Newsletter: Indie Focus: Celebrate the heavy and the light with ‘Manchester by the Sea,’ ‘Elle’ and ‘The Edge of Seventeen’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen, and welcome to your weekly field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

This is another week with a number of new releases that will likely end up among the best films of the year. It’s exciting for all sorts of reasons, including as a reminder of the emotional power of cinema and how that power can blast open eyes and hearts and minds for purposes of empathy and understanding. Sounds corny — cinema unites the world! — but it’s at least a little true.

We’re going to take next week off from this newsletter, but there will still be some movies opening. The 25th anniversary restoration of Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” — most recently talked about as an influence on Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” album — will be coming to Los Angeles on Nov. 25. It is not to be missed on the big screen. The Times’ Tre’vell Anderson recently spoke to Dash and will be publishing something on the film later this week.

The new restoration has already opened in New York, and Bilge Ebiri at the Village Voice published an interview with Dash, who talked about the film’s initial reception, saying, “A lot of industry people didn’t know what to make of the film or of me.”


This past week had multiple screenings and Q&As — including a really great talk with Sandra Hüller, star of the upcoming “Toni Erdmann” — and we’ve got more on the way. For more information, check in with

‘Manchester by the Sea’

Yes, “Manchester by the Sea” is a very heavy drama about grief and guilt. But don’t let that scare you off. It’s also unexpectedly funny and lively and features some of the finest screen acting you’re going to see all year, from a cast that includes Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges. It’s the kind of film you find your mind going back to weeks later, turning over moments for deeper meanings.

In his review for The Times, Kenneth Turan called the film “powerful, emotional filmmaking that leaves a scar, Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is heartbreaking yet somehow heartening, a film that just wallops you with its honesty, its authenticity and its access to despair.”


Lucas Hedges, left, and Casey Affleck in a scene from “Manchester by the Sea.”
Lucas Hedges, left, and Casey Affleck in a scene from "Manchester by the Sea."
(Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios )

At Slate, Dana Stevens added, “Lonergan’s ability to build a believable and morally complex fictional world from the ground up, paying attention to the tiniest details of character, dialogue, and setting, makes ‘Manchester by the Sea’ seem to contain all of life within it, like a ship in a bottle.”

When the film premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore called Affleck’s performance “day-wreckingly excellent.”

I recently interviewed Affleck and Lonergan together for an article that will be publishing soon. The two are longtime friends, and Lonergan teased Affleck as he was ordering some food from a hotel restaurant. Once an order of guacamole arrived, Lonergan had some too and said, “You can make fun of him, but you can’t argue with the results.”


Something of a movie as purposeful hot-take think-piece provocation, “Elle” brings together the filmmaker Paul Verhoeven with actress Isabelle Huppert for a story of an executive who survives a brutal rape to exact her own form of revenge. The role gives Huppert something of a greatest hits set for her astonishing abilities as a screen actress as she conveys an enigmatic sensuality, emotional interiority and sharp-edged intelligence.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote that “‘Elle’ is a gripping whodunit, a tour de force of psychological suspense and a wickedly droll comedy of manners. It is also a barbed, bracing reminder of how appalling ordinary people can be. You may be startled and horrified by what you see and hear, but the movie’s knowing sensibility seems to exist well beyond shock or outrage.”

Actress Isabelle Huppert and “Elle” director Paul Verhoeven.
Actress Isabelle Huppert and "Elle" director Paul Verhoeven.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times )

At Time, Stephanie Zacharek added: “Part thriller, part obsidian-black comedy, part cerebral firebomb, it’s confrontational, terrible and glorious. You almost can’t believe such a picture exists.”

In the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote: “Mostly, though — inarguably, I would say — it is a platform for the astonishing, almost terrifying talent of Isabelle Huppert. Ms. Huppert, onscreen for virtually every second, gives ‘Elle’ much of its fascination and most of its coherence. … Ms. Huppert has the unrivaled ability to fuse contradictory traits and actions into a singular, complex and endlessly interesting personality. The movie’s title is succinct and comprehensive. It’s all about her.”

I sat down with Huppert and Verhoeven to talk about the film. “She exists in a sort of in-between space; in between, I would say, victim and avenger,” said Huppert of the character. “But that’s what made her so contemporary. Michèle does take revenge in her own way, but not the way you would expect. She takes the whole thing almost like an existential experience. Otherwise, there would not be a film, if it was the way you expect it would take 10 minutes.”

‘The Edge of Seventeen’

Every time you think that you can’t possibly sit through another teenage coming-of-age tale, along comes a movie like “The Edge of Seventeen” to find something new to say and new ways to say it. The teen tale is brought to life by performances by Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner and exciting discovery Hayden Szeto.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote: “Written and directed by the gifted first-timer Kelly Fremon Craig, and graced by a superb star turn from Hailee Steinfeld, ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ is the rare coming-of-age picture that feels less like a retread than a renewal. It’s a disarmingly smart, funny and thoughtful piece of work, from end to beginning to end.”

Hailee Steinfeld and Hayden Szeto in a scene from “The Edge of Seventeen.”
Hailee Steinfeld and Hayden Szeto in a scene from "The Edge of Seventeen."
(Murray Close / STX Films )

For the AP, Lindsey Bahr wrote: “Steinfeld carries the movie effortlessly, walking that fine line of making a somewhat bratty, entitled and self-absorbed character endearing, funny and even empathetic.” She added that the film overall “has enough good that it might just become a new classic in the high school comedy genre.”


At MTV, Amy Nicholson wrote: “The entire movie is a trigger alert, a comedy where a girl sets her safe space on fire. School is torture. Home is worse. And now it’s time to destroy her heart.”

I spoke to Craig and her producer James L. Brooks back during the Toronto International Film Festival. “The thing that I really wanted to explore was how you can feel like everybody has life figured out except you,” Craig said. “And what I found through writing it was that when you start to make those connections with other people, you find you have this kind of common pain.”

‘Nocturnal Animals’

Filmmaker and fashion designer Tom Ford has returned with the dark, stylish and disturbing “Nocturnal Animals,” starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon. The movie has a tricky structure with a story in a story plus flashbacks, but needless to say it is an examination of people behaving badly.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang called the film “a corrosively beautiful cocktail of a thriller,” going on to say of the film’s story within a story: “Real or not, it scarcely mitigates the powerful tremors of guilt, self-loathing and recrimination left in the story’s wake — a sly reminder that literature, like cinema, creates its own rules.”

Amy Adams in writer-director Tom Ford’s romantic thriller “Nocturnal Animals.”
Amy Adams in writer-director Tom Ford's romantic thriller "Nocturnal Animals."
(Merrick Morton / Focus Features )

At the New York Times, Manohla Dargis added that the movie is “a harsh cautionary tale about love, vengeance and the divide between life and art, that shadowy space in which real people are turned into fictional characters and old hurts made into narrative grist.”

I’ll be speaking to Ford soon. And I’m very nervous about what to wear to the interview.

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter @IndieFocus.

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