Kubo and the Two Strings.

Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature for this year’s Oscars, or perhaps one of the four nominees that’s going to lose to Zootopia … although I could craft a good argument for Kubo winning instead, especially if the quality of the animation and visual style count as much as the story and voice acting do. It’s available to rent or buy (just $10) on amazon and iTunes.

Kubo is a 3D stop-motion film from the same studio that produced Coraline (which is fantastic), Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls, all also filmed with stop-motion animation, a painstaking process of which you get a glimpse if you hang around through Kubo‘s closing credits. It’s incredible to look at and I found it hard to believe some parts were done via stop-motion because they were too smooth and vivid, things we would normally associate with computer animation like Pixar uses in its best-in-breed films.

Kubo is the main character, a one-eyed young boy who lives in a cave outside of his village with his ailing mother, whose grip on reality seems to ebb and flow with the daylight. She tells him heroic stories of his father, Hanzo, a warrior who disappeared while trying to protect his family, and Kubo repeats those stories by day in the town square, using his magic shamisen, which builds and animates origami figures as he plays and talks. By night, he must return to the cave, or his evil grandfather and aunts will return to try to steal his other eye to make their powers complete.

Needless to say, he stays out one night, there’s a battle, and Kubo has to go on a quest to find his father’s missing armor so he can protect himself from his grandfather (voiced by Ralph Fiennes, who is a little too good at the whole villain thing). He’s joined by Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron), a totem he kept who was animated by his mother’s last burst of magic, and eventually Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a giant insect samurai with meory loss, who help him try to retrieve the three parts of the armor and perhaps learn some Valuable Lessons along the way.

The story is a bit hackneyed, but the characters themselves are well-written and there’s plenty of humor within it to keep it from feeling too much like a fable. McConaughey gives a pretty good Buzz Lightyear performance as the flawed hero, mixing in bravado with the absent-mindedness that provides a lot of the comic relief. But Kubo is more of a visual feast than a great story – it’s just such a beautiful and unique-looking film that even the slower sequences when the quest first begins are still riveting.

I’ll also mention Finding Dory quickly here – it wasn’t nominated, falling behind two other Disney properties and two foreign films, and I can see why. It felt a lot like the softer version of Finding Nemo, with a lot less of the first film’s wonder and more feel-good elements – although I thought showing two sequences where Dory is separated from her family might be too much for younger kids. It’s a stunning film to watch, as Pixar manages to animate water and other difficult substances like nobody else in animation history, and I enjoyed the Wire reunion of Idris Elba and Dominic West as sea lions sharing a rock. It’s free to stream on Netflix now.

Loving.

Even before I’d seen Loving (available via amazon or iTunes), I expected it to get a Best Picture nomination because it was a well-reviewed film that covered a major social issue with renewed relevance in light of November’s elections. The BBC even tweeted an errant image of the BP nominees that included Loving with the nine films that actually did get that honor. Now that I’ve seen it and can actually offer an opinion, I’m surprised it didn’t get one, especially with Hell or High Water, an entertaining but rather formulaic movie, earning a nod instead.

Loving tells the true and still somewhat hard-to-believe story of the perfectly-named Lovings, a white man and black woman in Virginia in the 1950s who got married in Washington, D.C., because Virginia had a law explicitly prohibiting interracial marriage. The couple was arrested and pled guilty under an arrangement where they agreed to leave Virginia for 25 years, but after some time in D.C., Mildred Loving wrote to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who referred her to the local ACLU chapter, which in turn saw the Lovings as a perfect test case to try to blow up anti-miscegenation laws across the south and midwest. Sixteen states still had such laws in 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lovings that Virginia’s law violated the Fourteenth Amendment; of those states, fourteen went for Trump in November 2016, the only exceptions being Virginia itself … and Delaware.

Director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special) also wrote the screenplay for Loving and by all accounts, including comments from the Lovings’ daughter Peggy, hewed very closely to the truth, to an extent that might have actually hurt the film’s commercial appeal. This is a simple love story, not a courtroom drama or a rabble-rousing protest film. Richard Loving in particular was a very quiet man, uncomfortable with the public attention or the need to take any of this to higher courts; he just loved his wife and wanted the legal right to be with her. Mildred appears to have been the impetus behind the lawsuits and the charge up to the Supreme Court, conscious of the larger issues at play here than just their relationship (and the status of their children, who were considered illegitimate before SCOTUS struck down the Virginia law). It’s kind of a sweet story, with minimal drama and certainly no artificial flourishes to heighten the tension. I appreciated that aspect of the film because it’s such an antidote to hyped-up “based on a true story” movies that merge people into single characters or alter the order of events to make the film more exciting, but I can also understand viewers finding it dull because we just don’t see movies like this very often.

