Two recent films strike me as especially important in the current cinematic landscape. The first is Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which, after its release in May, quickly became one of the most talked about and contentious movies in years. After a particularly controversial Palme d’Or win at Cannes — the most prestigious prize at arguably the most prestigious film festival in the world — the film went on to create a gaping rift in critical and public opinion, abhorrence or awe seemingly the only responses to this either pretentious or ground-breaking film.

The other is Miranda July’s “The Future,” which, though a much lower-profile film, is equally meaningful. The film has not garnered acclaim or hatred on the scale of “The Tree of Life,” but it too has provoked strong and disparate critical reactions.

The two films, on the surface, appear different to the point of being antithetical: “The Future” is an indie dramedy about a young, hip couple adrift in Los Angeles. “The Tree of Life” is a sweeping, dead-serious drama about a family in rural Texas in the 1950s. But beneath these broad narrative strokes, the films are strikingly similar. Each colors its benign, even banal, premise with supernatural elements to explore profound questions about human nature and the meaning of life.

This brings us to the most significant similarity between these two films, and what makes them important: They are ambitious. These are not just films that tell a compelling story about their characters, though they each do that. They are films of broad scope that, like all great art, have something to say about life, something important to tell the audience. And whether you think they succeed or not (I happen to think they both do), it is the attempt that defines ambition.

And it seems ambitious films are sorely needed in the current movie climate, in which the trend is moving rapidly and lamentably away from ambition. Franchises abound in Hollywood, with the Avengers series (“Thor,” “Captain America,” “Iron Man”), “Pirates of the Caribbean” (the series’s fifth film is set to be released in 2013) and many others. Now couple that with the recent rash of remakes — “Conan the Barbarian,” “Fright Night” and “Straw Dogs” to name a few — not to mention Disney’s shameless money-grubbing in the form of the re-release of “The Lion King” in 3-D.

In other words, the movie industry lacks even the ambition to come up with an original idea. Instead, studios rehash the same already-tired material over and over again, or dredge the annals of film history in search of a not-quite-forgotten idea to be resold to the next generation.

In the face of such barefaced avarice, films like “The Future” and “The Tree of Life” should, it seems, be heralded as the saviors of cinema. Instead, though the critical response to both films was generally positive, audiences and critics alike seemed to be threatened by these films. Even critics who liked the films were sometimes put off by the bizarreness of “The Future” and the supposed pretentiousness of “The Tree of Life.”

But the films are not overly bizarre, nor pretentious; they are ambitious. Sure, “The Future” is bizarre — in it, the moon talks, a T-shirt comes to life and time stops — but July uses these strange elements to express ideas about life and the human condition, big ideas that could not adequately be expressed in conventional ways. And sure, “The Tree of Life” seems pretentious — it depicts the formation of the universe — but why should a film not have lofty aspirations?

Some detractors also complained that the deliberate pace of “The Tree of Life” was alienating. But the film is slow because Malick had the courage to compose frames that stand alone, that each tell their own story, and to linger on these images is necessary. And the reason the film is nearly plotless and is told in voice-over is because the story is lyrical, rather than linear — the viewer’s reactions, rather than the action on screen, is what forms the narrative. Malick is pushing the boundaries of the medium, attempting to expand the capabilities of cinema.

Certainly these films are confusing and can be intimidating for viewers, but they should not be disregarded as pretentious or too strange because they aspire to do more than entertain. They should be lauded.

This is not to say that films should not be entertaining. Of course films should entertain, and if they fail to do so they are unsuccessful in a way. But regardless of a film’s ability to entertain, if it aims to do nothing other than divert its audience for 90 minutes, then its existence is superfluous. But if a film aspires to be considered art, if it is challenging enough to provoke thought and debate, it has succeeded as more than just a diversion. “The Tree of Life” and “The Future” are two films that do this, and other filmmakers should be ambitious enough to follow suit.

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