Conventional wisdom holds that movie season doesn’t really get kicking until Memorial Day. This year, at least, the conventional wisdom is dead wrong: The first few months of the year gave us a handful of excellent, stirring, weird, and unforgettable films. And the blockbusters (and blockbuster-adjacent) are on their way. So we’ll be updating this list throughout the year, adding and subtracting as releases come and go. These are the movies you need to watch right now.
K. Austin Collins: [Risk] is the work of a filmmaker who understands that history is alive, and whose goal is not to crystallize that history into ready-made political takeaways, but rather to show herself working through the mess. Unlike [director Laura] Poitras’s previous film, the Oscar-winning Citizenfour, which documented Edward Snowden’s efforts to leak NSA documents to the press, Risk is not quite an intimate procedural that captures history as it happens, despite giving us incredible access to the backstage workings of the Assange operation. Nor is it really a deep dive into the substance of WikiLeaks’ leaks over the years, nor an in-depth study of the allegations made against Assange. It is an enlightening but uneasy combination of all of these things. It is beautifully interstitial. But more than anything, it’s a study of Poitras herself, who continually finds ways to remind us that as Assange changed, so did her feelings about the man.
‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’
Sam Schube: Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has been called “summer’s first big box office flop,” an “epic fail,” “royally awful,” and a “royal miss.” Economically speaking, these analyses are correct: The Charlie Hunnam–starring retelling of the Arthurian myth made just over $15 million in its opening weekend, against a $175 million budget. CGI elephants, which I am not totally certain are part of the original Arthur legend but definitely appear in this version, are expensive, and audiences decided that this latest attempt at an IP-driven movie universe was a bridge (and moat, and castle, and cave) too far.
To those viewers, I say phooey. Because King Arthur has: a couple of patented Guy Ritchie Montages™, Charlie Hunnam’s second-best performance of the year, Jude Law turning into a third-rate character from Tekken, some good chase scenes I assume were shot with GoPros, and an official soundtrack that spans some 30-odd songs, all of which make me want to practice kung fu in the middle ages. (Also: There’s a character named Kung-Fu George in this movie.) Did the world need a King Arthur movie? Of course not. But I will follow Guy Ritchie into the darkness, especially if there are four to eight dudes in that darkness (it’s a cave) telling dumb stories in Cockney accents.
‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’
K. Austin Collins: Sure, it’s a bit manipulative, emotionally engineered and music-supervised to within an inch of its life. But in line with writer-director James Gunn’s vision of the Guardians as a merry band of lovable fools, the movie is just so damn sweet. Even as Vol. 2 proves to be overlong and needlessly complex, with a last act that doesn’t merely drive the point home so much as hold you hostage to it, the movie proves endearing.
Adam Nayman: In Chuck, Liev Schreiber plays Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne-born heavyweight who in 1975 stood in for 14 rounds against Muhammad Ali before being dropped via TKO. The spectacle of an unknown palooka nearly going the distance against a dominant champion inspired Sylvester Stallone to write the script for Rocky, and the rest is history. The Italian Stallion became the most famous fictional boxer of all time, and presided over a resurgence of interest in the sport on- and off-screen. Wepner, whose own career ended shortly thereafter, was reduced to a footnote in his own life story. As an attempt to redress this imbalance, Chuck … will go only so far. Perhaps fittingly given its below-the-marquee protagonist, it’s a modest, affectionate piece of portraiture, lacking the manic highs of David O. Russell’s similarly fact-based underdog drama, The Fighter, or the rousing, crowd-pleasing finesse of Creed, which engages with the mythology and cultural omnipresence of Rocky Balboa from the inside out. But if the best boxing movies are the ones that make it feel like something is at stake outside the ring, Philippe Falardeau’s film makes the cut via its acute understanding of a certain strain of self-destructive alpha-male pathology.
Amanda Dobbins: A loved one read the description of this Lone Scherfig film — a restrained romance between two screenwriters, set in Blitz-era London — and asked, rather unkindly, whether I secretly wrote this film. I did not (it was written by Gaby Chiappe, based on a novel by Lissa Evans), but the point stands: this is a movie for very specific tastes. The rom-com banter is lively, but in a reserved, British register; the supporting cast is filled with people who have declined or one day will decline a knighthood. (Jeremy Irons shows up just to perform a parody recitation of the St. Crispin’s Day monologue.) If you enjoyed Atonement, Hail Caesar!, and Scherfig’s An Education, then welcome to my clubhouse, and also please treat yourself to this charming experience. At the very least, you will walk away with an advanced understanding of what the Sam Claflin fuss is about. (I get it now.)
‘The Lost City of Z’
K. Austin Collins: The Lost City of Z follows three of [explorer Percy] Fawcett’s trips into the Amazon between 1906 and 1925. It’s about the personal costs of those missions, to his family and particularly to his wife, as well as the political, cultural, and intellectual gains at stake in each journey. It’s a movie about discovery that’s full of its own spectral, dream-like wonders, a big, old-fashioned, robustly imagined yarn of the kind Hollywood no longer really makes. It is, in other words, a movie by James Gray. He is a director known, among the relatively few but devoted followers of his work, for making old movies in a classical style, richly drawn melodramas full of agony and, above all, grandeur.
