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The Best Films of 2017 (So Far)

The Best Films of 2017 (So Far)

We hope this list inspires you to choose something else at the multiplex.

This past weekend, just a few assholes shelled out $47 million to see Transformers: The Last Knight. As we recall the wonderful movies we’ve screened so far in 2017, it is hard to believe that people are still spending their hard-earned cash to see robots blow up a bunch of morons. We hope this list inspires you to choose something else at the multiplex. Thank you for reading.

Buster’s Mal Heart (Dir: Sarah Adina Smith)

Turning psychosis and progressive delusion into a suspenseful film is nothing new. Memento would be on the thriller end of the spectrum, while the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink is fueled by its character’s sense of encroaching isolation, amplified by his lack of recognition. Sarah Adina Smith’s Buster’s Mal Heart leans more toward the latter with a hefty dose of puzzling mystery. The cerebral film is less about the nature of the demise than piecing together what broke down when and where the shards of personality drifted from there. It is at once about one specific person, torn into three distinct characters or periods, and about much bigger questions of self-determination, fate and universal balance.

Rami Malek portrays three characters – depending on your interpretation, three stages of the same man in his wavering sanity. His progressively diminishing hold on reality is matched by the film’s dingy, cramped interiors. Malek’s trademark wide-eyed disbelief is in near-constant use, but Buster’s shows a side of this trauma and paranoia that “Mr. Robot” doesn’t: namely, by couching the psychological drama in horrific loss and grief and by introducing the notion of God into the equation. Malek’s characters aren’t merely facing the possibility that they are unhinged, but that it’s the will of God that they have become so, a “cosmic mistake” that they even exist. Smith aptly avoids bringing religiosity into the equation directly, instead forging a mystifyingly ambiguous, at times oblique tale that, if it doesn’t offer concrete explanations, at least challenges viewers until the very end. – Katherine Springer

After the Storm (Dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)

The story told in this film is a small one. This is not to bury the film under a pile of clichés; After the Storm is not slow or subtle or nuanced. But its audacious ambitions are not a matter of scale. It is the tale of a scuffling and penurious rogue, Shinoda Ryôta (Hiroshi Abe), who is too enraptured by the future and ensnared by the past to even notice the present moment. Ryôta is a half-ass PI and deadbeat dad trying to coast by on his now-forgotten fame as an award-winning novelist. He is ever on the verge of a big payday or a roaring success. He is a gambling addict, a jealous and petty person, a bad son and, somehow, an absolutely delightful presence, with charisma sufficient for a dozen people.

With this avatar, Koreeda seeks to provide commentary on the contemporary family, artistic creation and the way the past is both remembered and utilized for identity construction. The story centers on the progression of Ryôta, who schemes ways to pinch cash from his newly-widowed mother, hatches a plot to win back his ex-wife and unevenly tries to father his young son. This lovable (and refreshingly un-Draper-, un-Heisenburg-esque) anti-hero follows a familiar character arc: a moment of truth leading to personal epiphany and a seemingly-genuine resolution to improve himself. The film carefully ends in ambiguity.

After the Storm is nothing new, using well-worn plot templates and cinematic tropes. But the tenderness, realness and thoroughness with which it accomplishes this story—the love it engenders for Ryôta, the lived-in quality of the sets and the humor it mines from its scenarios—make this one of the best pictures of the year. – Ryne Clos

The LEGO Batman Movie (Dir. Chris McKay)

When Heath Ledger’s Joker coined the malicious catchphrase “Why so serious!?”, he could’ve just as well been asking that of the modern Batman franchise. While Gotham has certainly had his share of silly moments (intentional or not), the Caped Crusader himself has mostly remained cast as a dark and brooding administer of justice, at least since Adam West hung up his cape. The LEGO Batman Movie seeks to change that.

With the same exuberant spirit as an entire city of interlocking toys singing “Everything Is Awesome” in The LEGO Movie, this Batman (Will Arnett) opens the film with a song about how incredible he is (among other elaborate feats, he can “choke hold a bear”). The one thing he’s not so great at is interpersonal relationships; he won’t even tell the emotionally needy Joker (Zach Galifianakis) that he’s his greatest nemesis. One accidentally adopted orphan/Boy Wonder sidekick (Michael Cera) later, and Batman’s about to learn a little something about family. But the true joy of this film is the vibrant, freewheeling escapism it offers while poking fun at and paying homage to the Batman canon.

