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year in review

From left: Jessica Chastain, Tye Sheridan, and Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life.Handout | Merie Wallace

Spread over an impossibly wide field, and sown at varying points in the past, the annual crop of movies is always a random harvest. So, to discover any order, it's best to narrow the frame on your rear-view mirror, to limit the perspective to what seems personally rich or important or otherwise notable. For each of us, certain films, not always the best, adhere, while others tumble off into memory's abyss. This is just my view, seen through the mirror of all that recedes fast behind us.

I see two dominant films, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and Lars von Trier's Melancholia, not because they're unflawed but because their tone seems to reflect a recurring mood in the year. Both movies place the plight of an individual family within a broad cosmic scope, and both are apocalyptic in their imagery and narrative. But this isn't the loud, ferocious, escapist doom of actioners like Armageddon. Instead, it's a softer, ruminative, almost caressing apocalypse, a quiet elegy that unfolds with a palpable sense of loss, a sense that, amid the social and cultural tumult, something important is slipping away, coming to an end.

A similar sense of loss, of disappearance either ongoing or imminent, pervaded many films. Not only was movie attendance down again, but the movies themselves, at least those with substantive aesthetic intentions, were often downbeat. The exact nature of the loss differed in different contexts. In Take Shelter, it's the loss of security; in Shame, the loss of emotional connection; in The Ides of March and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it's the loss of a moral compass, of political integrity.

That's not to suggest that loss is necessarily tragic or ultimately sad. Sometimes, it's just the antecedent to gain, an essential component of inevitable change. Consequently, this theme can be spun positively too, and you can see several movies trying to do exactly that. Set in the shadow of 9/11, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close sees a young boy discovering himself by tracking the fallout from his father's death – there, finally, loss is redemptive. In Moneyball (where Brad Pitt plays another dad, albeit in stark contrast to his tyrant in The Tree of Life), loss leads to innovation – baseball's old-school traditionalists give way to the fresh insights of computer-wielding kids. And in The Descendants, which sticks one more eroding family under the microscope, loss paves the road to Hollywood's favourite genre – a tragedy with a happy ending.

Also, Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist and Martin Scorsese's Hugo both return to the dawn of cinema, to a past that is irretrievably gone. However, each film serves as a joyous reminder that the old ways still have contemporary value, that today's movies have much to learn from yesterday's. There, what's lost seems instructive and buoyant. And in the "cancer comedy" 50/50, the possible loss of life itself is fodder for comedy, at first dark and then, again, redemptive.

That said, good comedies were in relatively short supply over the past 12 months. Even Diablo Cody turned a little bitter in Young Adult. The exceptions? Bridesmaids proved that gowned women can be as ribaldly funny as hungover men. In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen's ode to the bygone era of the twenties, some gentle humour could be found. Mainly, though, it was slim pickings in the yuks department, although a couple of terrific sight gags popped up in the almost complete silence of The Artist.

Which brings me to my last point. If laughs were leaden this year, silence was golden. Some of the finest performances were mute, or nearly so. Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo were speechless in Hazanavicius's salute to the pre-talkie era, as was Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud; and Michael Fassbender in Shame spent long sequences sans dialogue. In each case, the absence (loss) of words obliged the performers, and us, to rediscover the sheer communicative power of the human face and, thus, the essence of screen acting – wait for your close-up, act with your eyes.

Yes, many of the year's best moments were quiet. But that doesn't mean it was a quiet year – in every medium, not just film, these are clamorous times, confusing times. Maybe that's why the conceit of Limitless struck such a chord: A magic pill that releases your brain's full potential, making it easy to find sense in the nonsensical, to carve order from chaos, perhaps even to look into a rear-view mirror and see all with dazzling clarity.