Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Casting my nomination ballot this week for the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle not only helped me hone in on my choices for each of awards categories, it helped me decide on my own “Top 10 Films of 2016” list as well. (Thanks, CIFCC!) This past year turned out to be a rather good one at movie theaters in Chicago and I had no difficulty arriving at ten films deemed excellent. In fact, I probably could have offered up another 5-10 closely on the heels of those selections.

Some of those that came close but didn’t make my list include FENCES, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, ELLE, FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, DOCTOR STRANGE, ZOOTOPIA, KUBO & THE TWO STRINGS, 13TH, SING STREET, HELL OR HIGH WATER, MA MA, and THE WITCH. So, what did make my Top 10? Without any further ado, here are the ones that rocked my 2016 movie-going world.

There are films that move you, films that make you think, and films that utterly “Wow” you. This is one of those rare movies that does all three. Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s musical is very modern, yet it has an affinity for Hollywood history like few others, referencing everything from FUNNY FACE to THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. It pulses with energy, from the lush and witty songs to the exuberant dancing to the colorful and nostalgic production design. Still, all the details in the world don’t matter if you don’t care about the characters at the center of it all and Chazelle’s sharply observed romance between struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and headstrong musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is thoroughly involving. Their efforts to balance career and relationship grounds all the buoyant music and fancy footwork. Has a musical ever had its head in the clouds and its feet firmly on the ground in such a way? The bold ending is not what you’d expect, in look or denouement, but then this entire film dares at every turn. It’s an instant classic and one that I will watch again and again and again.

My second favorite film of the year, and a very close second at that, is this stunningly raw and intimate biography about Jacqueline Kennedy. Biopics often attempt to tell too much story about a famous person in a ‘cradle to grave’ sort of way, but Noah Oppenheim’s script wisely concentrates on a tight cluster of days and weeks following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In doing so, the audience remains focused on the grief of the First Lady and her struggle to cope with such a devastating time. Directed with intense flair by Pablo Larrain and acted with ferocious truth by Natalie Portman, we feel every breath of Jackie’s waking nightmare. It was a mourning process she had to endure, and she knew that the country did too, despite the best efforts of the new administration to move on. (Any relation to the current transition malarkey at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue isn’t intentional, but wholly relevant nonetheless.) There have been many Jackie’s put on the big and small screen before, but none have ever been as impactful and as searing as this one.

This film is one of the best adaptations of a novel to be put onscreen in years and no one bothered to see it. Why? Is Philip Roth’s coming-of-age story set in 1951 too yesteryear for today’s audiences to deem it relatable?  Was the film’s lack of stars a deterrent? The answer may be in its July 29 release. The summer movie season is a time of frivolity more than gravity, so INDIGNATION likely got lost amidst the ghostbusters and those needing wedding dates. What a shame, because director/screenwriter James Schamus’ brilliant adaptation of Roth’s tale about an earnest Jewish boy struggling with authority, religious faith, and female sexuality during his first year of college is a stunning work. Adroitly acted by Logan Lerman, with sterling support from the luminous Sarah Gadon and the tightly wound Tracy Letts, this was one of the year’s best films. And its failure to gain any awards show traction this winter is as tragic as the story itself.

Kenneth Lonergan’s script may be the very best original screenplay this year, with its subtle and clever twists in the telling of the tragedy of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). He’s a lonely and sullen handyman who’s forced to upend his simple life and look after his nephew when the boy’s father unexpectedly dies. Flashbacks weave slyly in and out of the first half of the movie showing Lee to formerly be a loving and gregarious sort. So, what happened to turn him into such a haunted soul? The reveal is an emotional punch to the solar plexus. Lonergan directs his shrewd story with the utmost care, never rushing a plot point, and guiding his ensemble cast with sensitivity throughout. That cast, including Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, C.J. Wilson, and Matthew Broderick all shine in a family drama that can easily stand with the likes of Best Picture winners like ORDINARY PEOPLE and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT. 

This film might be the “little engine” that could in 2016. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, his small indie was shot for just $5 million and it’s critical and box office success has established it as one of the Oscar frontrunners this year. It’s a delicate and deft character study of Chiron, an impoverished African-American struggling with his identity. The story is told in three acts with three different actors playing the part (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes). Each of them gives an indelible performance as Chiron grows and discovers just who he is and where he might fit in the world. This courageous story, about homosexuality in the inner city, is one of the most heartfelt and inspiring in many a year. Marhershala Ali, as a sensitive drug dealer who becomes a father figure to Chiron, and Naomie Harris, scary good as his mercurial crackhead mom, are both figuring strongly in this year’s awards season, as well they should be. The same is true of this stellar film.

