Terrence Malick's 'Tree of Life' cracks Roger Ebert's top 10 movies of all time

Posted by · 5:18 pm · May 2nd, 2012

The Sight & Sound poll of filmmakers and critics picking the greatest films of all time is 10 years old. Many in the cinephile community are anxious to see the results of the latest questionaire, which will be revealed some time in August (I think). A few critics have revealed their own lists but that’s just a drop in the bucket of what we’ll get when the big collective is revealed.

Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert is one such critic. And I was a little surprised to see that Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which was a formidable force on the awards circuit last year, managed to find itself among previous mainstays of the his list, which include “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Citizen Kane” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (four films that could register on my own list, which is why I’ve always liked Ebert’s choices quite a bit).

What maestro did Malick unseat? Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose “Dekalog” is a TV mini-series, anyway, so maybe it needed to be pulled. It got the scoot, Ebert explains, because of new rules dictating trilogies and whatnot take up however many places there are entries. “Dekalog” being a 10-“film” series means it would take up all 10 slots. But, again: TV.

Ebert says the choice for a replacement came down to two films: Malick’s recent opus and Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.” The two films, he says, are “of almost foolhardy ambition,” attempting “no less than to tell the story of an entire life.”

Here’s why he says he settled on the Malick:

“I could choose either film. I will choose ‘The Tree of Life’ because it is more affirmative and hopeful. I realize that isn’t a defensible reasons for choosing one film over the other, but it is my reason, and making this list is essentially impossible, anyway.

“Apart from any other motive for putting a movie title on a list like this, there is always the motive of propaganda: Critics add a title hoping to draw attention to it, and encourage others to see it. For 2012, I suppose this is my propaganda title. I believe it’s an important film, and will only increase in stature over the years.”

Though his prior four-star review of the film didn’t contextualize it as objectively “important” so much as it was, for Ebert, subjectively so. I think that’s fine, mind you, and even admirable, that it connected so personally with him and that his thoughts were so scattered with such touches as:

“The only other film I’ve seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ and it lacked Malick’s fierce evocation of human feeling…I don’t know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of ‘The Tree of Life’ reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me.”

This would be a difficult choice even for me, I have to say. “Synecdoche, New York” was certainly high on my list of 2008’s best films (while Kaufman is, for my money, the filmmaker of the decade). And of course, like most, “The Tree of Life” was way up on the top tier for me last year. But ultimately, I’d likely lean the same way Ebert did.

As for the rest of the Sight & Sound poll, I doubt we’ve heard the last of Malick’s latest in that regard. After many critics ushered the film to the top of the magazine’s annual poll in 2011, I imagine many of them were making room for it on the “all time” list as well. We’ll see in a couple of months.

What films from the last 10 years do you think warrant consideration on the “all time” list this time around? I would argue in favor of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “Dogville,” “Margaret” and, indeed, “The Tree of Life.” But I don’t think any of them would make the cut. The most recent film that would be on my list would be a Malick film, however: 1998’s “The Thin Red Line.”

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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