Ruth Negga earned a Best Actress nomination for her performance as Mildred, although I couldn’t see her winning over Emma Stone for La La Land on merit or popularity. Neither Mildred nor Richard is that intruiging a character, with Mildred the slightly deeper of the two, although much of Negga’s performance, while solid, involves showing varying degrees of anxiety or concern on her face. Loving doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, and neither character changes at all over the course of the film – because that’s the story, of course. The couple were already adults when they first chose to get married, and they stuck together through their challenges because they loved each other, but neither needed to acquire anything new to get to the conclusion. You might argue that Mildred showed unexpected strength in taking the lead during the legal process, but I interpreted it as showing that she already had this strength of character but was somewhat overshadowed because she was both a woman and a person of color, so less was expected of her.

Loving is, however, a classically romantic movie. These two people just love each other so much they were willing to break the law, resist arrest and imprisonment, and eventually concede much of their privacy to be together legally and to allow others to do the same. Nichols stays out of the way of the story in almost every aspect; I think the best way to know this is one of his films is the cast, with Michael Shannon making his required appearance (as a Life photographer) and both Bill Camp and Joel Edgerton (as Richard Loving) appearing as they did in Nichols’ Midnight Special. Perhaps it wasn’t quite flashy enough to attract Oscar voters, but I think it’s a beautiful rendition of a true story of great historical importance within our country and, of course, remains relevant to this day.

Life, Animated.

Life, Animated earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, a category that also includes an entry from my employer, the 7.5-hour O.J.: Made in America, widely expected to win the award. While I wouldn’t put the two in the same league, I did enjoy Life, Animated (which is free for Amazon Prime members) for its portrayal of a young, high-functioning, autistic adult as a real person with personality and the same hopes and fears as most of the rest of us – not as someone to be pitied or shut away.

Owen Suskind’s story is a peculiar one: at age 3, his autism came on suddenly and he lost all verbal communication skills and even saw regression in gross motor skills. He spoke only in gibberish for at least a year, before his parents discovered that he was able to repeat a line from The Little Mermaid – coincidentally (or not) one about Ariel giving up her voice to Ursula. Over the coming years, his parents were able to use his love of Disney films and ability to memorize huge chunks of dialogue to re-form his verbal communication skills, succeeding to the point that he was able to return to school and eventually graduate from a high school program for kids with special needs. (Disney, my ultimate employer, granted these producers the rights to include a lot of footage from Disney films and to use the likenesses of many Disney characters.)

Owen is an unusual success story among autistic children, and there’s no specific reason to believe that, say, Disney films will unlock every kid whose brain is ‘trapped’ by autism. I would imagine he’s a favorite of researchers both because he did largely come out of the fog and because he can articulate so clearly what’s happening to him. He has a prodigious memory and a broad vocabulary (sometimes in a humorous way, because his speech is stiffly formal, but always right), so he can talk to his parents, his therapists, and here the camera about what it felt like to be four years old and unable to understand anything anyone was saying, or to explain how bullies nearly caused him to shut down emotionally while a teenager. But one of you asked me on Twitter if I thought it insinuated that this might be a cure or treatment for other kids who experience that sudden onset of autism and lose their verbal skills; I really didn’t think so, but then again, I’m not a parent grasping for hope because my child is autistic.

(Also worth noting: Vaccines do not cause autism.)

Instead of trying to tell a sweeping story like ESPN’s OJ documentary or Ava DuVernay’s The 13th, which I just finished today, Life, Animated is just a slice of life and a portrait of one family – and the love and support of his parents and his older brother form a huge part of Owen’s story. I didn’t get any greater message out of it than that we should view people like Owen (and some of his friends whom we meet along the way) as fully-formed people with lives worth living. It might make you a little more compassionate the next time you meet a “strange” person out in public, or perhaps it’ll make you rethink what it means for someone to be “on the spectrum.” At one point, Owen’s parents ask what it means to have a meaningful life, and if Owen is happy and makes others happy, isn’t that good enough? We should all hope to accomplish so much.

