Manchester by the Sea is a great movie in a year of great movies.

2016 was a solid year for movies. And for competition.

In any other year, Manchester by the Sea could have been that movie. You know, that one. The one that completely sweeps every award show. Wins for directing, writing, acting, movie. A cleanup (in everything except for the technical categories). It would then likely face some backlash following the Oscars. People would accuse it of just steamrolling, picking up in lesser categories because of a halo effect. All of which wouldn’t be the fault of the filmmakers, who were just trying to make a good movie.

But that didn’t happen, because 2016 was such an incredible year for film. While I absolutely think that Moonlight deserved Best Picture, I wouldn’t have been crazy upset with some of the others winning. Including Manchester by the Sea. Same with almost every category. Competition was hot this year.

In Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a reserved janitor/handyman in a small town. He learns that his brother Joe has died of a heart attack, so goes back to his home town of Manchester-by-the-Sea to get take care of things.

One of those things is his late brother’s teenage son, Patrick. The mother is out of the picture, and — surprise! — Joe states in his will that he wants Lee to raise Patrick. But Lee is more than just reserved. He has a troubled past and a terrible burden to bear. We find out what that burden is through flashbacks, and we explore whether Lee is able to get past that burden and raise Patrick.

The story goes that Matt Damon and John Krasinski came up with the idea for the script just talking between themselves, and then Damon gave it to his friend Kenneth Lonergan to write and direct. Which seems a little bit strange to me. This isn’t a high concept “pitch” movie, an idea on a napkin. It really feels like a story that one person must have been stewing on for a while and wanted to tell. The kind of story that only sees the light of day once it’s a script. So the idea of Manchester by the Sea being a “concept” that gets passed around I find a little suspect, and I tend to believe the other side, that the Damon/Krasinski story was embellished slightly.

Anyway. The movie. It’s a remarkable piece of work. Immediately we’re drawn in to shots of a fishing community, and we get a real sense of the bleak beauty of coastal Massachusetts in the winter. It’s all whites and browns and grey-blues, bare trees and cold water and briny fishing nets. It’s a coastal fishing town, and it feels just like one, too. This is a working people’s town, and you work partly to keep the cold at bay.

Lots of cold noses in this movie.

Speaking of working people, our main cast are astounding across the board. Casey Affleck as Lee had a tough job — this is a character with a lot boiling up inside him, but who maintains a stoic, disinterested, nearly dead exterior. He’s very rarely in the scene (the character I mean) which means that Affleck had two jobs. Play the character, and play the character behind the character. There’s no big “actor!” moment, it’s just a restrained, understated performance that carries the whole film.

Alongside him is Lucas Hedges as Patrick, who also does a great turn as a smart-but-still-a-16-year-old 16 year old. He’s clever, but he’s still a teen, built out of elbows and knees stuck together with earwax. Patrick and Lee make for a surprisingly funny pair, in a movie so bleak about everything else. I had more laugh-out-loud moments in this film than in most comedies I’ve seen lately.

Rounding out my favourite performances is Michelle Williams, who does remarkable things with a character without that much screen time. She’s supporting, but still absolutely essential.

The dialogue between all of the main cast feels incredibly natural. It made me think (weirdly enough) of the dinner scene in Alien, where it feels like the actors are real people and we’re just watching their conversations play out.

In fact, the whole way I was thinking that it would have been so easy for this movie, or one like it, to fall into the hands of a lesser writer/director and become forgettable. They might lean too hard on the comedy. Or the indie side of things, getting every character to emote out loud. Or they’d overdo the “naturalness” and have people talking over one another until it becomes obnoxious. But Lonergan’s deft hand keeps Manchester by the Sea from straying too far in any one direction.

People don’t slot into “sad mode” when a loved one passes on, or forget everything when they’re having fun. In Manchester by the Sea, a giggle in one scene turns into heart-wrenching anguish in the next. And it all somehow works. Because people aren’t one-note. Lonergan and his cast know that the most important thing, beyond the cinematography and sound design and everything else that makes up cinema, is that people connect with moments that are human.

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