Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick (Photo: Lionsgate/Amazon), Anne Hathaway in Colossal (Photo: Neon), and Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out (Photo: Universal). Graphic: Marcus Nuccio.

Every summer, The A.V. Club offers an unranked list of the best movies to be released theatrically (and, going forward, on major streaming platforms) during the first half of the year. It’s meant to be a kind of catch-up guide, a way for readers to keep pace with the year in film and start checking off significant titles before the mad rush of awards season. Still, even getting through this inventory of 20 halftime highlights may require more hours than the average viewer can spare in front of a big or small screen. That’s why we’ve gone ahead and narrowed it down further this year by prefacing each movie with a reason to watch, in the hopes that this may help the cinema-starved make a more educated selection. We’ve also, to the best of our abilities, identified how and where you can see each of the films.


Baby Driver

Watch it if… you wish more crime movies had elaborate musical numbers and more musicals had high-octane car chases.

Photo: Sony

Edgar Wright made a name for himself in the realm of comedy, thanks to such inventive, character-driven laugh riots as Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. But the writer-director’s work has always been worth more than the sum of its punchlines, and with the blissfully cool Baby Driver, he pushes his gift for delirious genre mashup out of a strictly comedic framework, where it can really fly. Wright casts YA poster boy Ansel Elgort as a getaway driver who floods his constantly ringing ears with a nearly unbroken stream of music—a choice that allows Wright to stage every feverish rush-hour escape or chaotic gunfight as a synchronized pop-radio extravaganza. It’s a gearhead crime caper with a jukebox musical under its hood, and Wright’s refusal to settle on any one section of the veritable video store allows him to swipe pleasures from a bunch of them—including, yes, comedy. (What, you didn’t expect him to drop the jokes entirely, did you?) [A.A. Dowd]

Theaters everywhere now


The Big Sick

Watch it if… you want to believe that “Apatovian” can still be a big compliment.

Photo: Amazon/Lionsgate

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Judd Apatow neither wrote nor directed The Big Sick. It’s the brainchild of comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, who worked elements of their real-life romance into the screenplay and then handed it off to Wet Hot American Summer’s Michael Showalter. All the same, Apatow’s influence—as hands-on producer of the film and as one of the remaining big voices of American comedy—is all over this appealing cross-cultural love story. It’s there in the focus on the backstage personalities of the stand-up scene, in the volume of funny supporting players crowded around the edges of the plot, and also, admittedly, in the film’s extended runtime. But it’s been years since anyone, Apatow included, captured the precise, magic mixture of hilarity and humane character study that defines his best work; much more so than Trainwreck, The Big Sick demonstrates that sticking a distinct comic voice at the center of these conventions can still be a recipe for crowd-pleasing success. [A.A. Dowd]

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter

Watch it if… you think Sally Draper deserves her own horror-movie spinoff.

Photo: A24

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Oz Perkins’ deeply unnerving directorial debut requires no “trick” to be properly appreciated, provided you like your horror slow-roasted to atmospheric perfection. All the same, it’s diabolically fun to pretend that The Blackcoat’s Daughter is actually a genre-jumping spinoff of one of the most acclaimed TV shows of the decade. Remember how Sally Draper spent the last couple seasons of Mad Men away at boarding school? Well, Blackcoat drops Kiernan Shipka, the young actress who played Sally, into a nearly identical academic setting. When no one comes to pick her up for holiday break (classic Don move), Shipka’s character falls under the influence of an unholy force. Or does she? It wouldn’t take too big of a mental leap to deduce that poor Sally, after years of repressed traumatic events (catching her father cheating, confronting a burglar), just totally snapped. Of course, one might hope for a brighter future for the eldest Draper kid than the strangely, powerfully sad denouement Perkins cooked for his terrific inaugural creepshow. [A.A. Dowd]

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Colossal

Watch it if… Godzilla left you hankering for something different.

