Thursday, March 26, 2020

My 12 Favorite Films, and Where to Stream Them

The other day, my mom asked me if I would do a “Top 10 Things to Stream During the Shut-In” kind of list, to which I initially groaned. It’s a list seemingly everybody with any sort of online presence has been doing in recent weeks, and I frankly find it kind of a weird exercise. With the internet at one’s disposal, it’s not like one’s set of options is limited. If you know which streaming services to use, if you’re willing to pay a few bucks here and there for rentals and purchases, and especially if you’re willing to cast aside the shackles of capitalism and pirate some obscurities, you’ve got a very large swath of the history of moving images at your fingertips. And that, to me, seems like way too big and unwieldy a ‘category’ to cut down for the purposes of a Top 10 list.  

But as I thought about it, it occurred to me that this perfectly describes any kind of personal all-time ranking: To survey the whole of film history and pick which films most represent you as a viewer. And maybe now, as we’re all cloistered in our homes with an unusual amount of time on our hands, is indeed the perfect time to make such a list. 

So instead of making what is specifically a Coronavirus shut-in viewing list, I thought I’d polish off something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, and update my Top 10 Films of All Time list – and tell you where to stream and access all of them from the safety of your (hopefully virus-free) home! The first time I did this list was in 2012, for the publication of my 2013 book Fade to Lack; the next was in 2017, for Episode 200 of The Weekly Stuff Podcast. I completely changed the 10 films between those two lists, and I like the 2017 version a lot better because of it. After all, in between the two, I earned two degrees in Film Studies and was on my way to going after a third. I’d learned, and changed, a lot. 

It’s been almost three years since then, and I’m happy to say I’ve kept evolving and discovering, as all people should. There have been a few adjustments to that list I’ve been really itching to make recently, and I was also excited to play around a bit with the format. I have expanded the list to 12 films from 10 this time, because when I attempted to whittle it all down, I found myself with an utterly grueling, unbreakable 4-way tie for the last 2 spots. 12, after all, is just as arbitrary a number as 10 to limit things to – while still sounding nice and round and substantive (a “dozen favorite films,” if you will) – and if the purpose of this ranking is to set out a personal canon that says something about my cinematic values and taste, this feels like the most honest collection of films to accomplish the task, even if the size of the box is bigger than the usual 10. I have also decided not to rank these films by preference, because it is simply too wrenching to place films I love this much in a battle for supremacy with one another. And in any case, the purpose of this list is the overall canon it lays out, not a hierarchy between which films matter most to me. They all do, and in different ways. 

So without further ado, my 12 Favorite Films of All Time are coming up after the jump, along with some thoughts on why each is here and some pointers on where you may find these fine films if you’d like to get to know me a little better, through the films that mean the most to me (hint: you’ll probably want a Criterion Channel subscription).

The Apu Trilogy 
(India, 1955, 1956, 1959; Dir. Satyajit Ray)

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955)
Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956)
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959)

Why is it on the list? Because Boyhood is stupid and Satyajit Ray did it infinitely better than Richard Linklater with many fewer resources 60 years earlier. 

Okay, that’s a flippant answer, but bear with me: When Boyhood, Linklater’s 12-year-long experiment into filming the same actors/characters over time as they aged, came out in 2014, the amount of praise for it was insufferable, not only because there’s not a lot of substance there beyond the experimental gimmick, but because even if there was, Linklater was hardly the first to do something like this. There’s the entire history of television, for one, but there’s also this enduring three-part masterwork of independent Indian cinema by the great Satyajit Ray, which chronicles the life of a boy named Apu from his time as a child in a remote rural village to an adult with a son of his own in Calcutta. Ray doesn’t do the gimmick of filming the same boy over a number of years – Apu is recast in each film, culminating in Ray stalwart Soumitra Chatterjee giving a stunning performance in the third feature – but instead builds his films upon beautifully observed character work, deeply empathetic storytelling, and a poetic visual lyricism reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu and the Italian Neorealists, but with a painter’s eye that was all Ray’s own (his sketches and storyboards for the first film, Pather Panchali, are available as a standalone book, and are some of the most visually stirring documents in film history). 

