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All 9 Terrence Malick Films Ranked From Worst To Best

17 April 2017 | Features, Film Lists | by Ian Zigel

For nearly half a decade, Terrence Malick has been a silent giant of American cinema, rarely making public appearances or sharing details about his creative process. His filmography, spanning a total of 9 works, is one of the most polarizing sum of films made by any mainstream filmmaker.

We can break down Malick’s work into two phases – the first phase, his first 4-5 films, spans from 1973 all the way to 2011. This phase is characterized by long intervals of time between each film (including 20 whole years between Days of Heaven (’78) and The Thin Red Line (’98)). It’s fair to say that Malick’s phase one films are more accessible and slightly less polarizing.

Malick’s second phase consists of 4 films made between 2012 and today (with a fifth, Radegund, coming later this year). These films have sparked more vitriol from critics and audiences alike, but have also brought about their share of affection from Malick’s most loyal fans.

Malick’s unique approach, which he has admitted does not necessarily include story boarding or any form of concrete plans, likely contributes to the divisiveness of his work. His philosophy with regards to Cinema isn’t entirely clear, but one gets the sense that he stubbornly treats it as a living, breathing art form.

This is evident in the standout life-like quality of his work, and his apparent obsession with the natural world – it is said that he spent the second half of his famous 20-year hiatus doing research on plants and wildlife in the Guadalcanal Campaign region of World War II, which is why almost every shot in The Thin Red Line is filled with accurate natural details.

On working with Malick in Song to Song, Michael Fassbender recently commented on the auteur’s process, “I’ll be acting my socks off, and you turn around and Terry is filming a beetle.” Many of Malick’s thespians – some of whom have not made it into the final cuts of his films – have confessed feelings for him of both intense admiration and frustration.

These otherwise mutually exclusive feelings are arguably true for audiences as well – much of Malick’s work is tough, harrowing, and exhausting. Still, one gets the sense that his films are worthy experiences that require patience, and are an opportunity worth taking advantage of.

It should be noted that it would be impossible to make a definitive ranking of Terrence Malick’s films – most of them are so convoluted and so polarizing that it only makes sense for his audiences to split on how the works stack up against one another. For example, his recent work Knight of Cups has an underwhelming 47% score on Rotten Tomatoes, but made it onto several top films of 2016 lists by high end critics. With that said, here is one attempt to rank his films.

 

9. To The Wonder (2012)

To the Wonder

In last place is one of Malick’s more recent works, To The Wonder, which stars Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, and Olga Kurylenko. Affleck plays Neil, a man who struggles to commit romantic love to just one woman – romantic indecisiveness and fluidity being a common theme throughout Malick’s work. The two women in his life are Jane (McAdams), his high school sweetheart whom he reconnects with on a visit to his childhood home, and Marina (Kurylenko), the woman traveling with him.

Beautifully shot by one of Malick’s most frequent (and most beneficial) collaborators, Emmanuelle Lubezki, the film stands out for its stunning visuals more so than its frustrating rumination on overused themes, not bringing anything really inventive or exciting to the table.

To accuse a – dare I say – genius like Malik of being shallow would be cringe worthy, but this work shies away more than any of his others from asking big questions, which isn’t to necessarily say it’s ‘bad’ so much as weak and less brave by comparison. Still, while it acquired a mere 46% rating on rotten tomatoes, many critics swooned at the film, which earned a 3.5 out of 4 from Roger Ebert, a long time Malick loyalist.

 

8. Song to Song (2017)

Early reactions to Malick’s most recent film have been, not surprisingly, extremely divided. Indiewire even published a critics survey in response to the film titled “Have People Lost Patience With Terrence Malick?” (Many of which, had).

The film is fluid, frustrating, confusing, anti-climactic, and feels in many ways like a failed experiment (depending on what that experiment set out to achieve in the first place). On what we know of the process behind it,

Malick took an almost Herzog-like approach, traveling with Lubezki, a production team, and an impressive cast of actors including Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Natalie Portman, Michael Fassbender, and Christian Bale (who was cut out of the film), quickly and impulsively snatching up footage from the Austin, Texas music scene. The final cut features various cameos from real life musicians who happened to be in the crossfire of Song to Song’s production.

At the film’s premier at SXSW, Malick gave a rare interview with admirer and colleague Richard Linklater, in which he admitted that the project’s first picture lock clocked in at a whopping eight hours (which to Malick, was nothing impressive or shy of normal). Nevertheless, the resulting 2 hours and 25 minutes feels mostly like a conglomerate of cool, thematically linked shots and improvised scenes, boosted by the beautiful cinematography.

Still, this film ranks above To The Wonder. It’s a little more challenging and even annoying, but it is much more unique in its exploration of the Austin music scene.

