Dana, your rant of resignation against a film called Avengers: Age of Ultron (I had to Google it) got me thinking about the tyranny of expectations, particularly in an “Age” when—confronted with a growing infinitude of entertainment options—audiences have an unprecedented degree of control over their viewing experience. You asked, “What are we going to the movies for?” It used to be that we were paying for two hours in a dark room with a gaggle of strangers and a transporting bouquet of strobing lights, but recent developments have challenged us to confront the fundamental value of motion pictures. Are we paying for the experience? Are we paying for a work of art? Are we paying for a night out (or a night in)? Do we actually care if the light is strobing?
That question, of course, is one that our jobs as film writers usually unburden us from having to think about; I go to the movies because I have to, and they usually don’t cost me a dime. But the other night I forked over $30 for two tickets to Sisters, and I made the purchase like I was ordering food off a menu. I’d heard that the movie was terrible, but I told my gracious companion that I’d be happy if my ticket bought me “one or two laughs.” I didn’t mean that figuratively—I thought that if I could literally laugh one or two times then it would have been worth the 15-minute drive, the small cask of popcorn I was powerless not to shove down my esophagus, and the unspeakable agony of having to sit through that trailer for The Boss. I needed to laugh, and I demanded that Sisters make me do it.
And that’s how I was reminded—in a characteristically roundabout way—that service-oriented movie viewing can really surprise you.
For the first 30 minutes or so, it looked like I wasn’t going to get my money’s worth—the opening act of this thing inspired fewer chuckles than The Look of Silence. And then, sometime around the scene where Bobby Moynihan mistakes a fat line of coke for Stevia and uses it as a prop in his Scarface impression, something magical happened: I started cackling. And by the midway point of this stupid movie (which, like most decent contemporary comedies, falls under the category of “fine, but no Step Brothers”), I was laughing so hard that I might as well have been one of those guffawing yokels from the end of Sullivan’s Travels.
Yet my big takeaway from Sisters wasn’t the relief those laughs brought me. It was how deeply sad the movie made me. Mourning has a funny way of making everything seem super personal—these days, I might watch The Martian and come away thinking “Oh my God, it’s like I’m stranded on a distant planet, eating poop potatoes and desperate to get home.” But still, watching this movie about two siblings, both more than a decade older than I am, I was struck by the simple fact that their father is very much alive (and not just alive, but James Brolin alive). Tina Fey’s character has a daughter, and her daughter has a grandfather. If I ever have kids, they won’t. The movie was forcing me to take the first of many baby steps toward reconciling the surreality of my father’s death with the reality of my life to come.
So those tickets were $30 well spent, though not for the reason I expected. My uniquely personal response to Sisters doesn’t necessarily make it a better movie, but it suggests that the most valuable things movies can do for us often come from giving us something different from what we ask of them. From leaving you with unresolved feelings. From making you uncomfortable. Actually, I’ll take that a step further: A film is always failing you if it’s merely giving you exactly what you thought you wanted from it. That’s not what art is for. If you just want to cry, cut an onion. If you just want to laugh, watch a Donald Trump rally. If you want to feel stuff in your pants, watch some porn, the ultimate in service filmmaking. Movies are not there to do your bidding or to confirm your own worldview, but in 2015 it often felt that we measured them that way. If movies didn’t say exactly what we wanted them to say, then they were problematic; not just poor, but immoral.
Mark, this is a big part of why I loved your take on The Hateful Eight: Quentin Tarantino is one of the most boisterously confident filmmakers in the world, so it’s captivating to watch him plant his feet in quicksand and scramble for secure footing. One of the great thrills that I derived from that movie was the tension that slowly boils between Tarantino’s masterful direction and his comparatively—inevitably—feeble grasp of racial justice in America. It’s an explosive subject, particularly for a white filmmaker with a checkered history of using the N-word like it’s going out of style (oh wait), but QT hops behind the wheel like Yves Montand driving a truck full of nitroglycerin in The Wages of Fear. When people of the future need to remember how much of a clusterfuck America’s justice system was in 2015, this will be the film to watch. This is not a movie for anyone who’s inclined to judge a film by how closely it prescribes to the worldview they had when they walked into the theater, it’s a movie for anyone willing to grapple with the discrepancy between the civility of our culture and the nastiness of our country.
The Hateful Eight is hardly my favorite Tarantino movie (Inglourious Basterds has a pretty tight grip on that claim), but it’s the first QT joint that feels like it exists beyond the comfort zone of his references, and the first of his historical revenge fantasies that feels like its squinted eye is focused squarely on the present. The vociferousness of the response to this film feels crucial to its power. It feels so much braver when a filmmaker risks something by screening a movie than it does when a filmmaker risks something by shooting a movie. Sorry, Alejandro González Iñárritu, but who gives a damn that you went to hell and back if you didn’t bring us home a decent souvenir?
So Amy, this is where you and I can finally agree—well, this and We Are Your Friends, which people eagerly wrote off as “that Zac Efron DJ movie” but turned out to be “that really energetic and heartfelt Zac Efron DJ movie.” As for not enjoying Carol, I can only say to you what I’ve said to all those unfortunate souls who somehow found that movie cold: “I can’t help you with that.”
Mark, what movies or performances did you find to be genuinely brave this year?
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