Inside the Best Picture Nominees: A deep dive into 'The Tree of Life'

Tree-of-Life-yard

There are a whopping nine films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. And between your work, family, and constant USA marathons of Law & Order: SVU (when will those ever stop being addictive?!), you simply may not have time to catch all nine in the theaters or at home. But never fear, dear PopWatchers — that’s why we’re here! Each day leading up to the Academy Awards Feb. 26, we’ll provide you with a deep dive into one of the nine Best Picture nominees. Fear showing up to your Oscars party unprepared to discuss the year’s most notable films? We’ve got you covered. (Just beware: SPOILERS AHEAD!) And if you’ve already seen all nine films, even better — our inside look at each nominee will serve as a handy guide to remind you of the best and worst moments from every Best Picture candidate this year. Today, we take a look at The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s examination of how the story of one family is also the story of all existence. (Be sure to click here for more deep dives into this year’s Best Picture nominees!)

Name: The Tree of Life

Release date: May 27, 2011

DVD release date: Available now

Run time: 2 hours, 18 minutes

Box Office: First weekend, $372,920; total domestic, $13.3 million

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84 percent

The Tree of Life’s movie math: (2001: A Space Odyssey x The Fountain x Koyaanisqatsi) x (Stand By MeJurassic Park) + (Sean Penn/the Universe)

Tweetable description of The Tree of Life: A man mourning his dead brother remembers his childhood in Texas and ponders the meaning of everything.

What EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum said:The Tree of Life is both luminously precise (the family part, crowned by Brad Pitt’s commanding performance as a disciplinarian but loving dad) and maddeningly without form and void (the spirituality-lite cosmos part, complete with the depiction of the Big Bang and dinosaurs)… B+

Number of Oscar nominations: Three. Besides Best Picture, Tree of Life garnered nods for Best Director (for the beloved and mysterious auteur Terrence Malick) and Best Cinematographer (for the well-respected director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki). That sound you hear is the sorrowful cries of Tree of Life‘s five-man editing team, who spent years working with Malick to craft the final product out of over a million feet of film.

Cast/Director’s Oscar history: After a two-decade absence from filmmaking, Malick earned Best Director nod and Adapted Screenplay nominations for The Thin Red Line, 1998′s other WWII movie. Lubezki is a five-time nominee, including nods for Children of Men and The New World. Two of the film’s leads are nominated this year for different movies: Brad Pitt for Moneyball (his third nomination) and Jessica Chastain for The Help (her first of presumably many). Costar Sean Penn is the most decorated member of the cast, having been nominated five times and having won twice.

What The Tree of Life has won so far: The film picked up AFI Movie of the Year, the Chicago Film Critics Association Best Picture, the Gotham Award for Best Film, Online Film Critics Society Award Best Film, top honors at the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, and the TFCA Toronto Film Critics Association Awards. And the film has picked up plenty of trophies in cinematography, from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, the National Society of Film Critics Awards, and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, among others. Chastain has been awarded by the the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Society of Film Critics Awards, and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, among others. Director Malick won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and won top honors at the London Critics Circle Film Awards and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, among others.

Why The Tree of Life should win: It’s not enough to say that Tree of Life was the most ambitious movie of the year. It’s not even enough to say that Tree of Life is one of the most ambitious movies ever made. With a narrative that cuts quickly between fascinating moments of lived-in intimacy and a grandiose spiritual-scientific vision of the entire history of the universe, Tree of Life is simply one of the most ambitious works of art ever created. In a funny way, you could argue that the film’s multilayered narrative contains elements of every other Best Picture winner — the traumatized American families of Descendants and Extremely Loud, the child’s-eye perspective of Hugo, the historic visions of War Horse and The Help, the nostalgic inquisition of Midnight in Paris. Like The Artist, the style of Tree of Life harkens back to an essentially non-dialogue era of cinema. And I think there’s a scene where the kids play baseball, so Moneyball.

Why The Tree of Life should not win: Now, whether Tree of Life actually succeeds in its ambitions is a central part of the debate surrounding the movie. For many people, the film has become the new definition of the artsy-with-a-capital-A art film, replete with free-flowing narration and long scenes of Sean Penn walking through a barren landscape that could have come straight out of the most pretentious film student’s thesis project. Even people who are captivated by individual moments in Tree of Life have to ponder whether the film is little more than a sum of various detached parts. It’s also worth noting that, while the film is often compared to the work of Stanley Kubrick or Andrei Tarkovsky, Malick’s vision is undeniably more sentimental than those other filmmakers. (There’s a reason why this film was nominated, and not Melancholia.)

Vegas odds: 75/1, according to Las Vegas Sports Betting

EW’s Dave Karger’s odds: Tree of Life is currently running in a distant 7th place according to our Oscar expert’s recent ranking. Take that, War Horse!

Moment most worthy of an Oscar: Part of the fun of Tree of Life is the film’s head-trip galaxy-in-a-sunflower narrative, but the moment-to-moment thrill of watching the movie comes from how effectively Malick succeeds in portraying one specific family’s interactions in a way that feels universally evocative. Take this scene of a family dinner followed by a quiet scene between Brad Pitt’s father and his young son, which contains a lifetime of conflicting father-son emotions: Love, hate, fear, respect, balancing the frightening sense that your father is a god with the equal (and perhaps more frightening) possibility that he’s just another man.

