Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Review: "Manchester By the Sea" is the Best Film of 2016

Scene from Manchester By the Sea
The art of loneliness isn't something that's necessarily cinematic. For starters, inactive characters contradict the capabilities of a medium meant to embody visceral excitement. This may be true, but director Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester By the Sea has managed to find a way around this problem by finding a story that is vastly insular as well as engaging. By focusing on the struggles of two family members as a relative dies, the film manages to find the connective tissue in which everyone feels that struggle of loss. What makes the film even more of an achievement is that Lonergan's script manages to explore the darkness without giving way of the comical asides and vulnerable moments that are found in everyday moment. They aren't flaws of the movie, but instead a reflection of how everyone deals with grief. Thanks to excellent performances by Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges, the film explodes with life. It may seem unlikely, but it actually is the most human film of the year.

The film's biggest theme is regret. This is largely embodied in the character of Lee (Affleck) who remains somber and is often seen in flashbacks during a happier time. These are moments where he's fishing with his nephew Patrick and drunkenly playing ping pong with his friends in the basement. It's unclear what's bothering him, but Lonergan slowly teases out why the death of Lee's brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) leaves him in shambles, unable to form relationships with people beyond simple janitorial tasks in Quincy. Massachusetts. He is reluctant to help Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in his hour of need, eventually doing more out of reluctant obligation. Both struggle to get along, though for different reasons. Lee looks inward for relief while Patrick turns to his two girlfriends and a rock band for solace.

The flashbacks play out like a mystery meant to answer why he isn't with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams). The answer is expectantly heartbreaking and one so conflicted that it comes to embody the concept of Catholic guilt. It's the belief that one can never let go of their sins, forever feeling some torment no matter how small. For Lee, that is most evident to a crippling degree. Even as he tries to care for Patrick, he finds himself reluctant to fully connect with him on a personal level. They discuss their lives in surface-level subject matter made worse by how painful it is to mention Joe's passing. It is the catalyst for Lee's trajectory in the film, which is constantly diverted through mechanisms of sarcasm to hide his deeper pain, which he rarely speaks publicly about.

The film is a master class in writing; balancing the happiness with the sadness. What Lonergan does is manage to reflect the side of grieving that is common in life but not in film. In one scene, Joe is getting a fateful diagnosis that sets up the rest of the film's emotional tension. However, it is sidetracked by a desire for the nurse's name to be said right. A character screams, annoyed at Joe for finding humor in the moment. Considering that Patrick experiences this when his friends shift a conversation of Joe's death to that of Star Trek, it sets the precedent for what's to come. Grieving is a very frustrating idea, but it's impossible to entirely live within the darkness. There will be distracting moments that pull us into other mindsets. The film perfectly finds small moments to expand on how this distraction works, inevitably serving as a cure for Patrick. The film isn't necessarily funny, but Lonergan finds humor that is extremely honest to life's mysterious journey.

At the center of the film is Affleck, whose performance elevates the film to the status of masterpiece. While a lot of the credit can be given to Lonergan's screenplay - itself one of the best of the decade - there's something to watching Affleck deflect that makes the film all the more heartbreaking and engaging. There is a desire to see him pull through, but he keeps getting caught in Catholic guilt. Part of the film's optimism comes from ambiguous moments that suggest an emotional breakthrough, but end up being sidelined by the torment inside of him. Hedges is equally great and manages to embody most of the humor in his sarcastic remarks. Together, they play like a manic depressive comedy duo who are unfathomably right for each other at that moment. As flashbacks remind the audience of their happier days, it only helps to solidify how great these performances are. They convey so much emotion with no more than stares and off hand remarks. It's a character study that doesn't go down easily.

Manchester By the Sea is the best film of 2016 largely because it's one of the few to explore human struggles in ways that actually feel authentic. It is likely that the viewer knows someone like Lee and Patrick. It is likely that frustrating days have been met with awkward jokes. This may not be the most uplifting film of the year (that would be La La Land), but it's one of the most cathartic for those who suffer from personal guilt. Lonergan's story is bold and manages to convey something familiar in poignant detail. With excellent performances and direction, this is a film that compellingly tells a story that is difficult to be done right. The fact that he has managed to do it so passionately and memorably is a testament to his craft. This is what cinema can be as a form of emotional exploration. Few films have reached this level of clarity in 2016, and it seems unlikely that many will in the year ahead either. It's a perfect piece of art.

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