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Monday, 16 January 2017

The Young Offenders, Anthropoid and My French Film Festival: Your Week In Film (January 16-22)

Teenage kicks: Peter Foott's The Young Offenders

The next seven days in DVD, Blu-ray, VOD and cinema...

I'm sat at my desk writing this on Blue Monday, supposedly the "most depressing day of the year", if you believe the papers and news reports. I'm smiling from ear to ear, though, because I've just finished watching The Young Offenders (cinemas and VOD) WWW, an Irish comedy so silly, funny and flat-out enjoyable, copies of it should be handed out by GPs to anyone brought low by January 16th's doom and gloom.

Writer/director Peter Foott's Cork-set film sees two daft-as-a-brush teenagers, Conor (Alex Murphy) and Jock (Chris Walley), cycle 100 miles on stolen bikes from their city home to Ireland's beautiful south-west coast, in a bid to locate a missing bail of cocaine, valued at seven million euros and missing after a police operation. They aim to find it and sell it, believing their tender years (both are under 16) make them immune from serious prosecution.

In pursuit of this pair of dingbats is a by-the-book Garda sergeant (Dominic MacHale) and a disabled drug dealer with a nail gun (P.J. Gallagher). The Young Offenders starts off as a buddy comedy-cum-road movie and ends up in pure farce territory as all the various plot strands come crashing down around the boys' heads in front of Conor's long-suffering mum (Hilary Rose). Conor and Jock are a pair of likable pillocks and their friendship is rather touching. Most of the humour comes from the pair's clueless banter and utter ineptitude, although Foott breaks out some nail-gun flavoured slapstick for the finale to eye-watering effect.

I'd be very interested to know what the reaction has been in Ireland to the film's villain being disabled. It's a risky, counterintuitive idea but one that, for me, works rather well, making an interesting change from disabled characters being helpless victims or inspirational figures full of Christ-like virtue and hidden talents. There's nothing inspirational or talented about coke-dealer Ray. He's just a git.

Dumb and dumber: Conor and Jock

One film that is unlikely to chase away those Blue Monday, erm, blues is Anthropoid (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW. Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan are soldiers - one Czech, the other Slovak - parachuted into Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich's third in command (after Hitler and Himmler) and the architect of the Final Solution. Soon ensconced in the Prague resistance movement - under Toby Jones - they begin relationships with local women, which only makes carrying out their high-risk mission all the harder.

Giving the pair romantic subplots admittedly feels a little shoehorned in, but director Sean Ellis is easily forgiven because he never loses sight of the enormity of the task Murphy and Dornan are in Prague to perform, or the psychological and emotional impact it has on them. Their fear is palpable throughout.

Ellis also mounts two superb action set-pieces - one is the assassination attempt itself, the other a lengthy and intricately staged shootout in a church to close the film. On the face of it, Anthropoid - based on a true story - is a compelling and visceral World War II action thriller, but dig beneath the explosions and espionage, and you'll find a heartfelt paean to bravery and sacrifice.

Suicide squad: Dornan and Murphy on a mission

Online platforms Curzon Home Cinema and MUBI have partnered with UniFrance (the organisation which promotes Gallic cinema worldwide) to showcase "a talented new generation of filmmakers" in the seventh annual My French Film Festival. I remember very much enjoying a couple of selections from last year's programme (namely French Blood and Alleluia) but the two I've seen so far this time are a little underwhelming.

Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) WW was released in the UK last year so is hardly new to these shores. It's another of those French films that purports to be about something VERY IMPORTANT (in this case, teenage ennui and nihilism), but is really just an excuse for an attractive cast to show us their tits and other bits. Writer/director Eva Russon's debut feature gets a bit preachy towards the end, too, when STIs, unwanted pregnancy and True Love Forever rear their ugly heads. Newcomer Marilyn Lima as vulnerable George is its saving grace.

Even less
successful is Marguerite & Julien W, Valérie Donzelli's weird fairytale exploring the titular brother and sister's incestuous relationship. I was never really sure what this story of forbidden love was trying to tell me. Is it about the essential selfishness of lust and desire? Is it some cack-handed attempt at saying we should be free to love whom we like? Anyway, it's all rather flat and uninteresting, while director Donzelli makes some baffling choices, including a sequence with a helicopter (even though its supposedly set in the 17th Century). A couple of years ago, Anaïs Demoustier (who plays Marguerite) made my jaw drop in François Ozon's terrific The New Girlfriend, but this feels like a step backwards.

MUBI will be showing six of the 29 films on offer (both features and shorts), while Curzon's selection is a little bigger. For the full experience, though, go here. I shall slowly work my way through some of the other movies and report back in future weeks...

Finally, let's not judge director David Ayer by his limp adaptation of the DC comic-book Suicide Squad but rather by 2012's excellent cop thriller End Of Watch (Film4, Friday, 11.50pm) WWW½. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are Los Angeles police officers, partners and best friends, who get in way over their heads when they are targeted for death by a Mexican drug cartel. Filmed in a faux documentary style, it's raw, smart and full of affecting performances.

Sun's out, gun's out: David Ayer's End Of Watch

What I will be watching this week: I'm going to try to find somewhere showing critical darling Manchester By The Sea, starring Casey Affleck, but will probably have to settle instead for his brother Ben in critical kryptonite, Live By Night.

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The 40 Films I Loved Most in 2016 - #10-1

Here they are, my top 10 films of 2016...