 

7. Voyage of Time (2016)

More than anything, this film seems like a victory lap for Malick. The same interest in the universe and how we fit in it that Malick beautifully demonstrated in The Tree of Life is showcased to a lesser degree in his documentary on the history of the natural world.

There are two versions of Voyage of Time, an IMAX experience narrated by Brad Pitt that clocks in at 44 minutes, as well as the 90-minute, Cate-Blanchet narrated, Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey. We’ll lump them together out of convenience.

Deciding where this one fits amongst Malick’s work proves difficult – for one thing, it’s a documentary. More than any of his other films, this one feels like something Malick did for fun – a side project exploring the natural world, something that clearly fascinates him.

In context however, this film proves successful – it offers visually stunning insight into the history of the universe, and what our future holds. The experience of Voyage of Time is comparable with the artwork of the 10th century Chinese landscape painter Fan Kuan, whose body of work is meant to remind us humans how small we are in the grand scheme and space of things.

Voyage of Time offers a humbling experience, in which we are reminded of our miniscule place in nature and of the grand beauty of the natural world. Pretty straightforward.

 

6. Knight of Cups (2016)

The only Phase II film that hasn’t yet been mentioned, Malick’s Knight of Cups is… interesting. The near 2-hour film follows Christian Bale’s Rick throughout various nooks and crannies of Los Angeles, as he plays a washed up, successful Hollywood screenwriter in search of more substance in his life.

The film itself has a very similar structure to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, divided into eight different chapters (not to mention it’s religious overtones, another Malick signature). Each chapter dissects Rick’s relationship with a different character, most of them being female and/or lovers. Among these characters are Nancy, Rick’s ex-wife played by Cate Blanchet, his brother Barry played by Wes Bently, and Natalie Portman’s character Elizabeth, a married woman having an affair with Rick.

The way Song to Song was very in and of the Austin Music scene, the production of Knight of Cups intimately involved Los Angeles, with the cast being spotted many times during production in 2012. Its musings on LA itself are something critics and audiences alike like to chew on. This is to date Malick’s only Los Angeles set film, after all.

Moreover, this film was very polarizing (shocker!). Rogerebert.com gave it 4 out of 4 stars. Meanwhile it has a nasty score of 46% on Rotten Tomatoes. It tops the Phase II films of this list because, well, it feels the most thought out and insightful. It’s a meaningful exploration of film industry success, definitions of love, and the ever-intriguing city of Los Angeles.

 

5. The New World (2005)

The New World

Following the critical and commercial success of 1998’s The Thin Red Line, Malick went back into hiding. Seven years later, he returned with his epic period piece The New World.

A lot can be said of Malick’s take on the story of Pocahontas and John Smith. It being the beginning of his incredibly successful partnership with Emmanuelle Lubezki, much praise is owed simply to the film’s visual beauty… although agin, the same can be said for every Malick film.

The real meat here is the pensiveness of the film and its observational take on the conquest of Native American lands. It’s important to note that this was Malick’s first of the 21st century, a time when questioning basic traditions like the celebration of Columbus day or hating president Andrew Jackson have made their way into the mainstream American consciousness. Instead of taking the easy way out with a preachy message, Malick goes for the more difficult, more admirable, naturalistic take.

The final product is a beautiful, wonderfully acted film that conveys the many complications of the conquest of the Americas – different, sound motivations pitted against each other, perhaps just consequence of human nature. While critics initially hesitated to give the film more than mild reviews, it got the last laugh, earning 39th place on the BBC’s recent critics poll for the 100 best films of the 21st century.

 

 

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  • Wyatt W.B

    I really enjoyed Song to Song. It was muddled and experimentive, but it had some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in a movie this year so far. That’s that’s just Lubezki though.

  • Nailed it with TREE OF LIFE at #1. It’s more than a film…it’s an experienced.

    • Nelsonoca Galvis

      I’m sorry but I have to say, watch a movie what is supposed to be for you? Is it not always an experience? What the fuck does it mean to say that a particular movie is an experience? All films are experiences of different types

      • I suppose, in more educated and less obscene words than yours, I should have clarified that it was a beautiful experience???

        • Nelsonoca Galvis

          Yeah, could be rude but does it sound ridiculously pretentious and disrespectful to the cinema to call a movie in particular experience, besides how we were supposed to complement your phrase and think beautiful experience? If that was what you wanted to say you could have put the word, it’s just another word, it costs nothing and is better understood.

