The 20 Best Movies of 2017 (So Far)

Movies Lists best of 2017 so far
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The 20 Best Movies of 2017 (So Far)

When it comes to collating the best movies we’ve seen so far in 2017, we did our damnedest to not only give a general consensus among our section’s staff, but to keep in mind which films our readers will actually be able to catch in theaters. Two of these picks premiered at Cannes last year, but only recently scored some U.S. distribution, and one title won’t come out for another few weeks which, as of publishing, has only been seen (and adored) by one person on staff. All excuses of course: With writers spread out all over the world, and with something like 3,000 film festivals currently active, the number of great movies on our individual lists splays out far too broadly to be limited by a few months.

So, there’s something for everyone in the following: big budget crowd-pleasers, obligatory sequels, obligatory franchise installments, historical dramas, anime fantasy, both urgent and meditative documentaries, both urgent and meditative genre debuts, a social drama that’s also a kaiju film, a social drama that’s also a bit of a farce, and an unclassifiable ghost story or two. Here’s to hoping you can find a film to truly love in 2017.

Here are the 20 best movies of 2017—so far.

fate-of-the-furious-poster.jpg 20. The Fate of the Furious
Director: F. Gary Gray
The Fate of the Furious is the reason moving pictures exist. Not the only reason, just the main one: the glory of dynamic motion which involves the pulse and the heart. The Fast franchise is a group of action films centered around a crew of talented outlaws who engage in illegal street racing and, later, heists. Although the lineup has changed over the years, the basic formula has stayed the same: an eccentric crew of colorful characters with various talents, led by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his co-conspirator/girlfriend/wife Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) get involved in ever-increasing stakes. This group refers to themselves as “family,” and their bond is the sinew of the franchise. As the series escalates—escalation is the name of the game here—everybody eventually becomes part of the family, even the antagonists who are sent after them: the first movie saw undercover cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) joining the crew; this habit is followed in later movies by Diplomatic Security Service agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). But none of this dry summation can give you an accurate idea of this franchise or its charm: These are movies where topping the previous installment is itself the art. How much crazier can the stunts get? How strong is the family’s bond? How many incredible moments will these stars have on screen? How intense can the stakes get? How byzantine are the plots? How can they possibly pull it off? The Fast franchise, and its latest installment, Fate of the Furious, is so clever, so perfectly executed, emotionally sincere, self-aware and gloriously cinematic that I think it’s made me happier, and more entertained, than any other movie I’ve seen this year. —Jason Rhode / Full Review


called-morgan-poster.jpg 19. I Called Him Morgan
Director: Kasper Collin
I Called Him Morgan is the story of two troubled people, one of whom killed the other. Documentarian Kasper Collin—who previously made My Name Is Albert Ayler, also about a jazz musician—looks at the difficult, abbreviated life of trumpeter Lee Morgan, who was shot dead in the winter of 1972 in New York. It’s not a mystery who pulled the trigger—it was his common-law wife, Helen, who was more than 10 years his senior—but I Called Him Morgan isn’t about solving a crime, rather, it’s about connecting the dots regarding why the crime happened. Throughout the film, you feel the slow, grim pull of inevitable tragedy set against a lush visual palette. (Oscar-nominated Arrival cinematographer Bradford Young is one of I Called Him Morgan’s credited cameramen.) Talking heads’ tales are crosscut with dreamy images—snowy nights in New York, a hypnotically colorful fish tank—that always feel pertinent to what’s being discussed. And then there are the interview subjects and the milieu. Jazz musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Charli Persip talk about their friend with specificity and insight, and Lee Morgan’s music—as well as the music he played in other people’s bands—fills the soundtrack. The film will be heaven for jazz aficionados, but those who don’t know the difference between bebop and hard bop won’t feel lost. Collin understands that his film is about people, not art, but his deft storytelling—and the endless sadness that comes from his tale—flexes its own nimbleness and beauty. —Tim Grierson / Full Review


