In Defense of Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’

5. The Tree of Life is the best film nominated for the Academy Awards.

Let’s start with the obvious. The Tree of Life is head above heels better than the half the other nominees. The Help (Tate Taylor), War Horse (Steven Spielberg), The Descendants (Alexander Payne) and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry) (seriously – how did Loud get in there?) are all substandard inclusions for an Academy claiming to support the best motion pictures of the year.

The Tree of Life is more ambitious and uniquely compelling than Bennett Miller’s Moneyball and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo; more intellectually satisfying and relatable than Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris; and, yes, better than this year’s probable winner, Michel Hazanavicius The Artist, simply because it surpassed it in scope, depth, and ambition. Also, The Tree of Life didn’t need a cute little doggie to win over skeptics. It lost such movie fans willingly.

I know ambition isn’t everything. If it were, this wouldn’t be the first of Malick’s movies I’ve fully supported. In The Tree of Life however, his aspirations were matched for the first time by the story he told. He wanted to explore the dichotomy of life and death through a 1950s-era rural family. To do this, he went back to the creation of the universe and forward to, well, the unknown. While in the past (cough The Thin Red Line cough) his continuous cutaways to fields of grass and gushing water were loosely connected to films’ themes at best, here they’re integral to the tale he’s telling. Finally.

4. The Tree of Life is the movie of 2011.

It was a terrible year for movies. Terrible. So shouldn’t the Best Picture winner at least be memorable? Even those who find it flawed have to bow to the film’s incredible ambition (there’s that word again), stunning imagery, and incredibly compelling central story.

Plus, like it or not, everyone in the film industry was talking about it from its debut at Cannes in early May 2011 until February 26, 2012 at roughly 11:30EDT, when it loses Best Picture to a less entrancing competitor. Critics were enthralled. Audiences were mystified. The box office was largely disappointing, but I blame all those silly patrons who asked for their money back halfway through the film.

What other films proved to be as stimulating? Certainly not The Descendants or War Horse, albeit both from highly regarded veteran directors. The only conversation those films inspired in my circle of writers and moviegoers were based around how they garnered any awards attention or critical praise at all. Yes, The Artist has earned raves, but its allure is based in referencing the past. “Oh, don’t you wish movies were still like this honey?” whispers every moviegoer over the age of 40 to their beau. “Haha. Look at that puppy! It’s so cute! I’m so happy not to be challenged by new ideas. I just want to live in the past.”

OK, maybe I exaggerated those last few lines. Nevertheless, The Tree of Life succeeds on its own original merits, not an overblown sense of nostalgia.

3. The Tree of Life needs to reach a wider audience.

Whether positive or negative, The Tree of Life inspires a vehement response in every person who sees it. Isn’t this what great art is meant to do? You don’t have to like every piece hanging in the museum, but you want to at least remember it five minutes after you leave. So many movies released in 2011 were forgotten before they ended. No one can claim the same for Malick’s carefully constructed confection of stunning cinematography and universal themes.

2. Who needs the haters?

The droves of impatient audiences who either walked out of the movie or dismissed it after the first 40 minutes without dialogue, frankly, can buzz off. Part of this goes back to the previous point – they felt something while watching it. They had to know this wasn’t just another McMovie pumped out with ease by the studio system. Therefore, it’s already better than half the junk available.

The other side of the coin is more personal. If the film isn’t for you, fine. Shrug it off and try to forget about it if you like. Just don’t try to tell me The Tree of Life is not among Malick’s best films. Unless you can provide a challenging argument against its, or find some moral issue with its depiction of grace vs. natural selection (I did on first viewing, feeling Malick unfairly favored one over the other, but it disappeared after subsequent screenings), I don’t think you have a leg to stand on in an argument over merit.

Basically, if you want to discuss The Tree of Life we won’t have a beef. Simply by talking it over you’ve proved its worth. Those who dismiss it without discussion have their heads in the sand, which is a shame. They’re missing a beautiful movie.

1. Warrior wasn’t nominated.

Neither was The Beaver, but there was no way Mel Gibson’s talking beaver movie would ever grace the Kodak Theater. So the only film truly deserving of the Academy’s highest honor over The Tree of Life is Warrior, and it didn’t make the short list.