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2014, the best of the year

It’s that time of year again, when everyone is doing their best of the year lists. For some people, it’s the best of what was released during the year in question, for others it’s the best of what they consumed. For me, it’s the latter. While I’ve done better this year reading, watching and listening to new stuff, the bulk of the books, films and albums I’ve enjoyed are from previous years, decades and, er, even centuries.

For a change, this year I’ve included the positions of items from my best of the half-year (see here). That’s the number in square brackets after some of them.

books
I did some reading for the Hugo in the early part of the year, and a couple of those books make it into this post – although they didn’t make it onto the Hugo shortlist. But then the Hugo didn’t exactly cover itself in glory with its fiction categories this year. My top five includes three favourite authors, one new to me, and another who I’d read before.

1 Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Malcolm Lowry (1968). Lowry came first last year as well, with Under the Volcano, so clearly my love for the man’s prose remains undiminished. This one, however, is a meta-fictional novel, and I do like me some meta-fiction. I wrote about it here.

all-those-vanished-engines-paul-park-base-art-co2 All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park (2014). And this is another meta-fictional novel, but constructed from three separate novellas. One of those novellas, Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance, made my best of the half year list. I wrote about it here.

3 Life After Life, Kate Atkinson (2013) [1]. I read this for my Hugo nominations, and was surprised at how effortlessly good it was (it’s the first Atkinson I’ve ever read).

europe_in_autumn4 Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014) [5]. I fully expect this to be on a couple of award shortlists in 2015. I’m also very much looking forward to the sequel.

5 Home, Marilynne Robinson (2008). Just lovely writing. And, for me, a more believable character-study than Gilead.

Honourable mentions: Daughters of Earth, Justine Larbalestier, ed. (2006), excellent anthology of historical sf, with critical articles; Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson (2013), Ice Age adventures from a writer I’ve long admired who seems to be entering something of a golden period; The Machine, James Smythe (2013) [3], Ballardian near-future, bleak but lovely writing; Busy About the Tree of Life, Pamela Zoline (1988) [4], excellent collection and the author’s only book, which I reviewed for SF Mistressworks here; HHhH, Lauren Binet (2013) [HM], meta-fictional treatment of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942; Queen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986) [HM], very good but not quite categorisable novel, I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here; The Towers Of Silence, Paul Scott (1971), the third part of the Raj Quartet and featuring the brilliantly-drawn Barbie Bachelor.

films
It was a good year for films. Not only did I see many films but I also saw many good ones. Hence the somewhat large number of honourable mentions.

beau-travail1 Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) [1]. This was my No. 1 back in June, and it still is in December. A beautifully-shot film whose final scene lifts it from excellent to superb.

2 Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland). This became an immediate favourite the moment I watched it. A history of Poland under communism told by an amateur cast using meat products as illustration? With dance interludes? What’s not to love?

3 Man of Marble, Andrzej Wajda (1976, Poland). I’d seen the sequel to this, Man of Iron, earlier in the year and thought it good, but this film is so much better.

4 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2014, UK) [2]. Beautiful and enigmatic, by far the best science fiction film to appear in cinemas in 2014. And a great improvement on the novel too.

violentsaturday5 Violent Saturday, Richard Fleischer (1955, USA). I like 1950s melodramas, I like noir thrillers. So how could I not like a film that combines the two? In glorious Technicolour too.

Honourable mentions: Blow-Up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) [3]; Call Girl, Mikael Marcimain (2012, Sweden) [4]; The Burmese Harp, Kon Ichikawa (1956, Japan) [5]; Upstream Colour, Shane Carruth (2013, USA) [HM]; Wojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie (War of the Worlds – The Next Century), Piotr Szulkin (1983, Poland) [HM]; Gion Bayashi, Kenji Mizoguchi (1953, Japan); The Great White Silence, Herbert G Ponting (1924, UK); Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog (2010, Canada/UK); The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (2012, UK); Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour (2012, Saudi Arabia); Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat & Shoja Azari (2009, Iran). Not to mention some rewatches of Michael Haneke films, at least two rewatches of my all-time favourite film, All That Heaven Allows (I bought the Criterion Blu-ray but it proved to be region-locked. Argh), the same for another favourite, Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Second Circle, and a rewatch of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s excellent Gertrud.