Photo: Neon

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Much was made about Anne Hathaway playing against type as a down-on-her-luck alcoholic in Colossal—and rightfully so, she’s great in it—but that’s just one of the surprises of Timecrimes director Nacho Vigalondo’s blend of the dramedy and kaiju genres. Giant-monster action aside, the film works on multiple allegorical levels: There’s an obvious metaphor about the destructive nature of addiction, and a less obvious one about toxic masculinity. That all sounds awfully heavy, but Vigalondo blends pathos and humor with characteristic idiosyncrasy, and his empathetic experiment is buoyed by Hathaway and co-star Jason Sudeikis’ barroom banter. [Katie Rife]

VOD, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital rental services August 1


From Nowhere

Watch it if… you find the Trump administration’s deportation policy needlessly cruel and could use a reminder that you’re not alone.

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Photo: FilmRise

Whatever your thoughts on illegal immigration, it’s hard not to feel for children who were smuggled across the border so young that they don’t even remember living anywhere but America. The sharp, empathetic indie drama From Nowhere—cannily released in February, at the height of outrage regarding Trump’s travel ban—tells the story of three high school students who are in the U.S. illegally, through no fault of their own; their respective situations only get more uncertain after one of their teachers (Julianne Nicholson) suggests that they consult an immigration attorney (Denis O’Hare). The film doesn’t pretend there are easy answers to this complex issue, and isn’t remotely interested in scoring points via exaggerated virtue or malevolence. Rather, it offers a realistic, only slightly cynical portrait of a system that rescues some people and fails others, observing that no case file can convey life’s sheer messiness. [Mike D’Angelo]

Amazon, iTunes, and other digital rental services now


Get Out

Watch it if… you’d rather see social commentary in entertainment than on Twitter.

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Photo: Universal

If Jordan Peele’s wildly popular sociological horror-thriller has been undersold in any way, maybe it’s the fact that some of the discussions about its importance (as commentary, as a conversation-starter, as an overdue blockbuster from a black director) eventually de-emphasized just how much fun it is to watch, especially with a crowd. In detailing the creeping and increasingly justified paranoia that a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) feels when visiting the family of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams), Peele works in a different key than his past comedy sketches with Keegan-Michael Key, but his sensibility remains. The movie’s laughs never feel out of place, because Peele recognizes that comedy and horror have common ground in the catharsis they can provide. The laughs supply their own jolts of uncomfortable recognition before and after the horror confirms the movie’s worst fears. [Jesse Hassenger]

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The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki

Watch it if… you’d rather take an uppercut from Mike Tyson than sit through another clichéd boxing biopic.

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Photo: Mubi

Micky Ward. Vinny Paz. Roberto Durán. Chuck Wepner. Is there a famous or even semi-famous prizefighter who hasn’t seen his highs and lows thrown up on the big screen over the past few years? The problem with these fact-based sports dramas is that they tend to make real life look as contrived as a Rocky sequel. But The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki is different. A gentle subversion of the typical boxing biopic, it turns the run-up to a famous title fight into a series of comic foibles, as featherweight Finnish contender Olli (Jarkko Lahti) suffers through absurd publicity rituals and falls in love with his best friend (Oona Airola). It’s a charming character study, one as hilariously disinterested in glory as the sweet lug at its center. And for those who have gone multiple rounds with the tired “inspirational” clichés of this genre, the film’s minor-key pleasures could pack a major punch. [A.A. Dowd]

Mubi July 1


Harmonium

Watch it if… you value unpredictability over uplift.

Photo: Film Movement

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For a little while, Kôji Fukada’s Harmonium appears to conform to a certain model of gentle Japanese family drama, one caught somewhere between Ozu and Koreeda on the serenity spectrum. An ex-convict (Ichi The Killer’s Tadanobu Asano) shows up on the doorstep—or technically, at the garage entrance—of an old friend, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), who welcomes the down-on-his-luck man to work in his workshop and sleep in the home he shares with his wife (Mariko Tsutsui) and young daughter (Momone Shinokawa). As the whole family warms to this quiet face from the past, words like “low-key” and “humane” and even “lovely” may seem apropos. That is the not the movie we’re watching, though—and even those who recognize a certain genre scenario when they see one may be shocked by where Fukada takes his story. Rather than tug at heartstrings, Harmonium goes for the gut punch. To say much more would spoil the thrilling unpredictability. [A.A. Dowd]

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Hounds Of Love

Watch it if… a traumatic night at the movies is your idea of fun.