Best line from The Tree of Life: From Brad Pitt’s Father, a moment of sorrowful self-realization: “I wanted to be loved cause I was great, a Big Man. Now I’m nothing. Look. The glory around… trees, birds… I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.”

Worst line from The Tree of Life: From Jessica Chastain’s Mother, “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” (Note: Given your thoughts on Tree of Life, you could feasibly reverse the “Best” and “Worst” lines, or even deconstruct the whole meaning of the terms “Best” and “Worst” in the context of the evolution of human consciousness.)

MVP (Most Valuable Prop): The nightgown young Jack steals from a neighbor’s bedroom, which inspires his first moment of sexual awakening, followed immediately by sexual guilt and sexual repression. Oh, the joys of youth!

Best fashion moment: How do you transform one of the most attractive men in the history of the human race into a typical suburban dad in mid-20th century Waco? Simple: Horn-rimmed glasses. Pitt rocks the rims in an early scene of Tree of Life and instantly looks a million times more like your grandfather and less like Achilles.

Worst fashion moment: With a black-on-charcoal arrangement, the suit that Sean Penn wears throughout the movie seems purposefully designed to make his character a walking symbol of the dehumanization of our modern tech-tropolitan era. Which works for the movie, but I imagine it makes his co-workers a bit uneasy.

Best music moment: A funny and impossibly beautiful scene of family horseplay, with the three young boys gleefully tormenting their mother with a lizard, is scored to the harpischord piece, “Les Barricades Mysterieuses,” by François Couperin. Don’t like classical music? Here’s a thought: Turn 6!

Extra Special Effects: You might not  know the name Douglas Trumbull, but if you’re a fan of science-fiction movies, then you know his work: The special-effects innovator worked on the influential designs of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade RunnerTree of Life marks Trumbull’s return to moviemaking after nearly three decades, and the fascinating birth-of-the-universe sequence is a monument to his “organic effects” aesthetic. Watch him talk about the sequence here.

Spin-Off Showcase: One of the most intriguing early rumors about Tree of Life was that the director was planning to take the supernovae-and-dinosaurs corner of the movie and craft an entirely new film: An IMAX documentary called The Voyage of Time. Last May, Tree of Life‘s producer told EW that there were still plans to make the movie. Better not hold your breath, though. Malick has also been promising a director’s cut of The Thin Red Line for over a decade, and currently has a packed slate of new movies in production. Also, all the IMAX theaters that used to play films with titles like The Voyage of Time are now playing important Hollywood product like Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.

And Yet They Love Jerry Lewis: Tree of Life was infamously booed after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, although rumors abound that the boos were drowned out by cheers. The important thing to remember is that Clerks II received an 8-minute standing ovation at Cannes a few years ago. Which, depending on your perspective, either means that Cannes audiences are insane, or Clerks II is the masterpiece of our modern era.

Mixed Reviews: The Tree of Life is easily the most esoteric film nominated for Best Picture this year. So it’s perhaps expected that, after the film’s release, there were reports of hooplehead gangs demanding their ticket money back. More surprising, though, is the fact that outspoken costar Sean Penn took issue with the movie, telling a French magazine that he had no real notion of why he was in the movie. (EW’s own Chris Nashawaty — an avowed Tree of Life skeptic — would probably agree with him.)

The Meaning of Life: If you’re a non-skeptic, be sure to check out this handy slide-by-slide deconstruction of the movie by EW’s Anthony Breznican. You’ll never have to wonder what the water is supposed to symbolize!

Five Oscar Party talking points:

1) “Listen, no offense to Kubrick. I love Kubrick. When I was a kid, my brother showed me 2001: A Space Odyssey and it made me love the movies. But The Tree of Life is the kind of movie that Stanley Kubrick would have made if he had even the tiniest amount of love or appreciation for any of his fellow human beings.”

2) “The way that I hear it, the whole thing’s autobiographical. Malick was born and raised in Texas, like the kids in the movie. He had three brothers, and one of them died young, just like the brother in the movie. I think that’s why all the stuff with the kids is great, and all the stuff with the dinosaurs and the black holes is silly.”

3) “I couldn’t disagree with you more. I actually think the dinosaur stuff is beautiful. Like that first shot of the water dinosaur on land. For one thing, think about how this is almost kind of a joke — in grade school, we always learned about ‘the first fish who crawled onto land,’ but this water-dinosaur is injured and doesn’t look like he’ll last long. Heck, I even love the scene where the two digital dinosaurs have a moment by the stream. It’s only silly if you think that everything that doesn’t directly conform to your hyper-cynical fifth-grade-sarcasm worldview is silly.”

4) “Why did the chair move? That’s all I wanna know. Why did the chair move?”

5) “It’s simple, really. Tree of Life is an attempt to combine an incredibly spiritual vision of human existence with an incredibly in-depth examination of the history of our universe and our species, according to modern science. Everyone can feel offended!”

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more: 
Oscars 2012: EW’s special coverage 
Inside the Best Picture Nominees

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