Every Terrence Malick film ranked from Worst to Best

In anticipation of Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, I re-watched all of his films (with the exception of Voyage of Time, which I saw in theaters a year ago.) I have a tremendous amount of respect for Malick’s work, even if I have no idea what he is doing. While I’m not especially crazy about his later work, the man makes movies for himself first, and that commitment to self-indulgence gives him artist credibility. I doubt he will ever make another film that I will love, but he’s definitely capable.


9. Knight of Cups

Rating: 4.5/10

This movie sucks.



8. Song to Song

Rating 5/10

This probably deserves a lower rating as it is incredibly bad, but it is fun to watch. It is pure self-parody and its inclusion of Austin City Limits footage brings the film to “so bad it’s funny” territory. Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, and Matthew Fassbender are in on the joke this time around, which brings great camp performances. Their self-aware acting rivals the excellent Gina Gershon in Showgirls.

The best acting in the film is done by Patti Smith, and the worst by Lykke Li.


7. The New World

Rating: 5.5/10

What bothers me about this film is that instead of feeling like an almost three-hour epic, it feels like four different movies crammed into one. First, there is the contact between the English and the new world, which leads to John Smith becoming intertwined with Pocahontas and the natives, and the consequences of it. Second, there is Pocahontas’s exile and merge with the settlers. Third, there is her new relationship with John Rolfe, and fourth, there is Pocahontas in her “new world”, England.

The reason I say four different movies is because the editing in this film isn’t seamless. The film drops us in each sequence and has us sit around, getting comfortable in the film’s world, before abruptly jumping forward to the next “plot” point to further the overall arc. It feels forced and annoying. It makes me care less about the characters as the “story” goes on. What makes this more annoying is that the film is at first, both equally about Smith and Pocahontas, their relationship with each other and their respective “worlds.” About midway through, Smith is out of the film, and Pocahontas is the sole protagonist. She is a passive protagonist and makes no interesting decisions for the rest of the film. She goes with the flow as the equally uninteresting dictate her decisions.

The film lacks the emotion and passion of Malick’s previous films and settles for wooden talk as the camera moves around the characters. None of the emotion present in each character’s faces in the thin red line is present here. Most scenes have each of the actors just make blank faces. Malick starts to plagiarize himself as John Smith’s time with the natives could be seen as no different from when Witt went AWOL in the thin red line. They serve the same purpose and push the same idea. This also kinda makes this the second film in Malick’s Eat Pray Love trilogy, as Malick seems to love characters finding happiness in other cultures. The voice overs in this film are terrible by the way.  I pulled up the first quote voice over line I could find on IMDB.

Mother, where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea? Show me your face. Give me a sign. We rise… we rise. Afraid of myself. A god, he seems to me. What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? Oh, to be given to you. You to me. I will be faithful to you. True. Two no more. One. One. I am… I am.

Despite my reservations, there are interesting ideas executed well in this film. There is the contrast between Smith’s peace and joy among the tribe and the instant savagery he sees when he meets back up with his fellow men. Each character trying to adapt to what they find weird about the other’s culture is also neat. There might be a good television or miniseries in this film, if each story were given enough time to flow naturally, but instead the film comes off empty and fake. Malick is on his way to become the cheesy grandpa who tells kids, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”


6. The Tree of Life

Rating: 6/10

This might be literally Malick’s most commercial film, if you split the movie up and make 200 different commercials. I loved this when I first saw it five years ago, but upon re-watching it, I slapped myself in the face. Then I took a poo. Then I showered, because I don’t feel comfortable with a post-poop ass in my moderately clean underwear.

So the film isn’t exactly 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Hell, the film truly deserves neither the intense praise it got nor the hate. It’s a pretty aight movie, even if I love to constantly make fun of it.

Okay, so here’s what works. First, the cinematography is flat out eye porn. It’s hard not to love the photography is every scene. Second, which is the main thing I loved, is the intimate family interactions. The little snippets of growing up in the small Texas town in the 1950s feel too real. When the father speaks to his kids, the dialogue is well acted and naturalistic. The stern father and the loving mother, and the distinction between how the kids respond to each of them emotionally is heartwarming. It’s also riveting when the film shows seemingly random moments in the children’s lives that shape their development. Life is just a bunch of little moments that for better or worse make us. Almost every character in this film is portrayed affectionately even when they are at their worst.