Photo: Factor 30 Films

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Hounds Of Love is a striking film, but it’s not a fun one to watch. Australian director Ben Young’s pseudo-true-crime character piece dramatizes the cycles that enable domestic abuse by taking them to their extremes, examining why someone would participate in the most heinous of crimes in an attempt to please their partner. Stephen Curry and Emma Booth star as John and Evelyn White, a working-class couple whose relationship revolves around the kidnapping, torture, and murder of young women; the majority of the film focuses on one of those women, headstrong teenager Vicki Mahoney (Ashleigh Cummings), and how her captivity disrupts the Whites’ sick domestic routine. Booth gives a standout performance as Evelyn, whose shattered psyche forms the broken heart of the film, and for a first-time director, Young shows remarkable control, giving Hounds Of Love moments of visual beauty to offset all of its emotional ugliness. [Katie Rife]

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John Wick: Chapter 2

Watch it if… you think the back-alley fight from They Live could have been longer.

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Photo: Lionsgate

Like a John Woo movie with a dash of Jean Cocteau, the exquisitely weird sequel to the stylized action fantasy John Wick recasts the puppy-avenging, death-dealing title character (a perfectly blank Keanu Reeves) as a hitman Orpheus on a symbolic journey through the underworld. After kicking things off with the finest automotive set piece of the year (sorry, Baby Driver), director Chad Stahelski concocts a first act that’s almost perversely free of violence; even more so than the original, this is a movie of strange and absurdist interludes, and it asks the audience to check their sense of realism at the door and accept its setting as a Plutonic, neon-lit alternate dimension where the honor-among-thieves clichés of classic crime movies have evolved to extremes. But when it comes time for our invincible man in black to kick ass, Stahelski doesn’t hold back on kineticism or imagination. The most memorable sequences—including a shoot-out in a crowd of oblivious commuters and a dazzling finale set in a mirrored art installation—are modern classics of action-movie surrealism. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Karl Marx City

Watch it if… you’re a history buff who can’t resist a mystery.

Photo: Bond360

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In their essayistic and very personal documentary Karl Marx City, filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker (Gunner Palace, Fightville) use a family tragedy—the unexpected suicide of Epperlein’s father in 1999—as a starting point to explore the paranoid totalitarianism of the East German surveillance state. Motivated by long-standing suspicions that her father may have worked for East Germany’s powerful secret police, the Stasi, Epperlein returns to her desolate hometown, Chemnitz (formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt or “Karl Marx City”) and interviews her own family alongside archivists, historians, and even former Stasi agents in an effort to understand both her father’s death and the society she left behind but which, to some degree, still haunts her. Despite the subject matter and stark black-and-white camerawork, Karl Marx City is a movie with a droll and ironic sense of humor, and the family drama it uncovers passes the ultimate test of nonfiction narrative—that is to say, it would be just as affecting if it were all made up. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Logan

Watch it if… you’ve been waiting for someone to put the “movie” back into “superhero movie.”

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Photo: 20th Century Fox

One of the most subtle and grown-up movies to ever pass itself off as a Hollywood superhero flick—but also one of the most despairing and violent—James Mangold’s Logan borrows extensively from classic and revisionist Westerns to reimagine the X-Men series’ Wolverine (Hugh Jackman at his most Clint Eastwood-esque) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) as a couple of old gunfighters with blood on their hands, facing the end of the road. In a dystopian, economically and socially depressed near-future America where superpowered heroes and villains have all but gone extinct, the grizzled, throat-slashing antihero and his senile telepathic mentor must race to deliver a mysterious mutant girl (Dafne Keen) to a secret safe haven that might not exist. From its purposeful pacing to its complex handling of religion, Logan’s virtues are many, and it boasts some of the most terrific and affecting acting in the genre. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Long Strange Trip

Watch it if… you’re a devoted Deadhead or someone who’s never understood what the fuss is all about.

