Finally, two new films to shout about.

Manchester by the Sea.

Man­ches­ter by the Sea.

In her reveal­ing pro­file of Ken­neth Lon­er­gan in the New York­er here, Rebec­ca Mead charts the tra­vails that Lon­er­gan went through with his sec­ond fea­ture Mar­garet. Not with­stand­ing her entire­ly sym­pa­thet­ic por­trait, one of the fas­ci­nat­ing insights to emerge is that, at least to some degree, those wounds were par­tial­ly self-inflicted.

Cer­tain­ly his debut You Can Count On Me was one of the most impres­sive films to come out of Amer­i­ca in the last cou­ple of decades. And not with­stand­ing the wran­gling over its length, his fol­low up Mar­garet, reviewed ear­li­er here, was if any­thing an improve­ment on that debut. But when it came to deliv­er­ing that con­tentious final cut of Mar­garet, he seems to have bur­rowed him­self ever deep­er into a hole large­ly if trag­i­cal­ly of his own making.

The Brilliant You Can Count on Me.

The bril­liant You Can Count on Me.

There’s evi­dent­ly a stub­born­ness and a prick­ly recal­ci­trance to his char­ac­ter that’s qui­et­ly at war with his fiery intel­li­gence and the pro­found sense of empa­thy that he has for oth­er peo­ple and, there­fore, with the char­ac­ters that he ends up cre­at­ing on the page. It’s in this sense that his third film, Man­ches­ter by the Sea is so clear­ly an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal one. It’s not so much the sto­ry that he tells that is so man­i­fest­ly his, rather it is the mood cre­at­ed that so per­fect­ly cap­tures that inner tension.

Casey Affleck plays Lee, who has bot­tled up what­ev­er it was that hap­pened to him in his past so tight­ly he’s become immune to life itself. When a trag­ic event sends him back home to the Man­ches­ter of the title, he has no choice oth­er than to face up to his past.

What Lon­er­gan does so bril­liant­ly is to stay with his char­ac­ters as they go about the mun­dane, day to day chores that have to be gone through when­ev­er any of us have to deal with a trag­ic event. What makes this all the more excru­ci­at­ing is that of all the peo­ple who have to deal with those kind of things, Lee is the least capa­ble, and the most in need of help. Which is the one thing he’s inca­pable of ask­ing for.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea.

Casey Affleck, who’s a rev­e­la­tion, and the excel­lent Lucas Hedges in Man­ches­ter by the Sea.

It would be mis­lead­ing to pre­tend that, at times, this were not a pro­found­ly depress­ing film. But its bril­liance lies pre­cise­ly in its refusal to turn what seems like an impos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion around and to tie up all the var­i­ous nar­ra­tive strands. In life as we live it, some things are impos­si­ble to move beyond. And those sto­ries don’t end, they rum­ble on for the rest of our lives.

Lov­ing is the sixth fea­ture from Jeff Nichols and after the atmos­pher­ic Take Shel­ter (2011) and Mud (2012), he made the dis­ap­point­ing­ly con­ven­tion­al Mid­night Spe­cial. The lat­ter seemed to strain for the sort of Spiel­ber­gian grandeur that Hol­ly­wood and its accoun­tants are so in awe of. This film, hap­pi­ly, would appear to a con­scious effort to pro­duce an anti­dote to that sort of emo­tion­al incontinence.

Jeff Nicholas Loving.

Jeff Nichol’s Lov­ing.

As a based-on-a-true-sto­ry tale of a white man’s insis­tence on mar­ry­ing the black girl of his dreams in the 1950s, in the south­ern state of Vir­ginia, it’s the sort of sto­ry that could have been ruined had it been sad­dled with the tra­di­tion­al Hol­ly­wood treat­ment. In con­trast, Nichols is con­scious­ly restrained through­out, and he refus­es to punc­tu­ate every emo­tion­al expres­sion with a musi­cal out­burst, qui­et­ly let­ting the facts speak for themselves.

And, as with Man­ches­ter by the Sea, he too takes his cue from clas­si­cal Greek dra­ma, so that most of the piv­otal action hap­pens off stage, includ­ing even the cli­mat­ic court scene when the laws pro­hibit­ing inter­ra­cial mar­riage are final­ly overturned.

Ruth Nega in Loving.

Ruth Neg­ga, who gives a pow­er­ful per­for­mance in Lov­ing.

Instead of which, he focus­es on the reac­tions of the pro­tag­o­nists to the events that have unfold­ed off screen. And there can be few scenes more mov­ing than when Ruth Neg­ga gets the phone call inform­ing her that, some­where in the vast bureau­cra­cy of the Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment, some­one was final­ly respond­ing to her many let­ters plead­ing des­per­ate­ly for help.

Some have com­plained that this dis­tanced view ren­ders the film cool or even cold. But as Manohla Dar­gis writes in her excel­lent New York Times review here, it’s pre­cise­ly this qui­et dis­tance that gives the film its emo­tion­al punch. You can see the trail­er to Lov­ing here, and the trail­er to Man­ches­ter by the Sea here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month, on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!

Kenneth Lonergan’s new film “Margaret” a rare gem.

Ken­neth Lon­er­gan moved from the the­atre into the cin­e­ma in 2000 with You Can Count On Me. One of the mem­o­rable films of the decade, it seemed to hark back to a bygone era when some of the most thought-pro­vok­ing and chal­leng­ing dra­ma came from inde­pen­dent films pro­duced in the U.S.

But by then, all the inter­est­ing peo­ple work­ing in cin­e­ma had begun mov­ing into tele­vi­sion. Every­one it seems except Lon­er­gan. But as bril­liant a dra­ma as You Can Count On Me is – and it real­ly is – it isn’t actu­al­ly cin­e­ma. It’s essen­tial­ly filmed drama.

The good news is that Lon­er­gan has learnt, and learnt sub­stan­tial­ly from that first effort. What we have in Mar­garet (see the trail­er here) is a big bold and glo­ri­ous piece designed for the sil­ver screen. The bad news is that it was shot it in 2005 and it’s only now that it’s final­ly see­ing the light.

You Can Count On Me.

You Can Count On Me.

Nine times out of ten, when a film is held up like that in post it’s almost always because it reeks to high heav­en. This hap­pi­ly is one of those rare excep­tions. You can read all about what hap­pened here in Joel Lovel­l’s excel­lent piece in the NY Times. But what it seems to boil down to is, Lon­er­gan could­n’t bring him­self to edit it down to a con­ven­tion­al length, and the whole thing end­ed up in court.

Which is huge­ly dis­ap­point­ing, because for its first two hours Mar­garet is flaw­less. And though it does begin to sag some­what in its third and final hour, it’s still one of the best and most mem­o­rable films for many a moon.

Lisa is the pre­co­cious, pret­ty Jew­ish 17 year old ensconced in her priv­i­leged enclave in New York, con­vinced that the world revolves around her — which, of course, in real life it would. Anna Paquin is bril­liant as the intel­lec­tu­al­ly vibrant but con­fused and inchoate lead in a world we’re all famil­iar with from Woody Allen at his prime.

A Separation.

A Sep­a­ra­tion.

Very few of the sto­ry’s ironies though are played for laughs here. There’s even a scene in which a the­atre actress com­plains about how pre­ten­tious peo­ple who go to the opera are, which isn’t meant to be fun­ny. So we find our­selves peer­ing into the lives of legit­i­mate­ly artic­u­late, intro­spec­tive peo­ple prone to exis­ten­tial angst, try­ing to come to terms with the world they live in against the back­drop of a sky­line dev­as­tat­ed by events beyond their control.

The film only los­es it way ever so slight­ly when we leave her class­mates in the final hour to focus on the legal bat­tle that she becomes embroiled in. It’s rea­son­ably obvi­ous where that was all going to end up, and some of those lat­er scenes could com­fort­ably have been pruned. If you want to see how that much sto­ry is han­dled much more fru­gal­ly, you only have to have a look at the won­der­ful A Sep­a­ra­tion (reviewed ear­li­er here)

Anna Paquin and Bennn

Anna Paquin and Matt Damon in Mar­garet.

But this is but a minor quib­ble. This is a seri­ous film and major work from one of the most excit­ing indi­vid­u­als work­ing in the medi­um. If he can mar­ry the dis­ci­pline of his writ­ing from You Can Count On Me (see the trail­er here), which he can and does for most of Mar­garet, with the visu­al panache and son­ic inven­tion of the lat­ter, that will be a sight to behold.

Have a look at the inter­view he gave with Richard Brody in the New York­er here.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed with week­ly updates with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!