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2014, best of the half-year

We’re halfway through 2014, which is a year, I believe, of no prior literary, cinematic or even science-fictional significance. No matter, I have certainly consumed some significant literature, cinema and music for the first time during 2014, or at least during this first half of the twelve-month. As usual, there’s a top five and a paragraph of honourable mentions for each.

Et voilà!

BOOKS
1 Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013) I nominated this for the Hugo, but since it features no spaceships or dragons it was always going to be a long shot. And, what a surprise, it didn’t get a look-in. I’d never read Atkinson before – my only exposure to her work was the BBC Jackson Brody adaptations with Jason Isaacs – so I was surprised at just how effortlessly good this book was.

2 Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, Paul Park (2013) I also put this novella on my ballot, and it too never made the shortlist. The title refers to a painting, painted by one of Park’s relatives, which may or may not show an encounter with extraterrestrials. This is an astonishingly clever piece of meta-fiction, in which Park explores his own family tree and fiction, and creates something strange and interesting. And beautifully written too.

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3 The Machine, James Smythe (2013) And a third book I read for the Hugo. And also nominated. And – yup, you guessed it – it didn’t appear on the shortlist either. Ah well, my first – and last - attempt at involving myself in the Hugo awards… I won’t make that mistake again. The Machine, however, did make it onto the Clarke Award shortlist, and was even considered by many the favourite to win. A Ballardian near-future with some sharp prose.

4 Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) I read this for SF Mistressworks, but my review has yet to appear there. Zoline is best-known for her 1967 short story ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, and she didn’t write much else – a further four stories, in fact. All are collected here. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the strongest sf collections around. It really should be back in print.

Zoline-Tree

5 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014) This is a surprise – a book in my best of the year in its actual year of publication. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. Europe in Autumn is a pleasingly cosmopolitan near-future thriller that takes an interesting twist reminiscent of Ken MacLeod’s novels… but very different all the same. Sure to be on some shortlists next year.

Honourable mentions: Two books from my Hugo reading made it onto my top five – even if they didn’t make the award shortlist (as if) – and I’m going to give another one a mention here: Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (2013), a narrative poem which managed more art in its 176pp than all fourteen volumes of The Wheel of Time; also very good was Olivia Manning’s last novel, The Rain Forest (1974), a somewhat Lowry-esque farce set on a small island in the Indian Ocean; from reading for SF Mistressworks, Joanna Russ’s collection Extra(ordinary) People (1984, my review here), her novel We Who are About To… (1977, my review here) and Josephine Saxton’s Queen of the States (1986, my review here); and finally Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2013), which offers a fascinating perspective on literature, history and writing about history as fiction.

Two women and three men in the top five, and five women and one man in the honourable mentions. I have made an effort in 2014 so far to maintain gender parity in my fiction reading – and, as can be seen, it does make a difference. On the other hand, there seems to be more genre fiction in my picks this year than is normally the case – over half were published explicitly as genre, and a further three published as mainstream but make use of genre conceits. Which makes a top five that is entirely genre – which I think is a first for me for a good many years.

FILMS
1 Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) Beautifully photographed – and if that seems common to my choices, cinema is a visual medium – but also sharply observed. However, what knocks this film from merely good to excellent is the final scene – and if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean.

beau-travail

2 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2014, UK) Scarlett Johansson guerilla-filming in Glasgow, playing the part of an alien harvesting men for some unexplained reason (in the film, that is; in the book it’s for meat). It’s the film’s refusal to annotate or explain that makes it.

3 Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) After you’ve finished marvelling how young both David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave look in this film, you begin to realise how beautifully each shot is framed. It’s perhaps not as painterly a film as Antonioni’s stunning Red Desert, and perhaps its plot boasts too many echoes of that of L’Avventura… but this is excellent stuff.

4 Call Girl, Mikael Marcimain (2012, Sweden) A political thriller based on a real scandal during the 1970s, known as the Bordelhärvan scandal, involving senior politicians and under-age prostitutes. Filmed with that sort of stark Scandinavian realism that is its own commentary.