Louder than Bombs.

Louder than Bombs is the first English-language film from Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, after his critically-acclaimed 2011 film Oslo, August 31st, which I found kind of unwatchable because it was … just … so … slow. But Louder than Bombs also garnered great reviews, has a treendous cast (four actors with past Oscar nominations, plus Golden Globe winner Gabriel Byrne), and made Will Leitch’s top ten films of 2016. It’s also free for Amazon Prime members, which meant I really had no good reason not to watch it.

Of course, it’s pretty great. It’s a very understated film, and often painfully quiet, but the story here really works and even takes advantage of those long silences. The performances are good across the board, and the film includes some clever dream sequences and re-enactments that introduce its only true dramatic elements. It’s certainly not for everyone – I don’t think I would have liked this movie twenty years ago, but now I have both age and patience I lacked back then.

Louder than Bombs looks at the aftermath of the death of Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert, herself nominated for an Oscar for Elle this year) on her family, husband Gene (Byrne), not-large adult son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), and 14-year-old son Conrad (Devin Druid), who is the movie’s central figure because his grief, coupled with his apparent introverted nature, is the most obvious from the outside. All three men are hurting, but Conrad wears it on his sleeve a bit more, and his father and brother are unable to figure out how to help with him or cope with their own issues surrounding Isabelle’s death, which they believe, at least, was a suicide.

What works best in Louder than Bombs is the excruciatingly frail relationship Gene has with Conrad. Gene is flawed, aware of his flaws, but still a pretty reliable screw-up, and even continues to do so by having an affair with one of Conrad’s teachers (played by Amy Ryan). Conrad doesn’t know that his mother killed herself, or that she’d suffered from depression, which you’d think would be relevant given that he too may be showing signs of the same illness. He’s a little bit of a stock character – the sullen teen who hides in his room and plays video games – but there’s some complexity there that becomes apparent later in the film.

Jonah is the least well-developed of the three men in the movie, a functioning adult with a wife and newborn child, but whose marriage isn’t what it seems and who is more than willing to rekindle an old flame when he returns to his hometown to help his father go through Isabelle’s papers and files. He’s dealing with his own grief by compartmentalizing it, and thus stands in the way of his father (who might be too impetuous) telling Conrad the whole truth about their mother, because doing so might force Jonah to confront the full reality of her suicide. The film doesn’t delve into Jonah’s emotions the way it does Conrad’s or Gene’s, which is only a shame because Jonah himself could have been a more interesting character, especially if we saw why it seems like he’s acquired some of the less desirable personality traits of both his parents.

Huppert plays Isabelle’s depression in the film’s many flashbacks as a sort of sleepwalking, awake but rarely present, with a vacancy in her eyes that may not be perfectly realistic but conveys the sort of emotional absence that depression gives the sufferer. I would have enjoyed seeing more of her performance, but the film isn’t really about her; revelations about her, many of which come about because her former colleague (played by David Strathairn, whose voice is just such a pleasure to listen to) is writing an article about her life, appear to show their effects on the survivors.

It’s hard to avoid a comparison to the other big grief movie of 2016, Manchester by the Sea, but the two films differ both in story and in performances. There’s no tour de force by anyone in Louder than Bombs, but there are also signs of marginal progress for the three men by the time the movie reaches its somewhat ambiguous conclusion. Where Casey Affleck’s character can’t escape his grief (and role within it), Gene and his sons might just move beyond theirs. It’s a little bit more hopeful, but just as compelling in its portrait of survivors struggling to cope with unthinkable, unexpected loss.

La La Land.

My top 100 prospects ranking is rolling out this week, with prospects #40 to #21 in today’s post. Over at Paste, I reviewed the new edition of Citadels, a classic game from 2000 that plays 2-8, and comfortably plays five-plus – I’d say it’s best with at least four.

Imagine if Once were set in L.A., opened with a classic musical-film song and dance number, and starred two ridiculously beautiful people wearing nice clothes and singing happier songs?

Once didn’t get the love it deserved from the Oscars, although it later became a cult hit and a Tony Award-winning musical. La La Land is a lot more ambitious and bigger-budget than Once was, and it’s going to win a lot more Academy Awards, but at their hearts are quite similar stories about love affairs that just can’t last, set to music.