Worst films: The Philadelphia Experiment, Paul Ziller (2012), dreadful remake with the crappiest CGI ever; Dr. Alien, David DeCouteau (1989), horribly unfunny straight-to-video comedy; Stranded, Roger Christian (2013), really bad cross between Alien and The Thing set at a base on the Moon, Christian Slater’s career has really gone downhill; Starship Troopers: Invasion, Shinji Aramaki (2012), CGI shoot-em-up with as much subtlety as an arcade game and a gratuitous female nude scene… in CGI; huh?

albums
During the summer, I started exploring bandcamp.com. I was aware of it, of course, and had even bought a couple of albums from it in previous years… but I’d never really made an effort to see what was on there. Lots of really good metal bands, it seems. That’s how I stumbled across In Vain, who quickly became a favourite. Toward the end of summer, I had to upgrade the Debian distro on my work PC, and afterwards the soundcard started working properly – which meant I could stream music at work, rather than just listen to my iPod. And that led to even further explorations of bandcamp.com. All of which means my top five for the end of the year bears no resemblance to the one from my best of the half-year. And of the five bands listed, four of them I discovered on bandcamp.com.

aenigma1 Ænigma, In Vain (2013, Norway). I discovered this band in back in July and immediately bought all three of their albums. I wish I could nominate all their albums, but that would be unfair, so I’ll limit myself to this, their latest.

2 Mantiis, Obsidian Kingdom (2014, Spain). The only band on this list I didn’t discover through exploring bandcamp.com. Because I saw them perform at Bloodstock. And they were excellent. So I bought the album as soon as I got home.

3 Kentucky, Panopticon (2012, USA). Black metal and blue grass… who knew it would actually work? And it does, more so on this album than Panopticon’s others. The subject matter is also unusual – not the usual black metal occult nonsense, but the exploitation of miners in the titular US state.

hreow4 Hrēow, Ashes (2014, UK). Does for Scotland what Winterfylleth does for England. ETA: Er no, they don’t. I seem to have got confused with Falloch, who are Scottish. Ashes are actually an English atmospheric black metal (from Devon, in fact), and a very good English atmospheric black metal too.

5 Citadel, Ne Obliviscaris (2014, Australia). The last thing you expect a progressive metal band to do is go all Rondo Veneziano on you, but that’s what this album does in places. And it works really well.

Honourable mentions: Shadows Of The Dying Sun, Insomnium (2014, Finland) [1], the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom turn out another polished piece; From a Whisper, Oak Pantheon (2012, USA) [3], neofolk/black metal not unlike Agalloch, but a little more metal; Earth Diver, Cormorant (2014, USA) [5], epic metal that refuses to confine itself to a single genre, and that’s in each song; The Cavern, Inter Arma (2014, USA), a 45-minute track of metal epicness; Kindly Bent to Free Us, Cynic (2014, USA), seminal death metal band go all prog/jazz fusion, but their roots are still showing;  The Divination of Antiquity, Winterfylleth (2014, UK), more atmospheric black metal from the English masters of the genre; Comfort in Silence, Dryad’s Tree (2007, Germany), prog metal, the vocals need a little work but the music is excellent; Treelogia (The Album As It Is Not), The Morningside (2011, Russia), prog/black metal band, this EP is perhaps their best work so far.


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Moving pictures, #6

I’m not entirely sure what happened to June. It seemed to pass really quickly, without me getting much done. And July is looking like it might go the same way. But I have watched a lot of films – if only because of that damned f**tball. So while I scramble to catch up with various ongoing projects – including something a little more intelligent to post on this blog than just lists of books and films – here is a, er, list of films wot I have watched recently.

