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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Terrence Malick


“Nostalgia is a powerful feeling; it can drown out anything.” – Terrence Malick

Creating the generic handbook for the structure of every emotionally moody independent film, Terrence Malick is a pioneer of American cinema, bringing an ethereal poeticism to each and every project he undertakes. Despite enjoying a career almost half a century-long, Malick has only created ten films, speaking to his own careful, methodical approach to writing and filmmaking. 

As if a modern nomad, Malick seems to pop up every decade or so with a new project, having avoided any media gaze, interview or exclusive for months on end. A recluse of modern cinema, Malick told audiences in a rare live Q&A that he embraced the cinematic experience, likening the experience of watching a movie on a cellphone or laptop to seeing the works of art in the Louvre reproduced on a postcard as “a memento of the experience”. 

Having worked with the likes of Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Martin Sheen, Adrien Brody, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling, however, Malick remains tied to the mainstream of Hollywood whether he’d like to be associated with it or not.

Boasting an extraordinary career, the filmography of Terrence Malick has taken the director to extraordinary heights and peculiar lows; let’s take a look back at the six films that have defined his career so far.

Terrence Malick’s six definitive films

Badlands (1973)

Starting his life in cinema making short films just like many established have done, Malick directed Lanton Mills whilst establishing contacts at the AFI, meeting the likes of Jack Nicholson as he made a name for himself in the independent circuit.

Extraordinarily, his first feature-length film came in 1973 with the extraordinary coming of age crime film Badlands starring Martin Sheen as Sissy Spacek as a young couple on a strange, unmotivated crime spree across the 1950s Midwest. A highly impressive debut feature, Badlands features the poetic grace that would later become a Malick hallmark as it told an intricate story of childish romance and fantastical thinking in the face of a modernising western world.

Days of Heaven (1978)

Five years following the success of the award-winning Badlands, Terrence Malick was on a mission to establish his name further in the realms of American cinema. Quickly picked up by Paramount, the director’s second feature was a dreamlike romance starring Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. 

Made almost entirely during the golden hour of beautiful natural light, Days of Heaven is an extraordinary feat of direction, following a love triangle that develops on a country farm in Texas in the early 20th century. Where Badlands missed out on awards season, Days of Heaven enjoyed much praise, with Terrence Malick winning the prize for Best Director at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival as well as a Palme d’Or nomination for his efforts. 

The Thin Red Line (1998)

One of Terrence Malick’s frequent cinematic hiatuses came following the release of Days of Heaven, with the director not returning behind the camera till shortly before the new millennium with the compelling WWII drama, The Thin Red Line.

A loose adaptation of the WWII novel of the same name from writer James Jones, the film features an incredible ensemble cast in its retelling of the conflict of Guadalcanal between American troops and the Japanese. Starring the likes of Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Nick Nolte, George Clooney and John Travolta, the cast helped the film to earn seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. 

In Terrence Malick’s contemporary filmography, The Thin Red Line represented a significant change of pace, enlisting the help of several Hollywood stars in his grand exploration of WWII that differed greatly from his low-key features Badlands and Days of Heaven.

The Tree of Life (2011)

The New World followed the release of The Thin Red Line in 2005, representing Terrence Malick’s first major cinematic disappointment that matched its predecessors in scope but not in narrative discipline. 

Thankfully for Malick, just six years later, he would release perhaps his most iconic film in The Tree of Life, an exploration of life, death, love and beauty starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn. Premiering at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, the extraordinary film won the Palme d’Or among many other distinguished awards, with festivals praising the film for its extraordinary scope and scale.

Known as one of the best-looking films of contemporary cinema, The Tree of Life would spark an unfortunate new derivative trend in the films of Terrence Malick. 

Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey (2016)

The career path of Terrence Malick is well-known among fans of cinema, with the director taking a noticeable dip in quality following the release of the multi-award-winning The Tree of Life. In an attempt to recreate the grand emotional essence of his 2011 classic, Malick’s To the Wonder and Knight of Cups became merely embarrassing replicas. 

The 2016 documentary, Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey came after the release of both these films and, whilst still lacking in real gravity, put the director back on a slight correction course. Exploring the past, present and future of Earth’s solar system, Malick’s film takes the existential wonder that audiences and critics adored in The Tree of Life and makes a 90 minute documentary about it, creating an impressive piece of cinema. 

Groundbreaking it is not, though Malick’s film was the jewel in what had been a rocky career turn for the director that would soon get back on track.

A Hidden Life (2019)

Terrence Malick’s most recent film came after the hopeful conclusion to the director’s melodrama trilogy in Song to Song, with his latest WWII drama being a true return to form for the iconic filmmaker. 

A marvel of cinematography, A Hidden Life depicts the life of an Austrian conscientious objector, Franz Jägerstätter, who during WWII was put to death at age 36 for undermining military actions and was later recognised as a martyr by the Catholic Church. Compared with his previous trilogy of films, Malick stated that he had “repented and gone back to working with a much tighter script,” as reported by Little White Lies, showing that even the director recognised the faults in his own filmmaking.

A total return to form, A Hidden Life is a beautiful piece of filmmaking that explores the brutality of war alongside the extraordinary resolve of the human character. With the release of The Last Planet on the horizon, let’s hope A Hidden Life represents a significant turning point for one of America’s finest ever filmmakers.