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by Matt Zoller Seitz & Serena Bramble
February 21, 2012 12:13 PM
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[EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play presents "Should Win," a series of video essays advocating winners in seven Academy Awards categories: supporting actor and actress, best actor and actress, best director and best picture. These are consensus choices hashed out by a pool of Press Play contributors. Follow along HERE as Press Play decides the rest of the major categories including Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting ActressBest Supporting Actor and Best Documentary. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]


All of the 2011 Best Picture nominees have their merits, but one towers above the rest: The Tree of Life, writer/director Terrence Malick's film about...well what is The Tree of Life about, anyway? For a free-associative non-linear movie that skips back and forth through time and space, and that includes a lengthy early section recounting the creation of the universe, the movie was a surprising commercial success, dominating discussion among cinephiles throughout a summer moviegoing season that is usually overshadowed by much louder, dumber movies. And at the center of the discussion were very basic questions about writing and direction – about storytelling generally – that cut to the heart of what movies are and what they can be.

Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life"
Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life"
It's impossible to discuss the movie without posing a number of questions. Whose story are we seeing here? Is it the story of the middle-aged Jack, played by Sean Penn, and his younger self? That point of view would not account for the voiceovers and subjective sequences told from the point of view of the father, played by Brad Pitt, and the mother, played by Jessica Chastain. Is the creation sequence an integral part of the movie's vision or an unnecessary and indulgent side-trip? In the scene between the wounded dinosaur and the predator down by that prehistoric river, why does the predator seem as though he's going to crush his skull, and then suddenly back off? Are we seeing the first stirrings of the schism that is discussed and visualized in different sections of the film – the way of nature versus the way of grace? Or is there some other explanation? Is there a God in Terrence Malick's universe? The repeated shots of trees, water, clouds, sky and figures haloed or backlit by intense, almost heavenly light would seem to indicate that, yes, there is a God, but uncertainty permeates the entire story, if indeed there is a story – and this, too, was the subject of debate.

No other major American release provoked so many questions about the meaning of its images and situations, the agenda of its writer/director and the validity of its methods. And no other American release provoked such intense, personal reactions – such deep reflection – among people who saw it. Even those who didn't particularly care for Tree of Life or who had serious problems with its structure or tone seemed to respect what it was doing or trying to do. And the unusual rhythms of the filmmaking, at once fractured yet graceful, seemed to mimic the structure of thought itself. The mind races forward, the mind races backward; past becomes present, present becomes past. This is what it means to be conscious, to be alive. This is what it means to be aware of one's own mortality. These are the sensations that movies should provoke. This is the sort of reflection that movies should inspire. This is the achievement of Tree of Life. It is an original, beautiful, unique movie by a defiantly individual director, and Press Play's choice for Best Picture.

Serena Bramble is a rookie film editor and publisher of the blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind. Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for and the founder of Press Play.

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  • Chris Mather | February 24, 2012 11:24 PMReply

    The Tree of Life was the biggest piece of pretentious trash released in many years. Watching it and thinking that there are "images of the meaning of life" is like listening to "Revolution Number 9" and thinking that you now understand what John Lennon meant- when he was only goofing on all of us!

  • Gaspar Marino | February 21, 2012 6:24 PMReply

    "The Tree of Life" is my third choice after The Artist and Hugo, but it's too intellectual for the old codgers that sit on the Academy.

  • Film Debate | February 21, 2012 2:06 PMReply

    Our debaters had differing views on The Tree of Life. It does seem to be a polarizing movie, but everybody could find at least some things to truly admire about it.

  • Maya | February 13, 2012 9:49 PMReply

    Tree of Life was a really enjoyable experience because it was so spiritual - so religious. I can see how bored I could of been if the whole thing hadn't sung to me -- (sort of like how folks may not love my Mama's cooking but it sure don't make them stupid because it ain't to their taste) -- so respect to those who say it did nothing for them. Mr. Malick's movie was an eye opener for me and I never experienced anything so transcendent in the theater before. I saw some other films on the list (not all yet) and liked them alot - but this one....well I simply don't think I will see movies the same way again and that is why it is valuable to me.

