Manchester by the Sea

8 Movies That Should Be On Your Radar: February 2017

Much like our book series, "Movies That Should Be On Your Radar" aims to share indie darlings, worthy blockbusters, long forgotten gems, and rewatchable classics with aspiring screenwriters and authors alike. Feel free to share your own favorite flicks in the comments section, on our Facebook page, or by tweeting us @WritersBone.


Sean Tuohy: I finally got to see this movie and it was worth the wait. I’ve got a soft spot for coming-of-age stories, and “Dope” was one of the better ones I’ve seen recently. The film is charming, funny, and original in its storytelling and images. It follows a high school geek who worships 1990s hip-hop, plays in a punk band, and is trying to get into Harvard while also growing up in gang-riddled Los Angeles. Everything changes when he gets mixed up in a drug deal gone bad. The last 10 minutes had more heart sewn into it than most films I’ve seen during the past two years. Also, the soundtrack is awesome.

“The Monster”

Sean: I recently stumbled on to his horror film helmed by ‘The Strangers” director Bryan Bertino. This film has two parallel themes: part horror/part survival story and part character study. The horror storyline is basic: mother and daughter are trapped in a car while a monster stalks them. Nothing special. But the underlying narrative features an alcoholic and abusive mother dealing with her guilt. Zoe Kazan (daughter of former guest Nick Kazan) gives a heartbreaking performance as a woman struggling with her own demons while trying to raise her daughter. The horror storyline is interesting but it is the character study that really keeps you on the edge of your seat.

“Deep Web”

Sean: Directed by Alex Winters (of “Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure” fame) this sleek documentary follows the FBI investigation and downfall of the online black market website "Silk Road." Narrated by Keanu Reeves, (more “Bill and Ted” glory), the film moves at a breakneck speed without losing anything. Winters does a thoughtful job of quickly creating the world of the “deep web” and provides all the needed information the viewer needs while never hitting the breaks.

“20th Century Women”

Emili Vesilind: People are focusing on Annette Bening's incredible performance in this movie—and for sure it's amazing (her angry-uncomfortable face, among others, is heartbreaking!) But for me, the movie felt like a nuanced study and celebration of weird, fragile, everyday people. The characters and a relationships are fleshed out using every means possible—dialogue, music, set decoration, costuming. So you really feel like you stepped into a "scene" of sorts. The film also reminded me of "The Perks of Being A Wallflower" in that it explores how rock bands/clubs, music scenes and friends we sit around and do nothing with as teenagers can play a major role in who we become—and what we like—as adults. It definitely has its sad moments, so you don't leave feeling exactly buoyant, but it sticks like glue to your brain! Loved it.

“Under the Shadow”

Alexander Brown: A festival darling that never got a wide release, “Under the Shadow” was internationally co-produced between Qatar, Jordan, and the United Kingdom, and directed by an Iranian by the name of Babak Anvari. Set in 1980s Tehran, during one of many Iran/Iraq conflicts, it somehow seamlessly tells a ghost story that also focuses on the horrors of war, depression, and gender politics—all without being heavy-handed or taking away from the scares. I have no idea how they pulled it off. Also the lead actress liked my tweet review, so we're pretty much pals now.

“Kubo and the Two Strings”

Mike Nelson: It’s Oscar season, so I’m ripping through every nominee I can get to over the next few weeks. I see any spare time as potential to check something off the list, which is a totally fun, unnecessary emergency situation I’ve created for myself to continually deflect the opportunity to separate happiness from achievements.

Now that I got you all riled up with that intro (“Man, would love to hang out with this guy!”), let’s talk movies. Let’s talk animated movies. Let’s talk Kubo. “Kubo and the Two Strings” is not my pick for “Best Animated Feature” (that goes to “Moana”...handily), but it would be my pick for “Most Entrancing Animated Feature.” The story is pretty unique in itself, taking some unexpected turns and (no spoilers here) incorporating magic to create visual opportunities you just don’t typically get. Plus, you get tons of action and A-list actors…ummm...speaking. So that’s pretty sick.

If you want something a little different from the cookie-cutter animated film, and you’re looking for whatever the animation equivalent of “food porn” is (I can’t call it “animation porn,” and I can’t call it “eye porn,” so if you have a better way of saying this, please, god, help me…“feast for the eyes,” got it, my bad here), this is a great way to spend 102 minutes.

“Hell or High Water”

Daniel Ford: I made the mistake of watching "Hell or High Water" right before I went to bed one night. My heart rate quickened almost instantly, and it kept pumping long after the shotguns and rifles cooled. The premise of this film is Elmore Leonard-level simple. Two brothers systematically rob a West Texas bank chain back the same bank chain to keep their family's land. Jeff Bridges plays the crusty lawman hot on their trail.

If that's all the movie had been, I probably would have loved it just the same. However, to the filmmaker's credit, "High or High Water" features subtle and biting commentary about those struggling to make ends meet in today's economy, gun control laws, crime, punishment, family, and our current political climate. Bridges and Ben Foster play their roles beautifully, but Chris Pine is the real standout here. He can be typecast in "standard Hollywood white guy" roles, but he absolutely shines as a conflicted and desperate family man. It's no surprise that this film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. One of the best movies I saw in 2016. 

