Was Terrence Malick’s Epic Tree of Life Really the Best Film at Cannes?

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The long-awaited impressionistic film – pulled from last year’s Cannes at the last minute – stole the show with the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize.

Malick has made only five feature films in his nearly 40-year career. Tree of Life has been in production for at least the past three years. You’d think he’d want to be there to receive the festival’s top prize. But when his name was called, Malick was nowhere to be found.

(REVIEW: See Richard Corliss’s thoughts on Tree of Life)

“He remains infamously and notoriously shy and humble,” said producer William Pohlad, who accepted on his behalf with producer DeDe Gardner. “But I know he would be thrilled with this,” In fact, Malick, known to be quite reclusive, skipped all public events throughout the Cannes Film Festival.

Wait a minute, Malick who? Tree of Life is only his fifth feature film since 1973, when he made his directorial debut with Badlands. (For good measure, Woody Allen has made 40 films since 1973!) Perhaps Malick’s most widely-known film is The Thin Red Line, the 1998 World War II drama that garnered much praise.

In fact, Malick’s films, though few in number, have warranted copious critical acclaim. And Tree of Life is shaping up to be no exception. It doesn’t open in U.S. theaters until Friday, but the critics’ first look at Cannes proves that the film is on the fast track to epic status. TIME’s own Richard Corliss was on hand for the long-awaited premiere, and after having seen it twice, called it a “heightened, almost hallucinatory sensual experience, and essential viewing for serious moviegoers.” He noted that it felt like a return to the feeling of a 1970s movie – you know, the one with that rough texture that felt like it really mattered.

Tree of Life follows the evolution of an 11-year-old boy from a small Texas town (mirroring Malick’s own upbringing in Waco) who’s just lost a sibling. His parents, distraught over the unexplained death of their child, respond in divergent ways while both focusing on the grief and the glory of raising children. Starring Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, the actors play a backseat role to the stunning sensual experience Malick creates with an abstract view of the creation of the cosmos. It’s clear that even from the trailer, this film will be one to thrill viewers both visually and intellectually.

(BLOG: See TIME’s complete coverage from Cannes)