best film: The Tree of Life from Terrence Malick
- Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life makes otherwise beautiful films seem unbeautiful by comparison.
- The Tree of Life opens with Sean Penn’s character Jack (character names are meaningless here and hardly, if ever, referenced – so I will be using the actor’s name here for the most part) praying/talking to his brother. The angelic Jessica Chastain takes the reins of the voice-over (before passing it to others) early, as, through her, Malick explains the duality that he has meditating on his entire five film and nearly forty-year career: grace and nature. Grace here is embodied in Chastain’s character. Brad Pitt’s character is nature. They are the parents of three boys (Penn’s Jack character is the grown-up version of the eldest of the three) and Jack’s soul is the one that has a sort of Faustian battle between grace and nature—sort of goodness vs. harsh pragmatism.
- There is a medley of immaculate images that follow (this is really how you could describe the entire film).
- Malick uses these low angle shots through trees (a staple in his repertoire) usually with the sun poking through.
- This is juxtaposed with a low-angle shot of skyscrapers– it is quite easy to guess which of these two worlds Malick prefers
- As a formal marker, like the pink/blue dye experimental watercolor splashes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, Malick uses these sort of embryonic flares four times throughout the film including the final shot- a brilliant part of the montage.
- Whether it was found or designed by Jack Fisk (Malick’s go-to production designer), the location and home used in Texas is perfect.
- After Malick sets the scene in the opening with his flickering, mosaic style, the cosmos are invoked. This bold formal interlude lasts roughly fifteen minutes from the 20-minute mark to the 35-36-minute mark. Because of the death of one of the brothers, this family are asking questions to the heavens. One is doubt- sort of C.S. Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain”- the scripture from the book of Job opens the film- what follows from there is the pictorial story of creation. It is awesome- both muscular and poetic. It is in this sequence that Malick employs the talents of Douglas Trumbull.
- Apparently Malick was dissatisfied with the computer-generated options. This section, the visual and narrative ambition involved, is one reason that so many cinephiles recall Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when discussing to The Tree of Life. Trumbull last worked on Blade Runner in 1982.
- Malick highlights the juxtaposition of grace and nature throughout. During one sequence there is the calm of the streams and the trees, but Malick is always quick to contrast that with a violent explosion- like one dinosaur stepping on the neck of another. “Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
- Malick’s style is this Eisenstein-like low average shot length (ASL). This not an auteur employing an occasional cutaway. The music (operas, church choirs) is extremely important to the impressionistic visuals, as is the poetic musings of the voice-over. But there are no more than a few scenes where two characters exchange dialogue. There are arguments at the family dinner table, talks about loss (one with Fiona Shaw talking to Chastain I recall) but these are glimpses…. there is no shot, reverse-shot dialogue.
- The Tree of Life is always religious work—the young Jack is playing with two alligators on Noah’s ark. Chastain’s character literally levitates at the 54-minute mark.
- All of this is captured in Emmanuel Lubezki’s constantly moving camera with Malick’s trademark magic hour natural lighting often present setting the glow for the photography. There is a sort of chapter on innocence where Jack is in this beautiful Eden-like bubble. But soon, Malick cuts to a criminal being taking away in their small town. They cut to Pitt saying his mother is naïve, a young boy drowns, there is a boy who is a burn victim. The town sprays a fog of DDT on young boys in the street. Jack steals a negligee and floats it down the river to wash his hands clean of the sin. He shoots a BB gun at the brother who looks like Brad Pitt (great casting- as is the casting of the young Jack played by Hunter McCracken– he looks like Sean Penn) and is a talented musician (Pitt plays a failed musician) and is clearly the father’s favorite. This Jack character, without much dialogue, is as complex as the Mason character in Richard Linklater’s splendid Boyhood (2014).
- The photography in The Tree of Life belongs in an art institute somewhere. Though I think it’s a myth that this is vastly superior to his previous films, or 2005’s The New World. There is the sun pouring through the laundry.
- Malick goes to the doorway shot often to create a frame within his camera frame. Once there is Chastain lounging peaceably (here), once the Pitt-lookalike son is playing guitar, another time Pitt is coming home from work framed by the door.
