Ranking the Terrence Malick Films

Terrence Malick is the greatest filmmaker from the United States to ever do it. He explores what it means to be alive – the beauty and tragedy of it. He does so in a signature manner that feels wholly original and spiritual in way that is truly pushing the medium of cinema forward. No one does it like him nor does anyone do it as well as him. He is my favorite, and I will spend the rest of my life revisiting each and every one of his films time and time again.

9. Days of Heaven [1978]

In Badlands, Martin Sheen uses violence to feel power in a cruelly powerless world. In Malick’s followup, the context of a cruel and powerless world leads to Richard Gere committing violence but then to run away from it and escape the world to a degree. I’m stretching but there is something there.

Malick has from the beginning of his filmography has been able to always show with his films that something is just fundamentally very wrong with this world. And that inescapable fact causes so much suffering. A large part of that suffering in this land is based on money and that tragic ever-need of it.

Gere’s quest for money blinds him into destroying the family unit that he was lucky to have, and it just makes for such a somber story.  And then despite him running from violence, the cruelty of the world ends in him being violent once again to escape the world. I have softened on this film over the years.

Initially, I was quite cool to it. Now, I am at peace with what it does well and the simple fact that I just have yet to find a real connection to it. I cannot fully explain why but it is possible I will in time. I look forward to revisiting it more and more.

 

8. Badlands [1973]

The cruelness of the world we have inherited can make one feel absolutely powerless. Badlands captures how it can happen to different people in completely different circumstances, but it also is very much an intimate and empathetic portrayal of two souls with various levels of innocence and agency to them.

For someone like Kit though, that powerlessness turns into something casually interpersonally violent, and that violence fuels his sense of self-worth and self-importance. Despite the empathetic and human portrayal all throughout the film, Malick also effortlessly captures the banality and vapidness of such violence humans and how there is nothing really there. A masterful debut picture.

 

7. Song to Song [2017]

“I have a condition…I cannot be left alone for five minutes.”

Terrence Malick concluded his unofficial Inner Peace Trilogy beautifully with (again) one of the best films of the decade. Instead of centering this film around a primary protagonist like in Wonder and Cups, here Malick instead really focuses on a group of interconnected people who are deeply ill at ease with themselves and proceed to run each other as a consequence.

“How do you get better? How do you know when you’re lying to yourself?”

The three main characters (Gosling, Fassbender, Mara) are all trying to become more successful in the entertainment industry. As one might naturally assume, Terrence Malick does not think much of this path in life and certainly does not think anyone will find happiness there. On top of that, their art will suffer due to that system as the commodification of art is an inherently evil enterprise. Malick instead challenges societal notions of advancements and forces us to confront harsh truths about ourselves and what drives us. He wants something more not just for his characters but for all us. He wants to find peace within ourselves and recognize that there is a better world to be made.

“This. Only this.”

 

6. Knight of Cups [2015]

Halfway through his most prolific decade, Terrence Malick dropped one of the defining Los Angeles Films. A true hate letter to the city of Hollywood if there has ever been one. Much like his other films from his unofficial mid-2010s trilogy, Malick confronts here the temptations of life vs. what actually makes us fulfilled and satisfied. He explores the trappings and potential emptiness of life. The potential wasting of life.

Malick accomplishes this by following around a successful Hollywood producer as he goes from one shallow/failed human connection to another. Malick pushes us to ponder many things about ourselves and the society set up for us.

How does one’s location dictate our feelings and behavior? How do you escape your surroundings? What is the cost of the elite’s lifestyle on the people kept at the bottom? How do you run over the people in your life?

 

5. The Thin Red Line [1998]

“They want you dead, or in their lie.”

War films produced in the United States essentially all at the end of the day promote the US empire/imperialism project in one form or another. Even when they textually try to be anti-war or at least anti-the-war-the-movie-is-set-in, they somehow intentionally or unintentionally fall into so many war mongering traps. Malick mostly manages to avoid all of that just by creating a film that is far more about humanity than war and how war is just the manifestation of how far off the track humanity is and has always seemed to been largely. Why are we doing this to each other? Is there nothing better? For Malick, it is quite clear war is an abomination and a signal of how far off the track humanity is and thus always has been. The Thin Red Line is a rare war film that manages to actually say that.

