My grandfather, a motion picture exhibitor, used to declare every film he saw the “best picture of the year.” I can still hear the natural inflection of that phrase in his voice revealing his pure, unadulterated delight. My grandmother would walk out of the theatre and tell him she couldn’t believe they’d both seen the same movie. She’d criticize the screenplay or say it was too slow, and most of the time, she’d be right. But my grandfather overlooked such cinematic flaws in favor of the relationships between characters and the settings in which the stories took place, especially in sentimental films that served as love letters to Hollywood, his home.
My grandfather nudged my father into his chairman position at the family company: a small chain of movie theaters on the West Coast. My father, who should have been a sports agent, loves to tell me what movies to look out for but never watches any of them himself. In 2016 he insisted that my musical theatre-loving, hopeless romantic 15-year-old self was going to love La La Land (2016). I thought it sounded gimmicky.
By age 15 I had a feeling I’d one day end up back in LA fighting for my own Hollywood pipe dream as a screenwriter, not necessarily as a direct result of the family business, though perhaps there was an ancillary subconscious link. I grew up alongside children of producers, writers, and showrunners galore who made it appear as though becoming a Hollywood creative was easily reachable if you had the ambition. In high school, I was not yet well versed in iconic love letters to Hollywood. I hadn’t seen Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Boogie Nights (1997) or Mulholland Drive (2001). I had no nostalgia for LA because I hadn’t yet lived anywhere else and so hadn’t realized the paradise I’d left behind.
La La Land was the first Hollywood epistle I was able to appreciate during its craze upon release. It was the first love letter to Hollywood I received and the first indicator that I, too, loved film just as much as my father and his father before him. The romantic, flamboyant, visually delectable film defined some of my favorite high school moments. My friends and I listened to “A Lovely Night” as we hiked up to the Griffith Observatory, where the original scene that accompanies the song was shot. We blasted “Someone in the Crowd” as we did each other’s makeup for our 10th grade formal, each dressed in different primary colors, dancing down the marble staircase of my friend’s Californian home to Justin Hurwitz’s punchy beat.
When the infamous 2017 Oscars envelope mix-up went down and the announcers proclaimed La La Land Best Picture while reading the wrong category’s envelope, I was bummed to see a movie that meant so much to me not take home the trophy. But it took home 14 others that night, including one that made Damien Chazelle the youngest person to ever win Best Director. The signature artistry he incited with Whiplash (2014) was rewarded in La La Land; the close audiovisual tie he creates between music and stories of love and loss exists in all three of his feature films.
I already believed that awards shows were bullshit and that every nominee was deserving. At the time I had not yet seen Moonlight (2016), the real Best Picture champion, which I can now say was incredibly worthy of its win, as the first all Black cast to win Best Picture for a truly stunning and gut-wrenching film. Moonlight aside, I will never understand the polarization La La Land caused amongst viewers on its own; it still feels like one of the least controversial films of all time to me, but many friends of mine disagree. They thought Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling were miscast and unfit to sing in a musical, that it was designed as a safe bet to woo Academy voters, and that it did nothing revolutionary or new.
If my grandfather had been a voting member of the Academy, I don’t think he’d ever have been able to pick just one winner. Like him, I believe movies have the power to serve many different emotional purposes; they don’t always have to be revolutionary in plot or production to tug at our heartstrings.
Flash forward to 2022 and Damien Chazelle, now a long-time idol of mine, erupts back onto the silver screen with Babylon (2022). I couldn’t exactly tell what the film was about from viewing the trailer, which many moviegoers proclaimed as lazy promotion, but the unexplained chaos made it all the more enticing to me. On the day of its theatrical release, I rushed to see it with my friend.
Babylon is three hours, nine minutes long. Not only was I never bored, but I left the theater with dry eyes from how seldom I blinked. I didn’t want to miss a thing.
The entire first half hour serves as the film’s cold open and feels like a roller coaster ride. Chazelle opens with a giant elephant shitting on the camera lens, then guides you through the gates of a palatial 1920s Bel Air mansion into a party so loud and lavish it puts Gatsby to shame. The camera twists and turns and never averts its gaze. Then suddenly, the screen flashes black. “BABYLON'' in white block letters. The story has just begun.
Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a young Mexican man with a big Hollywood dream becomes entranced with Nellie La Roy (Margot Robbie), a wannabe actress who fakes her way to the top while Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a silent movie star, experiences a swift fall from grace. Characters, fates, and fortunes intertwine and ebb and flow in this colorful, debaucherous, and epic tale. The film showcases more than 100 actors with speaking roles. Its opulence cost Paramount $80 million to make. The simultaneous beguilement and bitterness contained within each character’s tale is mesmerizing and truthful; the experience of chasing dreams transcends time.
All the while, a signature score by Justin Hurwitz, Chazelle’s longtime collaborator, blankets the chaos in melodies just mere notes from his La La Land themes. They’re darker—not as sunny—to reflect the at times sinister complexities unfolding onscreen. The camera enters and explodes from trumpet bells to mimic the motion of the sound the instruments create, closely weaving score and cinematography.
Chazelle concludes Babylon with a brilliant flash-forward homage to Singin’ in the Rain (1952), perhaps the most quintessential Hollywood love letter. Having now watched most members of the genre either in film classes or on my own, I have a much deeper appreciation for Chazelle’s contemporary contribution to the canon.
I still think Oscar winners are bullshit, but I at least had hope for the Oscar nominees. I was flabbergasted to see the 2023 Best Picture list include ten films that achieved nowhere near the feeling Babylon stirred inside me. I wouldn’t have expected it to ultimately win, but I could not believe it did not receive a nod, especially given some of the other selections.
I loved every minute of Babylon. My grandfather would have, too. It read to me as a grown-up version of La La Land; I’ve matured as a viewer, and so has Chazelle as a filmmaker. All of his films carry the same heart. They’re for dreamers. He might have held back from displaying Hollywood’s full rainbow of true colors in La La Land, here he leaves everything on the table. Some might argue he does so too much—but the excess reflects the history and present of this magical paradise.