La La Land ★★★★★

After watching this film at the Chicago International Film Festival, my original plan was to wait until closer to the film's actual release date to give my thoughts on it. However, after sitting with it for two days, with the images and sounds still sweeping through my mind, I cannot help myself. I will be as vague as possible, because I do not want to ruin the experience of seeing it for the first time, but I have to talk about it.

La La Land, as it has been advertised, pays homage to classic movie musicals. Not only does it visually allude to films such as Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon, but it also preserves the upbeat, wondrous tone of those classics. There is something wonderful about seeing this tone and style recreated for a modern film. Cynicism and pretentiousness are completely absent from this film, and nostalgia and joy take their place.

But calling La La Land a terrific recreation of the classic movie musical is selling it short. Like director Damien Chazelle's previous work, La La Land has much more going on narratively than the movie may lead people to believe. On the surface, this is a love story about two artists trying to make their ways in Los Angeles. However, this framework is deceptively simple.

La La Land forces us to think about the realities of personal relationships and artistic endeavors. It explores the excitement of our dreams, the hardships of pursuing these dreams, and forces the audience to question the importance of both. Fortunately, Chazelle never looks down on the audience with these ideas. They are not presented in a heavy handed manner, and he never forces you to think a certain way.

On top of its thematic richness, La La Land has one of the best understandings of film as a storytelling medium that I have seen in recent years. On the surface, it is the most technically astounding. The cinematography is stunning, and the soundtrack is beautiful. Even better is that both the visuals and soundtrack are never used in a way that is shallow or uninteresting. La La Land has an understanding of how to tell a story visually. It understands the power of sequencing, the power images can have on the emotional impact of a story, and the way in which these images simultaneously indulge our fantasies and remind us of our humanity.

In other words, for me, it embodies everything that I love about movies.

There are instances that everyone can recall in a cinema where we have felt what I like to call "movie magic." These are evoked by the films that completely absorb us into its world, and movies that have a lasting, personal impact on us far beyond the theater. They are the films that we hold as the pinnacle of what makes watching movies so great.

La La Land is one of those movies.

During its 128 minute running time, the only time I wanted to look away from the screen was to turn to the people around me and check and see if they were experiencing the same kind of magic that I was. I can affirm that everyone I saw in my theater was.

La La Land is a masterpiece. It is not only the best movie of 2016 so far, but also possibly one of the best of the decade. It's spectacular, stunning, moving, and absolutely magical.

Joey Traverso liked these reviews