5 The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa (1956, Japan) A Japanese soldier in Burma just after WWII chooses to stay in the country as a travelling Buddhist monk, with the intention of providing a proper burial for all the soldiers killed during the fighting and whose bodies have been left to rot. What really makes this film, however, is that the rest of his company use choral singing to maintain their morale, and throughout the film they put on impromptu performances.

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Honourable mentions: Upstream Colour Shane Carruth (2013, USA), is an elliptical, often beautiful, film and the complete antithesis to Hollywood mind-candy; Kin-Dza-Dza!, Georgiy Daneliya (1986, Russia), is completely bonkers but somehow manages to make its more ludicrous aspects seem completely normal in its world; Head-on Fatih Akın (2004, Germany), an intense drama about a Turkish-German couple and a marriage of convenience; Man of Iron, Andrzej Wajda (1981, Poland), is based on the strikes in the Gdańsk Shipyard during the 1970s, and mixes real fact and fiction – Lech Wałęsa appears himself and is also played by an actor; The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA), its first half is the sort of well-photographed 1950s melodrama that really appeals to me, but it’s a shame about the film’s second half; Like Someone in Love Abbas Kiarostami (2012, France), displays Kiarostami’s typically elliptical approach to story-telling which, coupled with its realness, makes for beautiful cinema; and finally, a pair of films by Piotr Szulkin: Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom (1986, Poland), the blackest of comedies, takes a hero astronaut and subjects him to a litany of inexplicable indignities; and Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie (1981, Poland), even blacker and more cynical, in which a popular TV presenter becomes first a tool of the oppressors, then a rebel, but will be remembered ever after as a collaborator.

And once again I have failed to pick a single Hollywood film – well, okay, the Negulesco is a Hollywood film, but it’s also 55 years old. So perhaps I should have said a recent Hollywood film. This doesn’t mean I haven’t watched any, just that none of them were any good.

ALBUMS
1 Shadows Of The Dying Sun, Insomnium (2014) A new album by Insomnium on this list is hardly a surprise, but this band really is bloody good. As I’ve said before, if you look up “Finnish death/doom metal” in the dictionary, all it says is “Insomnium”.

2 Valonielu, Oranssi Pazuzu (2013) I actually purchased this in 2013, but too late to make that year’s best of. It’s… well, it’s a recipe that doesn’t deserve to work, but actually does so brilliantly – space rock plus black metal. Weird and intense and very very strange. It should come as no surprise to learn the band are from Finland.

Oranssi_Pazuzu-Valonielu

3 From a Whisper, Oak Pantheon (2012) A US band that plays a similar black/folk/atmospheric metal as Agalloch, but seems a little more… metal in places. This is their first full-length album after a debut EP, and I’m looking forward to whatever they produce next.

4 The Frail Tide, Be’lakor (2007) This Australian band’s latest album made last year’s Top 5, so why not their debut this year? Their complex melodic death is enlivened with some nice acoustic passages in this. Excellent stuff.

5 Earth Diver, Cormorant (2014) Another self-release by a band that refuses to be pigeon-holed and quite happily shifts through a number of metal genres during each epic track. And they do write epic tracks.

Cormorant-Earth-Diver

Honourable mentions: 25th Anniversary of Emptiness, Demilich (2014) is a compilation of unreleased and rerecorded material from classic Finnish vocal fry register death metal band, an important document; Stone’s Reach, Be’lakor (2007), the band’s sophomore release and every bit as good as their other two, but their debut’s acoustic sections gave it the edge; The Void, Oak Pantheon (2011), is the band’s debut EP and an excellent harbinger of their later material; Restoration, Amiensus (2013), any band that manages to mix Agalloch and Woods of Ypres gets my vote; Older than History, Master of Persia (2011), Iranian death metal which makes good use of Iranian music traditions to produce something excellent.


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Moving pictures, #3

More culture splashed across the silver screen… although it’s a pretty loose definition of “culture” for some of the films I’ve seen over the past few weeks. More and more, I find myself avoiding recent Hollywood product (and I use the term “product” deliberately) in favour of arthouse or classic Hollywood films.

