Ranked: Terrence Malick Films From Worst to Best

With The Tree of Life recently released on DVD, we decided to reassess Terrence Malick's films. All five of them.

by Chason Gordon

In movies and life, Terrence Malick likes to take his time. The near twenty-year gap between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line left many fans starved for the lyrical poetry he'd made his trademark. The Tree of Life, just out on DVD, is Malick's fifth film in just under forty years. But it's also his second in six years, so we may be lucky enough to have more Malick sooner this time. In the meantime, we're ranking his small but potent output from worst to best.

5. The New World (2006)

Every Malick film walks a fine line between cinematic meditation and telling an actual story, but The New World does this with the least success. This retelling of the Pocahontas legend certainly beats the politically correct Disney version, but the narrative wanders one too many times, and though the visuals are obviously sumptuous, the lack of strong characters, and the often clunky narration, distract from the story. Will Pocahontas choose the dashing but unreliable Colin Farrell, or the well-dressed and boring Christian Bale? It's a little hard to care.

4. Days of Heaven (1978)

I know I'm going to catch some flack for this placement, but let me be clear: this is absolutely one of the most beautiful films ever made. If you played it on a loop at an art gallery, I wouldn't question your curatorial judgment one bit. But in story terms, the love triangle between Richard Gere, Sam Shepard, and Brooke Adams is simply not as absorbing as it needs to be. The characters are always kept at a distance, and there's no real investment in what happens to them. Even people who love this movie acknowledge this core flaw. Yes, the film's beautiful, but can it carry a conversation? No.

3. The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life has all the pros and cons of a typical Malick film: an unfocused narrative, characters that could use a little more definition, and stunning cinematography that makes you forget the previous grievances. But The Tree of Life rates higher than The New World and Days of Heaven for a couple of reasons. Not only are the child-parent dynamics incredibly raw and emotional here, but the film is also staggeringly ambitious — Malick attempts to present the fullness of time and space as it relates to one single life. (Did you get all that?) I'm biased towards directors who swing for the fences. Malick doesn't just swing for the fences here, he swings for Jupiter, and it's nothing less than admirable.

2. The Thin Red Line (1998)

The Thin Red Line was released at around the same time as Saving Private Ryan, and I remember being the only one of my friends who thought it was the better film. (I felt so alone!) This is one of the most original war films ever made, meditating on the entire human tragedy while still telling a story that actually has structure and plot points. Sean Penn and Jim Caviezel are solid as two sides of the same rebellion, and the philosophical voiceover, which seems to fill every character as it ponders the machinations of war, is effective. The main flaw could have easily been avoided: there are far too many cameos, so much so that every actor feels like another arrival on the red carpet. But this is one of Malick's finest; even Martin Scorsese called it one of the best films of the '90s.

1. Badlands (1973)

There have been many films about charismatic criminals and their followers — Bonnie and ClydeBoxcar BerthaDillinger — but few are so unsentimental about youth and violence. Kit and Holly have no central plan and make no attempt to rationalize their crimes. Nor does Malick try to explain what motivates them as they drive across the country. All we have is a kid who kills people for no particular reason, and a lonely girl who can't help feeling flattered that he likes her. It's a near-perfect film, and it always makes me want to go on a road trip (without the killing, of course).

Commentarium (30 Comments)

Nov 02 11 - 10:16am
Rutherford B. Hayes

I loved Malick's first two films, but I haven't loved anything since. If you cut a full hour out of Tree of Life, I might have enjoyed it. But since Days of Heaven, I find his movies increasingly indulgent and, despite all the beautiful (repititive) imagery, just plain boring.

Nov 02 11 - 11:16am
B. Horiuchi

Sam SHEPARD (playwright, actor, director, etc)...not Sam Harris in Days of Heaven

Nov 02 11 - 11:24am

Whoops, fixed. Thanks!