10. Hell Or High Water
Director: David Mackenzie, UK release date: 9 September
Pedal-to-the-metal, modern Western-cum-heist flick starring Chris Pine and Ben Foster as two brothers robbing banks to raise enough cash to prevent their late mother's farm being repossessed. Hot on their trail is Jeff Bridges' grizzled - and somewhat racist - Texas Ranger and his long-suffering Native-American partner (the pair bicker like an old married couple). Whilst some of Taylor Sheridan's script is a little on the nose, the film gets an awful lot right. A palpable air of desperation hangs in the air, occasionally punctuated by the odd satirical jab at Texas gun culture, while its score (courtesy of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) and Giles Nuttgens' cinematography, bring the dusty, desolate landscape to woozy, sun-baked life.

9. Weiner
Director: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, UK release date: 8 July
Candid documentary chronicling the fall of disgraced US politician Anthony Weiner. The appropriately-named Democrat was forced to resign from Congress in 2011 after sending 'dick pics' of himself to women via social media. This excellent film picks up his story two years later with Weiner running to be Mayor of New York. Suffice to say, old habits die hard and it isn't long before he and his long-suffering wife - Huma Abedin, an aid to Hillary Clinton - are under siege from the media as his reputation is trashed all over again.

8. Things To Come
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve, UK release date: 2 September
The incomparable Isabelle Huppert is Nathalie, a philosophy teacher and author enjoying a comfortably smug and altogether bourgeois family life in Paris. However, her seemingly perfect existence is turned upside down when her mother dies, her husband leaves for another woman, and she loses her publishing deal.
Hansen-Løve asks us to consider the brutality of ageing, especially for women, and how it can condemn someone to the periphery in their work, in their relationships and in society as a whole. It might sound bleak but there's plenty of sardonic humour, rich irony and smart, counterintuitive plotting at play here too, while Nathalie is perhaps the most fully formed fictional character I've seen on screen all year.

7. The Neon Demon
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn, UK release date: 8 July
Winding Refn is at his most fuck-you divisive in a film that merges horror, satire, high camp and the occult to thrilling effect. Elle Fanning plays 16-year-old Jesse, newly arrived in Los Angeles with big ambitions to make it in the cutthroat world of fashion modelling. But it isn't long before dark forces start to close in and her La La Land fairy-tale becomes a living nightmare. When Refn turns up the batshit crazy to maximum, it's well worth the wait - a final half-hour so transgressive it fair takes the breath away.

6. Hail, Caesar!
Directors: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, UK release date: 4 March
The Coens' slight, nostalgic but breathlessly entertaining love letter to 'Old Hollywood' has wit and charm to burn. Set in the 1950s, it sees George Clooney's dim superstar actor kidnapped by communists, much to the chagrin of studio enforcer Josh Brolin, the poor schmuck whose job it is to keep his retinue of wayward talent in check. Full of great performances and clever pastiches of classic movies (Channing Tatum's No Dames song and dance number is my own personal highlight), it's mo
re a parade of great sketches and skits than anything else. The sheer joy with which the Coens imbue every frame transforms it into something approaching solid gold though.  

5. Julieta
Director: Pedro Almodóvar, UK release date: 26 August
The Spanish auteur's best film in years is a beautifully crafted drama awash with grief and guilt. We see two stages of the titular character's life - as a middle-aged woman (Emma Suárez), utterly heartbroken at her daughter's decision to cease all contact with her and, in flashback, as a much younger and more carefree person (Adriana Ugarte), hooking up and moving in with a handsome fisherman she meets on a train. One of things I love about Almodóvar's films is that while there's often a hint of soapy melodrama about them, they always crackle with real, recognisable emotion. He makes you believe in these people and every bit of heartbreak they endure.

4. Love And Friendship
Director: Whit Stillman, UK release date: 27 May
Deliciously spiky and endlessly witty adaptation of the Jane Austen novel Lady Susan, in which Kate Beckinsale plays a high-maintenance Machiavelli who, following the death of her husband, is reduced to 'visiting' (moving in with) any friend or relative foolhardy enough to put up with her constant schemes, indiscretions and betrayals. Her scenes with co-conspirator Chloë Sevigny are a delight but it's Tom Bennett who comes closest to stealing the entire film as uber-twit Sir James Martin, a man for whom there are 12 Commandments not 10, and peas are a source of wonder.

3. Son Of Saul
László Nemes, UK release date: 29 April
We've seen the hell of the Nazi death camps many times on film before (everything from Shoah to Schindler's List) but never quite like this. Set in Auschwitz in 1944, it tells the story of a Jewish Sonderkommando (a prisoner forced to help the Nazis dispose of dead bodies) trying to arrange a proper burial for a boy he believes to be his son. It's profoundly moving, utterly heartrending but, most of all, genuinely horrifying. It isn't that you are assailed by gruesome images - the worst of it is kept off-camera or out of shot - but Nemes' decision to keep his lens trained on Saul (Géza Röhrig ), particularly his face, means it feels like you're right there, in his head, 
as he goes about his grim undertaking. It stayed with me for days.

2. Victoria
Director: Sebastian Schipper, UK release date: 1 April
Cracking German crime thriller about a
naïve young Madrid girl (Laia Costa stars as the eponymous character) led into criminality by a group of men on the mean streets of Berlin. The story itself would be fascinating enough but perhaps the movie's main talking point is the fact director Schipper shot it all in one long take - unlike Birdman, there were no tricks or shortcuts; it was all done in real-time. It's an incredibly impressive technical feat but Costa's terrific performance (for which she's been nominated for a Rising Star BAFTA) imbues the whole thing with real heart and soul.

