‘La La Land’ losing Best Picture is the best thing that could have happened to it

The actual way La La Land lost Best Picture is the stuff memes are made of. The way La La Land lost Best Picture might even outlast the memory of La La Land itself.

Here’s the thing, though: La La Land losing Best Picture, with or without the dramatic way it did it, is probably the best thing that could have happened to it.

Let’s get this out of the way — La La Land, I think, is a very fine movie. Sure, Moonlight is a better one, and probably deserved that award more than any other of the nominees. Winning that particular award and actually deserving it isn’t something that happens every year, and that’s awesome.

Let’s not forget, though, that La La Land is full of striking imagery and, even while being deeply referential to classic cinema, has a look and feel to it that is unforgettably its own. Pick any still shot from it; my mom could call out the movie it’s taken from in half a second. That’s not a small achievement. It has all sorts of style, lovely substance and a very human yearning embedded in the marrow of its characters. Gosling and Stone are a timeless pairing, and not just because they’re crazy hot — they have the kind of honest chemistry producers would give their left Golden Globe for. It has a haymaker of a finale, the best since Damien Chazelle’s last movie, Whiplash. And, as a director, Chazelle has “future iconoclast” written on his forehead in Sharpie, like he’s passed out at a party with his shoes on and the rotting corpse of a cigarette hanging out his mouth.

Yet, duh, La La Land has also been divisive. That’s due, in part, to a little list of crimes it commits that some folks would never be able to forgive. You don’t really need to love musicals or Old Hollywood to enjoy it, but you definitely can’t have a knee-jerk hatred of them. Some people like the music in it and some don’t, because liking music is even more subjective than liking movies. Others, who’ve dated too many smug pseudo-intellectuals, can’t ever imagine being charmed by some dude explaining jazz to them after just telling him that, hey, it’s not really my thing. (Not again, at least.) One-woman shows are insufferable. And more to the point: For many, it’s hard to take seriously the story of two beautiful white people complaining that following their fiscally irresponsible dreams is just so hard until it’s not.

That checks out.

But none of those things are why La La Land proved polarizing. It’s polarizing because it was pitted against Moonlight. Because it was pitted against Hidden Figures and Fences and Lion and more movies with more to say in a time where, holy shit, there’s a lot to say. Next to the story of a gay Black man with no possible on-ramp to understanding his own identity — or the story of Black women’s up-til-now forgotten contributions to the history of America, or even Hell or High Water’s deadly depiction of the way rural towns are getting eaten from the inside out—it feels dangerously negligent to award La La Land’s whimsical fluff. Mostly, though, La La Land is polarizing because it felt like it was shoved down our throats as the best movie of the year, and if we didn’t care for it, we’re heartless fun police.

It didn’t win Best Picture, however. Thank God.

Not winning Best Picture could mean that we can appreciate La La Land for what it is: a very fine movie, and it doesn’t need to be anything else. Not everyone has to enjoy it, and that’s okay. Like Gosling’s other 2016 movie, The Nice Guys, it’s a highly stylized movie that’s indebted to a lot of other, older movies and is a whole lot of fun, if that’s what fun means for you. They’re both guaranteed to hook a lot of people who are already predisposed to enjoy those sorts of movies, and reel in others who aren’t already predisposed to hate them. But The Nice Guys came out in the summer, and can afford the luxury of being a gem to just the people who want it to be.

Thankfully, La La Land lost — it doesn’t need to be An Important Film anymore. Moonlight does, because it is. La La Land doesn’t have to carry that burden now, and its legacy is better off for it. Just enjoy the dance numbers and the earnestness, or don’t.