Manchester by the Sea

Adam Vitcavage: The logline for “Manchester by the Sea” sounds like the type of film a film student who takes himself or herself too seriously would want to make. “A mopey man battles his inner demons while juggling family obligations and a haunting past.” Okay, that’s not really the logline, but it's close enough. It would have been easy to take the idea of this film and make something that falls shorts. However, this film transcends a simple idea and produces one of the best films of not only this year, but of this millennium.

Kenneth Lonergan’s film is a nuanced look into heart wrenching moments of actions and reactions that unfold slowly over the course of the film. It would have been easy for the writer/director to fill the drama with a melodramatic score underlying long, drawn out artsy shots. The film could have easily been a realistic mumblecore affair for the millennial generation. But that isn’t what this filmmaker does. He provides a keen eye for beautiful shots that don’t stand out. It isn’t the type of film that has one breathtaking shot that will be memorable because it seemed different than the rest of the film; instead, Lonergan chose to subtly film the beauty of his subjects.

Everything hinges on the performance from star Casey Affleck. Lonergan creates a subtle, slow-paced study into Affleck’s Lee Chandler. What happened to him prior to the film and what happens during it is heart wrenching. There’s no other way to put it. [I’m going to leave the plot as much as a mystery, because that’s how I went into the film, and feel that it allows for the punches to hit harder that way.] Everything that Lee does is on the fringe of reasonable, but there is that slimmer of understanding that Affleck performs with that allows viewers to step into this character’s mind. He is a wreck, and by the end of the two hours watching him, you will be, too.

It would be a mistake to overlook the other performances in this film. Luckily, no one has made that mistake. Both Michelle Williams and slight newcomer Lucas Hedges round out a terrific core to bring Lonergan’s film to life. Because of the nature of the film, they will obviously take a back seat to many of the accolades being thrown at Affleck, but the film may not have worked without them.

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The Great Literary Accomplishment of 2016 May Have Belonged To A Film

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"

By Alexander Brown

2016 is getting a lot of flack for being a lousy year. Yes, some lovely, talented people passed on (as they do every year), and an election didn’t go the way many Americans wanted (as it does ever four years), but really, I don’t think 2016 was all for not because how can 2016 be so nefarious when even amidst all the doom, gloom, and social media meltdowns, it also happened to give us Kenneth Lonergan’s "Manchester by the Sea," the best film I’ve seen in years.

(Full disclosure: Nothing in here can be considered a major plot spoiler. I want you to enjoy the film as much as I did, and the less you know the better.)

Saying something is the best anything tends to read like empty, click-baiting hyperbole, but as far as dishing out accolades is concerned you’ll find far greater praise heaped upon the film if you take a quick run through Rotten Tomatoes, or if you simply ask a kind, older moviegoer—my kind of moviegoer—if they have seen any good matinees recently.

It’s a movie that feels so lived-in that characters forget where they parked their cars, phone service drops during crucial moments, and no two people are ever having the same conversation at once. It’s as if you’ve parachuted into a strange but familiar town for a few short weeks, only you keep coming across the same people in their day-to-day lives.

Our protagonist Lee Chandler—played sublimely by the more talented Affleck brother, Casey—is even taken out to buy furniture when his older brother Joe helps him move into a basement apartment in Boston, at a time in Lee’s life where he is choosing to live in exile and in constant penance for his actions. (I’ve never seen someone be gifted furniture on film before. It’s not exactly a white-knuckle moment but it’s funny and sweet and they add up, I swear.)

Even the town of Manchester-by-the-Sea serves as its own character. The early-winter winds coming off the North Atlantic rip through the scenery. School children talk about a performance of "Godspell" that the audience will never be shown. We witness a terrible high school band warming up for a gig that, thankfully, we will never see them play.  

If that at all sounds dull it’s far from it. In fact, its main accomplishment may be that it takes what could be a rather traditional character drama and turns it into something much more profound. It’s so personal and honest it moves along with surprising inertia. It’s not so much a drama as it is a comedy. Not so much a comedy as it is an exercise in observational cinema, or cinéma vérité. Not so much an exercise in cinéma vérité as it is a stab at the Great American Novel.

There is grief but it’s not about grief. It’s sad without being melancholy. It’s funny without the jokes feeling crafted on. No grand transfigurations takes place, only those familiar little moments that make up a life set against the edge of the world overlooking the sea. We’ve seen stories like that before. Be it in a dog-eared copy of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, or, in a far more mainstream comparison, in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Late in the film we arrive at what traditionally should be the emotional catharsis of a film. Two characters meet and the stage is set for Lee to be unburdened, only he doesn’t want to have the conversation. He physically and mentally cannot do it, and you believe him. He leaves.

Nothing about that unique moment, or the dozens of personal, unpredictable encounters that came before it necessarily lends itself towards being a captivating viewing experience, but it is.

In my mind, that makes "Manchester by the Sea" far more than just a film.

That makes it literature.

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