Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Three

#3 — The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is cinema a formed by memory. Or maybe it’s cinema in the shape or memory. Or cinema capturing the texture of memory. Or cinema turned back on itself, the use of imagery in the service of coaxing emotions taking to its logical extreme, so committed to finding a purity of execution that it rhapsodically warps into near-abstraction. At times, Malick seems to be creating an entirely new vernacular, holding it up as a challenge and gift to the audience. This is what the movies can be, if only we hack away at structures and let them moves like spindly waterways with only fleeting commitments to gravity.

Examining the plot of the film suggests it is about childhood and the way the strongest sensation felt during those developmental years — trauma at the hands of a bullying father, adoration for a gentle, angelic mother — haunt a person well into adulthood, clinging to the soul even as the structures of success would seem to promise some sort of absolution, a wiping away of the past. But then it’s also about the cosmic undulations of the universe, the teeming networks of all manner of inscrutable living beings, and the vastness of all of history. People bully people, and, in Malick’s reckoning, dinosaurs bullied dinosaurs. Here’s some proof of that, right on the screen. The Tree of Life flicks and flitters like a roaming imagination, and yet it is also clearly assembled with a striking meticulousness, a fierce certainty that it all fits together in a logical procession that offers insight and revelation. There is obvious and exciting intellect at play here.

In making a film like few others, it’s only natural that Malick inspired many his collaborators to reach career peaks. It ludicrous that Emmanuel Lubezki has three Academy Awards for his cinematography and none of them has The Tree of Life etched into the base. Alexandre Desplat’s score is delicate and ravishing, and every piece of the art direction, production design, set decoration, and costume design is done with exquisite care. There are five credited editors on the film, an understandable strategy of staffing largesse. How else could this film that goes from moment to moment with the immediacy of fast-firing synapses possibly be stitched into shape? It takes a quintet to keep up with Malick’s fully unleashed talent.

When The Tree of Life was released, it was Malick’s first film in six years and only his fifth feature in the nearly four decade span since his directorial bow, Badlands. And it felt like the sort of torrent that comes from an artist that has held themselves in until all that fervent rumination built upon enough pressure to topple a dam. He’s been uncharacteristically prolific since then, releasing as many films in the nine years after The Tree of Life as in the thirty-eight years before it. The tempting conclusion is that the wholesale reinvention of his art represented by The Tree of Life was freeing, allowing him to move forward without the pressure of topping himself because a clear pinnacle had been reached, an entirely unexpurgated realization of the cinema that swirls inside him. Like no one else could have conceivably managed, he made perception into storytelling.

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