A Halfway There Checklist: The Best of the Year So Far

This swamp that is 2017 has produced its fair share of interesting films though I think we’re still a few months, years, before we can really grapple with the consequences of what it’s like to live in the here and now. While some will shoot from the hip and proclaim Jordan Peele’s debut film Get Out, one of the year’s most delightfully unexpected box office hits, to be the first film of the Trump Era, its polemic registers as more of an elegy to Obama’s legacy than a statement on the us v. them that echoes through our living room every time we turn on the television.

Many of 2017’s most interesting films have, covertly, dealt with this ephemeral quality of loss. The concept of a lingering specter overseeing our every movement is explicitly examined in David Lowery’s much-buzzed film A Ghost Story, though that quality of contending with death, coping with grief, and reckoning with an uncertain future are features of films from the arthouse friendly (Oliver Assayas’ Personal Shopper) to mainstream fare (James Mangold’s Logan). While giving up the ghost may seem like a desirable alternative when confronted with, well, everything in our modern political landscape, the films outlined here actively combat that kind of defeatist attitude. As I suggested in my review of Personal Shopper and remind myself on a daily basis: despair may be in vogue, but hopelessness is not in fashion.

Noteworthy

Beach Rats
(Eliza Hittman)

Beach Rats, Eliza Hittman’s follow-up to her excellent debut feature It Felt Like Love, details the sexual awakening of a Brooklyn teenager during a particularly memorable summer; a summer riddled with the loss of his father and personal apprehension . Beach Rats is an elegant display of Hittman’s abilities, as she frequently relies on close-ups of her character’s bodies in an effort to accent their insecurities and anxieties. In that way, her work is reminiscent of Claire Denis’ (though Hittman’s preoccupations bare a more overt social and sexual element than the political humanism that defines Denis’ work). Every exquisite frame of Hittman’s film conveys a sense of longing and impermanence, where all the answers seem to elude its characters’ grasp. And it’s to Hittman’s credit that the entire exercise isn’t fleeting, but haunting.

The Big Sick
(Michael Showalter)

This fragmented and oft-frustrated romantic comedy toes the line between reductive Judd Apatow clichés and culturally-specific relationship insights, though it’s anchored by one of the most moving performances of the year in Zoe Kazan. Written and based on the personal experiences shared by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick may not be the rom-com masterpiece that it’s admirers suggests, but it remains a notable achievement insofar that Gordon and Nanjiani’s unique experience overcomes the innocuous anti-details that Showlater and Apatow advocate. It's good and avoids certain saccharine traps, which in a modern rom-com climate is good enough. (Full Review Here)

My Cousin Rachel
(Roger Michell)

Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel may not join the ranks of totem Daphne Du Maurier adaptations like The Birds, Rebecca, and Don’t Look Now, but it remains an intriguing curio that should be heralded for Rachel Weisz’ unimpeachable performance. There’s an active disinterest in uncovering the whens and whences of its central mystery, with Michell adapting the material as a means of exploring particular social conventions. While Michell stops short of commenting with any scrutiny on the nature of femininity and the impossible roles women find themselves in, both as sexual objects and domestic servants, it’s Weisz who uncovers certain clinical truths that make My Cousin Rachel particularly memorable. (Full Review Here)

The Death of Louis XIV
(Albert Serra)

Perhaps an exercise intended for only the most patient cinephiles, I grew to admire Albert Serra’s glacially-paced and immaculately-composed The Death of Louis XIV. How much you appreciate the film will very likely coincide with how funny you find the picture’s morbidly dry humor. The film depicts Louis XIV (Jean-Pierre Léaud, the glimmer of his 400 Blows days but a distant memory) on his deathbed, bedridden from gangrene as doctors prod at his increasingly blackened foot, completely baffled by what to do. His doctors ornate the Sun King’s lavish bedside, fixated on carrying on with rudimentary treatments and look upon the dying king pitifully. Beautifully shot, the film looks like a Rembrandt painting come to life. Serra’s sly subversion of taking the museum images that we revere and exposing the human errs that is often forgotten within the passage of time is a stroke of genius. (Full Review Here)

The Devil’s Candy
(Sean Byrne)

As of this writing, Trey Edwards Shults’ It Comes At Night is currently in theaters benefiting from the lucrative pockets that come from being produced and distributed by A24. It’s a #blessed position to be in, but as far as sophomore horror efforts are concerned, I’ll take Sean Byrne’s considerably more interesting The Devil’s Candy. Clarity goes a long way, particularly when it informs a subtext of genuine horrors, as Byrne expresses his preoccupations with parenthood and grief to startling effect. Byrne’s unfussiness cuts straight to the bone, inspiring some of the most genuinely horrifying sequences of the year. It’s not since Ti West’s The House of the Devil have I been this excited about a new horror director. (Full Review Here)

