Moonlight (Oscar-winning film)

Moonlight famously won the 2016 Best Picture Oscar, despite a mistake during the ceremony when La La Land was incorrectly announced as the winner. That was the year that I was the administrator of the Hugo Awards for the first time, and we immediately took steps to minimise the risk of that happening during the ceremony in Helsinki. (In fact, one of the presenters did open the wrong envelope on the night, but the slip was caught before most people noticed.)

Moonlight won two other Oscars, Mahershala Ali as Best Supporting Actor (for Juan, the father figure in the first section) and also for Best Adapted Screenplay. Usually when an Oscar-winning film is adapted from another source I try to read it for comparison, but Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue doesn’t seem to have been published.

The other contenders for Best Picture were Arrival, which won the Hugo, and Hidden Figures, also a Hugo finalist; and Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Lion and Manchester by the Sea, which I haven’t seen. La La Land won the most Oscars that year (six).

Again, I have seen very few films from 2016 – I think none at all apart from the Hugo finalists. Moonlight is a very different film, and it’s difficult to give a comparative ranking, but I would put it at least equal with Arrival. IMDB users rate it only 18th and 29th on the two rankings, which are topped by La La Land and Deadpool, with Arrival and ten other films ahead of Moonlight on both lists.

Here is a trailer.

None of the actors had been in previous Oscar, Hugo or Nebula/Bradbury winning films. In fact, it’s striking how few of them had any film track record at all – IMDB lists this as the first screen appearance for more than half of the 25 named cast, and most of them have done little else. There are a couple of exceptions; Mahershala Ali as Juan is one of them, and so is the fantastic Janelle Monáe as his girlfriend Teresa. (Both were also in Hidden Figures the same year.)

Set mostly in Miami but with a few scenes in Atlanta, this is not the first Oscar winner with a Florida or Georgia setting, but it is the first to be filmed on the real locations – the outdoor scenes of It Happened One Night are rather obviously filmed in California, and the Georgia of Gone With the Wind is mostly in the studio.

It’s the story of a young gay black man growing up in Miami, told in three parts with three different actors playing the protagonist (10-year-old Alex R. Hibbert, 20-year-old Ashton Sanders and 25-year-old Trevante Rhodes). Adjusting for inflation, it is apparently the Oscar winning film that had the lowest production budget ever ($1.5 million at 2015 prices).

I thought it was very good. My biggest complaint is that despite its relative brevity (111 minutes, 16th shortest of 95 winners) it actually moves rather slowly at times. The story is a simple one told well. Although it’s fundamentally about the protagonist and the men in his life, the women get decent screen time too and Noemie Harris got an Oscar nomination as the protagonist’s mother.

I raised an eyebrow at first at the choice of music – a mix of classical-style orchestral and contemporary including rap – as I’ve seen other films get a bit unstuck by relying too heavily on the violins. But in fact I concluded that the balance is good. The fact that the orchestral music was composed specially for the film probably helps.

The first of the three sections is outstanding, while the other two are merely very good. We begin with bullied little boy Chiron being informally adopted by Juan and Teresa while neglected by his mother. There’s a particularly charming scene where Juan teaches Chiron to swim – apparently Alex Hibbert, playing Chiron, really could not swim so he is barely acting.

The middle section sees a teenage Chiron seduced and then betrayed by his childhood friend Kevin, and the end has the two of them meeting again after a decade and getting some closure. The whole thing is beautifully filmed and staged, and the cast, despite their inexperience, are entirely convincing. Definitely glad I got to this one.

I’m ranking Moonlight a quarter of the way down my table of Oscar winners, just below Gandhi but ahead of Amadeus. Next up is one that I have already seen, but will rewatch for the sake of context: The Shape of Water, which will take me up to ninety.

Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)