1. The VVitch
Robert Eggers, UK release date: 11 March

For his debut feature, Eggers - usually a production/costume designer - gives us a masterful exercise in slow-burn horror, which sees a 17th century Puritan family battling demons within and without. Impressively researched, utterly unsettling and filled to the brim with palpable dread, The VVitch is about as far removed from formulaic multiplex 'jump scares' as it is possible to get.

Expelled from their New England religious community, William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children strike out on their own, eventually settling just a couple of hundred metres from a suitably spooky wood. When their newly-born baby disappears without trace while in eldest daughter Thomasin's care, the family becomes convinced they're under attack from dark supernatural forces. Slowly but surely they start to turn on one another.

Are Lucifer and his demons really out to get them, or has a single tragic act stoked the fires of religious paranoia within them? Is God himself punishing William for the "prideful conceit" that led to the rift with the other Puritans, or have they unintentionally partaken of something highly hallucinogenic from the woods? Eggers never makes it entirely clear precisely what's going on but, like all the best horror storytellers down the years, he has a real knack for taking the everyday and innocent, and transforming it into something sinister and otherworldly. To that end, Ellie Grainger (as Mercy) and Lucas Dawson (as Jonas) give us the best creepy kids act in years, while the family's rambunctious goat, Black Phillip, is a consistently unsettling presence. (It strikes me as amusing that some filmmakers lavish time and money creating all manner of monstrous horrors and still fail to achieve what Eggers manages with two odd-looking children and a single farm animal).

As critics stampeded to laud the film's off-kilter atmosphere (no other film felt
quite like The VVitch this year), its intricate period detail and parade of macabre moments, the performances of Ineson, Dickie and Co got a bit lost in the mix. And that's a shame because the cast are uniformly splendid, particularly Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasina, a young woman trying to hang on to her godliness while being, by degrees, seduced into a rather more 'delicious' life.

Despite Eggers being from Brooklyn and the film being set in the US, there's something decidedly British about The VVitch that goes beyond its UK-centric cast. It's the oddness, I think, the can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it peculiarity that you'll soak up in Ken Russell's best films, in The Wicker Man or, more recently, Ben Wheatley's A Field In England. Something folky, something ancient, something informed by magic good and bad, and very specific to this funny little island and its funny little ways. Somehow, Eggers just gets it.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

The 40 Films I Loved Most in 2016 - #20-11

20. Couple In A Hole
Director: Tom Geens, UK release date: 8 April
Eccentric drama about the terrible impact of grief on a husband and wife living like savages in a French forest. Paul Higgins (The Thick Of It) and Kate Dickie (The Witch) are both superb as the eponymous couple who have survived a tragedy but failed to cope with its emotional fallout. Geens' film falls away a little towards the end but otherwise this is a near-perfect blend of pitch-black humour and melancholy.

19. The Jungle Book
Director: Jon Favreau, UK release date: 15 April
Rich and rewarding adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's original stories that also pays fulsome homage to the beloved 1960s animation (The Bare Necessities, Trust In Me and I Wan'na Be Like You all get an airing). You'd be hard pressed to find more immersive CG anywhere and the voice cast is uniformly terrific, boasting as it does the likes of Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

18. Embrace Of The Serpent
Directors: Ciro Guerra, UK release date: 10 June
The story of an Amazonian shaman and his relationship (sometimes friendly, sometimes not) with two European scientists - 40 years apart - as they descend into the great river's heart of darkness, searching for a mythical plant with great healing properties. Big themes, sumptuous cinematography and moments both disturbing and thrilling make for an intoxicating brew. 

17. Mustang
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, UK release date: 13 May

Oscar-nominated drama chronicling the lives of five orphaned Turkish sisters, imprisoned then forced into marriage by their conservative guardians. Its subject matter is dark but the film never slips into clumsy melodrama. Instead, it is hopeful, defiant and surprisingly filled with humour, as director Ergüven explores the clash between modern and traditional Turkish culture.

16. Author: The JT LeRoy Story
Jeff Feuerzeig, UK release date: 29 July
The jaw-droppingly odd tale of Laura Albert, the 30-something US author who created and enjoyed enormous literary success as JT LeRoy, a fictional male alter-ego played in public by her sister-in-law. Beloved by celebrities and feted by the fashion world, LeRoy appeared to have the world at his/her feet... until the deception was discovered. Perhaps told far too much from Albert's perspective, Feuerzeig's documentary is nevertheless fascinating.

15. The Measure Of A Man
Director: Stéphane Brizé, UK release date: 3 June
A French companion piece to I, Daniel Blake (see #13), Brizé's film uses France's economic downturn to explore the effects of austerity on the male psyche; specifically how it can emasculate, humiliate and ultimately dehumanise even the most resolute. Veteran French actor Vincent Lindon has never been better as a former factory worker struggling to keep his family's head above water after two years of unemployment.

14. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Akiva Schaffe and Jorma Taccone, UK release date: 26 August
The Lonely Island's no-holds-barred mockumentary gives the Bieber generation the same kind of kick up the backside This Is Spinal Tap administered to the rock community 30 years ago. Like Tap, Andy Samberg (starring here as spoiled pop/rap megastar Conner4Real) and his compatriots understand that musical parodies only work if the songs themselves are actually good. And the songs here definitely are - they're also utterly hilarious.

13. I, Daniel Blake
Ken Loach, UK release date: 21 October
The veteran socialist director's Palme d'Or winner dissects the UK government's war on the vulnerable in an impassioned and unapologetic polemic. After suffering a heart attack, Dave Johns (as Blake) feels the full force of state bureaucracy as he attempts to claim enough money to live on while being bullied and frustrated by a parade of jobsworths. The scene set in a food bank, in which a penniless young mum (the excellent Hayley Squires) eats cold baked beans straight from the tin, made me sob like an infant.

