2. Badlands (1973)
Starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek before they would both shoot to superstardom with Apocalypse Now (1979) and Carrie (1976) respectively, Terrence Malick’s feature directorial debut Badlands would borrow from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to tell the tale of a young couple on the run from the law, the myth of the American Dream very much the target of Malick’s philosophising. Here, Sheen’s Kit, donned in double denim and always with one eye on the horizon in a glimpse at how his head is almost always in the clouds, sees himself as a James Dean type intent on going down in history in one way or another despite his relatively disadvantaged existence as a trash collector. “Magicking” away victims with the flick of his rifle’s trigger, Sheen’s Kit joyously and with all the charisma of the great Dean himself becomes an infamous serial killer who rationalises every murder as a necessary evil in his pursuit of fame and glory. What makes Badlands so unique is how his journey is juxtaposed by the innocence and juvenility of the voiceover provided by his on-screen love interest Holly (Spacek), whose comments on magazines and the weather seem so out of touch from her vicious reality and yet so vital to our understanding of the couple’s relationship. Beautiful to look at – not least because Malick shot a lot of the film himself in the afterhours of when his crew were contractually afforded time to rest, including iconic golden hour shots that have become a directorial trademark – and somewhat hypnotic in tone and pace, Badlands is a remarkable film that only becomes more impressive with time; a feature debut few can rival and a timeless piece of cinema to boot.
1. The Tree of Life (2011)
A Palme d’Or winner from one of the industry’s most respected and enigmatic figures, The Tree of Life is a celebrated merging of mainstream and avante-garde storytelling techniques that all-but confirms Terrence Malick as one of the only certifiable American auteurs of the modern age. Mixing real-life experience with existential philosophy and some of the 21st century’s most beautiful cinematography (thanks again to the director’s long-running partnership with Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki), The Tree of Life is a feast of both personal and fantastical filmmaking, an essential insight into this famously reclusive but hugely important filmmaker; a release that many argue marks the very height of his existential, religiously fueled output; a must-watch piece of art cinema. As the years pass, and as Malick’s name evolves further, this deeply beautiful and layered piece continues to grow in reputation and importance, and despite the relatively monumental nature of his every release that is still yet to come, this 2010 film seems unlikely to be topped in terms of beauty, significance to the filmmaker himself, or importance to the English language version of the form.
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