Of course, that’s a bit glib – La La Land is more than just that. It’s part homage to the bygone era of the big Hollywood musical. It’s a feast for the eyes, with vivid colors in the background and on Emma Stone. It’s a little bit parody, and then it folds a little back in on itself and plays along with its own gag. It’s also a really good time, which makes it a rarity among the Best Picture nominees this year. La La Land is an outright pleasure to watch, even with the half-and-half ending, and with so many movies draped in grief, regret, sorrow, and isolation this year, it stands out even more.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play Mia and Seb, two beautiful people struggling in their careers in LA – she an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop, he a jazz pianist playing Christmas music in a nightclub and then, in a sight gag that Stone turns into something much more, in a bad ’80s cover band. They meet more than once and don’t hit it off right away, but eventually the movie keeps pushing them together until there’s a spark, along with a song about how there’s no spark between them. Eventually, he gets a medium break, playing in a jazz-pop band led by his old frenemy Keith (played by John Legend), which forms the first wedge between the star-crossed lovers, although they manage to careen back and forth until the movie’s epilogue, five years later, where we see that, even in the movies, sometimes you just can’t have everything after all.

This is a musical, but not an old-time musical. If you just saw the opening scene, a huge ensemble dance number set in a traffic jam on a highway on-ramp, you’d expect something like the classics, where people just spontaneously start dancing while singing their dialogue. Instead, this is a regular movie with a handful of songs, and it isn’t until the end, when Emma Stone sings for her Oscar with “The Audition Song” (earning the movie one of its two Best Song nominations) near the very end, that we get another flashback to the halcyon days of Hollywood. Did critics who’ve said of La La Land that “they don’t make movies like this any more!” realize that Hollywood never made movies like this in the past?

Stone really owns this film in just about every way. Her character is better-developed, more three-dimensional, and shows real growth over the film. When Mia and Seb have their first quarrel as lovers, Mia holds her own in the argument, and Stone manages to portray inner turmoil on a face that’s outwardly composed until Seb finally insults her enough for her to leave. That’s Stone’s greatest achievement in the movie – her character is often put in situations where she’s turning from one emotion to another in a flash, and she can do this without making you aware that this is just someone acting.

The movie also uses her as a blank canvas of sorts, running her through an array of dresses in solid, vibrant colors that seemed to underscore the fact that, hey, we’re in California, where everything is sunny and bright and colorful all the time. It doesn’t hurt that she can get away with wearing all of those colors, or that her eyes seemed to be green in one scene and blue in another, but it ensures that your eyes are on her in nearly every scene.

Gosling, meanwhile, can turn on the charm when his character permits, but Seb is prone to this sort of insular, sulking behavior that I thought was as offputting as his strange amalgam of New York and Philly accents. And neither of these two is winning any awards for dancing, although, as always, we must give more credit to the woman for dancing backward and in heels.

Some of the L.A. jokes were a little too on the nose – the Prius gag, the gluten-free line – and the movie is funnier when it draws humor from situations rather than punchlines. When Seb is trying to explain jazz to Mia, and she answers with, “What about Kenny G?” it’s his reaction that drives the entire scene. He is totally beyond exasperated, like he wants to claw the skin off his face, yet is so passionate about the subject and obviously smitten with her that he tries to talk her down off the smooth-jazz ledge. It’s probably my favorite Gosling scene in the movie, especially since Seb’s ego returns to the center of his character towards the end of the film.

The movie ends with a dream sequence that shows an alternate reality five years on, what might have happened if things went … well, the other way, and I think here director and writer Damien Chazelle did two things: paid homage to classic musicals in more explicit fashion, and reminded the Academy just one more time to vote for him. I caught direct allusions to An American in Paris and Royal Wedding, and Funny Face, but I’m no expert on the genre and assume I missed many more. In that sense, it was the most engrossing part of the movie – you’re looking at the flip side of the movie’s internal reality, and also watching the two of them move through a rolling reference to Hollywood history.

I’ve seen four of the Best Picture nominees and hope to see as many as eight – I have zero interest in a Mel Gibson movie, and even less in that particular one – although I might only get Lion after the awards ceremony. Of the four I’ve seen, I think La La Land would get my vote. It just does more, and does more well, than Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea, both great movies but less ambitious than this one. I think any would be a worthy winner, but I rank things, and I currently have La La Land at #1.

Midnight Special.

Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special came to my attention primarily via the Grierson & Leitch podcast, with Will Leitch naming it one of his ten best movies of the year (of which I’ve now seen six). It’s Nichols’ fourth movie, although it’s been overshadowed this year by the release of his fifth film, Loving, a fact-based dramatization of the couple behind the Loving v. Virginia court case, foreshadowing the upcoming effort in Texas to end interracial marriage.

I’ve never seen a full Jeff Nichols film other than this one; I started Take Shelter, which also starred Michael Shannon, but as a father of a young daughter (as his character was in that movie) found the conceit too upsetting and never finished it. Nichols does mine some similar psychological territory here, with Shannon again playing a father trying to protect a young child from unknown threats, but Midnight Special‘s demons are real, and the story doesn’t remind you that it’s terrifying to be a parent, instead wrapping the viewer up in the mystery of what exactly young Alton can do that has both the U.S. government and a Branch Davidian-like cult trying to capture him.

When the movie opens, we see Roy (Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton, who also plays the male lead in Loving) on the run with young Alton, who wears blue goggles, reads comic books, and is apparently extremely important to the cult from which he and Roy have fled. FBI officials raid the cult compound shortly after they’ve left, also in search of Alton, who we learn has apparently been revealing codes critical to national security when he speaks in tongues, and the church’s leader incorporates them into sermons. NSA analyst Paul (Adam Driver) is one of the lead investigators looking for Alton, believing the boy may be some sort of weapon, the one fleshed-out character among the multi-agency force behind the manhunt, while the church appears desperate to get the boy back because they believe he’s their savior.

Alton brown (cropped).jpg
This is not the boy you’re looking for. (photo by Lawrence Lansing)

Most of this works well, better than the vague description might imply, because the nature of Alton’s powers is not actually relevant to the final story, and the climax only partially explains what’s going on (although what the viewer sees is what Roy and the other characters would also see). This is light science fiction, and like better works of that genre it’s focused on character and story rather than goofy sci-fi tricks. Roy and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) are all grappling with their breaks with the church, their duties to protect Alton, and their utter confusion over what he actually is and why he insists on going to a specific location at a specific date and time. Lucas faces a similar inner conflict, the nature of which isn’t revealed until the second half of the film. Even Paul has to choose between the government that employs him (and to which, we might assume, he’s loyal beyond the paycheck) and his intellectual curiosity once he meets Alton and sees some of the boy’s abilities himself.

Midnight Special is thus driven by the strength of its performances, and fortunately for the film, the two leads are very strong. Shannon’s always a presence in any film – he has a commanding look, and he broods as well as anyone – while Edgerton, an Australian actor who was one of the highlights of Animal Kingdom, delivers a more nuanced performance here, wearing his discomfort a little less on his face and putting it more in the tone of his speech. Dunst has less to do, and there’s more handwringing to her performance as the worried mother who has little more than one moment of significance in the plot – when she tells Roy what she fears will happen when Alton reaches his destination.

Where I thought Midnight Special fell apart, at least a little, was in how it merely dispensed with plot points that it no longer needed. The cult stuff just disappears with little explanation and felt to me like a red herring within the larger story. Once we pass the climax, Sarah is similarly gone from the story, and it seems like she was there primarily because Nichols had to show us Alton’s mom. Even the nature of her last scene with Alton rang a little false to me, although explaining why would spoil the ending.

And that ending, at least, deserves some praise, because Nichols avoids excessive explanation – or, God help us, monologuing – in favor of just showing us what happens. We get the merest glimpse of an answer to the mystery of Alton’s nature, and even that probably leaves you with more questions, or at least opens the door to a whole separate exposition on what exactly that other space is, than you had before. But if you were there, part of the story as Roy or Sarah or Lucas are, then this would be all you’d get. That’s admirable restraint in a film that relies a bit too heavily on chase scenes, gunfire, and off-screen threats.

Right now Midnight Special is on my top ten list for 2016, but that’s primarily because I’ve only seen ten movies from last year so far and I think this would be tenth. (I’d put it behind Hail, Caesar!.) I am assuming it’ll drop out given the films I still need/want to see.

Fences.

Most of the buzz around Fences has been around the individual performances of Viola Davis, seen as the heavy favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar, and Denzel Washington, who play Rose and Troy Maxson, the center of this film set in 1950s Pittsburgh. That’s both the movie’s strength and its weakness: This is an ensemble of great acting performances around a script that’s very talky, the way a play on a stage needs to be but a filmed version does not. (The film is based on the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson, who died in 2005.)

