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Books History Nature Review

Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters

A friend of mine recently moved to northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He said he’d been looking online for information about the region when he stumbled upon mention of an obscure book that was supposed to really capture the area well. It was the short story collection Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters by Lynn Maria Laitala, and having now finished it I can say it’s one of my favorite reads in a long time.

I’ve never been to the Boundary Waters. I had a chance in high school to take a canoe/portaging trip with other kids in my youth group, but I didn’t go and regret it. I do, however, have lots of memories in northern Wisconsin, where I’ve spent time fishing, hunting, and exploring. That experience, combined with my interest in the stories of people from the Northwoods and my family history (more on this later), made this book a big, bright green light.

If not for my friend’s strong recommendation, I probably would have never heard of this book or given it much of a chance if I had. This is mostly for superficial reasons: it has an amateur, self-published look (excepting the beautiful chapter-heading illustrations by Carl Gawboy, as sampled in this post) and contains far too many basic and frankly egregious editing errors.

I’m glad I pushed past my pedantry and focused on the storytelling, because it’s exceptional.

About the book

Spanning several generations, from the early twentieth century to the 1970s, each of the 27 relatively short and standalone stories are told from a different person’s perspective around the northern Minnesota town of Winton. (The Genealogy of Characters was very helpful for orienting myself throughout the book.) Each story intertwines and overlaps with the others, both explicitly—through shared characters and setting—and implicitly, through common themes of people struggling against nature, their kin, and themselves.

Laitala’s brief preface is worth quoting in full because it sets the stage well for the rest of the book:

The Minnesota Historical Society hired me to collect oral histories in northern Minnesota after I went home to Winton in 1974. I designed a questionnaire to elicit information for scholarly use. My first aged informant patiently answered the formula questions; then he said, “That isn’t how it was, Lynn.” When I learned to listen, people told me intimate stories of love and loss, failure and grief.

In 1978 federal legislation made the Boundary Waters—including Basswood Lake—a legal wilderness, a place without history. Inspired by the oral histories and wanting to memorialize the old spirit of the border country, I began to write these stories.

Down from Basswood is told in many voices, the way I learned the history of the place.

Laitala movingly memorializes “the old spirit” of this region by exploring two of its people groups—the Chippewa natives and the Finnish immigrants—and how they struggled to cobble together an existence in a hardscrabble time and place.

A family connection

Being one-third Finn myself, I take a vicarious pride in Finlanders both past and present. My grandpa Cliff was even more Finnish than I am: he spoke the language and, as an FBI agent, was eventually stationed in Superior, Wisconsin, largely due to his heritage. (According to his memoir, it was his supervisor who thought “because I was of Finnish extraction that I should go where the Finns were.”) He was there for 24 out of his 25 years in the FBI—an unusual feat given how most agents were in multiple offices. He would have had lots of experience with the Finnish community and specifically the Finnish communists, given how virulently anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was at the time.

Also part of his job was investigating crimes in the region’s Native American reservations, which at the time were under federal (rather than state) jurisdiction. Undoubtedly this would have influenced his views of the indigenous tribes he encountered, but how exactly I’ll never know.

A master class of insight

I do wonder what he would have thought of this book, because it doesn’t succumb to the worn tropes of Native Americans in fiction. Quite the opposite: Laitala’s ability to empathize with all her characters while maintaining an observer’s distance turns the book into a master class of keen insight, both at the sentence level and through the overarching narrative.

Like this sentence from chapter 4 (“Burntside Spring”):

Frogs were singing along the riverbanks and the great cloud of sorrow that enveloped me lifted just enough for me to realize that Matt must be lonely.

This is from the perspective of Kaija Lahti, a grieving and pregnant widow who took in Matt, a stranger and fellow Finnish immigrant, as a farm worker. He’d returned wearily from a long day. By pausing to take note of the frogs and other sensory cues from her surroundings, Kaija could get present, step outside her own skin, and see another person’s struggles as just as important as hers.

Another thing that was so invigorating about the book was how much I learned. Knowing it’s based on real people’s testimonies and the author’s own experience helped illuminate a whole world and collective of people that are too often kept in the dark.

Chapter 5, for instance (“When Darkness Reigns”), serves as a mini seminar on Finnish communists, logging camps, the IWW, and how abuses of power by corrupt governments and bosses can perpetuate socioeconomic hardship. Other stories shine a light on the gritty work of mining, conflicts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, true outdoorsmanship as a way of life, and the immigrant’s struggle between expectations and reality.

