Reviews: “Moonlight” & “Manchester by the Sea”

As the shit-snowball that is 2016 barrels rapidly towards the end of its downhill journey, the film industry is making one final attempt to insure that, at the very least, the year in cinema ends on a high-note… and by God, they’ve done it. After Hollywood’s most depressing slate of the decade, the prestige season is offering up Awards-worthy contenders in bulk. There have been a fair share of Oscar-baiting busts since fall (The Birth of a Nation, Snowden, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Rules Don’t Apply among them), but the last few weeks have seen the gradual expansion of a handful top-tier movies that will make 2016 one to remember, and not just for all the wrong reasons. Here are two especially powerful ones to look out for:

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Moonlight

Grand in ambition yet intimate in execution, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a immensely compassionate, intensely honest drama that deserves every heap of praise it has received. The film follows young Chiron in three distinct chapters, as he grows from boy to teen to man in a rough, African-American neighborhood, put-upon not just by his peers but by his drug addicted mother (Naomi Harris, displaying admirable range). Across all three chapters, Chiron struggles with notions of masculinity and sexuality, especially as it relates to his racial identity. The specificity of the character and setting lends the movie a vitality that most coming of age movies could never hope to match, but it’s the emotionally universal qualities that allow audiences to so effortlessly enter into this world. This is not a simple guided tour of an environment and culture rarely seen on screen. Rather, it is a portal into the global human condition that works due to its vivid details. It is a story about human differences, but reveals that the truth lies within the sameness of all people. This is film at its most noble and curative.

A movie that similarly tries to tell a single story over many years try is likely to emphasize its time breaks, either by playing around with the format and/or aspect ratio (China’s Mountains May Depart is an example from earlier this year), or through radical gimmicks (the most obvious example being Boyhood‘s twelve year production). Jenkins takes a far less showy route by relying solely on his astonishing directorial instincts – and James Laxton’s lush cinematography – to highlight the sensation of being a small boy in a big world and a big man in a small world. It’s good old fashioned camera angles and close-ups that make Moonlight sing. That’s as far from gimmickry as a movie can get, and exactly the tight, confident treatment this particular story deserves. Chiron is played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), and while the results may be less mind-boggling than Boyhood, all three performers merge seamlessly into one complex, thoroughly believable human being. The real star, though, is Mahershala Ali. He’s the Mufasa of this picture, an infinitely wise father figure whose absences are as profound as his presence.

My gripes are small until placed into context. The middle section is, for the most part, a rather derivative and on-the-nose teen movie wedged between two exceptionally subversive bookends. The familiar tropes that fill this chapter do no favors for Sanders, who plays a monotone Chiron in his awkward teenage years with an emotional despondence that is appropriate yet drab. It is just as meticulously crafted at the rest of the film, but compared to the uniqueness of the other two parts, this stretch feels uncharacteristically ordinary. That said, the terse, flimsy dialogue that is most obvious in this chapter but presents itself throughout eventually melts into something more resembling poetry, especially when brought to life by such magnificent performers. Compounded further by the lyrical quality of the visuals (the use of color is an underrated strength of the film) and the gorgeous score, Jenkins has created something that burrows deep in the mind and the heart. It is an instant classic that will undoubtedly be remembered as one of 2016’s most important works of art.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

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Manchester by the Sea

Elusive writer/director Kenneth Lonergan takes the well-worn idea that tragedy plus time equals comedy to new heights in Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck stars as Lee, a depressed, self-abandoned handyman who is unceremoniously saddled with caring for his teenaged nephew after his brother’s sudden death. The man can’t escape grief no matter how hard he tries – he is always quick to turn down dinner invitations and spends his free time alone at the bar or sitting motionless on the couch in his one-room basement apartment. He’s a well-meaning guy but occasionally, when he’s reminded of all the things he no longer has (not the least of which is his former wife, played by Michelle Williams), he unleashes bursts of verbal and physical rage on unsuspecting residents of his town and on himself. He is not a happy person to be around, which makes it nigh miraculous that this drama about loss and regret manages to be one of the funniest movies of the year.

It starts with the impeccably astute script by Lonergan, who understands that laughter is as unavoidable as death, and so are loved ones. Terrible things happen that can never be undone or forgotten, but joyous moments and cheerful memories are just as persistent, and at times just as frustrating. The unpredictability of memory is a facet that guides the very structure of the narrative, which flows seamlessly between Lee’s attempts to balance his own needs with those of his nephew, and his recollections of how he got there, emotionally, in the first place. At a certain point, it becomes clear that without Lonergan’s non-chronological approach, the result would be a familiar and sometimes manipulative story. But even more quickly comes the realization that this is not a slight against the film. Arranging scenes in such a way that memories complicate and build upon the present moment is not a cheap trick. It’s true to life. Adding to that authenticity is a resistance against the urge to bend the subject matter into a gaudy tearjerker. The movie is less like an emotional rollercoaster and more like an emotional boat ride, with steady waves of poignancy that rise and fall over time. Like life, there are peaks and troughs. But grand, life-altering epiphanies don’t happen to most, and they certainly don’t happen to Lee.

Casey Affleck launches himself into the upper-echelons of acting as Lee. The sad-sack schtick is an easy one to get wrong, but Affleck provides enough subtlety and depth through his sly glances and intricate line delivery to keep peeling off layers of complexity, even as Lee tries harder and harder to remain guarded. Lucas Hedges holds his own as Lee’s nephew Patrick, even if the dialogue between him, his high school friends, and his multiple girlfriends is a noticeable low point; forced teen speak and some wooden performances from the supporting kids (including Hedges’ Moonrise Kingdom costar Kara Hayward) threatens to break the impressive immersion. Unfortunately, Michelle Williams fans such as myself will be disappointed that, much like in Certain Women, her role is surprisingly small, offering her only a couple opportunities to work her inimitable magic. That’s ultimately enough, as the movie’s all about making the most out of the smallest moments while the biggest ones try their hardest to haunt you.

Score: 4 out of 5

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