D&D Campaign Settings Ranked

Over a year ago I ranked what I consider to be the best D&D modules of all time. Now for campaign settings — the realms, planets, and worlds, from best to worst. I decided to ignore Spelljammer and Eberron, not simply because I dislike them, though that’s definitely true, but for the sci-fic elements; spaceships and robots just aren’t D&D. Click on the maps to see the full size.

(1) Middle-Earth. 1982-1999. 5 stars. Not made for D&D, but no matter, ICE’s superb modules were readily adaptable. Middle-Earth is a world of high fantasy, about which I usually have bad things to say (see 8 and 10 on this list), but Tolkien did it first and best, and he was darker than most give him credit for. His imitators are blind to the “long defeat” theme which pervades his tales, and the ultimate powerlessness of good over evil. Then too, magic is incredibly subdued in Middle-Earth, and (after the First Age anyway), the gods seldom involve themselves directly. Middle-Earth is in a constant state of fading, or “lowering” its fantasy context with the passage of time. On top of all this, it’s a genius creation, with cultures, languages, and history so detailed it doesn’t seem like fantasy; it’s a pre-history to our own world and resonates with the realism of places like Mystara and Hyboria. The folks at ICE fleshed out Tolkien’s labors with amazing scholarship of their own, especially in exploring lands to the south, and it was a sad day when the Tolkien Enterprise fascists took away their license. (Other Minds have done a pretty good job filling the 21st-century vacuum.) I never tired of gaming in Middle-Earth.

(2) Mystara. 1981-1995. 5 stars. Some of the best old-school modules were set in Mystara, the realm of Basic D&D. I played by Advanced rules, but the world for AD&D (see 9 below) did nothing to inspire me. Mystara hooked me right away, from its sketchy inception in The Isle of Dread module, to the fleshed-out detail in later gazeteers. The nations are compelling medieval European analogs of our own world: click left to see the Thyatian Empire (= the Byzantine), the Grand Duchy of Karameikos (= southeastern Europe), the Principalities of Glantri (= western Europe, ruled by wizard-princes), the Ethengar Khanate (= the Mongols), the Republic of Darokin (= the mercantile states of medieval Italy), the Emirates of Ylaruam (= Mid-Eastern Arabs), the Northern Reaches of Ostland/Vestland/Soderfjord (= Scandinavian vikings), plus regions for the dwarves, elves, and halflings. I still consider Mystara the most ideal setting for D&D campaigns.

(3) Athas. 1991-1999; 2008-present. 4 ½ stars. Launched the year I stopped playing D&D for a long time, The Dark Sun products are among the few decencies of the 2e period, superb in fact, set on a planet so saturated with Dune overtones you expect sandworms to appear. Athas is a land of ecological disaster, constant thirst, grinding poverty, and like most dying worlds has a history reaching back to a glorious age now forever out of reach. In this sense it’s reminiscent of Middle-Earth’s long defeat and foreordained passing, but even more depressing for its lack of deities; there are no Valar equivalents to assist, however obliquely, in keeping the tide of evil at bay. Clerics and druids draw their power from elemental forces, and wizards use magic at their own risk. It’s a world where halflings are cannibals, heroes are almost unheard of, and sorcerer-kings hold city-states under complete tyranny. I wish I’d been able to get use out of this brutal world; it wasn’t supported in 3e though has made an inferior comeback in 4e.

(4) Nehwon. 1985-1992. 4 ½ stars. In terms of legendary characters, D&D always reminded me of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (Conan a close second), roguish heroes who are anti-heroes at least half the time and involve themselves in personal or localized threats more than cosmic world-shattering evil. I was delighted to no end when TSR began publishing the Lankhmar resources in the mid-’80s, especially since this was an upsetting time when Dragonlance was changing the face of the game for the worse. Lankhmar City remains the vilest cesspit of any campaign setting, corrupt at every level, a place where you have to worry about being backstabbed (literally and figuratively) at every turn. The world beyond the city is great too, with classic regions like the Sinking Lands and City of Ghouls. I dreamed a lot about Nehwon as a teen, and being sent on the same kind of ludicrous missions Fafhrd and Mouser suffered under their wizard patrons. My nostalgia for this world is topped only by my reverence for Middle-Earth.