t2-trainspotting-movie-poster.jpg 18. T2 Trainspotting
Director:   Danny Boyle  
Superficially, T2 is an action crime comedy, but its true subject is about being 40 in the modern United Kingdom, just as its predecessor was about being British and 20. Boyle and company want to both eat and burn their cake, too—to be nostalgic and deconstruct nostalgia. The plot, which deals with payback and schemes, is really an excuse for all of us to check in, keep tabs, see how everybody is doing. There are flashbacks to scenes from the original movie, and childhood scenes that weren’t in the original film. T2 is mostly played out in the aged faces of its lead characters as they stumble over the twilight of youth: Aye, so it’s come to this; a real shame, innit? —Jason Rhode / Full Review


logan-poster.jpg 17. Logan
Director: James Mangold
Ultimately, Logan’s ambition is to present itself with a weight of gravitas that isn’t entirely earned, considering the history of the character. It will doubtlessly frustrate some of the Everyman cinema-goers who perceive its middle chapters as slow, or who criticize the 135-minute run-time, but I expect patient viewers will appreciate the way it allows its characters to breathe and wallow in moments of vulnerability. It’s not a film calculated to be a people-pleaser, but it is an appropriately intense end to a character defined by the tenacity and ferocity of a wolverine. —Jim Vorel / Full Review


city-ghosts-poster.jpg 16. City of Ghosts
Director: Matthew Heineman
There need not be a documentary about the Syrian catastrophe to rally the world around its cause—just as, in Matthew Heineman’s previous film, Cartel Land, there was no need to vilify the world of Mexican cartels or the DEA or the paramilitaristic nationalists patrolling our Southern borders to confirm that murder and drug trafficking are bad. The threats are known and the stakes understood, at least conceptually. And yet, by offering dedicated, deeply intimate portraits of the people caught up in these crises, Heineman complicates them beyond all repair, placing himself in undoubtedly death-defying situations to offer a perspective whose only bias is instinctual. So it is with City of Ghosts, in which he follows members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group committed to using citizen-based journalism to expose the otherwise covered-up atrocities committed by ISIS and the Assad regime in Syria. In hiding, in Turkey and Germany and at an event for journalists in the U.S.—in exile—these men, who Heineman characterizes as a very young and even more reluctant resistance, tell of both the increasingly sophisticated multimedia methods of ISIS and their hopes for feeling safe enough to settle and start a family with equal trepidation about what they’ve conditioned themselves to never believe: That perhaps they’ll never be safe. Heineman could have easily bore witness to the atrocities himself, watching these men as they watch, over and over, videos of their loved ones executed by ISIS, a piquant punishment for their crimes of resistance. There is much to be said about the responsibility of seeing in our world today, after all. Instead, while City of Ghosts shares plenty of horrifying images, the director more often that not shields the audience from the graphic details, choosing to focus his up-close camera work on the faces of these men as they take on the responsibility of bearing witness, steeling themselves for a potential lifetime of horror in which everything they know and love will be taken from them. By the time Heineman joins these men as they receive the 2015 International Press Freedom Award for their work, the clapping, beaming journalists in the audience practically indict themselves, unable to see how these Syrian men want to be doing anything but what they feel they must, reinforcing the notion that what seems to count as international reportage anymore is the exact kind of lack of nuance that Heineman so beautifully, empathetically wants to call out. —Dom Sinacola


john-wick-2-poster.jpg 15. John Wick: Chapter 2
Director: Chad Stahelski
Perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay to both John Wick movies is via comparison to a contemporary: John Wick films are to guns what The Raid films are to fists. Within their respective spheres of combat, each is on an entirely separate level in terms of presentation. Both aspire to something more vital than to “entertain.” They don’t want to “satisfy” an audience—they want to make your jaw drop. They want you to stifle a guffaw as John Wick (Keanu Reeves) pulls off a move that is simultaneously so slickly unrealistic and bone-crunchingly visceral that the cognitive dissonance causes a brief misfire in your synapses. They’re everything that G.I. Joe or Fast & The Furious never bothers even attempting to be. So yes, both cinephiles and action movie buffs will be pleased to know that John Wick: Chapter 2 is a worthy follow-up to the surprising 2014 original. Holding the torch passed from ’80s and ’90s John Woo classics, director Chad Stahelski delivers an epic ballet of arm-breaking and gun-kata that somehow manages to run for 122 minutes without ever overstaying its welcome. That’s far easier said than done. —Jim Vorel / Full Review