Sherlock Jr, Buster Keaton (1924, USA) Keaton is a cinema projectionist and dreams himself the hero of the film he’s showing, a murder-mystery among the wealthy, and, of course, there’s a nubile daughter, who Keaton wants to impress. There are some good gags in this, but none that matched the train journey in Our Hospitality (see here).

Wages Of Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1953, France) The oil well is on fire, and the only way to put it out is using lots of nitroglycerine, but that’s stored a couple of hundred miles away at the company HQ, and the only way to get it to the wellhead is by truck. Which is, of course, really really dangerous – if not suicidal. But that’s okay because there’s loads of desperate men trapped in the nearby town, who have no jobs and not enough money to leave… The film takes a while to get going, but the drive over the mountains with two trucks full of explosives is pretty good.

Faust, Aleksandr Sokurov (2011, Russia) If Tarkovsky’s film often seem glacially-paced, then Sokurov’s are geological. But, like Tarkovsky’s, they’re also beautifully shot and observed. The title pretty much tells you all you need to know about the story of this film. The mise en scène looks fantastic, and the moneylender (ie, the devil) is horrible and creepy… a film to savour.

faust

Moscow Elegy, Aleksandr Sokurov (1987, Russia) Sokurov and Tarkovsky had been friends since film school, and this documentary was put together – from footage by Chris Marker, Tarkovsky himself (behind the scenes footage from both Nostalgia and The Sacrifice), and excerpts from Tarkovsky’s films – to be shown on Tarkovsky’s birthday in 1982. Interference by the Soviet authorities led to delays and, sadly, Tarkovsky died before the film premiered. Despite all the Tarkovsky footage in this, there’s no mistaking it for a Sokurov film. This is one of three documentaries on The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion, which I bought when it was released… and I see it now goes for around £88.

Lincoln, Steven Spielberg (2012, USA) I know only what most non-USians know about Lincoln, and this film pretty much covers all those – Civil War, emancipation, assassinated in a theatre, peculiar beard. It’s a dull film for the first half, but Lincoln proves a surprisingly pragmatic president – ie, openly buying votes to push his amendment through Congress. Things pick up a little in the second half, and despite it being an historical conclusion, Spielberg manages to wring some tension from the final vote scene. Having said all that, this is very much by the numbers American History 101. Day-Lewis plays a good part, but all those historical forces feel of the moment rather than the endgame of a long political struggle. Meh.

Make Way for Tomorrow, Leo McCarey (1937, USA) Old retired couple’s house is repossessed by the bank, leaving them homeless, and the grown-up kids are pretty adamant they don’t want the old folks dumped on them – though, in the end, one takes the father and another takes the mother. And they really are an unpleasant family. While this film may be 84 years old, not a fat lot appears to have changed since then. But when you have a welfare state with state pensions and council houses, old people don’t get left on the street to die as they are in some allegedly civilised countries…

Black Moon Rising, Harley Cokliss (1986, USA) A straight-to-DVD thriller notable only for the astonishing mullet worn by Linda Hamilton during the first half-hour (happily, it proves to be a wig). Tommy Lee Jones is a top thief, working for the government, but a job goes wrong, and he has to hide the stolen computer tape in an experimental 300 mph supercar invented by Richard Jaeckel. But then Hamilton’s gang of car thieves, run by shady billionaire Robert Vaughn, steals the supercar, and Jones must get it back.

blackmoon

Tristana, Luis Buñuel (1970, Spain/France) Catherine Deneuve plays an orphan who is adopted by a wealthy don in 1960s Toledo, who treats her like a daughter, but the moment she turns nineteen, he decides she’s his mistress. Meanwhile, she falls in love with a man nearer her own age, runs off to live with him, is taken ill, which results in her losing a leg, and she eventually ends up back with her don. An odd film, it played like an historical melodrama, but didn’t look like one.

The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany) This is probably my favourite Haneke film, and it’s beautifully put together. A series of mysterious incidents in a German village just prior to World War I cause the villagers to turn on each other, but Haneke refuses to explain who is responsible or why. Beautifully photographed and really quite unsettling.