(5) Ravenloft. 1990-present. 4 ½ stars. Based on the vampire module of the early ’80s, the world of Ravenloft was later developed as a full-blown setting of isolation, apprehension, and constant fear. It’s a world of haunted mansions, cursed bloodlines, and of course plenty of undead, ruled by various domain lords who are so evil as beyond redemption. And it’s a living terror in the hands of a DM who knows how to run mood pieces — the only realm on this list which can be properly called a horror setting. Like Athas (see 3 above), Ravenloft isn’t a place you’d choose to make your home; its inhabitants rarely smile; it’s not for gamers who prefer light fantasy or expect their characters to live long or who will resent frequent saving throws against fright and madness. Evil forces are the norm. Once again it’s interesting to note something excellent produced in the ’90s, which was mostly a bad time for D&D. And Ravenloft has remained official throughout the 3e and 4e periods.

(6) Kara-Tur (“The Orient”). 1986-1987. 4 stars. As a fan of those godawful ’80s ninja movies with Sho Kosugi, I was ecstatic when TSR produced the Oriental Adventures version of D&D, which naturally demanded its own world. Wisely, they didn’t try for an eastern version of Greyhawk, but rather took the approach of Mystara and Hyboria, borrowing directly from the cultures and societies of our own world. Kara-Tur looks almost exactly like China (Shou Lung) and Japan (Kozakura), and given compelling histories of tumultuous dynasties and shogunates, not to mention (of course) underground assassin movements like ninjas. In ’87 Kara-Tur was officially made part of The Forgotten Realms (see 8 below), which I never acknowledged, having no use for that setting. When you get down to it, Kara-Tur can be made the “East” of any world — even Middle-Earth if you want to be bold. The modules designed for it were okay, though too railroady (pre-scripted in plotting) like most adventures of the late ’80s.

(7) Hyboria. 1984. 4 stars. Classic D&D drew so much inspiration from Conan’s world (who doesn’t think of Red Nails when playing modules like The Lost City and Dwellers of the Forbidden City?), and I’m surprised there were only two short modules made for it. Even sadder is that these modules weren’t particularly good, more in line with the atrocious film-sequel Conan the Destroyer than any of Howard’s source material. But Hyboria itself is a great world, and what I love most is that, like Mystara and Kara-Tur, it’s modeled so closely on our own that it feels real for all the fantasy. Where Mystara evokes medieval Europe and Kara-Tur the Far East, Hyboria reaches further back to antiquity and covers it all: Aquilonia is a blend of the Roman and Carolingian Empires, Corinthia the stand-in for ancient Greece, Shem the biblical region of Syria and Palestine, Stygia an Egypt-like domain of the snake cult of Set, Khitai the China equivalent, and so forth. A lot of the best classic AD&D modules could easily be set in Hyboria, frankly, instead of the artificial world of Oerth.

(8) The Forgotten Realms. 1987-present. 3 stars. Introduced to 1e in ’87, incorporated into 2e in ’89, the Forgotten Realms became unquestionably the most popular campaign setting of the ’90s; it was revised for 3e and then again for 4e, and so remains alive and well today, though I’m certainly not one of its devotees. It’s a quintessential high fantasy setting, where magic is ultra-powerful, magic items practically grow on trees, legendary monsters are to be found everywhere, and gods frequently involve themselves in mortal affairs. Most importantly, it’s a world demanding moral crusaders against evil (like Krynn, see 10 below), which is the part I object to the most. Unlike pulp fantasy worlds (Mystara, Nehwon, Hyboria, Oerth), high fantasy doesn’t encourage moral ambiguity, and the high-stakes plotting, ironically, can trivialize the problem of evil. That being said, this place does have a way of engaging you if you let it. A sample of modules are listed here.