Tired of all the superhero movies clogging the Cineplex these days? DEADPOOL was the antidote to the overly flip Avengers and the inanely stoic Superman movies from Zack Snyder. Who knew that a dirty, cynical and satirical masked marvel would head up the best action film of the year, along with the best comedy? Ryan Reynolds apparently did. The movie star lobbied for years to make this vision of Wade Wilson and his alter ego take flight and it paid off spectacularly. From the opening credits showcasing a suspended animation car wreck to the genuinely sexy banter between Reynolds and his saucy leading lady Morena Baccarin, this film was a howl. And Reynolds gives a vivid and hysterical comedic performance, even though his face is covered for at least half the movie. Who knows what will happen with the inevitable sequels, but this origins story is one of the best in the entire comic book pages to screen oeuvre, and it will only grow in stature throughout the coming years.

Kelly Fremon Craig’s first feature, which she also wrote, is a knowing teen comedy about Nadine, an immature girl who can’t control her panic, lust or mouth. As the girl closes in on adulthood, she’s still swirling in the vortex of teen angst and immaturity. And when her BFF falls for her hunky brother, her fragile world spins out of control. A character like this, constantly complaining and hurling insults at everyone, could have kept the audience at arms’ length, but Hailee Steinfeld makes Nadine vulnerable and lovable. The breakout star of the Coen Brothers’ remake of TRUE GRIT back in 2010 shines even more. She is a truly inspired comic talent, spitting out cutting quips and bantering back and forth with a droll Woody Harrelson as her world-weary teacher. Every line she utters sounds like it just popped into her head! Nadine is a lonely girl who is desperate to matter, and her need to be loved makes this teen comedy one relatable to everyone. For my money, it’s the best coming-of-age comedy since MEAN GIRLS a decade ago.

The arrival of this serious-minded science fiction stunner from director Denis Villeneuve could not have been more timely. Released the weekend after our national election, its message about proper communication employed to save our planet from alien interlopers seemed to be a direct commentary on an election that was marred by a preponderance of awful messaging, secret emails, WikiLeaks, and snarky 140-character Tweets. Amy Adams played a sensitive linguist tasked with helping the US government decipher the communications coming from the visitors hovering over our planet in their ominous mile-high Pringle-shaped spaceships. Are they here to be our friends? Or are they certain foes, intent on conquering us one and all? Words are the weapons in this story and Adams’ professor is the true warrior in the field, even amongst an army of men surrounding her. She cracks the case when she discovers that all 12 ships have something to say, and need to be strung together as one message. Plus, that message is a wholly profound truth about time that will leave you thinking about it for days. There were few better or more thrilling ways to spend two hours in a theater all year.

Did you think Ang Lee’s take on SENSE & SENSIBILITY and Joe Wright’s version of PRICE & PREJUDICE were sterling interpretations of Jane Austen? Well, get a load of Whit Stillman’s superb telling of her lesser known comedy of manners called LOVE & FRIENDSHIP. Stillman has always loved making films about the class system, and the silliness of status seeking, but here he topped himself. Kate Beckinsale gave one of the year’s best comedic performance for her droll portrayal of Lady Susan, a widow in the late eighteenth century trying to secure her future in patriarchal England. Clad in black, she is a darkly comic villainess, getting everyone to bend to her will while subtly challenging the time's archaic caste system. Susan’s approach is truly feminist here, ridiculing the men who would keep women down. At the end, her shrewdness wins the day and a secure future. And she does so with none of the conned even realizing they’ve been had. Bravo to her and the year’s wittiest film.