Nov 02 11 - 3:37pm

Regardless of what you have to say about his style, you have to admit that Malick is one of the most outstanding directors of all time. The New World is indeed his weakest (or maybe just least engaging) film, but it is still heads and shoulders above almost everything else.

Nov 02 11 - 5:20pm

Yup, Malick FTW!

Nov 02 11 - 3:58pm

My ranking is almost identical, but I flipped 1 and 2 and flipped 4 and 5. You're spot on with your remarks on Days of Heaven and the Tree of Life.

I always see the argument against the Thin Red Line regarding the cameos, but I really don't like that as an argument against it. I don't see it as a distraction and don't see why everyone seems to think it is. Is everyone so star-struck that the brief presence of John Travolta or Woody Harrelson on screen completely distracts you from the film itself? I just never felt that way when I watched it (...the MANY times that I have watched it). TTRL is my favorite Malick film, and definitely in my top 5 of all time.

I also recall being the loner in the group who believed TTRL was far superior to Saving Private Ryan. Different strokes for different folks I guess.

Nov 02 11 - 5:54pm

It was much better than SPL. it was much less "Hollywood" than most if not all war movies.

Nov 02 11 - 5:54pm

*SPR. damn.

Nov 03 11 - 6:35pm

In one of the Criterion essays that accompany The Thin Red Line from their release, a great point is made that it is probably one of the greatest 'anti-war' movies ever made; stressing not anti-war in the opposition to the act of war sense, but rather that it pretty much has nothing to do with Hollywood's typical take on the subject whatsoever.

Nov 02 11 - 6:02pm

I was 14 when Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line came out and saw them both in the theater. Back then, I thought SPR was the better movie, but now that I'm older (and my tastes have changed as they are wont to do), I definitely think The Thin Red Line is a far better film. Thank [whatever deity or cosmic force you may or may not subscribe to] that Criterion put out the blu-ray for it.

Nov 03 11 - 6:36pm

Any time Criterion puts out a Malick movie, my pants tighten. As near perfect as the quality of the Tree of Life blu-ray is, I'd love to see Criterion snatch it up.

Nov 04 11 - 9:38am

I'm holding off on buying the Blu-ray for TToL that's out now on hopes that in a year or two Criterion will do their own release. Criterion releases of new films doesn't happen too often (exceptions for Wes Anderson and Steve McQueen (Hunger, and I'm betting Shame gets the Criterion treatment)), but Criterion seems to be taking on Malick films lately with TTRL and DoH getting the treatment. I've been hoping that Badlands gets it, too.

Nov 04 11 - 6:57pm

I have a feeling that's about the only way I'm going to see Shame. Looks so good. I haven't seen Hunger yet.

Nov 25 11 - 12:25am

just giving my two cents here, Hunger is an absolutely gorgeous film. Visually stunning, a great script and plot, and a powerhouse performance by Fassbender. I also shaw Shame at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it's equally stunning. It's very unlike any movie I've ever seen in it's stark, almost impersonal and faceless depiction of sex and New York City. It also has gorgeous cinematography and another bravura performance by Fassbender. Highly recommended ! (bragging rights: at TIFF, during the Q&A after Shame, I got to ask Steve McQueen a question!)

Nov 02 11 - 7:00pm

Days of Heaven is almost the perfect litmus test for film taste. There's three kinds of people in the world: people who haven't seen it and don't care to, people who saw it and thought it needed more "plot and character," and people who have seen it and loved it. Obviously the last category contains the only people who matter.

