In celebration of his 75th birthday, we’re ranking all 8 of the director’s narrative features.
Over the course of the past 50 years, no filmmaker has enjoyed a career with as many interesting, unpredictable twists and turns as Terrence Malick has since he released his first feature Badlands in 1973. I mean come on; who else would would make two of the most revered films of a generation at the height of New Hollywood and then vanish from the face of the earth for the next 20 years? No matter how long of a hiatus he takes from filmmaking, though, he will always hold a place in our hearts that demands our attention when a new project is announced. Though increasingly experimental films have polarized many filmgoers as of late, nobody can deny Malick is one of the most uniquely innovative filmmakers working today. Without further ado, here are all of Malick’s films ranked in descending order.
8. To the Wonder (2014)
For better or worse, To the Wonder evidently marks the transition from the ways of Malick’s early body of work to the more experimental style of his recent titles. Though the cast is headlined by heavyweights Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem shine bright, and their performances are the highlights of the film. Though it may be one of Malick’s weaker films, To the Wonder is still highly intriguing, and we can’t wait for its spinoff, Thy Kingdom Come which hit SXSW earlier this year.
7. Knight of Cups (2016)
Shot without a single word of script, Knight of Cups follows a tortured writer, Rick, as he floats around Los Angeles in the midst of an existential crisis, chasing women and peddling his vices. Drawing from the folklore of Tarot cards, the film has a sense of exciting, almost mythical adventure that mixes well with its darker, hopeless themes.
6. The New World (2005)
In what is unquestionably Malick’s most political film, The New World explores the settlement of America and the story of Pocahontas in a never before seen way. Above all, we mostly have to thank this movie for kicking off the collaboration between Emmanuel Lubezki and Malick; a combination that has consistently produced some of the most breathtaking cinematography of the 21st century.
5. Days of Heaven (1978)
For his sophomore feature, Malick continued his commitment to placing style first and substance second by choosing to shoot the entirety of the film during golden hour. His familiarity and love for the prairie of his home state is glaringly palpable, and the result is one of the most beautiful films ever made.
4. Song to Song (2017)
Malick’s most recent film explores two intersecting love triangles against the backdrop of the music industry in Austin, Texas, where lovers float from one partner to another like songs changing on a record player. Lead by an outstanding cast including Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett, the film manages to evoke myriads of emotion with nothing but subtle action and sparse voiceover. Complete with the always mesmerizing cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, Song to Song is a sprawling, transcendent dream that is surely the best of Malick’s recent line of similarly stylized films.
3. Badlands (1973)
Many may have thought it impossible to make a road film about two romantically involved outlaws that could be as influential as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but Malick managed to make it happen. From Thelma & Louise (1991) to True Romance (1993), the influence of Badlands can be felt in almost any couples crime drama this side of the 1980s. In a tale of two young lovers on a crash course towards tragic disaster, Malick made his knack for creating conflicted characters in a fascinatingly large world, along with his revolutionary use of voiceover, known from his very first feature.
2. The Thin Red Line (1998)
After a 20 year break, Malick returned to filmmaking with quite possibly may be one of the greatest ensemble casts of all time —including Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, Jared Leto, and John Travolta along with a host of other brilliant actors (some of which who even ended up on the cutting room floor) to tackle the conflict at Guadalcanal during World War II. Although it is often overlooked because of Saving Private Ryan being released in the same year, The Thin Red Line is a deeply affecting, poetic film that critiques the nature of war and humanity on an extremely personal level.
1. The Tree of Life (2011)
Perfectly blending Malick’s newer poetic style and the more tangible, cohesive structure of his older films, The Tree of Life will go down in history with films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as one of the most ambitious and remarkably expansive films ever made. Managing to explore three distinct time periods and the deep psychological world of the main character’s mind, all the while stopping in its tracks to show the creation of the universe and the evolution of humanity in 20 minutes, the Palme d’Or winner follows the conflicted upbringing of three young boys in 1950s Waco, Texas. The Tree of Life is Malick —and maybe the capabilities of cinema itself— operating at his highest level, and with it he gives us a film that truly makes us view the world differently than we had ever seen it before.