With The Tree of Life recently released on DVD, we decided to reassess Terrence Malick's films. All five of them.
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 Clyde, Boxcar Bertha, Dillinger — 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).