          • Deep gratitude for your advice on how to express myself to you. I’ve been meaning to work on that and your instructions to me were not rude but oddly offensive still. I can’t believe how ridiculous, pretentious, and disrespectful I have been. I’m glad we understand each other now…

  • Bergkamp

    Yes, people lost their patience when it comes to this “unconventional narrative” on Malik’s films, with 0 script. That’s why he’s working having a more traditional approach with his next film RADEGUND. Man, to think that people didn’t like the revenant or some of the others films from iñarritu for example, for being too… “Artsie”…(basically pretentious) now, imagine how will they feel if they see some of the latest works from terry?? People don’t have that kind of patience these days. That’s why guys like Refn or Shane carruth always struggle to get their movies made or even the green light from major studios.

    • Horacio Machado Flores

      I guess Revenant had nothing to offer but beautiful shots. That film is shallow, really.

      • Bergkamp

        I actually enjoyed the revenant. I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece or anything like that, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it’s just a well shot film and that’s it. But of course, that’s just my opinion.

      • Vincenzo Politi

        I think the Revenant is a masterpiece and I actually think that it can be ranked on the same league of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s really nothing shallow in that movie. It is the depiction of the evils of nature. Humanity belongs to nature and it is also evil. There are no good people in the movie. Not even the oppressed native americans: in fact, the different tribes fight with each other, they deal with the English or the French depending on what they need. Nature is a wild place. Everybody is sauvage (as it is read in a scene). NEVERTHELESS, there are ways in which humanity can ascend above the brutish level of nature. There are feelings, memory, imagination (Leonardo di Caprio´s ‘visionary scenes’). There are random acts of kindness (the young guy who leaves a bit of bread for the native lady who survived). But these are very rare moments and not everybody have them. Really, I have rarely seen a penentrating depiction of reality as in the Revenant.

        • Bergkamp

          He’s Mexican. People in Mexico hates inarritu, saying he’s a pretentious hipster, and yet, they praise works from guys like Malik or refn, who I believe are even more…. Let’s say, experimental or sensitive in their approach, but nevertheless, it seem that it’s cooler to pretend you like their movies instead of the ones from Alejandro, that my friend it’s crazy incoherence.

          • Vincenzo Politi

            My friend, believe it or not, I live in Mexico. I came to think that Mexicans are a bit like Italians: they like to bash their own countrymen, yet they clap to any little foreign thing. For instance, many people – critics and public alike – actually demolished Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, which was a planetary success. And they were saying exactly the same things Mexicans say about Iñarritu’s The Revenant: pretentious, empty, shallow. I think it’s part of the mediterranean/latino culture, which is a bit of a ‘masochist’ culture.

          • Bergkamp

            100% agreed, I heard that the same thing happens in Spain with almodovar. The guy is universally adored, getting invitations to be a judge in Cannes festivals, a lot of newer directors claims they have so much influences from him and such, and yet, Spanish people find him disgusting and arrogant. Again, that mentality it’s a big weird to understand, but well… What’re we gonna do…

          • Iván Solorio (SanS)

            Yes, you’re right. Nobody is a prophet in his/her own land. As a Mexican, I can’t understand the hate towards Iñarritu. And I agree that The Revenant is a beautiful piece of art, however, I also admire Malick for bringing out emotions with his unconventional visual narrative style.

        • Mortimer

          “I think the Revenant is a masterpiece and I actually think that it can be ranked on the same league of 2001: A Space Odyssey”
          .
          Are you kidding me ? Even the weakest Malick’s film is still better and much deeper than The Revenant. The Revenant is the movie for which 16 years olds think it’s the best movie of all time lol. It’s a shallow Oscar bait made for only one reason.

          • Bergkamp

            How is that any different from any of the Malik films? Saying that song to song, to the wonder, or knight of cups it’s better than the revenant it’s just an excuse to bash on a movie that is clearly better.

            Putting a camera above the actors, and swinging the image very slowly like if some ghost it’s holding the camera, don’t you think that’s not pretentious or just a technique that you’re trying to use to make you look like such a deep and intellectual artist?? It’s like a freaking extended music or perfume commercial, with just pretty images and no dialogue or any type of coherence between any of those beautiful shots, so again with my question, why is that kind of style not consider as shallow or Oscar bait?? Just because he decided to get rid of any type of script, doesn’t make Malik a least pretentious director, if anything, he’s the one that’s it’s overusing the style over the actual substance. And please oh please, don’t try to use the old argument of…. Well…. You’re saying that because you didn’t understand the movie, you have a narrow vision or that kind of adjectives.

            If you think that he’s not pretentious because he’s actually communicating a message or trying to evoke a feeling just with that kind of imagery, then the same could be said about the inarritu films. The only difference it’s that that message didn’t reach you, or it didn’t made any kind of personal connection with you, or at least not in the same way, that the Malik films did with you. But that doesn’t make him a lesser filmmaker.

          • Vincenzo Politi

            It’s totally pointless trying to argue with this kid, really. He states his opinions without any further qualifications and that’s it. Beside, all the “originality” of Malick consists in a rather systematic ripping off of Tarkovsky, from whom Malick consistently steals the form, but not the content. Why? Because Malick seeks no contents, he is a story-teller who has no more stories to tell.