Heal the Living
(Katell Quillévéré)

While I preferred Katell Quillévéré’s previous films, I took it as a personal victory that Heal the Living finally secured U.S. distribution after Love Like Poison and Suzanne failed to do so. Quillévéré’s filmmaking is of a supreme order, in what often suggests precision even in her more fleeting images. In Heal the Living, she carefully structures a narrative imbued with all the qualities of grief and loss, yet implores her viewers to not succumb to woe. The film’s trajectory from death to pulsating life will not only provide its viewers with contentment in the beating of their hearts, but make confronting their day-in-and-day-out seem possible, even desirable. (Full Review Here)

Logan
(James Mangold)

Logan’s brutal opening sequence serves as an outline for what’s to come: the aged, beaten, and forgotten superhero wakens from the backseat of his limosiune as the vanity of a past life is now on borrowed time. The earnestness of James Mangold’s Logan may be a bit grating, as his conscious and perpetual attempts at reverting superhero Logan into everyman Logan accumulate into something obvious. But the alluring novelty of Logan is anchored on its lead performances from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, both imbuing the material with fraternal warmth that’s unexpected from this type of film. And frankly, it’s a welcome relief to see a superhero film that finally confronts not a hero’s origins, but rather their end.

Recommended

The Blackcoat’s Daughter
(Oz Perkins)

What Oz Perkins conveys in The Blackcoat’s Daughter lends itself a more feminine persuasion, one that addresses a set of impossible social responsibilities exclusive to women. Whether it’s a young girl confronting social rejection, the possibility of dealing with a pregnancy on your own, or questioning the intentions of an older man’s hospitality, these issues are uniquely characterized by its feminist lens. What comes out of this is an unsettling vision, one where ultraviolent cruelty doesn’t seem out of character so much as it seems inevitable. Perkins, along with the aforementioned Sean Byrne, are leading a vanguard of promising horror directors. (Full Review Here)

A Ghost Story
(David Lowery)

At this point, I greet every film that has generated near-unanimous approval from the Sundance Film Festival with great suspicion. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story would benefit from a realignment of expectations, as it’s bevy of credentials – distributed by A24, featuring Oscar-winner Casey Affleck and film-Twitter favorite Rooney Mara, etc. – can prove to be too daunting a bar to clear. And while I admired A Ghost Story, it’s certainly not as rigorous or narratively bold as it suggests. Nor will anyone be able to justify a particularly grating sequence that essentially spells out every thematic element of its runtime. But it is a pensive and visually lush examination of grief, and certainly unlike anything else you’ll see in an American independent film. It can be a powerful film, especially when it allows the viewer to engage with it in its macabre silence.

Happy Hour
(Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)

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Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s five-hour opus Happy Hour has been around since 2015, though it finally made it to Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center this year. It remains one of the most rigorous yet affectionately warm viewing experiences of the year. It details the strained but enduring friendship of four women living in Kobe, Japan. The news of a divorce among the group sparks debate, especially since it was not communicated to the rest of the group. Hamaguchi observes all four women with a serene elegance as they maneuver through a rigid patriarchal society that values compliance and servitude. The end result is a complex and emotionally exhaustive effort that presents a simple but evidently impossible request: to consider the women around us. (Full Review Here)

My Life as a Zucchini
(Claude Barras)

Nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year, Claude Barras’ My Life as a Zucchini was the best in its field of competition that included the likes of Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, and The Red Turtle. So of course it didn’t win. But this immaculately crafted and poignant drama that centers on a young boy’s turbulent transition into a foster home following his mother’s death was never going to warm the hearts of a large voting body more accustomed to having anthropomorphic animals communicate concerns. Co-written by one of France’s most significant new filmmakers, Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood), My Life as a Zucchini pulses with a gritty energy that refuses easy remedies for complex questions. And in a rather inspired choice, Sciamma treats her audience like functioning humans capable of confronting anxiety, abandonment, and loneliness. When Studio Ghibli, Pixar, and Disney are in decline, this approach becomes surprisingly novel.

