Film is one of the most complicated mediums of art that have ever come into existence. While certainly novels, music, paintings, or photos are most definitely art forms, film is unique in that it is a combination of all of these.
Story is inherent in most films, whether it be obvious or not. Music and sound, in general, or even lack thereof in the case of films like No Country For Old Men, are used in films to do any number of tasks such as create a mood or help explain a facet of the story. Photography perhaps is the most obvious art form used in film, but is often not thought about within the confines of artistic photography as opposed to simply pointing a camera in a certain direction and pressing the record button.
A good film tends to do at least one of these things well. Perhaps a film is considered good because the story is engaging and entertaining. Some films, especially musicals, tend to be good films solely dependent on whether or not the music is good or not. Even if a movie does not do either of these things well, excellent photography oft times can save a film if it is simply pleasant to the eye. There are plenty of good films that are good because of one or a combination of these aspects. What is rare in film is for these categories to rely upon one another. If a film is good because the story is excellent, it is sometimes better to read the book, since one can receive the story without having to look at or hear anything. The same can be said with photography or sound, since photos can be framed and sound listened to on any number of music playing devices. In the case of the films of Terrence Malick, reading a book containing the storyline of one of his films would be a terrible read, the photography, while excellent, would be lacking without the sound and story attached, and the sound would be quite confusing and perhaps boorish by itself. In every one of Malick’s films, each of these facets of film are completely dependent on one another in order for the art to work.
This, in my opinion, is what films are meant to be; a unique art form that cannot be enjoyed or appreciated in any other way except for watching the film in its original format. While there are probably more films that achieve this harmony of mediums, none come to mind offhand, Malick has been successful of this in every film he has directed. From Badlands to Tree of Life, Malick has created a pure form of filmmaking that requires one to sit through his films to experience their genius. Any single aspect of the film pales in comparison to the whole. This puts Malick in the upper echelon of the great directors of all time. While an argument could be made that others such as Orson Welles, Jean Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, or Francois Truffaut were perhaps more innovative or more groundbreaking in their day, an argument I would not attempt to make myself, I cannot think of a single filmmaker still living who is in the same category as Terrence Malick.