(9) Oerth. 1980-2008. 2 stars. Readers will be astounded by this placement, as many of the best old-school modules are set in Greyhawk (Oerth’s main continent), a world inspired by the classic pulp realms of Conan, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, and Elric. But Greyhawk doesn’t feel inspired at all. It’s terribly artificial; its geography is forgettable and its politics contrived. As a teen I had the impression that Gygax threw a bunch of hastily concocted kingdoms at a map and let them fall where they may. He knew how to write modules better than anyone but couldn’t design a setting for them to save himself. Oerth just doesn’t feel distinct in any memorable way, and it says something that I would sooner resort to even a high-fantasy world like the Forgotten Realms. The setting remained officially supported for a long time, up until the launching of 4e a few years ago. I almost never used it; for me, Mystara suited AD&D modules as perfectly as it did the Basic modules.

(10) Krynn. 1984-present. 1 star. If Oerth is half-assed, then Krynn is conceptually irredeemable. But then this is Dragonlance we’re talking about, for which really nothing good can be said, and I’m appalled (but not surprised) that it has the longest lifespan on this list, born at the tail-end of D&D’s Golden Age (’74-’83) and still thriving to this day in 4e. Krynn is a world of high fantasy, and everything I wrote about the Forgotten Realms (see 8 above) applies here too. But Krynn is worse, marking a trend to mainstream fantasy so that it could be for “everyone” instead of D&D fans. Riding dragons horseback is an insult to the majestic creatures, and the kender are just plain offensive. Believe it or not, I still have the blasted modules, as I was caught up in the initial craze like everyone else; I dug them out of my closet last night to exasperate myself and relive the most painful gaming experiences of my life.

The Hobbit: An Overextended Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was definitely too long and perhaps too ambitious, but then I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece. It’s barely a fresh tomato (65%) as opposed to the gourmet ratings of each of the Lord of the Rings films (92%, 96%, 94%), and while I often cut against critical consensus, the reviews in this case are a pretty reliable gauge. The film is bloated like King Kong and proof that Peter Jackson needs an editor. Yet there’s a lot I liked about it, most of which doesn’t even come from the book, which makes my feelings paradoxical; I’m complaining about an oversized length while commending material that by rights has no place in the story.

My favorite is Radagast the Brown, and he fits perfectly in a plot involving the Necromancer of Dol Guldur. Tolkien’s story had no room for this menace. The Hobbit was written for children, and it certainly never explained why Gandalf abandoned Bilbo and the dwarves once they hit Mirkwood Forest. You have to read Lord of the Rings to learn what his “pressing business” was in the southern neck of the woods. Jackson isn’t sidestepping that business, in fact, he’s making Sauron the villain as much as Smaug — an ambitious project, to be sure, one that dramatically divides our interest, and it could turn out a mess. But meanwhile I love Radagast, who keeps a watch on the Hill of Sorcery, where the Necromancer (= Sauron) rolls out his poison against the forest.

Purists, to be sure, are already howling over the way Radagast is so “disrespectfully” portrayed. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, he is dismissed as a crank only through the scorn of Saruman, while Jackson goes out of his way to make him a half-baked lunatic who lets birds nest in his hair and shit down his beard. This last gratifies me immensely, and I can’t see what the fuss is about. (Perhaps being a purist entails not only a fundamentalist worship of the text, but also an unyielding disdain for anything vulgar like feces.) I adore everything about Jackson’s Radagast. We’re introduced to him as he tends to a dying hedgehog while his house is attacked by giant spiders; he remains tenderly focused on the hedgehog to its last gasp. Later he rescues Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves from a warg attack, by running tails around the beasts with a (yes) rabbit-pulled sleigh. This sleigh has already become famous, and is admittedly quite silly, but only in the same appropriately silly way that hobbits dance to frivolous songs on barroom tables.

