The Movie Club

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, 2016’s most tearjerking movie.

The one movie this year that reduced me to a puddle of salt, water, and snot.

Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim.
Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim.

Screenshot via Atlas Media Corp./YouTube

Dana, you asked for an underseen jewel or two from me, when what I’m thinking is how many movies from all of your entries I have to catch up with, from Aquarius to Brothers Grimsby. I started out the week feeling that I’d seen too many movies this year and will end it certain that I saw too few. So to prioritize my favorite obscurities over yours? Would that it were so simple! Would that it TWERE so simple! Would that IT were so simple …

OK, here are two picks. I am a fairly easy crier at movies, but mostly that manifests itself in what I like to think are discreet manly sniffles. However, one movie this year reduced me to a puddle of salt, water, and snot—a documentary called Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. I am a sucker for movies about theater and also for movies about reconnecting to your past self and that self’s hopes and aspirations and losses. (I never met a yellowed yearbook I wouldn’t thumb through.) So Lonny Price’s film about the making of Stephen Sondheim’s and Harold Prince’s now-much-loved 1981 Broadway flop Merrily We Roll Along hit me where I live—and then hit me again and again until I was down for the count. Price was an original cast member, and deep into his work on the film, he unearthed a stunning trove of video long thought to be lost—the original auditions, callbacks, and rehearsals for the show, including the moment when its very young cast found out they were in. As he follows the making-of story from sweet to bitter, he also revisits several of those cast members, now in their 50s, some still in the business, some long out. The result is like a fully immersive virtual-reality version of A Chorus Line crossed with all of the 7 Up films—and if you don’t cry, you don’t have a heart (as I myself was told after not crying at Lion, so never trust that or any other recommendation-as-threat).

I also recommend seeking out Matt Sobel’s Take Me to the River, a family-reunion movie that turns into a kind of horror story (yes, those are two different things) and generates an immense amount of tension by not really letting you know for most of its length exactly what kind of horror movie, if any, it’s going to turn into. The answer comes late, as a cold, stinging slap. Sobel plays with indie conventions—is this a coming-out story, or a dysfunctional family comedy, or a dysfunctional family drama, or something darker? And his tone-perfect cast, led by the invaluable Robin Weigert, does nothing to tip it one way or the other.

Take Me to the River received only a token theatrical release and is currently streaming on Amazon and Netflix: Best Worst Thing … is still opening city by city and will, I hope, be more widely available soon. These are both unquestionably movies even though, I know, most people will see them on TVs, laptops, or mobile devices rather than in theaters. That’s fine; I’m not an optimal-conditions purist, and when I see some cinephile inflaming himself about digital cinema projection versus 35 mm film, I always want to hitch up my overalls and talk about Olden Tymes when movies got chopped up and covered in grease and scratched by the dog and shown in bits and pieces over two or three days on local television stations. The best way to see a worthwhile film is however you can.

I also highly recommend O.J.: Made in America and Lemonade, which aren’t on my list of top movies because I don’t think they’re movies: To me, O.J.: MIA, despite the protestations of its director and those who have successfully exemptioned it into movie-awards season, is absolutely what it appears to be, which is a made-for-TV multipart documentary; it would ride high on my best-of-TV list if I’d made one, and any movie buff who thinks that’s a consolation prize needs to watch more television. And Lemonade, which I watched less and (probably as a result) liked more than you did, Dana, isn’t, to my eyes, a movie either: It is the latest one-of-a-kind interdisciplinary text from the ongoing multimedia project that is Beyoncé. And with all due respect to the 150,000 liberal arts majors who enthusiastically turned in “Race, Gender, Intersectionality, and the Gaze in ‘Lemonade’ ” papers this fall, one of its primary pleasures is the art it draws on and the art it might lead you to, not just what it expresses about its creator; Lemonade is at its least interesting as veiled celeb gossip or as a position paper.

Lemonade is 46 minutes; O.J.: Made in America is 10 times as long. The first seems designed for repeat viewings; the second is an Everest that I think only the most committed fan or social historian would choose to scale twice. This connects to a dilemma for any movie lover—the choice about whether to rewatch something, either for sheer pleasure or to check your reaction (perhaps hoping it will change) when so much that is unseen beckons—and not just new movies. Going through our entries so far, I noticed that we’ve collectively name-checked something like 50 pre-2016 films, from The Apartment to Killer of Sheep to Bowfinger. Time spent with those movies would never be wasted.

It’s hard to tell people a movie they’re not sure about is worth seeing twice; it’s hard for me to tell myself that. So I’ll close my portion of this year’s Club conversation—I miss you three already!—by talking about my journey with Martin Scorsese’s Silence. I have been very moved, Bilge, by the passion and clarity with which you’ve written about it, and, appropriately given the movie’s subject, I want to believe. So I will try to write honestly about the five hours and 22 minutes I’ve spent with it so far.

An hour into my first viewing of Silence, I felt restless and slightly irritated, wondering if Scorsese was ever going to back his car out of the driveway and get rolling. The pace felt slow, the tone uncertain, the mood reverent and respectful almost to the point of immobility. Not having read Shusaku Endo’s novel, I didn’t know where it was going, but the experience of watching it felt penitential to me. By the end, I didn’t feel that; I found myself stirred and moved, more grabbed by the narrative and its power, and touched by Scorsese’s deep and heartfelt willingness to grapple with the relationship between faith and an appetite for conversion. And I knew I wanted to see it again. But not right away.

Several weeks later, I rewatched Silence. Its architecture made more sense to me; the greatness of what it was striving for felt closer to its grasp; its technical mastery and austere visual beauty seemed more contributory to the overall effect than I had realized; and the elements that had moved me the first time moved me more the second.

Putting Silence on the top 10 list that Slate asked me to make was not a hard call. And yet, I would argue that it is, in some ways, an awkward and uncertain film. It’s work. You have to get used to Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, two very contemporary actors, playing pious 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit priests who speak lightly accented English and do not use contractions. You also have to get used to a very strong Japanese cast wrestling valiantly but audibly with English line deliveries that sometimes sound phonetic. You have to watch Scorsese, after close to 50 years behind the camera, struggle with a milieu and a kind of storytelling that is culturally foreign to him, without the camera dynamism and music and humor and rapid-fire dialogue that are usually essential parts of his arsenal; you can feel him trying to figure out how to reconcile the lavishly entertaining performance style of Issei Ogata, who plays the Inquisitor, with the psychologically motivated interiority with which Garfield works.

After two viewings, I have to say I still think the sweat and strain show. But I also think that’s fine. There are worse artistic crimes that uneasiness and visible effort in the service of trying to pull off something extremely difficult. Silence itself is about the peril of wandering into a culture you don’t understand with nothing but the conviction that your faith will be sufficient to bring about success. If that is manifest in the film itself, so be it—an A for effort means something when what the effort is being put into is this vaultingly ambitious and challenging.

I wanted to end with Silence because it’s the new movie with which I struggle most, and to me, the pleasure of talking about movies with all of you is that the work to better understand them (and my own reactions to them) never ends. So heartfelt thanks for the continuing education! I’ll try to see more clearly in 2017.

Still skipping Underworld: Blood Wars, though, because “Life’s too short” is also a legitimate argument,