Dropping the Boyhood comparison, I like to describe The Apu Trilogy as a coming-of-age Job story, about a boy growing into a man and learning what it means to be human by losing everything along the way. These are not joyous films, but they are deeply, profoundly human ones, bursting with wells of detail and empathy that will guide any viewer towards a fuller understanding not only of another culture, but of their own hearts and minds. They are three of the greatest films ever made, must-sees for all lovers of film the world over, and after the historic restoration they received from The Criterion Collection a few years back, they are more accessible than ever before. 

Availability: All three films are currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. Each is also available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu. 

City Lights
(United States, 1931; Dir. Charles Chaplin)

Why is it on the list? Because of that beautiful, perfect, captivating, utterly transcendent ending, culminating in one of the single most enduring, immortal images in the history of film (seen above). 

It’s not just because of that, of course, but in splitting the tie between all of Chaplin’s other masterworks, that’s probably the deciding factor for me. City Lights was all the first Chaplin feature I watched (after being exposed to a few of his shorts in classes), and it just bowled me over. Like all of his films, City Lights is alive with masterful physical comedy and wells of warm humanity, strung together with a poetic playfulness that keeps Chaplin’s work alive nearly a century later. But while I love all his silent features, from The Kid (1921) to The Gold Rush (1925) to Modern Times (1936), and some of his later sound films like The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) are incredible as well, none of them have the ending of City Lights, where Chaplin leverages that iconic visage of the Tramp into this beautiful little parable about being seen, and about where identity and human value reside. It is one of the great movie endings – credit, too, to Virginia Cherrill for her side of the scene, and her remarkable performance throughout the film – and only elevates the already masterful 90 minutes preceding it. City Lights is as timeless as films get. 

Availability: Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. Also available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu. 

Late Spring 
(Japan, 1949; Dir. Yasujiro Ozu)

Why is it on the list? Because Yasujiro Ozu is the greatest director who ever walked this earth, and Late Spring is his greatest film. The story of a daughter (the great Setsuko Hara, in her defining role) who does not want to get married and leave the side of her widower father (Ozu’s stalwart leading man, Chishu Ryu, in his most affecting work), Late Spring is, like all of Ozu’s films, a work of rich cultural specificity and boundless human universality. It is the film that taught me to love Ozu, after I initially bounced off of Tokyo Story; in the summer of 2012, I did not want to go back to college, and leave my ailing father’s side in his final months. He insisted I must go on with my life. After his death, I saw Late Spring, and though I am not Japanese, am not a woman, have never been pressured into an arranged marriage, Ozu’s penetrating observations on the human condition left me feeling so profoundly seen. I love every inch of Ozu’s vast, rich filmography, but it’s the miles comprising Late Spring – from that rapturous country bike ride to that haunting, endless Noh performance – that I love the most. 

Availability: Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. Also available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes and Amazon. 

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
(New Zealand, United States, 2001 – 2003; Dir. Peter Jackson)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Why is it on the list? Because I would be lying to myself, and to you, if these films were not here. For a very long time, after all, I called The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as a collective entity, my favorite movie of all time, including on the 2012 version of this list. In some ways, they still are. Their place in my life was muddled over the past decade, as there was a period, following the death of my father, when I had difficulty revisiting them. He was the one who introduced me to Tolkien, and who took me to see each film in theaters, and who bought me the DVDs when they came out – twice, theatrical and extended – and my perception of the films was and is too wrapped up with memories of him to fully disentangle. The release of the atrocious Hobbit films, from 2012 to 2014, did not help matters. 

And thus I left The Lord of the Rings off this list when I recompiled it in 2017, a choice borne less out of apathy to the films, which I still loved, than a pain I felt in going to back to them, a wound I was not yet ready to reopen. But last year, my friend Sean Chapman and I revisited each film for The Weekly Stuff Podcast. Those episodes – #277 for Fellowship,#290 for The Two Towersand #296 for Return of the King – are three of my favorites from the life of our show. In revisiting the films, re-reading the original Tolkien novel (including, for the first time for me, every last word of the Appendices), and talking through all of it with Sean, I fell in love with The Lord of the Rings all over again. I fell in love with their scope, their imagination, their heart, their mastery of cinematic storytelling and deftness of adaptation, their boundless visual ingenuity, their deep well of all-time great performances and character creations, and their timeless, transcendent musical scores by Howard Shore, which remain the gold standard of American movie music not composed by John Williams. These three films are, simply put, some of the grandest and most accomplished visions ever committed to film, and nothing approaching their ambition has been attempted in Hollywood since. There may well never be anything like them again, so beautifully do they straddle the line between old-school physical epics and modern CGI wonderment. These films are majestic, larger than life. They hold an outsized position in my own heart, and whether or not they are still my ‘favorite’ film – a question I do not, in truth, know the answer to – it would be dishonest to give them anything other than a place of honor here. 

