A funny thing happened on my fourth day at Sundance. After the screening of what will be the festival’s best film, I was so transfixed, so mesmerized and so subtly heartbroken that the entirety of the movie’s impact only took hold half an hour after the screening. The tears, the awe, the feeling of having witnessed something monumental hit after I was able to slightly distance myself from the film’s engulfment. While watching, I wasn’t thinking about how I had to rush off after the screening, who I had to call, or what I had to do. It was just me, the film and the profoundness of our encounter. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea (10/10) will continue to haunt and endear for decades to come.
Its daring performances, subtle structure, meticulous visual compositions and the enormous density of ideas, psychology and poignancy will be studied and obsessed over, analyzed down to the smallest details in the most minor of scenes. Essays will be written about how the film uses screen direction, about how frames within frames isolate characters, about how the editing evokes so many different point of views within a single scene, about how the blocking tells us things about the characters that no one can verbalize and about how the narrative structure weaves a complex narrative with profound feelings of guilt.
Casey Affleck, in what might be one of the most quietly devastating performances that the cinema has ever offered, plays a single man, Lee Chandler, who moves back to the small seaside town where he once lived with his family after his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away from heart disease. Appointments must be planned, errands must be run and arrangements made, all while exchanges with old friends, acquaintances and other encounters remind Lee of an old but still tender family tragedy.
Joe’s son, Patrick, who may as well be an orphan since he hasn’t talked to his astranged mother in years, is put under Lee’s care. Uncle and nephew travel around the serene and haunted town — which carries the hurt and euphoria of memories — bonding, using each other for their own selfish purposes and ultimately trying to come to terms with the inescapability of the world’s harm, grief and guilt.
Manchester By The Sea resembles Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, but Lonergan’s film has even greater humanity, a sense of humor and a precise observational mode that understands that life, in all its randomness, franticness and beauty, must continue during the grieving process, even if most movies make it seem like responsibilities and desires sleep for grief and sorrow.
When the film is eventually released, (it was picked up by Amazon for a whopping $10 million) I will have many more things to say, many more feelings to express as it continues to simmer and settle. Although the emotional tide of Manchester By The Sea covered the rest of the day’s films, the other movies I saw were unique and interesting in their own — if less evocative and innovative — ways.
Love And Friendship (8/10), Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, is a surprisingly hilarious period piece that centers on Austen’s titular character, played perfectly by a deliciously nefarious Kate Beckinsale, as she moves in with her in laws after the death of her husband. A dehumanized opportunist, Lady Susan is an 18th century woman with remarkable abilities to manipulate.
Love And Friendship has enough characters to merit a detailed flow chart, albeit not as cluttered as the one for The Assassin, but the story zips along with fleetingly humorous moments, courtesy of a top notch cast including Stephen Fry, Chloe Sevigny and a standout Tom Bennett. Inditing the pretensions of bourgeois culture, while reveling in the luscious costumes and extravagant interiors, Whit Stillman has in many ways made a subversive film, particularly by using transitional shots of upper-class spaces to play like hidden punch lines.
Coming to Amazon in the next few months, who along with Netflix have take over the distribution market at Sundance, the film will likely be one of the year’s funniest films. Love And Friendship is a comedy of words and inauthentic communication. When the characters say one thing, they mean another. They hide their hatred behind inviting smiles.
If the interactions between characters in Love And Friendship weren’t suppressed under high-society chivalry, it may have broken out into the fraternity’s debauchery in Andrew Neel’s Goat (6.5/10), a vulgar, explicit and visceral critique of violent and hedonistic masculinity.
After a house party, teenager Ben (a strong and nuanced Ben Schnetzer), is violently assaulted by two thugs. Without any clear motivation other than to take pleasure from another’s pain, the two men steal his worthless car and beat him to a pulp. Ben, quivering on the ground, stands down. He is later appalled by his lack of aggression, disappointed by the absence of a violent instinct to retaliate. Months later, when Ben starts attending university, he enters into his brother Brett’s (a miscast Nick Jonas, who the filmmaker’s don’t use enough as a subversive signifier) fraternity through a brutal and barbaric initiation. A large portion of the film is devoted to the “Hell Week” hazing that is right of passage to acceptance for first year students.
In the last couple of years, there have been infuriating and fascinating films about how power structures strip moral consciences, individuality and how they turn kind people into mechanical monsters. The Experimenter, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and The Tribe were all damning portraits of our natural instincts to conform and to belong inside oppressive power structures, regardless of the means and consequences. Where each of those films were effective for providing insights on differences between class and gender, evoking them through impressive visual styles, Goat seems to get off more on the shock value of its images instead of the insights they provide.
Sometimes the more heart-wrenching, dazzling and unforgettable films are the ones that quietly seep into our minds and hearts. It might be one of the slowest and most low-key films at this year’s Sundance, but so far the most lasting and explosive is Kenneth Longerman’s Manchester By The Sea.
Tomorrow: Indignation, Holy Hell, Operation Avalanche.