As December tumbles in to the sound of jingle bells and cheer, awards season ramps up in Movieland. Holidays mean blockbusters and prestige releases from the major studios. But there are also top-quality foreign and independent offerings that could garner nominations and will satisfy grown-up cineastes who don’t care about the size of a movie’s budget or the “chore” of reading subtitles.
Here are two films that just hit theaters and will doubtless capture the attention of Oscar and Golden Globe voters looking to fill out their ballots and entice critics making their best-of-the-year lists.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Screenwriter-director Kenneth Lonergan, having already earned praise for his first two feature films (You Can Count on Me and Margaret), reaffirms his commitment to quality moviemaking with another memorable character study that sticks with you long after the end credits have rolled. Manchester by the Sea — a contemporary interpersonal drama set in New England — feels like the best thing Lonergan’s done so far.
Though it’s primarily the story of an ordinary, well-meaning man with ordinary passions and weaknesses who is transformed by tragedy, the movie’s greatest accomplishment is how it goes beyond his struggle to do the right thing and shows the ways that his actions impact the people he knows and loves. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor leading a mundane, solitary under-the-radar existence in Boston. But Lee gets word of his brother’s death and must return to the fishing village where both men were born and raised. In short order, we learn that Lee has been named guardian of his teenaged nephew, and it’s a responsibility that he can’t imagine undertaking. Lee was once a husband and father in his hometown, and that seemingly cozy life was undone by his heedlessness and by an unthinkable accident.
Over the course of the movie, Lonergan plumbs the depths of a handful of unforgettable characters populating Manchester, and, in doing so, draws us deeper into the truth and consequences of Lee’s history. In flashback, the relationships between Lee, his wife, Randi, and his brother, Joe are laid out in short, effective scenes, as is the offhand connection Lee has with his nephew Patrick. There is pain in watching their intertwined fates unravel and fascination in the way they try to cope with the circumstances they face.
To say that Affleck is on-point throughout is an understatement. His exploration of Lee’s inner and outer conflicts is a career high point. Kyle Chandler is rock solid in the role of Joe, and Lucas Hedges is natural and likeable as 16-year-old Patrick — a smart kid with a bright future who is burdened by loss, wrestling with justifiable anger and bitterness, and looking for ways to get past his sadness. Finally, in one of her most powerful and tender performances, Michelle Williams makes an indelible impression as Randi — a woman whose genuine love for Lee lingers, even if it’s forever tainted by their shared past. Williams is not on screen for very long. Nonetheless, this is as praiseworthy as a supporting actress turn could be.
In consideration of its maritime setting and bleaker moments, the movie is given an appropriately dark, chilly air by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes. The dank exteriors are in pronounced contrast to the heated emotions of Lee and his extended family, making their conflicts and resolutions even more impactful when they finally flare up.
Manchester by the Sea isn’t a vacation from our troubles. Lonergan and his cast are not trading in escapism. They’re offering a very moving examination of flawed people in stressful situations. The fact that they are capable of earning your affection and concern is a mark of how good a job they’ve done.
The biographical docudrama Lion brings to mind the line, “If you made it up, no one would believe it.” Even though I know that the movie was based on a true story and specifically on an autobiography written by its protagonist Saroo Bierley, and it recreates real events in roughly the same order as they occurred in his remarkable life, it remains an astonishing tale that defies belief. Directed by Garth Davis from a script by Luke Davies, Lion stars the accomplished actors Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, and David Wenham, and an unaffected Indian child named Sunny Pawar in his acting debut. And it will raise your spirits, even as it breaks your heart.
The record shows that Saroo Bierley was born in a very poor, rural area of India and was raised, along with his older brother and younger sister, by a single mother who labored in a quarry to keep her family fed and sheltered. Saroo’s mother also counted on her oldest son to find work, and on one of his expeditions to earn some money at a menial job, he brought 5-year-old Saroo (Pawar) with him. But the brothers got separated. Thinking himself abandoned, the frightened and confused Saroo boarded an empty train that took him to Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from his home, setting the boy on a perilous odyssey that eventually resulted in his adoption by a kindly suburban couple (Kidman and Wenham) in Australia.
Twenty-five years later, the completely assimilated Saroo (Patel) is his adoptive parents’ pride and joy. He’s on track for a successful career in hotel management, and he’s got a loving girlfriend (Mara). Still, he feels something is missing and decides to seek out his roots and the family he left behind, despite not knowing the town of his origin nor the train route he traveled as a lost, scared kid. Thus begins a journey of self-discovery that is daunting and ultimately inspiring.
As the grown-up Saroo, Patel has taken on a part that echoes his first high-profile screen lead in Slumdog Millionaire, yet Lion offers a more complex set of challenges to navigate as he portrays a young man torn between two cultures. Pawar is guileless, guarded, and adorable as Saroo at age 5. Kidman is particularly fine, playing against type as a middle-class wife and mother, and she never overplays the boundless love the woman feels for the son she rescued from a potentially horrible fate. With its exotic locales and determined hero, Lion is one of the more impressive depictions of resolve and devotion that I’ve seen in some time — and I’m not lyin’.