Availability: The theatrical cuts of all three films are currently streaming on Netflix. The theatrical or extended cuts of each film are available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu, separately or in bundles. I personally prefer the Extended Editions of all three films, but either is recommended and if, for whatever reason, you have never seen the films or read the books, the shorter theatrical versions might be the ideal place to start. 

The Passion of Joan of Arc
(France, 1928; Dir. Carl Th. Dreyer)

Why is it on the list? Because if you put a gun to my head and forced me to say what I think is the single greatest film ever made – the kind of question that stereotypically elicits answers of Citizen Kane or Vertigo – I would blurt out The Passion of Joan of Arc, and feel pretty good about the answer I gave to save my life. That’s a preposterous and unanswerable question, of course, because ‘best’ is so inherently subjective and no scholar, let alone me, truly has the depth or breadth of knowledge to make such a bold proclamation. Still, if I were forced to give such an answer, this silent-era dramatization of the trial of Joan of Arc would be it. Never has history felt more vividly, powerfully alive on celluloid, and rarely has film itself been put to more emotionally confrontational use. 

It has been said that the close-up is the soul of cinema, the ultimate mark of what distinguished film from prior dramatic forms like theater; if so, then Dreyer’s Joan is cinema’s soul come to life, a film constructed upon stark, penetrating close-ups, often from striking and unusual angles, that make the extremity of Joan’s anguish – and the depth of her spiritual belief – feel unrelentingly palpable to the viewer. This would not be possible, of course, without the legendary work of Renée Falconetti in the title role, given what might well be the best dramatic performance in the history of the cinematic medium. Falconetti’s work feels less like acting and more like spiritual possession, and every unique and innovative stylistic choice Dreyer makes feels like it stems outward from her revelatory effort at the film’s center. And as one of the undisputed pinnacles of cinema’s pre-sound days, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a beautiful example of why the great silent films weren’t great in spite of their absence of synchronized sound, but because of it; an account of Joan’s martyrdom this emotionally and spiritually rich could not be produced with dialogue or sound effects fighting for supremacy over the visual element (many attempts have, of course, been made). There are some films on this list I will freely admit are more esoteric or in need of certain cultural or historical context for the average viewer to enjoy; but I would recommend The Passion of Joan of Arc to anyone. You may not come away agreeing with my answer to that impossible question – what is the best film of all time? – but you will, I think, fully understand why I’d be prepared to stake my life on it. 

Availability: Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. Also available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes and Amazon. On the Criterion Channel (as on the Blu-ray and DVD editions released by Criterion), there are two versions available: An 81-minute version running at 24 frames-per-second, and a 97-minute version running at 20 frames per second. Frame rates during the silent period were variable and not wholly standardized as they are now. There are continuing debates over which presentation best reflects Dreyer’s intentions, but I personally prefer the longer 20 frames-per-second version, which I am convinced best conveys the film’s cinematography, performances, and pacing (the piano score by Mie Yanashita that accompanies this version is also my favorite accompaniment for the film, though the Voices of Light oratorio by Richard Einhorn which sometimes accompanies the 24fps version is quite rapturous in its own right, and absolutely worth experiencing). The Criterion Channel also has a very good featurette comparing and contrasting the two versions and explaining the debate between them, which is worth watching to help inform your viewing experience. 

Raiders of the Lost Ark
(United States, 1980; Dir. Steven Spielberg)

Why is it on the list? Because I believe I have seen Raiders in theaters more times than any other movie, despite it coming out 12 years before I was born. Raiders has been a big part of the retrospective circuit from when I was a kid all the way up to today, and I made a point of seeing it every time any theater in Denver got a print as part of their rotation. I have seen the movie on 35mm so many times that, when the Blu-ray came out, or when I saw it projected digitally in a theater for the first time, it just felt wrong to me. There’s something about a beat-up old film print – not just the dirt and scratches, but also that slight wobble, the cigarette burns on reel changes, the way natural light in the sky blows out over time – that I love in general, but which suits the serial throwback magic of Raiders particularly well. A crystal-clear, perfectly cleaned-up digital image just feels wrong to me on this one. 