My second favorite part is that which is actually most faithful to the book: the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum. I retain a special fondness for the Rankin & Bass animated treatment of this scene, so it’s saying something that I think Jackson’s is just as good. He delivers the exact same riddles from Tolkien’s story, and a flawless depiction of Gollum’s schizophrenia — his hate and desperation mixed with loneliness and a craving of the company of his own kind. It’s the heart of Unexpected Journey and carries a tense introspective thrust that resonates across future decades.

The final scene of this episode even outdoes the riddle contest, in spotlighting the “pity of Bilbo” which will of course become the basis for Gandalf’s sermon to Frodo. Greg Wright summarizes the lesson nicely:

“The important point is not entirely that Bilbo finds room in his heart for mercy, motivated by pity. It’s that, through that merciful act, the larger Providential arc of Divine movement is worked out. Neither Bilbo, nor Frodo, nor even Gandalf, Elrond, or Galadriel, are powerful enough to save Middle-earth from great Evil. Evil will ultimately destroy itself through its own evil impulses, and Gollum is the agent of that demise — in spite of the best intentions of others.”

Bilbo’s pity, here and now in The Hobbit, is what saves Middle-Earth in The Lord of the Rings — not Frodo (who will be a foreordained failure, unable to resist the Ring when it matters most), nor Gandalf (who can only aid the Free Peoples per his charge), and certainly not Aragorn (who will rule as a mere reminder of man’s past glory and not a promise of any future glory). Bilbo’s compassion makes possible what no member of the Fellowship can accomplish, and Jackson foreshadows the euchatastrophe beautifully. Gollum’s tortured look is heartbreaking, and carries none of the cheesy melodrama that mars some the interactions between, say, Bilbo and Thorin.

There’s more that I enjoyed in Unexpected Journey, but Radagast and Gollum stole the show. The Southern Mirkwood plot involves the White Council (Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, and Ganalf) meeting at Rivendell, another delight for Tolkien fans, even if centuries of Necromancer history are outrageously condensed into a single year. I also liked the prologue of Smaug laying waste to Erebor; we don’t get to see the dragon yet, and this somehow made the fire attack even more terrifying. What I didn’t like was all the self-indulgent air front-loading the story in the Shire. The return of Frodo left me nonplussed (and Elijah Wood is looking too old now), and it took too long for the dwarves to assemble in Bag End, sing songs, gorge themselves, and get Bilbo to sign their bloody contract. Mind you, I love Bag End and am not averse to lingering in the Shire per se. In the extended version of Fellowship of the Ring I savored every moment of the 40-minute first act, as none of it dragged, even when doing little more than fleshing out character moments. The theatrical Hobbit, by contrast, gives us a 45-minute Shire episode which feels twice the length it needed to be — a hyper-extended version that wouldn’t even be warranted on DVD.

Then there is Goblin Town. If Bag End made me yawn with its vacuousness, Goblin Town bored me twice as much with its ridiculous excesses. Jackson’s Spielberg-sickness has plainly gotten the better of him since King Kong. Granted there’s always some suspension of disbelief required in fantasy blockbusters, but once dwarves are leaping over crumbling bridges like Olympic athletes, and falling down chasms with hardly a scratch, suspension of disbelief is a non-sequitur. It’s the same as Ann Darrow plummeting through hundreds of feet of tree branches while doing impossible trapeze artistry, or King Kong whipping her to and fro enough times to snap her body like a twig; or like Indiana Jones bailing out of a plane with a goddamn river raft. It’s adolescent fanboy nonsense that recognizes no laws of physics whatsoever, and makes acrobatic superheroes by sheer wish-fulfillment.