I'm only half kidding. And I'm oversimplifying immensely, but seriously people, we're not in the 1700s anymore. Art has evolved past simple plot and character development. We're allowed to expect more now (that was kind of the point of modernism, really). Almost every great movie I care to name violates the classical three-act structure in some important way, and there's a reason why: the three-act structure is lazy, easy, and unchallenging. Malick knows this very well, and if you look past the lack of Capital-A Acting in his films, you'll also find a deeper grasp of character than most directors are even capable of imagining. Days of Heaven is a sly one, but its emotional core is the halting and imperfect narration of Linda. We are literally inside her head the entire time, an approach the novel perfected several decades ago. Cinema has been slower to attempt this, due to the fundamental remove viewership creates. So not only did Malick attempt it, he mastered it. He was pretty damn good at it in Badlands, but we're staring right into Linda's soul in Days of Heaven, and that's the key to appreciating it. Plot and character mean nothing in the face of real human connection; after watching Malick, they just look like empty signifiers. Days of Heaven is the very personal remembrance of a young girl in a distant time, and every frame is soaked in that subjectivity. It's an act of communion, the kind only Malick and a few others (Weerasethakul, Wong Kar-Wai) can achieve in a medium as distancing as cinema. Plot and character are just storybook contrivances the unimaginative cling to. The true pioneers aren't afraid to shoot for something bigger and more meaningful.

If this sounds like a lot of overblown rhapsodizing, that's because it kind of is. I know Malick critics hate seeing the kind of stuff I just wrote. But I'm not the only one who feels that way. Malick has a huge fanbase, which is why something as unabashedly experimental and difficult as The Tree of Life is making millions of dollars. Clearly he's touching a nerve (heh) in a lot of people. And I honestly do feel like not appreciating Days of Heaven means you're missing the point of Malick. I'd be the last to assert that there's any objective way to rank his films (though I don't think I'd get much argument in saying there's no way Badlands is his best), but Days of Heaven is pure, distilled Malick. It's the bridge between the two halves of his career, and late-Malick fans and early-Malick fans alike both tend to hold it as a high water mark. And that's because Malick is doing something so rare and so dizzyingly ambitious in it that it's almost hard to appreciate just how unique his achievement is. I consider it one of the greatest American movies ever made, and I think it towers over the rest of his filmography (and that's saying something, because his filmography is damn near flawless). I hope this comment has helped a little in understanding it, because it's a filmic treasure, and I'd hate to see anyone miss out on the experience of it.

Nov 02 11 - 7:50pm
Max LeCompte

I sure disagree with this list. I'd rate Tree of Life as Malick's best and his worst.

BTW, 'Days of Heaven' is one of the most moving films I've ever experienced.
If it were the only movie Malick had ever made, he'd still be remembered in film lore.

I'd rate TRL dead last. DOH 2nd and Badlands 3rd.

Nov 02 11 - 9:52pm

Thin Red Line, last? Son, you are on crack (gimme some though, I'm cool).

Nov 02 11 - 7:57pm

The difference between this list and all other "______ Films from Worst to Best" is that all five of Malick's works are fucking incredible and you really can't go wrong. I think a lot of the criticisms in the post really don't matter, mostly Film School 101 shit. Malick defies conventional criticism; the guy is just on another level.

I highly recommend Museum of the Moving Image's series on Malick and his films. They sure do them justice.

And The Thin Red Line is better than all war movies. You can take that shit to the bank.

Nov 02 11 - 10:07pm

I think Tree of Life has the best character definition in all of his films, actually. Never have we gotten closer to the characters in his films than in Tree of Life. And this time, he did it in a much subtler way than in TTRL, which really thrilled me as a Malick fan.

Nov 02 11 - 11:38pm

Spots 2-5 are all interchangable for me, but Badlands is one of the best movies ever made by anyone.

Nov 25 11 - 12:30am

I can't even begin to explain how much I agree with this statement. I love all of his films, but there is something about Badlands, this ineffeable, undescribable lyrical quality that makes literally so perfect down to every last frame that I consider nothing short of magic.