There aren’t a lot of movies I have attachments to that run so deep, and when I do – like with the aforementioned Lord of the Rings – it’s often because of an additional emotional component that blends with my love of the film itself. Not so with Raiders – beyond seeing it a crazy number of times in theaters, there’s no big personal story with this one. I just think it’s flat-out one of the best-made films of all time, from anywhere in the world, a ridiculously skillful miracle of pop filmmaking with a voracious hunger by all involved, rife with brilliant character creations, expertly economic and propulsive plotting, and the most inspired, virtuoso directing of Steven Spielberg’s incredible career. I could teach an entire Intro to Film Studies class on nothing but Raiders of the Lost Ark, because every topic we go through there – Narrative, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Genre, Mise-en-scene, Auteur Theory, etc. – is emblematized in the excellence of Raiders. And it might be one of the only films genuinely fun and rewatchable enough to sustain such an exercise. 

Availability: Currently streaming on Netflix. Also available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu. In all cases it is now available under the title “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which is a small but noteworthy revisionist travesty, both because it sounds terrible as a title, and because it makes no sense: Indiana Jones is one of the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ and that’s a key theme of the movie! 

Sansho the Bailiff
(Japan, 1954; Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi)

Why is it on the list? Because Sansho the Bailiff left me a shaking, emotionally scarred puddle in my Freshman Intro to Film class – I was probably the only one of the 100+ students who liked it, and yes, the rest of them thought the kid crying in the front row at this old Japanese movie was a weirdo – and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. A parable about mercy, suffering, loss, and morality built on the bones of an ancient folktale, Sansho the Bailiff tells the story of a noble family torn apart in feudal Japan, with the mother sold in prostitution and the children into slavery under the cruel eye of the title character. 

It is a story about doing what is right and living with compassion no matter the severity and challenges of one’s circumstances, and it is, perhaps, the most effective piece of emotional devastation I have yet encountered on film. Mizoguchi, alongside Kurosawa and Ozu, is one of the undisputed masters of Japan’s cinematic Golden Age, and while there is plenty of debate over which of his immeasurably rich late-period works is his masterpiece, Sansho, for me, stands tall above the rest. It’s all there in that jaw-dropping final scene, when mother and son are finally reunited, and the weight of the film’s carefully constructed emotional house of cards comes crashing down upon the viewer. It destroyed me when I was a Freshman in college, and I frankly only find it more affecting as the years go by. 

Availability: Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. Also available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes and Amazon. 

A Scene at the Sea
(Japan, 1991; Dir. Takeshi Kitano)

Why is it on the list? Because Takeshi Kitano – oddball multi-hyphenate actor/auteur extraordinaire – is one of my very favorite filmmakers; because last time I did this exercise I picked his wonderful breakout masterwork Hana-bi (1997); and because this time, I thought I would try to one-up myself on esoterica and pick a film that is well and truly unknown and uncelebrated, and which is so entirely unavailable in the United States that you will have to pony up for an imported Blu-ray from Japan or the United Kingdom if you want to see the film in anything resembling decent quality. 

But really, it’s because in my heart of hearts, this unsung, almost entirely unknown and under-distributed out-of-character early work by Kitano is a deep and abiding personal favorite of mine. A Scene at the Sea – or, as its poetic Japanese title translates to, That Summer, the Quietest Ocean… – was Kitano’s third film as a director, and the first in which he did not appear on screen (under his acting pseudonym Beat Takeshi). It is a remarkably simple story about a deaf garbage collector who decides to learn how to surf, with the help of his stalwart, also deaf girlfriend. It is about perseverance, and young love, and obsession, and it is also one of the great films about community, as the group of mocking nay-sayers who doubt our protagonist eventually become his friends and cheerleaders. It is a quiet film, mostly bereft of dialogue, with the sounds of the ocean and a truly magnificent, synesthetic score by the great Joe Hisaishi – in the first of several great collaborations with Kitano – forming the majority of the film’s soundtrack. It is a film of spaces and pauses and soft visual poetry. Like many Kitano films, its premise sound better suited for a short film; but then, you would not get the depth of feeling or of detail, the beautiful sense of time passing, or the gradual, glacial shifts in character and mood that define his work at its best. As seen in his most famous Yakuza and Yakuza-adjacent works like Violent Cop (1989),Sonatine (1993), and Hana-bi, there is no filmmaker as singularly capable as Takeshi Kitano of combining gritty crime violence and transcendent meditations on the human condition. A Scene at the Sea, though, is exclusively the latter, fully revealing what a gentle, thoughtful, melancholy heart beats beneath this strange director’s extraordinary work. 

