Best Picture Profile: Manchester by the Sea

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As we come closer to the Academy Awards on February 26th, we’ll be posting short profiles of each Best Picture nominee, attempting, in our own ways, to not only sum up what the movie is about, but why we believe it scored one of the nine coveted nominations, and why it could possibly take home the big prize come Oscar night. Enjoy!

Are movies like Midnight in Paris “good” enough to wipe away the scandals of Woody Allen’s past? What about Hacksaw Ridge when it comes to Mel Gibson?

And Nate Parker? He was a decidedly D-list actor before The Birth of a Nation came along. But the film’s epic awards buzz and Parker’s career went up in smoke when the sins of his youth were revealed.

Why start my profile of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea pondering these men and their crimes?

This year, Manchester’s leading man Casey Affleck finds himself in the same shameful hot seat. Unfortunately, it’s more like a throne decked out with Affleck’s numerous accolades. Accusations of sexual assault (“…settled to the satisfaction of all” in Affleck’s words) have predictably resurfaced on many front pages next to Affleck’s haggard grimace. As much of a huge PR problem as those headlines created for the movie, nothing could derail Affleck’s Best Actor hot streak until recently.

Shockingly, Denzel Washington was able to defeat him at the SAG Awards. Did Affleck lose because of the controversy? Did Constance Wu’s comments disparaging him sway her fellow actors to vote against him? Was Denzel just better? Is there enough time until the Oscars to restore good will towards Affleck and his movie?

Why am I asking so many freaking questions? Because it’s freaking complicated. It’s hard to separate my thoughts about this movie from the drama. And I admit it’s because accounts of his transgressions are dominating coverage of the film. I have to also admit that despite his effed up life choices, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is one of my favorite movies of all time. Soooo, that probably makes me a huge hypocrite…oops…

Anyway, I enjoyed Manchester well enough. In it, Lee’s (Affleck) world is rocked by two senseless tragedies: one past, one present. I’ll tell you about the present one. After his brother Joe suddenly dies, Lee discovers that he inherited custody of Joe’s teenage son Patrick. Lee bristles at the idea of sacrificing his humble life as a Quincy, Massachusetts handyman. He keeps his motives and pain very closely guarded, but the film itself is far more candid.

Lonergan’s stark, naturalistic approach to his material makes it clear why he is a double Oscar nominee. He uses well-placed flashback scenes to color Lee’s profound grief. Still, the events plod along at an undeniably glacial pace. The effect is engrossing initially but slightly mind-numbing towards the finale. All that being said, Manchester’s strongest bid for an Academy Award is for its original screenplay. It’s a prestige film that reads like a prestige theatre piece—snob appeal squared.

Perennial nominee Michelle Williams and hot newcomer Lucas Hedges would have good shots in the supporting categories if they weren’t up against a pair of juggernauts.

What of Casey Affleck’s chances? Based on the Oscar’s track record and the resilient careers of the men I mentioned, I predict he will still win for Best Actor. If Denzel does indeed nab his third Oscar, it would be a HUGE but welcome upset. Let’s hope that Affleck’s loss (if it happens) sends a message to everyone that behavior like his will no longer be rewarded or tolerated.

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