The book also follows people finding grace even in defeat, as is the case with Aina in chapter 7 (“Children of God”):

I would never find happiness if I had to change the world in order to be happy but that didn’t mean that I had to accept persecution and abuse. I found happiness doing what I knew was right. When I defied people who abused their power—the steel trust, the clergy, the deputies, my brother, my father, my husband—I had felt God’s grace. “You’re smiling,” Arvo said to me one day, angrily, reproachfully. I smiled more broadly.

Updating my priors

Another unexpected development was the appearance of Sigurd Olson, the late wilderness guide, nature writer, and author of The Singing Wilderness, one of my favorite nature books. He’s portrayed in a few of the stories as a well-meaning but patronizing buffoon—and worse, as an opportunistic interloper who exploited the lands and indigenous people he romanticized for his own financial gain.

Specifically, chapter 10 (“Jackfish Pete”) has Olson waxing rhapsodic about the supposed uncivilized wilderness his indigenous guides know actually to be long settled and familiar land to the locals. On the contrary, they claim:

There’s more to living up here than paddling and portaging. It takes skill for a man to provide for others. It’s not as simple as paddling through, catching a few fish, maybe shooting some ducks. A man gets his honor by taking care of other people, being generous. That was the Chippewa way.

How closely Laitala’s portrayal of Olson hews to reality is hard to discern, but given her source material and Olson’s documented role in promoting the Boundary Waters, it’s not hard to imagine it being uncomfortably incisive.

Making wilderness

But that’s just what she does in Down from Basswood, chapter after chapter. At just over 200 pages it has the concise, spartan writing style of a journalist not wanting to waste words, yet beneath those words are an evocative depth befitting the multi-generational epic it truly is. In that way it felt like Wendell Berry’s Port William stories and Joel & Ethan Coen’s 2018 anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs condensed into a single volume you’d be able to read in a day but actually couldn’t for its sheer richness.

I’ll conclude with a passage I consider to be one of the defining metaphors of the whole book. It’s from chapter 21 (“Clearances”), which finds Emily—a second-generation Finnish American teen who’d endured a traumatic childhood like most of her peers—walking with her date alongside a work zone demolished in preparation for the coming freeway:

I got off the wall, walked up the front walk that ended in a pile of rubble and picked a tulip. I peered into its dark center.

“On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future,” I said, “but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.”

Eric didn’t answer. He was already moving on.


Favorite quotes

  • Charlie called Ira “bourgeois”, or big shot, because he sat between them in the middle of the canoe. In the fur trade days, the bourgeois were the men who didn’t want to work. The Indians laughed at them because paddling is the joy of traveling.
  • When Aunt lay dying she said to me, “Don’t harden yourself to death, Mary, because if you do, you will harden yourself to life.”
  • Frogs were singing along the riverbanks and the great cloud of sorrow that enveloped me lifted just enough for me to realize that Matt must be lonely.
  • I was wounded in the Battle of Mukden. Over 8000 men were killed, more than 50,000 wounded. It’s hard to imagine, when you hear those numbers, that each was a man who once delighted in the freshness of spring.
  • As I carried gear into the tents, Magie jerked his head in my direction. “Finlander,” he said. One of the officials laughed. “Weak minds but strong backs.”
  • Spring peepers trilled their shrill evening song and I heard them with my heart.
  • I would never find happiness if I had to change the world in order to be happy but that didn’t mean that I had to accept persecution and abuse. I found happiness doing what I knew was right. When I defied people who abused their power—the steel trust, the clergy, the deputies, my brother, my father, my husband—I had felt God’s grace. “You’re smiling,” Arvo said to me one day, angrily, reproachfully. I smiled more broadly.
  • There’s nothing I like better than a meal of fresh fish—but fight fish for sport? If you look at it one way, it’s torturing creatures for fun. Look at it another, you’re playing with your food.
  • There’s more to living up here than paddling and portaging. It takes skill for a man to provide for others. It’s not as simple as paddling through, catching a few fish, maybe shooting some ducks. A man gets his honor by taking care of other people, being generous. That was the Chippewa way.
  • In school, the teachers talked about a great America beyond the woods and lakes, beyond men in ragged overalls who worked on rock farms and in lumber camps, beyond women who spoke Finnish and danced to accordion music on Saturday nights. America, the land of opportunity, was somewhere else.
  • My cheek pressed into the rough wool shirt. I smelled spruce and woodsmoke, heard the thumping of Jake’s heart. “Do you have to go home today?” he asked. “No,” I said. I was home.
  • Legend has it that a Finnish man once loved his wife so much that he almost told her.
  • Only sometimes, when I sit near the shore at my cabin watching the waves ebb in the waning light of the midsummer sun, does my heart fill with old yearnings.
  • My parents say the immigrants were fools who expected to find streets paved with gold. They got hardship and misery. But if you go out walking in the early spring when the marsh marigolds run riot, you will find the woods carpeted with gold.
  • On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future, but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.
  • It’s easier to find two sides in history than in life.
  • The sounds that break the silence of the north are haunting sounds—the crying of the wolves, the loons, the wind.
  • Things seldom turn out the way we expect them to.
  • You know what I liked about the culture? Tolerance, frugality, humor, generosity. How do you restore that with funding? Those are the things that money destroys.
Categories
Film Review

