365 Movies By Day Reviews of Movies I Watch that I Feel Like Writing About

1Dec/160

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Almost perfect. While it may not even end up in my top five movies of the year, Kenneth Lonergan's (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) Manchester by the Sea was almost perfect. I said the same thing when I started my review I began my review for Nocturnal Animals just a week ago. Both movies had such potential to be a serious movie of the year candidate (both with the Academy and with me), but both movies had some serious holes. While Nocturnal Animals will likely not receive any nominations com, Manchester by the Sea will likely earn multiple ones (and rightfully so). Manchester by the Sea will likely finish as one of my five favorites of the year, but boy did it have the possibility to absolutely be number one.

If you haven't seen the trailer for the upcoming movie Fences, you need to stop reading this review and watch it right now before reading this review. Denzel Washington likely could win the Best Actor Academy Award based on this trailer alone. The only other time I made this claim was in 2012 when Daniel Day-Lewis made you think you were watching Abraham Lincoln on the screen while you were watching the trailer for Lincoln. While Lincoln was not a movie, I particularly enjoyed, Day-Lewis's performance was worth the price of admission alone. He won the Best Actor award in a landslide. I mention that because I haven't seen a more captivating performance in a preview until seeing Washington's Fences. Even last year, when Leonardo Dicaprio ran away with acting's top prize for his portrayal as a vengeful frontierman/fur trader/hunter in The Revenant, his performance wasn't leaps and bounds better than anything else. In fact, Eddie Redmayne's performance in the trailer The Danish Girl looked more impressive.

How is this relevant to Manchester by the Sea you might ask? Well, it's important because Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, Out of the Furnace) is likely the only threat to Denzel Washington winning the Best Actor award. In many years, Affleck's performance would have been good enough to win, and perhaps I'm overestimating what Washington will end up bringing to the table...but it's just hard to see at this point. Plus Affleck has only been nominated one time in the past, and that was almost a decade ago. Sometimes, I think, that the Academy thinks that a nomination for some actors is the same as a win for other ones. It's unfortunate that they have this mindset. At the same time, you want the winners to be the best in each of their categories, and I feel that while sometimes the Academy gets its nominees wrong, it usually gets its winner correct.

Casey Affleck is the best thing about the great but arguably flawed Manchester by the Sea. I still don't think the typical moviegoer realizes just how terrific Affleck is an actor. He is much more than Ben Affleck's little brother. Many would say that Casey is better than Ben. If nothing else, he's narrowing the gap. I'll even go as far as to say that this is the best brother acting combination to ever be on film. While this may seem like it's a bold statement, there aren't a ton of other duos. Sure you've got Jeff and Beau Bridges, Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, and Alec Baldwin and whichever of his other three brothers you'd like to pick. Casey has delivered amazing performances in movies such as Gone Baby Gone, The Finer Things, Triple 9, The Killer Inside Me, Out of the Furnace, and, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (the movie which he did receive an Oscar nomination for). While most people haven't heard of these films, I believe they are all worth watching, and the main reason I believe in them is that of how good Casey Affleck is in them.

In Manchester by the Sea, Affleck does everything right as the guilt-stricken Lee Chandler, a down on his luck, apartment complex utility man who hasn't been to move on from an event that happened to him before our introduction to his character in this film. For the purpose of not spoiling this component of the movie for you, I will just say that the event that changed his life was so traumatic that he had to change his life and start over. Lee moved from his hometown of Manchester, a New England fishing village where nearly the entire movie is shot, for Boston, an hour and a half drive away. Lee is so sick with grief that he believes he's beyond recovery and has convinced everyone close to him of this as well. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to a person, then realize it was your fault, and then being told it was okay because it was an accident. This becomes Lee's situation. He wears the pain on his face every single moment of every single day, but he never breaks down. In an interview, I heard Affleck say that he's like a dam that keeps cracking, but if you just let it crack all the water comes out, and there's no tension left. So instead, his character has to hold it all in all the time. When little cracks form, you just keep covering them and covering them, and that's all the scenes in the movie for Lee.