Golem, Piotr Szulkin (1979, Poland) That Szulkin box set was definitely a good buy. There isn’t a duff film in it, although this is perhaps the least interesting. In a future much like the ones Szulkin has depicted in his other films – ie, grim and dystopian – clones are used to fill out the workforce, and are treated very badly. But one clone may actually be a man – he’s not sure as he can’t remember, and the scientists are too clear on the matter either, as they may have got confused between the clone and the original human.

Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland) I suspect this film is going to make my best of the year – which is a little perverse as it’s a 26-minute television short included as an extra feature in the Piotr Szulkin box set I bought earlier this year – and the actual films in the box set are all very good and worth seeing. But Mięso (Ironica) is in a class of its own. It’s a lecture on the history of Poland under Communism, using the availability of meat and meat products as illustration. It’s filmed in an outdoor meat market, by a cast who are clearly not actors, and in many cases are holding the script in their hand, or need prompting by others. There are also a number of dance routines, including one in which half a dozen riot police dance off against half a dozen Roman Catholic clergy in full regalia. In one scene, a woman in a wheelchair tries to position herself before the camera, but the cobbles are so slippery that by the time she’s in place she’s too knackered to speak.

Mięso (Ironica) (1993) 4 - 007

The Seventh Continent, Michael Haneke (1989, Austria) Another favourite by Haneke, and allegedly inspired by true events. A middle-class Austrian family, after spending much of the film going about their lives, suddenly tell everyone they are emigrating to Australia. They then eat a large feast, smash everything they own, and then commit suicide. Like The White Ribbon, it’s deeply unsettling, but this time the lack of explanation plays off against the prosaic nature of what has gone before.

Lola Montès, Max Ophüls (1955, France) This has one of the strangest framing narratives I’ve come across in a mainstream film. Lola Montès is a circus performer, enacting scenes from her life, with the help of the other circus performers and narrated by ringmaster Peter Ustinov. As each new chapter in her life begins, the view fades from the circus ring to a flashback of the actual events. It’s all very colourful, sumptuous even, but Montès is not a sympathetic protagonist and not even the well over-the-top staging prevents interest from flagging. Apparently, this flopped on release, and was butchered by the studio in an attempt to save it. I saw the restored version, and it clearly should have been left alone – but I think I understand why it did so badly back in 1955…

lola-montes--max-ophuls


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Moving pictures, #5

I hate f**tball, so I’ve watched a whole bunch of films recently – because there’s bugger-all but f**tball on telly. Some of you might have spotted this. I can’t complain too much, however, because it has led to me making a substantial dent in my To Be Watched pile. Yes, I have a TBW pile as well… although it is orders of magnitude smaller than the TBR pile. Having said that, an additional three DVDs join it each week from Lovefilm. Anyway, I’ve been watching two films a night since the f**tball began, and some of them have been very good indeed…

blowupDVDBlow-up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) David Hemmings – a very young David Hemmings – is a hip and trendy fashion photographer in swinging London – one of the models who poses for him is Veruschka, for instance. Hemmings has a pet project, a book of his non-fashion photographs, and while out looking to buy a junk shop he finds a small park whose peacefulness appeals to him. He takes some photos… including of a couple trysting. The woman – a very young Vanessa Redgrave – is upset at being photographed, but Hemmings won’t hand over his film. Later, he learns why. The man was about to be murdered. Beautifully-shot, tense, and yet typically Antonionian. There’s a good reason why it’s a classic film.

cracksCracks, Jordan Scott (2009, UK) You know Dead Poets Society? And Mona Lisa Smile? This is more of the same, the only difference being Eva Green plays the inspirational teacher, it’s set in the 1930s, at a girls’ boarding-school, the special snowflakes are members of a diving team, and it’s about the daughter of Spanish royalty who joins the school and the team… and upsets its delicate balance. Green, as usual, seems a little unhinged, the direction and photography are polished (Jordan Scott is Ridley Scott’s daughter), and it all hangs together… but it feels a bit like a Sebastian Faulks novel: well-crafted, nice sense of time and place, but all a bit bland and unmemorable.