Slack Bay
(Bruno Dumont)

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Slack Bay, Bruno Dumont’s fascinating new film, is an object of great peculiarity. It’s my immediate impulse to mention the films it appears to mime, if not outright mock, but in doing so you lose the spirit of its absurdity. To get lost in its queer structure, to spend the two hours roaming the Channel Coast with such profoundly bizarre characters – ranging from Juliette Binoche’s campy Aude Van Peteghem to Didier Desprès plump constable Alfred Machin (I didn’t know they make humans this big)- and watch its narrative unfold, is a viewing experience that has seared itself into my memory. While I could pass off the experience as merely another idiosyncratic exercise in Dumont’s filmography, it’s more transgressive qualities hover and rattle, inspiring greater consideration than its absurdity suggests.

Split
(M. Night Shyamalan)

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I’m not an M. Night Shyamalan acolyte. I’m partial to Signs, but his remaining filmography keeps me at bay. I can’t get behind the comic indulgences of The Happening nor was I especially impressed with the novelty of The Sixth Sense. And that’s not to mention the befuddling tenor of The Village. But with Split, Shyamalan’s indulgent eccentricities become persuasively distilled through James McAvoy’s performance. It’s the sort of obvious, scenery-chewing display that works profoundly well within Shyamalan’s worldview. And it’s a performance perfectly in tune with the anxious thematic elements at play. This is Shyamalan at his most playful and honestly, that's the only time he's worth checking out. 

Highly Recommended

Get Out
(Jordan Peele)

My initial viewing experience with Jordan Peele’s Get Out was tinged with reticent admiration. I found its comic element, realized almost exclusively by LilRel Howery to be a grating and unnecessary component to the picture. Nor was I especially convinced by Peele’s thematic argument, which I found detrimentally obvious. But revisiting Get Out, those concerns were less pronounced, with the precision of Peele’s craft really coming through. Peele’s decidedly unsubtle approach serves to amplify the film’s horror elements which struck me as especially terrifying on a revisit. Perhaps no scene being more horrific than a black man fending off his psychotic white captors, only for the spiraling lights of red and blue emanate from the darkness. Peele knows exactly what he’s doing with that scene and for a first-time filmmaker he displays a masterful grasp of toying with audience expectations.

John Wick: Chapter 2
(Chad Stahelski)

The promise laid out by any sequel suggests an inflation of everything that preceded it: bigger, louder, and more. That’s exactly what Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2 achieves in its amplification of violence, development of its mythology, and quote unquote world building. Yet in expanding its world, Stahelski never allows the film to become a bloated slog. Every intricate new component introduced in the film is as finely fitted as one of Keanu Reeves’ Italian suits. With the film opening with a projected image of one of Buster Keaton’s films, there’s a distinct feeling that Stahelski aspires to harness the energy that made Keaton such a profound figure. If the first Wick possessed the manic energy of the Keaton short Cops, then this second chapter is the more sweeping and formally attuned Our Hospitality, with the surreal and cosmic profundity of Sherlock Jr. undoubtedly in store for Wick’s third and final chapter. (Full Review Here)

The Lovers
(Azazel Jacobs)

Azazel Jacobs’ The Lovers captures the sort of transient details that weigh heavily on the soul but are rarely afforded cinematic screen time. Jacobs captures all the stifling qualities of walking down the corridor to your workspace to the giddy anticipation of receiving a text from a loved one. There’s the anxious dread of forcing a conversation, to working out a tree diagram of lies all in your head. All these details accumulate into a film that’s as delightful as it is arresting, a film that finds two people drift apart and come back together, exposing all the nonsensical, convoluted, and fickle habits of the heart. (Full Review Here)

Personal Shopper
(Oliver Assayas)

For all that Personal Shopper is – a ghost story, an examination of our relationship with technology, the strain of our occupational onus, a crisis of agency, a murder mystery – it is united by an unsettling and all too poignant sense of grief. The loose ends that burden Maureen (Kristen Stewart) amount and assemble themselves into a spiral diagram of worry, where the death of her brother Lewis and her mounting professional frustrations inform a rich dialogue on our capacity to handle the cerebral stress of loss and anomie. Stewart’s performance is critical here, as it signals a maturation in her that was first suggested in Assayas’ previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria. While she had the advantage of being paired with Juliette Binoche in that film, here her partner is a specter, realized in the form of an apparition of her brother or her little-seen boss that keeps her trotting all around Europe purchasing, consuming. What the film builds to is a confrontation with grief, a confrontation that perhaps doesn’t give way to catharsis, but rather understanding. Most of the time, that proves to be even more valuable. (Full Review Here

Person to Person
(Dustin Guy Defa)

The warmth that exudes from Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person cannot be understated. This is a film that refuses to be bogged down by the anxieties of the political moment or petty nihilism. It’s a film that casually peers into the lives of several New Yorkers as they go about their day. There’s a man looking to buy a rare vinyl album. There’s another who just went through a contentious breakup, a woman on her first day as an investigative journalist, and an elderly horologist. They’re all people attempting to assert some measure of agency in a city that so frequently can chew you out.  (Full Review Here)