Favorite films of 2018

My theme for last year’s movies was the strength of women. This year, it’s time for some manly love. (Archer voice: “Phrasing!”)

Since June, when I found out I was going to be a father, I’ve been keenly aware of how fatherhood has been portrayed in this year’s crop of movies. What strikes me now, looking back on all of them, is the wide array of characteristics the 2018 Film Fathers represented.

There were men who weren’t fathers yet but pined to be (Private Life and Game Night) or despaired of their fatherhood (First Reformed).

There were men whose defining characteristic was their absence (the doctor in Roma, Apollo in Creed II, T’Chaka in Black Panther)

There were men whose children inspired in them unconditional love (Eighth Grade), desperate determination (Searching), painful grief (First Man), righteous if misguided zeal (Blockers), and a longing to stop time (Hearts Beat Loud).

And there were men whose family life, whether through inspiration or inertia, led them towards apathy (Tully), frustration (The Incredibles 2), and flight (Wildlife).

Not all of these films made my best-of list, but I’m grateful to all of them for demonstrating just how consequential fatherhood can be.

On to the list…

1. The Death of Stalin

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this, Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s film about the machinations of Stalin’s inner circle after the dictator’s sudden death in 1953. Don’t be fooled by the serious title: this is social and political satire at its sharpest, loosely based on real events but also exactly right about much more than its titular subject. (Review)

2. The Favourite

Rachel Weisz I’ve loved since The Mummy, Emma Stone since Superbad. But Olivia Colman is basically new to me, and she might have won this movie as a querulous, manipulative Queen Anne balancing the competing bids for favor from Stone’s Abigail and Weisz’s Sarah. Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster barely missed my top 10 list in 2015, but he nearly conquered this year’s with this delicious, darkly comic period piece that takes “be careful what you wish for” to a delightfully daring level.

3. Wildlife

Stunning directorial debut from actor Paul Dano. A very well composed and controlled story of a 1960s family struggling against disintegration, experienced by the perspective of 14-year-old only child Joe. Everything felt so specific and slo-mo tragic, Carey Mulligan’s performance especially.

4. First Reformed

What to do about despair? As the priest of a small historical church, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller communes with it for a living, whether fighting his own ailments, struggling against professional obsolescence, or pastoring a young couple haunted by the specter of global warming. An intense portrait of the search for meaning, a reckoning with darkness and extremism, and a worthy entry into the “priest in crisis” canon (a personal favorite subgenre) alongside Winter Light, Calvary, and other gems.

5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

It’s a rarity for me to see a movie in theaters twice, but I was happy to do so for this one so I could see it with my wife. This could be the movie that changes superhero movies—in style, personality, and thematic exploration. If you haven’t seen it yet, go into it with as little foreknowledge as possible.

6. The Rider

A rodeo accident forces horse rider Brady off the saddle, leaving him in poverty with brain damage and an existential crisis. This lithe, mesmerizing, and richly empathetic film rides a fine line between fiction and documentary, as Brady and most of the characters are essentially playing themselves. Director Chloé Zhao has an eye for beautiful shots and tender moments.

7. Roma

I didn’t fully appreciate Roma until it was over, when I could see the full scope of Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical take on a year in the life of Cleo, a live-in maid in 1970s Mexico City. Still, from the first shot—a meditative long take of a floor being mopped—I cherished Cuarón’s ability to see grandeur in the granular, to magnify the minute details of a humble woman’s hidden but compelling life.

8. Searching

“Thriller whodunit that takes place solely on a computer” sounds like a cheap direct-to-video B movie, but Searching is shockingly effective at overcoming this supposed gimmick. Why is this story of John Cho’s David using everyday technology to track down his missing daughter effective? I think it’s the specificity of the tools—everything from Windows XP to Facebook and FaceTime—used in a panicked silence throughout. David could be any of us, alone at a computer clicking desperately against time.

