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Wednesday, 6 July 2016

My 20 favourite films of the year so far

Strange brew: The Witch is my film of the year... so far

To qualify for this list, films had to have had a UK cinema release between January 1 and June 30 2016. That some of these films were out in the States (or elsewhere) last year is irrelevant; it's only when they were released here - in the United Kingdom - that matters to me. I haven't included any movies that went straight to VOD, DVD etc - they will probably get their own 'best of' list at the end of the year. 

1. The Witch
Director: Robert Eggers UK release date: March 11
Eggers' debut feature is a masterful exercise in slow-burn horror which sees a 17th century Puritan family battling demons within and without. Impressively researched, unsettling and filled to the brim with palpable dread, The Witch is about as far removed from formulaic multiplex 'jump scares' as it is possible to get.
2. Victoria
Director: Sebastian Schipper UK release date: April 1
German crime thriller about a naive young Madrid girl led into criminality by a group of men on the mean streets of Berlin. An incredibly impressive technical achievement (the film was shot in one long take - no tricks, no shortcuts), that Laia Costa - the Victoria of the title - imbues with real heart and soul.
3. Son Of Saul
Director: László Nemes UK release date: April 29
We've seen the hell of the WWII death camps on film before 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. Profoundly moving and utterly heartbreaking.
4. Couple In A Hole
Director: Tom Geens UK release date: April 8
Harrowing 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 in a tale that perfectly blends pitch-black humour and gut-wrenching emotion. 
5. Spotlight
Director: Tom McCarthy UK release date: January 29
The Best Picture Oscar winner focuses on the Boston Globe's 2001 investigation into a local cover-up of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. 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.
6. Embrace Of The Serpent
Directors: Ciro Guerra UK release date: June 10
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. 
7. Hail, Caesar!
Directors: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen UK release date: March 4
Slight but joyous love letter to Hollywood past with wit and charm to burn. Full of great performances (George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich) and clever pastiches of old movies, especially Channing Tatum's No Dames, an hilariously homoerotic song and dance number featuring a bar full of sailors.
8. Mustang

Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven UK release date: May 13
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 and defiant.
9. Welcome To Me
Director: Shira Piven UK release date: March 25
Kristen Wiig is a revelation as a bipolar woman who scoops $86million in the lottery and 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.
10. Remainder
Director: Omer Fast UK release date: June 24
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. Constantly has you on the back foot as its plot shifts from downbeat melodrama to surreal crime caper.
11. The Big Short
Director: Adam McKay UK release date: January 22
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.
12. Joy
Director: David O Russell UK release date: January 1
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. 
13. Eye In The Sky
Director: Gavin Hood UK release date: April 15
Incredibly tense examination of modern drone warfare, which is also surprisingly complex and refreshingly even-handed. Boasts terrific performances from Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, in his final screen role.
14. The Jungle Book
Director: Jon Favreau UK release date: April 15
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 (Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson).
15. Welcome To Leith
Directors: Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker UK release date: February 12
Chilling documentary about a group of neo-Nazis - led by notorious white supremacist Craig Cobb - attempting to take over a tiny North Dakotan town. The locals are initially caught on the back foot, but it isn't long before they organise a fightback in hopes of sending Cobb and his toy-town Gestapo packing. 
16. Zootropolis
Directors: Byron Howard and Rich Moore UK release date: March 25
A rabbit cop teams up with a criminal fox to unearth a massive conspiracy in Disney's utterly charming anthropomorphic adventure. Under the ubiquitous 'You can be anything you want to be' life lessons, there are laughs aplenty, seriously impressive world building and some surprisingly adult themes. Beautifully written and animated, this is a joy from start to finish.
17. Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures
Directors: Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato UK release date: April 22
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 man than a dozen or so notorious S&M shots.
18. Youth
Director: Paolo Sorrentino UK release date: January 29
Sorrentino's follow up to the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty is an eccentric, tragicomic meditation on old age, grief and regret. Michael Caine is reliably superb as the retired composer waiting for the end at an exclusive Swiss spa, while Harvey Keitel turns in his best performance for years as a movie director chasing past glories.
19. Everybody Wants Some!!
Director: Richard Linklater UK release date: May 13
'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.
20. Goodnight Mommy

Directors: Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz UK release date: March 4
Unsettling Austrian horror about twin boys who become convinced their mother is no longer who she says she is. Directing duo Fiala and Franz build the levels of tension, paranoia and nastiness very nicely but I'm not sure the finale's big twist is entirely necessary.

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