Song to Song
(Terrence Malick)

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Terrence Malick’s continued examination of the conflict between a spiritual ideal and reality resumes in his new film, Song to Song. The erudite director fixes his gaze on the Austin, Texas music scene where shades of red and blue, movement and stillness, and penury and luxury inform a dense text on the contradictory forces that propel people in and out of happiness. It is in equal measures his most fragmented work and his most narratively driven since at least The New World. And while it shares many of the thematic discomforts found in his previous narrative film, Knight of Cups, i.e; a petrifying fear of nothingness and a hollow longing for experience, it’s a notably more romantic and buoyant enterprise. Whatever reservations I may have for the film – whether it be its increasingly abstract editing patterns or the overwhelming qualities of its sound design – will more or less be attended to when I revisit Song to Song. It’s the great gift of Malick’s cinema: no one viewing can adequately grapple with the scope of his vision. Those who suggest otherwise are just not paying attention. (Full Review Here)

Essential

Baby Driver
(Edgar Wright)

As Baby Driver comes to a close, we understand the vitality of maintaining that measure of humanism even as you’re confronted with certain doom. It’s been the raison d'etre of all of Edgar Wright’s filmography, as you’re invited to imagine enduring the unendurable, whether it be a breakup in Shaun of the Dead, the impossible contest between progressive and conservative ideologies in Hot Fuzz, confronting your partner’s past in Scott Pilgrim, or negotiating the present with your past in The World’s End. Yet Wright’s films rarely despair. His films may summon moments of profound sadness but they’re typically imbued with an unfaltering human quality. As it was detailed in Scott Pilgrim, Wright’s characters are perpetually on a quest for self-respect, with Baby Driver being no different. With all these familiar and empathetic qualities, Wright heightens our engagement with a kind of formal energy that’s unlike any other filmmaker working today. (Full Review Here)

The Beguiled
(Sofia Coppola)

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The necessary counterpoint to Don Siegel’s 1971 version, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled recalls her debut film The Virgin Suicides in demonstrating the unendurable situation that women find themselves in when seen through the eyes of a man. While Don Siegel’s film pardons ambiguity for a more narratively-charged film, Coppola embraces it by stripping our understanding of Cpl. John McBurney’s past; no flashbacks, no narrations. The women of the Virginian all-girls school confront a blank slate of a man who they only know as the “enemy” in military speak. And as McBurney wins the hearts of all the women of the school, he parlays their generosity for personal gratification. To borrow from The Virgin Suicides, the dynamic suggests that McBurney "knew everything about the women, yet they couldn’t fathom him at all". The end of The Beguiled persuasively reverses that dynamic. (Full Review Here)

Columbus
(Kogonada)

Kogonada’s film debut Columbus is the best film of the year so far. I’ve seen the film just once, where it screened as part of the Chicago Critics Film Festival, and it has rattled in my consciousness every night since. The film details a young man’s return home to Columbus, Indiana as he visits his ailing father. This narrative is juxtaposed with one detailing a young woman’s inability to leave the town, anchored by the need to help her mother. The simple narrative is offered profound depth through Kogonada’s lapidary formalism, with every frame functioning as a dialogue on the competing ideologies and contradictions of its characters and milieu. It calmly persuades its audience to submit to its dream logic all within its vivid and grounded reality. There’s not a film this year that expresses so much empathy, warmth, and woe all within the confines of a subtle pan of the camera, a fluid cut, or a Haley Lu Richardson’s misty-eyes as she exhales her cigarette smoke. This is major.

The Lost City of Z
(James Gray)

Like many of James Gray’s films, The Lost City of Z perpetually conceals its mammoth ambitions, initially giving the impression of appealing to more modest sensibilities. It finds an English colonel out of orbit with the rest of privileged society; an outsider passed up for recognition at every turn and quite literally forced to the outskirts of the world. And it is here where personal ambition – the desire for recognition among peers, of etching out a legacy – is exposed for all its fleeting qualities. Gray doesn’t necessarily subvert the qualities of films of its ilk like Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but rather ignores the dramatic device of seeing its lead character succumb to insanity and megalomania. Instead, the film’s grand dramatic crescendo sees its lead character finally obtain the approval of his peers where he’s provided with a token of their admiration, and to see how insignificant that emblem happens to be when compared to the wealth of personal experience, sacrifice, and knowledge he has obtained through his travels. That, in its own specific way, is validation enough.