together is any less important or their love any less meaningful—it has shaped the way they look at the world for the better. In this way, I don’t find La La Land to be tragic at all, but uniquely pragmatic. That’s a strange thing to be for such a sweeping romance, but more poignant for it.

Here's what you'll see on the site this week:

  • The Cinessential writers' favorite films of 2016
  • The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 7
  • A deeper look at the nostalgia of La La Land
  • Streaming selections of the underrated films of 2016
  • And more!