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My Favorite Moments in the Best Picture Nominees: Moonlight

This has become an annual tradition the day before the Oscars. In order move away all the subjectivity and negativity that happens when figuring out what should win and what’s going to win (especially this year, where the backlash is in full effect), I get away from all of that stuff and celebrate the films that are nominated for Best Picture.

We take this day to look at them as masterworks of cinema and not as films competing for a trophy. All of that other stuff — the analysis, the opinions — that’s all done with. Today, we take a minute, we stop, and we appreciate the films themselves. I count down my five favorite moments (or elements) of each of them.

When you take away all the awards, all the competition, and all the arbitrary decisions about what film is better than the others, what we’re left with is great cinema. That’s what we’re celebrating.

Our final nominee is Moonlight.

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5. The things that make us

I love how well-drawn this film is, specifically in terms of watching our main character form. Every little detail makes it all fit together. We see things happen in the first chapter that help build to who this man is by the third chapter. It’s not a neat little package, but it works, and it all feels effortless. When we get to the third act and Chiron is driving the nice car with the crown on the hood, you immediately know how he’s styled himself and why that came about. The movie picks its spots so well and has the perfect amount of little details that pay off in ways that you don’t expect. Meaning, you see things that you don’t consciously register, but then when you see them again later, you know immediately where they’re from. That’s some great filmmaking.

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4. The power of small moments

I love this moment in particular. This movie is full of small, but powerful moments. It never overstates them in any way. I remember, in the first chapter, seeing the subtle moment where Chiron and Kevin are walking away and Chiron touches Kevin’s cheek because it’s bleeding. And it’s so simply done. It’s not played for any kind of tone or sexuality, but it just feels like the kind of moment that is huge in this boy’s sexual development. I love how this film handled all of those moments.

This one in particular — this is the first time we ever see (and really the only time, unless we’re counting the very end) Chiron get emotional. And it’s so delicately handled. I love everything Barry Jenkins did with this movie.

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3. Mahershala Ali

He commands the first chapter of this movie something fierce. You can’t take your eyes off of him the entire time he’s on screen. And the real test of how great a character is happens when they’re gone from the film and aren’t coming back. After chapter two starts, and we slowly find out that Ali died in the interim and isn’t coming back, you feel bad. You wanted more of him. He’s so good here, and he’s likely going to earn a well-deserved Oscar for his work here.

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2. That diner scene

Moonlight is a film built off of characters not speaking and silence. And it all builds to this. Tell me this isn’t one of the most riveting, emotional scenes of the year. And it’s just two people sitting at a diner, talking. That’s the power of this film. There’s so much built into this moment, so much that’s not said. Masterful work. Truly.

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1. “What’s a faggot?”

This film, these characters, this couldn’t be further from my life or my experiences, and yet everything about it I understood deeply. There’s something universal about it. I don’t know why, and I don’t know if everyone else experienced the film the same way, but this first section in particular, I just cared so deeply about these characters and somehow felt everything the character was going through, despite going through literally none of this in my life.

There’s something so wonderful about how this scene in particular plays, and especially how Ali and Monae play this. Telling him it’s okay. “You ain’t gotta know right now.” Those words are so specific and so universal at the same time. Those are words specifically about this little boy dealing with his sexuality, and yet they’re words that every kid should hear growing up. You don’t need all the answers now. This is a boy grasping for some sort of parent figure in his life, and getting it from the most unlikely of places.

And then, pivoting away from that moment specifically — when Chiron asks Juan if he sells drugs, Mahershala Ali’s response is just so wonderful that I’d give him the Oscar on that alone. The amount of honesty, and shame, that he conveys in that moment is really powerful. And the little boy’s reaction to hearing all this spoken aloud — his father figure is a drug dealer, who sells drugs to his mother. Words cannot express how much I love this scene. This scene, to me, is the most powerful moment in a film full of powerful moments.

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