9. BlacKkKlansman

Based on a true story of the first black police officer in 1970s Colorado Springs infiltrating the local KKK chapter, with the help of a fellow officer, played by Adam Driver. True to a Spike Lee joint, it’s brash, cutting, funny, loose when it needs to be but solid at heart. The Birth of a Nation montage could be the scene of the year. John David Washington (son of Denzel) deserves not to always be compared to his famous father, but they share a compelling verve that bodes very well for John David’s career.

10. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Not all of this Coen Bothers anthology’s six parts are equally good: “The Girl Who Got Rattled” and “Meal Ticket” did a lot of the heavy lifting (or gold digging?) to get to this spot. But this would have made the list for the Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck performances in “Rattled” alone. Like most Coen Brothers joints, I expect this to reward repeat viewings.

I also liked: Avengers: Infinity War, Leave No Trace, Tully, If Beale Street Could Talk, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Black Panther, Private Life, Game Night, Hearts Beat Loud, Annihilation, Widows

Favorite non-2018 films I watched this year

  • Moonstruck
  • Anatomy of a Murder
  • Tension
  • Monty Python and the Life of Brian
  • King of Comedy
  • Battle of Algiers
  • The Seventh Seal
  • Three Days of the Condor
Categories
Books Review

Favorite books of 2018

Goodreads tells me I read 72 books this year. Though I didn’t read as many as last year, with a baby on the way I’ve been trying to read abundantly while I can, for both quality and quantity. Here are the books published in 2018 that I enjoyed the most. (See previous best-of book lists.)

1. Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City by Sam Anderson (review)

You might have heard good things about this book. I’m here to tell you all of them are true. The pleasure I felt from the first page on is a feeling I chase with all my reading. Your mileage may vary, of course, but this kaleidoscopic story of Oklahoma City is more than just a rote retelling of a city’s history. Anderson wraps the OKC Thunder, tornadoes, Timothy McVeigh, city planning, a truly insane founding process, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, and much more into a cohesive, sure-handed, wry, and enlightening narrative.

Choice quote:

Radar data, like starlight, is information about the past: it tells you about the distant object it bounced off seconds or minutes before. This can tell you a lot—that conditions are perfect for a big storm, that something is in the air—but it can’t actually look at the storm for you. For that, you still need people. Storm chasers provided the stations with what they call “ground truth.”

2. Circe by Madeline Miller

My highest-ever ranking of a novel, and it damn near took the first spot. A retelling of the story of Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios, this isn’t something I’d normally read, but the rave reviews made me give it a try. Boy am I glad I didn’t let my woeful lack of knowledge on Greek mythology stop me. I found Miller’s prose to be so rich and empathetic, powerful yet tender. Read half of it on audiobook and friggin’ loved Perdita Weeks’ narration. I just started reading The Odyssey for the first time; I sense it will be that much richer having gone through this odyssey.

Choice quote:

Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.

3. Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America by Craig Childs

Archaeology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, imagination—all come into play in this meaty and winding travelogue around North America to investigate notable Ice Age locations. Made me immensely grateful for our (not so) distant human ancestors.

Choice quote:

We have all but forgotten how to inhabit this kind of fear. We gave up spears and skins and the weather on us day and night for cup holders and cell phones and doors that close behind us. What, I wonder, was lost?

4.Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman

Picked this up on a whim and luckily was in the right mood for its meditative style and mix of mind-expanding ruminations on astrophysics, God, philosophy, nature, and the meaning of life. Do not read if you don’t want your worldview—or really, galaxyview—bent like spacetime.

Choice quote:

[Earth is] a large family of noisy and feeling animals—the living, throbbing kingdom of life on our planet, of which we are a part. A kingdom that consecrates life and its possibilities even as each of its individuals passes away. A kingdom that dreams of unity and permanence even as the world fractures and fades. A kingdom redesigning itself, as we humans now do. All is in flux and has always been so. … Flux is beyond sadness and joy. Flux and impermanence and uncertainty seem to be simply what is.

5. Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear

Learned about this when I stumbled upon the author’s Twitter, which proved to be quite the hotbed of interesting replies about people’s habits. The book does a great job laying out practical tools and ways of thinking about behavior, especially in how conceptions of identity and systems influence it far more than emotions and willpower.

Choice quote:

You get what you repeat.

6. How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan (review)

From the author of The Botany of Desire, one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books, comes this new revelatory exploration of practical and transformative uses of psychedelics. Probably because I’ve never done psychedelics, I was eager to learn about them from a reputable and investigative source with an open mind like Pollan. He explores the history of psychedelics, how they were used in clinical trials in the 1950s before Timothy Leary and the damned dirty hippies ruined them for everyone (my words), and how modern science is discovering their powerful affects on the brain and mental health.

