Since I began this journey, all three of Terrence Malick's 20th century films have been added to the Criterion Collection. This is a major coup for the series, but it's also great for movie fans looking for superb renderings of three of the best films of modern American filmmaking. Malick is undoubtedly one of the great narrative film artists this country has produced, and perhaps more importantly one of the few truly unique ones.
All three movies are classics, but Days of Heaven is the one that stands out as perhaps the most beautiful movie ever made. I first saw it when I was around 19 or 20 after being told by one person or another (or perhaps after reading in one book or another) that it was "The Greatest Movie Ever Made." I've probably watched only a handful of movies with such a lofty recommendation in mind (Citizen Kane of course being the old standby rite of passage), and it can often make a first viewing somewhat disappointing with such high expectations. Days of Heaven was not disappointing.
The film is mainly known for its cinematography, and this is well-earned. It's not entirely clear who deserves the credit for the film as shot (it's credited to Nestor Almendros, but Haskell Wexler apparently shot a great deal of the finished product), but what's on screen is stunning. Shot mostly by daylight, often with the sun just setting behind the horizon, Days of Heaven often has the kind of otherworldly glow for which the term "magic hour" was created. But even scenes not shot during this brief time of day can dazzle, like the shot which follows a girl as she jumps down a pile of hay, briefly catching the glare of the sun as it goes, or - most certainly - the climactic fire which finally and violently fully severs the connection between Shepard's magnate and his wife and her lover. The Thin Red Line argues that the true crime of war is against nature, but Days of Heaven surely believes that nature will endure, its gentle indifference saving it every time.
As Malick begins to put out films at a faster pace (his latest, To The Wonder, just arrived on iTunes), it's worth remembering how mysterious and iconic Days of Heaven seemed in the twenty years that separated it from Malick's follow-up. Like other relatively recent Criterion releases Repo Man and Vanishing Point, it seems impossible to imagine a major studio greenlighting and bankrolling Days of Heaven, and the film's powerful and beautiful rhythm is seldom matched by anything even Malick has made since. It's not only his best film, it's one of the few movies I think is unquestionably essential viewing.
One last thing: It's also worth noting that Ennio Morricone did the score, and its one of his most evocative and underrated works. Obviously best known for his Western work, Morricone here uses a similar Americana tinge to pull out the timeless and allegorical qualities of the story. Despite the fact that it is not featured as prominently as some of his other scores, I'd put it on the same level as those.