PartyGirlPosterBajaParty Girl, Nicholas Ray (1958, USA) The title refers to Cyd Charisse, who plays a chorus girl at a nightclub in 1930s Chicago, but the film is really about Robert Taylor, who plays an accomplished lawyer all the gangsters use when they get into scrapes. He’s still married, but she agrees to be his mistress – but later, when he decides he’s had enough of representing scumbag gangsters, Capone-like Lee J Cobb threatens Charisse in order to make Taylor play ball. There’s little that’s original in the film, though it’s well-shot – as you’d expect from Ray – and Charisse puts on a couple of entertaining routines (though she never seems to quite light up the screen). Cobb just munches his way through the scenery. Apparently, Party Girl is now a cult film, though I can’t quite see it myself.

starcrash-dvdStarcrash, Luigi Cozzi (1978, Italy) This is the film that contains the immortal line, “Imperial Battleship, halt the flow of time!” And the rest of it is pretty dumb too. How to describe how bad this film is? Caroline Munro, in what is pretty much a bikini, plays the best pilot in the galaxy; her sidekick is the best navigator in the galaxy; they are smugglers. But they’re caught by the Imperial authorities, who want them to track down the emperor’s son, who has crash-landed on a world controlled by the evil Count Zarth Arn. First they are arrested and then sent to prison, but they escape. Munro is teamed with a crap but chatty police robot, and together they find the emperor’s son – played by David Hasselhof – and… The production design owes more to Barbarella than Star Wars, but with none of the appeal of either. The plot makes no sense. Hasselhof actually out-acts everyone else in the film – and that includes Christopher Plummer, who plays the emperor. This is a film that is so bad, it goes through bad, out the other side into good, and then through that… into cult classic. Watch it at your peril.

mcconnellThe McConnell Story, Gordon Douglas (1955, USA) The biopic of a Korean war ace who became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. It’s not the best example of its type. Alan Ladd in the title role never seems quite driven enough, although the aerial photography is pretty cool. McConnell starts out as an army medic, persuades his superior officers to send him to flight school, but only makes it as a navigator – which is what he does throughout WWII. After the war, he’s invited into the newly-formed USAF to train pilots on jets. He ends up in Korea, and becomes the first US jet air ace. Afterwards, he’s assigned to Edwards AFB, where he flight-tests a new version of the North American F-86 Sabre. Apparently, McConnell was killed in an aeroplane crash before the film premiered, so they had to reshoot the ending. Toward the Unknown and Strategic Air Command are much better films of this type.

waroftheworldsWojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie, Piotr Szulkin (1983, Poland) Or War of the Worlds – The Next Century. I forget where I stumbled across mention of this film, but it was enough to prompt me to buy a Piotr Szulkin DVD box set… and it’s proven an excellent purchase. I mentioned Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom from the same boxed set in an earlier post (see here), and this film is just as bleak and black as that one – if not more so. Iron Idem is a TV broadcaster, but his boss wants him to discuss only material approved by the conquering Martians. Reluctantly, he agrees. But then the Martians trash his apartment and take away his wife – because, the Martians’ goons tell him, they want him to love the Martians. Eventually, they pile one too many indignities on him and he cracks. At a charity concert, he appears on-stage and rants at the audience, telling them to rise up against the invaders. But his speech is never broadcast – and later, after the Martians have left, without its soundtrack the footage is used as evidence he was a collaborator. It’s not difficult to see who or what Szulkin is targetting, and he gives it the blackest possible spin. There’s a grimy and desolate realness to Szulkin’s films. I’m beginning to think he’s better than Żuławski…