12. Spotlight
Director: Tom McCarthy, UK release date: 29 January
The Best Picture Oscar winner focuses on the Boston Globe's 2001 investigation into a local cover-up of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. Its absence of directorial flashiness or melodrama allows an excellent ensemble cast (including Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton), sharp writing and methodical plotting to shine. Authenticity and decency are unfashionable qualities but McCarthy's film exudes both.

11. Arrival
Director: Denis Villeneuve, UK release date: 10 November
Amy Adams is an eminent linguist with a tragic secret, recruited by the US government to communicate with a fleet of alien ships, newly parked up at various locations across the globe. As someone who knows his sci-fi, the film's big twist didn't kick me in the shins quite as hard as it did some, but was still exquisitely delivered. Villeneuve's eerie, elegiac movie absolutely nails the wonder and madness of first contact.

**Next up: the top 10**

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The 40 Films I Loved Most in 2016 - #40 to 21

Like Christmas decorations and Michael Bublé festive albums, critics' best-of lists start appearing earlier every year. Empire magazine was first out of the gate in 2016, publishing its list of favourites with December barely under way. Oddly, later in the same month, they had to reshuffle their initial selection to find space for Rogue One, making me wonder what the point was of publishing that earlier list in the first place. Crazier still, I heard one critic complain that another film publication had asked her to submit a top-five films of the year selection IN OCTOBER!

In stark contrast to all that, my own personal top 40 is late and unapologetically so - I've taken my time to see as many films from 2016 as possible (171 at the last count) and these are my favourites. They're not necessarily the most innovative, the best acted or the most beautiful to look at, but they are the ones that made the most personal connection with me over the last 12 months. The ones that made me laugh, made me cry, made me think or, occasionally, managed all three.

I keep hearing about how terrible modern cinema is from people who should know better but this has been an excellent year, quality-wise. Yes, there were some disappointments along the way, and maybe you have to increasingly avoid the multiplex if you want to discover the really interesting stuff, but this list could easily have been a top 60 or 70 with every title on it a winner. That's more than one very good to great movie released every week, which can't be bad.

The vagaries of UK release dates always cause problems for year-end best-of lists. You'll find the likes of Spotlight, Joy, and The Big Short on here but in the US and elsewhere they were all 2015 films. Likewise, you will see no mention of Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight or Elle, because they simply haven't been released here yet and therefore don't qualify for inclusion. Basically, if a film was released in the UK between 1 January and 31 December 2016, it was eligible to be featured here.

To avoid confusion/apoplexy, though, I've included the UK release date of all 32 movies - but please feel free to double check my information against this excellent and informative website:

Now, on with the show...

40. Eye In The Sky
Director: Gavin Hood, UK release date: 15 April
Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman are part of a top-secret mission attempting to take out a Kenyan terrorist cell, via drone, without harming the civilians in close proximity. Whether it's an even-handed exploration of modern warfare or a dishonest piece of right-wing military propaganda, Frears' film is certainly an incredibly tense and morally complex affair.

39. Suburra
Director: Stefano Sollima, UK release date: 24 June
Italian mob thriller set on the mean streets of Rome and centring on an ambitious - and entirely crooked - plan to turn the waterfront area into the new Las Vegas. As the scheme causes friction for gangster and politician alike, Sollima (Gomorrah) turns the bombast up to 11, cleverly playing with themes of apocalypse and judgement, while extracting fine performances from his ensemble cast.

38. Chi-Raq
Director: Spike Lee, UK release date: 2 December
Lee's ambitious, free-wheeling adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata sees a group of women (led by the excellent Teyonah Parris) organise against gun violence in Chicago's Southside. Their decision to withhold sex from the male perpetrators (No peace, No pussy!) causes divisions and conflict. Overlong and a little convoluted at times, but full of great moments, political anger and sheer chutzpah, it's Lee's best film in years.

37. Florence Foster Jenkins
Director: Stephen Frears, UK release date: 6 May
Meryl Streep plays the titular New York socialite with a singing voice like a faulty bull horn in a delightful comic farce that nevertheless has a sliver of tragedy at its core. Streep is a hoot as the pampered 'songbird' convinced of her own greatness and desperate to put on a show at Carnegie Hall. Even better is Hugh Grant (yes, Hugh bloody Grant) as her hero/villain husband.

36. Under The Shadow
Director: Babak Anvari, UK release date: 30 September
Slow-burn psychological horror set in Tehran in 1988, during the Iran/Iraq war, which sees a mother and daughter menaced by a djinn spirit in their apartment block. Anvari's film starts off at a languid pace then gathers speed, tension and atmosphere, building to a gloriously deranged - not to mention frightening - final act. In Farsi, Under The Shadow was the UK’s submission for the foreign language film award at this year's Oscars.

35. Queen Of Earth
Alex Perry, UK release date: 1 July
Dark melodrama which sees broken Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) going to stay with old childhood friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) at her remote lakeside house. But the two quickly realise they have drifted apart over the years as the tensions between them start to bubble. Both leads are fantastic in a downbeat story about fragility - both of friendship and the human heart.

34. Everybody Wants Some!!
Richard Linklater, UK release date: 13 May
'Spiritual sequel' to the director's superior Dazed And Confused, this time focusing on the members of a 1980 Texas college baseball team. Beer is downed, weed is smoked, trash is talked, and occasionally these likeable jocks get around to hitting a ball or two. Good clean fun bathed in enough rose-tinted nostalgia to float a battleship.

33. Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures
Directors: Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, UK release date: 22 April
Fascinating documentary chronicling the life and controversial career of US photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989. As well as presenting an honest portrait of his many relationships (including with Patti Smith), it expertly charts the increasing sophistication of his work. There was an awful lot more to the (admittedly, somewhat difficult) man than a dozen or so notorious S&M shots.

32. Remainder
Director: Omer Fast, UK release date: 24 June
Tricksy but inventive memory-loss drama in which Tom Sturridge forgets vast swathes of his past when he is hit on the head by an object falling from a London office block. Fast's film has you constantly on the back foot as you aren't sure what's real, what's imagined or simply wrongly recollected, the plot shifting from downbeat melodrama to surreal crime caper as it glides effortlessly through the gears.

31. Little Men
Director: Ira Sachs, UK release date: 23 September
Sachs' poignant tale of gentrification and the poisonous impact it has on two families sees Greg Kinnear's Manhattanites move out to Brooklyn when they inherit a property from a dead relative. His decision to increase the rent of the woman who leases a dress shop in the same building provokes conflict, bad blood and, ultimately, threatens to destroy his son's only real friendship. A coming of age drama steeped in melancholy.

30. Sing Street
Director: John Carney, UK release date: 20 May
John Hughes meets Roddy Doyle in a joyous tale of love, escape and music set in '80s Dublin. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is Conor, a smitten teenager who forms a band purely so he can spend time with aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton). But his feelings for her bring out the pop star in him and it isn't long before the titular band are dreaming of the big time. There's so much warmth and wit here, and so much about Carney's screenplay that rings true, that it would take me all day to list its merits. Even the songs are great.

29. Café Society
Director: Woody Allen, UK release date: 2 September
A real return to form for the Annie Hall legend after his post-Blue Jasmine slump. Set in the 1930s, Jesse Eisenberg is the Brooklyn boy who travels to Hollywood to take up a job with his uncle (Steve Carrell), the powerful head of a movie studio, only to fall in love with the man's secretary, Kristin Stewart. Suffice to say the path of true love runs anything but smooth in a sharply scripted, beautifully shot and bittersweet dramedy.

28. Zootropolis
Director: Byron Howard & Rich Moore, UK release date: 25 March
Rabbit cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) teams up with conman fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to unearth a massive conspiracy in this utterly charming anthropomorphic adventure from Disney. Under the ubiquitous 'You can be anything you want to be' life lessons, there are laughs aplenty, some seriously impressive world building and surprisingly adult themes. The year's best animation.

27. Joy

Director: David O. Russell, UK release date: 1 January
This unconventional biopic of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano has some interesting things to say about the entrepreneurial spirit and American capitalism - i.e. battling to get rich can harm your relationships, strip you of your innocence and play havoc with your dress sense. Jennifer Lawrence, in the title role, is as ridiculously charming as ever, while Russell shakes up the biopic template with dream/fantasy sequences and smart humour.

26. Heaven Knows What
Director: Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie, UK release date: 29 April
Bleak, brutal drugs drama about a homeless heroin addict living from high to high on the streets of New York. Arielle Holmes, who co-wrote the screenplay, is outstanding as vulnerable, damaged Harley. The fact you're told nothing about Harley's past and made to witness her every painful, self-sabotaging act is a smart bit of storytelling because it invites you to condemn her behaviour and lifestyle. To see her and her friends as less than the desperate human beings they are. It's a provocation, but a forcefully delivered one.

25. Anthropoid
Director: Sean Ellis, UK release date: 9 September
Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan are soldiers parachuted into Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich's third in command (after Hitler and Himmler) and the architect of the Final Solution. On the face of it, Anthropoid - based on a true story - is a compelling and visceral war-time action thriller, but dig beneath the explosions and espionage, and you'll find a heartfelt paean to bravery and sacrifice. Powerful stuff.

24. Sonita
Director: Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, UK release date: 21 October

Compelling documentary recounting the heart-breaking/uplifting story of a 14-year-old Afghan refugee living in Iran with big dreams of becoming a rapper. The film focuses mainly on the titular Sonita's development as an artist, her friendship with filmmaker Ghaemmaghami but, most of all, on her attempts to break free from the diktats of Afghan culture, as her mum tries to sell her into marriage.

23. Welcome To Me
Director: Shira Piven, UK release date: 25 March
Ghostbuster Kristen Wiig is a revelation as Alice, a bipolar woman who scoops $86million in the lottery and - inspired by Oprah Winfrey - uses the cash to buy her own (bizarre) talk show. It's surreal, sad, funny and human but most importantly refuses to patronise or infantilise its protagonist. One of 2016's most underrated movies and worth checking out for Alice's hilarious 'swan entrance' alone.

22. The Big Short
Director: Adam McKay, UK release date: 22 January
A breathlessly entertaining dissection of 2008's global financial meltdown, seen through the eyes of the men who knew it was coming and got filthy rich as a result. Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling are all great and McKay must be applauded for the inventive, fun ways in which he explains some pretty tricky concepts. Smug? A bit. Smart? Most definitely.

21. Evolution
Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic, UK release date: 6 May
Set in a seaside town populated only by young boys and women, Evolution evokes David Lynch, David Cronenberg and, perhaps most of all, HP Lovecraft. The boys are given weird medicine and fed disgusting-looking food by the women, who then conduct medical experiments on them at a local hospital. It's a dizzying and disturbing piece of work that is also hauntingly beautiful to look at.

**Next up: Numbers 20-11**

Monday, 2 January 2017

Review of 2016: My 15 favourite undistributed films of the year

Fifteen very fine films that didn't get - and, in some cases, didn't want - a UK cinema release in 2016. They instead found a home on DVD/Blu-ray, or on a View On Demand/streaming service, such as Netflix or Amazon Prime Video...

