Best Films of 2017 (So Far)

A mid-year round-up from our friend, Josh Encinias: We’re in the dog days of summer […]

Guest Contributor / 7.24.17

A mid-year round-up from our friend, Josh Encinias:

We’re in the dog days of summer so it’s the perfect time to catch up on the year’s best movies. Surprisingly, some of the best so far were released this summer. Critics are clamouring to see Dunkirk receive Academy Award nominations and there’s no doubt that War of the Planet of the Apes, a quasi-Biblical epic, is worthy of CG awards. But it’s smaller moments in a movie that stick with you. Andy Serkis as ape leader Caesar is soulful—it can’t just be CGI that makes his character so relatable.

Smaller, character-driven films like Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd and João Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist explore Christianity through the prisms of Mainline Protestantism and St. Anthony, respectively. And the documentary The Departure follows a Buddhist monk who helps people from committing suicide but has a difficult time mustering the will to take care of himself.

Read more about these films and others here:


A movie’s opening and closing scenes tell us a lot about how to think about its story. Dunkirk opens with soldier Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) running from German gunfire and… I won’t say how it ends. This is a movie that you feel as much as you watch. Much ink has been spilled over the need to see it in IMAX 70mm, and I agree. The movie is disturbing and unsettling in the way that the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan are stomach turning. Except, in Dunkirk, you rarely see blood, and you never see the Germans (they’re called “the Enemy” in the opening titles). You can relate to the film historically and empathetically. This isn’t a war film—it’s a survival film. There is no victory and the Allied Forces’ only solace are moments of peace punctuated with one failed escape plan after the next. Various boats try to evacuate the soldiers from enemy territory. Some soldiers try to save themselves by waiting in queues on the beach (only to be gunned down by air) and some cheat their way onto lifeboats (only for them to sink repeatedly). Their salvation comes in the form of British civilians risking their lives, riding to Dunkirk. The ‘weak’ civilians coming to the aid of the ‘strong’ soldiers is a metaphor Mockingbird readers will appreciate. In theaters now.

Princess Cyd

Princes Cyd is director Stephen Cone’s third formal feature film. This one is about the titular character Cyd spending time with her aunt Miranda. The film weaves the growth and development of both Cyd and Miranda’s spirituality and sexuality. Miranda is an author of spiritual books but doesn’t have a thriving personal life, outside of a monthly meeting of likeminded friends at her house in Chicago’s suburbs. Cone said he based Miranda on Marilynne Robinson and her sex life, that is, what he imagines it’s like. Not to worry, this isn’t a gratuitous film in the slightest. Cone gives us a beautiful look into the lives of two American women somewhere on the spectrum of Mainline Protestant thinking in 2017. It’s playing at film festivals now and will be in theaters this fall.

The Departure

The Departure is an intimate documentary about the complex figure Ittetsu Nemoto, an aimless and rebellious former punk rocker-turned-Buddhist priest. Most famously, he is renowned in Japan for saving the lives of countless suicidal men and women through his wise and compassionate counsel. But Nemoto is now approaching middle-age with a wife and young boy of his own, when he learns his life is at risk from heart disease, compounded by the heavy emotional workload of supporting those who no longer want to live. When saving others takes such a toll, can he find the resiliency to save himself? The Departure is an intimate portrait of one quietly extraordinary man who has helped so many learn to live, and now must find the strength to learn from his own advice. It’s playing at film festivals now. See the documentary’s website for updates on viewing options.

War of the Planet of the Apes

Just read this great review from Alissa Wilkinson; she says it best. It’s the first movie in the prequel trilogy that’s worthy of the original films.

Baby Driver

Baby Driver is an action masterpiece edited to the kinetic BPM of its soundtrack. The film transcends the boundaries of genre and you can simultaneously understand it as a musical and action flick. Ansel Elgort plays getaway driver, Baby, and has moves better than Ryan Gosling in La La Land. If there’s any downside, Kevin Spacey plays the baddie similar to his take on Lex Luthor. It’s in theaters now.

A Ghost Story

The suspense of each scene before the emergence of the ghost is unbearable. But stick with it; A Ghost Story delivers. Some critics call this movie “peak humanism,” and they won’t be wrong. And there’s nothing wrong with it. I see their point, though. The one problem I have with the film is its characters are so universalized that the actors amount to little more than props. It’s not really a problem if you think about these characters as guides for the ideas about eternity and love presented by director David Lowery.

Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart is plays medium, in more ways than one, for this sophisticated genre exploration from director Olivier Assayas. She’s a fashion assistant whose twin brother has died, leaving her bereft and longing for messages from the other side. Stewart is fragile and enigmatic—and nearly always on-screen. From an opening sequence in a haunted house with an intricately constructed soundtrack to a high-tension, cat-and-mouse game on a trip from Paris to London and back-set entirely to text messaging, Personal Shopper brings the psychological and supernatural thriller into the digital age. It’s available for purchase or rent now. A special edition will arrive in the Criterion Collection this fall.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

This third version of Spider-Man on film is Marvel’s best. I would go so far as to call it the best Marvel film to date. Tom Holland takes on the role of Peter Parker, this time as a teenager with the tension of puberty and saving New York City from a too-close-for-comfort bad guy, The Vulture. Let’s hope Marvel makes more slice-of-life stories like Homecoming.

The Ornithologist

Director João Pedro Rodrigues’ movie is a take on the Roman Catholic theory of sanctification, specifically, the path of St. Anthony on the way to sainthood. It’s thrilling and freaky and keeps you glued to the screen because you never know what will happen to lead character Fernando’s next. It should be available to purchase or rent soon.

A Quiet Passion

The great British director Terence Davies turns his attention to 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson. A revelatory Cynthia Nixon embodies Dickinson with a titanic intelligence always threatening to burst forth from behind a polite facade, while Davies creates a formally audacious rendering of her life, from teenage skepticism to lonely death, using her poems (and a touch of Charles Ives) as soundtrack accompaniment. Both sides of Davies’s enormous talent—his witty, Wildean sense of humor and his frightening vision of life’s grim realities—are on full display in this consuming depiction of a creative inner world. Read my interview with Terence Davies. A Quiet Passion is available to rent or purchase now.