And that’s not all. The Goblin-King himself is a major offense, resembling Jabba the Hut and speaking like a toad out of a lame Tim Burton film. Ironically, the other orc baddie, Azog, is impressively fearsome, and he doesn’t even belong in the story; in the Tolkien canon he was killed by dwarves over a century ago. But in Jackson’s revisionism Azog only appeared to die at the Battle of Azanulbizar, so he can now resurface and wreak vengeance on Thorin. I enjoyed this invented storyline far more than the “legitimate” Goblin-Town drama, and I’m sure purists will hate me for approving Jackson’s liberties.

Those who complain that Jackson has made The Hobbit too much like Lord of the Rings miss the point. The Dol Guldur plot involves the Lord of the Rings and is the other half of the story I always wanted to see. (Then too I have fond if brutal gaming memories of Southern Mirkwood.) In the grand scheme of things, the White Council’s strike against the Necromancer is more epic than the dwarves’ against Smaug. The question is whether or not Jackson bit off more than he can chew and can make these two threads mesh well. The next two films will tell. This one is really an over-extended journey, a bloated stage-setter, that simultaneously engages and divides our interest.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

What Makes an Asshole: Two Theories

An increasing number of scholars are using the term “asshole” to describe someone for whom no polite word suffices. Two will be considered in this post. First is Bob Sutton, whose runaway bestseller The No Asshole Rule (2007) has gone a long way in helping people cope with assholes in the workplace. Sutton offers a litmus test to determine whether or not someone is an asshole:

(1) Does the person make someone feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled?
(2) Does the person aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those who are more powerful?

The second gauge is critical. One thing I always keep in mind as a supervisor is that if I’m going to get nasty, it’s going to be at my equals or superiors, not the poor folks subordinate to me. Not that I do in fact behave this way towards equals or superiors. But if I had to choose, I’d go for the jugular sideways or up the ladder of command. It’s telling that assholes are cowards at heart: only the weak beat up on the weak.

Sutton also identifies tactics of assholes, the “dirty dozen” as he calls them: (1) personal insults, (2) invading one’s personal territory, (3) uninvited physical contact, (4) threats and intimidation (verbal and non-verbal), (5) jokes and teasing used as insult-delivery systems, (6) withering email flames, (7) status slaps, (8) public shaming or status degradation rituals, (9) rude interruptions, (10) two-faced attacks/backhanded compliments, (11) dirty looks, (12) treating people like they’re invisible. (p 10)

Sometimes I’m guilty of a fair share of (1), (5), (10), and (12) (so I better watch myself), and Sutton acknowledges that everyone (including himself) acts like an asshole from time to time. But occasionally acting like an asshole doesn’t make one so. The asshole is “one who displays a persistent pattern, and has a history of episodes that end with one target after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated, disrespected, oppressed, de-energized, and generally worse about themselves” (p 11), on account of any combination of the above tactics. Sutton’s book is very helpful, and one I’ve recommended to both managers and underdogs.

If Sutton’s focus is on the workplace, where assholes wield their tyranny over others by way of insults (however open or veiled) and shaming strategies, then Aaron James’ scope is more global. Assholes: A Theory (2012) is hot off the press, and covers all species of assholes — boorish assholes, smug assholes, dignified assholes, corporate assholes, political assholes, reckless assholes, self-aggrandizing assholes. Many of these breeds don’t necessarily have power over people in the way co-workers do. And yet they do anyway — by the sheer outrage they cause. This is what makes them fascinating as they are infuriating. Assholes, according to James, impose small costs on people. They’re not murderers or rapists; they’re not criminals who need to be locked up. They are the petty offenders who cut in line, rudely interrupt, weave in and out of traffic, park in handicapped spaces, speak loudly on cell phones in the wrong places — small-time stuff, yet so outrageously upsetting that they make even the most unflappable of us want to lash out and do them violence.

Why is this the case? The reason, says James, has to do with the asshole’s mentality rather than his deeds per se. He refuses (or is unable) to register other people as morally real and worthy of consideration. The asshole basically regards himself as above the rules and all-special. “If one is special on one’s birthday, the asshole’s birthday comes every day.” (p 16) Victims of assholes aren’t so much fighting for their rightful place in line or any other minor injustice. They are fighting to be recognized, to be respected as people.

