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Thursday, March 29, 2012

This post is my own personal The Thin Red Line—it took a very long time to craft but hopefully, it's worth the wait.

Before the release of The Tree of Life, I made a concerted effort to play catch-up on Malick's filmography. Until last year at this time, I had only seen The New World, and though I owned several of his other films on DVD for a while, they always seemed like daunting tasks better put off for another day.

That day came a few weeks before The Tree of Life bowed at Cannes. Badlands arrived in the mail, and I was excited to plow through these films quickly. I ate them up. Some, as you'd expect, went down easier than others, but they all left a mark. Now, all I needed to do was catch The Tree of Life, and I'd be set.

I waited, and waited, and waited for it to come to one of my two local art house theaters to no avail. Finally, in July, I found myself out of town and with little to do for a day. Time for The Tree of Life. Time to finally write this post, right? Not exactly. My initial "what-the-fuck" reaction to the film put it on hold once again. I needed to see it once more, sort through my thoughts, then I could more accurately rank Malick's work, like I did months earlier with David Fincher and the Coen Brothers.

That rewatch didn't happen until I picked up The Tree of Life on Blu-Ray. My opinions about solidified a little more, but I then realized the error in what I was about to do. If my thoughts on this one film could evolve so much upon a second viewing, I probably needed to do the same for Malick's other films.

Which brings me to today. I've finally gone through Malick's filmography for a second time and I'm glad I did. Though I'm not sure my rankings changed much from what I had planned last fall, my appreciation for all five of Malick's films has grown significantly—and they're five films I already admired quite a bit.

I suspect this list will surprise and perhaps upset some people, but at least you now know the time and effort I put into making sure it was as informed as possible, and with Malick, one can only assume this will be one of the most fluid filmography rankings I ever do.

Now, I'd usually take a few paragraphs to discuss the director's major themes and stylistic tendencies, but after that lengthy introduction, I'll jump right into the list.

5.) Badlands
Badlands is perhaps Malick's most widely beloved picture remains the only film of his that I'm truly lukewarm about. In my original review, I bemoaned the distance between the characters and the audience. In this mini-capsule, I'll do the same thing. With two individuals doing such morally repugnant things for virtually no reason, one needs something else to hold on to. And while we at least have the film's good performances and beautiful cinematography (perhaps Malick's #1 trademark), there really isn't much that makes us feel involved.

4.) The Thin Red Line
Twenty years it took to make this film. It was also Malick's first foray into Oscar territory (it earned a 1998 Best Picture nomination). As much as I admire it, though, I find it a bit forgettable when put up against his other material (including Badlands, which I clearly find less successful). I think it's the massive ensemble. The film doesn't have the same emotional hook as Malick's other works, perhaps because there are so many people, so many different stories. The Thin Red Line is an endlessly watchable film—something that should be studied by cinephiles everywhere. But it doesn't elicit much of a reaction out of me, which puts it below Malick's three best works, all of which just gut me every time I watch them.

3.) The Tree of Life
What a unique entry this was into the 2011 film canon. Among the glut of mediocre blockbusters and traditional Oscar bait was this mirage of a film—something that couldn't possibly exist in today's market, nevermind earn Best Picture and Best Director nominations. The Tree of Life is so fascinating to me because a significant portion of the film doesn't work for me at all. It's flat out bad, as far as I'm concerned. Sean Penn himself wondered to the press what he was doing in the final product (not the first time someone said that about their role in a Malick picture). But the rest of the film—from the Creation to family life in Texas—is storytelling in its most ambitious form.

2.) Days of Heaven
I'd argue Days of Heaven is Malick's most straightforward film, at least as far as plot goes, but there's so much bubbling beneath the surface that every time I finish watching it, I want to put it back in and start it over. The way the film depicts youth, and both the magic and the mistakes that accompany it, resonates deeply with me. And some of the shots are among the director's most memorable (the locusts scene is especially strong).

One of Malick's trademarks, of course, is narration, and Days of Heaven features my favorite narrator—Linda Manz. Really, just calling Manz my favorite Malick narrator is unfair to her. She gives one of my favorite performances in a Malick film, period, and an all-time great performance by a child actor. The rest of the cast, of course, is great, as well.

1.) The New World
You always remember your first time. Actually, the first time I tried to watch The New World, I shut it off. I hadn't appropriately prepared myself for what I was about to watch. In all fairness, I was still in high school, and I don't think I was anywhere near mature or experienced enough in my movie watching to appreciate what Malick had to offer.

Now, the film haunts me. It's almost hypnotic to watch. From the establishing shots of the settlers hitting land to the way Malick almost silently develops the love between John Smith and Pocahontas, The New World has a way of both confounding your expectations while also giving you everything you hope to get out of a Terrence Malick production. Yes, I'm on record for saying the final act is a little weak, but I think anyone who told you Malick's films are perfect would be a little delusional. That said, his messiness (here, and probably in all his films) is simply an expression of his earnestness.

As with many of his characters, these two are troubled souls, and this ultimately ends up my #1 Malick-directed film because their cries for help speak to me most loudly. Their plight feels truest, and the way it's resolved moves me more than any other resolution. It wasn't any easy choice to be sure, but The New World is a sensation film, and I'll proudly defend it as the great Terrence Malick's finest achievement in filmmaking.


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