Terrence Malick Movies Ranked and Where to Stream Them

Here at Wealth of Geeks, we love to highlight the filmographies of some of the greatest directors—from Terry Gilliam to Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro. This time we're highlighting the inspiring career of Terrence Malick.

Terrence Malick Movies Ranked and Where to Stream Them

Terrence Malick is easily the most enigmatic, unorthodox director working today.

Known for his ethereal, deeply introspective movies, he has employed a wide range of innovative filmmaking techniques—including a heavy reliance on landscape shots, stream of conscious voiceovers, and extensive editing (sometimes rearranging an entire film’s narrative)—to explore profound issues like war, violence, and love, and the complicated effects it has on his characters.

These techniques have gained Malick a reputation for creating movies with otherworldly, dreamlike atmospheres that critics have equally lauded and ridiculed, with some of his films (namely his first five) earning high critical praise, and his more recent movies’ reception having been mixed.

With Malick’s 78th birthday having just passed, we decided to take a look back at the director’s short but impressive filmography so far, ranking his work from worst to best.

1. Song to Song

Song to Song

Malick's recent films have been a point of criticism from moviegoers and critics alike, all of whom tend to single out the lack of character development and disjunctive narratives as major weak areas found in these later films compared to Malick’s earlier, more impressive body of work.

Admittedly, Malick may be his best when given a straight subject matter to explore (the celebrity of crime in Badlands, war in The Thin Red Line, the dangers of misplaced affection in Days of Heaven), which may be the key explanation as to why his later filmography lacks the same emotional nuance as his earliest films.

Such a case could be specially made for Song to Song, Malick's 2017 experimental romance, with the film’s critical reception being mixed at best.

Set in the modern Texas music industry, Faye (Rooney Mara) is an aspiring guitarist struggling to establish herself, and who ends up beginning a romantic affair with a record producer (Michael Fassbender) in the hopes of advancing her career. From there, the film’s plot weaves between two pairs of love triangles, at the center of which is Faye, the producer, and Faye's boyfriend (Ryan Gosling), as they each search for and ultimately fail to find romantic connection amongst one another.

Song to Song may have had an interesting premise—the general idea being a roaming exploration of several individuals' love affairs, most of which end in heartbreak, leading them to look for further romances and (paradoxically) continuing the process (love, heartbreak, love, heartbreak, and so on in a never-ending, vicious cycle most people can likely relate to).

Though an interesting enough concept, though, the film's main failure is its execution, with none of the characters seeming particularly well developed, and their subsequent attraction to one another and their eventual breakups being somewhat poorly explained. (Plus, the idea of a woman sleeping with a record producer to advance her career remains extremely problematic by today's standards in the wake of #MeToo.)

Though it had a promising premise and might've been an interesting, retrospective take on individuals' constant attempts (and inevitable failures) to find the right romantic connection with one another, Song to Song remains Malick's most disappointing movie, with the director not capitalizing enough on the strong concept he utilizes for the film's plot.

Like most of Malick's later films, Song to Song earned mixed reviews from critics, and continues to rank as one of his least impressive efforts.

Not currently streaming, but available to rent online

Image Credit: Broad Green Pictures.

2. Knight of Cups

Knight of Cups

As mentioned above, Malick had a creative stall in his later films that saw most of his movies fail to live up to the acclaim of his first few movies. Just as had been the case with To the Wonder and his later Song to Song, his 2015 effort, Knight of Cups, similarly debuted to a polarized reception among critics and audiences.

Rick (Christian Bale) is a screenwriter whose career success fails to grant him the personal happiness he desperately craves. Looking to achieve some genuine fulfillment in his life, Rick undergoes a journey through Los Angeles and Las Vegas, learning important life lessons and philosophies from numerous people close to him in life, all of whom are modelled after a distinct card in the tarot deck (The Hanged Man, The Hermit, etc.)

Malick has long weaved in his own personal interests in philosophy and existentialism—topics and themes that are addressed in all of his movies—into all of his movies.

Here, his decision to illustrate the many different meanings of life told through a tarot deck-like presentation made for an interesting creative challenge, yet it’s an idea that didn’t feel fully fleshed out or developed enough, a common complaint that many critics agreed was the film’s major weakness.

In a way, Knight of Cups feels like it could've been an incredibly interesting film—Malick's version of Linklater's Waking Life—but in the end, it suffers from a distinct lack of clear plotting, feeling like the most chaotic and meandering of Malick's body of work so far.

Not currently streaming, but available to rent online

Image Credit: Broad Green Pictures.

