The 1970s was one of cinema’s most important decades – young arthouse-inspired directors evolved the American version of the form from the formulaic studio and star-driven extravaganzas of previous generations and began to capture new attitudes, introducing interesting new ways to present stories in the process. Among the list of legends to make a name for themselves was Terrence Malick, a lesser known man than the superstar names of Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese and Spielberg, but arguably amongst the era’s most promising; one of the United States’ first film studies graduates applying his earlier philosophy degree perspectives to the big screen in two of the decade’s most well renowned films, his debut Badlands – which is loosely based on the true story of a 1950s serial killer from the perspective of his juvenile girlfriend – being one of American cinema’s most outstanding debuts.
The man was something of a prodigy, and then he disappeared.
After a twenty year hiatus that some have speculated he spent in Paris as a hairdresser or that he perhaps spent in his home state of Texas as a secret mentor to the likes of Before Sunrise and Boyhood director Richard Linklater, Malick returned with one of the great American war movies The Thin Red Line in 1998, the famously withdrawn and secretive filmmaker’s existential and poetic sensibilities shifting more and more into focus over the coming twenty years; decades that would see him earn a Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life in 2010 and subsequently divide audiences with a descent down the rabbit hole of experimental, uniquely visual cinema.
New to Malick? We recommend: Where to Start with Terrence Malick
In this edition of Ranked, we’re looking at all 10 of Terrence Malick’s feature film releases from Badlands (1973) to A Hidden Life (2019) and ranking each in terms of their unique qualities, artistic standards and importance to Malick’s own filmography, taking into account the filmmaking intentions of this great director as well as the critical and public reception of each release.
Make sure to let us know your favourite Terrence Malick film in the comments at the end of this article, and follow us on Twitter to stay up to date with more articles like this one.
10. Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey (2016)
Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey is less of a Malick movie intent on subverting the expectations of the form or developing a melodic narrative to rival that of the great poets and is more an experimental journey into IMAX. It looks beautiful, as fans of the director’s work have come to expect, and it feels every bit as epic as a lot of his more recent releases, but working outside of the narrative form does limit how much it feels like a Terrence Malick film and as such it sits at the bottom of our list. This one will be of interest to Malick fans, but is far from a must-watch for wider audiences.
9. Song to Song (2017)
Terrence Malick’s later work has come in for a lot of criticism, especially pre-A Hidden Life where the director almost abandoned narrative structure altogether for much of his work in the 2010s. Song to Song is perhaps the biggest offender of the era in terms of being impenetrable, the star-studded music-festival-going romantic drama feeling at times more like an advert than a film, every shot remarkably beautiful but Malick’s intentions at their most difficult to find. For the uninitiated, Song to Song will instantaneously wow with its sensational photography, but this is a film by a filmmaker with intentions diverted away from meaning in the traditional sense and is therefore a film that is difficult for some to become interested in.