So it’s officially been 17,000 years since I posted my Stanley Kubrick ranking and now I’m finally getting around to the next director’s filmography to tackle in this series. The incomparable cinematic titan, king of hats and taking decades-long breaks from his job, Mr. Terrence Malick.
If you’re not a Malick fan, you’ll probably spend the entire duration of this post shaking your head and branding me ‘pretentious’ and ‘a Malick fanboy’ and while you might not necessarily be incorrect, remember that everyone has an opinion and this is mine.
So at the end of my 9 film watch (I skipped The Tree of Life and A Hidden Life because I’d seen those fairly recently and are still quite fresh in my mind) I completed the daunting task of ranking these heavyweights against each other and compiling my personal ranking. It’s a good job I’m not ranking these on their cinematography because that’s another task in itself, and one that I’m nowhere near ready to even begin thinking about wanting to discuss.
After much neglect, here is my 9-film ranking of Terrence Malick’s feature films.
9. Knight of Cups (2015) (or 2016 depending on who you ask)
So I’d like to preface this explanation by saying that I still really like this film, and it was hard to put it at the bottom. Knight of Cups is an exploration of finding one’s purpose in life through their past and the people they’ve known and loved. Christian Bale works well here as a passive protagonist, letting people come back into his life and shape him. Malick’s fixation on finding the beauty in mundanity will come up a lot in this post, but I don’t think it works better than it does here, intertwined with the episodic structure to add further meaning to the little things, and what’s best to focus on. There’s some great stuff from the ensemble including Cate Blanchett and the ever-overlooked Imogen Poots, as well as Wes Bentley’s section which is quite interesting. Not Malick at his best in terms of story and script, but still engaging to look at with a progression that serves his runtime nicely. I completely understand why this divided critics and audiences alike, though. It’s quite meandering and slow, but it’s not without its payoffs come the ending. Still, something had to be last.
8. To The Wonder (2012)
Ugh, this movie is so stunning. Trying to find a screencap to post here was a beautiful yet arduous task because I wanted to post the entire movie. And I easily could have. To The Wonder is gorgeously shot, as are all of Malick’s films, though it misses something vital when combining the story and the script. The words are lovely as they always are, but I can’t help but feel like Malick could have grounded himself with this one, telling a beautiful story about acclimating to a new place and how much you would personally sacrifice for the love of your life. The performances are intriguing, particularly Olga Kurylenko who carries most of the weight of this movie. Rachel McAdams needed more screen time to do what she was doing, she’s always a wonder to watch. Ben Affleck is doing good work, but I can’t help but feel like he’s also Bale in Knight of Cups, just sort of a vessel for the story. Perhaps more so than the rest of his films, Malick really takes time to explore the human body and connections between two people, every shot of a finger being slowly dragged down someone’s back or when Neil and Marina just hold each other, taking the time to really feel. It’s beautiful work, it just could have maybe used some more narrative weight to really drive the points home.
7. The New World (2005)
I know, even Malick fans are probably disagreeing with this themselves as many consider this to be one of his best. Like the others, I still adore this movie, which goes to show how much I love the 6 that are ranked higher than this. The story of the English settlers and the Native Americans in the 17th century isn’t unfamiliar to audiences, but the way Malick crafts it is what makes it immortalised. He weaves his way through an encapsulating beginning, through a slightly unfocused middle section, and brings it home with a fantastic ending that both confounds and satisfies narratively. Malick really emphasises the idea of just “being” in this one, shooting a lot of content that is just the actors being in character, and behaving as the character would. A lot of points go to Q’orianka Kilcher for what she does in this film, also her film debut, as Pocahontas. The extended cut, while perhaps the reason for the strange pacing in the middle act, provides untold depth into the story and doesn’t drag for as long as normal three-hour movies may do. Even when there’s perhaps not much happening narratively, there’s thematic depth to be found in every shot and there is always a reason to be watching, to be absorbing what Malick is putting out.
6. Badlands (1973)
Ah, Badlands. One of the best feature debuts ever put to screen by a director, and also easily Malick’s most grounded film. Badlands focuses on the relationship between Kit and Holly, who find themselves running from the law after a series of killings. Inspired by a real-life killing spree in the 50’s, Badlands is perhaps the most story-based of Malick’s movies. The narrative is always moving, characters always developing, but he doesn’t sacrifice any of the gorgeous imagery that he would come to be renowned for. He uses the beauty of nature and the Dakota badlands to contrast with the pure violence of the human spirit. It’s crazy how good this is considering quite a simple story and short run-time, but Sheen and Spacek are good enough here to anchor it. If I was quibbling, I do wish there was a little more build up to the central relationship before the killings, as it would just have helped to understand a little more why Holly would just roll with the way Kit treats her and the way he acts. Nevertheless, Badlands is thrilling, engrossing, and a surprising amount of fun along the way.