          • AmazingAmy

            More like Leo desperate vehicle for Oscar… Innaritu films prior Birdman miles better

        • Horacio Machado Flores

          Sorry for the short answer: soap bubbles, mumbo jumbo reflections. Can’t take it seriously. A squirrel size turd. Nicely displayed, though.

          • Vincenzo Politi

            “A squirrel size turd” – nice way of arguing, my friend. This comment really says a lot about you… Goodbye.

  • Andrey Koshmar

    Categories are beautiful and stylish are not always synonymous.

  • For me, Days of Heaven is Malick’s best film followed by The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. With the exception of Voyage of Time and Song to Song as I haven’t seen those films, I pretty much love what he does as a filmmaker. Even as he’s working without a script just to convey everything based on memories of his own life.

  • Mortimer

    Song to Song should be at 6th place in my opinion. Anyway, I think it’s impossible to rank last three-four Malick’s films properly right now. Maybe 20-30 years after he dies…

    • Bowwow

      20-30 years?! Now that is some funny shit friends.

  • bourgeoisie scum

    I think that after Badlands and Days of Heaven Malick crawled up his own ass and pumped out mostly self absorbed pretentious nonsense. Yes they look beautiful, but he’s keeps making the same movie over and over and that movie screams “aren’t I important? aren’t I? I’m all dreary and have great shots and narration, obviously I am an important film” utter claptrap

    • shane scott-travis

      Zzz…

    • Iván Solorio (SanS)

      the same old “he is pretentious because his films don’t follow a coherent narrative” criticism… Malick might not be your cup of tea and it’s understandable but to classify him as pretentious… means you actually rather close the criteria instead of evaluating his work as a whole.

      • bourgeoisie scum

        the same old “I have to defend him or else people will realize I only like him to look arty” argument. I’ve seen over 12,000 films son, I don’t need to be preached at by you about what my opinion is. He has become pretentious, not because of what he did, but how he did it and the self important nature of it. Bela Tarr makes films that aren’t my cup of tea either, but they aren’t pretentious because they don’t presume to be anything more than they are. Malick has made the same film 4 times in a row, told us nothing more about the world, himself or anything other than “look wispy narration over pretty pictures is PROFOUND!!!!” total rubbish

        • Iván Solorio (SanS)

          Okay. First, we are not here to discuss how many films any of us have seen. The subject are Malick and his films. Second, I’m not here to preach to anyone about his work. If you think that he has done the same film 4 times in a row because it’s just beautiful scenes with whispers then, pardon me, but we’re watching two different spectrums. Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups (haven’t seen Song to Song) are vastly different. Each holding a personal subject from Malick and expanding it through visual narrative instead of relying on conventional forms of telling a story. Malick doesn’t strive for plot but rather characters and themes, but then again, not in a conventional way and mostly through images and sound more than dialogue itself. If by pretentious you mean the way he has worked (no script, cutting out actors et al) then again I can’t seem to agree. Every single director works differently, it has always been that way. Like I said, he may not be conventional but I haven’t seen an ounce of pretention in his work because the final product makes you see he is actually caring about what the film is going to say. I see more pretention from other directors, like David O. Russell or even Spielberg when he tries to make dramas. Lastly, I’ll say that I don’t expect you to change your opinion nor do I want to debate through here.

  • Kevin

    TOL is certainly ambitious, but despite being impressive on the surface, I never could escape the feeling that the two elements in the story just don’t
    really fit together meaningfully (it seems you could put that creation
    sequence with ANY storyline and find SOME significance, and that’s
    just cheating). Then towards the end Malick aims towards sublime
    transcendence by way of cheesy and cliched surrealistic symbolism. However, I praise Malick for his sincerity, especially in our age of box office dirge.

  • Zwei

    Badlands <3

  • Patrick Malone

    To the Wonder is severely underrated. To blithely say that it doesn’t offer anything new or inventive is to not understand what it’s doing. As in so many of his films, To The Wonder revolves around a dichotomy, in this case eros and agape, and resolves this dichotomy by saying that the two loves need each other to be fulfilled, as in the climactic scene in which Bardem prays the Lorica. It’s basically a riff on Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est. Once you realize that, the film falls into place. It’s certainly not avoiding big questions, but it simply places the questions into an intimate setting, like The Tree of Life does, but without making it really really obvious using a creation sequence.

  • Gabriel Bisaccio

    Hey please someone could give me a link to watch or download Song to Song and Voyage of Time, I’m hyped as fuck about seeing them but I couldn’t find it thou. If you have it I’d appreciate it so much!

  • sirnaber

    I think you meant “from worst to meh”