4. First Man (2018)
First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and it’s the only film in Chazelle’s filmography upon which he does not have a writing credit.
Ryan Gosling plays the storied astronaut alongside on-screen wife Claire Foy, and each deliver subdued performances that match the realist film style. It’s this style that sets First Man apart from most stories of humanity’s journeys into space – it’s not about a hero who was specially ordained and equipped to land on the moon, but a man who humbly did what was asked of him to help his team reach the final frontier amidst personal grief.
If it were a Chazelle original, First Man would surely be higher on this list. But it stands in sharp contrast to the components that make up a Chazelle film. The score is almost non-existent, which may serve the realist style, but it is a huge deviation from Chazelle’s other works. While the story follows a pursuit of greatness, Armstrong’s stoicism is very different from the expressive artists of Chazelle’s other films.
First Man is an excellent biopic, but it’s clear that the filmmaker is not as passionate about telling a grounded story about space in comparison to his more personal portrayals of tortured artists.
3. La La Land (2016)
La La Land is the film that Damien Chazelle wanted to make when he arrived in Los Angeles.
The Oscars Best Picture nominee follows in the style of Guy and Madeline, an old-school Hollywood musical homage told with a different flair. Instead of the grounded and realistic nature of Guy and Madeline, La La Land takes a more fantastical approach, moving musical numbers into a liminal space that answers the classic dilemma of musicals: “are they really stopping their day to dance around and sing with all these random people in the middle of the street?”
Chazelle used imperfect musical performances from the leads, which helps to make the film feel rather natural. Ryan Gosling learned to play piano for the role, and he and Emma Stone both collaborated closely with Chazelle to make the experience of folks trying to make it in Hollywood feel more real. Their romance is not always like those of the classic Hollywood musicals, but they perfectly embody the complicated feelings of the two leads who are torn between art and success.
This highlight of 21st century musicals would cement Damien Chazelle as one of the world’s great filmmakers, earning him the distinction of becoming the youngest director to ever win Best Director at the Oscars. Unfortunately, this momentous achievement is often overlooked because of the mix-up over that year’s Best Picture award, which La La Land was announced for but Moonlight was the true recipient of.
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