prevenge-movie-jpg 14. Prevenge
Director: Alice Lowe
Maybe getting close enough to gut a person when you’re seven months pregnant is a cinch—no one likely expects an expecting mother to cut their throat—but all the positive encouragement Ruth’s (Alice Lowe) unborn daughter gives her helps, too. The kid spends the film spurring her mother to slaughter seemingly innocent people from in utero, an invisible voice of incipient malevolence sporting a high-pitched giggle that’ll make your skin crawl. “Pregnant lady goes on a slashing spree at the behest of her gestating child” sounds like a perfectly daffy twist on one of the horror genre’s most enduring contemporary niches on paper. In practice it’s not quite so daffy, more somber than it is silly, but the bleak tone suits what writer, director, and star Lowe wants to achieve with her filmmaking debut. Another storyteller might have designed Prevenge as a more comically-slanted effort, but Lowe has sculpted it to smash taboos and social norms. Because Prevenge hates human beings with a disturbing passion—even human beings who aren’t selfish, awful, creepy or worse—in it, child-rearing is a form of real-life body horror that’s as smartly crafted and grimly funny as it is terrifying. —Andy Crump / Full Review


starless-dreams-poster.jpg 13. Starless Dreams
Director: Mehrdad Oskouei
Mehrdad Oskouei, the director of this sobering documentary about young girls in a juvenile-detention facility in Iran, is well-regarded in his home country, but until the Museum of the Moving Image in New York gave this film a theatrical run earlier this year, he was barely known, if at all, by international audiences outside of the festival circuit. Based on Starless Dreams, though—and especially in tandem with two earlier, shorter, similarly themed documentaries of his, It’s Always Late for Freedom (2007) and The Last Days of Winter (2011)—the belated wider attention seems richly deserved. A mix of talking-heads interviews and fly-on-the-wall observational sequences, Starless Dreams couches its critique of a heartless judicial system, and by extension a repressive society, in deeply human terms. The personal stories Oskouei, with his paternal manner, collects are heartbreaking in their evocation of childhood innocence crushed at a prematurely early age, with some of them either fearing returning to their normal lives outside of the facility, and others simply wishing for death. And yet, occasionally these girls are able to find pockets of light, mostly through the bonds they’ve forged with each other. Abbas Kiarostami may have left this earth last year, but his gently inquisitive spirit, at least in the nonfiction realm, finds a successor in Oskouei. —Kenji Fujishima


after-the-storm-movie-poster.jpg 12. After the Storm
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
If a melancholy, troubled tone is endemic in Kore-eda’s work, so is his close chronicling of family dynamics. While Ryota fears turning into the same terminal disappointment as his father—or, perhaps, the disappointment he perceived him to be—he tries to win Shingo’s affection, buying him gifts to assert his supremacy over his ex’s new boyfriend. In Ryota’s mind, it’s how to be close to his boy in a way his father never was with him, but After the Storm knows better, recognizing all the ways that he’s failing his kid—and also how, like its own kind of genetic gravity, Ryota is becoming his old man, unable to correct the mistakes of the past. But there’s no scorn in Kore-eda’s depiction of Ryota’s transformation: The middle-aged man will come to understand how little he knew about his dad and also why he still craves connection to him, even though he thought he didn’t. —Tim Grierson / Full Review


