Manchester by the Sea (Spoiler-Free Review)

Movie Review

Verdict: 10/10

Synopsis

After the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is shocked to learn that Joe has made him sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Taking leave of his job, Lee reluctantly returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea to care for Patrick, a spirited 16-year-old, and is forced to deal with a past that separated him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the community where he was born and raised. Bonded by the man who held their family together, Lee and Patrick struggle to adjust to a world without him.

The Review

We deal with personal tragedy differently. We can be expressive and show to the world how hurt we are, hold it all in and let it kill us slowly inside, or just brush it aside and carry on with our lives. What it does is break off a piece of our heart. Something we can never mend again. “Manchester by the Sea” is a heart-breaking portrayal of the love and loss of people that have built you into who you are, driven by a central performance for the ages.

Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a secluded janitor living in Quincy, Massachusetts. He quietly goes through his days fixing peoples apartments and not getting the gratitude he deserves. He shovels the snow off his front porch every day for a tiny basement apartment he lives in, and gets into bar fights at nights if anyone looks at him differently. One day while shovelling the snow away off his porch once again, he gets a phone call from a friend of past times saying that his brother Joe has had a heart attack. He rushes to his aid but is too late, as he finds that he has passed away. The family lawyer informs Lee that his brother has left him as sole guardian of his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) making Lee reluctantly leave his job and come back to the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea to take care of him; a town he’s a legend to the people who reside in (for all the wrong reasons)…a town he once thought he has truly escaped from.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, the playwright has written a tragedy littered with black comedy that makes the mundane things in life riveting. Like life, we don’t have perfect conversations with people. It’s never a simple back and forth but rather a conversation full of hesitations, awkward silences, or those one or two “umms” in between. Lonergan has written characters that are like people in real life, and that’s what makes Manchester so special. It captures those tragic moments where it’s heart-breaking and soul destroying, but at the same time it’s never played out the way you would think it would play out like all things in real life. For example, funerals aren’t always a sombre affair. There will always be that one person who makes that one inappropriate joke. Or if someone close to you has been diagnosed with a life-changing disease, it will always bring out the dysfunctionality of any family during that tough time. These moments captured on screen, all beautifully shot, make this a rather special film because there are moments in this film that make it relatable, and credit has to be given to him for writing such a human script.

None of this can be played out without his actors and there are three particular performances that need to be called out here. Michelle Williams plays the estranged divorced-wife to Lee. We see her mostly through Lee’s flashbacks; unravelling more about why he’s become the man he is. She’s her own woman and won’t take shit from anyone, but at the same time can shatter like glass with an instant tap. It’s another wonderful addition to a plethora of past performances from Williams. Lucas Hedges, who plays Lee’s nephew Patrick, is a future star in the making. Patrick has brushed off the death of his father like it was yesterday’s news and wants to carry on life like usual. He’s got other teenage problems to worry about, like girls and his band. He doesn’t want his uncle there to take care of him. He can take care of himself but doesn’t realise how much his uncle needs him to keep sane, and without Hedges, Affleck couldn’t give half of the performance that he gives in this film.

And what a performance. Back in October in 2016, when I first saw this with my brother at a gala screening in the BFI London Film Festival, we agreed that Casey Affleck should be rewarded with every acting accolade there possibly was for his performance as Lee Chandler (a role which Matt Damon was originally cast for). This is a masterclass in acting. He portrays a man who’s been in so much pain for such a long time, it’s become the armour of his life. He’s become someone who knows nothing else but sadness, so much so that his reaction to those moments are…well there is no reaction. He walks hunched like all the troubles in the world are on his shoulders. When people compliment him for doing something, he brushes it aside. Affleck and Lonergan unravel Lee through flashbacks, letting us understand more about the man who used to be the once heart of the town. When that big reveal happens of why Lee is like the man he is now, it’s a silent gut-wrenching and harrowing moment. And one scene that will surely be used in acting classes in years to come, the long overdue conversation between himself and his ex-wife is a tear-jerker, showcasing two actors at the top of their game.

Final Word

A film that portrays life and tragedy at its most genuine, and it’s most raw. Like life, it shows you can always find the funny side of things in those moments of sadness and heartbreak. Lonergan has created a film that will be studied for its purest portrayal of everyday life, with a flawless performance by Casey Affleck. It will make you cry (well it made two grown men cry).

Top Ten Films Of 2016

Top 10

2016 did not disappoint with films this year. With the age of binge-watching in full swing, studios are finding it tough to get people into cinema seats as the content, storytelling and originality that is becoming available in platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, and premium channels such as HBO and AMC, is surpassing the level of highly-promoted films released in cinemas. We’re even seeing big Hollywood stars venturing more and more into doing a mini series than they would have ten years ago. Yet we are still getting gems released and 2016 had an abundance of them. Here are my top 10 films of 2016 which I can’t stop thinking about. Leave in the comments section below on what your favourite films of 2016 were, and any you feel should’ve made it in my list!
Note: Some of these are yet to be released in the UK but I was fortunate enough to catch them at special screenings this year.

