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March 2nd, 2017

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) ****

As a habit, I try to post my Top Ten Films of the Year list in January or February to give myself a chance to see everything before I set my list in stone. Wouldn’t you know it, days after doing so; I wind up seeing a movie that surely would’ve had a spot on the list had I saw it sooner. Isn’t it always the way?

Manchester by the Sea is a sad, depressing movie that is often exhilarating to watch solely based on just how much sad and depressing stuff happens. I know that seems odd, but hear me out. We’ve all had hard times. I don’t presume to have it as rough as Casey Affleck has it in this flick, nor would I wish what he goes through in this film on my worst enemy. There is a string of unfortunate circumstances that befalls Affleck’s character that is so awful that it gets to a point where you just have to laugh. In life, you have to play the hand you’re dealt. Many of us would take one look at his hand and fold immediately. Affleck hangs in there though. For a while at least.

I don’t want to spoil just how bad he has it, because the way writer/director Kevin Lonergan reveals his past (courtesy of abrupt flashbacks that sometimes interrupt the action) is one of the best parts of the movie. Some might not like this sort of style, but the skillful way Lonergan holds back vital information from the audience, only to spring everything on them at once is really something. While I can’t say I teared up or anything, I can say I walked away with a lump in my throat.

The gist of things is that Affleck’s brother (Kyle Chandler) dies and names him guardian to his teenage son (Lucas Hedges). They don’t exactly hit it off because they don’t have a lot in common. Getting his brother’s affairs in order is the last thing he wanted to do, and being chained to his nephew is another burden he didn’t need. However, they try to make the best of the situation.

I haven’t lost anyone close to me, so I can’t really say how my grief process works. What I can say is that Manchester by the Sea could almost be used as a training film for dealing with the loss of a loved one. Not only do you get to see some great acting and gorgeous cinematography, you get a step by step guideline about what to do when someone you love dies. You’ve got to call the funeral home, inform loved ones, and visit lawyer offices. Again, this sounds like the most depressing movie in the world, but the notes that Lonergan hits are equally funny as they are poignant.

Seriously, I’ve laughed harder during this movie than I have most comedies I’ve seen this year. It’s not because it’s particularly hilarious, but rather that it’s so true to life that you either have to laugh, or cry, I suppose. The dynamic between Affleck and Hedges is particularly great. Hedges’ character isn’t a bad kid. He’s just a dude trying to get a nut. He sees the arrival of his uncle as a serious damper on his quest to get laid.

I’m not even going to tell you the best parts of the movie. I’d rather you to discover those for yourself. Just know that you’ll probably want a Kleenex or two by the end.

I will get a bit spoiler-ish in this last paragraph, so go ahead and stop reading if you want to go in completely cold to the movie. What I loved is that Casey’s character, Lee doesn’t change in the end. We’ve all seen films like this where the sad sack loser changes his ways and learns a lesson. That moment never comes and the flick ends essentially as it began. What matters is that he TRIED to hang in there. In the end, Lee, as he always does, winds up pushing people away. Affleck deserved the Oscar (although to me, Ryan Gosling should’ve won for The Nice Guys) because no matter how down and out Lee becomes, you still feel for him. That’s a testament to not only Affleck’s acting, but to Lonergan’s writing and directing.

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