20 February 2012
  2011, the year in film

each year, perhaps only by coincidence, there seems to be a single major theme that ties together many of the year's major films, a sort of singular cultural zeigeist that several filmmakers chose to inhabit seemingly simultaneously. this year i'm not entirely sure that you can quite so easily point to any overarching narrative linking together the films of 2011. sure many can point to the prominence of the idea of nostalgia, and in particular cinematic nostalgia, but this really only calls together a couple of major works (the artist and hugo, namely). instead, i think that 2011, the year in film, is best defined by two films, the year's absolute best, that operate as sort of bookends of one another, at the same time mirroring major social preoccupations of our age: terrence malick's the tree of life and lars von trier's melancholia.

although in some ways practically opposites of one another, the parallels between these two films are so uncanny, that one wonders at some points if the directors somehow collaboratively crafted them as part of some sort of grand film experiment. in its essence, the tree of life represents the birth of existence, everything that has happened since the beginning of time that has brought us to this point, right now. and in its essence, melancholia represents the end of existence, what it would mean if all life, the planet itself, were to cease to be at this point, right now.

the directors even seem to be mirroring one another in the cinematographic tools they employ. perhaps the most striking sequence in the tree of life, is a long operatic one in which malick visually depicts the birth of the earth from nothingness, and the gradual emergence of life on this planet. similarly, one of the most striking sequences in melancholia is the similarly operatic one that opens the film, in which von trier slowly unveils the last moments of life on earth. interspersed with one another, these segments alone could have made up a singular filmic meditation on life and death.

what is even more striking, however, is that although both dealing with literally opposing subject matter, both von trier and malick seem to come to similar conclusions regarding what could be the central question guiding both of their works, that is the meaning of life itself. as we see sean penn's character in the tree of life, essentially the culmination of all history, we hear in his head the greatest on screen utterance of the year: "mother, father, always you wrestle inside me, always you will." by this point, we have seen a billion years of history unfurl before us. we have literally seen the cellular birth of life. but what has shaped this character the most is the relationships he has formed throughout his life, and which he continues to carry with him.

similarly, in melancholia, we watch for two hours as kirsten dunst's justine attempts to shrug off the end of the world, literally telling her sister at one point that when the earth evaporates, nobody will miss it. then, in the final moments before the apocalypse, we find justine, her sister and nephew hastening away to a "magic cave," where they can be together, sharing the moment as a family. once again, no matter how much she attempts to deny it, dunst proves herself deeply shaped by and inextricable from those around her.

it is most certainly not coincidental that these two films came to us at this point in history. in 2011, our world is experiencing increasing preoccupation with both the end of the world, and the beginning of life. at the same time, our society includes those feverishly attempting to predict the rapture or interpret mayan doomsday prophecy and those attempting to decode the human genome and scientifically reproduce the big bang. archaeologists scour mt. ararat for noah's ark, while biblical scholars scour the book of revelation for apocalyptic codes. we are a society that deeply feels that the end of the world may not be far away. and before that day comes, we'd like to figure out what it all means. and both melancholia and the tree of life engage with and emerge out of these dichotomous preoccupations.

malick's and von trier's works stand out among the films of 2011, not only because they so perfectly represent where our society was in this year, but because they are simply the two best works produced in this year. although for many the tree of life and melancholia have been pushed away in terms of popular culture in favor of more digestible faire, i hope that in ten or fifty years, people will look back on these films as those that truly define the year in film—

that is, if people are still around by then. fingers crossed.
 
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