We've seen the emergence of a commercial art-house in the U.S. It has a pretty recognizable product, means of distribution, as well as a clearly-defined audience. It is financed by specialty wings of major studios, which actually aim to make some money, though I gather they would be just as happy winning their parent studios some Oscars each year.
All of this year's 'cool' movies were major minors: Eternal Sunshine, Before Sunset, Being Julia, Vanity Fair, Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, Sideways, and Motorcycle Diaries, to name just a few. In the year that I've lived in New Haven (soon coming to an end, I think), those are the pretty much the kinds of movies I've been shelling out to see -- usually at one of the art-house theaters downtown. New Haven now has two competing art house theaters -- York Square and the pompously named Criterion -- that, for some reason, seem to play basically the exact same films.
A.O Scott compares the situation to the music industry. But, while that does work to an extent (most "indie rock" that you've actually heard of has backing from major labels), it seems to me it's actually a little more insidious here with the movies. That's because, outside of New York and maybe 10 other big cities, it's impossible to even see any films that aren't Fox Searchlight, Miramax, Focus, Warner Independent, etc. A serious music listener might have tastes consisting entirely of obscure musical styles and performers. A reader has infinite possibilites as well. But 'serious' movie-goers in most places are stuck choosing between Sideways and crap like Garden State for their favorite movie of the year. Taste is defined along a much narrower range than it is with the other media I mentioned. Consequently, one's own particular regime of taste is somewhat less than truly meaningful. I am sorry to say, my taste in films has gone from Eric Rohmer when I was in graduate school (good video store) to Charlie Kaufmann and Richard Linklater (the good video store is now too far away!).
The only solution for the serious movie fan in a non-major metro is to find a really good, foreign and independent-friendly video store, if there is one nearby. But even that's a bit of a sacrifice.
We're soon moving to suburban north New Jersey (for awhile), so perhaps this quandary will be a thing of the past.