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**

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