Honourable Mentions: The Revenant, Creed

10. The Nice Guys

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The second best buddy comedy of the year (No. 3 takes the title) is also Shane Black’s best work since 2005’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (sorry guys but Iron Man 3 was average at best). Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling play Healy and March, two private investigators looking into the death of a pornstar, and a missing teenage girl in 1970s sun-soaked, drug-fuelled Los Angeles. Set to an amazing soundtrack, Black’s writing is funny and sharp, delivered perfectly by Crowe’s punch-first-talk-later enforcer, and Gosling’s dim-witted private eye. Who knew they could do comedy? Also, where else will you see Crowe and Gosling having a conversation with a human-sized bumble bee?

Favourite Quote: “So you’re telling me you made a porno where the plot is the point?”

9. Kubo and the Two Strings

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2016 was a “meh” year for animation, with okay sequels in Kung Fu Panda 3 and Finding Dory, and mediocre/watchable releases from DreamWorks and Illumination such as “Trolls” and “The Secret Life of Pets”. But two stood out from the rest. Disney’s “Zootopia” tackled the subject of discrimination and prejudice in the form of animated animals. But it was “Kubo and the Two Strings”, the story of a young Japanese boy on a quest to find a magical suit of armour (with the help of Monkey and Beetle) to defeat The Moon King, which left a longer lasting effect on me. With the right balance of love and darkness, it’s ultimately a tale about what lengths a mother would go to to protect her child. With stellar voice work from Art Parkinson (Kubo), Charlize Theron (Monkey), and Matthew McConaughey (Beetle – standout), Laika studios’ stop-motion animation is a beauty to behold and unlike anything else you’ll see this year.

Favourite Quote: “He looked into my eyes and uttered four simple words. These words changed everything… You are my quest”

8. Captain America: Civil War

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In the last decade alone we’ve had OVER FIFTY superhero movies, with a fifth of them being from the juggernaut that is Marvel Studios. The once formulaic superhero movie plot has become a lot more meatier in terms of character studies, making you as a viewer invest more in these “super” beings but also question the ideals they hold, and there wasn’t any other superhero drama this year that did it better than Civil War (its really Avengers 3). Based loosely on the incredible comic book series, Captain America (Chris Evans) is at odds with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), as Stark believes that The Avengers should be put in check under government law due to the unnecessary human whiplash that occurs whenever they go saving the day. Thus a division occurs within The Avengers. Not as great as The Winter Soldier (still my favourite Marvel movie), but still has moments of pure spectacle (with a scene-stealing Tom Holland as Spider-Man) that fulfils any superhero fans’ heart. The airport scene alone is worth the price of the cinema ticket!

Favourite Quote: “It’s your conscience. We don’t talk a lot these days.”

7. The Hateful Eight

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Ah Mr Tarantino. I have been your follower ever since I first watched “Pulp Fiction” all those years ago. Whenever you release a movie, there isn’t any other way to describe it other than an event and boy was “The Hateful Eight” worth the wait. It was close to not being made at all, as the original script was leaked in 2014 before it went into production. But after doing a live theatre reading of the script with actors who most would end up in the final film, QT changed his mind (thank the lord!) and ended up making this cold, tension filled, three-hour long, western epic. The story of eight shady characters holed up in a cabin whilst a blizzard is happening outside is told in classic Tarantino fashion: non-linear chapters, rhythmic dialogue, a stellar cast, an incredible score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone (his first in 35 years), and blood. A…lot…of…blood.

Favourite Quote: “Move a little strange, you’re gonna get a bullet. Not a warning, not a question…a bullet”

6. The Big Short

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In the months between 2011 and 2012, I did my Masters degree on Global Banking and Finance. Of course, a major chunk of it was dedicated to the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the subprime mortgage crisis, a fascinating insight into the arrogance of banks which led to affecting millions of people all around the world. So when I heard the director of Anchorman was adapting a best-selling book about this subject, with a perfect cast that consisted of Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt, OH GREAT ODIN’S RAVEN did it grab my attention. The subject its dealing with is complex, but Adam McKay makes sure his audience don’t drown in finance jargon, with well-placed cues to explain it to us in the form of celebrities. It is very funny but it also makes sure that the viewers understand that this is no laughing matter, as millions of people did lose their homes because of big banks becoming too greedy for their own good.

Favourite Quote: “If we’re right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings, people lose pensions. You know what I hate about f**king banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here’s a number – every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die, did you know that?”

5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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In my glowing review of “Rogue One” which you can read here, I called this “…the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back” and I still support that statement. The journey of Jyn Erso (a perfectly cast Felicity Jones) and a group of rebels who go on to steal the plans to the Death Star is brought to epic, pulse-racing life by director Gareth Edwards. The characters are compelling, with Chirrut and K-2SO as standouts, and the CGI is a technological achievement. But its the final 45 miunte long battle which takes place in both the planet Scarif and space which will be remembered as one of the greatest war sequences shot in film history. Its brutal and relentless, echoing Saving Private Ryan and Platoon. Have I also not mentioned the terrifying return of Darth Vader to our screens as well?