 

4. The New World [2005]

“Conscience is a nuisance. A fly. A barking dog.”

Malick’s The New World is a film of contradictions. The centerpiece is the competing perspectives being told with the myth of John Smith and Pocahontas being vs. the demystification of the west conquering the world.

Smith and Pocahontas have the whirlwind romance that myth might have us believe. They are the proverbial lovers from different cultures that are drawn together. Their romance is shown both on a human level but also serves as a metaphor for the idealized vision for what this “new” world could have meant for the people of the world.

This is countered with the narrative of Western Europe showing up in North America continuing down the path of an eventual genocide of a people and destruction of life on the entire planet. While the beautiful idea of John Smith and Pocahontas is coming together, their bond signals the destruction of a people.

The contradictions continue when you learn of the history of John Smith. Most historians have cast doubt on his record of the events and the improbability that he was romantically involved with Pocahontas since she was 10-12 years old when they would have come into contact. The tragedy of Pocahontas’ life in the film is not just that she is held captive by the British, forcefully converted to Christianity, and brought to England as an advertisement to continue the English investment in exploiting the people and the land of North America…it’s that she also lost out on her great love with John Smith.

It is a tough pill to swallow and in lesser hands it might be too bitter. Malick does not go down the road of the Smith/Pocahontas love story recklessly though. That decision not only allows for exploring ideas discussed above but simultaneously explores a major theme of late-Malick – the idea that despite all the temptations of modern society, true love and companionship are more meaningful than any other path.

 

3. To the Wonder [2012]To the Wonder kicked off an unofficial trilogy of small-scale films Malick made in his (inexplicably) most prolific decade, the 2010s. Wonder is one of the most haunting films about being alive and desiring to be with someone on the nightmare journey that is life.

As we move through the vast emptiness of this planet, we have been conditioned to feel this cursed compulsion to share that time with someone, anyone. We gravitate towards anyone who seems compelling for more than a moment because if we can be happy with them longer than that then maybe that person can fill the gaping hole in each of our lives forever.

Why do we feel compelled to be someone when all the signs are pointing to the fact that it does not make sense? Why do we self-sabotage? Why do we harm others we profess to love? Why can we not extricate ourselves from relationships we do not want?

Affleck in this film is clearly so scared of being alone, and that fear causes so much pain for himself and others. The great tragedy of being alive is that for the great majority of us, a life alone or a life spent chasing shallow pursuits is a life wasted. But that knowledge that cause us to cut short our own personal growth. Malick so beautifully and empathetically captures that tension.

 

2. The Tree of Life [2011]

“I wanted to be loved because I was great. I’m nuthin’…Look at the glory around us. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and missed the glory. I’m a foolish man.”

The Tree of Life, like virtually every Malick film, is as much as a spiritual experience as anything else I have experienced in life. It captures the tragedy and potential beauty of the human condition in the most effecting way. Malick makes you FEEL what it is like to be alive and live with the memories and experiences that create you and create all of us. He specifically focuses on the impact that one’s childhood has on them. While the subject has very specific issues  that – while the O’Brien’s dynamic certainly applies to many – speaks to a bigger truth about the important of love and the pitfalls of hiding from it. This is simply one of the most beautiful films about being alive that there has ever been.

“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

 

1. A Hidden Life [2019]

So many ideas and themes and images that had been present in Malick films for decades came together here to create one of the most emotional and spiritual experiences in a theater of my life. In so many ways, the film is just a beautiful testament to the potential of human will. Just as importantly though, the film captures the beauty of this very specific marriage and the people ripped apart for the noblest and toughest of reasons. The film is the testament though to the inner strength that we all could possess. It is a love letter to people even in the face of the worst of humanity. Seeing this film for the first time in a theater was as close to a spiritual experience as I have ever had in the cinema, and I will be revisiting it for the rest of my life.

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