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Photo: Peter Simon/Amazon Prime Video

The rare rock documentary that appeals to hardcore fans and also functions as a full, satisfying movie, Amir Bar-Lev’s Long Strange Trip tells the story of the Grateful Dead in an appropriately winding way, taking four hours to riff on different aspects of the band. For those who want to know how and why guitarist Jerry Garcia and his mates emerged from the mid-’60s San Francisco hippie scene to become global cult sensations, that basic info is here. For connoisseurs who want rare live footage and intimate personal anecdotes, Long Strange Trip offers plenty of both. But the main reason why this film will endure is that Bar-Lev (best-known for My Kid Could Paint That, Happy Valley, and The Tillman Story) uses the best and worst moments from Garcia and company’s story to explore how myths are made, and then misinterpreted. [Noel Murray]

Amazon Video now


The Lost City Of Z

Watch it if… you wish they’d make them like they used to.

Photo: Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street

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The disappearance of Percy Fawcett while searching for a lost civilization in the wilds of Brazil, which has fascinated would-be explorers for close to a century, inspired writer-director James Gray’s obsessive and lyrical anti-imperialist epic. Liberally adapted from David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same title, The Lost City Of Z stars a revelatory Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett, a man who withdraws from the oppressive social mores and wartime horrors of early 20th-century Europe into the mystery and cruelty of the jungle in the hope of finding a ruined city that, in some deeply personal and implicit way, he believes will redeem the human race. Gray simplifies Fawcett’s hunt for the ruined city he called “Z” to just three expeditions, and devotes almost as much of the movie to his increasingly alienated life back home as he does to the verdant and threatening terrain of Amazonia; contrasting these parts, his direction—which brings to mind the New Hollywood of the ’70s and the classic films of Luchino Visconti—traces an allegory of failure, transcendent obsession, and art. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Digital purchase services now; VOD, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital rental services July 11


A Quiet Passion

Watch it if… you’re the type of guy or gal who laughs at a funeral.

Photo: Music Box Films

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No honest biopic about Emily Dickinson could be anything less than exquisitely morbid. Factor in that it’s the eternally melancholy Terence Davies (The House Of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea) who’s brought the poet’s life to the screen, and you’re all but guaranteed an evening of gloom and doom. But while A Quiet Passion certainly honors its famous subject’s famous preoccupation with death, it can also be a surprisingly droll and even hilarious period piece. Cynthia Nixon, in maybe her best screen role, plays Dickinson as a fountain of dry wit, the tallest intellect in every room; she wouldn’t be out of place among the insult-slinging aristocrats of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. Davies brings soul and sensitivity to the artist, cooped up inside her bedroom, walled off by her crippling obsessions. But that was to be expected. The surprise here is how much humor A Quiet Passion wrings out of this particular life (and death) story. It’s like a funeral where the guests are all cracking jokes and tossing off bon mots. [A.A. Dowd]

Select theaters now; VOD, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital rental services July 11


Raw

Watch it if… you like your horror stylish with a side of sickening.

Photo: Focus Features

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There’s been much debate over “elevated horror” films like The Witch over the past couple of years, but the French cannibal horror-drama Raw is a movie with enough style for the arthouse crowd and enough viscera to satisfy the gorehound set. Director Julia Ducournau equates the hunger for human flesh that plagues protagonist Justine (Garance Marillier), a first-year veterinary student, with sexual desire; she’s hardly the first person to make that comparison, but she juxtaposes images of flesh—both human and animal—in ways that effectively evoke some very unsettling mixed emotions. A twisted take on the universal human struggle between animal urges and a higher moral calling, Raw pulls off the tricky feat of being repellant and relatable at the same time. [Katie Rife]

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The Salesman

Watch it if… a revenge drama that’s really anti-revenge seems impossible to you.