  • My Homie | February 13, 2012 5:50 PMReply

    No, what "Should Win" is A Separation. But I guess a lot of the pseudo-intellectuals in this thread think they're smart because they saw an "artsy" film with Brad Pitt in it, yet wouldn't sit through a foreign language film because it's too hard for them.

    Take Shelter would be another "Should Win" if you want to go the artsy English-language route. Even Melancholia is more deserving of a "Should Win" if you want to play the world-destruction angle, although it's not a great film, either.

    But if you're going to go with what was *actually* nominated, then the "Should Win" is The Artist. Yes, it's cheesy, but it should be. An ode to the silent film era wouldn't work unless it was filled with over-the-top pantomime and the requisite happy ending. Regardless, what "Should Not Win" is The Tree of Life. A pseudo-intellectual waste of time. There's lots of good abstract, surrealist, and non-linear films out there, but The Tree of Life is not one of them.

  • JODY | February 12, 2012 12:13 PMReply

    I'm bothered by people who automatically believe that if you don't enjoy Tree of Life you like Twilight, or are overly-medicated or don't listen to what critic's tell you to like (like Kay, JayP, Overstreet, respectively). I can respect what Terrence Malick did (which was ballsy nonetheless) and I most definitely feel Lubezki deserves the Oscar. But it's hard to enjoy or like a film that tries to be so radically different (irrational voice-over, trippy structure that would drive Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu crazy, DINOSAURS?!?) on so many levels just because Malick is seen as some left-field auteur. I can respect it but that's about as far as my basis as a movie-goer and film-lover will let me go.

  • Franky | February 12, 2012 7:14 AMReply

    Beautiful, marvelous, creative, unique, daring, ambitious. Just wonderful. The fact that this isn't the front runner and the gimmicky, overlong Artist is is absolutely mind-boggling.

    Excellent choice. It seems "ambition" has become a dirty word in some circles lately.

  • Better Than Franky | February 13, 2012 5:14 PM

    Wrong. The Tree Of Life is pretentious trash. A bunch of unlikable characters doing things I don't care about, and then Sean Penn walks around for a while. The only reason it gets any attention is because Terrence Malick made it. If it was made by somebody in your college film class, shot for shot, you'd give it a C, at best.

    What "should win" is A Separation, although it wasn't even nominated for Best Picture--only Best Screenplay. Take Shelter would also have been a good choice, but I'm fine with The Artist winning. A bit cheesy, sure, but it's a silent film that's an ode to the silent era--it *should* be cheesy. The rest of the Best Picture nominees were underwhelming or outright terrible.

  • Josh | February 11, 2012 6:23 PMReply

    Out of all the nominees, the Tree of Life is my 2nd least favorite. Sure the cinematagrophy is great, but the movie itself is a bore and it tries to come across as much deeper than it really is.

  • Clio | February 10, 2012 11:34 PMReply

    First, thanks for convincing me to see it. In as much as the movie has extensive scenes about nature and the creation of the world, it also does an incredible job of depicting the man made environment, particularly architecture.

    My first reaction is that this is not about any particular character. Sean Penn keeps saying how he wants to go back to "where they are". It's time, life and death. The memory of times past and how we ache to go back into them. How in the vastness of the universe, one life lost can cause such a deep longing and pain. It's trivial in the scope of the universe, but it's that life in that family. And the memory, the love, the grace of love lingers. Along with the moments that are not filled with grace. That is the memory in the blue tea light.

    PS. You are not an idiot, and since two people put this review together, he should have said: idiots. But, I guess it's confusing.

  • Better Than Clio | February 13, 2012 5:29 PM

    Clio is wrong. I can appreciate a film that has no linear storyline or no storyline at all. Two great examples that I love are, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey (OK, maybe it does have a storyline, though it's minimal) and the very underappreciated film Head starring the Monkees (yeah, seriously, check it out).