Now here’s what sucks. The scenes that take place in the future/present are phony. Sure, the beginning sets us up for a character death that still impacts the characters in the present, but the way it is done is silly. Are the ultra-modern looking Dallas skyscrapers to show the contrast between the nostalgia filtered past and the cold mechanical future? Should we give a shit? Next, the cosmic imagery interspersed in the film, regardless of what anyone says, brings down the movie. I know Malick’s childhood and family mean the universe to him, but this is an obnoxious way of showing that.  It doesn’t enhance the mood, unless nature porn is enough to blow everyone’s mind? If that’s your thing, fine. I won’t deny that the world looks awesome, but when you try to interpret symbolic truth/meaning in this, you’re just making an ass out of yourself. The film’s religious “spiritual” meandering sucks shit. This is the third film to have voiceovers saying, “Mother” followed by something a yuppie yoga instructor would say. Malick isn’t as stupid and sexy as Jim Morrison to get away with this kind of stuff.

I could also go on about the stupidity of the mom at the end of the movie saying something along the lines of “I give you my son” to the guy’s wife.

Oh and here’s a fun fact. Upon re-watching this, my Blu-ray player malfunctioned around the last couple of minutes of the movie. I had to restart it and jump back to the scene (for some reason the playback wouldn’t work). At the scene selection menu for the last scene, its fucking title is “Was it a dream?”

He’s not even trying anymore. This is the cookie-cutter art film stereotype and it’s good enough for him.

Will viewers choose the path of nature, accepting the daily crap that is force fed to them and pretending it’s great, or the path of grace, searching for and sucking the dick of every mild deviation and pretending its revolutionary?


Read a book.


5. Voyage of Time (A.K.A. Tree of Life Bloopers)

Rating: 6.3/10

I saw this movie at a zoo.

It smelled like shit and there were ladybugs on the projector.

There were about twenty people in the audience.

Fourteen of them had Down syndrome.


4. To The Wonder

Rating: 7/10 (Best of 21st Century Malick)

It amazes me how little Ben Affleck has to bring to this movie. He is especially terrible at playing someone doing nothing. Malick could not have picked a less charismatic actor to play his avatar.

Moving on, this might be both Malick’s most abstract film and his meanest. Like The Tree of Life, this film is also based on Malick’s own life experiences. The woman in this film, Marina, is based off his relationship with his ex-wife. Since Affleck just makes dumb faces while Marina does things, she is the focus of the film. By Malick casts himself out of the action, and having her as the center of the drama, he succeeds in making her character come across as both crazy and stupid. Her actions are on a whim and come across as incredibly childish. Knowing that this is Malick’s interpretation of being with this woman, by making her look this way but conveniently making his character a simple mime, he comes across like a judgmental asshole, revealing his take on her while hiding himself.  Marina has a child in this film, and they both act almost identical to each other.

She has a line in the film where she says, “weak people never end things. They wait for other people to do it for them.” Seeing as all of her decisions are a result of Malick’s character, who is the one to end their relationship, the narrative implies that she is weak. This point is supported through her progressive aimlessness.

What makes this film a bit refreshing is that Malick manages to show us the mundane and the ugly in this film. We see them go to a Hardees drive-through and it looks just like that. We see boring looking parts of Oklahoma and trashy looking kids and families. It’s not this beautiful glorified image, but itself. Through the priest played by Javier Bardem, we see a lot of ugly, sad people with serious problems. For once, everything isn’t beautiful.

The movie is abstract because it continues to jump forward randomly, giving the audience very little to work with. This forces the viewers to fill in the blanks throughout the whole movie. I can’t even call this ambiguity because this is beyond that. This is Malick at his most experimental.

There are pretty nature shots, but they are crazily reduced compared to all his other movies.


3. The Thin Red Line

Rating: 7/10

This is the transitional film that separates Malick’s early work from his later work.  This is the film that will satisfy both the 70s purists and those that love his 21st century “spiritual” phase.  What I think is remarkable about this film is how unimportant language is in it. I think a foreigner can watch this without subtitles and still understand the story, the tone, and the feeling of the film as long as they are visually literate. The soldiers don’t necessarily need to be American vs. the Japanese. This could be any war. It shows both the forced bond and unity, along with the cruel savagery of conflict. There are no good or bad guys, just people. Both groups fight each other for their cause, while the third group, the Melanesians, stand idly as the other two groups use their land as a battlefield.