The asshole, in other words, has three critical traits according to James. He

(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically,

(2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement, and

(3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

By his threefold definition, James finds that most assholes are men. This isn’t surprising. In most cultures, men are taught to be assertive and outspoken, while women are conditioned to be more circumspect and pull their punches. Then too there is plain nature: high testosterone levels and other genetic traits predispose men toward asshole behavior in later life, and gender culture channels these dispositions even more. (I think James downplays nature in favor of cultural conditioning a bit much, but he has the right idea.) That’s why it’s so easy to rattle off examples of male assholes (Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, Richard Dawkins, Hugo Chavez, Donald Trump, Dick Cheney, Steve Jobs, Simon Cowell, Mel Gibson) while only few women come to mind (like Ann Coulter).

Which isn’t to say that women fall in a necessarily flattering spotlight. James makes a distinction between the asshole and the “bitch”, the latter of whom only half-fulfills condition (3).

“The bitch listens to the voiced complaints of others, making at least a show of recognition. Nevertheless, what is said makes no motivational difference to what she does; once her face-to-face encounter with you is over, it is as though you never talked. She ‘recognizes’ you in one sense: she acts as though she feels it is important to hear you out, to entertain your concerns. But this turns out to be only for show. The bitch betrays you behind her back. The asshole fails to recognize you to your face… The asshole is especially outrageous, because, whatever his private motives, he can’t even be polite. And when he is polite, or even charming, fundamental respect is not the reason why. Other motives are in play.” (pp 93-94)

There is a slight problem here. I’m not sure the asshole’s brazen honesty makes him more outrageous. He’s probably more upsetting to most people, but others might prefer candor to deceit. It will depend largely on the circumstance. We all appreciate respect to some degree or another (however genuine or feigned), but the bitch, as defined, can be insidious and on a deeper level just as offensive as the asshole.

On James’ theory, certain nations are breeding grounds for assholes. He finds the worst hells-on-earth to be America, Italy, and Brazil. For whatever reason, he singles out Canada, Scandinavia, and Japan with cleaner bills of health, which he attributes to non-capitalist and/or collectivist (group-oriented) cultural conditioning. Speaking of Japan in particular (p 100), he opines that collectivist cultures appear less likely to engender or tolerate a sense of entitlement than individualist cultures, and thus diffuse a significant amount of ass-holism in advance. This is a valid observation if we agree with James’s starting point that entitlement is the chief index in gauging ass-holism. But if we return to Bob Sutton’s “dirty dozen” workplace-tactics as our framework — which focus on insults, status degradation, and shaming strategies — then suddenly collectivist cultures look more asshole-prone, not less.

This needs unpacking. In collectivist honor-shame cultures, insults are often esteemed as fine arts; belligerence a commendable show of machismo; public degradation a staple of life; two-faced attacks (and backhanded compliments) prestigious displays of wit; and treating others as if they are invisible a proper way of snubbing inferiors and equals. And Sutton seems aware of cultural predispositions like these. In the middle of The No Asshole Rule he brings honor-shame cultures into the discussion, and also honor-shame subcultures — like that of the southern United States

“People raised in these cultures are especially polite and considerate in most interactions, in part because they want to avoid threatening the honor of others (and the fight it provokes)… [But] once they are affronted, men raised in these places often feel obligated to lash back and protect what is theirs, especially their right to be treated with respect or honor.” (pp 116-117)

He then cites an intriguing study conducted in 1996 at the University of Michigan, in which the behavior patterns of southern and northern Americans were contrasted:

“Subjects (half southerners and half northerners) passed a stooge who ‘accidentally’ bumped into him and swore at him. There were big differences between how the northerners and southerners reacted: 65% of the northerners were amused by the bump and insult, and only 35% got angry; only 15% of the insulted southerners were amused, and 85% got angry. Not only that, a second study showed that southerners had strong physiological reactions to being bumped, especially substantial increases in cortisol (a hormone associated with high levels of stress and anxiety), as well as some signs of increased testosterone levels. Yet northerners showed no signs of physiological reaction to the bump and insult.” (p 117)