3. To the Wonder

To the Wonder

In the past, Malick has more or less always been able to deliver movies that satisfactorily followed the praise of his earlier work. From the success of Badlands, Malick managed to make the positively received romance, Day in Heaven. After his triumphant return with The Thin Red Line, he delivered again with The New World and, later still, the award-winning Tree of Life.

Keeping this miraculous momentum going, after the success of The Tree of Life, however, proved too much even for Malick, whose next project failed to live up to the high acclaim The Tree of Life had managed to garner upon release.

Falling in love in Paris, American tourist Neil (Ben Affleck) invites Ukrainian divorcée Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and her young daughter to relocate to his home in Oklahoma.

Though the couple initially makes the transition to the American countryside smoothly, their love for one another slowly begins to cool, as each of them tries—and fails—to keep their relationship afloat.

Like his later Song to Song, To the Wonder thrives on a generally interesting storyline—two individuals rush into a relationship a little too quickly, make a decision to move in together, and try to fend off their own internal doubts about whether they've made a huge mistake with the whole affair.

It may have been an interesting idea, but unfortunately, Malick couldn't effectively make it as nuanced and emotionally satisfying as his earlier work, mostly due to the lack of depth he explores in his characters. (Like Song to Song, we have no idea why these characters love each other so much, with their romance coming across as superficial and random, with the main reason they love each other basically being because the story demands it.)

As would be the case with nearly all his movies following this one, To the Wonder would earn mixed reviews upon release, starting would become a somewhat tumultuous stage in Malick's career wherein his movies began earning further and further divided responses from moviegoers.

However, some critics remain enthusiastic regarding To the Wonder, with prominent critic Roger Ebert positively reviewing the film in what would be his final review before his death in 2013.

Streaming on Prime Video (premium subscription required)

Image Credit: Magnolia Pictures.

4. The New World

The New World

Malick has long been drawn to nature as a subject—as seen from the numerous shots in his films. (Seriously, if you were to look at the whole of his filmography, at least 60% of the total number of shots in his movies would be an animal or some kind of natural landscape.)

Malick's fascination with nature would ultimately culminate in his 2005 epic, The New World, one of his most beautifully-shot movies so far.

Landing on the shores of the New World, Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and his expeditionary crew of settlers struggle to establish a colony in the dense Virginia wilderness, having to survive against starvation, sickness, the elements, and continuing conflict with the nearby Powhatan tribe.

As the colonists barely survive in this newly-discovered land, they also try making peace with the Powhatans, with Smith drawn to the tribal chief's daughter, Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), whom he eventually falls in love with.

Malick's love and appreciation for nature was evident in this movie, as seen with his talent for capturing the natural beauty of Virginia. His portrayal of the land makes it seem not like the American landscape we know today, but an almost preternatural world of untold sights and sounds that leaves as an amazing first impression on the audience as it does to the European settlers.

Malick's treatment of this natural world of beauty also serves as a fantastic jumping off point in his portrayal of the Natives' and Europeans' worldviews, juxtaposing the two parties for added effect (the Natives' able to live off the land in a sustainable, ergonomic way; the Europeans coming in and trying to thrash nature into submission—chopping down trees, growing crops the land and climate won't support—and ultimately suffering because of it).

His depiction of the two groups' opposites ways of life and living, as well as their interactions, serves as yet another illustration of Malick's philosophical temperament to analyze characters' thoughts.

Here, not only do audiences see both groups' distinct worldviews, but also their worries in regards to this New World: the explorers who initially see it as a land of opportunity who slowly succumbs to the realization they may be unable to survive in such an unknown, hostile land, and the Natives' fear the arrival of the explorers could mean the end of life as they know it.

The least commercially successful of Malick’s work (it significantly underperformed at the box office), The New World remains an incredibly interesting movie that offers a complicated, nuanced take on early European colonization in America, some of the initial encounters between the settlers and the Native Americans who they would eventually come into conflict with.

Not currently streaming, but available to rent online

Image Credit: New Line Cinema. 

5. A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life

The most political of Malick's films, as well as his most recent, A Hidden Life is a return to form of sorts for Malick. Watching it, you're acutely aware it's a Malick film—the dialogue, camera style, and voiceovers are all dead giveaways—and its distinct historical setting and subject matter resemble more closely the earliest of Malick's movies, rather than the abstract, experimental films he'd made in the 2010s'.

In the early days of World War 2, Austrian farmer and fervent Catholic Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is forcibly recruited into the German Army. When he eventually refuses to take an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler, however, Jägerstätter suffers social ostracization in his close-knit community, before eventually being arrested and executed by the Nazis for his perceived treason.

