Top Ten Movies of 2016 — Number Five

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At this point in the life cycle of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land — a winding excursion from celebration to backlash to the backlash’s backlash to the backlash’s backlash’s backlash and points beyond — it’s almost impossible to write about this modern musical without ending up with an insufferable think piece. So I’m going to lean into it. As the signature films of 2016 are bandied about, few feel more detached from our current perilous moment as La La Land. There are no shadows of social and political preoccupations to found in the story of young cultural artists falling in and out of love in Los Angeles, no commentary on swelling racial and religious disharmony nor consideration of the fracturing promise of economic safety, except in the most superficial ways. A couple weeks from now, when it marches to Oscar glory — perhaps making significant awards history in the process — La La Land will represent one of the weakest possible statements of rejection of the current climate given the slate of competitors. The discomfiting tendency of the filmmakers to indulge in self-congratulation for the unlikelihood of making an original musical doesn’t count. And yet it is ultimately that separation from the here and now that helps explain why La La Land is so winning. By standing apart from the world at large, by committing fervently to the power of cinematic transportation, La La Land is a thrilling reminder of the simple, profound joys to be found in the movies — in charismatic performances, in expertly staged set pieces, in heedless embrace of fantasy. Chazelle’s film is great because of its eagerness to entertain and its even-handed earnestness in deploying its various scenes, whether sly or straightforward. It moves with the sort of confidence only to be found in films that have been blessed by having every element lock into place with a perfection beyond any reasonable hope. If La La Land doesn’t play like an urgent response to the events of the day, its narrative lying in wait for an enterprising observer to finesse it into an urgent op-ed, that’s largely because the film aspires to — and achieves — grand timelessness.

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