bestyearsThe Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler (1946, USA) Three men return to their home town of Boone City after fighting abroad in WWII. One was born on the wrong side of the tracks, but finished the war a captain is the USAAF. Another was a wealthy banker, but is now an Army sergeant. The third was the boy next-door, who fought at the Battle of Midway aboard a carrier, and lost both his arms below the elbow when his ship was sunk. They do not get the heroes’ welcome they expect. The captain learns the woman he married days before being sent to fight is now a night-club singer and used to a life-style he can’t provide – because the only job he is qualified for is the one he held before joining the Army: soda fountain jerk. The banker returns to his bank, only to learn his bosses put the bank’s earnings above the needs of its customers… which seems to him to be against all he fought for. The sailor meanwhile is afraid his childhood sweetheart will reject him because he is disabled. It all makes for a pretty damning indictment of the US public’s response to the war. Don’t be fooled by the cheery/romantic DVD cover art. Incidentally, Harold Russell, who plays the sailor, is the only person to win two Oscars for the same role – one as Best Supporting Actor and one awarded for being an inspiration to disabled people.

Like_Someone_in_Love_2D_dvdLike Someone in Love, Abbas Kiarostami (2013, France) There’s something about Kiarostami’s elliptical approach to story-telling I find very interesting. It makes him one of the more interesting directors currently making films. It’s almost perversely anti-Hollywood… which is another reason why his films appeal. Like Someone in Love is not dissimilar to Kiarostami’s other films in this regard, even though it’s set in Japan, with a Japanese cast and Japanese dialogue. A young student pays for her tuition by working nights as a call girl. One night, she visits the apartment of an old professor, but he would sooner cook her dinner and she’s so tired she falls asleep. The next day, he drives her to college, where he meets her boyfriend – who mistakes him for her grandfather. The old man then drives the pair of them – the boyfriend to the garage where he works, the young woman to a book shop. Kiarostami has set films chiefly inside moving vehicles before – but the ending to this film feels more Haneke than it does Kiarostami. Speaking of which, I’m waiting for someone to do a boxed set of all Kiarostami’s films, just as they have for Haneke…

mynightsMy Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days, Andrzej Żuławski (1989, France) Żuławski, unlike Szulkin, is plain bonkers – and this film is a perfect illustration of why. Superficially, it seems like a fairly typical amour fou romance, something the French do well, and often, with Sophie Marceau as the object of Jacques Dutronc’s obsession. (Marceau was in a relationship with Żuławski at the time.) But Dutronc’s character has a brain disease and is losing his memory, so he spends all the time obsessively speaking strings of words in order not to forget them. And Marceau is a clairvoyant in a high-end carnival act, in which she is hypnotised, tells members of the audience things they’d rather not hear, and then does a striptease. The two hook up, spend a lot of time having sex, while the rest of the cast wander in and out of the story, mostly uttering gnomic dialogue but occasionally advancing the plot. I really liked the other films by Żuławski I’ve so far seen, but this one was disappointing – perhaps because despite the characteristic Żuławski bonkerosity (er, no pun intended), it felt too generic…

Our Hospitality posterOur Hospitality, Buster Keaton (1923, USA) There’s a list of 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die and while there’s a lot on it that plainly doesn’t belong there – Argo? WTF? – I’ve found it a reasonably good source for titles of older classic movies I’d not seen. I’d have preferred it if the list wasn’t full of spelling mistakes and mangled titles, however – it does suggest not that much thought was put into it. Anyway, I know of Buster Keaton, of course; and I’ve probably seen one or two of his films years and years ago. But this one was new to me and… It was good, it made me laugh. The stunts were clever, the story – a pastiche of the Hatfield-McCoy feud – well-played, and the train ride was near-genius. Worth seeing.

obi oba dvdO-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec Cywilizacji, Piotr Szulkin (1985, Poland) Another one from the Szulkin box set, and it’s just as grim as the other two. Nuclear war has done for the world, all but one thousand people who managed to reach safety in an underground shelter beneath a protective dome. They were told that an Ark would arrive soon to rescue them, and despite the authorities repeatedly telling them there is no Ark, they still believe it. The film’s protagonist is relatively high up in the power structure – he certainly knows there’s no Ark coming – and he’s looking for a way out with his girlfriend. And sooner rather than later, as he knows the dome is about to fail. He has some silverware stashed away and he trades these for food – the utensils can be stamped into tags, which are used as currency in the shelter. Eventually, he learns of a hangar, and a plane stored in it. But when he tracks it down – and this is one of the best scenes in the film – he discovers that the richest man in the shelter has been cannibalising the aircraft’s aluminium fuselage to make currency. The ending is perhaps not the most original ever, given the set-up, but it’s cleverly framed. Good stuff.