- Penn resurfaces after he’s been gone for two hours. Emmanuel Lubezki claims there is an entire movie about him to be made from what has been left on floor in the editing room. So here, it seems like Penn is the victim of Malick’s editing style (as Adrien Brody was in The Thin Red Line). Malick actually employs five editors here.
- During the sort of prologue, Penn’s Jack is on the beach in what appears to be an afterlife. Past and present embrace, mostly during the magic hour (though this shot is not) with operatic vocalizing accompanying them.
- “The only other film I’ve seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and it lacked Malick’s fierce evocation of human feeling.” – Ebert https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-tree-of-life-2011
most underrated: Before his dueling black and white masterpieces (Ida and Cold War) later in the decade, Pawel Pawlikowski made The Woman in the Fifth and it is the most underrated film of 2011. The TSPDT consensus does not see fit to list it among the 48 films for 2011. David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is also underrated — the consensus has it twenty slots too low at the #30 spot.
most overrated: More than a decade later, the TSPDT consensus continues to overrate The Artist. It sits as the #13 film from 2011 and having it anywhere within a healthy striking distance of the top 10 is incorrect.
trends and notables:
- At the time in 2010 and 2011 it seemed like 2010 had the three headed monster of masterpieces with Inception, The Social Network and Black Swan but 2011’s top three films (The Tree of Life, Melancholia and The Turin Horse) are even stronger. Despite the brilliance of Malick’s work, there is not much separating these three films from an artistic achievement standpoint- a compliment to all three films and filmmakers.
- Two of those top three films (both Tarr and von Trier’s work) are about the end of times. While many of 2011’s best films are undoubtedly dark- it is sort of miraculous that these two (and to a lesser degree Joe Nichols’ Take Shelter) would all line up with similar themes.
- This is still the reclusive Terrence Malick with long gestation periods between films in 2011. Tarr works the same way. So the stars aligned in 2011 for them both to have a film to come out (von Trier is more prolific). This was Malick’s third film since 1978, and Tarr’s fourth since 1988. Again, to date this is it for Tarr- but as for Malick with the knowledge of what would follow, you almost wish Malick had just skipped To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song and just spent eight years making A Hidden Life.
- It is the year of the reclusive auteur- Lynne Ramsay finally makes her third film after films in 1999 and 2002 and she delivers – 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is her strongest work.
- As far as big first years, 2011 is a massive year for Jessica Chastain. She is in Tree of life, Take Shelter and Coriolanus. Oscar Isaac also arrives on the scene with a very good supporting performance in Drive.
gems I want to spotlight: The Cabin in the Woods does not belong in any serious discussion of the years top ten but it works as both a comedy and horror film and it is a work I return to often. Steven Soderbergh made two of the easiest watches in 2011 with Contagion and Haywire.
- Haywire is interesting mixture of gorgeous photography and lighting (Soderbergh as his own DP far before this was trendy), a very chill score (David Holmes who also worked with Soderbergh to create great atmospheric scores for Ocean’s Eleven and Out of Sight) and heavy duty action sequences led by Gina Carano’s athleticism.
- Carano is a newcomer (and not an actor by trade) so Soderbergh is right to put her with veterans like Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Bill Paxon. Michael Fsssbender (he’s everywhere in 2011) and Channing Tatum certainly equip themselves as well.
- Soderbergh’s trademark yellow hue is used early (interrogation/meeting room in like third scene) and often. Highlights include a escalator at the airport, a white/yellow wine glass in foreground and a reflection (yellow of course) in the window of a night shoot where they are looking off into the distance at two men opening a building door (with a yellow light inside).
- Sort of reminds me of like an early Godard experiment- it is a little sloppy- but very charming and even has a B-movie black and white sequence intertwined for nearly no reason in particular at some point
- Style as style
- Soderbergh even lights a parking lot beautifully
- The narrative device of Carano telling the story (in flashback) to Michael Angarano does not work at all unfortunately.