your-name-poster.jpg 11. Your Name
Director: Makoto Shinkai
In the great ongoing debate of anime canonicity at large, Shinkai is often heralded as the “next” Hayao Miyazaki for both the artistry and accessibility of his work. This comparison, however, albeit well-meaning, is reductionist. Miyazaki’s place in the history of anime is already well established, while Shinkai has not even yet reached his apex. The burden of expectation, to laud any one director as the “next” adoptive patriarch of their art form, is as misguided as it is creatively stifling. Art does not need successors; art needs artists. This much, however, is certain: Shinkai’s films speak directly to the times in which they were created, and with this latest work, he has more than earned the right to step from out of the shadow of comparisons to Miyazaki and forge his own name. —Toussaint Egan / Full Review


casting-jonbenet-poster.jpg 10. Casting JonBenet
Director: Kitty Green
An unlikely cross-section of humanity also populates Casting JonBenet, which boasts a provocative idea that yields enormous emotional rewards. Filmmaker Kitty Green invited members of the Boulder, Colorado community where JonBenet Ramsey lived to “audition” for a film about her. But in the tradition of Kate Plays Christine or The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, that’s actually a feint: Green uses the on-camera interviews with these people to talk about Ramsey’s murder and the still-lingering questions about who committed the crime. She’s not interested in their acting abilities—she’s trying to pinpoint the ways that a 21-year-old incident still resonates. It’s a premise that could seem cruel or exploitative, but Casting JonBenet is actually incredibly compassionate. Green wizardly finds connective tissue between all these actors, who have internalized the little girl’s killing, finding parallels in their own lives to this tragedy. High-profile murders like Ramsey’s often provoke gawking, callous media treatment, turning us all into rubberneckers, but Casting JonBenet vigorously works against that tendency, fascinated by our psychological need to judge other people’s lives, but also deeply mournful, even respectful, of the very human reasons why we do so. —Tim Grierson


it-comes-at-night-poster.jpg 9. It Comes at Night
Director: Trey Edward Shults
It Comes at Night is ostensibly a horror movie, moreso than Shults’s debut, Krisha, but even Krisha was more of a horror movie than most measured family dramas typically are. Perhaps knowing this, Shults calls It Comes at Night an atypical horror movie, but—it’s already obvious after only two of these—Shults makes horror movies to the extent that everything in them is laced with dread, and every situation suffocated with inevitability. For his sophomore film, adorned with a much larger budget than Krisha and cast with some real indie star power compared to his previous cast (of family members doing him a solid), Shults imagines a near future as could be expected from a somber flick like this. A “sickness” has ravaged the world and survival is all that matters for those still left. In order to keep their shit together enough to keep living, the small group of people in Shults’s film have to accept the same things the audience does: That important characters will die, tragedy will happen and the horror of life is about the pointlessness of resisting the tide of either. So it makes sense that It Comes at Night is such an open wound of a watch, pained with regret and loss and the mundane ache of simply existing: It’s trauma as tone poem, bittersweet down to its bones, a triumph of empathetic, soul-shaking movie-making. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review


raw-movie-poster.jpg 8. Raw
Director: Julia Ducournou
If you’re the proud owner of a twisted sense of humor, you might tell your friends that Julia Ducournau’s Raw is a coming of age movie in a bid to trick them into seeing it. Yes, the film’s protagonist, naive incoming college student Justine (Garance Marillier), comes of age over the course of its running time; she parties, she breaks out of her shell and she learns about who she really is as a person on the verge of adulthood. But most kids who come of age in the movies don’t realize that they’ve spent their lives unwittingly suppressing an innate, nigh-insatiable need to consume raw meat. “Hey,” you’re thinking, “that’s the name of the movie!” You’re right! Allow Ducournau her cheekiness. More than a wink and nod to the picture’s visceral particulars, Raw is an open concession to the harrowing quality of Justine’s grim blossoming. Nasty as the film gets, and it does indeed get nasty, the harshest sensations Ducournau articulates here tend to be the ones we can’t detect by merely looking: Fear of feminine sexuality, family legacies, popularity politics and uncertainty of self govern Raw’s horrors as much as exposed and bloody flesh. It’s a gorefest that offers no apologies and plenty more to chew on than its effects. —Andy Crump / Full Review (for a slightly different take on the film)


