The Tree of Life is one of those films that people like to say you either love or hate. That was not my experience. I was kind of down the middle, although the parts I liked, the flashing memories of childhood, the creation of the universe, were parts that I truly loved. I thought this film caught what it felt like to be a little kid maybe better than anything I'd ever seen. And the cinematography and the sound design were a marvel, especially on Blu Ray.
The parts I didn't like: Most of the scenes with Sean Penn, and certainly the scenes on the beach, and pretty much all of the voice-over, and there was a lot of voice-over. Why do we need breathy intonations of "mother" and "father" when the images of the film are so incredibly powerful. Take out the voice-over and this would probably have been one of my favorite films of the year.
This Happy Breed, on the other hand, is close to perfection. Like The Tree of Life it is an episodic portrait of a family, a working-class family living in a suburb of London from 1919 to 1939. Between the two wars, essentially. Written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean I think it does a much better job of presenting the mundane of everyday life with the beauty of mystery of life itself. Coward's script focuses more on the mundane, of course, but there are touches that suggest a larger grasp, in particular the opening and closing shots, where the camera pans in or pans out of the multiple semi-detached houses in which the characters live.
There is a haunted quality about each film, the way they present life as these concrete all-too-real moments that are really just blips in the bigger picture. Terence Malick shows a family in the context of the history of the Universe while Noel Coward has the family's father talk about the next family that will inhabit the house they are leaving at the end of the film.
These films are not in competition, of course, but I'll take This Happy Breed despite the awe with which I watched some of Tree of Life. If for nothing else, there is one incredibly touching moment in This Happy Breed. The grown son of the family has died in an auto accident and the parents have just been told. They wander back in from the garden and sit in their dining room, and the camera pulls back and away as though giving them a private space in which to grieve. Maybe it says more about an English middle-class sensibility between the wars but it was a truly beautiful moment in a pitch-perfect film.