Small films that pack a big punch

This year has been an exceptional one for smaller films gaining both critical and commercial success. From Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” to the summer blockbuster “Super 8,” modest financial efforts have paid off big time for studios looking to bring quality filmmaking back into the mainstream.

Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and actor Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut, “Submarine,” seem to be next in line for sleeper success – with “The Tree of Life” already receiving quite a bit of Oscar buzz for its performances and cinematography.

Scene & Heard has watched both of these films that are slowly being released across the country, deciding which are worth your attention.

“The Tree of Life” (2011)

Director Terrence Malick, the man behind such films as “Days of Heaven” and “Badlands,” certainly isn’t a name that many aside from film aficionados would recognize. Yet, a name like Brad Pitt on a marquee may be enough to attract many filmgoers who’ve never even heard of Malick’s previous work.

It’s a testament to the combined star power of lead actors Brad Pitt and Sean Penn that “The Tree of Life” sits just outside the top 10 in the U.S. box office. It opened at the Tampa Theatre on Friday, and has made its way to several American theaters since its May 27 release.

“The Tree of Life” isn’t an easy film to watch, but it isn’t without its rewards. At times tedious and slow-moving, Malick gives his two leads plenty of great moments within this film that ruminates upon the existence of God, family values and our own morality.

While the beginning and end of the film feature extended montages of beautiful nature imagery, it can tend to be more like an episode of “Planet Earth” than a transcendent experience from a master of cinema.

It’s the moments between these two bookends that really make “The Tree of Life” worth watching. Featuring a stirring performance by newcomer Hunter McCracken, the middle of the film is where Malick makes “The Tree of Life” the engaging experience many critics have hailed.

McCracken plays the younger version of Sean Penn’s character, Jack, whose adolescent experiences help form the basis of his life and success. Along the way, the audience sees many of the events that have shaped Jack, most involving his tyrannical father (Pitt).

While the film’s end is left open to interpretation, like much of “The Tree of Life,” it will leave many of its audience feeling cold. This certainly isn’t a film that provides filmgoers with answers, but rather leaves them to draw their own conclusions.

“The Tree of Life” is a tough film to love and an even harder one to recommend. It’ll be interesting to see how audiences react as the film heads toward a wider release, but one thing’s for sure – this is a piece of cinema that is worth having an opinion about.

“Submarine” (2010)

“Submarine” director Richard Ayoade is best known for his work on cult television shows like “The Mighty Boosh” and “The IT Crowd,” and while his career playing nerdy introverts has brought him much success, “Submarine” suggests that directing is where his true talent lies.

Ayoade has assembled an impressive cast of established British talent like Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor and Paddy Considine, as well as attention-grabbing young screen presence in actors Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige. Including original songs by Arctic Monkeys’ singer Alex Turner, all of the aesthetics seem perfectly in place, but “Submarine” is more than looks and a pretty soundtrack.

The film follows lead character Oliver Tate, who, much like many of the characters Ayoade plays, is both shy and removed from any sort of social life. Oliver spends his time worrying about his parents’ mating habits and fantasizing about how others will eulogize him rather than having any real friends.

When Oliver meets a young girl named Jordana, the two began a relationship that mostly involves anarchic behavior like setting off firecrackers in landfills and little time actually getting to know one another. When it turns out that Jordana’s mother may be dying of cancer, the fun and games are put aside and Oliver must face a reality he’s avoided for so long.

“Submarine” has drawn many comparisons to the work of “Rushmore” director Wes Anderson, and while Ayoade and Anderson may share similar influences, the comparison couldn’t be further from the truth.

What keeps the film from treading the well-worn path of so many independent films before it is Ayoade’s sense of deadpan humor. Based on the book by Joe Dunthorne, “Submarine” is steeped in serious moments that have a constant undercurrent of humor.

When Oliver discovers his mother may be cheating on his father with an egomaniacal motivational speaker, he breaks into his house and urinates on many of the man’s belongings.

Rather than play this moment for raunchy humor, Ayoade finds a way to highlight its disparity while still squeezing out a little laugh.

“Submarine” is full of those little moments of heartbreak and despair that are undercut by a grin, and in the vein of coming-of-age films like “Harold and Maude,” the film stands as one of the best of its kind in quite some time.

“Submarine” may be a tough sell to American audiences and will probably do better when it’s released on DVD, but this won’t be the last time we see Ayoade behind the camera – perhaps next time, he’ll be even better.