2010-2019: Best Films of the Past Decade–Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight–Original, Lyrical, Powerful Coming-of-Age, Coming-Out Drama

Watching Together While Apart

How to Keep Global Movie Culture Alive and Well?

Alone/Together in the Dark

I had an interesting argument a couple of weeks ago with a cherished colleague and friend, who’s also a film critic.  He claimed, based on his common sense, that during the Coronavirus pandemic, viewers wish to see escapist entertainment, sort of fluffy and undemanding fare, such as broad comedies, dazzling musicals, fast-paced actioners and adventures.

I have never fully subscribed to the escapist theory–in essence-, that in dreary times, audiences would opt for everything and anything that would let them forget for a few hours the surrounding grim reality.

When an international magazine asked for my choices of the great films of the past decade, I began to construct lists of films that have impressed me at their initial release, and have continued to linger in memory in terms of ideas, motifs, characters, images, and sounds.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

For purposes of simplicity, my list of the 30 best movies of the past decade is presented alphabetically.  Obviously, the films reflect my taste as I look back and revisit them from a distance.  As such, they are inevitably singular and biased.  There’s no need to agree with my filmic hierarchy, but as a critic, it’s my duty and privilege to expose readers to films that they might not have seen upon initial release, or wish to revisit from a different viewpoint–with the privileged perspective of time.

15. Moonlight (U.D. Indie, 2016)

This essay was written in September 2016 (months before the film was nominated for and then won the Best Picture Oscar).

As of today, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is the most original and powerful dramatic feature of 2016.

moonlight_poster

If you don’t respond to three or four of this indie’s many emotionally intense, heartbreaking scenes, you should stop going to the movies alltogether.

Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Spanning two decades, Moonlight tells the turbulent journey, both physical and emotional, of one young man as he struggles to “find” himself and to “define” himself–socially, culturally, and sexually.

Benefiting from an original narrative structure, the story is told across three distinct and defining chapters in his life.

Though intimate in focus–essentially centering on one character–Moonlight is ambitious in depth.  And though it’s is grounded in a particular economic context and social class, the journey of this boy into young manhood has universal meanings due to the ways in which his falling in love and having sex for the first time are depicted, with all the ecstasy, pain and beauty involved in these processes.

Anchored by astonishing performances and the singular vision of filmmaker Barry Jenkins, Moonlight explores the very essence of masculinity, offering a deeply intimate yet sensual look at the defining moments of our lives and the individuals that are responsible for shaping them.

This is the second film for director Barry Jenkins, following the critically acclaimed Medicine for Melancholy, a romantic feature that not many critics or viewers saw (I’m told a new DVD release is in the works).

The tale follows one young man’s tumultuous coming age and coming out in a tough Miami neighborhood in South Florida over the course of two decades.

The multi-layered drama intersects the factors of race, sexuality, masculinity, identity, family and love, and how those crucial variables shape our everyday lives in both anticipated and unanticipated ways. Phrased in a different way, Moonlights emphasizes the importance of both randomness and open-mindedness in our encounters with others.

No American film of recent years has been so bold, thematically and artistically, in capturing the feelings of longing and heartache as they define–both enhance and arrest–the development of one young man.

Structurally, the movie is divided into three chapters, each centering on the protagonist at a different phase of his life.

A trio of gifted actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) inhabit the movie’s single hero, officially named Chiron, but referred to by various nick names at different point in life.

As Chiron grows from an uncertain and tentative boy into a bullied teenager grappling with his sexuality and finally into a grown man, Jenkins skillfully breaks the narrative structure into three distinct chapters (See detailed descriptions below).

In the process, he reveals how powerful moments in each of our lives coalesce to shape our identities and define our fates in both expected and unexpected ways.

Throughout, Moonlight comes across as incredibly and achingly romantic, dealing with loneliness and the desperate to connect, both emotionally and sexually.

In deconstructing the concept (and myth) of masculinity, especially in the African-American community, the filmmakers challenge and shatter notion of what it means to be a “real man.”

The stunning supporting ensemble is headed by Naomie Harris (still best known for supporting roles in trivial fare, like James Bond and Pirates of the Caribbean), playing with tough yet impassioned grace a crack addicted single mother, who’s trying to raise her young son amid tempestuous personal struggles.