15. James White (dir: Josh Mond)
Sharply observed character study of a hedonistic New Yorker struggling to cope with his mother's terminal illness. Christopher Abbott (Martha Marcy May Marlene) is perfect as the handsome, entitled and hopelessly lost titular character, but it's Sex And The City stalwart Cynthia Nixon who provides the movie's beating heart.

14. Tallulah (dir: Sian Heder)
Ellen Page is an itinerant young woman (the titular Tallulah) who kidnaps a neglected baby and passes it off as her own in this smartly-written drama. Alison Janney - as the mother of Tallulah's boyfriend - and Tammy Blanchard - as the baby's alcoholic mother - are both superb in a film with more shades of grey than an E.L. James fan convention.

13. The Invitation (dir: Karyn Kusama)
It's the dinner party from hell in this unsettling horror as an unsuspecting young couple attend a reunion of friends and old flames in the Hollywood Hills. Something feels 'off' from the moment they walk through the door and Kusama has enormous fun working with that to bring the sense of tension and paranoia slowly but surely to boiling point. The last 20 minutes - when everything goes batshit crazy - are well worth the wait.

12. Nina Forever (dirs.: Ben Blaine and Chris Blaine)
Bizarre British chiller about a man whose girlfriend returns from the dead every time he has sex with his new lover. Underneath the blood and craziness, there's a rather clever meditation on grief in which Utopia's
Fiona O'Shaughnessy excels as the titular Nina. It perhaps runs out of steam a little towards the end but the first hour's a blast.

11. Other People (dir: Chris Kelly)Jesse Plemons is a gay, New York-based, comedy writer returning home to Sacramento to spend time with his cancer-stricken mother (Molly Shannon). It might sound like the perfect set-up for a total syrup-fest but this is a very smart, very funny black comedy in which every moment rings true. The opening scene - set immediately after Shannon's death - manages to be both hilarious and heart-breaking at the same time.

10. The Bronze (dir: Bryan Buckley)
The Big Bang Theory's Melissa Rauch is a former Olympic bronze-medal-winning gymnast fallen on hard times after her career is ended by injury. Rauch has enormous fun upending her goody-two-shoes onscreen image to deliver a series of brutal, potty-mouthed zingers as the thieving, foul-mouthed has-been, who clings for dear life to her small-town hero status. But this, more than anything, is a story of redemption and an effective one at that.

9. Amanda Knox (dir: Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn)
Revealing documentary in which Knox, the young American twice convicted then acquitted of the 2007 Perugia killing of Meredith Kercher, talks about the terrible impact of the murder and subsequent trials on her life (she was innocent, let's not forget). The filmmakers strike (fool's) gold in their interviews with the Kercher case's buffoonish prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, and sleaze-ball journalist Nick Pisa.

8. The End Of The Tour (dir: James Ponsoldt)
Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg are both terrific in this sharply-written drama about David Foster Wallace, the acclaimed but deeply troubled author of breeze-block-sized novel Infinite Jest. Eisenberg is his usual dependable self as the wheedling magazine journalist trying to get into the novelist's head as he embarks on a book tour, but How I Met Your Mother alum Segel gives the performance of his life as tragic Wallace.

7. Divines (dir: Houda Benyamina)
Oulaya Amamra is a revelation as Dounia, a tough, ambitious street kid who deals drugs in a bid to earn enough money to escape the rough Paris estate where she lives with her alcoholic mother. After falling for a young dancer, she finally sees a way out, but soon discovers leaving the street life behind is far from easy. Benyamina's poignant film doesn't pull its punches or offer up glib happy endings and is all the better for it.

6. Blue Jay (dir: Alex Lehmann)
Compelling, melancholic two-hander starring Sarah Paulson and Mark Duplass as former high-school sweethearts, who bump into each other many years later and quickly fall back into old routines... while trying desperately not to talk about the painful episode that drove them apart in the first place. Written by Duplass, it boasts another stellar performance from Paulson.

5. White Girl (dir: Elizabeth Wood)
Based on director Wood's real-life experiences, the film sees pretty, entitled New York college student Leah (Morgan Saylor) getting in well over her head when she begins a relationship with a local drug dealer (Brian Marc).
The writer/director takes on class, race and gender in a raw, breathless film that doesn't stand still for a minute.

4. April And The Extraordinary World (dirs: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci)
This beautifully rendered and incredibly imaginative animation, set in a Steampunk version of 1940s France, is a delight from beginning to end. Yes, the plot is utterly daft (something about an invincibility potion and talking animals) but that's easy to forgive amidst all the mad science and breathless derring-do. Marion Cotillard voices the titular April.

3. Entertainment (dir: Rick Alverson)
Bleak, baffling and often quite brilliant road movie about a depressive, misanthropic comedian on a stand-up tour of seedy bars and strange visitor attractions in California. It's scabrous, outrageous and hugely funny, but also has something to say about the loneliness and desperation of stand-up life. Gregg Turkington channels his real-life comedy alter-ego Neil Hamburger to uproarious effect.

2. Look Who's Back (dir:
David Wnendt)
Adolf Hitler returns to life in 21st century Berlin in a biting satire from Germany. At first the Führer is mistaken for a stand-up comedian and takes his 'act' onto television, but it isn't long before his gift for manipulation, and lethal charisma, brings him a whole new army of followers. Oliver Masucci is scarily plausible as Hitler and, with fascism on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic, I'm not sure Wnendt's film could be any more timely...