guardians-galaxy-vol2-movie-poster.jpg 7. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Director: James Gunn
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, James Gunn shows that “second verse, mostly same as the first” can serve the viewer (and, inevitably, the box office) well, especially when one has most of the Marvel universe to pull from. To a large extent, GotG Vol. 2 follows the playbook from the first film, though now, with the entire cast familiar faces to the audience, Gunn skips introductions and goes right to the funny. In this case, that means an opening credits sequence featuring the entire team and what amounts to a highlight reel of character traits meant to amuse: rapid banter from Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), humorous ’roid-rage from Drax (Dave Bautista), quiet bad-assitude from Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and an extended cute-Groot frolic. During this sequence and throughout the movie, the comic elements of this particular space opera feel as if they have been ratcheted up. But though he doesn’t seem to want the audience to have too much time between laughs, Gunn also seems determined to match the increased comic volume with more heart. The audience is unlikely to feel they’ve seen anything that different from Vol. 1, but it’s clear that Gunn and company knew exactly what qualities made the first film so enjoyable, and what they needed to do to make sure this particular sequel was worth the wait. —Michael Burgin / Full Review


colossal-movie-poster.jpg 6. Colossal
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Colossal is simply a much darker, more serious-minded film than one could possibly go in expecting, judging from the marketing materials and rather misleading trailers. It blooms into a story about sacrifice and martyrdom, while simultaneously featuring an array of largely unlikable characters who are not “good people” in any measurable way. I understand that description sounds at odds with itself—this film is often at odds with itself. But in the cognitive dissonance this creates, it somehow finds a streak of feminist individuality and purpose it couldn’t have even attempted to seek as a straight-up comedy. —Jim Vorel / Full Review


not-your-negro-poster.jpg 5. I Am Not Your Negro
Director: Raoul Peck
Raoul Peck focuses on James Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House, a work that would have memorialized three of his friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. All three black men were assassinated within five years of each other, and we learn in the film that Baldwin was not just concerned about these losses as terrible blows to the Civil Rights movement, but deeply cared for the wives and children of the men who were murdered. Baldwin’s overwhelming pain is as much the subject of the film as his intellect. And so I Am Not Your Negro is not just a portrait of an artist, but a portrait of mourning—what it looks, sounds and feels like to lose friends, and to do so with the whole world watching (and with so much of America refusing to understand how it happened, and why it will keep happening). Peck could have done little else besides give us this feeling, placing us squarely in the presence of Baldwin, and I Am Not Your Negro would have likely still been a success. His decision to steer away from the usual documentary format, where respected minds comment on a subject, creates a sense of intimacy difficult to inspire in films like this. The pleasure of sitting with Baldwin’s words, and his words alone, is exquisite. There’s no interpreter, no one to explain Baldwin but Baldwin—and this is how it should be. —Shannon M. Houston / Full Review


graduation-movie-poster.jpg 4. Graduation
Director: Cristian Mungiu
The crimes are minor but it’s the misdemeanors that do the most harm in Graduation, an excellent Romanian drama that begins as a father’s hope for his talented teen daughter and morphs into a claustrophobic moral crisis ensnaring several individuals. Writer-director Cristian Mungiu lays out his story with nearly surgical precision, adopting a chilly tone for a movie about the tiny, day-to-day infractions that conspire to corrode society’s foundation. This is the fourth feature from Mungiu, who has proved to be a master of the minor. In his breakout second feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the arduous process to secure an abortion was enough to sustain a taut, real-time thriller. In his 2012 follow-up Beyond the Hills, the tense relationship between two childhood friends became a springboard for a drama about religious faith and devotion. Now with Graduation, Mungiu again sees the drama in the everyday, arguing that it’s not the major injustices that are the most nefarious—it’s the small ways we screw over the other guy on a regular basis that keep us so paranoid and distrustful of one another. Rarely has cheating on a test been fraught with such significance. —Tim Grierson / Full Review


