The films that actually landed in early January appear to have less contemporary relevance, being self-consciously antique in different ways. The best of them was Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, which featured an excellent performance by Casey Affleck amid a strong supporting cast. The title sounds like an opening stage direction, indicating the theatrical nature of the film. Though never actually stagey - the acting is restrained and well-judged, even when it veers towards comedy - it has strong echoes of Eugene O'Neill, notably A Long Day's Journey Into Night. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor (or "custodian") in flight from tragedy and guilt who is drawn back to the scene of his suffering by family obligation: the death of his brother who leaves a teenage son. It is a very Catholic story (there is one ironic reference to the religion), concerned with the idea of guilt as a burden. Affleck is shown as a man who appears to be carrying a permanent weight, and when not speaking he is often carting boxes or shifting snow from one place to another.
Lee shoulders the burden of his brother's death: the tedious logistics of mortuary and burial, the demands of the will (that he care for the son), and the resentment of the town at the return of this prodigal. All of the other characters try to put more burdens on him, from the selfish tenants of the apartments where he works in Boston exile to his sixteen year old nephew, Patrick, who has to be ferried from school to band practice to romantic trysts. In the climactic scene, Lee's ex-wife attempts to relieve her own guilt at having blamed him for the death of their three kids in a fire (the key reveal that is rightly held till late in the story). Lee gently but firmly refuses to take that burden from her - he has his own - which is the moment of catharsis that allows him to move forward with his life. Set on the Massachusetts coast, there are lots of shots across water to nearby islands and discussions about getting from one place to another, or failures to find parked cars or particular roads. Replacing the failing engine of his brother's boat becomes a central symbol of both movement and renewal. Lee Chandler is a New England St Christopher.
The family name hints at crime detection and in one scene we see Lee reading a Dashiell Hammett novel. The point is not that a crime needs to be solved, but that we live in permanent guilt - i.e. the notion of original sin. Lee is surprised, after telling the police that his own drug-induced negligence with a fire guard probably caused the fatal accident, to be told that he can go, as if he were a meddling gumshoe they couldn't pin anything on. The power of Affleck's performance stems from the struggle between self-hatred and compassion, which touches not only on the Catholic ideals of humility and suffering but the modernist trope of the lonely but honourable hero: "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean", as the other Chandler put it. There are a number of touches that remind you of old Raymond: the more dramatically interesting a female character, the more unreliable she is; the big, bluff guy is the one most likely to cry; the lawyers and other middle class drones are empty husks etc.
The trinity is prominent. In an early scene, a bartender asks Lee "Did you see the game last night ... have they got a chance?", to which Lee mournfully responds: "they'll drop [i.e. lose] the next three". In his bare cellar room, the screen is split into a triptych: the back of a TV showing a game, Lee slumped on a sofa and in the distance three picture frames on a dresser - the children he's lost. At one point, having forgotten where he parked the car, Lee and Patrick head one way, then the other, and finally orthogonally: a truncated cross marked by their weary, cold bodies (the freezing and warming of flesh is a motif). This attention to small, often initially baffling detail makes it a film that rewards a sober and critical engagement. In contrast, the more ironic and sensual La La Land demands our easy surrender to the moment from the off. Some critics cited Jacques Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg as an influence on the opening scene (and overall story arc), but it looked to me like the ideal world of modern tech: the diverse but funky crowd of an Apple advert clothed in the vibrant colours of Google.
The film emphasises communication and how music and cinema both allow different (even incompatible) people to connect and share. There are snaps and souvenirs aplenty, but also the sense of instant nostalgia. I was reminded of Picasa (already history) and Pinterest. The technology (smartphones, tablets) is ubiquitous but unobtrusive. The festishisation is reserved for antiques: a stool, a piano, an old car. The film shares Demy's fascination with the trappings of modernity but also his respect for the symbols of the past. It's a time-travel film, not just in its homage to Hollywood musicals and 50s jazz but in the flashbacks, discontinuities and use of counterfactual history (the climax is essentially a riff on Sliding Doors). At times the central characters, Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a frustrated pianist, and Emma Stone as Mia, an aspiring actress, appear to inhabit different decades, which is naturally no hindrance to them falling in love but makes their ultimate separation oddly painless.
Everything is raw material for reuse, from childhood memories to 80s synth-pop. Rebellion is recuperated as ambition, while ambition is redefined as self-actualisation. The cost of that ambition is offset by the gain: neither protagonist truly suffers and their regret is for the loss of one possible history, not dissatisfaction with their actual lot. The direction is not merely vibrant but unmoored. At one point Sebastian and Mia become lighter than air and you feel that only the ceiling of the Griffith Observatory (which appears both "as itself" and in Rebel Without a Cause) prevents them floating away. Despite the nods to backstory you never really get the sense that these characters have a hinterland beyond their essentially clichéd dreams. Following the success of Whiplash, La La Land confirms Damien Chazelle as a housetrained Tarantino in his "kinetic" directing and fanboy film chops, but it also suggests that he is too respectful of the canon and too enamoured of the surface. He lacks Tarantino's bite as much as Demy's pathos.
Martin Scorsese's Silence, which is based on the novel by Shusaku Endo, is a tale about the paradox of monotheism: an omniscient and omnipresent god who appears not to listen. This is contrasted with the nature worship of Shinto - the spiritual essence of Japan despite the instrumental value of Buddhism - in which the higher power is distracted or disinterested but may be cajoled into listening. From Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese's persistent interest as a film-maker has been in personal struggle and crisis, which presumably reflects his own background as a failed seminarian. Silence is about the instrumentality of crisis. The first half of the film shows small people intimidated by large landscapes. The air is grey and sombre with a sense of uncertainty: mists, smoke, tall grasses swaying in the breeze. The sea is cold and near-black. It ends with a beachside crucifixion that echoes Goya's The Disasters of War. The second half, which also marks the transition from countryside to town, is colourful, ordered and precise. The one moment of shocking violence is like a Noh play.
The plot concerns two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and Garupe, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, who infiltrate 17th century Japan at a time of anti-Christian persecution in search of their spiritual mentor, Father Ferreira. It soon becomes clear that what the clandestine native Christians value in their adopted religion is not the austere theology but the promise of a release from earthly suffering and the assurance of uncritical forgiveness for their sins. This leads them to both embrace martyrdom and, in the person of Kichijiro, played by Yosuke Kubozuka, to pathologically betray the Jesuits in order to provide justification for confession. Dramatically, the second half revolves around Rodrigues's separate interviews with the apostate Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson, and the grand inquisitor (Endo owes an obvious debt to Dostoevsky), played with amused relish by Issey Ogata. It is the ultimate refusal of Rodrigues to continue with the pattern of self-indulgent despair that provides the climax to the film when he apostatises to save the lives of others.
Silence is a philosophical work in its concern with "being in the world". The echoes of Heidegger go beyond the existential to the role of language (there is much discussion of translation as well as actual translating) and the sense of belonging (the inability of Christianity to take root in the "swamp" of Japan). Despite this, I doubt it will find favour with nationalists. Though Manchester by the Sea has a topically "white working class" milieu, there is little that speaks to the political moment and good reason to see it as a more profoundly Catholic film than Scorsese's adaptation of Endo. In such company, La La Land can seem shallow, but the knowing celebration of its own shallowness is part of its charm and there is enough directorial flair to justify a second viewing. Considered comparatively, the films turn respectively on choice, fate and chance, or perhaps the father, the son and the holy spirit of Jazz (don't try and claim you didn't know that was coming). The stand-out is Lonergan's study of guilt, which is class conscious but never reduced to the schematic. As a study of contemporary America, it has a rare richness and depth. Let's hope the Trainspotting sequel is half as good.