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.

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