Following the final years of the real-life Jägerstätter in Malick's signature filmmaking style was an interesting decision for the director. Jägerstätter himself made for an ideal Malick protagonist—someone who values his own religious beliefs over worldly concerns, and who will not sell out his integrity or personal beliefs for a fascist dictatorship.

Like all of Malick's films, the overall plot of the film is loose, but the gradual build-up towards Jägerstätter's conviction and death is well-plotted out, starting with his friends beginning to distance themselves from the farmer to his final few days in a Nazi prison.

It's this shapefulness to the movie's plot that may likely account for its success and high praise among critics, many of whom were indifferent to Malick's later work due to its loose plotting and lack of clear storyline.

The best entry in Malick's more recent filmography, A Hidden Life would win or earn nominations for numerous independent film awards, with many hailing it as a worthy successor to Malick’s early filmography.

Not currently streaming, but available to rent online

Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures. 

6. Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven 1

In what would be his final film before a nearly 20 year-long hiatus from public life and filmmaking, Malick set out to make his second feature film, the period romance drama, Days of Heaven.

In the mid-1910s', a young trio—Bill (Richard Gere), his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), and Bill's younger sister (Linda Manz)—flee to Texas after Bill kills his boss in Chicago. Finding work on the farm of a lonely, ill farmer (Sam Shepard) who has only a year to live, Bill persuades Abby to feign romantic interest in him so that they can inherit his fortune after he dies.

Things take a turn for the unexpected, however, when the farmer seems on the way to making a full recovery from his illness, as Abby slowly begins to fall in love with him.

The central theme in Days of Heaven is the dangers of misplaced romance, or more simply/cynically, “be careful who you fall in love with.”

As seen in the case of all parties involved—Gere's Bill, Adams' Abby, and Shepard's farmer—everyone in the main love triangle ends up falling for someone they'd be better off not being with, with the love triangle eventually taking a deadly spin when these complex romantic feelings turn to murderous jealously.

Previously, Malick portrayed romance as a way for dissociated individuals to find meaning and much-needed companionship in their life (Badlands). In Days of Heaven, Malick takes on a much more nuanced exploration of romance, portraying it as something both endearing and incredibly dangerous to be a part of.

Malick has explored love to numerous degrees before and after this film, notably in Badlands, To the Wonder, and Song to Song, but never before has he so expressly portrayed both the negative and positive aspects of it—depicting it more as a double-edged blade than as something either wholly beautiful (as in the case of Badlands) or something that will only leave you hurt (Song to Song).

It's this nuance that makes Days of Heaven such an endearing film, minimal in plotting yet profoundly complex in its characters and themes.

Following its 1978 release, it would go on to achieve extremely high critical acclaim/praise, with notable praise for its direction and cinematography (which it would win an Oscar for).

Today, it remains consistently ranked as one of the best films of all time, appearing at #49 on the BBC's “Greatest American films” list.

Streaming on Paramount+

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures. 

7. Badlands

Badlands scaled

Malick's feature debut, Badlands, remains arguably one of the finest debuts in all of film. Its minimal plot, tight budget, reliance on a small, relatively unknown cast, and implementation of Malick's core artistic sensibilities (mostly an exploration of philosophical worldviews and beliefs) make it an effective, interesting first film that laid the groundwork for the unique, dreamlike tone that every subsequent film of Malick’s would possess in the future.

Inspired by teenage spree killer Charles Starkweather, Badlands follows a fame-obsessed young man named Kit (Martin Sheen) who falls in love with a lonely, troubled girl (Sissy Spacek) in their impoverished North Dakota home town in the 1950s’.

When Kit kills her abusive father (Warren Oates), the two flee from authorities, embarking on a lengthy road trip across Montana's desert, indiscriminately killing those they happen across. A romance story unlike most others, Badlands explores two key themes that Malick would routinely return to in his future films: love and violence.

However, unlike his future films, Badlands offers a very unique depiction of both, portraying the gratifying relationship two lonely, troubled outcasts find in the comfort of each other, and their romanticized, Bonnie and Clyde-esque escape. On the flip side of the coin is Malick's exploration of violence, with Kit's numerous killings emboldening with a celebrity-like status in the public’s eye.

As seen in the movie, Kit is a young man whose failure to find meaning in his life results in him lashing out and harming others. Unable to achieve success on his own elsewhere, all he's left with is killing: not the act itself, but the effect it has on getting him noticed (the only thing he's ever wanted in life).

It's an interesting portrayal of violence few directors have really touched upon, and a depiction that made Badlands one of the most unique movies of the 1970s, as well as one of the most memorable debuts of all time.