5. A Hidden Life (2019)
Supposedly the movie that brought Malick “back to form” after some critical misses earlier in the decade, A Hidden Life could be considered the antithesis to Malick’s earlier war picture, The Thin Red Line (to be discussed shortly). A Hidden Life explores how a person could lose their humanity during a conflict that seems to possess none at all, and the power of standing up for something that you believe in. The messages are powerful and the visuals are as terrific as you would come to expect from a Malick feature. For most other filmmaker’s filmographies this would easily be their best, but this one perhaps runs a little too long to be considered in the pantheon of even Malick’s other works. Great performances all round, a beautiful script, and the exploration of many heavy themes that are all dealt with fantastically make this one of the better films of 2019 overall, but still not Malick’s best film of the 2010’s. This man is exhausting with how many amazing films he makes.
4. Days of Heaven (1978)
Just like the rest of them, I could have picked any shot from this movie to display as a representation of the film. It’s gorgeous to look at and keeps the eyes fixed on the screen so you don’t miss any of them. Along the way, you’re being whisked away from a deeply romantic story that once again has people walking through fields while the sun beats down on them. The score here is also lovely and blends well with the visuals. I do think it all ends quite suddenly but it’s not without its satisfying narrative conclusion in the third act. And the shots with the locusts? Forget about it. Too good to even begin to unpack. I know, it’s getting to the point where I’m just repeating the same points for every film, but that’s the great thing about Malick. He knows what he does well and hits the mark every time. Days of Heaven was only Malick’s second film, but it shows the craft and control of a true master already, someone brimming with talent and vision only waiting to explore it throughout many films. Also, Richard Gere is really great in this. The shoot delays and behemoth editing time was worth it for this film, perfectionism truly paid off to create something so tender and beautiful it’s difficult not to love it.
3. Song to Song (2017)
Easily my most controversial opinion on this list as this is probably one of the Malick films that is the most derided among critics and audiences. Song to Song, however, is impossibly good. I saw this back in 2017 and loved it, but the rewatch a few days ago really hit it home for me. The performances are lived-in and feel so real that it adds to the emotional core at the centre of the film. Mara, Gosling, Fassbender, and Portman are all so excellent here, and it doesn’t hurt that they all look so gorgeous being shot by Lubezki’s exceptional eye. This feel strangely personal for Malick, shot just after Knight of Cups, in its exploration of ambition and romance and how the two intersect. It’s an experiment that pays off and I don’t even know how to properly talk about it, it’s just something that is very personal to me and I couldn’t even properly tell you why. All I know is that it hits me and that’s more than enough for me. I honestly could see this one becoming my favourite over time.
2. The Thin Red Line (1998)
It’s actually quite unfortunate that this was released the same year as another juggernaut war film, Saving Private Ryan, as Spielberg’s famous effort has seemed to eclipse what Malick has offered with The Thin Red Line, which is a heartbreaking, devastating look at war through his usual poetry and surrealist narration. It’s a weaving, frantic odyssey into the line where beauty and horror intersect, creating a luscious yet devastating feeling of nature’s purity being torn asunder by humankind’s ignorance and disputes. Malick’s visual lyricism is on full display here and it’s so deeply unapologetic that it makes me love it even more. I hold great fondness for a lot of war films, and I think this is one of my favourites. From the affecting sound design to the great performances, The Thin Red Line explores both the reality and poetry of war without taking away from either. It somehow manages to focus in on the humanity of the soldiers while also standing away from it, observing it from a distance. I don’t even want to begin trying to understand how Malick achieved such a vision come so beautifully to life, but I appreciate it endlessly.
1. The Tree of Life (2011)
Yes, I’m sure you all knew that this was coming. I’ve written about this film several times at this point and it never really gets any easier. Trying to write something concrete about something so abstract is a mountainous task. To anyone who dislikes this film, let me say that I completely understand. It meanders, it’s obnoxious, it feels like it tries to be purposefully confounding. I get it.
But it’s also impossibly beautiful in a way that no other movie has ever been or will ever been. Not to say that this is the best shot movie of all time, even though it probably is, just that this very specific vision will never be recreated. Combining the self-importance of humans with the boundless expanse of space and time is something so distinctly Malick that it’s no wonder people hate this film. But it’s in that disparity that the real themes are found. The combination of science and faith, life and death, time and space, The Tree of Life is constantly at odds with itself, but manages to provides all the answers you need while telling you nothing. The answers come from your reactions to the film and how you feel, which is really what Malick has been trying to achieve with each of his films. For how cerebral they can be, Malick always wants to inspire emotion out of an audience and that’s part of the beauty of The Tree of Life and what makes it a masterpiece of cinema.
Now I could ramble on about this movie for hours and still find new things to say, but I’m reading what I’ve already written and I’ve never hated myself more. I know its pretentious and I’ve decided not to care. Also, I’ve yet to see the extended cut, but I have no doubt I’ll adore that too. I think at this point, Terrence Malick could make anything and I’d lap it up happily while being conflicted about my very existence on this planet. And that’s what I love about films.
If you made it this far and didn’t knock yourself out due to my excessive ramblings, congrats! To cut a long story short, Terrence Malick is incapable of making a bad film and is a genius.
I’m sure people have many opinions about both Malick and this list and I’d love to hear them in the comments or on Twitter! Have a suggestion about which director I should tackle? Let me know and I just might do them!
As always, take care and stay safe! Until next time!