Rio Lobo, Howard Hawks (1970, USA) I freely admit Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) is one of my favourite films, and certainly my favourite Western, and I was aware Rio Lobo is often considered to be little more than Hawks having another bash at that earlier film. Like Rio Bravo, it stars John Wayne as a sheriff, who must defend a town against a cattle baron’s henchman and… The difference here is that Wayne was a Union officer and the film opens with an ambush by Confederate troops on a gold train he’s responsible for. Later, he meets the Confederate captain who commanded the ambush in a POW camp and the two become friends… and later allies against the evil cattle baron. A solid Hollywood western, but not a patch on Rio Bravo.

bautravail

Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) I forget why I put this on my rental list, possibly I’d seen it on some list of top films or something. I’d seen a few by Denis before, and while they were good I can’t say they’d blown me away. But Beau Travail… It’s set in Djibouti among soldiers of the French Foreign Legion, and is framed as the memories of a sergeant after the fact. A new recruit joins the troop and the sergeant becomes envious of his looks, ability and popularity. He tries to kill him by sending him out into the desert with a faulty compass, but the legionnaire survives. The film ends with the sergeant dancing, representing his suicide after failing to adjust to civilian life. It is quite brilliant. I’m pretty sure Beau Travail is going to make my best of the year. It’s also the third film I can think of that’s lifted from good to near-genius by an unexpected dance scene, the other two being François Ozon’s Water Drops On Burning Rocks (2000) and Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009).

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 7 (1993, USA) So I finally got around to watching the final season of Next Gen, and now a week or two later I have very little memory of it all. I think I spent most of the time marvelling at how much make-up Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden were wearing. The plots of the individual episodes were, I seem to recall, rather dull and it all felt very formulaic and “the [tech] does the [tech] with the [tech]“. There were, as usual, some totally cringe-worthy episodes and, surprisingly, one featuring Lwaxana Troi that didn’t make me want to claw my eyes out (it was a bit barf-inducing, though). Ah well, seen them all now. Seen all of DS9 as well. Voyager next, I guess. Sigh.

Outpost 11, Anthony Woodley (2012, UK) The Second World War is apparently approaching its centenary and three men at a listening outpost – listening to Russian radio traffic (er, they were our allies during WWII) – are slowly driven mad by something strange out in the ice and cold. Everything looks a bit steampunk (er, the Victorian Age ended nearly forty years before WWII), the acting is terrible, and the pacing is abysmal. A film to avoid.

Gilda, Charles Vidor (1946, USA) Glenn Ford is a gambler in Buenos Aires shortly after WWII. He ends up working at an illegal casino – though you’d never guessed it was illegal from all the glitz – as floor manager. Some months later, the casino owner goes away on a trip and returns with Rita Hayworth, his wife. Cue smouldering hatred between Ford and Hayworth. Meanwhile, the casino owner is neck-deep in a cartel among tungsten mine owners. A quality Hollywood noir this one. Hayworth is mind-blowing. Definitely worth seeing.

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Queen Of Blood, Curtis Harrington (1966, USA) This was actually a rewatch, but it’s such a good film it’s worth mentioning again. It’s another US movie cobbled together from footage from two Soviet films – мечте навстречу (Mechte Navstrechu) and Небо зовет (Nebo Zovyot), with additional US-filmed material starring Basil Rathbone, John Saxon, Judi Meredith Florence Marly, and, yes, that is Dennis Hopper. Alien crashlands on Mars, Earth sends rescue mission, they find sole survivor Marly, but during journey back to Earth she proves to be a vampire and kills all of crew except Meredith and Hooper, who kill her. Marly is astonishingly good as the titular alien, Meredith is treated like just one of the crew (a gender-equal future society, in a 1966 film!), and the footage from the Soviet movies is weirdly beautiful. I love this film.

My Neighbours The Yamadas, Isao Takahata (1999, Japan) The cartoony Studio Ghibli film, in other words. The title pretty much says it all – the film is structured as a series of vignettes about the eponymous family. I quite enjoyed it, although the best Ghibli I’ve seen so far is still Only Yesterday, like My Neighbours The Yamadas also directed by Isao Takahata.