With the exception of Witt, none of the characters’ names are memorable. Each character represents a different aspect of mankind: the hope, fear, sacrifice, struggle, anguish, anger, and love. The latter is a theme that Malick will never shut the fuck up about in some of his more heavy handed films. Seriously, I could have sworn the voice overs in this film were repeated to worse effect in his later movies. Anyways, Malick’s directing here prevents any of the characters from coming across as clichés.

This film begins and ends with Witt. It can almost be seen as his story, but it isn’t. The film doesn’t have a beginning or an end. The film drops us into the aftermath of Witt’s actions, seeing him at his happiest.  We only learn a little about one of the soldier’s lives before the war, but everyone else is a shadow of themselves along with their current circumstances.  While I don’t agree with all of Malick’s directing decisions, up to this point he has established not only a love of nature, but a love of humanity.


2. Badlands

Rating: 8/10

This is a fantastic directorial debut and possibly Malick’s most accessible film. One can see the first of what would become Malick’s trademark style: the voiceovers, the poetic storytelling, gorgeous cinematography, ambiguity, etc. Funny enough, this is still his most plot-centric film, and it’s just barely plot-driven compared to most Hollywood movies*. Kit and Holly play two sociopath lovers on the run from the law. The film doesn’t try to vilify them as monsters, nor give the audience a sympathetic insight into their behavior. They are who they are, and that’s that. The audience sees the world through their naïve, dreamlike eyes.

There are subtle hints towards the media’s glorification of crime, and giving rebels celebrity status. Kit takes pride in the fact that he resembles James Dean, even if he’s just an aimless trigger-happy garbage man. Holly hardly feels remorse for any of Kit’s actions and is content to go along for the ride. They both value attention and sudden purpose more than the world around them, giving each of their actions little to no thought. Each has a blue and orange sense of morality, but the film does a good job at not being preachy or judging them. At the end of the day, they are just people.

The music by Carl Orff is so perfectly used in this film that I can’t help but cringe when I hear the melody reused in various other movies and trailers.


*This was the 70s though, and Hollywood was taking a lot of risks during this period.


1. Days of Heaven

Rating: 9/10

For my money, this is Malick’s best film. Everyone is perfectly cast, especially Linda Manz, who has the face of the time period. Everything of the time period is exceptionally done. The photography is perfect, thanks to Malick’s obsession with the magic hour, as well as the great photography of Haskell Wexler who followed after Nestor Almendros’s lead. This might also be Malick’s most emotionally honest film. One thing that seperates Badlands and Days of Heaven from Malick’s later films is that the voiceovers in both films reveal insight into the psyche of the characters and their world, even if it’s not obviously related to the action around them. The newer films have too much pseudo-spiritual talk-out-of-assing.

The film doesn’t sugarcoat the harsh conditions of migrant work, but illustrates both the cruelty and lack of compassion of humanity, along with the little things that keep people moving. Pure cinema is when the young Linda tap dances with a black man as the workers are on break. The kid lives only in the moment. She is rich in experience, although uneducated, has character and a good head on her shoulders. She constantly reflects upon her feelings and random thoughts, as the film’s narrator.

Hell, the line, “I could be a mud doctor” is so damn perfect; I want to tear my hair out.

Richard Gere’s character, Bill, is motivated mostly by love (a theme that follows all of Malick’s work) for Abby (Brooke Adams). He is selfish, impulsive, and stupid at times, throwing away his meal for the day to fight with a stranger to defend his lover’s honor. Moments like this establish both his unrestrained behavior and his sacrificial nature, which will have him later push his woman to marry another man to give her a better life. While seemingly noble, Bill doesn’t consider the consequences.

Abby and the farmer (who Abby marries) are both tormented characters. Abby is conflicted by guilt of both lying to and in turn using the farmer to elevate her status, and betraying Bill, by giving herself to the farmer. Later, she ends up falling in love with the farmer, which only complicates her feelings. Abby depends on others, in which she chooses to act within the limited choices given to her. The farmer is alienated by his status. He is dumb and lonely, with little understanding of how the world works, and has only one friend. He is also terminally ill.

The film is a mood piece, as interestingly enough, Malick cut the majority of the dialogue scenes from the film, which is crazy as the film gets to the point without inconsistency. I would imagine the uncut film would feel like a bloated drama. To me, this work of visual poetry is his masterpiece.

Also, Leo Kottke’s guitar music is pretty cool.


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