Not only does virtually every Batman villain get some screentime (even ludicrous entries like Egghead, the Eraser, King Tut, Clayface and the Condiment King), but the Joker soon unleashes an army of classic movie baddies to wage war on LEGO Gotham, leading to a bonkers free-for-all. Ultimately, the movie’s greatest success is making Batman fun again. By giving a fresh face and ample humor to the Dark Knight, The LEGO Batman Movie gives us the hero we need right now. – Josh Goller

Personal Shopper (Dir: Olivier Assayas)

Kristen Stewart’s awkward, youthful uncertainty as an actress was at times a liability for her in the Twilight franchise that made her a star. But somehow that emotional reticence has become an asset, and she has since established herself as the darling of the indie circuit for directors from Woody Allen (Café Society) to Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women). In her second collaboration with Olivier Assayas, Stewart returns to the supernatural themes that launched her career—and this time it’s for the arthouse.

Personal Shopper charts the frustrating arc of a typically lost, alienated Stewart heroine, and if the plot touches on horror tropes, the movie confirms an assertion that Stewart’s character made in her previous film with Assayas, the self-reflexive Clouds of Sils Maria: that genre movies can be just as profound as “serious” movies. With its effective use of video chats and texting, this is a modern movie about the age-old problem of communication, among the living and the dead. But you don’t have to believe in ghosts to appreciate it. While Assayas has always been a reliable director, this is his most lively film in years, recalling his 1994 breakthrough Irma Vep, which you’ll be reminded of every time Stewart gets on a motorcycle. Mesmerizing and quietly powerful, Personal Shopper is that perfect marriage of substance and style that can be so elusive from even our most treasured directors, and Stewart’s history as a teenage vampire makes it resonate all the more. – Pat Padua

Harmonium (Dir: Kôji Fukada)

Harmonium, Japanese director Kôji Fukada’s new domestic thriller, is essentially two films stitched together. It’s hardly the patchwork it might’ve been; what could easily be a huge detriment ends up one of the film’s smartest devices. Fukada keeps the pace even, allowing the odd spike only when absolutely necessary, and Harmonium holds together as one unshakable two-hour experience.

The first section is essentially a chamber piece about a family man named Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) who invites an old colleague (Tadanobu Asano) to work for him. His wife Akié (an outstanding Mariko Tsutsui) is initially hesitant, but she warms up to the new employee…perhaps a bit too much.

Harmonium is more rewarding the less you know about its sinister twists and turns, but what saves it from becoming a pulpy slice of shock-and-awe is Fukada’s success in keeping that foundational hour in the rearview at all times. His two-act structure doesn’t treat the first half as a lengthy misdirecting taunt: the action from that stately first hour permeates and informs the far more unhinged second half.

Whenever the movie threatens absurdity, its sterling performances ground it. Tsutsui resists the opportunity for histrionics, remaining just this side of Raving Lunatic and maintaining the warm timidity that endears us to her from the very first scene. Furutachi, whose only job in the first hour is to look upset, gradually reveals a man bound by his past choices who has no means to escape from a self-constructed emotional prison.

Fukada’s film advocates for truth, transparency and acceptance of circumstance in the first act of our lives so the second act doesn’t get messy. Good advice, to be sure, but it’s his gift to us that his characters don’t take it. – Conner Reed

Behemoth (Dir: Zhao Liang)

The continued improvement of camera technology, specifically the ever-reducing size and cost of these footage-capturing devices, has led to a corresponding upswing in documentary development, as the intricacies and ecstasies of everyday life become cheaper and easier to catalogue. This isn’t all positive, with the floodgates now opened for lightweight works that might function better as magazine articles, news segments or casual conversations, demonstrating little interest in the possibilities of cinematic form or construction. But it’s also spawned new revelations in the field, like Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Laboratory, whose members continue to find new ways to meld the informative with the avant-garde, an effort that’s so far peaked with 2012’s Leviathan.