- The word “sh*t” both opens and ends the film—but the ending, despite the bookends, feels a little truncated.
best performance male: Michael Fassbender is on fire in 2011. His work with McQueen in Shame headlines his year (and career thus far) but he is in four archiveable films from the year (Shame, A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Haywire) so he may actually deserve two, or at least one and a half mentions for this category). This gives him eight (8) archiveable films since (and including) 2008… wow. Back to Shame, is portrayal of sex addict Brandon Sullivan is haunting- an early candidate for performance of the decade. The Tree of Life is a feather in the cap for both Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain (more on her and her year below) as Terrence Malick’s camera eavesdrop through open doors, open windows and down their purposefully stereotypical street. Pitt plays a stern father- Chastain is the warm and forgiving mother. Pitt hardens his jaw in a way I have never seen in his work before or since. This is largely a silent movie-like non-verbal performance – all posture, posing, facial expressions and physical acting. Ryan Gosling lands in this category for the second straight year for his work in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Gosling is emotional and very verbal in 2010’s Blue Valentine– here he is stoic, cool. Michael Shannon plays Curtis in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. Curtis has visions of a pending apocalypse– and Shannon’s explosion for a wild two minute scene in the church makes for some of the best acting of the year. Payman Maadi also needs to be mentioned for his work in A Separation. Each of the characters in Farhadi’s film do what they think is right under incredible stresses and circumstances. These are rich characterizations.
best performance female: 2011 is a very strong year for this category. Kirsten Dunst most likely deserves the top slot for her work as Justine- the focal point of the first half of von Trier’s Melancholia. Dunst won the Best Actress award at Cannes and it helps round out her career to be undeniably brilliant outside of her collaborations with Sofia Coppola. Tilda Swinton is not far behind for her work in We Need to Talk About Kevin. She is dying inside for the vast majority of the running time and that is not an easy task to ask of any actor. Leila Hatami helps make 2011 such good year for actresses for her work in A Separation. Farhadi’s film is a domestic drama with the intensity of a thriller. Carey Mulligan steals scenes in not one, but two of the years best films in Shame and Drive. Mulligan may land here for either- so to put both on her resume is remarkable- and her devastating rendition of “New York, New York” in Shame is one of the best scenes in the film. Jessica Chastain pulls off something similar with her 2011. She starts her career with both The Tree of Life and Take Shelter (and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus actually) even if her achievement in this category leans a little more heavily on one film (The Tree of Life) than Mulligan.
- The Tree of Life
- The Turin Horse
- We Need to Talk About Kevin
- Le Havre
- The Woman in the Fifth
- A Dangerous Method
- A Separation
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|A Dangerous Method – Cronenberg||HR/MS|
|A Separation – Farhadi||HR/MS|
|Cedar Rapids – Arteta||R|
|Contagion – Soderbergh||R|
|Drive – Refn||MS|
|Footnote – Cedar||R|
|Hanna- J. Wright||R|
|Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai – Miike||R|
|Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2– D. Yates||R|
|Haywire – Soderbergh||R|
|Headhunters – Tyldum||R|
|Hugo – Scorsese||HR|
|Jane Eyre- Fukunaga||HR|
|Killer Joe – Friedkin||R|
|Le Havre – Kaurismäki||HR/MS|
|Margaret – Lonergan||HR|
|Margin Call- Chandor||R|
|Martha Marcy May Marlene – Durkin||HR|
|Melancholia – von Trier||MP|
|Midnight in Paris- Allen||R/HR|
|Moneyball – B. Miller||R/HR|
|My Week with Marilyn- Curtis||R|
|Once Upon a Time in Anatolia- Ceylan||R|
|Oslo, August 31st- Trier||HR|
|Rise of the Planet of the Apes- Wyatt||R|
|Shame – McQueen||MS/MP|
|Sleepless Night – Jardin||R|
|Super 8- Abrams||R|
|Take Shelter- J. Nichols||HR/MS|
|The Adventures of Tintin – Spielberg||R|
|The Artist- Hazanavicius||R|
|The Cabin in the Woods- Goddard||R|
|The Deep Blue Sea- Davies||HR|
|The Descendants- Payne||R|
|The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo- Fincher||R|
|The Guard- John Michael McDonagh||R|
|The Kid with a Bike- Dardenne||HR|
|The Raid: Redemption – Evans||R|
|The Skin I Live In – Almodovar||HR|
|The Tree of Life – Malick||MP|
|The Turin Horse – Tarr||MP|
|The Woman in the Fifth – Pawlikowski||HR/MS|
|Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Alfredson||HR|
|Warrior – O’Connor||R|
|We Need to Talk About Kevin – Ramsay||MS|
|Win Win- McCarthy||R|
|Young Adult- J. Reitman||R|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives