Emerging from “The Tree of Life” at Cannes last May, I wrote that Terrence Malick’s long-awaited fifth feature “towers over the field.” Seven months later, in my estimation, that hasn’t changed. Malick’s movie will perhaps always receive more than its fair share of catcalls and walkouts, but its divisiveness is a measure of its extraordinary ambition. Few films have strived so mightily and successfully to usher an audience into a sustained contemplation of the divine, while recognizing that divinity is not just an entity that looms over us but something we experience daily, at a molecular level — or could, if we were able to behold the world continually through Malick’s eyes.
“The Tree of Life” was one of a handful of 2011 releases that endowed a fairly simple story with otherworldly dimensions, from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” to Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia.” Indeed, one of the emergent narratives of Cannes, and the year in general, was that of “Tree of Life” vs. “Melancholia,” an auteur slugfest positioning Malick’s glory-of-creation spirituality against von Trier’s end-of-the-world nihilism. (Kudos-giving bodies have favored “Tree,” which trumped “Melancholia” not only for the Palme d’Or but also in the year-end critics’ polls, with von Trier’s film usually finishing just a few spots behind.) Regardless of where one falls on these two movies — personally, I find “Melancholia” gorgeous and visionary in outline, if a bit slipshod and Dogmatic in execution — it was hard not to be seduced by their grandeur and audacity.
Tellingly, both these epic achievements are also intimate human dramas centered around souls in extremis. “Melancholia” conflates the apocalypse with a woman’s profoundly debilitating depression, enacted with fearless commitment by Kirsten Dunst. “Tree of Life” gives us not only one of the cinema’s great domineering dads, as played by Brad Pitt, but an acutely perceptive vision of one boy’s childhood. However outlandish or overweening their cosmic ambitions, these films create an immersive, entirely persuasive psychological reality that refuses to cleave to a straightforward narrative template.
The same could be said of several other notable and exceedingly well-acted pictures this year, such as “Take Shelter,” a pitch-perfect evocation of contempo blue-collar America dominated by Michael Shannon’s under-the-skin turn as a loving husband and father who might be going out of his mind. No less than “Melancholia,” Jeff Nichols’ sophomore feature taps into easily recognizable feelings of dread and uncertainty, blurring the line between incipient madness and the ever-encroaching endtimes.
A calmer, more measured yet no less heartrending character study emerged in “Poetry,” Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong’s wise and moving tale of a woman charting her way unsteadily through her twilight years. In a film with equal patience and insight, actress and first-time director Vera Farmiga navigates a devout Christian woman’s life story in “Higher Ground,” the rare movie that succeeds in spinning a quiet, decades-spanning internal drama — a loss of faith — into a riveting and enormously relevant one.
And lest you think intelligent, fully fleshed-out female characters were strictly the domain of the arthouse, let’s hear it for Paul Feig’s “Bridesmaids,” which not only put an end to the moribund debate over whether women can be funny but, with almost casual profundity, offered up an unflinching, warts-and-all portrait of midlife despair. Producer Judd Apatow’s comedies are known for running long, but this one fully earns its deep-dish approach, thanks in no small part to Kristen Wiig’s hilariously spiky performance.
A very different distaff tale is cult-themed drama “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” which examines psychic rupture and identity loss. Rather than merely falling back on lead thesp Elizabeth Olsen (she plays Martha, Marcy May, Marlene and everyone in between), writer-director Sean Durkin layers shards of memory and chronology in an ingenious structural gambit that forces us to experience the character’s paranoia and self-confusion head-on. Not everyone has embraced Durkin’s sleight-of-hand; after premiering to much acclaim at Sundance, “Martha Marcy” opened in the fall to hesitant praise from reviewers who found the film crafty indeed, but too opaque and ambiguous for its own good.
A similar post-festival backlash befell Steve McQueen’s sex-addiction drama “Shame,” which left more than one critic astonished and indignant that this NC-17-rated outing — with its much-hyped, full-frontal performance by Michael Fassbender — should turn out to be such a cold, unerotic experience. Talk about missing the point: The real shame is the cavalier dismissal of one of the few recent movies that treats sex seriously rather than frivolously, and that dares to suggest that moralism and compassion can in fact go hand-in-hand. McQueen can be clinical, even clammy in his methods, but his underlying empathy is unmistakable, his formal intelligence exhilarating. Like “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Shame” assembles seemingly random slivers of everyday banality into a challenging, troubling portrait of a wounded psyche.
I’m usually disinclined to single out a particular studio or specialty division for praise, but it’s worth noting that “The Tree of Life,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Shame” were all acquired and released this year by Fox Searchlight. An outfit whose brand was once defined by the crowd-pleasing likes of “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Juno,” Searchlight is furthering its commitment to edgy, aesthetically adventurous dramatic fare.
To that end, no assessment of the year in cinema would be complete without mentioning one of the distrib’s less-loved stepchildren, “Margaret.”
As someone who found Kenneth Lonergan’s film maudit impossible to turn away from, if finally too problematic, too ravaged, to recommend unreservedly, I can only watch from an admiring distance the ongoing efforts of Team Margaret, the astonishing Twitter-based grassroots movement that has singlehandedly turned the picture into a critical cause celebre. Their persistence seems to have paid off: Rallying back from a release for which “limited” would be an overstatement, “Margaret” has scored a series of unexpected coups in the year-end critics’ derbies, and Searchlight has sent Academy screeners for a film it had quietly released with little fanfare.
And if the year in cinema was largely defined by close-up studies of souls in anguish, “Margaret” may be its most inspiring emblem — an anguished raw wound of a movie whose messily frayed edges and verbal sparks fully express the inchoate emotions and inner turmoil of its teenage protagonist (played with utter abandon by Anna Paquin). With any luck, we’ll get to see the longer, Martin Scorsese-supervised version that Lonergan has said most completely reflects his intentions for this too-long-gestating passion project; between that and Malick’s rumored six-hour cut of “The Tree of Life,” moviegoers certainly have much to look forward to.