In other words, if you are from an honor-shame culture like Asia or the Middle-East — or in this case, from even an honor-shame subculture like the southern United States — “you will likely be more polite than your colleagues most of the time, but if you run into an even mildly insulting asshole, you are prone to lash out and risk fueling a cycle of asshole poisoning” (p 118). In this sense, the importance of being polite in these shame-based societies is a form of preventive damage control, where people are concerned every moment about their precious honor. The data cited by Sutton would thus imply that people from collectivist (honor-shame) cultures have stronger asshole potentials — the opposite of James’ findings.

In my view, both Sutton and James have the right of it. It just depends on our working definition of an asshole. If entitlement is the major index (James), then capitalist-driven individualists will indeed shine as our greatest asshole exemplars. If insults and shaming strategies are the main gauge (Sutton), then collectivists will out-asshole us in other ways. It ends up a wash. Assholes cover the globe under different permutations; they are frequently men, and share a disdain for everyone but themselves, coupled with an effortless ability to dismiss, degrade, and infuriate.

Terrence Malick’s Greatest Hits

It was a given that Malick would place in this blogathon of favorite film directors, and here’s how I rank his work. I am ignoring the recent string of efforts that made me wonder if someone was ghost filming for Malick. To the Wonder (2012) explores the ethereality of love in what feels like a cheesy imitation of Malick’s style. Knight of Cups (2015) shows the excesses of Hollywood through the pain of an empty character. And Song to Song (2017) tells of relationships in the music industry with nothing remotely interesting to say. On to the real Malick films.

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1. The Tree of Life. 2011. 5 stars. Like Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, this is a picture-perfect film attaining heights out of reach to all but the most gifted filmmakers. It spotlights an American Catholic family within a macrocosm of evolution, and an implied dialectic of nature vs. grace. If there ever was a case to be made for religionless Christianity, this is it. It pivots around a man reliving his childhood (in hindsight both wondrous and grim) while reflecting on his own place in the universe (negligible on one level, having everything to do with it on another). In particular, grace emerges not as something which contradicts nature (even if it’s its conceptual opposite), but something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. It’s an incredible film, with each frame depending on just the right camera angle, scoring, and particular subtleties around snippets of dialogue you can barely hear. And it ends on a spiritual apocalypse that can strike to the heart of even the most unyielding atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with pain and loss, gelling splendidly with the evolutionary framework of the film. I’ve seen The Tree of Life more than any other Malick film, and have been turned by new surprises each time.

2. A Hidden Life. 2019. 5 stars. This is a return to form after the trilogy of cheap existential perfume (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song) which caused me to think Malick was either being imitated by an acolyte, or that he had lost his chops. A Hidden Life is the real deal, and a testimony to achieving a style and substance in perfect tandem. It’s about the  unsung Austrian hero, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II, executed for it, and was later declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church. Like classic Malick, geographical beauty is the canvas on which human ugliness is painted and interrogated. The Austrian backdrop is breathtaking; the plight of Jägerstätter and his wife almost hard to credit in a world that can yield such beauty. Most filmmakers would make this story about hot-button moral superiority: the courageous farmer vs. a regime of monstrous evil. But Malick doesn’t let us off the hook with the existential questions: Is it morally acceptable to allow one’s wife and children to suffer by opposing evil like the Nazis? The cosmos doesn’t care about righteousness.

