Higher Ground (2011, Vera Farmiga): W/O
Now and then someone will suggest that I bailed on a film too early, insisting that it gets more interesting later. But while that may well be true—and almost certainly is true in this case, seeing as how the protagonist hadn't even begun questioning her faith yet—it doesn't much matter, because I'm not really sitting there waiting for something to "happen." A talented filmmaker will grab and hold my attention almost immediately, whereas long experience has taught me that if the first two reels are utterly pedestrian, there's virtually no hope. And I saw no evidence that Farmiga, whose work as an actor I generally love, possesses a shred of camera sense, rhythmic intuition or even basic storytelling brio. Nobody's thought this material through in cinematic terms, and so it comes across as a series of Illustrative Moments—each scene a little self-contained step on a mapped-out journey, serving its function and then giving way to the next dramatic bullet point. Not that I needed it to be The Rapture, but there's only so much flatline I can take.
/The Loneliest Planet/ (2011, Julia Loktev): 84
[Pedigree: Locarno '11, TIFF; NYFF; AFI Fest. Opens 2012.]
Previously addressed at Toronto. Feared I might find the first half a little get-to-the-Incident enervating this time, but Loktev has an uncanny knack—also on display in Day Night Day Night—for making the eventless eventful, mostly via attention to arresting details that are unusual without being "quirky." (I was about to note that the "chimpanzee" headstand arguably crosses that line, but then suddenly suspected that that's an actual alternative to e.g. "Mississippi" somewhere or other, and sure enough. Headstand itself's still a bit cute, though.) And I remain in awe of the high-wire act that constitutes the aftermath, in which any and all discussion of what happened gets postponed until after the credits roll—a stunt that only works because of how much goofy downtime we'd spent with this couple before the split-second D'oh! People are reading way too much into Nica needing to hurl near the end (and not enough into her willingness to let Alex tend to her as she does), but I'm happy Loktev opted to err on the side of being misinterpreted as either stridently feminist or anti-feminist (according to personal conviction) rather than signpost a resolution that's essentially unknowable, and may be for weeks or months to come.
/It's a Wonderful Life/ (1946, Frank Capra): 93
"Way darker than its holiday-classic rep" has become a truism since I was a kid, but this viewing (first in 14 years) made me long for the relative cheer and optimism of The Turin Horse. Just days later, the beaming smiles and wing-heralding bells of the finale have already faded, whereas I can't stop thinking of George stalking his house like a caged panther, viciously snapping at innocuous questions from his kids and generally behaving like patriarchy gone rancid. Truth is, for all his principles, George can often be something of a dick even before things go wrong: his reaction when Mary loses her robe is awesomely ungallant, and their subsequent love scene (on the phone with Sam) works primarily because he treats her house as if it were a dentist's waiting room, seemingly disgusted by his own ardor. (Capra beat both Mann and Hitchcock in recognizing the potential for seething anger beneath Stewart's folksy persona.) When the happy ending comes, it's moving in direct proportion to the depths of despondency the film has previously tunneled, and George's realization of how beloved he is by the community can't somehow magically erase a lifetime's worth of regret about all the dreams he abandoned to earn that gratitude. (This is one of those films where it can be provocative to imagine what happens the day after it ends.) Nearly perfect, all in all, though needless to say I'd much rather live in Pottersville than Bedford Falls (va-va-voom!) and don't recoil in horror as intended when it's revealed that without George in her life poor Mary would have wound up as—egad—a SPINSTER LIBRARIAN! Tap that.
/Dazed and Confused/ (1993, Richard Linklater): 78
Can't honestly say I lived this movie, as I was only eight years old in '76 and attended an all-male Jesuit high school, but it wields a powerful nostalgic grip all the same. (And let me note again that 1993 - 1976 = 17, while 2011 - 1993 = 18. Would a high-school movie set in 1994 feel even remotely as retro? Has time essentially stopped?) As a sign of how much my taste has evolved over the past couple decades, I was originally slightly put off by the film's apparent aimlessness, whereas now I'm primarily irked by its sole concession to narrative structure, viz. Pink's internal debate about whether to sign the football team's just-say-no pledge. Nickname notwithstanding, Pink is easily the least colorful of Linklater's gaggle of vividly drawn types, embodied by what really has to be the greatest young ensemble cast ever assembled; people justifiably marvel at how many future stars he discovered, but I'm equally gobsmacked by the performances he got from kids who were pretty much never seen again, like Christin Hinojosa as Sabrina (shy new hazing recruit who hooks up with Dude From Rent) and the amazing Sasha Jenson, who absolutely murders blonde jock Don Dawson's cheerful sense of entitlement (without making him repellent, somehow). This is a world that feels fully inhabited, as if the entire day had been staged in real time and the camera is just capturing bits and pieces of it at random. There's still a slight sense of weightlessness to it all—nobody experiences anything remotely like an epiphany, and next year will likely be much the same—but I'm thankful that Linklater didn't go the American Graffiti route and make some last-ditch bid for Significance by relating the characters' ultimate fates. The final slow fade to black, on the open road as seen through the windshield of Wooderson's car, conveys the same idea far more eloquently.
/Harakiri/ (1962, Masaki Kobayashi): 83
Wish I'd revisited this right before seeing Miike's 3-D remake, so I'd have a better sense of how Kobayashi prevents the woe-is-me flashback from bogging down the entire movie. That's still the weakest element by far, but I think its potential bathos gets forestalled by (a) starker, more elemental direction in the flashback scenes themselves, but even more crucially (b) constant leaps back to Nakadai telling the story in his creepy dead-eyed affectless manner. (If memory serves, Miike lets the entire flashback play out in a single tedious movement.) Everything else is heart-stopping in its meticulous, procedural way, from the excruciating account of Motome's bamboo-blade travesty to the windswept faceoff between merciless avenger and remorseless enforcer. And while Miike's finale merely reprises Nakadai's crazed recklessness in The Sword of Doom, Kobayashi's is notable for how contained and cautious it is—this may be the only remotely credible depiction of a single swordsman doing battle with a small army, a skirmish that lasts as long as it does only because no member of the small army is especially eager to be the dude who gets sliced up so the others can move in behind him. Institutional effacement plays much more bleak and cynical in the original, too—indeed, the entire movie hinges on perverse decorum (on both sides), which is what makes its ugliness so uniquely unnerving. But then, we're talking about a culture that chose to ritualize one of the most painful suicide methods imaginable, treating self-inflicted disembowelment as if it were a trip to the notary public. In that sense, the American title—Harakiri (better known in the West, but more vulgar) rather than Seppuku—couldn't be less appropriate.