2011 was an incredible year for cinema. In particular, it was a triumphant year for independent films: minimalist, thoughtful substance over parched and trite Hollywood (read: J. Edgar). British independent cinema led the way in this respect, and the The British Independent Film Awards and I were mostly synonymous in our praise of the year’s finest examples of cinematic craftsmanship, including Shame, Tyrannosaur,  and Weekend.

Moreover, two significant themes became apparent to me in observing the many films that I did. These emergent themes not only allow for interesting comparisons between films, but also for speculation on how these themes may reflect a shift in cinematic consciousness, and the intentions of the filmmaker to explore this burgeoning sense of crafting an alternate world in every frame.

A well-crafted story ought to be told in precisely the number of words it requires – no more, and no less. As such, minimalist dialogue in some of the year’s finest films spoke in infinite volumes about what we expect from a narrative. Gestures took the place of one-liners, and glances said more than pretentious conversation. 2011 was the year of restraint and introversion, as characters wrestled with internal demons and persistent ghosts. These films were structured not strictly around a plot, but around how events and instances provide insight into a character’s mental state without explicit elucidation. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, carefully framed camera angles and muted tones lend a particular sense of introversion each character, shrouded as they are in the necessity of obscurity. Both empty spaces and crowded bars are equally powerful in revealing Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender) crippling detachment from those around him in Shame. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth Olsen’s character speaks very little about her previous life, instead allowing the audience to infer her splintered psyche from harrowing flashbacks and ruminative landscapes. Even in “science fiction” cinema, Another Earth is an exploration of devastating melancholy and the fractures of the human heart, felt but not seen.

2011 cinema was also exceptionally bolder than it has appeared to be in recent years, treading the equivocal paths of gender and identity. What does it mean to be male or female? Moreover, how are our notions of masculinity and femininity molded and eroded by the world in which we live? The astonishing La piel que habito explored this notion with dada-esque rapture, questioning the boundaries of one’s identity and psychological fluidity. Tomboy did so through the eyes of a child, as the main character exerts extraordinary agency and self-defined identity, and is subsequently exposed to the rigid realities of heteronormativity. Similarly, the title character of Albert Knobbs is a queer melange of multiple aspects of sexuality in all forms, in a fascinating, almost literary, exploration of self- and other-constructed gender/personal identity. These films fairly and non-judgmentally compel the audience to deal with questions about the duality of gender and sexuality; as well as the intrinsic construction of identity, and the external forces which can hinder it.

The emergence of these particular themes is heartening for a few reasons. Firstly, advances in cinema need not only be necessitated by technology in a pyrotechnic sense for the sake of bombastic noises. The finest films of the year were refreshingly subdued, but pulsing with an incredible sense of heart and compulsion towards creating compelling characters in ambivalent situations – not a gunshot in sight. Secondly, it allows us to wonder whether these themes are reflective of similar ruminations in society, regarding these very questions of isolation and identity. They are the very opposite of escapism, rather forcing us to confront uncomfortable situations and very real heartaches. Finally, these filmmakers seem to be treating the audience as though they are human beings, rather than superficial masochistic automatons that dish out several quid only to have their ears blown off by the noise of surround-sound explosions. In other words, quick and dirty gratification is abandoned in favour of contemplative cinema, one that draws the audience in to a world with which they may have little experience (or perhaps a great deal), and compels them to be utterly enraptured with it. Without feeling the need to spell out every single plot point, it allows the audience to appreciate subtle details and read facial expressions, resulting in a lovingly non-patronising year of cinema.

Despite repetitive sequels, irksome CGI, and the ghastly trend of 3-D, perhaps we can yet hold out hope for challenging cinema that makes demands of the audience, both intellectually and emotionally, and still proves to be the most rewarding in the end. Can 2012 live up to last year’s expectations? With films such as Loach’s The Angel’s Share, Haneke’s Love, and Winterbottom’s Seven Days, we can still hold out hope.

As long as we don’t see George Smiley pop off to a futuristic Las Vegas in the year 3025 to ward off the evil Klugons with scimitars built into his fingers, with his gang of ne’er-do-wells with quick one-liners, which includes Samuel L. Jackson. In 3-D.