In terms of titular biblical references, heavy-metal-video iconography and general exploratory verve, that landmark film is well matched by Liang Zhao’s Behemoth a free-form dissection of modern Chinese industrial practice that swings between a variety of cinematic modes, moving slyly from the fantastical to the crushingly real. Moving from a hellish Mongolian mining pit to a spotless city of the future, it depicts a runaway economic system hopelessly at odds with the will and faculties of its citizenry, a parade of overworked and maimed individuals reduced to more raw material, ready to be rendered into the mouth of the beast. Building on the economic and durationally focused work of pioneers like Jia Zhangke and Liu Jiayin, as well as his own previous digressions on bureaucracy and madness, Zhao here confirms his position at the forefront of modern Chinese cinema, producing a stunning transmission of stylized reportage that doubles as a purely transcendent piece of visual art. – Jesse Cataldo

Wonder Woman (Dir: Patty Jenkins)

Sure, the final act of Wonder Woman descends into the tedium of an overblown boss battle, so common with superhero pictures and video games. But who cares? The rest of Patty Jenkins’s excellent origin story, of the fiercest and most recognizable woman in tights, delivers the goods on multiple levels. Let’s start with Gal Gadot, who is a sensation as Diana, the titular Amazonian princess. Gadot is both powerful and charming, qualities usually reserved for Marvel’s gallery of costumed heroes. But she also offers an ingredient sorely missing from comic book protagonists adapted to the screen (apart from Captain America, her kissing cousin): an old-fashioned sense of honor.

Wonder Woman is such a delight, and an inspiration (for all viewers, but especially women of all ages), because Diana’s courage and might stand in stark contrast to her surroundings. She barrels, with no second thought, into places where men fear to tread. Her home, an island of warrior women, a paradise of ropy near-goddesses, offers moviegoers a sorely needed first, a place where expertly-staged combat scenes needn’t include a single Y chromosome.

When Jenkins changes settings, from the strikingly mythical to the drably urban, Wonder Woman becomes a screwball, fish-out-of-water lark. Gadot’s chemistry with her woefully human, and male, sidekick Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) sparkles. Once she launches her lithe figure, shield and bracelets first, into the horrors of WWI ahead of her ragtag team (all of whom are men), their awe becomes ours. And so we experience the birth of a new blockbuster trope, one that’s increasingly triumphant and a long-time coming. – Peter Tabakis

Get Out (Dir: Jordan Peele)

When Jordan Peele’s Get Out was released to universal critical and commercial success, garnering rave reviews and becoming one of the highest grossing horror films of all time, the surprise wasn’t that television actor Jordan Peele, one-half of the famous sketch comedy duo Key and Peele, had made a successful jump to the director’s chair. After all, plenty of television actors have become notable film directors, from Ron Howard to Rob Reiner to Sarah Polley. The surprise was, rather, how deftly Peele switched genres: that a comedian could make such a timely and genuinely scary thriller.

Though Get Out is very funny, it’s not a comedy by any stretch. In fact, much of the humor comes from the same place of the horror. How outlandish is it to imagine a successful white family entrapping and auctioning off black people for their bodies when America was literally built on the backs of slaves? At times, the metaphor is amusingly obvious, but that’s the point. It’s all still happening right under our noses, yet what is being done about it?

While Get Out is bleak in how it reveals the educated and liberal Armitage family to actually be racist psychopaths, Peele wisely allows protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), to outsmart his foes. When a police car pulls up at the end, shortly after Chris has fought off rifle-wielding girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), it is impossible not to make the comparison to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, when the black protagonist survives a zombie onslaught only to be shot by white police. But instead, Get Out gives America exactly the kind of story it needs right now, a story of black characters winning, and hopefully the film’s success will inspire even more like it. – Mike McClelland

Logan (Dir: James Mangold)

The X-Men franchise kicked off the superhero party in 2000. It was middling in execution and timid in its embrace of its comic book source material, and the 20th Century Fox studio has seen its efforts surpassed by the mostly astounding films Marvel Studios produces yearly. That is until Logan.

