Academy Awards stunner: Surprise winner Moonlight steals Oscars stage

Odds are that you probably haven’t seen this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture.

And no, it isn’t Damien Chazelle’s poignant, bittersweet film “La La Land” about two struggling artists who fall in love in modern Los Angeles that just happens to be one of the most widely seen Oscar contenders in years.

“Moonlight,” an intimate independent feature from Barry Jenkins, took home the prize after “La La Land” was mistakenly awarded Best Picture. The film is a heartfelt, emotional journey told in three parts about Chiron, a young African-American boy growing up with a drug-addicted single mother living in Miami. Throughout the feature, Chiron struggles to find positive influences and role models as he seeks to find his own identity, both sexually and emotionally.

Driven by a Best Adapted Screenplay winning script, “Moonlight” features a Oscar-winning performance from “House of Cards” star Mahershala Ali, who elevates his game to another level as Juan, the charismatic drug dealer with a soft spot for young Chiron. His ability to give Juan equal parts hard edge from life selling on street corners and comforting empathy is remarkable. Performed even slightly differently softer or harder, Juan becomes a caricature. But Ali is bittersweet and affecting, toeing the exact line with ease.

“Moonlight” shines brightest visually, with cinematographer James Laxton beautifully giving a distinctive, uniquely vibrant feel to each of the film’s three segments. Each segment has its own visual hue, as if they were all shot in different film stock. The film’s most powerful and memorable scene, Juan teaching Chiron how to swim, is effective as much for Laxton’s stunning camera work in the scene as Ali’s masterful acting performance. The camera bobs up and down in the water, floating above the surface and crashing below with the waves in a captivatingly intimate portrayal of humanity you wouldn’t expect from a swimming lesson.

Filmed over the course of three and a half weeks for a meager $1.5 million, “Moonlight” is a cinematic marvel by independent filmmaking standards that holds up better than most big-budget studio films. It’s far from a flawless film, however, with a plodding third act that tapers off in quality drastically the longer Ali is off screen.

“La La Land,” the film that almost won Best Picture, isn’t perfect either – with a muddled sound mix that often left lyrics indecipherable for first time viewers – but the film’s 14 Oscar nominations are proof positive that Chazelle’s musical masterpiece more than lived up to the film’s considerable hype.

Things started trending in the wrong way for “La La Land” early in the night when seemingly easy wins in categories like Best Costuming and Best Sound Editing went to other films. After taking home major prizes for Chazelle (Best Director) and star Emma Stone (Best Actress), Sunday’s final curveball stunned viewers and “La La Land” producers alike, with some of the musical’s team in the middle of giving their acceptance speeches when the Academy’s top prize was unceremoniously ripped from their grasp and given to another film.

Regardless of how you may feel about “La La Land,” the political climate in America right now or how the Best Picture winner was announced, the worst possible thing you could do is dismiss “Moonlight” because Warren Beatty accidently read the wrong name.

The best film of 2016 (“Hell or High Water”) didn’t win Best Picture. The best film with a chance of taking home the Academy’s top prize (“La La Land”) didn’t either. More than any other year in recent memory, several of this year’s nominees were more than deserving of film’s top prize.

“Moonlight” deserved to win Best Picture. “La La Land” deserved to win Best Picture.

Watch them both. Enjoy them both. Moviegoers deserve this kind of quality cinema all year long.

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