This completely lived up to expectations. I’ve been a big Malick fan since The Thin Red Line, and this movie showed plenty of his current style (whispered voiceovers about pained relationships as the camera pans up through the trees) while forging a whole new one, had the boldness to turn a man’s memories and inner life into a visual montage of the history of the planet Earth. It shows small moments, real and imagined, and becomes almost completely untethered to plot. It’s almost unbelievably gorgeous in the way it looks and moves through time. But all this is what I expected, from reading vague reports of the film’s genesis as Malick’s intended follow-up to Days of Heaven, to its winning the top prize at Cannes last month, to the rapturous critical acclaim it’s been receiving upon release. I expected the best, most ambitious movie of the year, by a long shot, and that’s pretty much what I got, so I’m gonna have to process it for a while.

Jack and his brothers live in a quiet Texas town with proud, hardass father Brad Pitt (representing Nature in the film’s mythology) and pure, uncritical mother Jessica Chastain (representing Grace), both of them loving in their own way. Years later, Jack is Sean Penn working at a giant, modern architecture firm, looking world-weary. He chats with dad on the phone (we don’t get to see Brad pull out the Ben Buttons old-age makeup), but Katy guesses that mom has died, maybe recently. Oh, also there’s the history of the universe and of life on earth, with CG dinosaurs. The movie scatters its narrative for so long, it’s like a two-hour trailer for a life-length feature (or perhaps just the rumored six-hour cut). It’s like nothing else, ever, not 2001: A Space Odyssey or Malick’s earlier movies or anything else it’s being compared to.

Production design by “man in the planet” Jack Fisk (all five Malick features, four by Lynch plus There Will Be Blood and Phantom of the Paradise), shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World, Sleepy Hollow, all the Alfonso Cuarón movies), music (very good, sometimes too large and overpowering) by Alexandre Desplat (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Birth) and edited by a bunch of guys (including, counterintuitively, Jarmusch’s buddy Jay Rabinowitz).

It’s not hard to find people walking about Tree of Life, but it’s surprisingly hard to find film critics as unhesitatingly impressed by it as I was. Suppose they’re doing their job, hesitating to fully recommend the most narratively unhinged major film of the year. I haven’t been recommending it around much myself. P. Bradshaw in The Guardian calls it “a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy.” The movie has no built-in defense against people who snicker at the cartoon dinosaurs and the whispered voiceovers and the biblical metaphors. It takes itself very seriously and demands that you do the same, or the whole thing could fall apart.

I’m not sure that I buy Tarantino films as thrice-a-decade Big Movie Events. If guy’s gonna make his fun genre flicks, I wish he’d make them more often. The movies he is emulating didn’t take this long to shoot. I’ve been seeing (and trying not to read) reports on this for years now, while I only heard of District 9 last week and I liked ’em both just as much.

One would think the movie follows the Basterds as they rampage through France and Germany killing nazis, but one would be wrong. Starts with a 20-some-minute scene of nazi Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz won best actor at Cannes – nobody can shut up about him) grilling French farmer Denis Menochet about the Jews he is hiding, in Landa’s patient, wordy (duh), polite, milk-drinking manner. The murdered Jewish family’s daughter Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent of Indigènes, who will never have a better role) survives (an image reminiscent of the last-girl-standing final scenes of exploitation horror flicks) and three years later is running a movie theater she inherited from Maggie Cheung (in deleted scenes, which will hopefully surface). At that time, hero sniper Daniel Brühl (star of Goodbye Lenin and Salvador) is hot for her, arranges to hold the premiere of his new propaganda film at her theater. When she hears the entire nazi high command is attending, she plots to destroy the theater with them inside.

So what about the basterds? Well, they’ve got a plot of their own to show up at the film premiere, with the help of movie star Diane Kruger (star of Joyeux Noël), threatened when she is injured in a firefight at a group meeting place (which claims the life of my favorite basterd, Hunger star Michael Fassbender). QT allows a single scene of their nazi-scalping terror campaign (starring bat-man Eli Roth) to stand alone – the vast bulk of the movie is introduction then the week or two leading up to the film premiere.

The movie makes light of death and torture, essentially coming off as a comedy (Brad Pitt’s hilariously fake accent helps that assessment). RW Knight: “Overriding Tarantino’s gratuitous gore instincts is his allegiance to the power of the cinema, which he makes material (literal) here in the form of a combustible nitrate collection.” Surely there are tons of movie references, for once actually talked-about and plot-relevant (Goebbels, Emil Jannings, Leni Riefenstahl) instead of appearing as influences and references in Kill Bill and Jackie Brown (Death Proof had plenty of movie talk, too).

DCairns:

“It’s a film about cinema,” said Joe Dante, who was quite enthusiastic. Perhaps not a war film at all. Or a film about the victory of movies over war, somehow. Certainly, that’s literally what happens in the climax, which contains, all too briefly, the most beautiful image Tarantino has ever conceived or executed.

I have to say I didn’t take it as seriously as some, enjoying the hell out of the sight of Eli Roth machine-gunning Hitler’s lifeless body into the ground moments after the above-mentioned beautiful image (already-dead Shoshanna’s filmed face projected ghostlike on the smoke rising from the burning film stock). And the unusual structure, tense dialogue and Film Comment article’s about Tarantino’s references to American Indian massacres and other carefully thought-out pieces of writing make me think it could be worth taking more seriously. But if I take it seriously, I’ll have to consider the following.

DCairns again: “Inglourious Basterds in a way is about stealing back pleasure from horrible facts, the revenge of cinema upon tragic events, but as interesting as that is in the abstract, it doesn’t strike me as a healthy response. And the gloating nastiness is much closer to Nazism than it is to the spirit of resistance.”