There's been so much talk about the cosmic dimension of Terrence Malick's visionary and transporting movie (that astro-evolutionary prologue! scenes set inGod forbidthe afterlife!) that the whole debate, in many ways, has overshadowed the stirring intimacy of Malick's achievement. He has made the rare mystical drama that's planted in the everydaya slice of 1950s life and death told with such startling, off-center vividness that it's like the movie James Joyce might have made if only he’d had a handheld camera. True, not every Hollywood drama opens with a 17-minute sequence depicting the formation of the earth. Yet that prelude, which marries evolution and creationism, is so stunningand, if watched with open eyes, so accessiblethat it reduced this critic to a 10-year-old staring awestruck at a planetarium. Malick lures us into viewing the earth, and its inhabitants, as clashing natural forces, so that when we leap ahead to a pastoral Texas suburb and the troubled family that lives there, we don't just see the American postwar trappings. We see the characters, through Malick's God's-eye-view camera, as touchingly vulnerable creatures. Chief among them is Brad Pitt, magnificent as a strict, loving, raging, and deeply reverent father. The Tree of Life is a great film, because it cues us to the transcendence of every moment.
NEXT: Owen names the 5 worst films of 2011
Image Credit: Merie Wallace
EW's critic rates a big-budget franchise action flick, a quiet Iranian family drama, and a welcome return by a director after a seven-year absence among the year's top new releases. Plus: The five worst he saw in the past 12 months.