Troy is a 53-year-old trash collector in Pittsburgh who portrays himself as a devoted husband and father, a strong provider, and a bon vivant, only for the complexity of his character and contradictions of his (offscreen) actions to become clear as the movie progresses. Troy played in the Negro Leagues – this movie has a lot of baseball talk in it, and the playwright behind it, August Wilson, obviously knew his baseball – but was denied his chance due to his race or perhaps his age, although he remembers it one way and his wife the other. Troy’s self-built narrative takes one hit after another as we meet his sons, learn the story of his war-wounded and addled brother Gabe (a tremendous turn by Mykelti Williamson), and discover the secret he’s been hiding from Rose that turns the entire story upside down, giving Davis control of the second half of the film to deliver her very Oscar-worthy performance.

Davis dominates her time as the wronged wife, but Washington’s work, especially in the first half of the film where he’s the storytelling, bullshitting center of every scene, seems a little too on the nose. I haven’t seen the play, so I lack that means of comparison, but either the script or Washington’s interpretation of it – especially the way he voices his lines from his jowls – seems to border on caricature, in a way that particularly emphasizes Troy’s race.

Yet Fences is not inherently a movie about race or racism – there isn’t a white person to be found except the nameless driver of Troy and his best friend Bono’s garbage truck – and only a portion of Troy’s misfortune is due to his blackness. His downfall is not the color of his skin, but his willingness to rationalize all of his mistakes, from mere errors in judgment to total lapses in responsibility, because they felt right in his heart. He’s kept his sons at arm’s length for different reasons, but in both cases it has produced damaged relationships. He has a good, eighteen-year marriage to a devoted wife, Rose, who has chosen a life of subjugation to her domineering husband and his expansive personality, but he throws it all away because, in his mind, of his need to escape the stress of being the sole provider for the family. That’s a role on the stage that would require a huge persona to fill up the theater, but Washington seems to bring the bluster along with the bravado in a way that overwhelms the rest of the family throughout the first half of the film.

Fences is much stronger as a document about women, and perhaps their role in the newly upwardly-mobile black communities of the 1950s, where the door had just begun to open on financial opportunities for black men, at least in the north and west of the U.S. Rose reveals, in one of several speeches that could form her Oscar nomination reel, that she suppressed her own goals in life because she found that accommodating Troy left no “room” for her, only to find that Troy has betrayed her in the most treasonous way possible. This is The Remains of the Day for the working class, and a story in which one of the two characters looking back on a life of lost chances gets a second act to try to regain what they gave up.

As for the fence of the title, Troy and his son Cory (played meekly by Jovan Adepo, later upstaged by a six-year-old girl) are supposed to be building one around their property at Rose’s request, and the fence serves as a clumsy metaphor for Rose’s attempts to keep her family close to her and Troy’s goal to keep the Angel of Death out. It never worked for me, both because it was too overt a symbol and because we don’t see enough of Rose’s strength in the first half of the film to reinforce the metaphor.

Fences is a better film than I may have implied here – it’s flawed, but in small ways, factors that keep it from being as strong as Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea. It’s also a pure joy to watch Davis, Williamson – playing a character who is childlike as a result of a serious head injury he suffered in World War II, without veering off into clownlike caricature – and Stephen Henderson (as Bono) just do their thing, delivering precise, full-bodied performances in a movie that is largely a showcase for them. Even Washington, for all his scene-chewing, is a magnetic presence on the screen; I think I have more complaint with his direction, such as some needless close-ups of characters in anxious or pensive moments, than his acting, although he’ll probably get nominations for both. He infuses the character with rakish charm in the opening scene, and then allows the character’s actions and justifications to chip away at our admiration until, by the time of the Big Reveal, there’s little left but a shell that Troy himself can’t put back together, no matter what he tells Rose or himself to defend it.

Manchester by the Sea.