    My problem isn't with the non-linearity or the bookends about the beginning/end of the universe. That's all fine and *could* have been interesting. My problem is with the unlikable characters. There was nothing engaging about the film. Sure, I get that the film is autobiographical and is trying to be honest, but if it is honest, then Terrence Malick must be an exceptionally unlikable person if this is what he thinks of himself and his life.

  • Clio | February 10, 2012 11:45 PM

    Just went and read some of the reviews. It seems that most of the negative reviews stem from people's discomfort and expectations that movies have to be about tidy stories. This is not a story movie, it's ideas. Let go of the story concept. Free yourselves.

  • JR | February 10, 2012 6:39 PMReply

    I disagree with this. I think the winner should be something like Midnight. Tree of life really isn't a picture meant for anyone else besides Treance himself

  • Nik Grape | February 10, 2012 4:41 PMReply

    A bit off topic here: The jingle Press Play uses here for their “SHOULD WIN” videos is from a score that escapes me at the moment. Anyone know what it is?

  • Kevin B. Lee | February 11, 2012 2:07 PM

    it's listed in the credits at the end of the video - visit his myspace page and support a budding musician!

  • David | February 10, 2012 3:56 PMReply

    To Mark,

    There is a German proverb that goes something like this, "If a jackass stares into a mirror, a philosopher can't look back."

  • Miguel | February 10, 2012 3:50 PMReply

    I work at a video store here in Chicago and Tree of Life is the film that has divided its DVD audience in half. You either love it (It's my #1 film of the year) or you hate it with a passion (like Mark's comment below). There is no in-between.

  • Mark Esposito | February 10, 2012 3:07 PMReply

    ARE YOU JOKING? The Tree of Life? This confusing, pretentious, overindulgent and nearly unwatchable piece of cinematic bilge whose only real claim to fame is to show how NOT to make a movie? And you call yourself a critic? Perhaps you should consider another line of work. I will never read you again.


  • Mark Esposito's Dad | February 12, 2012 3:14 PM

    Son, I told you not to post things on the internet without my permission. Now, GO TO YOUR ROOM!

  • JayP | February 11, 2012 12:00 PM

    You, with your wildly idiotic response to an excellent film, are the pretentious one. Clearly you think your opinion matters. How unfortunate for you.

  • Kay | February 10, 2012 7:14 PM

    Dear Mark Esposito, ..speaking for us non-medicated folks who absolutely loved TREE OF LIFE, let me just say that I hope your threat holds true, and you never read this critic's reviews again, for only then will the rest of us be spared from ever reading somthing from YOU again. Idiot.

  • Overstreet | February 10, 2012 5:53 PM

    Mark Esposito, take a deep breath and check this out:

    In a poll of 168 film critics chose what you call "a confusing, pretentious, overindulgent and nearly unwatchable piece of cinematic bilge" as their favorite film of 2011.

    Several months before that, the film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, arguably the highest international honor a film can receive.

    So, if you're calling Matt and Serena "idiots" for saying it's their favorite of the nine nominees, what are you calling the international film community who have crowned it with so many honors? What are you calling the many talented actors who, having seen "The Tree of Life," enthusiastically lined up to appear in Terrence Malick's next three films? What are you calling Christopher Nolan and David Fincher, who went out of their way to praise Malick and "The Tree of Life" in the DVD's extras?

    I'm not saying you have to like the movie. You're entitled to your opinion. But consider what it tells us about you when you respond by condemning the folks who have a different opinion.

  • Nik Grape | February 10, 2012 3:44 PM

    Ouch .. did the movie insult your mom or something? It's a masterpeice, a lot of people think so, get over it.

  • brace | February 10, 2012 1:14 PMReply

    this film is the most irritating I've ever seen.I don't mind that it has no story but I couldn't stand that whispering voice over.

  • JayP | February 11, 2012 12:04 PM

    I think you and Mark Esposito should stick to reality television or the Twilight series.

  • Nik Grape | February 10, 2012 11:00 AMReply

    Can't watch the video, something seems off. And i REALLY want to see this because Tree of Life is my "should win" pick too.

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