The TV miniseries THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON was a terrific show, but this 7.5-hour documentary proved that there was still a whole lot more to cover regarding “The Trial of the Century.” After all, that case was about so much more than just the fall from grace of the African-American football legend O.J. Simpson, tried for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, both Caucasian. It's a clear-eyed look at racism in America, particularly that which was evident within Los Angeles for 75 years leading up to that powder keg of a court case. Every second of this unusually lengthy doc is utterly fascinating, not one moment wasted. It studiously examines all the details of the case, the prejudices of the players, and the craziness that went on inside the trial that helped hold America captivate for well over two years on television. At the end of it all, Simpson managed to walk away, declared “not guilty” by an overly sympathetic, mostly black jury.  Yet there were no real victories to be found. Soon after, Simpson was found liable in the civil suit. He was ostracized as a pariah by most of the nation. And his continuing hubris ran afoul of the law again landed him in jail for life. And most of the other players involved lived with nagging regrets, embarrassment, and even shame. All of this is told here in one big, sprawling horror show. It's an awful portrait of the entitlement of celebrity, as well as an ugly selfie of a nation that isn’t nearly as progressive as we thought we were.

Those are my choices. What are yours? We’ll have to wait and see if Oscar agrees with my choices or yours come February. But make no mistake, 2016 was a year with a lot of great films and if any of those on my list make it into the Academy’s Best Picture shortlist, I will be one happy camper, critic and fan.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


Original caricature by Jeff York of Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. (copyright 2016)

Monday, December 26, 2016


It’s a yearly tradition here at The Establishing Shot to pick the favorite images from each movie year and 2016 will be no exception. What constitutes a favorite image? They’re the shots from films that I found to be the most memorable. They were startling, notable, artistic, or even shocking. No matter what the reason, here are the 10 images from this year that are still in my head. (And yes, there will be some spoilers in the upcoming paragraphs.)

Director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim set out to tell a bolder and more intimate story about First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy than had ever been put on a big or small screen before. (The name of the film clues us in immediately that this is going to be more personal.) And in a film filled with searing images of her grief in the days and weeks after her husband President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, perhaps none demonstrates her despair more than the unforgettable one of her removing the aftermath of the shooting. As pictured above, it is a graphic and uncompromising look at her victimization in Dallas that day. Not only was Jackie (a never better Natalie Portman) splattered with her husband's blood and brain matter, but she could have been shot as well. Then, to make matters worse, she had to clean it off to get ready to witness LBJ’s emergency swearing in on Air Force One. Moments earlier in the film, Larrain showed a similar shot of her adjusting her pillbox hat for the parade through Dallas. Now, her life is destroyed and she is forced to look presentable for the cameras. It’s one of the most devastating images in JACKIE, one impossible to forget, and it’s my pick for the most memorable of the year.

There are so many stunning images in Damien Chazelle’s modern movie musical LA LA LAND that it’s hard to narrow down the list. My favorite is one of its most witty and ethereal. The film establishes early on that the musical numbers are fantasies, spooling out from the romantic hopes and dreams of its characters. And on their first date together, struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) and headstrong jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) venture to the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles. As their romantic feelings for each other manifest, Seb gently lifts Mia up and she starts to float towards the ceiling like a child’s balloon. Soon he joins her for a mid-air waltz that is as poetic as it is cheeky. I wish the very first trailer hadn’t given away this sublime moment, but it doesn’t rob its power a smidge. Instead, the audience is lifted along with them as we fall in love with this romantically inclined couple.

You know you’re in for something unique and brazen from the very start of the anti-hero superhero movie DEADPOOL. To the synthesized strains of Juice Newton’s 1981 “Angel of the Morning”, the camera moves in slow motion, serpentining around a vicious and graphic brawl happening within an exploding RV, frozen in mid-air. The pure choreography of this absurd, gonzo opening is hysterical, with screaming faces, crotches being bitten, and glass shattering everywhere, all stuck in suspended animation. But what makes it even more of a howler is that this is the opening credits sequence. Soon, brutally honest credits will weave their way in and out. Star Ryan Reynolds is identified with the credit “God’s perfect idiot.” The producers are labeled as “asshats.” The funniest announcement is when the screenwriters are proclaimed as “the real heroes of the movie.”  Director Tim Miller comes from an animation background, and indeed, his entire film is practically a live-action cartoon, albeit an R-rated one, starting with this outrageous opener.

John Huston once remarked that 90% of a film is casting. If you don’t believe the people saying the lines, you won’t believe any of the movie. So, when the two main characters of ZOOTOPIA, police bunny Judy Hopps and con artist fox Nick Wilde, head to the DMV to retrieve some critical information needed in their criminal investigation, time is precious and they need their information delivered in a hurry. Enter the clerk. He happens to be a sloth. Yep, casting. The sloth’s inability to give them answers as quickly as they desire provides the biggest laughs in the latest animated gem from Disney. Judy (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) grows more and more impatient while Nick (Jason Bateman) adds to her angst and tells a time wasting joke. The sloth (Raymond S. Perci) gets it eventually, but the long time it takes for him to process it, and then react with a laugh, feels like an eternity. A hilarious, inspired eternity. 

Transferring a novel to the screen is never easy, particularly when it’s an author like Philip Roth. His descriptions of scenes and the inner thoughts of his characters are so vivid, cinema often bungles his prose in translation (Case in point? This year’s misfire of an adaptation of Roth’s AMERICAN PASTORAL.) Yet here, in writer/director James Schamus’ vividly detailed telling of Roth bestseller INDIGNATION, the source material is done proud. Never has the meaning of Roth’s words been more beautifully realized onscreen. Especially potent is when protagonist Marcus (Logan Lerman) first sets his eyes on Olivia (Sarah Gadon) in the college library. Roth spent a lot of time in his novel describing her coquettish leg swaying as it rests on her chair. Schamus shoots the girl from Marcus’ POV and we see the young goddess through his eyes. When Olivia looks up and their eyes meet, he's a goner. And we in the audience are just as bewitched.  

Another film that is quite bewitching, literally, concerns the presence of brides of the devil nestled within a puritanical Pilgrim community. Robert Eggers delivered not only the best horror movie this year with THE WITCH, but also has visualized some of the year’s most potent images within it. The director saves one of his most terrifying for his final moments of the film. Up until that time, we’ve seen a seventeenth century New England family trying to live according to the disciplines described in the Bible. But their human frailty cannot follow the letter of God's laws, and one by one, the members lose their faith, as well as their lives. When the remaining teen daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) succumbs to the dark side, she does so by accepting the devil's invention to “a life lived deliciously.” She then strips naked and joins a coven of witches dancing naked near a forest campfire. As she watches, their pure exaltation levitates them into the night air. She soon follows. It’s a denouement as chilling as every other moment of this truly unsettling 93-minute thriller.

Sometimes a camera can merely rest on an actor’s face and be as powerful as any kinetic action onscreen. Thus, it is with Hugh Grant’s visage and the calculating expressions he delivers as St. Clair Bayfield, the enabling husband of FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. When he hires young pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany Florence (Meryl Streep) in her pursuit of dreams to be an operatic singer, Clair doesn’t tell him that his wife's talent is utterly off-key and shrill. When she shrieks her first notes, Cosmé is incredulous, but Clair tempers the tension with a sly look that subtly suggests that he agrees with his take, but they will never let Florence know how atrocious she really is. Grant has always been an exquisitely droll actor, and his work her is some of the cagiest and cleverest in his brilliant career. That’s why his face alone is one of the most engaging images on film this year.

Jeff Bridges plays Marcus, an old coot of a sheriff, laconically chasing a couple of brother bandits (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) who are robbing banks throughout present-day Texas. In HELL OR HIGH WATER, a modern western, he's about to retire and he constantly reminds his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) of that fact. Then, after almost 90 minutes of jibes, anecdotes, and shambling police work, their pursuit suddenly takes a harrowing turn when Alberto is shot dead. All at once, Marcus must become fully engaged. He yells at the others joined in their pursuit to back off for fear of losing their lives. Suddenly this hayseed is a keen enforcer, terrified, yet giving 100% to the job. It’s a shocking character reveal that plays as bold and dynamic as the narrative jolt of that sudden death in this acclaimed thriller.

About 30 minutes into ARRIVAL, Amy Adams’ linguist Louise Banks accompanies the military personnel up into the entrance of an alien spaceship. Their intent is to establish genuine communications with the visitors aboard, who could be friends or  foes. Director Denis Villeneuve shoots the scene above the characters, looking down on the mile drop below them. Unexpectedly, Louise is pulled up by Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber to enter the zero gravity present at the edge of the alien vessel. She's startled and terrified, as are we in the audience. The feeling of vertigo created by that image is overwhelming. I never thought I’d feel such a fear of heights watching a movie as I did last year upon seeing Robert Zemekis' THE WALK in IMAX. I was wrong. ARRIVAL did it to me again. And this time, it was merely on a regular screen. Damn.

In Tom Ford’s complex psychological thriller, Amy Adams plays Susan, a bored and frosty art gallery proprietor living in the bubble of privilege. She'd like to feel alive and connect with someone, but cannot. Her marriage is a sham, her friendships vacant. Then one day, she’s sent a book written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). The disturbing revenge plot in his pages revives her. Her blood really gets pumping as she realizes that Edward is writing about their twisted relationship in his way. Can she reconnect with him and start over? Her hopes rise when Edward invites her to dinner. She dolls herself up with a killer green dress, stylish hair and full makeup. But as she faces herself in the mirror, Susan realizes that she is a façade, far from the unfettered and honest girl Edward once knew. She dramatically, and almost violently, wipes of her blood red lipstick, wishing that she could wipe away her wicked life along with it. Former fashionista Ford has turned into one of the most arresting filmmakers working today. He is an expert at creating images that can make the ugly beautiful, and the beautiful ugly. And he does it from first frame to last in this challenging thriller.

Those are the 10 favorite movie images of mine this year. What are yours? Tell me the shots that are still lingering in your head and why. And here’s to just as many wonderful images that hopefully await us in the new slate of cinematic offerings for 2017! 

Sunday, December 18, 2016


Original caricature by Jeff York of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in LA LA LAND. (copyright 2016)

 (WARNING: This post contains major movie spoilers. Read with caution.)

Without question, cinema has the power to devastate. Some of the most vivid movie memories are those films with an ending that leaves us shaking, crying, or troubled for days. Think of the movies that drove you to tears, broke your heart, or left you unable to sleep. It could be Marley dying at the veterinarian’s office, or Katie touching Hubbell’s hair one last time, or Jake Gittes failing to understand once again how tragic things happen to those who venture into Chinatown. This year, a new movie joins such a storied list of films that devastate...and believe it or not, it’s a musical.

Wait a minute, musicals are supposed to be happy, right? They’re meant to get your toes tapping and ensure you leave the theater humming. Well, that may be true most of the time, but plenty of stories put to song are filled with plenty of pathos too. LES MISERABLES kills off just about every one of its cast of characters by the final reel. In FUNNY GIRL, Fanny Brice doesn’t end up with Nicky Arnstein, even though she worked so hard at getting him back it wasn’t even, well, funny. And did anyone expect a French musical like THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG from the turbulent 1960’s to end on a happy note? Mais non! Not when Michel Legrand’s score cues the melancholy from his opening bars. No, musicals often leave a residue of angst, and if you’ve seen ALL THAT JAZZ, CABARET or even OLIVER, you know what I’m talking about.

Thus, it is with this year as the musical LA LA LAND devastates in its way as well. (Again, if you haven’t seen the film, you might want to jump off here.) Written and directed by Damien Chazelle of WHIPLASH fame, it is a film that is fun and fizzy, yet amazingly devastating in its final analysis. The story concerns two artists trying to make it in Hollywood. Mia (Emma Stone) wants to be an actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) wants to play jazz. They become involved with each other and their love story veers back and forth between scenes that are grounded and scenes that are pure flights of fancy. The scenes that are fantastical are the musical numbers in the film and their singing and dancing together personify their feelings of love for each other or their dreams of success in Tinseltown.

The music in these scenes is incredible as it advances the storytelling and manages to do so with distinct melodies that are instantly hummable and lyrics that are smart and tight. As Mia and Sebastian dance together in synch, often in one take, and sing to each other, we realize that this is Chazelle’s way of showing them living the dream. It’s not what they’d say or do, of course, but rather how they feel. The fantasy is from their hearts, just as the musical numbers in the movie CHICAGO were Roxie Hart’s way of imagining her life as a staged vaudeville show.

But Chazelle does something rather profound with his fantasy scenes here, and he is consistent in treating them in this way throughout the film. He starts off a scene grounded and then lets it veer into fantasy. He shows the normal, like Mia and her roommates getting ready to go to a party, and then as the music enters, the choreography begins, and they start singing in rhyme, the scene turns into a movie musical’s expression of their exuberance. It’s what happens in almost every movie musical ever, and it happens here too. That isn’t the exceptional part.

What is exceptional is how the musical numbers will themselves into the characters’ reality. When her roomies sing about how “Someone in the Crowd” could be the one that picks her up off the ground and helps her with her goal to become a star, that happens. It’s Sebastian whom she meets and he will become her muse, her lover and be the one who'll cajole her into putting her neck out on the line and commit to her dreams. When Mia and Sebastian visit the Los Angeles observatory on their first date, and their love for each other starts to buoy them, they literally lift off the ground together. Their love is "taking flight." Soon, they’re dancing among the stars, lost in their idealized fantasy sequence. (Who doesn’t feel that way when first falling for another?)

This kind of willing into reality happens most significantly when Mia lands a big audition for a movie role that will happen in Paris. The star makers ask her to simply tell them a compelling story, rather than read pages from a script. What she tells them about is her artistically-minded aunt and as she gets deeper into the story, she starts to sing it and it turns into a spotlighted musical number. The musical salute “The Fools Who Dream” is not only the movie’s best song but it is Mia's (and Sebastian's) motto in its way. The song tells of how artists and dreamers take risks and achieve greatness, but it's a messy process. And indeed, those are the movie’s most telling words being foreshadowed right there. Mia nails the audition. And like the other musical numbers in the film, it starts grounded, veers into a fantastical presentation, and ends up becoming her reality as she gets the part. Mia will ultimately fly to Paris and becomes a big star. 

Sebastian will not go with her. He will stay back in LA to pursue his own dreams of owning a jazz club. Then, the film flashes forward to five years later for its final scenes. Mia shows up in LA and she's now a big star. And she's married, with a child, but the man of her new dreams is not Sebastian. They drifted apart after she left and they both moved on with their separate lives. 

When she and her husband return to Los Angeles, they go out for a night on the town and stumble across a buzzy nightclub. It turns out to be Sebastian’s wildly successful jazz club, of course. They enter, even though Mia is hesitant as she realizes whose club it is, not sure of what she'll find or how she'll feel when she sees Sebastian after all these years. But she seems him in his element, loving what he's doing, and she is thrilled that he is living his dream too. But then when he sees her, with another man, the life that could have been with each other is shown. 

Again, Chazelle starts with a scene grounded in reality, and then it veers into fantasy. And what a fantasy it is! Chazelle has his star-crossed lovers dance and prance through scenes that recreate their history together and show what should have occurred with them staying together. In the fantasy musical number, the sets become more tableau and theatrical, and it whisks you up with these two. 

Sebastian then follows Mia to Paris, rather than stay behind to pursue his dreams separately, and he opens up his jazz club in France instead. They're together, married, and they are the ones who have the child together. It's a musical denouement that we're led to believe will somehow be what really happened, especially since all the other musical numbers point in that direction. Chazelle has started real, veered into the fantastical, and somehow what is being sung and danced about becomes the next reality in Mia's or Sebastian's life. Right?

Nope. Not this time.

This time the fantasy comes full circle and Mia isn't with Sebastian. Instead, she's with the man we saw upon her return to LA. It's the one time Chazelle returns to utter reality, one not willed by fantasy. It's tremendously shrewd to do so and such a different way to play at the very end. It is brilliant. And it is utterly devastating. 

The crushing reality of Sebastian and Mia realizing their personal goals, but not with each other by their side, is what we're left with. No happy ending this time. Instead, the film achieves one of the greatest rug pulls in movie history and lands an emotional gut punch like few others have ever done in a musical, easily equally the gas station finale of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG or Jessica Lange's Angel of Death finally planting a kiss on the lips of Roy Scheider's Joe Gideon at the end of ALL THAT JAZZ. Sebastian has lost Mia. Fantasy is nice, but in LA LA LAND, it's not always reality. Not at the very end of it all.

LA LA LAND is an enormously engaging movie, with characters we care about, beautiful music and production values, and a sense of magic throughout, but at the very end we're reminded that not all dreams can be fulfilled. Being an artist is indeed messy. 

It seems, more often than not, that the best love stories end unhappily, with some form of devastation. Rhett & Scarlett. Rick and Ilsa. Maria and Tony. And now Mia and Sebastian. But the ending here makes this amazing film only greater. It's a film about living in “La La Land”, shorthand for a world that is filled with wishful thinking that foolishly ignoring the harsh realities in the world. Chazelle's film is one that is truly brilliant, profound in its lessons, sure to win a ton of Oscars, and an experience that will haunt you for a very long time.