There is a self-loathing in Lee that you don't see in movies anymore. While he's the central figure, he's not in every scene. That speaks more to just how far down he reached to develop this character. He works a job where he barely earns minimum wage and doesn't much care whether he'll be at that job the next day or if he gets fired. While he is a good handyman, plumber, show-shoveler who works between a handful of apartment complexes, he struggles to hold his emotions in. I wouldn't even say he struggles to keep his emotions in as much as he doesn't care. Almost every little nuisance has the chance to set him off, and when he gets set off, he doesn't hold back. The only reason he is even able to keep his job after repeated incidents of verbally abusing some of the tenants is that he's good at what he does and his property manager knows it. So rather than making Lee apologize to the people he's offended (because he knows Lee won't), he does so himself. You feel like there could be more for Lee regarding a vocation, but you're not sure he believes he deserves anything more than minimum wage jobs that also provide a studio apartment free of charge.

Lee is not an alcoholic, but he does like to drink alcohol. Alcohol plays a pivotal role in this movie. Lee doesn't use alcohol so much to unwind as he does to forget. It also allows him to get in fistfights more easily, striking others physically for no reason at all, knowing the whole time that he will soon be outnumbered by those he is choosing to pick a fight with. It's almost as if he's starting this fights because he knows he'll get beaten raw and he believes that this is what he deserves. Lonergan gets us to know Lee before introducing anyone else in the film. We see him cleaning toilets and throwing trash in dumpsters. We see him have a beer after work. We see that he doesn't really know how to talk with people in a professional setting and that he doesn't have any meaningful relationships in his personal life. Why is this? Well, we don't know that. Lonergan is masterful in building intrigue and spends a great deal of, but certainly not too much, time focusing on Lee's current life.

The next thing I'll mention is something that I've been saying quite recently in some of my reviews. I love when a movie successfully incorporates flashbacks. And this movie does so perfectly. When we aren't in the present moment of either Lee or Patrick's (Lucas Hedges - Kill the Messenger, The Grand Budapest Hotel) life, we are learning how this uncle and nephew duo grew so close. We can see that through time spent on Joe's (Kyle Chandler - NBC's Friday Night Lights, Netflix's Bloodline) commercial fishing boat that these two developed a bond that could never be broken. Patrick is about six or seven in these scenes. The movie takes place roughly ten years after this scene on the back of the fishing boat and everything has changed for these characters.

Not to be forgotten is the bond between Lee and Joe. Though we never meet Joe in the present day (it is his death that brings Lee back to Manchester), we learn that he is nothing short of a friendly and loving father and brother. We learn that he had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure some five years earlier and he is not predicted to live another ten years. So while his death before the age of 50 was certainly sad, it wasn't entirely unexpected. It's almost as if Lee had prepared himself for that dreaded since the day the illness was initially identified. It is surprising to Lee that he is named as Patrick's guardian in Joe's will. Lucas's mother Elise (Gretchen Mol - 3:10 to Yuma, Rounders) is still around, but Lucas hasn't seen her in years after she went crazy and was institutionalized. She is not fit to be his guardian. There is an uncle who we meet early in the film which was supposed to be the person who Lucas would live with until he was able to be on his own, but this uncle has moved to Minnesota, and we never hear from him again. Joe has named Lee as the guardian without ever telling his younger brother.

Lee doesn't let the duties of caring for his nephew completely derail him. He is always searching for the right thing to do. Lee knows Patrick wants to stay in Manchester, and that's where he belongs, but Lee can't find a way to return home on a permanent basis. Everywhere he turns he sees torment. People stop and stare when they see him. He's perceived as an outcast by everyone in the city and persecuted by those who don't even know him. The suffering he feels doesn't even feel like acting. He is so invested in Lee, and his misery pours out of him for 135 straight minutes. This movie isn't wrapped up in a nice little bow by the end. The emotions are real. Time doesn't heal all wounds. Life is a balancing act, and a struggle for Lee and Affleck portrays that as no one can in the performance of his career. Every expression is measured, and he calculates every word he speaks. His bottled-up emotion is usually well repressed, but you can tell it's ready to boil over at any point. And it often does as anger. But when you feel like you are ready to see his genuine sadness, he holds it all back in a way that you just don't usually see in a film. You expect the payoff to be Matt Damon crying in Robin Williams's arms after he says, "It's not your fault" like in Good Will Hunting.Good Will Hunting. But what you get is something far more different and maybe something even more profound.