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Manchester by the Sea is a devastating portrayal of the aftermath of grief that can’t just go away with time, the lengths to which people will go to avoid it, and the inevitability of returning to it. Casey Affleck delivers a performance for the ages here, and Michelle Williams is brilliant in a secondary role that doesn’t give her a ton of screen time. And despite the film’s core subject matter, there’s a lot of humor in it, some silly, some dry, but more than enough to keep you from turning away from the film’s unrelenting sorrow.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, whom we meet first in his job in Quincy (correctly pronounced “quinzy”), Massachusetts, a working-class suburb just south of Boston, as a janitor and handyman for several buildings, where he’s put upon by numerous tenants and displays a sort of heroic stoicism in the face of condescension and stupidity. He gets a surprise phone call while shoveling snow and de-icing a sidewalk, a regular pastime for Boston-area residents, to learn his brother, Joe, has been hospitalized; by the time he arrives, his brother has died of a heart attack, which we find out was the result of congestive heart failure that hit Joe at a very young age. Lee finds out that Joe has appointed him guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick, with the assumption that Lee would take over Joe’s house in Manchester-by-the-Sea and raise Patrick to adulthood, but this revelation – Lee had no idea that this was in Joe’s will – reopens a torrent of grief related to another, earlier tragedy for which Lee blames himself and led to his flight to the city.

This is a Casey Affleck solo album, and he delivers a virtuoso performance that never really answers whether Lee is truly a stoic or merely suffering so much internal pain that he’s become numb on the outside. Affleck has a hundred opportunities to slip outside of that hard exterior and lose the character, and never blinks. There’s pain in his eyes, especially in the scene where we see him explaining the earlier tragedy to police, and a tension in his jaw that lasts throughout the film, so that when he turns down even simple gestures of kindness from others, those characters could see him as impolite or morose and never tell which. The script makes excellent use of silences throughout the film, but those are a key component of Lee’s conversations with just about everyone around him, even in response to mundane questions, as if wondering what kind of day he’s having is just too painful to contemplate.

The one character with whom Lee has any reduction in his guard is Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, who has already won several awards for the best performance by a young actor in a film this year. We see through flashbacks that Lee was close to Patrick when the latter was still young, before Lee’s own tragedy and the departure of Patrick’s alcoholic mother from his life, but Lee’s ability to connect with Patrick is hampered by absence and time, and the spectre of that central tragedy in Lee’s past. Hedges is at his best when balancing the facade of the insouciant teenager, balancing two girlfriends who don’t know about each other, against his own grief at losing his father and one particular detail that encapsulates his grief.

Williams isn’t on screen much as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, although her character is central to the backstory and she delivers a monologue near the very end of the film (the one you see in the trailer and commercials) where she speaks through wracking sobs that sound unbelievably real. Her accent, like most of those other than Affleck’s, is over the top, but like Affleck she reflects intense pain through her eyes and through tightly drawn lips in her first reappearance at the funeral service, only to let the grief out in a barrage of tears in that (Oscar nomination clip?) scene. The change in her appearance from the past to the present is also significant and well-executed; in the present day, she’s remarried into at least some more money, with an expensive haircut and clothes and more makeup, but the makeover turns her into someone who’s overcompensating to forget her past, and perhaps unsure of how to reflect a rise in status in her looks.

There are little details around the edges of the film that could have been better, including a few scenes that director Kenneth Lonergan might have cut, such as the thirty-second discussion over the “bleeper” (the garage-door opener) that served no purpose other than to have Affleck and Hedges say that word with their Massachusetts accents. The police-station scene where Affleck goes over the earlier tragedy is marred by the score, which is too loud to begin with and didn’t need to be in that scene at all; the score as a whole detracts from the movie, as it was just too noticeable in a film that needs to be quiet. Also, when Patrick eats at the house of one of his girlfriends, he refers to a dish as “homemade carbonara” when it is clearly a red sauce, and that sort of mistake is just unforgiveable.

Affleck seems like a lock for a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and I’m not sure how anyone could deliver a better performance than this. I’ve mentioned the sexual harassment lawsuits against him in a recent links post, which could sink his support among Oscar voters, but on the merits alone he’s more than deserving, with a Golden Globe nomination already and several wins from local film critics’ associations. I imagine it’ll get nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, with Williams possibly grabbing one for Best Supporting Actress, although from reading expert views I get the sense like Viola Davis has that one sealed up for Fences. I don’t think it will beat Moonlight, but I think it’s actually a better film with a stronger script; both films use silence heavily to express sorrow, grief, or doubt, but Manchester does it more effectively.

Stick to baseball, 12/10/16.

