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Malick Films Ranked

March 26, 2016

On the eve of the much-anticipated release of the seventh film (Knight of Cups) of American auteur par excellence, Terrence Malick, I’ve been getting the anticipatory juices flowing by reacquainting myself with the six films he’s made so far. **NB – This list was updated when I saw Knight of Cups on May 22, 2016.** Even the most hallowed of filmmakers have made the odd ‘turkey’ but Malick is one of the rare exceptions: perhaps because his filmmaking is so painstaking and calibrated (the first six were made over a forty year period) or more likely because he makes very few commercial or mainstream concessions, and each film is made with a such a compelling and unfettered emotional sentiment designed to shed light on the mysterious phenomena of this thing we call ‘existence’…

1st Days of Heaven

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Perhaps the picture where Malick came closest to perfecting all his hallmark technical and philosophical proclivities. And although it certainly hints at that now familiar Malick refutation of the ‘tyranny’ of story, it was a work where Malick still had an ingenious respect and handle on the power of narrative: from the perfectly embodied conceit of the detached childlike narration to decontextualise the main action, to a sense that the grandiose backdrop of nature – both in its resplendent beauty and unflinching permanence – will always endure amid the transience of the people politics who temporarily fill its frame.

(Full review:

2nd The Tree of Life

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An absolutely staggering evocation of childhood told almost entirely through the sensuality of memory. On top of that though, Malick also tags the whole cosmic evolution of love and grace; frequent, dazzling shifts in perspective and chronology; a hinting at a form of ‘heaven’ – and yet despite this feel for the epic and the profound, Malick still retains an intimate, heartfelt edge.

(Full review:

3rd The New World

In many ways, more a tone poem or opera than feature film: the Pocahontas legend gets the most lyrical, emotional and rapturous treatment imaginable, scored almost entirely to Wagner, Mozart (and James Horner!)

(Full review:

4th Knight of Cups

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Malick’s most intense, insular and immersive film yet….It’s also one of the great cinematic documents of Los Angeles; one of the finest expositions of cinematography; and if you wade beneath the seeming impenetrability of the fragmented narrative – it’s a moving depiction of how a middle-aged man can find the means to move on having “outlived himself”.

5th Badlands

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Malick’s first film and it’s by far his tightest exercise in storytelling…and yet, it still more than hints at the familiar themes and ‘practices’ that were to proliferate in his future work. There’s the masterly use of voiceover, the pastoral setting, a certain reflective, ‘ironic’ distance from the action, and a staggering central female performance – Brooke Adams, Q’orianka Kilcher, Jessica Chastain and Olga Kurylenko would all go on to immortalise a certain form of feminine ‘innocence/perfection’ as Sissy Spacek does here.

(Full review:

6th The Thin Red Line

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Being near to the bottom of this list is not to damn The Thin Red Line – it’s still a masterful work and features moments of absolute genius and beauty. The Witt characterisation/subplot is a highly moving moral pivot for the story and Malick’s relentless bent to transcend and deglorify war is noble. The only marginal missteps (and we’re only nitpicking really) are the slightly ragged and didactic use of voiceover, the distracting sideshow of huge, huge names being cast in minor cameos, and the heavy quota of action – each sequence pretty much making the same point about war’s senseless, unnatural inhumanity.

(Full review:

7th To the Wonder


Malick’s most recent film and by this point he had almost entirely dispensed with any comprehensible notion of ‘narrative’. It does just lead to a sense of the law of diminishing returns in some aspects of his work (how many sequences of a woman dancing around in sunlight is needed to imprint the notion of the freedom of the spirit, and how naff was the little Ben Affleck-Rachel McAdams tryst subplot?) That apart though, this as visually stunning a work as Malick has produced (hats off to Emmanuel Lubezki for that), and it’s actually a very rich, complex story about an irrevocable sense of geographical dislocation and the search for divinity.

(Full review:


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