Choice quote:

Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.

7. The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together by Adam Nayman

A big and beautiful book of essays on the works of America’s most reliably excellent filmmakers. Nayman covers every Coen film from Blood Simple to Hail, Caesar! and includes interviews with frequent collaborators. It made me appreciate the Coen Cinematic Universe much more.

8. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Richly drawn characters in modern Atlanta dealing with a false imprisonment and how it upends life’s expected narratives. I think this is the second Oprah’s Book Club selection I’ve read while it was still reigning—the first being The Underground Railroad—so I’m 2 for 2 so far.

9. Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Wouldn’t you know it, all I wanted to do after reading this was rewatch 2001: A Space Odyssey.

10. Am I There Yet? The Loop-de-Loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood by Mari Andrew

Discovered Mari Andrew on Instagram. She packs so much insight, emotional intelligence, and artistry into deceptively simple illustrations, and has a great eye for the little things in life and how to turn them into art.

Honorable mentions: Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Word of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King, The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Favorite non-2018 books I read this year

  • On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
  • A Life In Parts by Bryan Cranston
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World by Rob Sheffield
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  • Truman by David McCullough
  • Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
  • 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (review)
Categories
Film Review

Favorite Films of 2016

According to my records I watched 83 films in 2016, 33 of which came out this year. As is the case with my reading, I’m in a “watch as much as I can” zone because I love movies and there’s so much great stuff and there are too many movies and I’ll never have this amount of free time once I have kids. So here are my favorite films from 2016, ranked:

Arrival. I’m a total sucker for stories like this and Lost, Interstellar, Midnight Special, Gravity, Take Shelter, Contact and other deeply humane tales masquerading as sci-fi that make you think just as much as they make you want to hug someone. Though the geopolitical element to the story waded a little too close to didactic for me, I was nevertheless absorbed from the first minute, even if I’m still trying to figure everything out. Found myself surprised by the quality of Jeremy Renner’s performance, unsurprised by Amy Adams’s, and wishing Forest Whitaker had more to do.

Moonlight. I got the feeling there were two hidden acts before the beginning of the film, showing the childhood and adolescence of Mahershala Ali’s crack dealer before he crossed paths with young Chiron, who’s starting on his own journey through a troubled life. Time is a flat circle.

Everybody Wants Some!! With its likable cast, meandering dialogue, and lived-in plotless feel, it’s the middle sibling between Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Before trilogy, all of which seem to take place in the same film universe where everyone’s a peripatetic philosopher and life happens in the ordinary moments between the usual milestones. More thoughts here.

Hell or High Water. “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan: “But me, I’m still on the road / Headin’ for another joint / We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different point of view / Tangled up in blue.” Lots of tangling up in this movie, for good and ill. Family, money, friendship, death, the future. Mutual haunting. And what is a haunting but a tangle with the past? That last shot tho.

Kubo and the Two Strings. Haven’t seen much love for this in the year-end lists, which is baffling. In sumptuous stop-motion animation, a cohesive fable plays out with a cast of characters who range from terrifying. Though in patches during the second act the interaction among the makeshift traveling posse borders on cloying, the larger arc of Kubo and his family and what it shows us about memory and creation is incredibly affecting.

The Wave. It’s Jaws plus The Impossible plus that New Yorker article about the earthquake that’s gonna destroy the Pacific Northwest one day. Dug it! More thoughts on this deliciously tense low-budget Norwegian thriller that doesn’t look low-budget at all here.

The Fits. That finale!

Hail, Caesar! Liked this pretty much immediately. Full of hilariously deadpan Coen Bros Touches™ like David Krumholtz yelling things in the background of the communist gathering. I only wish we could have spent more time with the rotating cast of capital-c Characters I’ve come to expect from the Coens. Like Frances McDormand’s film editor: can their next movie be just about her? This could easily be the origin of a Marvel-esque cinematic universe.

Midnight Special. From idea to execution, this Jeff Nichols joint is inspired in every sense: as homage to Spielbergian themes of family and destiny, as a sci-fi fable with the courage of restraint, and as an auteurist vision that doesn’t always shine scene to scene but adds up to something effulgent when it matters. Review here.

Captain America: Civil War. Finally, a Spider-Man who actually looks like he’s in high school! That, along with ever more compelling character studies of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, made this latest episode of The Marvel Cinematic Universe Show worth watching. Full review here.


Other favorites: The Lobster, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Innocents, La La Land, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Last Days in the Desert

Haven’t yet seen: Silence, Toni Erdmann, Manchester by the Sea, Certain Women