Malick’s case is incredibly strong for a relatively modern auteur.  He is certainly having a puzzling decade by first giving us perhaps his best career work- and then falling on his face with a weaker trilogy (though I must admit I’m very excited to revisit). When I did my top 500 I had Days of Heaven at #47 and The Thing Red Line at #43. They aren’t going anywhere. I like to have a 10 year moratorium on new films before I canonize them and add them to my top 500–  but in this case with The Tree off Life– I can’t deny that after two viewings I think it’s his best film. This gives me 3 Malick films in the top 50. Like Lynch, he creates a world of his own and if you put a gun to my head and asked me which director in film history made the most beautiful (I grant the word itself leaves this up to many interpretations) films “Malick” might be the first name to emanate from my lips. I’m open for debating his case against others. Malick is still only ranked 48th on the TSPDT director top 250 but that’s silliness. If you break it down to see where his films rank vs. other films in their respective years- his films on TSPDT, rank as 1st (The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven), 2nd (The New World) and, 5th (Badlands) best films. Amazing.

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silhouettes in The New World at the tail-end of magic hour

Best film:  The Tree of Life.  So, by transitive property (using my The Thin Red Line top 500 ranking) I actually have The Tree of Life ahead of anything by the Coen brothers, Spielberg,  David Lynch, PT Anderson and all but 3 films from the 1990’s (Breaking the waves, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction). Wow.

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perfect shot in The Tree of Life with the sun poking through- countless shots like this from the masterpiece

total archiveable films:  7

top 100 films: 2 (The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven)

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almost tragic we had nothing from Malick between this film Days of Heaven in 1978 and The Thin Red Line in 1998

top 500 films: 4 (The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, The New World, Badlands)

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the mansion as an all-timer set piece in Days of Heaven

top 100 films of the decade:  5 (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life)

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stunning interior work here in Tree of Life

most overrated:  Badlands. It is #132 of all-time on TSPDT and Malick’s #1 film. I’m below these two grades a little. It’s his easiest film – and a brilliant one- but clearly not his best. This will remedy itself on TSPDT over time.

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Magic hour in Badlands one of cinema’s great debut films
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from To the Wonder- an image that makes me excited to revisit

most underrated: The New World is all the way down at #807 on TSPDT (I have it at #193) but because it’s more recent it’s not as bad as it looks. It’s actually the #5 film on TSPDT and I have it as #2 so we’re fairly close there actually.

one of Malick’s best “three the trees” trademark shots- low angle, trees and sun in The New World

gem I want to spotlight:  The Thin Red Line has taken 20  years to be fully appreciated but it’s there now. The #1 film from 1998 on TSPDT. The photography is sublime but how about Hans Zimmer’s scales in the score?

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from wheat fields in Days of Heaven to the jungle in The Thin Red Line-nature is always the most important character in Malick films
perhaps no auteur can match Malick’s photographic sensibilities and accomplishments– from The Thin Red Line

stylistic innovations/traits:   There’s really a lot Malick is known for now: voice-over narration, magic hour, stunning photograph usually involving nature. If the director is easily parodied then he/she’s probably an auteur (QT, Wes, Hitchcock, Bergman, Leone). He’s also known as a meticulous editor who takes forever to makes movies (or at least did) as he took a 20 year break between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line (and then another 7 year break and then another 6 year break). Though he didn’t start out this way with his relatively straightforward narrative style in Badlands– I think he has to be known now as an editor/montagists and a manipulator of the standard narrative. His most recent trio of films (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song) have not been as good—plain and simple. I’m eager to revisit but the knock on them that they are more like perfume advertisements is apt (though they are beautiful). He’s also a Christian and his works have to be studied and viewed as such for their spirituality and Christ allegories (Thin Red Line especially).

a strong candidate for cinema’s greatest shot – Days of Heaven

top 10

  1. The Tree of Life
  2. The Thin Red Line
  3. Days of Heaven
  4. The New World
  5. Badlands
  6. To the Wonder
  7. Knight of Cups
a hauntingly beautiful singular image in The Tree of Life

By year and grades

1973- Badlands MP
1978- Days of Heaven MP
1998- Thin Red Line MP
2005- The New World MP
2011- The Tree of Life MP
2012- To the Wonder R
2015- Knight of Cups 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