Of the movies that are nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, I have seen four: La-La Land, Moonlight, Arrival and Manchester By the Sea. They are all obviously very accomplished films, and while of course like pretty much everyone else I liked a few of these more than the others, as a writer I found it fascinating how similar structurally each of these films were, as in each raises a question, and then leaves you without a convenient or conventional resolution.
For Arrival, it is “What if you knew the future? Would you do the present?”. Arrival takes this basic premise, wraps it around a somewhat fantastic story of aliens with a language that allows you to visualize time as a cycle, and layers deep personal tragedy over it. A linguist played by Amy Adams, who by virtue of learning the language of the aliens, is able to see the future in which her marriage dissolves and her daughter dies, but still she takes the decision to have that future. The tragedy here, once you think about it and this is where the ending is unconventional, is not so much the death of her daughter and her failed marriage, but the fact that she chooses that knowingly, chooses heartbreak, because she also sees the happiness in the other moments that also lies on that path.
La-La Land also plays with time. The hero and the heroine are made for each other, and deeply in love, but yet decide to break up in order to follow their dreams. Both reach where they want to in life, till one night, she walks into his bar, Casablanca style, with her husband, and the hero and the heroine share, and this is where the movie gets elevated from a simple musical with dollops of 1920s Americana nostalgia, to something special, a waking dream, of an alternative timeline where they are not as successful but where they are together. Dream ends, our heroine gives one long withering look at the hero, and walks away with her husband. The premise of “Is personal success and stability more important than true love?” is not new, but I don’t think I have seen this resolution before, done quite this way.
Moonlight. of the four movies, I enjoyed least and that was perhaps because I did not understand the deeper racial and sexual undertones. Instead what I found were stereotypical depictions of African Americans, from the golden-hearted drug-dealer to the dead-beat junkie mom. Of course the argument works both ways, what I find stereotypical, others may claim is reality, but whatever it be, I did not “get” Moonlight. Which of course did not prevent me from appreciating the terrific acting, from two different actors playing the same character, and yet getting the mannerisms and the movement of the eyes spot-perfect, and from appreciating the beautifully unresolved ending. The title character, a gay African-American, meets the only man he has ever loved, his childhood friend (my Bollywood addled mind made a connection to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai while watching). He awkwardly expresses his love, and the film ends with the hero embracing his friend, but it does not resolve his pain or his confusion, or show, as movies do, that they lived happily ever after. All that is shown is that our hero attains peace, but whether it be for the moment or forever, it leaves the audience to figure out.
Which brings me to my favorite movie of the year. Manchester By The Sea. An absolutely devastating study in grief, it premises itself on the question of “Is it possible to move on?” The character played by Casey Affleck, once a fun-loving and funny man, left his hometown Manchester when, because of a mistake on his part, his house burned down, killing his three children. Since then estranged from his wife, he has moved to Boston to work as a custodian of an apartment complex, where he spends his time brooding, snapping at the apartment residents and picking fights in bars so that he can get beaten up. But then he has to return to Manchester to act as a legal guardian of the son of his elder brother. A lesser film would have shown Casey Affleck finding redemption, if not fully but definitely partially, by adopting his brother’s son and moving back to Manchester and establishing contact with his ex-wife, and this is where Manchester By the Sea is at its most devastating, he does neither. Giving custody-ship of his nephew, someone he is shown to care intensely for, to a family friend, and rejecting his ex-wife’s awkward offer to patch up, he moves back to Boston, because as he tells his wife, in a scene that should be all that’s required to give Casey Affleck the Oscar, that “there is nothing there”. There is no redemption or resolution, even if the police and his wife are willing to forgive him for the accident, he never will become himself, because “I can’t beat it.” Manchester By the Sea is amazing in its power, precisely because it gives us the bleakest and perhaps the most realistic resolution possible, that in life there are some tragedies over which there is no getting over, some tragedies that suck out whatever it is was inside us, leaving a hollow shell of a human being. Parents, be cautioned. Do not see this movie without an adequate supply of handkerchiefs. Because I needed it.
In all, a very strong field of movies, with some very startling creative choices.