Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, 2 hr 17 min
If you have ever spent any time on the New England coast in the winter, you know how overwhelmingly bleak it can be: skeletal trees, grey water, grey skies, colorless, frozen ground. You need to store up all the endorphins you can just to make it to May, when the gloom may finally begin to lift.
This is the perfect backdrop for the trials of the inconsolable Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). Working as a janitor in a nearby Boston suburb, Lee is plagued by dark moods and a violent temper. He is forced to return to Manchester when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies in a fishing accident, and he finds he is left as the guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Lee can barely take care of himself, and he doesn’t want to be responsible for his nephew. People in Manchester whisper about Lee being back, and he soon gets into a bloody bar fight. There is something devastating in Lee’s past, and in a series of flashbacks the truth gradually comes out.
His relationship with his nephew is difficult. Lee wants to get away from Manchester as fast as he can, but Patrick refuses - he doesn't want to be separated from the fisherman’s life and the beat-up boat left him by his father, or leave his girlfriend, Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov, daughter of Mikhail).
The people and sights of Manchester trigger Lee’s horrific recollections. Particularly painful are his encounters with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). There are many excruciating scenes, but none more so than when the secrets of the past have been revealed, and Lee and Randi meet by chance at the waterfront. For this scene alone Affleck and Williams will be award candidates. Without histrionics, they convey the agony of their lives and the nearly impossible task of connecting with others. Randi has remarried, but finds happiness elusive. Lee is adrift, buffeted by the cold and wind of his frozen seaside hell.
The performances are universally superb and there isn’t a wrong note in the movie. But that pure note is so unrelentingly mournful that even the faint glimpse of redemption at the end is little solace. Movies shouldn’t all have happy endings, but neither should misery equate with excellence. While Director Lonergan has subtly and distinctly captured these lives and their community, Lee’s travails are a lot to digest in one sitting.
Lion, directed by Garth Davis, 1 hr 58 min
Imagine you are five years old in Grand Central Station with your supposedly responsible, older brother, waiting to head back to your home in Greenwich. He takes off for the Apple store, and you wander onto a train that ends up in New Haven. Petrifying for you, a nightmare for your parents, but conductors and good Samaritans comfort you, and you are back with your family the same day. In years to come you and your brother will have a good laugh over the whole incident.
But what confronts the little boy in Lion is infinitely more horrifying. The train he gets on is empty so there is no one to help, and he can’t get off it until he is 1000 miles away. He arrives in teeming and confusing Calcutta, where the people don't even speak the same language. He lives in the station with other homeless boys, who are all prey for sex slavers.
The genius of Lion is how convincingly you see all this from the point of view of five-year old Saroo (the remarkable Sawar Pawar). Director Garth Davis’s brilliant cinematography captures what this frightened little boy sees and feels, and it's mesmerizing. Through what looks to be drone shots he also depicts the vast sweep of India, in vivid contrast to the harrowing insignificance of one very small, lonely boy.
It's not giving away too much to say that Saroo eventually triumphs in his quest to find what he has lost. The focus of the movie changes but is no less fascinating. As good as the acting is, particularly Dev Patel as the adult Saroo, and Nicole Kidman, as his foster mother, Director Davis is the real star. The grit and realism of the underside of India as compared to its panoramic beauty is reason enough to see this Oscar-worthy film. And the story couldn't be more gratifying. We could all use some cheering up.