Illustration by Andre Carrilho
The best last line of any movie this past year was spoken by Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter. The line is: “OK.” It’s not just as big as the word “OK” can be—it’s bigger than you thought “OK” could ever be; in Chastain’s “OK” lies the end of the world. For the duration of writer-director Jeff Nichols’s film, her husband—played by Michael Shannon in a performance at once ferocious and hushed—has been tormented by apocalyptic dreams that have led him and everyone around him to question his sanity, which is exactly what leads the audience to suspect he’s not mad at all. In another 2011 movie, Hugo, an orphan boy who winds the clocks of Paris and lives within their gears and watchworks meets the “inventor of dreams,” as the film calls him—Georges Méliès, cinema’s earliest maestro, before the nightmare of his century would seem to have rendered trivial his hand-tinted celluloid wonders. Over the course of whatever time has transpired between the dreams of Méliès and of Shannon’s crazy prophet, the innocence of the former has given way to the only revelation that can dazzle us anymore, which is one of cataclysm.
You could draft a respectable best-of-2011 list composed entirely of movies about the End of the World or about The Movies themselves. If it would be glib to say they’re the same thing (though a film like Super 8 is explicitly about both), they feel born of a common impulse—to pursue a vision as far as it can go, either inward or outward—and occupy opposite ends of the same dream. Moreover, what binds Take Shelter, Melancholia, Another Earth, Contagion, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and The Tree of Life with Hugo, My Week with Marilyn, Road to Nowhere, and The Artist is how many of the films feel so 21st century—like they couldn’t have been made at any other moment—and so outside of time. With the exception of Marilyn, they’re all chronologically free floating in spirit. Stepping into the production of a movie called Road to Nowhere, the production crew of Monte Hellman’s film of the same name slips its temporal moorings; and the appearance of the parallel world (which looks just like the oncoming rogue planet of Melancholia) hovering above ours in Another Earth scrambles time’s calibrations and landmarks altogether. If anything, this may be more pronounced in movies as ostensibly period as Hugo and The Artist, which each tick to a metaclock: Their forecasts of the last century are infused with the perspective of this one. In many of these pictures there’s a sense that the act of filming itself has set Armageddon in motion. The silent world of a silent-film star in The Artist is ruptured when a water glass that he sets down on a table makes a noise. In Melancholia, the snap of director Lars von Trier’s clipboard brings on a cosmic car wreck unleashing emotional truths that are overwhelming before they become meaningless. To Terrence Malick, a family’s struggle in The Tree of Life to decode the meaning of a son’s death is futile outside the context of eons, even as the eons are sound and fury that signify nothing when unredeemed by the humanity of love and grief, resilience and grace.
When a theme dominates movie-years so strikingly, it’s tempting to make something of it because that’s what people like me are paid to do. But leaving aside the highlights that don’t neatly fit grand pronouncements (Tomas Alfredson’s first-rate adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, for instance), the reality is that movies take varying numbers of years to get finished, and whether the director catches something in today’s zeitgeist, or yesterday’s, or tomorrow’s, or has bent the zeitgeist to his or her will, is a crapshoot; when a bunch of movies tap into the same thing, it’s as much an alignment of the stars as any collective conclusion. The movies mentioned above are variable in style and quality, from Road to Nowhere, which veers as close to the avant-garde as anything vaguely earning the label “mainstream,” to the conventional My Week with Marilyn, distinguished wholly by Michelle Williams, who—ever since seeing her husband kiss another man in Brokeback Mountain and registering more complicated emotion in a single look than anyone since Garbo at the end of Queen Christina—appears destined for immortality with each passing performance. Hugo is the homage to cinematic delirium that you would expect of a Martin Scorsese movie that looks more like a Steven Spielberg movie than Spielberg’s War Horse, and then there’s The Artist, which manages to be radical and populist at the same time. Nothing captures the culture’s attention deficit disorder better than the backlash to The Artist already setting in, and you can only hope that as the movie increasingly is dismissed as a shameless crowd pleaser, someone remembers now and then that a year ago anybody making a black-and-white silent film would have been called insane or named Guy Maddin. French director Michel Hazanavicius not only got away with it but got the world to love it, and unless the counter assault gathers momentum, which is possible, it will win the Academy Award.
The true picture of the year is a trilogy, seven hours long and made unwittingly by its three directors. The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, and Melancholia are a biographical triptych of not just the species or the planet but of existence, ending not in mere death, which is survived by memory, but the void, which is survived by nothing. The family of The Tree of Life is very much like the one in Take Shelter; they could be next- door neighbors a few decades removed. The dead birds that fall from the sky in Take Shelter fall in Melancholia as well, and Melancholia’s doomed sisters, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, are long-lost cousins of Shelter’s Shannon. The crashing of planets in Melancholia is alluded to by the celestial combustion of The Tree of Life, in which a wife and mother chooses ascension over primitivism, just as a wife and mother a generation or two later in Take Shelter practically and heroically chooses to overcome despair, with Chastain playing both women. Malick doesn’t think The Tree of Life is about the End at all—he thinks it’s about the Continuum—while Von Trier’s instinctive no-exit sensibility, not to mention the cruelty of his early work, are transformed by Melancholia into the kind of earthbound pity and insight that the characters in The Tree of Life never grasp until they’ve transcended its highest branches. OK, says Chastain on her back porch in Take Shelter’s final scene, to both the End of the World and her husband’s second sight that she doubted. OK, say Dunst’s eyes in Melancholia to both the End of the World and her sister’s desolation over her young son’s deliverance not to death but oblivion. OK, says Sean Penn’s face in The Tree of Life to an afterworld where all premature separations are reconciled and all paradises, once lost, are regained.