‘Beginners,” Mike Mills’s intimate portrait of a man coming to terms with life, death and love, may qualify as the quietest movie of the year. In the film, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) spends most of his time silently watching his world collapse and redefine itself around him as his elderly father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), comes out of the closet, only to die of terminal cancer five years later. ¶ While Hal blissfully makes the most of his final years — embracing Southern California’s gay community, taking a young lover, embarking on ecstatic spending sprees at Staples — Oliver remains pensively on the sidelines, at once bemused and inspired by this father he never knew. Even Hal’s Jack Russell terrier, Arthur, makes nary a sound as he tiptoes through his owner’s well-appointed Los Angeles home. ¶ For all its quietude, however, “Beginners” makes for sensational viewing, not least due to the vertiginous journey it takes through American culture, social history and the life of one family. Just as his father “turned in his gay card” when he married in the 1950s, his mother “turned in her Jewish card,” each of them eager to assimilate into
a dominant culture that was decidedly white, Protestant and heterosexual. In between flashbacks of his confused and lonely youth, Oliver offers brief tutorials on the decades when he and his parents came of age. “This is what 1955 looked like,” McGregor intones×, as familiar, wholesome images of the era flash past.
What Oliver comes to figure out in “Beginners” is just how deeply the external forces that directly shaped his parents’ lives indirectly informed his own. And it’s that legacy — of shame, denial, self-censorship — that he tries to overcome when he embarks on a new relationship. Throughout the film, Mills, who took much of “Beginners” from his life and that of his late father, keeps up a running dialogue between past and present, interspersing scenes of Oliver’s life with his father, and later Anna, with montages composed of bold, graphic images. (The style will be familiar to fans of the music videos and graphics Mills has created for Air and other bands.)
The result is a movie that, while succeeding brilliantly as a simple and affecting love story, also creates a visual language for understanding the past that, as Faulkner reminded us, is never really past. Sometimes, the visual grammar of “Beginners” is literal, like those explanatory montages. Occasionally, it’s more allusive, such as when Mills shows an image of falling coins when Oliver receives the news of Hal’s terminal diagnosis.
And at times, Mills’s style is downright whimsical: The film’s most charming leitmotif is the telepathic terrier, Arthur, who acts as goad and romantic coach when Oliver meets an attractive actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent). Adroitly woven together by Mills, the collages, still photographs, subtitles and flashbacks work together to make a persuasively lucid argument that, as the filmmaker explained during a recent visit to Washington, “not only is the personal the political, but the emotional is historical.”
Perhaps without even trying, Mills has succeeded in making the best film of a cosmically inclined batch of movies to hit screens this year, each more mind-blowing and time-bending than the last. Only nanoseconds ago, it seems, we were being led down synapse-scrambling wormholes in “Unknown,” “The Adjustment Bureau,” “Limitless” and “Source Code.” In addition to exemplifying straight-ahead studio fare at its smartest and most stylish, those movies (starring Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Bradley Cooper and Jake Gyllenhaal, respectively) all featured protagonists who were on surreal psychic journeys, sometimes staggering down strange memory lanes, sometimes vaulting into bizarre futures.
Along the way, they invited audiences into provocative debates about fate, free will and the very nature of objective reality. (Or, as Oliver mordantly puts it in “Beginners,” “My personality was created by someone else, and all I got was this stupid T-shirt.”)
Granted, time travel counts as one of Hollywood’s most cherished tropes. But those speculative thrillers turned out to be simply the mainstream version of a similar onslaught at art houses. In the stunning documentary “Nostalgia for the Light,” one of the best movies of this year, director Patricio Guzman took viewers to Chile’s Atacama Desert, where astronomers search the pristine night sky for distant traces of the universe’s first moments, while archaeologists plumb the desert’s depths for clues to the planet’s human past, including the remains of the scores of “disappeared” political prisoners from the time of Chile’s repressive Pinochet regime.
In “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” German visionary Werner Herzog led audiences on an almost psychedelic 3-D tour of southern France’s Chauvet Cave, where for the first time in history we could see cave drawings from more than 30,000 years ago. These gestural, startlingly expressive portraits of running horses and lions would have been instantly recognizable to Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein and the fellow moderns who drank and smoked and talked, talked, talked through Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” a playfully profound meditation on the incurable human longing for false Golden Ages.
Allen’s fizzy foray into time travel opened this year's Cannes Film Festival. But “Midnight in Paris” turned out to be merely a prescient amuse-bouche for the festival’s main attraction (and eventual Palme d’Or winner), the hotly anticipated “The Tree of Life.” Terrence Malick’s epic — which entailed a closely observed story of a family in the 1950s, the big bang, one man’s spiritual crisis and just about everything else under the Texas sun — seemed almost to be in a dialogue with the films that had arrived before it: Like Guzman with “Nostalgia for the Light,” Malick reportedly filmed at the Atacama in his quest for metaphysical answers. It’s tempting to imagine the computer-generated dinosaurs that showed up briefly in “The Tree of Life” stomping close by the Chauvet Cave where woolly mammoths would roam 60 million years later.
As gratifyingly ambitious, thoughtful and meaningful as these films were, though, “Beginners” is the one that braids past and present together most easily — and not just because it features a talking dog. It’s a measure of Mills’s assurance as a storyteller that even that potentially disastrous conceit dovetails seamlessly with the film’s bespoke, handcrafted style, where every visual detail feels carefully curated and deeply personal. Reportedly, Mills stocked the Richard Neutra home that plays Hal’s house with his own parents’ textiles and folk-art pieces; the striped sweater McGregor wears throughout “Beginners” belongs to Mills.
The result is a film that, even when it’s addressing the broad historical forces that shaped Hal and Oliver’s lives, always feels organic, authentic and deeply personal. “Beginners” may not strive for the same philosophical weightiness of, say, “The Tree of Life,” but Mills has made the more sophisticated film, largely because he exerts more disciplined focus and control over his material. With no 3-D computer-animated dinosaurs or elaborately staged time travel to speak of, the modest, elegant, ruminative “Beginners” turns out to be the trippiest movie of very trippy season. For a truly mind-blowing journey, Mills reminds us, there’s no place like home.
(104 minutes, at Landmark’s Bethesda Row) is rated R for profanity and some sexual content.