Positively received upon release, Badlands would only appreciate in its esteem as time went on, influencing everyone from Quentin Tarantino (Natural Born Killers) to Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom).

Not currently streaming, but available to rent online

Image Credit: Warner Bros. 

8. The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line
Adrian Brody star in The Thin Red Line directed by Terrence Malick. 21APR14. [27APR2014 REVIEW FILM FEATURE]
After Days of Heaven, Malick essentially disappeared for 19 years, privately working on a few projects on his own, but more or less absent from the filmmaking and Hollywood scene until the tail end of the 1990s'.

When he finally returned, he seemingly poured all those long-gestating creative juices that he’d been developing during his 20-year-long hiatus into his highly-anticipated, The Thin Red Line.

Adapted from the James Jones novel of the same name, The Thin Red Line follows a company of US soldiers who land on the Japanese-occupied island of Guadalcanal early in the Pacific War.

Malick had previously explored elements of violence in Badlands and Days of Heaven, but never before had the director taken on the subject of violence so head-on, examining how it affects soldiers on an individual basis.

Using a large ensemble cast, many of whom provide their various thoughts and opinions on war in narrative dialogue that resembles freeform poetry, Malick blends the context of the original novel with his signature philosophical themes.

Though the movie follows a large group of soldiers, The Thin Red Line thrives on individual observations, hammering in the main point of both the book and the movie: even though war relies on a mass number of people, the alienating effects violence has on a person profoundly affects them emotionally and psychologically, with each person suffering in their own individual way.

Beautifully shot, and composed of a huge, impressive cast of actors (Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, John Travolta, and many more), The Thin Red Line was a massive success for Malick, with audiences and critics hailing it as one of the greatest war films of all time.

It would earn nominations for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Dramatic Score, and later rank among one of the greatest films of the 1990s' (with noted cinephile Martin Scorsese ranking his second-favorite film of the decade).

Streaming on Prime Video

Image Credit: 20th Century Fox. 

9. The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life 1

Malick's fifth film, The Tree of Life, likely the most complex of Malick's movies, presents what is easily the director's most ambitious artistic vision yet. It's sharp, poignant, and combines every trick in Malick's playbook, offering an intense, incredibly meaningful illustration on the creation of life (including a sequence showing literal dinosaurs roaming the Earth), and the turbulent nature of life and existence itself.

At the center of Malick's film is Jack (Sean Penn), a middle-aged man reflecting on his past childhood in 1950s' Texas, namely his relationship with his abusive father (Brad Pitt) and his loving, far more benevolent mother (Jessica Chastain).

Like most films in Malick's later filmography, it's an experimental and roving meditation on life and its deeper meaning, and man's ability to find love and understanding amidst great suffering. Unlike his later films though, The Tree of Life possesses just enough of a plot and storyline to keep the film moving rather than falling flat collapsing in on itself.

Though The Tree of Life would be the most grounded of Malick's films during the 2010s' (until A Hidden Life, that is), the plot itself remains largely metaphorical, with each character embodying some kind of philosophical representation.

Jack's father, for example, stands as a physical representation of nature (chaotic and sometimes capable of great cruelty), while Jack's mother embodies grace, love, and understanding in human form.

Malick's boldest film—covering the most profound questions he's ever asked (Why do good people die too soon? Why does God allow bad things to happen?)—The Tree of Life feels like the culmination of every creative interest, question, and subject Malick has ever wanted to discuss.

It's perhaps this reason above all else that account most readily for the movie's success upon release in 2011, including its achieve numerous accolades (including Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography and winning the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes), as well as topping several publications' list for best movie of the decade.

Not currently streaming, but available to rent online

Image Credit: Fox Searchlight. 

Final Thoughts

Terrence Malick and Christian Bale

Throughout his filmography, Malick has again and again returned to a recurring theme: man's struggle to transcend towards higher meaning and understanding while struggling with profoundly human issues (war, unreciprocated love, murder, authority, and so on).

Malick's films may not be for everyone, but you don’t have to see every one of his films to know how carefully and deliberately he crafts his movies, using them to explore existential themes he holds dear in an interesting and effective way.

Though some may be more effective in their philosophical approach than others, Malick's movies are guaranteed to be some of the most unique filmgoing experiences you'll ever have, with no director coming even close to his style of filmmaking.

It's difficult to say what other projects Malick has up his sleeve—he is a notoriously private director, makes few public appearances, grants practically zero interviews, and has only a handful of photos that exist of him available online.

Whatever films Malick decides to make in the future, though, they’re almost certainly going to be unlike anything else you'll ever see.

Image Credit: Broad Green Pictures.

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures. 

Feature Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures. 

Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).