- The Big Sick
I’m a sucker for charming movies, and The Big Sick is like injecting pure charm directly into your veins. The story of the burgeoning relationship between actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself) and Emily V. Gordon (played here by the always-reliable Zoe Kazan) sometimes seems almost too crazy to be true, but tapping into and utilizing that truth is what separates this movie from every other romantic comedy. There’s a specificity here that means nobody else could have brought this story to life, and similar to the best episodes of Master of None, the scenes involving Kumail’s family of immigrants provide audiences with a window into a way of life that our popular culture has thus far largely ignored. If you’re looking for an alternative to bombastic summer blockbusters and prefer movies with characters you can care deeply about, look no further. This is an antidote to filmmaking-by-committee. It’s a personal, moving story that left me feeling rejuvenated about the potential of film to tell impactful and vital stories, and although it deals with some heavy subject matter, the comedy and abundance of charisma from everyone involved left me walking out of the theater on a joyous high. The Big Sick contains an absolutely perfect mixture of heartbreak and hilarity, and I truly think our country would be a better place if everyone who lived here watched it.
- War For the Planet of the Apes
I don’t think I’ve ever been more wrong about how much I’d ultimately like a trilogy than with this new incarnation of the Apes movies. I begrudgingly saw 2011’s Rise thinking it’d be passable at best, but I was surprised at how good it turned out; since then, director Matt Reeves took over and stepped things up in a huge way with his two sequels, capping off one of the best cinematic trilogies of the modern era. The team at WETA Digital has outdone themselves again by creating versions of the ape characters that look so real I didn’t doubt them for a second, and although I appreciated the human element more in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it almost doesn’t matter because humans aren’t the main characters in this franchise anyway. This is a mythical, Biblical film that grapples with some big themes, but it never loses its way in all of that ambition; it remains grounded by its empathetic approach to storytelling, and its anti-war message and condemnation of toxic masculinity is a vital thing for our country to experience right now. And hey, Academy: just give Andy Serkis his damn Oscar already.
- Get Out
Anyone who had seen a few episodes of the Comedy Central series Key & Peele knew Jordan Peele was a stand-out writer and performer, but I don’t think anyone could have foreseen just how good Get Out was going to be. Peele’s social horror thriller became a full-blown sensation earlier this year, and for good reason: it’s a movie that explores what it means to be black in America right now, and takes down the faux modern liberalism that would lead people to say things like “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could have.” It’s genuinely scary at times, but also relatable in its premise: everyone understands the uneasiness that comes with meeting their significant other’s parents for the first time. Peele also infuses comedic moments without ever tipping the film over into full-on comedy territory; he shows a masterful control of tone here, and you know what’s even more impressive? This is Peele’s feature directorial debut. He’s been a talented performer for years, but he’s just getting started as a cinematic storyteller, and I think the entire cinephile community is looking forward to seeing what subjects he tackles next.
- Wonder Woman
With the disappointing taste of movies like Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad still fresh in our mouths, there was all the reason in the world to doubt that Wonder Woman would be the saving grace of the DC Extended Universe. But against all odds, that’s exactly what director Patty Jenkins delivered: this is a rousing action movie with a soulful, compassionate character at its center who actually cares about saving people (which seems like a requisite for being a superhero, but you’d be surprised). Gal Gadot’s Diana is a strong female character that doesn’t feel like a typical Hollywood “strong female character,” if you know what I mean. Yes, she kicks some serious ass on the battlefield, but she’s also a fully fleshed-out character who has her own goals, desires, and feelings; it’s embarrassing that it took Warner Bros. this long to provide the world with a movie like this, but it turned out to be exactly what many people needed in a dark time. The CGI-heavy final battle loses some luster, but the fact that this movie feels like it’s actually about something makes up for many of its shortcomings. And how awesome was Chris Pine?
- I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
Ruth (Melanie Lynskey), a downtrodden nurse, feels crushed under the weight of humanity’s collectively terrible behavior. She’s always suffering little indignities, like being cut in line or having a book ruined for her, but when she returns home one day to discover she’s been burgled and the police don’t lift a finger to help her, she snaps and takes matters into her own hands. Recruiting the help of a socially awkward karate enthusiast named Tony (Elijah Wood), Ruth attempts to track down her stolen belongings and descends into the criminal underworld. It’s not even so much about retrieving her items as it is about proving a point to the bad guys: why can’t everyone just stop being an asshole? In his directorial debut, writer/director Macon Blair – who’s starred in movies like Green Room and Blue Ruin – proves he has just as much talent behind the camera as he does in front of it. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore is a mixture of buddy comedy (a dark, understated humor permeates the whole movie) and detective story, and the shocking bursts of violence that are interspersed throughout have a profound impact on these characters. Every bullet fired or broken bone means something, and in direct contrast with something like John Wick: Chapter 2, we feel every shot just as much as they do. It definitely has me excited to see what Blair does next.