I wrote a bunch of stuff this week to cover all the major transactions before and during the winter meetings, including:

The Cardinals signing Dexter Fowler
The Yankees signing Aroldis Chapman
The Nationals’ trade for Adam Eaton
The Cubs/Royals trade with Wade Davis and Jorge Soler
The Rockies signing Ian Desmond
The Rays signing Wilson Ramos
The Red Sox trading for Chris Sale
The Red Sox trading for Tyler Thornburg
The Giants signing Mark Melancon
The Yankees signing Matt Holliday
The Astros signing Carlos Beltran

I also held a Klawchat on Friday afternoon.

Over at Paste, I reviewed Terraforming Mars, one of the best new boardgames of 2016, and one that will place high on my ranking of the top ten games of the year when that’s published in the next few days.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

Moonlight.

Moonlight is already one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, and it feels like a lock for a Best Picture nomination, especially in light of recent criticism that the Oscars are too white. It’s an unusually quiet, understated movie, often painfully silent, mimicking the internal suffering of its main character, a gay black man we follow from elementary school to young adulthood as he struggles to find any way or place he can feel comfortable in his own skin.

The story unfurls in three parts, with a different actor playing the lead character in each stage, with probably six to eight years separating each third. Chiron, variously known as Little or Black, first appears on screen as he’s chased by a bunch of classmates shouting about beating “his gay ass” as they run through a project in Miami, eventually cornering him in a boarded-up motel or apartment complex where he’s found by the local dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan ends up serving as a sort of father figure to Chiron, but the relationship unravels as Chiron’s mother, Paula, becomes a crack addict. The film follows Chiron through a miserable experience in high school as a bullied, silent kid whose one experience with sexuality is followed by betrayal and disaster, to his transformation as an adult into a jacked-up enforcer in Atlanta who comes back to Miami to reunite with his estranged friend.

If you want to summarize Moonlight as the gay black movie, you wouldn’t exactly be wrong, but you’d be doing the screenplay by director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney a huge disservice. Chiron is a target because he’s gay, something even his own mother can’t accept, but the theme of ostracism and isolation is broader than just that brought on by homophobia – and if Chiron were comfortable with his sexuality, or had a support system at home, or were just willing to defend himself physically (as Kevin tells him in part one), his story arc would be completely different. Chiron’s problem is not that he’s gay, but that he is who he is, with no one around to tell him that he’s okay, or to help him become a more assertive, confident person before it’s too late. You could just as easily say Moonlight is about a life ruined by the scourge of crack in poor black communities. I don’t think it’s any of those things, not individually, but draws on so many different themes that it manages to create a complex story with a bare minimum of dialogue.

And when I say a bare minimum, I mean it; you could probably write this entire script on the head of a pin using a Sharpie and an old English font. Chiron rarely says more than two or three words at a time, and often just doesn’t answer questions addressed directly to him. No one talks at length except for Kevin, and by the third act, it seems like it’s out of nervousness rather than him having something to say. The silences throughout the film are there to make you uncomfortable, to make you feel the characters’ discomfort, but as someone with the attention span of a goldfish I felt a little like I was watching Steve Trachsel’s directorial debut. The silences are undoubtedly effective, both for that purpose and for making the film’s bursts of activity that much more incisive, but oh my God Chiron just answer the question!

It seems like Moonlight is already generating Oscar buzz, and it’s on par with some of the best movies I’ve seen the last few years as a work of art, but I wonder if any actors in the film will earn nominations given how little time most of them get on screen. Of the three actors to play Chiron, only Trevante Rhodes really has enough to do to merit a Supporting Actor nod, and Ali could get consideration for the same. As much as I’d like to see Janelle Monáe, who plays Juan’s girlfriend Teresa and appears in two of the three parts, get a nomination, the character is too one-note for that, and Naomie Harris, who plays Chiron’s mother, has much more weight to her role as well as the bonus points from playing a drug addict. (The hair and makeup department did their best to make Monáe look plain, but failed.) I could see Moonlight getting Picture, Director, and Screenplay nods but whiffing on the four Actor categories, depending of course on what the rest of the field looks like; the Screen Actors Guild has a Best Ensemble category, however, and that seems tailor-made for a film like Moonlight that is the sum of many great, small performances.

I’m hoping to catch a few more of the leading contenders in the next few weeks – La La Land, Loving, and Manchester by the Sea among them – as my writing schedule permits.