Brad Pitt and Laramie Eppler in "The Tree of Life." (Fox Searchlight Pictures )
The idea of a "good year" at the movies is perhaps part objective truth, part selective collation, part smart spin. So I will gladly declare this an outstanding year at the art house, where there was consistently more enthusiasm for quality work than there was space in print to discuss the boldly incisive, insightful films parading into theaters.
It's a wildly diverse list that includes not just English-language narrative films like "The Tree of Life," "Melancholia," "Beginners," "Meek's Cutoff," "Cold Weather," "The Future," "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "We Need to Talk About Kevin" but also such documentaries as "The Interrupters," "The Arbor," "Dragonslayer" and "The Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975" — not to mention such foreign-language films as "City of Life and Death," "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," "Carancho," "Mysteries of Lisbon," "The Yellow Sea" and "A Separation."
I go back and forth between Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" and Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" as my favorite film of the year, largely depending upon the lightness and darkness of my mood. Both films shift between the human-scale drama of family and grander visions of the world, "Tree of Life" visualizing the origins of the universe while "Melancholia" imagines a crashing, crushing apocalypse.
However, rather than the definitive, closed-circuit finalities of "Melancholia," I prefer to embrace the quizzical open-endedness of "The Tree of Life," and I look forward to puzzling over its mysteries for many years. (So "The Tree of Life" it is.)
If that light-dark dichotomy plays out on a macro, universal level in "The Tree of Life" and "Melancholia," it is examined on a more micro scale in "Beginners" and "The Future." Based on the actual experience of writer-director Mike Mills, "Beginners" is about a young man reconciling the brave beauty of his father coming out late in life with the loss of his father to cancer in quick succession.
"The Future," from writer-director-star Miranda July, builds from the trifling to the monumental as a young couple turn their lives upside down out of anxiety over the possibility of new responsibilities. (They may adopt a cat.)
Both films, in their own way, employ a willful, knowing naivete to explore the idea of opening oneself up to the experience of the new, one film approaching it with a wide-eyed wonder, the other a sense of terror and dread. Both films also feature pets whose thoughts are made known to the audience and, oh, yes, Mills and July are husband and wife.
This year also finally brought Kenneth Lonergan's staggering, long-awaited "Margaret," which after years of post-production litigation and drama finally sneaked its way into theaters this fall. An operatic drama of survivor's guilt and legal wrangling pitched to the emotional hyperbole of a precocious teenager, the film built steady momentum with a small coterie of critics and those few audiences able to catch up to it (to paraphrase the filmmaker Robert Altman, a cult is something not popular enough to make a minority).
Once "Margaret" begins to appear on the rep house circuit and home video, time will tell whether its stature grows from neglected curio to misunderstood magnum opus.
The broad umbrella of independent film also covers what is referred to as "genre" filmmaking, which usually means horror. "The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)" was certainly a brief sensation in that corner this year, a film that drew unnecessary potency from every negative word spent in its behalf, making it more a twisted mockery of audience expectations and the modern media-sphere than an act of moviemaking.
Next year will see the release of three films that appeared on the 2011 festival circuit, "The Innkeepers," "Kill List" and "You're Next," all of which show that a bit of gore and a little brains (as in wit and smarts) need not be mutually exclusive. Fresh, vibrant filmmaking is happening on the indie horror scene, as kids raised on VHS cheapies have grown up to turn the form inside-out.
Encouraging too is the recent scaled success of films such as "Melancholia" and the Wall Street drama "Margin Call" in using a hybrid release strategy that pairs theatrical runs with video-on-demand accessibility. It's a development that could signal the end of one-size-fits-all releasing (a rallying cry on the festival circuit for some time), because each film can find its own best way to connect with audiences.
Say what you want about the current state of the studio system, where genuine large-canvas filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan and others duke it out for money and attention amid aspirant summer franchises, children's releases and assorted junk. Over here in the big-tent, small-check archipelagoes of micro-niches that independent filmmaking, distribution and exhibition have become, things are as vital and exciting as ever.
2012 will have a lot to live up to.