10. Knight of Cups (2015)
Unfortunately, this is the weakest work in Terrence Malick’s body of work. While there are some visually impressive moments, his signature style becomes overly affected, trite, and self-mocking. Instead of being used to showcase the beauty of the American Midwest or everyday individuals, his trademark moments of awe are now directed towards the pretentious and egocentric world of a Los Angeles screenwriter (Christian Bale) experiencing a rather uninteresting spiritual dilemma. The dreamy sunsets, hushed voiceovers, and disorienting flashbacks lack impact.
9. Voyage of Time (2016)
Reworded: Malick’s contemplative exploration of the enduring enigma of existence, featuring nature imagery and dream sequences involving dinosaurs, can be seen as a supplement to his film The Tree of Life (and, some may argue, To the Wonder). Having studied philosopher Martin Heidegger in his youth, Malick’s awe and wonder towards existence is reminiscent of Heidegger’s teachings. Brad Pitt’s sonorous voiceover ponders the fundamental question: “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” While visually stunning, the film’s cosmic musings lack significant narrative depth.
8. Song to Song (2017)
Similar to Knight of Cups, this movie utilizes Malick’s ethereal and grandiose style to depict a subject matter that may not deserve such treatment, resulting in potential mockery. However, it is more effective. Instead of the film industry, the setting is the music scene in Austin, Texas where Ryan Gosling plays a rising singer in love with Rooney Mara, who is also enamored with Michael Fassbender’s alluring yet shady producer. The traditional structure of the plot is blurred by Malick’s mesmerizing and otherworldly approach, but it still maintains a unique sense of urgency and impact.
7. A Hidden Life (2019)
Malick’s second world war film takes place in Austria and focuses on the story of Franz Jägerstatter, a conscientious objector who was executed in 1943 for refusing to take the Hitler oath. This film’s sincerity and idealism are somewhat undermined by the subject and setting, which do not align with Malick’s usual ability to find beauty in everyday moments. However, Jägerstatter’s personal and private stance against the Nazi regime allows for a deeper exploration of his inner struggles, which fits in with Malick’s style. It is worth noting that the director has previously shown interest in Heidegger, who infamously supported the Nazi party.
6. To the Wonder (2012)
Malick released his film, The Tree of Life, which won the Cannes Palme d’Or award, only two years before this one. This film, another bittersweet love story, was met with lukewarm reception by critics who were still reeling from the impact of his previous work. Set in Paris, the story follows a reserved engineer, played by Ben Affleck, who falls for the alluring and free-spirited Olga Kurylenko. As expected from Malick’s style, the film features beautiful golden-hour shots, soft narration, and flashback scenes without dialogue. While some may find these elements to be overused, the passionate and thought-provoking nature of this film is not to be overlooked.
5. The Thin Red Line (1998)
Prior to its release, Malick had been absent for approximately two decades, allowing him to accumulate a mysterious and glamorous reputation similar to that of J.D. Salinger’s. This return to the film industry surprised many: a three-hour long movie about World War II’s Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific in 1942, presented in Malick’s signature style of still, reflective fascination. This was the point at which his style shifted into a trance-like state, abandoning traditional editing and pacing. The star-studded cast featured Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and George Clooney, with Jim Caviezel portraying a deserter who also serves as the dreamy narrator through flashbacks.
4. Days of Heaven (1978)
Malick’s early film, which moves at a slow pace, is a successfully portrayed piece of American culture reminiscent of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” or Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” The story follows a romantic and moral dilemma that could have intrigued Henry James. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams portray Bill and Abby, lovers in 1916 who must pretend to be siblings as Bill is wanted by the Chicago police for killing his boss. They take on jobs as farm laborers in Texas, where they experience the beauty of sunsets and wheat fields. The wealthy owner of the farm, Sam Shepard, falls in love with Abby. With the farmer being terminally ill, Bill manipulates Abby into seducing him and marrying him so that they can both become wealthy after he dies. However, the relationship between Abby and her new husband turns out to be more complex than expected.
3. The New World (2005)
Malick’s film is a beautiful portrayal of both brutality and elegance, and it is unique in that it is partially set in England. The story follows the arrogant Captain John Smith, played by Colin Farrell, who falls in love with Pocahontas, the daughter of a tribal chief. Q’orianka Kilcher gives a stunning performance as the fabled Pocahontas. The peaceful and idyllic love between the two in the untamed wilderness showcases Malick’s talent for expressing emotion without words, through beautiful imagery and sounds. The film takes a surprising turn in its final act, as it brings us to the court of James I in England, where Pocahontas has married Christian Bale’s aristocratic character.
2. Badlands (1973)
Malick’s incredible first film was a thrilling exploration of true crime, inspired by the infamous 1950s serial killer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Similar to Days of Heaven, it drew inspiration from the stories of Bonnie and Clyde and even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The young Martin Sheen, who bears a striking resemblance to James Dean, plays a delinquent who falls in love with the naive 15-year-old Sissy Spacek. Together, they commit a heinous crime and embark on a mysterious journey through the desolate Texan Badlands, ultimately heading towards their inevitable downfall and their fated destiny.
The 2011 film “The Tree of Life”.
Malick’s grand and unusual masterpiece won the Cannes Palme d’Or and depicts the most catastrophic midlife crisis ever shown in film. Sean Penn portrays an aging executive who, amidst feelings of anxiety and self-doubt, is transported back to his joyous childhood in 1950s west Texas. There, his strict father Brad Pitt and kind, religious wife Jessica Chastain rule over the family. The mother plants a tree that she tells her sons will outlive them, but the family is deeply affected by the death of one of the boys during military service. Alongside this overwhelmingly painful memory, which only becomes more agonizing with time, Penn’s character ponders his own insignificant existence in the universe. The film also explores the vastness of geological and celestial time, depicting the origins of mankind and the cosmos through a grand symphony of images. It delves into the eternal question of existence and faith: why does anything exist at all? Despite its extravagance and perhaps even foolishness, Malick’s ambitious vision is truly magnificent.