- Spider-Man: Homecoming
Our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has finally returned to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and though there are plenty of connections to the MCU with Iron Man and Happy Hogan, Homecoming strikes a nice balance between the requisite set pieces and telling a scaled down story about what Peter Parker’s day to day life is like when he’s in high school. This is the Spider-Man we know from the comics, the kid who has to struggle with how to talk to the girl he likes and then worry about surviving a scrape with a super villain. There’s a part of this film in which those two aspects intersect, and the resulting scene ranks among the most tense scenes in superhero movie history. I’m shocked that a staggering six credited writers were able to string together something that ultimately turned out so well, since we’ve seen tons of mega-budget movies fall to pieces with too many cooks in the kitchen. But under the guidance of producer Kevin Feige, director Jon Watts was able to wield Tom Holland’s boyish charm like a weapon and create something fans have been waiting for since the 1960s: a Spider-Man movie with a spot-on portrayal of the webslinger at its center.
- Baby Driver
Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s rapid-fire, music-driven, car chase passion project, is practically oozing with cool. Its protagonist, Baby (Ansel Elgort), who works as a getaway driver for a mob boss (Kevin Spacey), sounds like…well, like an Edgar Wright character: Baby creates remixes out of everyday sounds in his normal life and constantly listens to music on his old iPod to drown out tinnitus that’s constantly ringing in his ears. He has a song for every occasion, whether it be a bank robbery getaway or simply a walk to the nearest coffee shop. He’s the best driver in the business (who, naturally, is looking to do “one last job” before he gets out of the game for good), and like the movie itself, he radiates an almost effortless sense of grace and slickness. The supporting cast, which includes Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, and Jon Bernthal, are all varying degrees of good, but Elgort stands in the spotlight with Lily James, who plays his diner waitress love interest; this is their fairy tale, and it’s one hell of a ride. Baby Driver is a toe-tapping heist movie that’s meticulously edited to fit its soundtrack, resulting in a unique twist on a well-trod genre that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
- John Wick: Chapter 2
The first John Wick was fun, but John Wick: Chapter 2 does everything a great sequel should do: it deepens our understanding of the protagonist, addresses the consequences of the events of the first movie, expands the franchise’s mythology, and takes the action to the next level with inventive, jaw-dropping sequences that made me suppress the urge to pump my fist with excitement in the theater. Keanu Reeves totally owns this character, and the way director Chad Stahelski shoots the action – with an eye for wide shots and clear choreography and a limited number of edits – is the perfect match for Reeves’ physicality, which is on full display here as his character endures beating after beating while trying to complete his mission and retire peacefully. I love the way this series honors its rules and mythos, and by the end when you realize that much (if not all) of the homeless population in New York City are actually undercover assassins, it makes perfect sense as something that would happen in this heightened world. Common absolutely crushes it as one of Wick’s antagonists, and the non-stop action beats (chases, fist fights, and headshots, oh my!) make this movie a far more intense experience than its predecessor. I can’t wait for John Wick: Chapter 3.
From its opening frames, James Mangold’s Logan tells the audience exactly what kind of movie we’re in for: “fuck” is the first word spoken, and it’s not long until Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, playing the character for the final time after 17 years) is slicing off arms and stabbing his adamantium claws through skulls. But this is a different version of the character than the one we know: Logan is beaten, bruised, drunk, and desperate, and tasked with protecting an aging, forgetful Professor X (Patrick Stewart) who becomes more dangerous as he loses more of his faculties. Dafne Keen is excellent as the coiled young mutant Laura, who we learn is Logan’s daughter, and the film becomes a Western-inspired meditation on family, religion, aging, and legacy as the trio embarks on a cross-country trip toward Eden. Logan is arguably the most violent R-rated superhero movie ever made, but amid all of the head stabbings and dismemberment, it’s also a moving conclusion for a character who has spent so many years broken, lonely, and helpless. It’s a truly fitting send-off for one of superhero cinema’s most iconic characters, and features one of the best final shots of any superhero movie to date.
- The Little Hours
The Little Hours may be best known as the “nuns going wild” movie, but Jeff Baena’s period piece, set in a 14th century convent, is about more than just sex and swearing. Sure, there’s plenty of that going on, but this movie is also a fascinating exploration of desire and hypocrisy. It stars a who’s who of awesome people from beloved TV comedies – Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, Dave Franco, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, and Adam Pally – and has a surprisingly sweet heart at its center. But the real reason this movie makes the list is that it’s one of the few comedies I’ve seen recently that actually had me laughing out loud all the way through. Film is subjective, but comedies may be the most subjective genre of them all, so your mileage may vary. But I’m admittedly difficult to please when it comes to comedies, so the fact that this movie had me cracking up throughout says a lot. The writing and the performances – which range from deadpan to completely outrageous – are top notch, and though the film flails a bit near the end, it’s still well worth checking out.
(With 2017 halfway over, the /Film staff will be spending this week compiling lists of the best movies they’ve seen this year. In order to be eligible for the list, a film they’ve seen simply has to have a 2017 release date, even if they saw it early at a festival or early screening. First up: here are Ben Pearson’s top 10 movies of 2017 so far.)
I have not spent nearly enough time this year seeking out the types of smaller movies I tend to love, and frankly, I’m a little embarrassed that three superhero movies made the cut on my list of favorites so far. But damn it, they’re really good superhero movies, and as ashamed as I am that my list isn’t as “cool” as it might be if I’d spent more time at my local arthouse theater, these are the movies I’ve seen so far in 2017 that spoke to me the most in one way or another. The good news is that I’m guessing only a couple of these will end up on my favorite movies of the year list when December rolls around, so at least you’ll be getting some variation if you compare that list with this one. Enough preamble: join me in counting down my favorite movies of the year so far as we hit the halfway point of 2017.