Availability: There is none. Not digitally, not for streaming, and not legally in the United States or, frankly, most of the world. This is one that, to the best of my knowledge, is only legally available on physical media. If you’re in North America, your best bet is to import the Blu-ray from Amazon Japan; it has English subtitles (not that you really need them for this film), and we share a Blu-ray region with Japan, so you won’t need a region-free player. The film is also available on Blu-ray in the UK, again with English subtitles, though it’s Region B, so if you live outside Europe you’ll need a region-free player. I might normally end with a joke here about just pirating the movie instead, but frankly it’s so obscure I don’t know if that’s even possible. Just buy the disc – shipping from Japan is amazingly fast and the country has relatively few cases of Coronavirus – and trust me that it’s worth it. 

Seven Samurai
(Japan, 1954; Dir. Akira Kurosawa)

Why is it on the list? Because Kurosawa is The Master, and Seven Samurai is his masterpiece. You will never feel 3.5 hours fly by faster, and you will never be so simultaneously moved, thrilled, and roused. If you somehow haven’t seen it, I know for a fact you now have the time. Get on it. 

Availability: Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. Also available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu. 

Spirited Away
(Japan, 2001; Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Why is it on the list? Because of this scene: 

I could tell you more. I have in the past, on the podcast and elsewhere. I’ve even given guest lectures at the University of Colorado on this film multiple times. But those 3 minutes happen to be my single favorite sequence in the history of cinema, and I am not going to pretend I can come up with a better testament to why I love this film so dearly. Hayao Miyazaki is, of course, a hero to me. I love every single one of his films passionately, and I could just as easily put Laputa (1986) or Porco Rosso (1992) or Princess Mononoke (1997) or Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) on this list and be satisfied with the choice, because I love those films as much as anything else.

But they don’t have that scene. That beautiful, quiet, melancholy, contemplative scene, scored to the best 3 minutes of music in Joe Hisaishi’s incredible, singular career. Spirited Away has that scene. There are many reasons why the film belongs on this list, but that scene towers above them all. 

Availability: Available for digital purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu. It will also be streaming as part of the Studio Ghibli collection on HBO Max when the service launches in May 2020. In all cases, you can either watch the film in its original Japanese with English subtitles, or dubbed into English. I am typically a purist about these things, but Spirited Away happens to have one of the best English dubs ever produced, and I feel fully confident recommending it in either form. 

A Touch of Zen / Xiá Nǚ
(Taiwan, 1971; Dir. King Hu)

Why is it on the list? Because every time I watch a film by King Hu, I find myself thinking, “is this the most preternaturally gifted filmmaker I have ever had the privilege to watch work?” Hu’s small but dense filmography has only recently become available in the West in good quality, after a series of restorations undertaken by the Taiwanese Film Institute have made their way to Blu-ray in the UK and US, and they are by far the greatest cinematic revelation I have had in recent years. A pioneer of the Wuxia film – a term which comes from the Chinese literary genre about martial artists in ancient times – Hu, who started in Hong Kong but primarily worked in Taiwan, was a huge influence on later Hong Kong, Taiwanese, and Chinese filmmakers, from Tsui Hark to Ang Lee, and while his innovations have been widely borrowed and built upon, none of his successors are a substitute for the genuine article. In films like Come Drink With Me (1966), Dragon Inn (1967), and The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), Hu combined vivid, archetypal characters – including a number of strong female leads, a Wuxia literary tradition that hasn’t always been mirrored on film – wry humor, a rigorous development of space and never-ending masterclass in blocking, outstanding action choreography, and the boldest, most perception-altering use of editing in narrative filmmaking since the days of Soviet montage masters like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Legend of the Mountain (1979), a nearly uncategorizable three-plus-hour mind trip that can best be described as Chinese gothic horror, contains a sequence that I would count as the greatest, most creative, and most arresting piece of narrative film editing since Man With a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929). 