Alyssa Bereznak: I’m actually surprised it took this long for a highbrow cat video to make its way to indie theaters, but props to Kedi for getting there first. Directed by Turkish cat-lover Ceyda Torun, this documentary follows the lives of seven street kitties who wander in and out of the lives of Istanbul residents. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: This is obviously just a thinly-veiled excuse to watch some extremely adorable shit go down on a big screen. You are not wrong. But there’s an added bonus: the more the caretakers tell you about their cats, the closer a look you get into their own anxieties, personality traits, and life philosophies. It’s an innocuous chance to learn about a Middle Eastern city and its inhabitants, one we rarely get in today’s political climate.
But above all else Kedi is atmospheric. The film’s camerawork plays off the city’s terrain, lingering along winding cobblestone alleyways and peeking under shady market stands the same way a lazy feline might. In a note on the documentary’s website, Torun sums up the meditative ambitions of her work well: “I hope this film makes you feel like you have just had a cat snuggle up on your lap unexpectedly and purr endlessly for a good long time, while allowing you to stroke it gently along its back, forcing you, by the sheer fact that you canʼt move without letting go of that softness and warmth, into thinking about things that you may not have given yourself time to think about in the busy life you lead.”
I can attest that Kedi does exactly that.
Daniel Varghese: At its core, Your Name is a romantic comedy, and a pretty sappy one at that. Sure, its premise is a bit unconventional: protagonists Taki and Mitsuha never interact face-to-face, and are only brought together when they inexplicably begin switching bodies each morning. But otherwise, the film contains all the trappings of the genre — a meet-cute, a cast of strange friends, rigid gender roles, the certainty that main characters will end up happy and together. So it came as a shock when I noticed, about halfway through the movie, that I could feel my heart beating out of my chest, as that relationship became intertwined with the suffering born out of a nationally traumatic event. Taki and Mitsuha’s love, it is revealed, has the power to stem the human cost of a meteor threatening to wipe out Mitsuha’s home. That heartrending quality — along with beautiful animation, witty dialogue, and spectacular pacing — makes Your Name worthy of its designation as the most successful anime film of all time.
Sam Schube: Is The Discovery a perfect movie? No. Is it a good one? … Maybe? Probably not? But on the day it was released, I watched from the comfort of my couch as Robert Redford, Rooney Mara, Jason Segel, one true king Jesse Plemons, Riley Keough, and Mary Steenburgen acted out a soggy, leaden parable about the afterlife. No, it wasn’t a life-changing film. But it was a serious-enough movie, starring a bunch of actors I really dig, beamed right into my home via Netflix. We’ve spent years bemoaning the fact that Hollywood doesn’t make thoughtful, adult dramas for medium amounts of money anymore. Now, thanks to companies like Netflix, it does. And given that company’s track record, I’m betting they’ll make thoughtful, adult dramas that are actually good soon enough. Until then, The Discovery will do. Anyway: I’ll watch Jesse Plemons play bad guitar any day.
Alison Herman: Raw is a horror movie about cannibalism where hardly any of the horror comes from the act of eating human flesh. What makes it so scary, then? There’s the terrifying prospect of maintaining your idealism as a teenager thrust into a maelstrom of substance abuse and peer pressure, which Justine (Garance Marillier) tries to do as a vegetarian entering a college where a common hazing ritual is forcing freshmen to eat rabbit organs. There’s the revulsion of seeing animal corpses in various stages of dissection and decay, which Raw has in spades — because that college happens to specialize in training veterinarians. And there’s the haunting specter of our gene-coded nature overriding our nurture, personified by Justine’s older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) and allegorized by Justine’s struggles with her newfound … appetites. Julia Ducournau’s debut feature got a gross-out reputation from stunts like L.A.’s Nuart Theatre handing out barf bags before showings, but the real disturbia in this coming-of-age movie doesn’t come from the gore.
‘I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore’
Kjerstin Johnson: Even though I knew what this movie was about — Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is burgled; enter Elijah Wood high jinks, drug-addict petty thieves, 21st-century ennui — I could not, for the life of me, keep its title straight. Was it like the Futurama meme? Were there aliens involved? How did they how I felt every day after November 7?
Turns out it’s a line from “This World Is Not My Home,” a traditional gospel song that plays toward the end of the movie. Finally, the film’s confusing title — a cheery refrain begging for death — coalesced for me and captured the film as well: levity in darkness, sunshine where it shouldn’t be.
Ruth’s problems are not the problems that plague our planet. But her character — stubborn for justice, resolute in her desire “for people to not be assholes” — is sympathetic, an unlikely hero. The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance then had its wide release not in theaters but on Netflix, may not tackle the big stuff, but it does take us away from it for 93 minutes.