With no due respect to Transformers: The Last Knight, this year’s been a bit of a letdown at the movies. And frankly, we’ve needed the two-hour reprieve from our chaos-sowing commander-in-chief more than ever.
There are still plenty of movies yet to be released this year that should end up on many critics’ year-end “best of” lists. Audiences are clamoring for Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic Dunkirk, Rian Johnson’s franchise entry Star Wars: Episode VIII, and Oscar winner Katherine Bigelow’s timely Detroit. Not to mention acclaimed helmer Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, Armando Iannucci’s satire The Death of Stalin, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina follow-up Annihilation, Darren Aronofsky’s Jennifer Lawrence starrer Mother, and Luca Guadagnino’s steamy Sundance favorite Call Me by Your Name. Plenty to look forward to, folks.
But now that we’ve reached the halfway point of 2017, it’s time to assess the year’s best films so far. For all the stinkers like The Book of Henry, Ghost in the Shell, and the aforementioned Transformers mess, there have been a number of standouts. Here they are.
THE SALESMAN (January 27)
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), who protested Donald Trump’s Muslim ban by boycotting the recent Academy Awards, is a true master of his craft whose finely etched character studies illuminate Iran’s cultural sparring between old world and new. In this story within a story, a married couple performing in a rendition of Arthur Miller’s play Death of Salesman find their lives in turmoil when they move into a new home that was once occupied by a prostitute. Anchored by powerful turns from frequent Farhadi collaborators Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti, the film deftly depicts how the ghosts of Iran’s past inform its present. It’s no wonder it was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
GET OUT (February 24)
At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a packed house was treated to a surprise midnight screening of Jordan Peele’s Get Out—an eerie psychological thriller about a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) who pays a visit to his white girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) childhood home to meet her parents. What transpires is a horrifying journey to the heart of liberal racism (think: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets The Others) that’s anchored by a star-making turn from the British Kaluuya, who offers a devastating depiction of racial torment—allowing us to absorb every otherizing glance, stare, and comment. The best horror movie in years.
LOGAN (March 3)
The best X-Men film—X2—saw Hugh Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine confront his traumatic past, eventually meeting his sadistic maker, Col. William Stryker. That was 14 years ago. In the half-dozen X-Men and Wolverine movies since, the metal-clawed mutant has survived trips back in time, to Japan, and with Brett Ratner. The results have been mixed. But filmmaker James Mangold knows a thing or two about grizzled badasses (see: Walk the Line) and his latest take on Logan, a road-western that sees the old adamantium-skeletoned hero embrace his paternal side while squaring off against a Trump-esque deportation force, is the best X-Men movie yet. Mangold’s film hits all the right notes, from its sweet two-handed scenes between Jackman’s Logan and Patrick Stewart’s ailing Professor X, to its thrilling new mini-Weapon X Laura, to its decision to make the proceedings a hard R, allowing it to fully explore the consequences of its hero’s fury. Nobody knew a Wolverine movie could be this good.
PERSONAL SHOPPER (March 10)
The most impressive film so far this year, in this writer’s humble opinion, is Olivier Assayas’ latest—a spooky, beguiling meditation on grief, celebrity, and the pratfalls of adulthood. Kristen Stewart (never better) plays the personal shopper to a celebrity. In between menial tasks, she’s haunted by the death of her twin brother, whose ghost (or is it?) guides the kindred spirit to rebel against her soul-draining station in life. Between this and the stellar Clouds of Sils Maria, there are few better filmmaker-actress pairings than Assayas and Stewart, with the nimble French director bringing out the very best in his American muse.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (March 17)
Paul Thomas Anderson this is not, but there is something to be said for a film that so perfectly achieves its aims. The design is dazzling, the Alan Menken musical numbers are magnificent, Emma Watson is divine, and there’s even a cockney-accented Emma Thompson as a talking teapot. What else could you possibly want from a family film?
THE BIG SICK (June 23)
Ever since 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the best romantic comedies have been shepherded in one way or another by Judd Apatow. Knocked Up. Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Bridesmaids. Trainwreck. And now, joining those illustrious films is The Big Sick. Written by real-life couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon—and based on their courtship—it centers on Kumail (Nanjiani), a struggling stand-up comedian and Uber driver who falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), much to the chagrin of his arranged marriage-practicing Pakistani-Muslim family. When Emily falls into a mysterious coma, Kumail attempts to bond with her grieving parents, played to perfection by an award-worthy Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, while fending off romantic suitors from his parents. What transpires is a funny and heartfelt depiction of a cross-cultural romance, and, given the current administration’s demonization of Muslims, it couldn’t be timelier.
OKJA (June 28)
Any movie by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho is an anticipated event. He is, after all, the man behind the best monster movie of the 2000s (The Host) and the spellbinding dystopian thriller Snowpiercer. Bong’s latest, now streaming on Netflix, is like a cross between The NeverEnding Story and Soylent Green. It tells the tale of Mija (newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun), a South Korean farmgirl who for the last ten years has been raising a superpig, Okja, created by the Mirando Corporation. When the corporation and its CEO, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), takes Okja back, Mija embarks on an epic journey that takes her from the hills of the South Korean forests to the streets of New York City to find it. Along the way, she crosses paths with a hardcore animal rights group (led by Paul Dano), an unhinged TV zoologist (Jake Gyllenhaal, bonkers), and a scenery-chewing Tilda in what is ultimately a stunning exploration of GMOs, corporate colonialism, and child-animal love. Put this one at the top of your queue.
THE BEGUILED (June 30)
Look, I understand the criticism. It is fairly problematic when privileged white women romanticize the Plantation Era (see: Blake Lively), since it faintly echoes how so many white women turned a blind eye to the brutalities of slavery. That being said, Sofia Coppola is one of our finest female filmmakers who’s brought a bevy of expertly crafted woman characters to the screen. She brings several more to the fore in this beautifully-rendered drama about a group of women at an abandoned girls’ school in Virginia during the Civil War whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell). What follows is a spellbinding study of female desire, toxic masculinity, jealousy, and sisterhood, featuring bravura turns by Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst as the resident schoolmistresses. Coppola is officially back at the top of her game.
A GHOST STORY (July 7)
Yes, A Ghost Story stars a white-sheeted Casey Affleck—a problem that our own Kevin Fallon explored in a recent piece. But that aside, the latest from filmmaker David Lowery reunites his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints co-stars Affleck and Rooney Mara for what proves to be a mesmerizing journey through space and time offering stunning insights into love, loss, and the vastness of the human experience. Affleck and Mara bring enormous pathos to their respective roles, a ghost forced to observe his grieving wife as she slips away, in a film every bit as lyrical, stunning and romantic as its Bonnie and Clyde-esque predecessor.
CITY OF GHOSTS & HELL ON EARTH (July 14)
These two bold and brave documentaries explore the state of Syria and the atrocities of ISIS in painstaking detail. Oscar nominee Matthew Heineman’s (Cartel Land) film City of Ghosts profiles the grassroots journalists of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RSS), who risk their lives to report on the human rights abuses of ISIS, while Oscar nominee Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s (Restrepo) effort Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS provides a comprehensive history lesson on how Syria became a war zone, and also traces the journey of a Syrian family as they attempt to migrate to Greece. Both films’ makers took tremendous risks to capture on the ground footage in Syria and beyond, and their courage should be rewarded.