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

a sublime low angle shot up through the swirling stained-glass windows of a church arrives soon after

  • 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.

The notably breathtaking sequence of the salt beach at the 130-minute mark with the camera tracking behind Chastain as she blots out the sun

  • 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.

Score one for Cannes over the Academy- this won the Palme D’Or in 2011.

  • 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



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.


From Pawlikowski’s The Woman in the Fifth- the narrative is intentionally opaque—closest relative would be to Cronenberg’s underrated (and also impenetrable to most, Spider from 2002). But the visual aplomb is in the lineage of Antonioni and the formal creation strong as well. 84 minutes which has become a trademark now of Pawlikowski. Like Red Desert or Spider it is really a film about a disturbed point of view. Ebert was one of the few critics to like the film- in his review he called for a shot-by-shot analysis.  It starts slower stylistically, but it is still formally set up very well- the film gets better visually as Ethan Hawke’s character’s psyche become less and less sound.

David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method- first and foremost, it is one of the greatest uses of depth of field in recent cinema history. Or at least the first half of the film is. Cronenberg uses the split diopter here as well (and as often) as anyone not named Brian De Palma.



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.

Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter- just one of the trio of films near the top of 2011 about the apocalypse

There may not be a better opening eight-minutes in cinema history than the way auteur, and enfant terrible, Lars von Trier starts his 2011 masterpiece Melancholia. The film begins with a slow-motion montage of cinematic paintings accompanied by Wagner’s excerpts from Tristan und Isolde. Included in the montage are the Last Year at Marienbad-like lawn with sundial shot, the three characters with the moon, sun, and melancholia, the shots of Earth and Melancholia in space, Kirsten Dunst laying in the water in her dress, the falling black horse… simply sublime cinema art.

These are not just jaw-dropping random images either—they are all connected to the narrative. This opening reminds me of the chapter breaks by von Trier and Danish artist Per Kirkeby in Breaking the Waves– except here von Trier piles up the cinematic paintings all at once in a long silent, immaculate prologue.

The Hungarian master, Bela Tarr, proclaimed The Turin Horse to be his last film at age 56. That’s regrettable, but if it is true, he’ll finish with a gigantic masterpiece. The first dialogue is “it’s ready” talking about the potato at the 21-minute mark. Austere, minimal, Dreyer. An immaculate cinematic photograph (here) of the daughter in her cloak going out into the menacing storm with the water buckets on day three. Tarr knows what he has here and repeats it on day four.

A masterpiece-Tarr’s work combines a mixture of masterful camera movements and supreme photography. There’s dogmatic dedication to a specific worldview, theme, and somber tone.

  • 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 a pretty sad slate at the top for the box office winners in 2011: Transformers, Twilight, another Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Hangover sequel– easily the best of the bunch is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 pictured here

Shame is the second collaboration between the brilliant Steve McQueen and his lead actor Michael Fassbender.  The results are a brave, unflinching character study directed with such stylistic bravura. Architecture (and space) and lighting helping to reveal character here

  • 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.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is drenched in red- countless arrangements filled with red lighting, red paint, red objects: red Clifford dog, red ball, red shirts, red alarm clock emphasized, red chairs at the travel agency where she works, red jelly in sandwich, red ketchup with eggs, tomato soup background at store, red wine in almost every scene, red police lights accentuated.

Ramsay’s work is a collage of  memories and time strands — a portrait of a killer from the frazzled point of view of a post-traumatic living zombie

from Aki Kaurismäki’s  Le Havre. Kaurismäki’s mise-en-scene arrangements get stronger and stronger throughout his career- peaking in 2011.  There is naturalism, or comically/ironically dingy or neorealism in his earlier films, like the proletariat trilogy. That, over time, has given way to a more Roy Andersson/Sirk/Fassbinder- like composition-focused (gorgeous) auteur. These are moving paintings. Also, for the first time in Kaurismäki work there is an absolute dedication to color here in the production design- – here it is teal green/blue—the bar, the boat, his little home- even the taxi.

  • 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. 

From Haywire- Soderbergh baths the climax in an awesome blue day for night

  • 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 maleMichael 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.


McQueen uses a sterile color palette – sublime- greys, blues, greens- and it is not wrong to talk about Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle in terms of how McQueen and Fassbender build their character

Gosling’s minimal non verbal acting style serves him well in Drive- and it will be influence his work throughout much of the decade with stoic work in (The Place Beyond the Pines, Only God Forgives, Blade Runner 2049, and First Man)



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 shot of Dunst in the stream with the bouquet is from John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting “Ophelia” Dunst plays Justine. Justine is not a victim and martyr like Breaking the Waves’ Bess or Bjork’’s Selma in Dancer in the Dark. It does not appear von Trier is after sympathy for her here. She suffers being bipolar (this is probably a gross oversimplification here from me)—and on her wedding night is abandoned by everyone close to her: her husband, mother, father and sister. The planet is in many ways a metaphor for her illness (as she has ominous looks to the heavens).

Ramsay’s creation is fever dream expressionism with Swinton (who is superb) as her vehicle through a nightmare —she is almost catatonic or a zombie- and justifiably so horrifying. Swinton has had a storied career of course- working with many great auteurs over three decades with over twenty archiveable films– but the answer to what her single best performance is– is either 1992’s Orlando or 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The final dividing shot is from A Separation is shattering. It is really the first and only transcendent visual in the film- but Farhadi knows what he has here and holds as the credits role. This is Antonioni’s L’Eclisse– physical barriers between the couple. Baumbach would do this in Marriage Story. Here, Hatami’s character is in the background left behind the dividing door—and Maadi is in the foreground right in front of the door.

Woody’s Midnight in Paris makes for a very nice companion piece to 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo



top 10

  1. The Tree of Life
  2. The Turin Horse
  3. Melancholia
  4. Shame
  5. We Need to Talk About Kevin
  6. Drive
  7. Le Havre
  8. The Woman in the Fifth
  9. A Dangerous Method
  10. A Separation



Cary Fukunaga’s second effort after his debut Sin Nombre in 2009 is Jane Eyre– an exquisitely photographed film

in 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Almodovar uses a high angle to capture a colorful rug and duvet as a backdrop- here in The Skin I Live In- he is utilizing the same tactic to create a dazzling mise-en-scene.

This is the first collaboration between Almodovar and Antonio Banderas since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)

for the follow-up to his 2008 breakthrough Let the Right One In– Swedish director Tomas Alfredson gets a dream cast (and a great set piece here) together for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that includes Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, John Hurt, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea. Though Davies’ debut was in 1988- this is still only his fifth film- all on them are very worthy of study and praise.

Davies’ showing off a von Sternberg-like obstructed mise-en-scene here

Martha Marcy May Marlene announced the talent of director Sean Durkin and actor Elizabeth Olsen- not to mention giving veteran actor John Hawkes two really strong years in a row with his work here and in 2010’s Winter’s Bone




Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Dangerous Method – Cronenberg HR/MS
A Separation – Farhadi HR/MS
Alps- Lanthimos R
Bernie- Linklater R
Cedar Rapids – Arteta R
Contagion – Soderbergh R
Coriolanus- Fiennes R
Drive – Refn MS
Elena- Zvyagintsev R
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
Limitless -Burger R
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