Janelle Monáe (in her feature debut) André Holland (“Selma”) and Mahershala Ali (Emmy nominee for “House of Cards”), embody the indelible mentors who help nurture Chiron across the turbulent years.

Commercial Appeal

By standards of indie features, Moonlight was a huge commercial success, earning $27.9 million in the U.S. and $37.5 million in other countries for a global box-office of $65.3 million, against a production budget of $4 million.

Narrative Structure: Three Parts

Part I. Little
In Liberty City, Miami, Afro-Cuban drug dealer Juan finds Chiron, a shy boy nicknamed “Little,” hiding from a group of bullies. Juan lets Chiron spend the night with him and girlfriend Teresa before returning Chiron to his mother Paula, who then grounds him from watching TV for worrying her.

Chiron continues to spend time with Juan, who teaches him how to swim and tells him he can choose his own path in life.

Juan encounters Paula smoking crack with his customer, and berates her for neglecting her son, But she rebukes him for selling crack to her in the first place. She knows why Chiron gets tormented by his peers, alluding to “the way he walks,” before going home and taking out frustrations on Chiron.

Chiron admits to Juan and Teresa that he hates his mother. He asks what a “faggot” is, and Juan tells him it is “a word used to make gay people feel bad.” He tells Chiron there is nothing wrong with being gay and that he should not allow others to mock him. Chiron knows that Juan sold drugs to Paula, which makes Juan distraught and remorseful for his actions.

Part II. Chiron

As a teenager, Chiron avoids school bully Terrel, spending time with Teresa, who has lived alone since Juan’s death. Paula, who has turned to prostitution after the worsening of her addiction, forces Chiron to give her the money he receives from Teresa.

Chiron’s childhood friend Kevin tells him about a detention he received for being caught having sex with a girl in school stairwell, and Chiron later dreams about Kevin and the girl having sex in Teresa’s back yard.

While smoking together, the two buddies discuss their ambitions. They kiss, and Kevin gives Chiron a handjob.

The next morning, Terrel manipulates Kevin into a hazing ritual. Kevin reluctantly punches Chiron until he is unable to stand before watching as Terrel and other boys savagely attack him. When the principal urges him to reveal his attackers’ identities, Chiron, not wanting to turn Kevin in, refuses.

The next day, an enraged Chiron walks into class and smashes a chair over Terrel’s head. The police arrest Chiron for assault, and he is sent to juvenile hall.

Part III: Black

An adult Chiron, now named Black, is released from prison and deals drugs in Atlanta. He receives frequent calls from Paula, who asks him to visit her at the drug treatment center.

His mother, seeing the errors of her ways, apologizes for not loving him when he needed it. Eventually, the two of them reconcile before Paula lets her son go.

Chiron travels to Miami and reunites with Kevin, who now works at a diner. Kevin tells him he’s had a child with an ex-girlfriend and, although the relationship ended, he is fulfilled as a father. Chiron talks about his drug dealing.  Kevin then plays a song on the jukebox that made him think of Chiron.

After Kevin serves Chiron dinner, the two go to his apartment. Kevin seems happy despite the fact that his life didn’t turn out as he had hoped, resulting in Chiron breaking down and admitting that he has not been intimate with anybody since their encounter years ago.  Kevin comforts him, and Black remembers himself as Little, standing on a beach in the moonlight.

Cast

Kevin Jones, Chiron’s closest friend
André Holland as Adult Kevin
Jharrel Jerome as Teen Kevin
Jaden Piner as Child Kevin
Naomie Harris as Paula, Chiron’s mother
Mahershala Ali as Juan, a drug dealer who becomes a father figure to Chiron
Janelle Monáe as Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend
Patrick Decile as Terrel, a school bully

Credits
Barry Jenkins – director, screenwriter
Tarell Alvin McCraney – story writer, executive producer
Adele Romanski – producer
Dede Gardner – producer
Jeremy Kleiner – producer
Brad Pitt – executive producer
Hannah Beachler – production designer
Caroline Eselin – costume designer
Nicholas Britell – composer
James Laxton – director of photography
Nat Sanders – editor
Joi McMillon – editor