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Terrence Malick feature films ranked from worst to best

When things become too prepared, the life comes out of it.” – Terrence Malick

American writer-director Terrence Malick has been making films since the New Hollywood era and shows no signs of slowing down. With an already impressive filmography, Malick is all set to add his upcoming drama The Way of the Wind to that list. The filmmaker has received several awards for his iconic filmmaking, including the Palme d’Or and the Golden Bear among others.

Malick’s directorial style is defined by his belief that the representation of life on film has to be organic. “If you try to make things happen, they start to feel presented,” he said. “The action has been premeditated. It starts to feel like theatre, which is wonderful in its own right. But you don’t want the movies to be like theatre.”

The filmmaker has directed 9 feature films but he feels he has a lot more to offer. “There’s a good many pictures I’d like to make,” Malick admitted. “We’ll see how many I’ll be allowed to make.” He is famously reclusive and rarely responds to invitations for interviews. He explained the reason, “Perhaps when I have 10 films behind me, I will have something worth saying.”

On his 77th birthday, we revisit his illustrious filmography as a celebration of Terrence Malick’s immense contribution to the world of cinema.

Terrence Malick feature films ranked:

9. Knight of Cups (2015)

Malick’s 2015 experimental drama features Christian Bale as Rick, a disillusioned screenwriter who gets tired of the empty success in his life and embarks on an odyssey through Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The narrative structure is divided into eight chapters which explore the relationship between the protagonist and a person in his life. Knight of Cups was released to mixed reviews, with critics complaining that the film was tedious and flawed.

Christian Bale said of the filmmaker, “He’s very humorous, Terry. You wouldn’t be disappointed. He’s a wonderful conversationalist and has some wonderful insights and comments and a very different way of communicating. But then he also has a great silliness, like everyone should have.”

He added, “His sets are very conducive to feeling courageous to do whatever you feel like doing, and he’s very accepting of that. He really enjoys people. He likes hearing their ideas. He doesn’t just want to impose his own, which sometimes you get with directors.”

8. Song to Song (2017)

Malick’s recent reinterpretation of the romantic drama genre is set in the vibrant music scene of Austin, Texas and explores the dangerous world of seduction and betrayal through two intersecting love triangles. The film features a star-studded ensemble cast including Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, and Cate Blanchett. Like many of his other works, Song to Song was accused of being incoherent and abstract without ever reaching the philosophical poignance of his masterpieces.

“These days, with modern technology, you can shoot a lot in 40 days,” said Malick, who admitted his first cut of Song to Song was eight hours long. “It took a long time to cut it down to a manageable length…We had enough footage to tell the story from different perspectives.”

7. To The Wonder (2012)

Filmed in Oklahoma and Paris, To The Wonder is an unusual chronicle of dysfunctional relationships told through the usual lenses of romance and all its disillusionments. It stars Ben Affleck as Neil, a man who cannot choose between the woman he brought home from Paris and his childhood sweetheart (played by Rachel McAdams). Although the film was nominated for a Golden Life, it polarised critics and audiences alike.

“We’ve become used to going to a movie and expecting answers,” Rachel McAdams said. “Terry doesn’t do that and that asks a lot of the audience. But I think it’s important we continue to exercise our movie-watching muscles…And I love that Terry says: you choose your own adventure here.”

6. The New World (2005)

Often regarded as the most misunderstood work in Terrence Malick’s filmography, The New World is an ambitious project which depicts the founding of the Jamestown, Virginia. It draws inspiration from the history of Captain John Smith, Pocahontas of the Powhatan tribe and Englishman John Rolfe and tries to investigate the horrors of colonialism. The film was dismissed at the time of its release but many film critics have later hailed it as one of the best works of that decade.

Composer James Horner said, “Everybody told him it was unwatchable. Everybody! Everybody! And he had Final Cut, and when a director has final cut, everybody can scream and shout, but unless you’re willing to really go head-to-head in combat, you basically have to throw up your hands and say, ‘I have no control over this man.’

“The editor who had worked on The Thin Red Line begged Terry to fix the film. It was a love story, and Terry doesn’t feel those feelings. All I can say is that Terry is on the surface a stone and he does not know how to tell love stories to save his life.”

5. A Hidden Life (2019)

Malick’s most recent film is set during the Second World War and tells the story of an Austrian farmer (August Diehl) who faces the possibility of being executed after refusing to fight for the Nazis. Based on real events, Malick’s epic historical drama is a searing look at what it means to be human in the darkest of times and against all odds. The film won multiple awards at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Palme d’Or.

The cinematographer Jörg Widmer explained, “This film follows a storyline, but it’s about exploring this humanity. You have many different options of how to capture that, and the way Terry does it is by letting the scene flow.”

Adding, “If [the actors] move, I can move. There are hardly any shots that are static – maybe, sometimes a landscape, because nature stays where it is. Whatever happens on Earth, nature doesn’t care too much.”

4. The Tree of Life (2011)

Malick’s beautiful 2011 drama is set in the 1950s and follows the story of a Midwestern family and the complicated relationship between Jack (played by Sean Penn) and his father (Brad Pitt). The film investigates the nature and origin of life through the memories of a middle-aged man, employing stunning imagery to ask questions about faith and the meaning of our existence. The Tree of Life received three Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography.

“Experience it like a walk in the countryside,” Malick advised. “You’ll probably be bored or have other things in mind, but perhaps you will be struck, suddenly, by a feeling, by an act, by a unique portrait of nature.”

3. Days of Heaven (1978)

Malick’s second feature film, Days of Heaven is often called a “screen poem” because of its breathtaking cinematography. Set in 1916, the film presents the recurring tropes of love and murder at the turn of the century and the ominous implications of the Anthropocene. One of Malick’s most influential films, Days of Heaven won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography and Malick received the Best Director Award at Cannes for his masterful work.

Malick revealed, “It was in Austin, Texas that I had the idea for Days of Heaven. I found myself alone for a summer in the town I had left when I was a high school student. There were those green, undulating hills, and the very beautiful Colorado river. The place is inspired. It is inspiring, and there the film came to me all together.”

2. The Thin Red Line (1998)

The second screen adaptation of the 1962 novel of the same name by James Jones, The Thin Red Line marked Malick’s return to filmmaking after a 20-year absence. It features a fictionalised account of a group of soldiers who get caught up in an insurmountable battle at Guadalcanal, an event which makes them question the war they are fighting and the overwhelming violence. The film received seven Academy Award nominations, won the Golden Bear Award and Martin Scorsese named it as his second-favourite film of the 1990s.

Actor Jim Caviezel recalled, “There are moments in that film where I felt absolutely filled with the Holy Spirit, tremendously. Terry said, ‘Look over here at the people, at the men that are dying.’ I kept looking around and I began to weep, and it was right before I was ever in that scene. It was a miracle after miracle.”

1. Badlands (1973)

Malick’s brilliant directorial debut, this neo-noir crime drama is regularly cited as one of the greatest and most influential films of all time. Loosely based on the real-life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend in 1958, Badlands defined Malick’s aesthetic sensibilities as he offered a glorious cinematic tribute to the fearsome terrain of unabashed cruelty. It stars Martin Sheen as a troubled greaser and Korean War veteran who shoots his lover’s father and takes her on a remarkable odyssey of crime through the Midwest to the Badlands of Montana.

“At the end of my second year in Los Angeles, I began work on Badlands,” Malick said. “My influences were books like The Hardy Boys, Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, all involving an innocent in a drama over his or her head. I wanted the picture to be set up like a fairy tale, outside time, like Treasure Island.”

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