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If We Picked the Winners 2017: Best Actor

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see what they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Patrick McGavin makes the case for the Best Actor of 2016: Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea." Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Director and Best Picture on Friday.

If the actor’s natural instinct at capturing a tortured psychological condition is a heightened and expressive use of the body or voice, Casey Affleck violates those principles emphatically in Kenneth Lonergan’s anguished drama, “Manchester by the Sea.”

Casey Affleck has certainly showed his talents in more demonstrative and showy parts, like Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” or “Gone Baby Gone,” directed by his older brother, Ben Affleck. Working with Lonergan, a great writer, and some terrific actors, Affleck makes concrete and palpable choices, marked by the ineffable. As the central character, Lee Chandler, a haunted man whose ravaged and spectral past is resurrected when he returns to his native town to care for his suddenly orphaned teenage nephew, Affleck strips everything down to a purity and restraint that is utterly remarkable.

Like the work of William Faulkner, the movie floats in a kind of conditional tense, yoking past and present. Even the present feels not quite there, and Affleck is the primary reason. His performance is astoundingly recessive, even self-contained. Played by the wrong actor, the part is easily rendered void or inert. Affleck finds a tragic vulnerability. The sins of the past are all pervasive. Beautifully, tender, and finally quite overpoweringly, Affleck suggests a man at horrible odds with his own body, evasive, random and cut off.

The young actor Lucas Hedges, who plays the nephew, brings out some glimpses of his warmth and humor. Lee’s stoicism, his flinty reserve, is a mask that never comes off. In the movie’s most extraordinary scene—one of the best in recent American cinema—Affleck must confront his past in a tense and bruising encounter with his former wife, played by the sensational Michelle Williams. As he floats and dances around her, his defining passivity—cruel, distant, even pathetic until now—Affleck makes acute, fragile and profoundly sad.

By refusing any outward act of sympathy or pity, Lee Chandler is the last man standing. In “Manchester by the Sea,” that is no compliment.

Patrick Z. McGavin

Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and critic. His film writing has appeared in the British magazine Empire, Stop Smiling, Time Out Chicago, Cineaste and LA Weekly. He also maintains the film blog,

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