Cinema: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges shine in Manchester by the Sea

December is the best time of year for movies. We're finally getting the good stuff of the year - all the Oscar contenders that were saved to be fresh in voters' minds when it's time to hand in their ballots. It's also when we start getting far-in-advance previews for blockbusters in the next summer. This week we take a look at both. Casey Affleck is the current heavy favorite in the Best Actor race for Manchester by the Sea, a film that celebrates simple filmmaking, much like Spotlight did last year. We're also looking at the trailer for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which shows even more yelling and in-fighting from the ragtag group responsible for defending the universe. For these stories and more, read on:

Film Release: Manchester by the Sea: Of all the movies gaining momentum in the awards season this year, Manchester by the Sea may seem the least enticing from an outsider perspective. Today’s film market thrives on ‘hooks’ to sell tickets – a 1920s period piece can make $600 million if you throw magical beasts and a brand name into the equation, for example. Manchester has no hook. It’s just a straight drama. And it’s really, really good at it.

The film is distributed by Roadside Attractions and produced by Amazon Studios, who may see their first trophy-earner just one year after getting films into theaters. Their strongest link is Casey Affleck, who so deeply immerses himself in the role I’m getting Heath Ledger/The Joker vibes. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a man broken by events in his past he can never (and probably will never) recover from. He’s an isolated repairman wholly uninterested in social interaction with his clients or fellow bar patrons (interactions typically end with sexual harassment accusations and/or black eyes). When he gets a call that his brother has unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack, he can barely muster an emotional response. He loudly curses and pauses five seconds before apologizing to those around him, and life chugs on.

The film is an unshakable, over-the-shoulder perspective into Chandler’s reality. Chandler proceeds through the ugly logistics that come after a death of a loved one – seeing the body, arranging the funeral, budgeting the expenses – in a sterile, clerical manner. Which isn’t to say Affleck’s performance is emotion-free – the exact opposite is true, and the subtle nuances he brings to life only further establish the reality of his world.

But it’s Lucas Hedges, a kind-of-newcomer you’ve never heard of (he was in Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, so that’s something) who steals the film, when he has absolutely no right to. He plays Patrick, Chandler’s nephew who loses his father during the pinnacle of his life. He has a big group of friends, he’s on the hockey team, he has two girlfriends, and he’s in a band. Hedges guides us through his character’s first experience with heartache, and watching his performance escalate is akin to watching a confident, sturdy building crack and eventually crumble. The spotlight may be on Affleck after this film, but Hedges has officially entered stage right.

Michelle Williams gives another standout performance as Chandler’s ex-wife who’s just as broken as he is, but deals with the pain in different ways. Their contrast collides in the film’s climactic moment where Williams unleashes a torrent of emotion that should put her on any awards shortlist.

This is director Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature, and his first since 2011’s Margaret. He displays his mastery of subtlety, waving away flashy camerawork and overdramatic storytelling so that his cast can be the stars. It’s a film that will sweep you away in its reality to the point you forget you’re watching a movie. It’s also proof that, sometimes, that’s all a film needs.

Coming Soon: Guardians of the Galaxy has never looked so, well… Guardians of the Galaxy. The first teaser trailer for the upcoming space opera comedy dropped December 3, and it boasts even more confidence in its weird, action-packed, awkward-humor tone than ever before. “Now whatever you do, don’t push this button,” Rocket Raccoon (voiced with total conviction by Bradley Cooper) instructs Groot, who is now a young sapling instead of a large tree like he was in the first movie. “I am Groot,” the baby tree replies (the only three words in his vernacular), to Rocket’s chagrin. “No! That’s the button that’ll kill everyone!”

That’s the kind of banter we can safely expect from this film; it’s the next addition in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is known for its quips. The action looks even grander, too. We see shots of intense starship chases and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) charging into battle against a massive octopus-looking alien, all set to The Sweet’s rollicking “Fox on the Run.” (“Fox on the Run” already hit number one on the iTunes rock chart, by the way, just like how “Hooked on a Feeling” resurged after the first movie.) Starlord (Chris Pratt) gets into an argument with Rocket while in the middle of a seemingly intense laser duel over the most arbitrary thing – if anyone in the group brought any tape. (Rocket needs to tape over the ‘death button’ so Groot won’t push it, of course).

The trailer packs more laughs into two minutes than most comedy movie trailers do. It closes out with a glimpse at Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a new Guardian who has, apparently, never experienced a social interaction before the events of this film. It only takes a few seconds for her to spill Starlord’s deepest secret to the whole group (in the comics, one of her powers is to sense the emotions of another person). Just what the Guardians need; another team member with zero social skills.

Rewind: We mentioned Lucas Hedges played a small role in Moonrise Kingdom, so let’s throw back to that. Though Hedges didn’t play a big role, the all-around stellar cast of Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton were luckily around to do some heavy lifting for him. It’s directed by Wes Anderson and follows a coming-of-age story about a young boy and girl (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) who run away together after meeting at camp, and the sprawling search that follows. Anderson utilizes his signature quirk and charm in copious amounts; the settings, dialogue and pacing all scream his name, though the characters are able to take center stage here. The film is available to stream on Netflix.

Production Notes: Will Ferrell is about to add a new bullet to his resume. He will play a professional eSports legend in an upcoming comedy produced by Gary Sanchez and Mosaic. His character will excel at sports even though players usually retire in their 20s due to slowing hand-eye coordination (Ferrell is currently 49). He will next star in Holmes and Watson opposite John C. Reilly.