1. 13th (dir: Ava DuVernay)

The Selma director's documentary about the mass incarceration of African-Americans (particularly men) in US jails is excoriating stuff. DuVernay starts her analysis with the abolition of slavery in 1865 and the US constitution's 13th amendment which wrote it into law: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

Her controversial but powerfully argued contention is that rather than being abolished, slavery was merely "redesigned", the line that says "except as a punishment for crime" deployed as a weapon against America's black population in the form of mass incarceration.

Back in October 13th became the first documentary to open the New York Film Festival, and features a parade of diverse and impressive talking heads, including Black Panther activist-turned-tenured professor Angela Davis and former Republican speaker of the house Newt Gingrich.

But anyone expecting a party political broadcast on behalf of the Democrats will be sorely disappointed as DuVernay turns some of her fiercest fire on former president Bill Clinton and his wide-ranging crime bill of 1994, which led to prison overcrowding amongst other unintended consequences. Impressively up to date - including coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement and Trump's bid for the White House - if 13th doesn't make you fizz with anger, I'm not sure what will. 

**Next up: My Top 30 Favourite Movies of 2016 - numbers 30-21**

Friday, 30 December 2016

Review of 2016: The second annual 'Resties'...

The As Human As The Rest Of Us film blog is two years old today, and it's therefore time to dish out some awards - let's call them the 'Resties' - reflecting my favourite and least favourite movie moments from the past 12 months. Films released in the UK on any format between January 1 and December 31 are eligible...


BEST ACTING PERFORMANCE (MALE): Vincent Lindon (The Measure Of A Man) - a perfect storm of wounded pride and quiet fury Honourable mentions: Ralph Fiennes (A Bigger Splash) and Hugh Grant (Florence Foster Jenkins).

BEST ACTING PERFORMANCE (FEMALE): Isabelle Huppert (Things To Come) - scarily, the veteran French actress is even better in Elle, which is out in February Honourable mentions: Kate Beckinsale (Love And Friendship) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight).

BEST ACTOR WHO WON'T GET AN OSCAR NOMINATION BUT SHOULD (MALE): Tom Bennett (Love And Friendship) - his Sir James Martin is the finest screen fool since Hugh Laurie's Prince George, in Blackadder The Third.

Oulaya Amamra (Divines) - a raw, explosive force of nature.

Simply Divine: Oulaya Amamra is a real find

BEST DIRECTOR: Pedro Almodóvar - the Spanish auteur was at the height of his powers on the powerful, heart-breaking Julieta, one of the year's very best dramas Honourable mentions: Nicolas Winding Refn (The Neon Demon), László Nemes (Son Of Saul), Mia Hansen-Løve (Things To Come).

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Emmanuel Lubezki's use of natural light in The Revenant was incredibly powerful, especially when viewed on the big screen Honourable mentions: Embrace Of The Serpent (David Gallego), Cemetery Of Splendour (Diego Garcia), Arrival (Bradford Young), The Neon Demon (Natasha Braier), Café Society (Vittorio Storaro) - there have been a lot of beautiful-looking films this year.

Remain in light: Lubezki's sterling work elevated The Revenant

BEST SCREENPLAY: Love And Friendship (Whit Stillman, from Jane Austen's novel): Caustically witty and frequently hilarious Honourable mentions: I, Daniel Blake (Paul Laverty), The Big Short (Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, from Michael Lewis's novel), Spotlight (Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy).

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: The Jungle Book - possibly the most immersive CG cinema experience I've ever had. Honourable mentions: Captain America: Civil War and The BFG.

BEST SCORE: The Girl With All The Gifts - I didn't love the movie but Cristobal Tapia de Veer's score was hauntingly brilliant. Honourable mentions: Arrival, The Neon Demon, and High-Rise.

BEST SONG: Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song) - Conner4Real (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) Honourable mentions: Let Me Think About It by Ida Corr and Fedde Le Grand (Nasty Baby), While My Guitar Gently Weeps by Regina Spektor (Kubo And The Two Strings), The Riddle Of The Model by Sing Street (Sing Street).

Keeping it Real: Not Safe For Work (really!)

MOST IMPRESSIVE TECHNICAL ACHIEVEMENT: Sebastian Schipper's German crime thriller Victoria was 138 minutes long - all done in one take. An incredible feat.

BEST RESEARCH: Not only did Robert Eggers, writer/director of The Witch, dig deep into 17th Century sources to get his puritan lives, costumes and superstitions right, he also studied their vocabulary and grammar structure to make his film's dialogue as accurate as possible.

BEST DVD/BLU-RAY: The BFI's years-in-the-making restoration of Abel Gance's silent-era classic Napoleon.

HIDDEN GEM OF THE YEAR: Look Who's Back - Adolf Hitler is back from the dead in David Wnendt's caustically witty black comedy about the rise of modern-day fascism. Virtually ignored in the UK, it didn't get a cinema release but is available on Netflix Honourable mentions: Couple In A Hole, Remainder.

Reich here, Reich now: Hitler returned in Look Who's Back


BEST FILM MAGAZINE: Sight & Sound continues to be authoritative, thought-provoking and rigorous. Honourable mentions: Film Comment and Little White Lies.

BEST FILM CRITIC: Amy Taubin - her piece on Chantal Akerman, which followed the director's death, was the best thing I've read all year. Her unalloyed opinions on the Film Comment podcast are always a treat too Honourable mentions: Ashley Clark (writer and film programmer), Anthony Lane (writer, The New Yorker) and Danny Leigh (writer and broadcaster)

WORST FILM CRITIC: It's a toss-up between dreary right-wing contrarian Camilla Long (Sunday Times) and, er, dreary right-wing contrarian Dave Sexton (Evening Standard). Still, at least Long can write a bit, which is more than can be said for Sexton, whose work reads like it was bashed out by a work experience kid.