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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.

ghosts-doing-the-orange-dance-hc-by-paul-park-1622-p

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, #4

Another dash through across the silver screen. Here are some of the more notable films I’ve watched recently.

The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA) Three women are employed at a New York publishing house. One makes the jump from secretary to reader to editor. The first half of the film is one of those beautifully-photographed 1950s melodramas, with some lovely shots of the New York of the time. Disappointingly, the second half trades that in for soap opera office politics.

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Elysium, Neill Blomkamp (2013, USA) Rich people live in the lap of luxury in the eponymous space habitat, while everyone else suffers in abject poverty on Earth – but that’s as far as the social commentary goes. This is really just another implausible actioner with a nice line in visuals and a bad handle on the laws of physics.

Ga, Ga – Chwała Bohaterom, Piotr Szulkin (1986, Poland) Barking mad sf film, in which an astronaut lands on another world… which proves to be just like this one, except they treat their heroes somewhat differently. Not so much black comedy as fulginous.

Head-on, Fatih Akin (2004, Germany) Marriage of convenience between young Turkish-German woman and older Turkish-German man, so she can live the life she wants away from her traditional family, turns sour when the pair fall in love and he accidentally kills an ex-lover of hers. Not the most sympathetic of lead characters, but the actors playing them carry the film. Excellent.

Argo, Ben Affleck (2012, USA) You know when Canada rescued those US hostages from Iran back in 1980? Well, it wasn’t Canada that did it, it was the CIA. Yes, Americans. The whole film feels like a petulant grab to correct misplaced credit decades after the fact. And we’ll not mention the stupid race-against-time at the end to get the hostages out of the country…

The Killers, Robert Siodmak (1946, USA) Classic noir told through flashback, which explains why a pair of killers drove into town and killed garage mechanic Burt Lancaster. Turns out Burt used to be involved with a bad crowd, who pulled off a payroll robbery which turned nasty. Ava Gardner vamps it up, but I thought Rita Hayworth was better in Gilda (also released in 1946).

Villa Amalia, Benoît Jacquot (2009, France) Pianist Isabelle Huppert walks away from her life and settles down in the eponymous run-down villa in Italy. Beautifully shot, elegantly told. There something about the feel of the film which reminds me of François Ozon’s Under the Sand.

VILLA AMALIA un film de Benoit Jacquot

The Bank Dick, Edward Cline (1940, USA) WC Fields inadvertently catches a bank robber, is employed as the bank’s security guard as reward, and promptly cocks that up – much as he does everything. Mildly amusing, though not a patch on Laurel & Hardy.

Follow The Boys, Eddie Sutherland (1944, USA) Hollywood stars entertain the troops at training camps throughout the US during WWII, plus back-story showing how it all came about (entertaining the troops, that is, not WWII). Lots of cameos by big names. WC Fields is genuinely funny, Orson Welles puts on a magic act that clearly relies on camera trickery, and there’s a good tap dance in the rain from star of the film George Raft.

The Ugliest Woman In The World, Miguel Bardem (1999, Spain) Near-future thriller about a female killer which seems to have been inspired by so many other films it makes it difficult to remember what you’re watching. The premise is iffy – ugly young woman undergoes experimental gene therapy, which turns her beautiful… so she murders a contestant in the Miss Spain beauty pageant, takes her place, and proceeds to kill the other contestants. But the film is so odd, it sort of hangs together.

The Neptune Factor, Daniel Petrie (1973, Canada) Stone-faced grump Ben Gazzara is captain of a model submersible which is menaced by magnified tropical fish while searching for an underwater habitat lost during a seaquake. Oh, and there’s a giant crab too. They manage to find a pair of survivors, although how they didn’t get squished by the pressure is never explained. Jacques Cousteau it’s not.

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