Terrence Malick has only released six films over forty years, and while he has three more movies in post-production, he’s not going to premiere them until he’s good and ready. Few directors rival Malick in maddening non-prolificacy, and in a generation of filmmakers who have become personalities as well as artists (Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Woody Allen, David Lynch), Malick remains one of the few truly mysterious men behind the camera and in the editing room (did you act for Malick? No guarantee you’ll be in the film, even if you’re the protagonist in the script). But that’s much of what makes him fascinating. However much the results may frustrate certain actors, it’s hard to argue too much with the results. The task of ranking Malick’s films is a difficult one – by this writer’s estimation, he hasn’t made a not-great film yet, and numbers 2-5 could be re-ordered on a different day – but in honor of the great director’s 71st birthday, here are his works from worst to best.
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The closest thing to a critical failure in Malick’s career, “To the Wonder” likely suffered somewhat from comparison to the previous triumph of “The Tree of Life.” To be fair, it does sometimes flirt with self-parody. Malick pushes the impressionistic rhythms of his previous films to their logical extreme, abstracting conflicts, characters and relationships to turn them all into figures, and some of the sidetracks, like Ben Affleck’s tryst with an old flame (Rachel McAdams, who looks deeply uncomfortable) or Olga Kurylenko meeting an old friend, feature the clunkiest writing of Malick’s career. But “To the Wonder’s” abstraction is liberating more often than it is frustrating, and the film works as a darker companion piece to “The Tree of Life.” Where the earlier film suggested surrendering to the mysteries of life and God, “To the Wonder” is more tentative about this acceptance, more frustrated in the apparent one-sidedness of relationships. It’s about the joy of fleeting pleasures, and how more lasting ones (love, God, happiness) may be outside our grasp.
5. “The New World” (2005)
“The New World” is perhaps the most notorious case of Malick’s indecision, with the director releasing first a 150-minute cut for critics and awards qualification, then a 135-minute version for wide release, and finally a 172-minute version for DVD. The first version is difficult to find, while the other two both have their virtues and flaws, but the film is remarkable in any form. It’s perhaps the most literal version of an Edenic kingdom and a fall from grace in his filmography, with the new world representing a land of untarnished beauty and “civilization” representing the fall. But while Malick’s sympathies are with the natives and Pocahontas (Q’uorianka Kilcher in a mesmerizing performance), he doesn’t demonize the settlers or John Smith (Colin Farrell), seeing them as (mostly) decent men who make ultimately devastating choices. The film also begins Malick’s fertile collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, resulting here in some of the most purely lyrical imagery of Malick’s career.
4. “Days of Heaven” (1978)
The first film that suggested that perhaps Malick wasn’t going to be the most prolific director, “Days of Heaven” spent two years in the editing room, with the director finally finding an organizing principle by using Linda Manz’s voiceover as a commentary on Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard’s love triangle. “Days of Heaven” rivals “To the Wonder” as the director’s most elemental film, one that makes greater use of imagery than dialogue in most of the action, allowing most of the interpretation and nuance of the story to come from a child trying to comprehend what she’s seeing. But it’s a far more focused film, one that doesn’t obscure its emotion so much as it condenses and concentrates it into a deeply felt story of decent people making poor decisions and bringing (often literally Biblical) ruin down upon themselves. And while Malick has made great use of classical and other composers, Ennio Morricone’s evocative score makes one wish the two had worked together just once more.
3. “The Thin Red Line” (1998)
It took twenty years for Malick to follow up “Days of Heaven,” and by the time he was ready nearly every movie star wanted at least to meet with him. The list
of actors cut from the film is legendary, with Mickey Rourke, Gary Oldman and more cut from the film and Adrien Brody’s part, originally the protagonist, reduced to five minutes and two lines. It’s hard to blame some of them for being upset, Brody especially, but the final film is beautiful and purposeful in which characters it focuses on – Jim Caviezel’s faithful private vs. Sean Penn’s cynical sergeant, Nick Nolte’s career-minded colonel vs. Elia Koteas’ compassionate captain. It’s one of the most humane war films ever made, one that sees war and violence as a violation of both man and nature. It’s also the first film that made use of Malick’s more overtly philosophical use of voiceover, the first time its protagonists actively searched for God and purpose in their musings.
Still one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time, “Badlands” is also the most immediately accessible of Malick’s films, with a strong, clear narrative and two excellent lead performances to balance the director’s mythic framing. Both Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are marvelously unaffected as a casual, soft-spoken sociopath and his impassive, naive girlfriend. But it’s Spacek’s voiceover, less terrified about the horrors Sheen is capable of than resigned to them, that drives home the conflict between innocence and violence (either physical or emotional) that would define Malick’s filmography. What’s most stunning about the film, however, is how Malick renders the violence as banal and flat against an expressive, gorgeous natural environment, suggesting that there’s no beauty, nothing attractive in its cruelty.
1. “The Tree of Life” (2011)
Terrence Malick has spent the past several decades working on “The Tree of Life” in some form or another, whether in his origin-of-life project “Q” that he worked on in the 80s or in his upcoming companion piece “Voyage of Time.” But “The Tree of Life” feels like his magnum opus, the work that he’s been building towards his whole life. Ranging from the pure impressionism of the creation of earth to beautifully-observed coming-of-age story, “The Tree of Life” ponders the whys of nature, of God, and of man and suggesting that the lack of an easy answer might not be so frightening. The film’s spectacular central conflict between Hunter McCracken’s moody child and his loving but authoritarian father (Brad Pitt in the best performance of his career) is simultaneously broadly drawn and utterly specific. Its narration is an extended prayer, a painful cry for an answer that may not be given, but one that asserts that there might be something there to comfort. It’s Malick’s most purely spiritual film, oddly unpretentious in its “pretentiousness,” one long expression of faith and hope even in an imperfect world.
Odds and Ends: Malick also directed a short film in 1969 called “Lanton Mills,” but the film has never seen commercial release. The director also worked as an uncredited writer on a number of films in the 70s, including “Dirty Harry” and “Drive, He Said.” He’s also written unproduced screenplays like “The English Speaker” and a Jerry Lee Lewis biopic, and was the original director of “Che” before pulling out to make “The New World,” leaving producer Steven Soderbergh to take over directing duties. Finally, he’s produced a handful of films that bear his obvious influence, most notably David Gordon Green’s “Undertow” and A.J. Edwards’ “The Better Angels.”
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