Favourite Quote: “I’m one with the Force. The Force is with me”

4. Arrival

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At the beginning of 2016, I predicted “Rogue One” will definitely be my favourite science fiction film this year. Nine months later, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a few gala screenings at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, and “Arrival” was one of them. Two hours later and an ending that blew my tiny mind, I said to myself “This may be one of the best science fiction films I’ve ever seen”. Based on the novella “Story of your Life” by Ted Chiang, it tells the story of 12 extraterrestrial spaceships (or “shells”) suddenly appearing in random cities around the world. The world doesn’t understand why they are here and whether they are a threat to human kind. The US army hire a professor of linguistics, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, to find a way of communicating with these beings and to help answer these questions. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (who also directed “Sicario” & “Prisoners”, and is quickly becoming one of my favourite directors right now), Villeneuve has created a subtle,  nuanced thinking-man sci-fi film which isn’t really about an alien invasion, but about the power of language and how communication is the most powerful form of action. No wonder I’m so excited to see his Blade Runner sequel next year! But this film wouldn’t have truly reached its heights without Amy Adams. The FIVE-TIME (!) Oscar nominated actress will surely become the SIX-TIME Oscar nominated actress next year, as she is the soul of this film and this really is her most vulnerable performance yet.

Favourite Quote: “If you could see your life from start to finish, would you change things?”

3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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Meet Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a 12-year old Tupac Shakur loving juvenile and orphan, who gets forced by child services to live with his aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Hector (Sam Neill). As the film unravels, Ricky and Uncle Hec find themselves going on the run in the wild New Zealand bush and become part of a national manhunt. This is not only the funniest film of the year, its the best comedy in the last decade. There are endless jokes and quotes in this film that will make you cry with laughter, delivered by the amazing Sam Neill and the revelation that is Julian Dennison. The quick back-and-forth between Ricky and Hector is so wonderful, I can imagine both the actors must’ve found it so hard to keep a straight face when delivering their lines. And man that script. Written and directed by Taika Waititi, with a budget of only $2.5 million, it would be an absolute shame if his screenplay isn’t nominated come Oscar time. No wonder its become the highest grossing New Zealand film ever!

Favourite Quote: “Faulkner is cauc-asian” – well, they got that wrong because you’re obviously white”

2. Manchester by the Sea

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The second of the three films that I attended gala screenings for in this year’s London BFI Film Festival is also the film that made my brother and I, two fully grown adults in three-piece suits cry like babies…i mean cry man tears in a dark cinema. Being released here in the UK on 13th January 2017 (look out for my review around that time), Manchester is a tale about a man who’s brother dies from a long-standing illness and is now forced to take care of his nephew in Manchester, Massachusetts. Whats so striking about this film is how natural the conversations feel between the characters, making you feel so much more empathetic towards them, and adds more depth to the wounds these characters have in them. Beautiful writing and direction from playwright Kenneth Lonergan, with perfect performances from Michelle Williams, who is flawless like she is in all her films, and in his first ever role, Lucas Hedges has stapled himself as a future actor to look out for. But its Casey Affleck’s film, and it is the best performance I have seen all year by any actor or actress. It is moving, nuanaced, subtle and heartbreaking. Affleck wears an armour of pain throughout the film. Pain that I could feel as it was fully subjected to me throughout the running time, and not many actors could do that. Get ready to take tissues with you to watch this film come January.

Favourite Quote: “I said a lot of terrible things to you. My heart was broken, and I know yours is broken, too”

1. La La Land

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Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” was my favourite movie of 2014. I went to its UK premiere at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival and it was something that had captured me by the throat the moment I heard the drum beat in the opening credits. I love that film so much, when the film was released on Blu-ray, I bought a copy for myself and I watched it once everyday for the next seven days. When I first heard Chazelle’s next project was a musical based in LA about an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and a struggling jazz musician (Ryan Gosling), all the way back in 2015, I was counting down the days till the moment I could watch it. How poetic it was that I was able to nab a ticket to the UK premiere at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, two years after seeing Whiplash. I had already heard and read great things about it in other film festivals this was unveiled at so my expectations were high. They were so high, that sense of “Oh God what if this turns out to be terrible?!” was lingering like a leech on my skin. The lights turn down in the cinema hall…the sun-drenched view of LA appears on the gigantic screen…the opening song kicks in and explodes like beautiful fireworks. From that moment on and for the next two hours, I had only one expression on my face: a wide-eyed smile. This film is the definition of joy. The definition of what it feels like to be a dreamer. Anyone can grab their dreams, have their true calling if they never give up. Its a musical masterpiece and a film so needed in a year of so many shocking events that have occurred in 2016. Its a film you want to watch again and again and again. It comes out here in the UK on January 13th 2017, and I can’t wait to write a full review for you and for this definite Best Film winner in next years’ Oscars.

Favourite Quote: “Maybe I’m not good enough!”