BEST FILM PODCAST: Still not the biggest podcast fan but Film Comment's, presided over by the magazine's digital editor Violet Lucca, is entertaining, rigorous and never pulls its punches. It has introduced me to a lot of good stuff this year, too.

BEST YOUTUBERS: The Screen Junkies' Honest Trailers continued to delight, especially their exhaustive but inspired take on Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice.

MOST AMUSING COCK-UP: Total Film's The Huntsman: Winter's War cover feature/puff piece, which managed to very visibly misspell the word 'Huntsman' as 'Hunstman' on five of its 10 pages.

Dire and Ice: Does nobody check this stuff? 

MOST ANNOYING PERSON IN CINEMA: The Odeon's cheeky chappie voiceover bloke: "And now it's time for the bit everyone loves... the trailers - ooooh yeahhh, I love the trailers, all specially chosen for this film actually." Shut it, you smug git...

MOST HORRIFYING FANDOM: Ghostbusters – the persistent squawk of entitled misogynists has been 2016's most unpleasant noise. 

ODDEST TIE-IN: Wayne Rooney and his Manchester United team-mates battling to save Earth in bizarre ads for Independence Day: Resurgence and X-Men: Apocalypse.

X marks the spot: Rooney's bizarre mutant mash-up


FILM I LIKED BUT EVERYONE ELSE HATED #1: Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. The Guardian recently called Zack Snyder's movie "a deafening, illogical nonsense of random plot threads and miscommunicated motivations", which pretty much covers all the things I enjoyed about it. Sometimes you just have to embrace the chaos...

FILM I LIKED BUT EVERYONE ELSE HATED #2: Grimsby. Not only very funny and much misunderstood, but the only film I saw this year that actually had a cinema audience gasping in disbelief at the take-no-prisoners nature and glorious tastelessness of its best jokes.

Not so Grim: Sacha Baron Cohen's film is tasteless but fun

BEST ON-SCREEN COUPLE: Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis (Sleeping With Other People). Brie should be a superstar, she really should.

WORST ON-SCREEN COUPLE: Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard (Allied). It wasn't that they didn't have any chemistry, more that Pitt seemed so uninterested in the entire enterprise.

BEST ENDING: Arrival - Denis Villeneuve's smart sci-fi didn't put a foot wrong in its bravura last 10 minutes Honourable mentions: Rogue One, The Witch.

WORST ENDING: 10 Cloverfield Lane - smart psychological thriller becomes clumsy sci-fi landfill in the space of a few painful minutes. Dishonourable mention: Nocturnal Animals.

BEST SCENE: A toss up between Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich's hilarious 'Would that it were so simple' exchange from Hail, Caesar!, and Channing Tatum's brilliant 'No Dames' song and dance number from the same movie. Honourable mentions: The Arikara attack on the trappers' camp that opens The Revenant, Amy Adams' first encounter with 'Abbott and Costello' in Arrival, Shia LaBeouf applying suntan lotion to Riley Keough in American Honey, and the stomach-churning 'ashes in the river' sequence from Son Of Saul.

Fiennes and dandy: Ralph rules in Hail, Caesar!

WORST SCENE: Paul Dano using Daniel Radcliffe's farts to propel his raft through water in Swiss Army Man Dishonourable mention: The final battle in Suicide Squad.

BEST ANIMAL: Black Phillip (a goat), in The Witch Honourable mentions: Pandora (a cat) in Things To Come, and The Bear (a bear) in The Revenant.

WORST ANIMAL: The Shark (a rubbish CG one), in The Shallows.

MOST GRATUITOUS NUDITY: We saw rather too much of Morgan Saylor, in Elizabeth Wood's otherwise-excellent White Girl.  

MOST PUNCHABLE CHARACTER: Christian Bale as Rick, in Knight Of Cups. Dishonourable mentions: Greg Kinnear as Brian in Little Men, Paul Dano as Hank and Daniel Radcliffe as Manny, both in Swiss Army Man.

MADDEST FILM I SAW ALL YEAR THAT I'M STILL NOT SURE I LIKED: Miles Ahead - Biopic of Miles Davis, which quickly morphs into a knockabout buddy caper, as Don Cheadle's jazz legend teams up with a Rolling Stone reporter (played by Ewan McGregor) to retrieve the stolen tapes for his long-awaited new album.

All that jazz: Don Cheadle plays Miles Davis

ACTOR MOST IN NEED OF BETTER ROLES: Penélope Cruz - deserves so much better than the likes of Zoolander 2.

CATCHPHRASE OF THE YEAR: "Bullshit artist!" - The Greasy Strangler.

INSULT OF THE YEAR: “Your syntax is shit and your penis is very, very small" - relationships become ever more strained in Greek film, Chevalier.

'WHAT THE FUCK!?' MOMENT OF THE YEAR: Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong hide out in an elephant's vagina in Grimsby Honourable mentions: The eyeball-vomiting scene in The Neon Demon, and pretty much all of The Greasy Strangler.

In the pink: The Greasy Strangler boys

GAFFE OF THE YEAR: New York Mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner allowing a film crew to exhaustively document his campaign and life, just as both were about to go to hell in a handcart. That said, the resulting film - Weiner - is perhaps the year's finest documentary.

ON SECOND THOUGHTS... OF THE YEAR: Resurrecting the late Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin for Rogue One must have seemed like a great idea on paper. In reality, the CGI creation was profoundly unconvincing and spoiled every scene it was in.

**Next up: My Top 10 straight-to-DVD/VOD films of the year***