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Halfway Mark: The Best Movies of 2017 (So Far) — Pt. 1

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It used to be that the most prestigious films of the year were released in the fall in an attempt to make a run at any major award show, but over the past decade it seems that more and more of our favourites have been coming out sometime between January and July. We are now halfway through 2017, and a review of the past six months makes it clear that cinephiles have been spoiled with some truly amazing movies, from blockbuster superhero sagas and indie rom-coms, to bizarre dystopian thrillers and some groundbreaking horror films. With our mid-year binge-watching now complete, our final assessment only scratches the surface of everything worth watching.

For this list, we’re only counting movies that were released either theatrically or on VOD in North America before July 1. These 23 projects stand out as our favourite films 2017 has to offer, so far. Also, as per usual, we’re not ranking any of these films.

(A quick note: While there are plenty of films we wish we could have included, our rules require each movie to receive a certain amount of votes. Unfortunately, not all of us were lucky enough to see such films as My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, Okja, or The Beguiled, as they have not yet been released in most cities. Hopefully we will be able to catch up on some of these gems before the end of the year).

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Alien Covenant

Alien Covenant is Paradise Lost the slasher movie, and a welcome return to form for both director Ridley Scott and the classic sci-fi franchise. The Xenomorphs are bigger, meaner, and gorier than ever, and Scott expertly combines horror elements of the original Alien film and the pop theology of Prometheus with gorgeous production design, especially on the Xenomorphs’ planet. It’s primal and madness-inducing, just like the prose of H.P. Lovecraft, and Scott actually provides some answers about the Xenomorphs’ origins this time.

The film’s biggest flaw is the lack of a charismatic heroine figure a la Ripley or even Shaw from Prometheus, but Fassbender’s play on the angelic and devilish through the android characters, David and Walter, more than makes up for this. He can go from innocent to the benefactor of humanity to sly chess master in the space of a single scene while bending the entire cast to his will, almost like Milton’s Lucifer did to the rebel angels.

Alien Covenant is a film that will please both literature and classical philosophy/theology nerds, as well as fans of horror and schlock. (Logan Dalton)

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A Cure for Wellness

Released theatrically in the United States in February 2017, A Cure for Wellness is a curious production that lures viewers with an eerie tone and psychological challenges that defy everyone’s favorite themes: the arrogance and conformism that plague humankind. It seems to explore these themes well enough whilst introducing an extraordinary background for the institution Dane DeHaan’s character is supposed to visit. However, towards the third act the film throws any pretentiousness away and relies on its washed-out characters and unoriginal plot to convey unnecessary conspiracy theories and a few well-timed gory shots. Its predictiveness hurts its perception and leaves us with a sour taste in our mouths, but going back to its themes, isn’t that the whole point?

The events are set into motion because a materialist man decides to disown his ambition, which is directly tied to arrogance and conformism. The introductory speech read from his own letter prepares viewers for what could be yet another clever study of the human psyche and how insignificant we really are, but instead Justin Haythe (screenplay) and Gore Verbinski (direction) disown that idea themselves in favor of a subtle message that few would understand.

A Cure for Wellness lives up to its title by disappointing viewers and leaving them wanting more. Not a sequel, but something else, something better. It sacrifices interesting concepts to make a point that goes unnoticed by many, but it can be surprisingly effective to those who understand it. (Gabriel Cavalcanti)

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Baby Driver

Like every Edgar Wright movie, the director’s latest feature, Baby Driver, takes a ludicrous concept and runs wild with it. Six movies into his career, he continues to deliver a wildly energetic movie that not only entertains from start to finish, but follows its own set of rules without ever losing focus on what matters the most: characters. The result is brilliant – an unexpected mishmash of genres that shouldn’t blend so well together, but does. Baby Driver is the director’s most ambitious work to date – a wildly successful romantic heist comedy, fueled by a killer soundtrack. Here Wright’s use of music has a reason to exist, since the titular character needs his melodies for practical reasons. After surviving a traumatic car crash in childhood (killing his parents), Baby is left with permanent tinnitus, and in order to counteract this condition, he scores his everyday life. Baby Driver has it all: non-stop action, comedy, suspense, romance, a star-making performance from Ansel Elgort, and all the twists and turns of a classic heist movie. Credit Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss for the razor-sharp editing, and Bill Pope for his luscious photography! This is Hollywood craftsmanship of the highest order. (Ricky D)

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Devil’s Candy

It was eight years ago when Australian writer-director Sean Byrne’s debut feature The Loved Ones became an instant classic, and now he’s back with his sophomore effort, The Devil’s Candy. The film carries the imprimatur of Snoot Entertainment, the production company behind The Guest and You’re Next, and like those films, The Devil’s Candy offers a lean and stylish homage to some of our favourite horror films from the past (occult films, to be exact). The set-up of The Devil’s Candy is a tale as old as horror itself: a young family that moves into a house is not fully aware of the extent of the supernatural horrors contained within. The scenario here is the sort of pulpy Satanic Panic-era narrative you might have seen in the ’80s or late ’70s, only The Devil’s Candy playfully subverts those horror tropes while serving up more than enough stylish thrills to satisfy genre enthusiasts. The Devil’s Candy is also as much a love letter to heavy metal music as it is to cinema. Heavy metal and horror movies have always complimented each other nicely, but no other film has ever found a better ways to perfectly infuse the two like this. Yes, folks, terrible things happen, but in The Devil’s Candy, almost the entire film is infused with the sweet music from such bands as Slayer and Metallica.

