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**


  1. Ridley Scott is among the last people who should be complaining about the quality of modern film-making given some of the drek he's shovelled out in the past couple of decades.