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3. Badlands. 1973. 5 stars. Released the same year as The Exorcist, Malick’s first film is in every way a ’70s work par excellence, and one that only obliquely distinguishes itself as a Terrence Malick film. That’s not a bad thing: the ’70s were the Golden Age of filmmaking, and Badlands, like so many productions of this era, epitomizes the ideological emptiness of America after Vietnam and social upheaval of the ’60s. Like many artists of the time, Malick takes an amoral stance, refusing to either condemn his delinquent killers or cheer them on as anti-heroes. The visuals of the American Midwest landscape are breathtaking — on this point, the Malickian thumb-prints become evident — but Badlands is the one film on this list where characters don’t play second fiddle to nature, or at least that nature isn’t as much as character as it is in the others. Malick is clearly trying to underscore the way characters react and relate to meaningless violence, and what I find most disturbing about it is the tone of disinterest and nonchalance; the duo don’t relish killing, nor do they murder with any real purpose; it’s just a way of life that came naturally to them given their circumstances. Of the umpteen Bonnie-and-Clyde films, Badlands is my choice, with with Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise a close second.

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4. Days of Heaven. 1978. 5 stars. Quintessential Malick, gorgeous as it is simple, Days of Heaven preserves a still in every frame that you’d be proud to hang in your living room. As with Tree of Life, it’s the kind of film that takes just the right director to make work. Or least for me, because I’m big on character, and here the characters are kept at arm’s length even by Malick’s standards. Nature is of course the lead in most of his work, but in Days of Heaven the horses, wheat, locusts, and pastures eclipse Bill and Abby to the extent we almost don’t care a whit about their story with the dying farmer, yet remain hooked to the overall tapestry. There’s nothing romantic in this vision: it shows nature like it is, completely indifferent to humanity, a theme strongly revisited in The Thin Red Line. Interesting is that Malick reportedly trashed his own screen-play during the production, deciding instead to allow the actors to improvise and find the story in their own way. And it shows, because nothing feels rehearsed — it’s as if you’re watching something real through a painting come to life.

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5. The Thin Red Line. 1998. 4 ½ stars. There are two films I can’t avoid comparing to Saving Private Ryan, a film I never cared for. One is Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, for the suicidal attempt to take the hill; it retains a brutal intensity that Spielberg couldn’t match in the opening act of his overpraised film, much as he tried. The other is Malick’s Thin Red Line, for the time of its release, the same year as Spielberg’s but sadly overshadowed by it. This film laments warfare through naturalist philosophy, and it’s horrific and uplifting in a completely organic way (as opposed to the manipulative cheap-story way of Saving Private Ryan). I maintain that anti-war films have the strongest difficulty doing right by the viewer. They must get their message across loud and clear, but without resorting to college-campus screed, political innuendo, or hollow contrivances. Bergman’s Shame, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, and Malick’s Thin Red Line are my trilogy of exhibits proving this is possible. What Bergman did at the level of personal intimacy, and Kubrick did along the ladder of military hierarchy, Malick expands to the broadest level possible, examining life and death in cosmic terms, finding beauty in each, yet an undeniable rage at the way the latter is reached. It’s sheer genius.

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6. The New World. 2005. 3 ½ stars. For all its stunning aesthetic, there’s something fundamental about New World that irks me: this isn’t the way I like historicals. I don’t want figures like Pocahontas painted over Terrence Malick style, I want them delivered on a platter of artistic simplicity (as in A Man for all Seasons), induced documentary (as in Gospel According to St. Matthew), or even action-adventure brutality (as in Rob Roy). When nature is the main character — as is almost always the case in a Malick film — it distracts from what an historical epic should be about. Credit must be given for the way New World rescues Pocahontas from sissified Disney versions and portrays the love affair between her and Smith with subtle poetry. Most commendably, this isn’t a slam against the White Man, nor a condescending, racist reverence for fantasy “noble savages” (who must nonetheless be saved by a whitey who grows to loathe himself — per Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar, ad nauseum). Objectively, there’s a lot to admire about this film. But I respect it from an emotional distance, because the historical genre is just not one I find suitable for Malick’s style. I’m not surprised that most rankings of Malick put it at bottom (above only the three duds that I’m not acknowledging on this list).

Next month: Quentin Tarantino.