The past few weeks have seen a flurry of lists of the best films of 2017 so far. That’s more a function of the traffic generated by lists than a genuine desire to take stock of the first six months of the year, but it’s as good an excuse as any. I’ll be putting out a list of my own for the year so far, but I recently saw a new film that rocketed to the top of it, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. I was deeply moved by the movie and haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. I’ve picked out two of Lowery’s earlier films, plus two by Steven Soderbergh, who returns to theaters soon with Logan Lucky, and a paranoia thriller that’s just as good as it was in 1962.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)
Lowery wrote Ain’t Them Bodies Saints under the inspiration of Bonnie and Clyde (the couple, not the movie). Arthur Penn’s take on their story was a raging beat novel high on amphetamines, but Lowery’s is far more delicate, a film of pure poetry. Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruthie (Rooney Mara) are outlaws on the run. After a fatal run-in with the police, Bob claims full responsibility. While he’s incarcerated, Ruthie gives birth to their daughter and is gently pursued by police officer Patrick (Ben Foster, playing the polar opposite of his Hell or High Water character). When Bob breaks out of prison, Patrick becomes an obstacle to his reunion.
Lowery’s style is indebted to the films of Terrence Malick, as evidenced by his handheld camera and devotion to nature. The film’s opening scene occurs in a dusk that looks as if it might be the last one ever. Like Malick’s Badlands and Days of Heaven, Lowery makes his doomed lovers into almost monumental figures, full of tempestuous passions. Stream it on Netflix and Hulu. Rent on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.
Pete’s Dragon (2016)
It’s become received wisdom that male directors can be offered major studio films after making a single successful indie, whereas female directors aren’t even guaranteed another low budget film after a big success. Lowery both confirms and complicates that wisdom. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was his second film, not first, and it only made back a quarter of its four million dollar budget, but that was enough for Lowery to be offered Pete’s Dragon, a live-action remake of the Disney film. The executives at Disney were on to something, though. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is an astounding work of art far removed from the middlebrow crowd-pleasers that skyrocketed other male directors to fame, and the film that he eventually made for them was far more interesting than any of Disney’s recent live-action films.
The original movie was beloved by none, and Lowery’s film improves upon it in every aspect (and is the rare Disney film that adults can comfortably watch). His sunsets aren’t quite as engorged as in his previous work, and the camera isn’t quite as busy, but Lowery’s style remains evident. Immediately after filming this he worked on the quick with Affleck and Mara to shoot A Ghost Story. Stream on Netflix. Rent on Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.
Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Steven Soderbergh is returning to the screen this year with Logan Lucky, his first feature film in four years. He hasn’t exactly slowed down in the meantime—he managed to direct two seasons of The Knick and produced a Magic Mike Sequel and a TV adaptation of The Girlfriend Experience. Behind the Candelabra was the last film before his quasi-hiatus, and its humor and simplicity make it stand out against his more experimental outings. Michael Douglas is in a late career high as the flaming Liberace, who delights unsuspecting blue haired ladies with his hammy performances. Matt Damon is nearly as good as Liberace’s partner in the last decade of his life. Rob Lowe, Scott Bakula, and Dan Aykroyd are all great in supporting roles. Stream it on HBO and Amazon Prime. Rent on iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.
Soderbergh’s epic film of the life of Ernesto “Che” Guevara has nearly been forgotten since its premiere nearly a decade ago. The film was beset by polarized reviews, many faulting its unorthodox structure. (Che was released the same year as Iron Man—one wonders if a decade of superhero movies might have made the unorthodox film a bit more appealing.) The film is over four hours long, divided into two feature length parts, though it was originally shown in a roadshow version with intermission. Soderbergh is fairly objective about Che’s successes and faults, a necessity considering the way Che has become a hero to those who only know of him through t-shirts. Like most of his films in the current century, Soderbergh also serves as cinematographer. His Cuba (or its stand-in, the Mexican state of Campeche) is shot in lush greens. Soderbergh has expressed regrets about the film and its reception in recent years, but it remains one of his most fascinating experiments. Stream parts one and two on Netflix. Also available for purchase on the major platforms, and Criterion has a great set of the full epic.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Every day seems to bring new evidence of possible collusion by the Trump campaign with the Russian government. In turn, there’s been an increase in Russophobia from those on the left (understandably). It’s a great time to look back at one of the preeminent conspiracy thrillers of the Cold War, The Manchurian Candidate. Director John Frankenheimer is a master of paranoia, and he paints a chilling portrait of a compromised government where no one can be trusted. Over the years we’ve overly-sanitized the early ’60s, which makes the movie’s climax even more shocking. Also worth checking out is Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. Rent on Amazon and iTunes. Criterion also has a very nice Blu-ray/DVD set.