Where Does Moonlight Rank Among the Best Best Pictures?

By  · Published on February 28th, 2017

Sure, it’s a bit soon, but we’re doing this.

Art by Subin Yang

It’s rare enough that the Oscars award Best Picture to the actual best picture among its nominees, but Moonlight is the even rarer case of the Academy recognizing the best American film in a given year. I recently wrote about writer-director Barry Jenkins’ breakthrough with the film, and firmly believe that both film and filmmaker are here to stay, with no qualms whatsoever about this being too early to make such a call. In fact, the only uncertainty I still have is where Moonlight ranks among Best Picture winners all time, because my immediate instinct was: quite high. With that in mind, an inquiry:

There have been 89 Best Picture winners. The process by which they’re determined creates, organically, a state of being where the almost all of the extraordinarily good and extraordinarily bad movies are eliminated immediately by virtue of their inability to produce a consensus. The “almost” is key here because some genuine masterpieces ‐ more on which in a bit ‐ luck out and garner a consensus. This is rare, though: by my count, including this year, 28 Best Picture winners qualify as “great.” (The other ratings are “pretty damn good,” “eh, it’s good,” “well . . . it’s okay,” “can I be real a sec? it’s kinda mediocre,” “meh,” “bleh,” and “Crash.”) The “great list” is as follows:

These films cover a pretty broad range of styles and purposes (and I’m well aware there are some movies not listed, you needn’t yell “what about [x]?” at me). There are thrillers, epics, comedies, dramas, musicals, modern and period pieces, adaptations and original works, blockbusters and indies. With the exception of the entire 80s being missing ‐ this due to the Academy making a string of uninspiring BP picks rather than there not being any good nominees ‐ it’s a fairly accurate, if broad, progression of American popular cinema.

Coming up with a qualitative ranking means hard choices, not the least of which are between incomparable styles. Still, the next elimination round sees the rest of the 21st century winners out immediately ‐ breaking news: Moonlight is the best Best Picture winner this century ‐ and eleven earlier winners. This yields the following fourteen movies:

Narrowing the list down any further than this gets into all kinds of dumb cross-generational comparisons and reduces the value of the list. Also, what I like about this particular grouping of movies is that it sets Moonlight in contrast to its predecessors, not in a problematically “other”-ing kind of way but giving the appearance of a fulcrum to an eventual new chapter on the list. This may not be how things actually play out ‐ let’s remember, Moonlight even winning at all came as, shall we say, a bit of a surprise ‐ but it’s the way, I would argue, that cinema must play out if it’s going to continue to be a vital cultural force.

American cinema is currently at the mercy of economic forces that are working against its interests as an art. Studios invest either mindboggling sums in blockbusters upon which they force aesthetic homogeneity out of fear of a low return on investment, a short-term call with the long-term repercussion of undermining the level of artistry in that echelon of film. Independent filmmakers, after a brief Cinderella period in the 90s and 00s when they ceded some degree of titular independence to boutique divisions of studios who more or less let them do their thing on comparatively spiffy budgets, are now reliant on much shakier funding, and find themselves under pressure to enter into the less lucrative but still commercially rewarding realm of awards contenders, which due to the inertial slouch toward consensus, are often at risk of becoming an aesthetic form. Whether making films for $250 million or $250 thousand, the smart money is to throw together something familiar and pray that it hits.

This has never been the way forward for cinema, or any art. Audiences, while they may rely on previous experience to figure out what something is, still respond most profoundly to things they haven’t seen before. Moonlight is something American film audiences haven’t really seen anything like before. It’s a blend of Asian and European cinematic aesthetics with a uniquely American story, which is a common enough blend in American film, dating back to the Hollywood New Wave of the late 60s and early-to-mid 70s. What’s new in Moonlight is it being specifically about black Americans, and in its relying in such a singular way on image and gesture over text. The protagonist Chiron is shy to the point of being mute at first, and his terror at betraying his inner emotional life means little of the typical song and dance movies enact to earn the audience’s emotional connection. Chiron isn’t not likable. He’s just, ultimately, an ordinary guy. “But but but. . .he’s black. . .and gay!” Moonlight never says “so fucking what,” because it shouldn’t need to. That’s the point.

Moonlight [Blu-ray]

Even without being a black movie, and a gay movie, Moonlight would be a standout for its formal elegance, and in the way it avoids the formalist trap of emotional coldness. The ease of the balance Jenkins strikes makes the idea that form and content could ever be at odds frankly embarrassing, in only the kind of hindsight a truly landmark film enables. The Oscars, an institution whose ridiculousness was even more overt this year than most, are blessed to have Moonlight. And so are we all. Oh, and by the way, Blu-ray comes out today. Bask in it.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all