Nov 02 11 - 11:46pm

1. Days of Heaven (Linda Manz puts it over the top)
2. Tree of Life (The best film of all time is somewhere in that movie - If you can find it)
3. Thin Red Line a)It's not the character's fault you watched Cheers. B) Caviezel is great. Free Jim! Occupy the Blacklist! C) Sorry, but I can't watch Penn in a war movie without being haunted by his grotesque Duvall/Deniro hybrid ham-fest that is Casualties of War. D) Nolte ruled.
4. Badlands (a great movie but it's reputation was cemented too early. It's now living off the hype.)
5. The New World (Great movie. Take out a half hour in the middle and it's....still number five.)

Nov 03 11 - 11:48am

Days of Heaven is the most beautiful movie ever made. Every frame is an artistic masterpiece. It's the only movie, Godfathers included, that actually made me gasp at the color, construction and sheer beauty of several shots. That alone puts it at number one.

Nov 04 11 - 3:14pm

Yep. And this'll sound pathetic, but I almost cried at one shot in The New World. It was in the first third or so, and it involved a swamp. I don't remember much else since it's been a few years, but I saw it and honestly just teared up at the beauty of it. No lie. Guess that makes me a total artfag.

Nov 25 11 - 12:32am

I feel the same way. I think each of his films has at least a few shots that are so indescribably beautiful that they bring tears to my eyes.

Jul 29 12 - 8:40pm
Samuel Gompers

I love Malick's films, but that is truly pathetic. At the least the former could acknowledge his going weak at the knees for Terrence's cock

Nov 17 11 - 5:52am

I agree Badlands is the best, but I had a strong emotional attachment to The New World. That's hard to reconcile. I think it did amazing things with characterisation through the act of play and people's connection with nature. It wasn't typical film school narrative discourse in characterisation, which I think was this author's criticism of it, but gave beautiful evocative images and sounds of people in their most pure form. They danced, they played, and they understood and connected with each other in ways that were free of the imprisoning power of words and ideas and the rest of the world. I wish I had the writing skills to give this subject justice, but I can't even organise my thoughts on it properly.

I also pretty much agree with the comments that all 5 movies are masterpieces.

Nov 19 11 - 3:54pm

Saving Private Ryan is the most overrated film of the last 50 years. A plot stolen from a bad spaghetti western with the worst, sappiest, jingo-istic conclusion ever. I honestly don't know how anyone can watch that ridiculous final shot of Old Glory flapping in the breeze and not wince.

And I'm not some anti-war hippie. Its just too over-the-top to take seriously.

Nov 25 11 - 12:39am

I completely agree. It's so sappy cheesy and over the top (what spielberg isn't?) that I honestly couldn't even watch the whole thing. It's one of the few films I've had to turn off because it was so bad. And 3 hours long? Get the fuck out of here. And it won a bunch of oscars? never cared about the academy in the first place. I'll admit the opening battle scene is rather impressive, but 25 minutes of slightly above average fight footage doesn't make up for 2 and a half hours of (like you said) jingoistic, sappy garbage.

Another gripe about this film and Spielberg in general (I seriously think he's one of the worst directors of all time, I'm not over-exaggerating, how any one finds this tripe amusing or even relatively close to good art is beyond me) is how much he fucking force-feeds his audience. Something I've always never understood is his need to SCREAM THE MAJOR THEME AT THE TOP OF HIS FUCKING LUNGS every five minutes. a little subtlety goes a long way, which is why I love Malick, you have to think about what he's saying for a while before it all makes sense, I believe. The only worthwhile thing Spielberg ever did was inspire the great part-rebel-part-poet-part-adventurer-part-filmmaker Werner Herzog (but I can't tell if it's Herzog fucking around or not, because although he consistently lists Spielberg as one of his favorite directors,Herzog's films are literally the polar opposite of Spielberg's )

Apr 06 12 - 12:31am

Personally I find his last three films to be more ambitious and superior to his 70's work. Badlands is a rather standard movie... with Days Of Heaven Malick starts to really develop his unique style. Once he threw out the rule book things really got interesting.

1. The Tree Of Life
2. The Thin Red Line
3. The New World
4. Days Of Heaven
5. Badlands