***Spoilers***

The problems with the film are plenty. First of all, there is too much going on. There are way too many characters to keep up with. The whole scene with Elise and her second husband (Matthew Broderick - Project X, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) was uncomfortable and forced. I know she had to be included because killing her off between Joe's diagnosis and his death would have made things even more complicated. But she wasn't needed and her scene was a downer in the movie and only included to force Lee to see that he was needed even more. Likewise, where was this uncle in Minnesota? Was he even at Joe's funeral? I understand why he was needed. Because if we hadn't been led to believe that he was to care for Patrick when Joe died, Lee would have known he would have been the named guardian and we don't know if he would have been able to take that. Being named as a surprise guardian would force his younger brother to remain in the present and step up to be the man he knows Lee can be. And I don't understand why Patrick had to have two girlfriends and why they had to have similar names? I got confused who was who. I still don't know why there were two girls. While Patrick wasn't the greatest kid in the world, I think that Joe would have been able to instill a difference between right and wrong. I guess this was another avenue for Lee and Patrick to connect.

Also, we all grieve differently and there is no way to judge someone's grief by what we see, but I would have thought that we would have seen more from Patrick. Sure he had his moments where he broke down (like when he was putting items into his refrigerator and imagining his father's dead frozen body). But for the most part, at least to me, he seemed to handle things as it was business as usual. Sure he was upset about having to leave his hometown to go live with his uncle in Boston, knowing quite well that Lee could get the same exact job in Manchester with ease. Patrick was more worried about where he was going to live and see his girlfriends than he was about his dead father. Again, we all grieve differently and who am I to judge? But the way he reacted to everything just felt odd. But, again, which 16-year old doesn't act oddly.

The scenes between Lee and Randi could have been some of the best of all time if Lonergan had allowed these two characters enough screen time with one another. If I couldn't correctly, they had four. If you can get Michelle Williams in your movie, you capitalize on that. Four scenes? Two of which were incredibly short? Come on. Ironically, she might get an Oscar nomination and might even win for her scene with Lee near the end of the movie alone. This is the same scene that we've seen in the trailers. This scene was very good, but it was not as amazing as it could have been. As much as I'd love to see her win an Oscar (she is my favorite actress), this wasn't enough in my opinion. And I don't blame her at all. She and Affleck had all of the chemistry in the world working here. But Lonergan did two things poorly. He didn't develop Randi nearly as well as he could of. We don't know the relationship that she and Lee had before the tragedy. Sure we saw that they were happy with their family in one scene and that she could rule her house with her fist in another. I would have loved to have seen a scene between Lee and Randi in the months or years after the tragedy. Would it have been too much? Perhaps. I wonder if there will be any deleted scenes when the movie eventually makes its way to DVD. But even the pivotal scene could have been better. Williams and Affleck could have brought tears to the entire theater had they wanted to. Williams can do this in every single one of her movies if she wants and we are so engrossed in Affleck's character that we can completely sympathize with him by this point. This scene was great, but it could have been so much more.

Finally, the editing was weak. I wanted a movie with a cohesive flow. But between the variety of characters, the flashbacks, and the way that you couldn't always tell where you were in the story or how much time had passed from one scene to another left something to be desired. There were also quite a few scenes that didn't seem to serve a purpose. While this movie was 2 hours and 15 minutes long, it never felt like it was dragging. In fact, I didn't want it to end. I didn't look at my phone once during this movie (which says a lot). Nonetheless, there were scenes that just weren't needed. I don't recall seeing a movie of this caliber have so many 15-30 second scenes. Lonergan crafted a brilliant screenplay, but he didn't direct this movie to perfection. However, I believe that the sum of this film's impact is greater than its individual, often choppy scenes. It is worth seeing.

Plot 9.5/10
Character Development 9.5/10
Character Chemistry 10/10
Acting 9.5/10
Screenplay 9/10
Directing 8/10
Cinematography 9.5/10
Sound 9/10
Hook and Reel 10/10
Universal Relevance 9.5/10
93.5%

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