Logan is a Johnny Cash song and a Father’s Day card rolled into two-and-a-half hours of savage violence and complicated relationships between children and their paternal figures. While it references moments from other X-films, it stands apart visually and tonally from any of its predecessors. The black leather costumes, the signature coif and the trappings of the school in Westchester, NY are abandoned for sparse deserts and high skies. Logan is a man of violence at odds with his nature and—as we are reminded by the shoehorning of Shane into the proceedings—a man like that belongs in a Western.

Set in a near future of self-driving trucks, rampant cloning and cybernetic limbs, Logan keeps its focus on the surrogate father/child dynamic of its lead characters, Logan (Hugh Jackman), Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and young Laura (Dafne Keen). They raise questions about love, mortality and responsibility to family, whether toward a new entrant like Laura or the nonagenarian Xavier. The provocation of thought serves as respite between bloody action set pieces that fans of the hero with adamantium claws have been waiting two decades to see. Violent and profane, Jackman finally fully embraces the character that made him famous; his true nature as a joyous song-and-dance man is undetectable beneath his unkempt whiskers and barbaric growl.

Critics often treat superhero adaptations like guilty pleasures, writing sentences like “with this film the genre has grown up.” In truth, the heights and stagnation of the films mirror those of the comic book industry that serves as its source. While the future is full of familiar fare like Infinity Wars and Justice Leagues, Logan shows what these movies still have the potential to amaze. It wasn’t the films that needed to mature just the people who make them. – Don Kelly

The Lost City of Z (Dir: James Gray)

The Lost City of Z is director James Gray’s most impressive film to date. The historical epic, which tells the (mostly) true story of early-20th century British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) and his search for the eponymous Amazonian civilization, marks a change of pace for the underrated director, whose five previous features unfold against the multicultural backdrop of New York City over relatively brief periods of time. Here, Gray spans more than two decades and visits multiple settings, including WWI-era London and postcolonial Brazil.

At the center of the film, however, are the questions and emotions that have come to define Gray’s distinct and increasingly important body of work. Like the classical stylists he so emulates (Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks), he focuses on characters whose attempts to understand and confront the more enigmatic qualities of their lives ultimately prove to be what separates them from life itself. Gray has made a habit of visualizing this idea with sublime final shots, and the one he concocts here may wind up a being career-defining moment. (It’s certainly among the most beautiful things you’ll see on screen this year.)

“So much of life is a mystery,” Percy proclaims in a line that could easily double as the director’s consummate thesis. As much as the film borrows from Hollywood escapism circa 1950 and the harebrained adventurism of something like Aguirre, the Wrath of God, it doesn’t fully resemble either genre, or any of the literary, visual and historical influences from which the director is drawing. In following Fawcett on his journey, Gray continues to chart his own distinct path. – Drew Hunt

A Quiet Passion (Dir: Terence Davies)

Terence Davies’s biopic of Emily Dickinson is the latest in a filmography that masks ruptures of pain, fear and longing underneath the frozen surface of propriety and composure. Cynthia Nixon practically vibrates as the great poet, trembling both from her overflowing creative drive and her phobia of life beyond the confines of her family home. When Emily remarks on her plainness, the sadness of her remarks seems to contain a hint of relief, knowledge that her unmarriable prospects might keep her home. But as time takes its toll on her family, Emily begins to crack, the safety of her strong, oaken surroundings coming to resemble the interior of a coffin. Death in Davies’s films is never exaggerated but always manages to reverberate catastrophically, and that’s no exception here, where each passing sends Emily into tailspins of consuming grief.

Despite it all, the film is often charming and funny, with Emily and her family regularly lobbing witticisms at each other. Emily in particular comes across as a modern figure, turning her isolation into an act of defiance that would see her leave home only to become window dressing in the house of a husband. The scenes with her and sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) have a touch of Noël Coward to them, verbal drawing-room comedy with minute but piercing punchlines. Davies, as ever, presents an initial façade of stodgy period drama before impressionistic touches seep into frame, never more present than a beautifully enticing but haunting dream sequence in which a faceless suitor arrives like Death himself, gliding past a still life portrait of a plant that now spills into the real world as if to reclaim the home for nature. Martin Scorsese called The Age of Innocence his most violent film, and despite the focus on tyrannical, abusive fathers that runs through Davies’s work, this movie, in which the father is kind and supportive, may wind up the most destabilizing, harrowing feature in his canon. – Jake Cole

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