Completed in 2015, The Devil’s Candy was screened at film festivals as a 90-minute movie, but snipped to 79 minutes for its theatrical run – and with the new edit, it’s a better film. The film is bursting with Satanic imagery and a blaring metal soundtrack, but at the end of the day Byrne’s film turns out to be less about heavy metal or even Satanism than about one man’s paternal anxieties and the psychological perils of his artistic obsession. In other words, this is a rare horror film that transcends genre and actually touches upon genuine human fears. And yes, there is just enough here to keep the gore hounds happy. All in all, The Devil’s Candy is the work of a filmmaker who brings everything to the table – atmospheric mise-en-scene, incredible sound design, gruesome practical effects, strong characterization, cliché-obliterating happenings, and a visceral grasp of true horror. (Ricky D)

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Get Out

In the great annals of horror movie history, there are plenty of examples of backward, racist Southerners being used to amp up the terror in otherwise unremarkable places like small towns or nice Suburban neighborhoods. Get Out seeks to utilize this same strategy, but in a different way. By making the racist bad guys liberals who genuinely think they’re doing a service to the black community, Get Out supplants the idea that racism only exists on the right, or in the South, and forces wearers of the “Good Guy Badge” to take a closer look at their reflection.

With stand-out performances from Daniel Kaluuya (Black Mirror), Allison Williams (Girls), and Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich), Get Out is a surprisingly tight suspense-thriller that ratchets up the tension with great success throughout the entirety of its swift run time.

From Jordan Peele of all people (best known for his sketch comedy series, co-created with Keegan-Michael Key), a film like Get Out is a genuine surprise, and one that has been welcomed by audiences and critics almost unanimously. These kinds of new takes on racism as a plot device, and the place of the horror canon in general, are just what the genre needs every few years to remind folks that there’s still new ground waiting to be uncovered in this well-worn world of recurring horror tropes. (Mike Worby)

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

When Guardians of the Galaxy was first released, it was considered to be a huge gamble for Marvel considering that apart from die-hards comic book fans, most people wouldn’t recognize these characters nor care to see a movie about Marvel’s band of misfits. To almost everyone’s surprise, Guardians of the Galaxy opened to a nearly $100 million (domestic) first weekend and made well over $750 million worldwide during its theatrical run. Needless to say, the pressure was on James Gunn when making a sequel and as a result, Volume 2 is bigger than its predecessor. Unfortunately, bigger isn’t always better, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t quite as fun, nor is it as clever, as the original. That isn’t to say it isn’t any good, because obviously we like it enough to have it featured on this list. There is a lot to like here, and the pros outweigh the cons. Much like the original, Volume 2 features a wonderful cast, lively performances, one or two great action set pieces, stunning cinematography, a killer soundtrack and enough humor to call it the funniest film of the year so far. More importantly, it attempts to tell a heartfelt story about identity, loneliness, and belonging, and for the most part, it succeeds. (Ricky D)

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American genre film has gotten a bit of a kick in the pants lately from filmmakers willing to acknowledge America’s roiling class tensions, from the run-down Detroit setting and get-rich-quick scheming of Don’t Breathe to the world of It Follows, in which the young seem to have no future and no prospects. One of our staff favorites last year, Jeremy Saulnier’s punk thriller Green Room exploited the naked thrills of punk to take its hapless protagonists to whatever the opposite of a “safe space” is. One of Saulnier’s collaborators, Macon Blair, has made his directorial debut with another movie that fits neatly into this grimy quasi-movement. I Don’t Feel At Home is a raucous, funny, and disturbing look at disenfranchisement and disillusionment, with a perfectly-cast Melanie Lynskey finally getting a shot at a lead role. Blair takes advantage of Lynskey’s unassuming presence to offer a complete portrait of boiling-over resentment and rage, one that nevertheless stops just short of claiming our hero is really all that different from the roving toughs she aims to lash back at. That Jesus Lizard genius David Yow is the film’s sleazy head crook is just gravy. (Simon Howell)

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It Comes At Night

Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night plunges the viewer into an ambitious story of creeping dread and paranoia. Joel Edgerton (The Gift, Warrior) delivers an earnest performance as Paul, a man determined to protect his wife and son from the desperate, downward spiral of humanity following the spread of a highly communicable disease. Isolated from society in a boarded-up house, they make a quiet and cautious life together until a stranger (Christopher Abbott) breaks in while seeking resources for his family. The careful integration of the intruder’s family into their household amplifies an already intense atmosphere that’s steeped in sorrow and agitation. The lack of specifics surrounding the plague creates an eerie atmosphere that sows doubt in the mind of the moviegoer as to a definitive reality and who may be perpetrating what.

