Mike Mills’ near-memoir Beginners and Terrence Malick’s sweeping The Tree of Life tied for best feature at the Gotham Film Awards Monday night. This may be the only two things that the films have in common. Malick’s The Tree of Life is a sometimes baffling journey through the history of the universe and the lives of a 1950s Texas family, while Mills’ Beginners is about a son coming to grips with his father’s late-in-life announcement that he’s gay. According to indieWIRE, the jurors deliberated for two and a half hours before ending up in a cinematic hung jury. How could a critic choose one when the films are so completely different? Apples and oranges doesn’t even cover it. It’s more like local organic apples and molecular gastronomy freeze-dried duck liver mousse. One is accessible and inexpensive (in that uniquely Hollywood under-$20 billion way), while the other is complex, pricey and often difficult if ultimately satisfying.
Tree of Life, which stars Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, was Malick’s first film in six years and perhaps some of the accolades stem from anticipation of the movie, more than the movie itself. In my opinion, it’s hard to love a film so frustratingly complex that some movie theaters took to running a warning in advance of the film reminding viewers that they wouldn’t get their money just because they didn’t “get” the movie. While many critics genuinely liked the film, many more, like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, deemed it “a puzzler.” Frankly a movie that ranges from the birth of the cosmos to dinosaurs (yes, dinosaurs) to the life of a family in Texas might actually be deserving of that title. The movie presses the boundaries of audience accessibility. Hence the warnings. That said, for a movie to win best in show, does it have to be easy to understand? Just because you don’t get it, doesn’t mean it’s not great.
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Mills’ film, on the other hand, is a genuinely sweet, intimate and relatable movie about a man, his father and his dog (who should win best supporting actor, by the way). It has a narrow scope — a man in his 70s teaches his son valuable lessons about life and love before passing away — but lives beautifully in the space it defines. The film is obviously deeply personal even if one did not know the backstory — Mills’ own father came out of the closet as a 75-year-old widower and enjoyed five years of life with a younger lover before passing away, just like Oliver’s (Ewan McGregor) father Hal (Christopher Plummer) does in the film. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable story that tugs at the heart strings without much cloying sappiness. It’s a wonderful movie, but it’s no Tree of Life and it doesn’t want to be. That’s no reason not to love it.
The Gotham Film Awards are intended to celebrate independent film and by honoring these two wildly different movies, maybe they have accomplished just that. Tree of Life and Beginners are both excellent examples of the best that American indie cinema has to offer. Do you think that Beginners would have taken the title on its own had it thrown in a couple dinosaurs?