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Photo: Cohen Media Group

Making a movie about revenge that’s genuinely against revenge is easier said than done; even violence-adverse viewers may find themselves emotionally roused by the spectacle of a wronged party getting some payback, no matter how psychologically or spiritually corrosive the crusade is shown to be. But Asghar Farhadi, the brilliant Iranian director of A Separation and The Past, comes closer than most to accomplishing that tricky goal with his Oscar-winning The Salesman, about an actor (Shahab Hosseini) who becomes obsessed with hunting down the man who assaulted his wife and co-star (Taraneh Alidoosti). With the help of a masterful cast, Farhadi subverts the quest-for-vengeance genre through multiple means: by mostly taking physical violence out of the equation; by suggesting that the aggrieved husband’s righteous rage may be a kind of performance; and by building to a last-act confrontation that systematically drains the viewers’ (and the characters’) bloodlust. No one’s likely to be cheering by the end, which is proof enough that we’re a long way from Charles Bronson’s brand of justice. [A.A. Dowd]

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Split

Watch it if… you’ve kept your fingers crossed waiting for an M. Night Shyamalan comeback.

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Photo: Universal

An unapologetic low-budget B-film that has proven to be M. Night Shyamalan’s biggest hit since Signs, Split finds the maligned (but indisputably gifted) writer-director mixing his usual themes of trauma, fate, and transformation into a delirious cocktail of knowing camp and midnight-movie suspense. In his best performance (or is that performances?) to date, James McAvoy plays a working-class Pittsburgher whose mind has been seized by mutinous alternate personalities, who kidnap three teenage girls (including The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) and lock them up in an underground bunker as an offering to an unseen persona called “the Beast.” The engagingly preposterous script swims with red herrings and self-reflexive nods, but more importantly, Split finds Shyamalan near the height of his powers as a pure stylist; working with the up-and-coming cinematographer Michael Gioulakis (It Follows), he pulls out one creative camera move after another. This is his Femme Fatale. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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Staying Vertical

Watch it if… absurdist whimsy and structural rigor sound like the ideal combination. (Think Amélie, except X-rated.)

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Photo: Strand

French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie has been making oddball movies for nearly two decades, but the relatively normal (by his standards) Stranger By The Lake represented his first minor arthouse success in the States. Would he head further toward the mainstream? Nope. Staying Vertical follows the bizarre adventures of an itinerant screenwriter (Damien Bonnard) who never gets to work on the script he’s been assigned, as he’s too busy forging erotic connections, both intentional and inadvertent, with every human being he encounters (of either gender). Guiraudie’s deadpan sensibility makes his outré touches, like a doctor who practices some sort of vine therapy in the middle of the forest, even funnier, which in turn allows him to blindside the viewer with moments of unexpected gravity. And even those moments are downright weird. It’s the kind of movie for which the only quick answer to the simple question “What’s it about?” is a giddy expression, accompanied by both hands being thrown wildly into the air. [Mike D’Angelo]

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The Wedding Plan

Watch it if… you’re looking for a religious movie that does more than preach to the choir.

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Photo: Roadside Attractions

It’s been a good year for romantic comedies about arranged marriage. While The Big Sick concerns someone working up the courage to tell his traditional Muslim parents that he’s not interested in spending his life with a stranger, The Wedding Plan takes a different tack: Its main character, Michal (Noa Koler), is an Orthodox Jew so determined to get hitched that she takes her fiancé dumping her a month before the ceremony as a kind of holy challenge. Can she find a new groom in 30 days? There’s a novel fascination to seeing such a potentially ludicrous rom-com scenario play out against a strictly devout community. But The Wedding Plan looks even more interesting if thought of as a religious film enlivened by date-movie conventions. Israeli writer-director Rama Burshtein (Fill The Void) has made the rare movie by, for, and about true believers that seems interested in actually grappling with what they believe, rather than just flattering the converted. That it’s a faith-based entertainment that genuinely entertains is icing on the wedding cake. [A.A. Dowd]

Select theaters now; VOD, DVD, and digital rental services August 22