If a film-maker ever warranted the term auteur, meaning an artist of rare imagination who exercises complete control over their creative visions, it’s the mercurial Terrence Malick. Over almost four decades, the Illinois-born film-maker has directed just five films, which have all been nominated for or won cinema’s glittering prizes including the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Golden Bear from Berlin.

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Malick doesn’t feel any pressure to court adulation. He hasn’t given an official media interview since the release of his startling 1973 debut Badlands and there was a 20-year gap between his second film Days of Heaven and the 1998 drama The Thin Red Line.

If his 2005 historical drama The New World starring Colin Farrell fell short of lofty expectations, his latest ode to human experience is a visually and aurally arresting triumph. Threaded with soothing sequences of the natural world, The Tree of Life is a film of long, haunting silences and apparent inactivity that glimpses fragments of Earth’s turbulent history.

A kaleidoscope of images explores the savagery and fragility of our world, from breathing footage of an erupting volcano to a dinosaur nervously walking around a forest. For the first time, Malick employs digital effects to imagine the formation of the universe and the appearance of single-celled life forms in the Proterozoic period.

A meteor strike sends ripples across the surface of the planet, segueing into a child escaping from a submerged room, a metaphor for the birth of baby Jack in the 1950s Midwest. The camera follows Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his brothers RL (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan) as they suffer at the hands of their authoritarian father, Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt). The boys naturally gravitate towards the compassionate and giving Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain). Meanwhile, in the present day, architect Jack (Sean Penn) feels disconnected from the jungle of cold, metallic skyscrapers that are now his home.

The Tree of Life is unmistakably the work of Malick, eschewing a conventional narrative to conjure stunning images that linger in the memory. Pitt chews on and spits out his traditional nice guy image to portray a disciplinarian who practices tough love, while McCracken, Eppler and Sheridan, newcomers from Texas with no acting experience, light up the screen.

Based on the true story of Jewish drug mules who smuggled ecstasy into the US from Europe, Kevin Asch’s drama Holy Rollers headlines Jesse Eisenberg in a very different guise to his Oscar-nominated role in The Social Network.

Sam Gold (Eisenberg) is a Hasid living in one of Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish enclaves. He is determined to make his parents proudby studying to become a Rabbi. Yet he craves excitement and he falls for the charm of Yosef Zimmerman (Justin Bartha), who suggests that Sam might want to act as a courier for some ‘medicine’ for Israeli dealer Jackie (Danny A Abeckaser).

As Sam is seduced by the bright lights of Manhattan and Europe, he begins to dabble with narcotics and falls under the spell of Jackie’s girlfriend Rachel (Ari Graynor). But Sam cannot hide his smuggling from his parents, and when they become suspicious, he must choose between an honest life or the thrill of breaking the law with Jackie and his business associates.