Project A, Part 2, Jackie Chan (1987, Hong Kong) When I was living in the UAE, I watched quite a lot of Jackie Chan films – they were readily available there on VCD. It’s nineteenth century Hong Kong and Chan is drafted in as police superintendent in charge of a notoriously corrupt district. With the help of the Marines, he cleans up the  district, battling the local kingpin, an Imperial Chinese spy and his henchmen, and the previous superintendent who has been promoted to a position where he can allegedly do no harm. Also involved are a bunch of Chinese revolutionaries  - which is who the Imperial Chinese spy is after. There’s lots of cleverly-choreographed action, including a brilliant sequence with some chilis, and it’s pretty much a pure hit of Jackie Chan comedy-action. Definitely worth seeing.

20 Million Miles To Earth, Nathan Juran (1957, USA) This was on Film4 one weekend afternoon, so I plonked myself in front of the telly and watched it. My expectations were low and it still failed to meet them. A spacecraft on a mission to Venus crashlands in the sea off Sicily on its trip back to Earth. Some Sicilian fisherman rescue the sole survivor, but a young local boy also finds a specimen jar from the rocket containing a blobby thing, which promptly grows into a Godzillary-type creature and subsequently terrorises the island. This is a B-movie, with a B-movie script and B-movie talent, and notable only because Harryhausen animated the ersatz kaiju. Eminently avoidable.

Gentleman’s Agreement, Elia Kazan (1947, USA) This was a surprise. I forget where I stumbled across mention of it, but it was a good call. Gregory Peck plays a journalist who’s just landed a top gig with a New-York-based magazine. He proposes an article series on anti-semitism, but initially finds it hard to present the subject in a way that will really get it across to readers. Eventually he decides that he will tell everyone he is Jewish, and experience anti-semitism for himself – he’s new in New York, so there’s no one around who’ll know different (except his editor, of course, his mother, and his WASP-y fiancée). And experience it he does. Both conscious and unconscious. The topic is handled intelligently and sensitively. Sadly, I doubt a film like this would be made today.

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Sons of the Desert, William A Seiter (1933, USA). Also, by various hands, We Faw Down (1928), Their Purple Moment (1928) and On the Wrong Trek (1936), which were all on the same disc. Sons of the Desert sees Stan and Ollie pull a fast one on their wives in order to attend the titular organisation’s annual bash in Chicago, which their wives have forbidden. Ollie fakes an illness, and the pair are allowed to travel to “Honolulu” to recuperate. Everything goes as planned… Except the ship the pair are allegedly returning on sinks. Just after they’ve lied their way out of trouble on that, the wives sees a newsreel about the Sons of the Desert parade in Chicago… and there are Stan and Ollie whooping it up. We Faw Down is a silent with an earlier version of the plot – Stan and Ollie want to attend a poker game so lie to their wives… only to get caught up in various shenanigans and consequently caught out. I thought it funnier than Sons of the Desert. Their Purple Moment is another silent – this time Stan & Ollie are out for some fun with some of Stan’s saved cash, they end up having dinner in a club with a pair of women (not their wives), but it turns out Stan’s wife has replaced his cash with coupons. Also a good one. Laurel and Hardy only make cameos in On the Wrong Trek, which is actually about another actor back from holiday telling his office mates about the disastrous week he’s just spent on the road to California with his wife and mother-in-law. There’s a quite good musical number, but that’s about all.

Red 2, Dean Pariscot (2013, USA) A bunch of oldies run around like twentysomethings, committing implausible mayhem and I completely forget what the actual plot was about. I’d dismiss this as complete tosh, but the script was pleasantly witty and though it trod a fine line it actually managed to avoid falling into stupid. It felt more like a European action thriller than a Hollywood one (amusingly, it featured a Russian aircraft masquerading as a USAF one, the precise opposite of all those Hollywood Cold War films…). For a beer and pizza night, you can do a lot worse than this film.

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