Stunningly losing the best picture Oscar may turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to La La Land (Lionsgate, 12), Damien Chazelle’s sun-bright, sour-sweet satsuma of a musical. Formally released from the prestige pressure bestowed by such a title, the film that inspired such a hysterical pre-Oscar backlash as to be labelled “fascist propaganda” in certain quarters of the internet can be cherished once more as the bijou beauty it is – a film out not to change the world, but to wistfully warm it up a little. Stylistically riffing on Jacques Demy and Stanley Donen with frisky magpie cheek, Chazelle’s picture is steeped in nostalgia, but not just of the gilded “they don’t make ’em like they used to” variety. Its simple, starry-eyed boy-meets-girl story deals in emotional nostalgia too, mistily marking the romantic highs, errors of the heart and intractable influence of fate on a single love affair.
Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is the musician fixated on recreating the past, while Mia (Emma Stone) is the actress with an eye to the future. As they move backwards and forwards, respectively, along the Hollywood travelator, the question is how long the lovers can remain within sight of each other. This isn’t the huge, iridescent heartbreak of vintage melodrama; Chazelle and his kinetically connected leads play it both gentler and cooler than that, in a story about the love that sometimes blossoms, and sometimes wilts, in the cracks of other, bigger dreams.
Having been delighted the first time round, I was nervous of returning to La La Land, worried that its poster paint visuals and swirling motion would thin and stutter on repeat viewing. If anything, however, this lovely film’s tender, wily sadness burns more quickly through the surface shimmer.
Another of this year’s awards season favourites, Kenneth Lonergan’s more emotionally assaultive Manchester By the Sea (Studiocanal, 15), translates readily to the small screen. This exquisitely heart-sore dissection of a regular Joe’s irregular tragedy sees the playwright putting words and faces to the fore, the camera merely their lowly courier to the audience.
But what words and what faces. Casey Affleck, one of those actors whose pauses have their own scale of octaves, is a shuffling screen presence with slowly shattering impact. As Lee, a Boston janitor awkwardly entrusted with guardianship of his spiky nephew when his brother dies, he doffs his frayed baseball cap to Brando at no cost to his own wiry peculiarities as a performer. His contentious Oscar could hardly have been more richly deserved; the same goes for Lonergan’s script, at once literately wrought and bloody-raw with feeling.
At his best, Cristian Mungiu is a film-maker with similar needle-to-the-heart precision. An elegantly sculpted, seething take-down of upper-crust Romanian corruption, Graduation (Curzon Artificial Eye, 15) doesn’t quite find Mungiu on peak form. A taut study of a doctor gaming the system to get his teenage daughter academically ahead, its cruelties and ironies are a little too tidy to linger in the bones the way 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days does. But plenty of his peers could still watch and learn from Mungiu’s intricate, leave-nothing-to-chance formality: every shot choice and every incidental aside here quiver with scalding subtext.
Italian director Saverio Costanzo, by contrast, practically revels in carelessness. Sliding straight to DVD nearly three years after winning major awards at Venice, his Hungry Hearts (Kaleidoscope, 15) teeters wildly between tough emotional authenticity and stressful genre lunacy, as its story of a toxic parenting partnership unravels as recklessly as its characters. A mixed bag, but Adam Driver’s tense, nettled turn as a frozen-out father is its prize offering.
The Olive Tree (Eureka, 15) is comparatively restful viewing. An earthy, heartfelt ecological drama from the Spanish director Icíar Bollaín, written with characteristic sincerity by her partner, Paul Laverty, this fable-like tale of a young farmer battling corporate bigwigs for the return of her family’s prized olive tree has the stripped-down sincerity and sensitivity of Laverty’s work with Ken Loach, though its fist is less aggressively raised.
The week’s best new documentary, meanwhile, is another Netflix exclusive. Produced by the illustrious team-up of Wim Wenders and Errol Morris, Sonia Kennebeck’s National Bird frostily probes the ethical ins and outs of America’s secret drone programme through the frank personal testimonies of three air force whistleblowers no longer willing to hover in silence. Kennebeck sounds the alarm with stealthy grace. More so than such fine narrative films as Eye in the Sky and Good Kill, this is a picture to vivify what, for some, remains an abstract debate.