In 2017, differences of perspective mutated into an aggressive disruption of common truth. Facts are no longer sacred in societal discourse, meaning philosophical debate is now often a battle over the fundamentals that make up our world. With oppressors crying out that they are oppressed, filmmakers nobly led the charge in speaking up for the truly unheard and marginalised – a mercy after years of exhausting homogeneity in Hollywood. From Hidden Figures and Call My by Your Name, all the way up to Wonder Woman and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the movies of 2017 were in open rebellion against the straight, white, male default. None more so than a little bildungsroman that could from director Barry Jenkins.
Moonlight is the story of one boy’s youth in three parts. As a boy (Alex Hibbert), a teen (Ashton Sanders), and a young adult (Trevante Rhodes), we meet Chiron – a maturing black man growing up gay and poor in Miami and Atlanta. Through each sumptuous phase of Chiron’s life, Jenkins and co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney grapple with a number of societal concepts any one of which might leave a lesser filmmaker stumped. Poverty, sexual identity, race, masculinity, parenting, addiction, and the lines upon which they intersect are all given their due with a literary sense of grace, reverence, and innovation. It is executed like a great novel or a play, as McCraney originally intended, but really Jenkins could only have told this story on the big screen.
What makes Moonlight so crucial is that, while tackling all these hot-button issues with educational insight, it is by no means an “issue” film. This is not the Definitive Black Gay Poor Movie for white, straight, well-off people to watch and miraculously come out of superficially enlightened to the plight of others. Moonlight is, first and foremost, a pure and genius work of cinema telling its story for its own sake. Like any number of white, male auteurs before him, Jenkins strives for universality by telling stories from a world he understands. What he does here is make illegitimate the antiquated notion that white, straight, and male must be the default mode for telling stories that are relatable to all. He makes empathy with Chiron a visceral, personal experience to blow privileged preconceptions about movies out of the water.
Aesthetically, the film is constantly arresting. Jenkins makes light and dark dance across the oppressive concrete of his urban settings; evocative blues and purples tint the skin of his all-black cast in a dreamlike, magical way, while baking hot oranges and yellows tease out discomfort and strife through shimmering films of perspiration. But the closeup is Jenkins’ most powerful weapon. The whites of eyes pop out of the screen, and every player shines under intense, intimate focus.
Revolving around Chiron is a constellation of beautifully-rendered characters brought to life by one of the most sublime supporting casts in living memory. Every single contributor deserves gongs and stimulating headline roles forever. Janelle Monáe’s supporting turn as Teresa, a totem of maternal understanding for Chiron, is further confirmation this year that she is due to dominate both the cinematic and musical worlds.
Taking an Academy nomination for supporting actress, Naomie Harris is Chiron’s mother Paula – the only actor to appear in all three segments of the movie. Her own journey from neglecting, drug-addicted layabout to repentant, emptied-out mother could fill its own film, but here Harris does stellar work colouring in the edges of Chiron’s story with regret and tragedy.
Mahershala Ali’s early appearance as Chiron’s surrogate father (and, indeed, drug dealer) Juan was a headline achievement of Moonlight – the first Muslim to win an acting Oscar – but his work transcends Academy approval in its naturalism, honesty, and openness. To do so much with his limited screen time is truly a staggering achievement. His presence is still felt in his later absence.
All three iterations of Chiron are gorgeously realised by their respective actors, though especial praise must go to Ashton Sanders, whose narrative middle portion doubles as the emotional centrepoint of the piece, as all of Chiron’s conflicts and anxieties come to a head. As a young performer, Sanders acquits himself with grace and maturity while handling some of the most complex, mature material in the film.
Whatever social significance is weighed upon Moonlight, as the first all-black LGBT film to win the Best Picture Oscar or whatever else, never let it be forgotten how purely good it is as a work of cinema. Its humanity, vibrancy, and artistry operate on a level beyond so much else even a banner year like 2017 has to offer. Barry Jenkins’ vision is distilled and realised with impeccable clarity, urging viewers to surrender control and let Moonlight wash over you entirely, like waves lapping on a Miami beach.
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2017.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 2…
20th – LADY MACBETH
19th – JACKIE
18th – LOGAN
17th – O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
16th – PADDINGTON 2
15th – A GHOST STORY
14th – THE BIG SICK
13th – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
12th – BLADE RUNNER 2049
11th – THOR: RAGNAROK
10th – THE DEATH OF STALIN
9th – CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
8th – TONI ERDMANN
7th – THE HANDMAIDEN
6th – LA LA LAND
5th – DUNKIRK
4th – THE FLORIDA PROJECT
3rd – STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
2nd – MOONLIGHT
Stay tuned for TOMORROW as we reveal our No. 1 of 2017.