Justin Chang: 2011 brings ‘Life’ to the film world

To paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard, it was a year of beginnings, middles and ends, but not necessarily in that order.

Beginning with the endings, 2011 saw the penultimate episodes in both the “Harry Potter” series — an unrivaled 1,180-minute coming-of-ager during which the young cast matured onscreen over the course of a decade, all the while combating the encroachment of dark magic — and the Cannes film festival’s even longer-running indulgence with Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier, whose disastrous press conference upstaged his masterful, emotionally honest “Melancholia.”

Whereas Potter was all bombast and CGI in the face of Muggledom’s near-annihilation, “Melancholia” depicted unnatural calm when confronting the end of the world (an attitude that might have made the rebarbative devastation of Michael Bay’s latest “Transformers” entry a bit more bearable). While it’s no surprise to find the fate of Earth at stake in big-budget comicbook movies, this year also brought unexpected apocalyptic visions in arthouse form, courtesy of everyone from emerging young talent Jeff Nichols (whose “Take Shelter” cements him as a serious American director) to retiring Hungarian helmer Bela Tarr (up to his old tricks with “The Turin Horse”).

Tarr claims that his austere parable, which consists of an old peasant mashing potatoes for two and a half hours, will be his last. I found it a tough sit at the Berlin Film Festival, but have since become convinced that when the chips settle and the awards hype finally dies down, it will prove every bit as enduring a cinematic achievement as Spielberg’s grandiose “War Horse.” While “War Horse” works on extravagant visual and emotional levels, “The Turin Horse” feels more philosophical in its ambitions.

At its best, 2011 brought us plenty of Big Idea movies, which makes it, in this critic’s estimation, one of the more exciting years in recent cinematic memory. Certainly no undertaking felt loftier than Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which momentarily attempts to cup life, the universe and everything in its hands. Malick’s magnum opus, which feels more like an impressionist painting or symphony than a traditional film, forgoes such quaint notions as three-act structure, barely giving us the information we need to follow its premise, as Sean Penn plays a disconnected big-city exec trying to make sense of his younger brother’s death.

On first viewing (at the Cannes film festival, where the film deservedly cinched the Palme d’Or), “Tree” felt almost like a parody of a Malick movie, in which the director’s elliptical style, whispered dialogue and natural digressions had been amplified to a cosmic scale. Still, even without the breathtaking origins-of-life sequence in the middle, “Tree” would still represent a grand artistic gesture, offering infinite points of connection amid the beguiling cloud of feelings, memories and moods lifted from Malick’s own small-town Texas upbringing. It doesn’t hurt that both Malick and I grew up in Waco, ensuring a certain amount of overlap in our formative experiences, and yet, “Tree” leaves the flashback portions open-ended enough that it should trigger unique personal connections from every viewer.

Impatience and skepticism are valid responses, too, though I’d encourage anyone who felt frustrated by his first encounter with “The Tree of Life” to go back and give it another try (that goes for “Melancholia” as well, which is autobiographical in even more revealing ways). Whereas most films provide windows into a different world, these serve almost like mirrors into the subconscious, sure to yield different responses according to whatever state of mind you’re in.

Another film that bears multiple viewings is Tomas Alfredson’s intricate adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” With its elegantly nonlinear narrative, “Tinker” can feel a bit like trying to do algebra in your head as your brain races to keep up with all the clues. On subsequent viewings, however, the level of detail provides rich insight into characters who play their cards extremely close to the vest. The same goes for Mike Mills’ delightfully scrambled “Beginners,” a warmly autobiographical film which, as the title suggests, celebrates the start of two very different relationships.

The film I watched more times than any other in 2011 — four viewings in all — was Jaco Van Dormael’s “Mr. Nobody,” an extravagantly budgeted, staggeringly audacious tree of one boy’s life, branching off into multiple eventualities at every major decision. By Godard’s measure, it could be described as a story with one beginning, multiple middles and infinite possible endings. Sadly, when Cannes passed on “Mr. Nobody” in 2009, the director was forced to cut the film for its Venice bow, and it never landed American distribution (despite being made in English with Jared Leto, Sarah Polley and other familiar faces). The highlight of my year was having a hand in enabling its U.S. premiere as part of the Los Angeles Film Critics’ “The Films That Got Away” series.

The curse of seeing as many movies as we critics do is realizing just how many great films do get away each year. As such, it’s invigorating to see exceptional foreign releases — such as “Incendies,” “City of Life and Death,” “Certified Copy” and “A Separation” — find a limited American following. But for every one of these gems, an equal number slips through the cracks.

Stronger than anything I saw at Sundance was a tiny Chilean pic called “The Life of Fish,” sampled on a whim at the Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival, which makes good on the scrappy, naturalistic relationship-movie format Amerindie directors are trying so hard to perfect. “Fish” proves that’s possible, if only the storytellers can break past their own narcissism and embrace universally relatable human interactions — in this case, the reunion of a couple whose flame still burns.

And as much as I enjoyed “The Help,” with its feel-good spin on ’60s-era race relations, I dare any American distributor to release Abdellatif Kechiche’s provocative “Black Venus,” which recreates the uneasy exploitation of Saartjie Baartman, an African domestic who served as a sideshow novelty for early 19th-century Parisians. In it, newcomer Yahima Torres gives a performance on par with Viola Davis’ award-touted turn. Unlike “The Help,” however, “Black Venus” doesn’t ameliorate its political subject with the safe buffer of contemporary enlightenment, resulting in a picture that’s more prickly than crowdpleasing.

Not that there’s anything wrong with feel-good entertainment. “Hugo” and “The Artist” both generated genuine excitement for the lost era of silent cinema, using techniques both new and old. And the best ending of 2011? That would be the painstaking full-color restoration of Georges Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon” by Lobster Films and the wizards at Technicolor. The 14-minute marvel bowed on opening night at Cannes, played an encore at Telluride and made an indelible cameo in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.”