My visits to the cinema in 2011 were dominated by questions of scale. This summer I sat down and watched the longest film I've ever seen in its entirety, Claude Lanzmann's overwhelming Holocaust documentary Shoah, an all-day experience that I will probably never repeat but one I'll similarly never forget. I also saw sizeable chunks of a 24 hour-long movie, as I managed to catch around 9 hours of The Clock over the course of two days (tip of the hat to Matthew Turner, who managed a whopping 13 hours in one sitting and archived his tweets from the evening here). Christian Marclay's astonishing feat of research and editing is a true marvel; a film that completely hypnotises the viewer and makes them forget about time slipping by even as they watch a film that constantly reminds them of it.
That's what the best movies can do. They make a viewer completely lose themselves in the picture, forgetting about all other distractions, and if a film can hold my attention for an unusually long period then that's all the better. This year I enjoyed Bernardo Bertolucci's raucous and surprisingly funny fascism epic Novecento for the first time, Michael Cimino's unfairly maligned western Heaven's Gate for the second time and – the only 2011 release that stepped up to the running time challenge – Raúl Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon. That late contender for my film of the year prize was a 4½-hour movie edited down from a 6-hour TV series, but I could have happily sat there and watched the longer cut, so entranced was I by the late director's command of his labyrinthine, witty, dreamlike story.
Some films are considered momentous through the subjects and themes they choose to explore rather than their length, however, and this year the end of the world was on the minds of numerous filmmakers (maybe they're taking seriously the notion that our time will be up in 2012?). Apocalyptic tales are normally the preserve of Roland Emmerich, but while he was busy with more high-minded fare (even if Anonymous did turn out to be dumbed-down Shakespeare), some of our finest filmmakers attempted to bring their familiar style to humanity's last days. Naturally, Lars von Trier wasn't in any mood to let us off the hook, destroying Earth in Melancholia's gorgeous opening ten minutes before taking us back to see how two sisters braced themselves for disaster. In truth, I prefer the visceral, unhinged force of von Trier's more uneven Antichrist (with which this would make a fine, if draining, double-bill) but Melancholia is one of his most fully realised and dramatically powerful films, and another triumph for this ever-surprising director. It was funny too (Udo Kier as a prissy wedding planner? "I vill not look at her. She has ruined my vedding."), which certainly gives it the edge over Contagion, Steven Soderbergh's realistic but ultimately uninvolving examination of what might happen if a deadly virus made its way from person to person across the globe. Few directors can put a complex film together with the skill and finesse of Soderbergh, but sometimes the finished product can come across as a mildly interesting directorial exercise rather than something he's fully invested in.
The other major film to tackle an impending apocalypse this year was Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols' hugely impressive second collaboration with Michael Shannon. This was a far more ambiguous take on the subject than Contagion or Melancholia – is working-class family man Curtis mentally unstable, or are his visions actually Nostradamus-like predictions of a storm to end all storms? Take Shelter is a confident, absorbing and challenging film that is built upon an astonishingly powerful performance from Shannon, a great actor finally getting the platform he deserves. It's always a joy to see actors you admire receiving widespread acclaim, and 2011 offered numerous similarly satisfying performances – Jean Dujardin in The Artist, Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur and Anna Paquin in Margaret...even if Paquin had to wait 6 years for her recognition.
The strange case of Margaret was one of 2011's most memorable stories. After a torturous editing process, lawsuits, re-drawn contracts and the deaths of two producers, Kenneth Lonergan's second feature was dumped like a hot potato by a studio that – perhaps understandably – was heartily sick of the whole affair. Such a fate befalls many small movies, but what happened next was more surprising. People started to seek out Margaret, they loved it, and they began spreading the word that the film was far from the disaster its difficult production would suggest. In fact, it quickly became clear that Margaret might just be one of the year's best films and it was soon the movie on everyone's lips, with some critics (notably Jaime Christley, who started a petition) pressuring Fox Searchlight to give the film the release it deserved. The #TeamMargaret campaign seemed to pay off as the film expanded into new cities and extra screens, and there was something very satisfying about seeing passionate film fans driving a picture out of the ghetto and towards the mainstream. However, as Ashley Clark quite rightly pointed out on Twitter, it's worth asking why there was no #TeamBallast campaign when Lance Hammer's movie quietly flopped on these shores.
So many small films slip through the cracks these days and if we learn any lesson from the Margaret situation, it should be that vocal advocates in your corner can make a world of difference; and while I began this article talking about epic cinematic experiences, it's the smaller, more intimate films that burn just as vividly in my memory. Asghar Farhadi's masterful A Separation dropped us into the middle of a crumbling Iranian marriage and gripped us as it depicted the unforeseen consequences of the split, while Andrew Haigh's Weekend allowed us to spend a couple of days with two men and see a beautiful, moving romance bloom before our eyes. Essential Killing was perhaps the most minimalist film of all – consisting largely of Vincent Gallo running through various inhospitable landscapes – but it proved to be the year's most exciting thriller too, and possibly the finest use yet of the madness that lies inside Gallo.
But the film that dominated 2011 for me is a film that married the epic and the intimate like no other. After a typically long gestation period, Terrence Malick finally unveiled The Tree of Life, which proved to be both the most personal and most ambitious work of his extraordinary career. Malick's breathtakingly evocative portrait of a son torn between the virtues personified by his very different parents allowed the director to explore the birth of the universe itself and our relationship with God. For some viewers, The Tree of Life was a shatteringly moving experience that shifted our sense of what cinema could accomplish; for others it was a self-indulgence too far, only worthy of scorn and derision; a few baffled souls simultaneously took both views. However, The Tree of Life got people talking, sparking fascinating debates for and against Malick's magnum opus, and even those who criticised the film could only marvel at its visual and aural splendour, and the almost unprecedented breadth of its ambition. You couldn't walk out of this movie and say you hadn't felt something, that you hadn't been part of a singular experience, and no matter what size canvas you choose to paint on, that is surely the goal of a great work of art.