The film treads around the familiar territory of survivalist peril, but by utilizing double meanings and ambiguous plot twists, it’s able to fully engross us in the psychological horror of a complete unknown that rips away lives without reason. Paul’s teenage son, Travis (the skilled Kelvin Harrison Jr.), is an innocent complicated by his situation and the darkness of sudden loss. By following his nosy behavior and disturbing dreams, we sample the grieving, unbalanced mind of someone who’s capable of anything and may not be able to register crossing a line. As no character is appointed the moral epicenter of the story, it leaves us to closely dissect the families’ tightly controlled lives with a suspicion that anyone could turn against the others or be influenced by the malevolent nature of the sickness. An immersive confusion and unrestrained potential for frenzied destruction imbue It Comes at Night with a palpable sense of danger without resorting to cheap or simple scares. (Lane Scarberry)

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John Wick Chapter 2

Not many of us expected the 2014 Keanu Reeves vehicle John Wick to be much more than another forgettable action thriller in the post-Bourne mold. Boy, were we in for a surprise. In defiant odds of expectations, John Wick turned out to be the breakout action favorite of the year. When it came time for the sequel expectations were high, and the film no longer had the element of surprise on its side. Thankfully, John Wick Chapter 2 turns out to be more than a match for our newly heightened expectations of the young franchise, surpassing its predecessor in almost every regard.

Chapter 2 manages the exceedingly rare feat of upping the ante in almost every department without over-extending itself, deftly expanding on the unique and interesting criminal underworld established by the original, and doubling down on the precise, elegant gunplay that made that film a hit with audiences. The action scenes and narrative are larger in scope and more complex in execution, but never overwhelmingly so, making it feel like an evolution of the original that expands things just enough. Add in numerous fun additions to the already impressive “Wick-verse” cast, like Franco Nero, Common, Laurence Fishburne, and Peter Stormaire, and John Wick Chapter 2 cements the franchise’ reputation as the biggest new name in action. (Thomas O’Connor)

Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island

Though hardly a cinematic masterpiece full of depth and meaning, Kong: Skull Island has more fun than any movie so far this year. Unlike past iterations on the 1933 classic original, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts knows exactly how to treat the ridiculousness of the concept of a giant ape without devolving into pure schlock, and keeps things light-hearted with the kind of sarcastic filmmaking that neither mocks the monster movie genre nor attempts to inject it with misplaced bloated reverence. Kong is Sy-Fy Channel B-movie goodness at its most colorful, slick, and thrilling, with an exotic setting that gives off an Apocalypse Kong vibe, a villain so operatic he actually rivals a 50-foot beast in intensity, and a kooky castaway whose fading social skills have given him the ability to speak for the audience and common sense.

Whip-smart editing and quirky compositions ensure that what could be mundane moments in another story are humorously engaging here, and action scenes are off-kilter just enough to occasionally actually surprise. Those who appreciate late nights watching glorious cheese will revel in how such entertainment could be so well made, and a franchise on life support gets a massive injection of adrenaline. Kong: Skull Island may not be heir to the throne, but this prince knows how to party. (Patrick Murphy)

LOGANLogan

Hugh Jackman does his finest work yet as the clawed, feral, yet noble mutant Wolverine in Logan. The film isn’t your usual CGI superhero beat ’em-up, even though there is plenty of visceral action scenes, starting with a tense opening sequence where Wolverine dismembers some gangsters on the US/Mexico border where he’s working as a chauffeur and trying to save money for a boat to get away from the anti-mutant dystopia that is now the United States.

At its best, Logan is a family road trip film with the aged Professor X acting as Wolverine’s father, and the fiery, mostly silent, and extremely violent X-23 as his daughter. Director James Mangold builds up their relationship throughout the film in quiet scenes between the action set pieces, like when they share a meal with a family on their farm, and Professor X points out that this could be Wolverine’s life. But of course, the spectre of death and violence will always chase him in the form of his utterly sociopathic clone, X-24 . Clones of superheroes are a little played out, but Jackman sells this utterly feral, amoral version of Wolverine and makes it work.

Logan is an excellent superhero/kind of Western film, as it deals with the pain of taking a life and one’s own mortality in an exciting, yet thoughtful way. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are done with the X-Men franchise, so there is a real sense of finality to their performances as Wolverine and Professor X. (Logan Dalton)

NEXT (PART TWO)

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