A Touch of Zen is Hu’s masterpiece, and it contains all these qualities and more. So singularly ambitious that it was originally released in two parts – with filming for the second installment still underway as the first arrived in theaters – the three-hour compiled version that survives today is a winding, unpredictable martial arts epic of uncommon patience – it takes over an hour for anyone to draw swords – and even more striking spiritual depth. It begins as the story of a small-town scholar and the mysterious, disguised noblewoman who seeks refuge in his seemingly haunted village, and ends as nothing less than a Buddhist parable about enlightenment. Along the way, Hu sketches incredible characters and delivers sequence after sequence of virtuoso masterwork, from the scholar’s initial, frightening journey through a haunted estate, to a mid-film set-piece in a bamboo forest so electric every Wuxia filmmaker since – including Hark, Lee, and Zhang Yimou – has paid homage to it, to the trippiest and most jaw-dropping finale in the history of martial arts filmmaking. To me, A Touch of Zen is unquestionably one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema; that it is also one of my favorites almost feels like an afterthought. 

Availability: Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel. Also available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu. 

The Tree of Life
(United States, 2011; Dir. Terrence Malick)

Why is it on the list? Because there is no film I had a more fraught or bizarre path to falling in love with, and no film that has taught me more about how to open one’s mind and heart to the complexities and surprises of this medium. The first time I saw it, in theatres in the summer of 2011, I hated it. I wrote: 

“For all its so-called “meaning,” for all the style and craft and ‘grace’ on display, it merely numbed me for over two hours, and left me completely cold afterwards.  This is an example not of style overwhelming substance, but of style beating substance into submission and then running a long, long victory lap.” 

It was as dismissive a review as I had ever written or published. But as the months went by, and I thought I was done with The Tree of Life, it became clear that The Tree of Life was not done with me. This film I had found pretentious and overwrought kept entering my thoughts, and when we learned my father’s cancer had returned later that year, the one movie I felt I needed to watch to help understand the world and my feelings was, for reasons I could not understand, The Tree of Life. So I rented it on my PlayStation 3, screening it on my little 26-inch monitor while sitting on my dorm room bed, and by the end, the movie had left me a weeping, frayed nerve. I had fallen in love with it. In the piece I published afterwards, I wrote: 

“The beauty on display often cannot be explained. The images are edited together in a stream-of-consciousness style, and when one tries to break down their order or meaning logically, one comes up empty handed. It is an experience of pure emotion, and if you let yourself go, you will be swept up in the beauty, comprehending the story and message on an instinctual, ethereal level. “The Tree of Life” doesn’t just feature the most controlled, precise, and visually powerful images of 2011, but uses the cinematic medium to its fullest advantage.”

Clearly, this was quite the turn. I had never had this kind of experience with a movie before, rejecting it at first and falling in love with it later. It is something that has happened to me many times in the years since. I learned to listen to that inner voice, that voice that told me when I wasn’t yet done with a film, even when – especially when – I had disliked or dismissed it on first viewing. It was learning to trust that voice, to give films another try when something I could not put my finger on pulled me towards them, that led me to fall in love with Terrence Malick’s entire body of work, and which led me back, as all roads inevitably would, to The Tree of Life, again and again, confirming that experience was not just a fluke, but a life-changing experience. This is, indeed, one of my very favorite movies. I can watch it in whole or in parts and feel like I am having a cleansing spiritual experience, one that centers and stabilizes me, and in which the film always feels like a slightly different entity than the one I encountered before. Not all movies make themselves easy to love; having to work for it – or, more precisely, to work with it – sometimes makes the love all the more profound. 

Availability: Available for digital rental or purchase on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, and Vudu. The DVD and Blu-ray sets released by The Criterion Collection additionally contain an Extended Version with an additional 50 minutes of footage, bringing the run time to over 3 hours. This version is only available on that physical edition, but I prefer the Theatrical Cut and consider it the definitive version of the film. The extended cut is a compelling curiosity, but should be seen only after digesting the original version. 

So those are my favorites! Tell me about yours in the comments, and let me know if you give any of these a try. 

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