lost-city-of-z-poster.jpg 3. The Lost City of Z
Director: James Gray
James Gray’s The Lost City of Z is an anti-period movie. In the vein of The Immigrant, Gray’s glorious last film, Z is fascinated with its milieu (this time we begin across the Atlantic in Blighty, from 1906 to 1925) and luxuriously adorned with period detail—but the strangulated social climate and physically claustrophobic spaces of its ostensibly sophisticated Western society make that environment appear totally unappealing. Only once we reach the Amazon, untainted by Western hands, does the film relax, its beguiling score and open-air scenery turning inviting. There, in a land of uncomplicated tribes and indifferent wilderness, a man like soldier and explorer Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) can find freedom from the narrow-mindedness infecting early 20th century Britain. Darius Khondji’s cinematography doesn’t just complement Gray’s movie, it deepens its meaning, strengthening the appeal of Fawcett’s jungle, endlessly verdant and mysterious where home in England appears dull and monotone. Every frame is sumptuous and misty-eyed, always pining for a lost era when adventurers might still find corners of the Earth completely untouched. (Gray may show little love for Empire, but he depicts colonial exploration in itself as a romantic adventure.) The film doesn’t make for much complexity, but it feels deeply. Like Fawcett, it aches—like his obsession, the jungle, it envelops, casting a lasting spell. —Brogan Morris / Full Review


personal-shopper-poster.jpg 2. Personal Shopper
Director: Olivier Assayas
The pieces don’t all fit in Personal Shopper, but that’s much of the fun of writer-director Olivier Assayas’s enigmatic tale of Maureen (Kristen Stewart, a wonderfully unfathomable presence), who may be in contact with her dead twin brother. Or maybe she’s being stalked by an unseen assailant. Or maybe it’s both. To attempt to explain the direction Personal Shopper takes is merely to regurgitate plot points that don’t sound like they belong in the same film. But Assayas is working on a deeper, more metaphoric level, abandoning strict narrative cause-and-effect logic to give us fragments of Maureen’s life refracted through conflicting experiences. Nothing happens in this film as a direct result of what came before, which explains why a sudden appearance of suggestive, potentially dangerous text messages could be interpreted as a literal threat, or as some strange cosmic manifestation of other, subtler anxieties. Personal Shopper encourages a sense of play, moving from moody ghost story to tense thriller to (out of the blue) erotic character study. But that genre-hopping (not to mention the movie’s willfully inscrutable design) is Assayas’s way of bringing a lighthearted approach to serious questions about grieving and disillusionment. The juxtaposition isn’t jarring or glib—if anything, Personal Shopper is all the more entrancing because it won’t sit still, never letting us be comfortable in its shifting narrative. —Tim Grierson / Full Review


get-out-poster.jpg 1. Get Out
Director:   Jordan Peele  
Peele’s a natural behind the camera, but Get Out benefits most from its deceptively trim premise, a simplicity which belies rich thematic depth. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) go to spend a weekend with her folks in their lavish upstate New York mansion, where they’re throwing the annual Armitage bash with all their friends in attendance. Chris immediately feels out of place; events escalate from there, taking the narrative in a ghastly direction that ultimately ties back to the unsettling sensation of being the “other” in a room full of people who aren’t like you—and never let you forget it. Put indelicately, Get Out is about being black and surrounded by whites who squeeze your biceps without asking, who fetishize you to your face, who analyze your blackness as if it’s a fashion trend. At best Chris’s ordeal is bizarre and dizzying, the kind of thing he might bitterly chuckle about in retrospect. At worst it’s a setup for such macabre developments as are found in the domain of horror. That’s the finest of lines Peele and Get Out walk without stumbling. —Andy Crump / Full Review

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