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Best of the year 2018

I usually do these posts in early December, which is not exactly the end of the year. But I’ve been so busy the last few weeks, I’ve not had the chance – which means this best of the year actually represents what I read, watched and listened to in all of 2018. This is likely the best way to do it.

And what a year it was. The Big Project at work finally ended in September. I applied for a job in Sweden, was offered it, and accepted. I made five visits to Nordic countries during the twelve months: twice each to Sweden and Denmark, once to Iceland. I beat my 140 books read Goodreads challenge by ten books. I watched 547 films new to me, from 52 different countries, forty-nine of them by female directors. I didn’t do much listening to music, I have to admit and I only went to two gigs: Therion in February and Wolves in the Throne Room in June.

And then there was Brexit. Yes, we had the referendum two years ago, and 17 million people – around a third of the actual electorate, so not a majority – voted for something very very stupid and self-destructive, in response to a campaign that told outright lies and broke election law. None of which is apparently enough to consider Brexit a travesty of democracy. And just to make things even worse, the last two years have demonstrated just how useless and incompetent the UK’s current government is, and how committed they are to destroying the country’s economy and perhaps even ending the union. Their latest scam is giving a £14 million contract to a ferry company that owns no ferries and has never operated any ferries previously. The whole lot of them should be in prison. Who knows what 2019 will bring? Will the government see sense and revoke Article 50? I think it unlikely given how racist May is and how committed she is to ending freedom of movement. Her deal will likely be the one that goes into effect, and it’ll be voted through because no deal is an unthinkable alternative.

But me, I’ll be out of it. Living in another country, a civilised country. I can’t wait.

This post, however is, as the title cunningly suggests, my pick of the best books, films and albums I consumed during 2018. (Position in my Best of the half-year post is in square brackets for each book, film and album.)

books
1 The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929, USA). [-] My father had a sizeable collection of Penguin paperbacks he’d bought direct from the publisher in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I’ve no idea why he bought them, but he certainly read them. After he died, I took a couple of dozen of them for myself. Including two by Faulkner. And it’s taken me a while to get round to reading one of them… And I loved it. It tells the story of a family from three viewpoints, and from them you have to piece together exactly what happened. It’s set in the Deep South at the beginning of the twentieth century, so of course it’s very racist. But that feels like something Faulkner wrote because overt racism was endemic in that place and at that time (and still is now, to be fair), and not a sensibility of the author that has leaked through into the text. I now want to read everything Faulkner wrote.

2 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK) [1]. Being knocked off the top spot, which is where this book was in my best of the half-year, by William Faulkner is no bad thing. The Smoke is genre, and was published by a genre imprint, but it’s not a book that invites easy description. It does some things I don’t think I’ve seen genre novels do before, and it crashes together ideas that really shouldn’t work on their own, never mind side by side. It’s set in alternate mid-twentieth century, where “biophotonic rays” have radically altered the world. Animalistic homunculi created by the rays have spread throughout Europe, and a secular group of Jews turned the ray on themselves and now lead the world in technology by a century or more. The Smoke is a story about a man whose mother has been reborn as an infant in order cure her of her cancer, a treatment pioneered by his ex-girlfriend’s father… The Smoke reads like an unholy mash-up of so many things that it’s a wonder it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. In fact, it rises above them.

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2018, UK) [3]. This is where the top five sort of gets all Schrödinger, because this novel and the two below might well have, on any other day, been swapped out for one of the honourable mentions. But I’ve kept The Rift here, in the same spot it occupied in my best of the half year, because Allan’s two previous novels never quite gelled for me. They felt like fix-ups, but without a framing narrative or much in the way of a link between the constituent parts. But The Rift is coherent whole, from start to finish. It has an interesting plot, which it not only fails to resolve but presents several possible mutually-exclusive endings all at the same time. A woman’s sister reappears several decades after mysteriously vanishing and claims to have been living on an alien world. Is she telling the truth? Is she indeed the long-lost sister? Or was the sister murdered years before by a spree killer? Everything about the story confounds a One True Reading, which is its strength.

4 Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima (1962, Japan) [-]. I bought this on the strength of Paul Schrader’s film about Mishima, although I was aware of how Mishima had died. The novel is the first of a quartet, and details the illicit affair between the son of a wealthy family with the daughter of much less wealthy aristocratic family. They have been friends since childhood, but he grew irritated with her affections and so convinced her he could never love her. But now she has been affianced to an Imperial prince, and the two conduct an clandestine affair. The writing is crystal clear, and even though set in a culture not my own, and a history of which I know only a few small bits and pieces, Mishima makes everything comprehensible. I’ve seen historical novels set in Britain by British writers that are larded with footnotes and info-dumps. Mishima was writing for a Japanese readership, obviously, but it’s astonishing how he makes his narrative flow like water.

5 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, Mary Gentle (2003, UK) [-]. I’m a huge fan of Gentle’s fiction, and buy each of her books on publication. And it continually astonishes me she seems to go out of print almost immediately. I bought 1610: A Sundial in a Grave back in 2003. But for some reason, it sat on my bookshelves for 15 years before I finally got around to reading it. Possibly because it’s a pretty damn large hardback. And… I loved it. It’s that mix of fantasy and historical Gentle does so well, better in fact than anyone else. There’s a slight framing device, but the bulk of the story is the journal of a seventeenth-century French adventurer who has to flee France when a faked-up plot to kill Henri IV actually does just that. He ends up in a plot in England by Edward Fludd to kill James I, along with the sole survivor of a Japanese mission and a sixteen-year-old crossdressing sword prodigy he believes to be male but with whom he falls in love. It’s brilliant stuff – thick with historical detail, visceral and smelly and real. The novel’s fantasy content is also fascinating, a sort of reworking of ideas from the White Crow books, but thoroughly embedded in the history.

Honourable mentions: Irma Voth, Miriam Toews (2011, Canada), a fascinating study of a Mennonite girl, by a Mennonite writer, in a Mexican colony, inspired by the excellent film Stellet Licht, I will be reading more by Toews; Golden Hill, Francis Spufford (2016, UK), intriguing historical novel set in early New York, paints a portrait of a fascinating, if horrifying, place; If Then, Matthew de Abaitua (2015, UK) [hb], any other year and this might have made the top five, the sort of liminal sf the British do so well, historical and alternate history, not unlike Ings’s novel above; The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet (2017, France) [hb], a contrived plot but a fascinating lesson in semiotics and Roland Barthes, cleverly mixed into real history; The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (2015, UK) [hb], a book that has grown on me since I read it, an elegy on both the Matter of Britain and genre fantasy, that is a more intelligent commentary than 99% of actual genre fantasies; Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK) [2] [hb], autobiography by Green, written because he thought he might not survive WWII, but he did, a fascinating and beautifully written look at life among the privileged in 1920s Britain; Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA) [5] [hb], a semi-utopian community created around an aircraft factory in the late years of WWII and how it fell apart once the war was over, beautifully written.

films
1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska 2015, Poland) [1] No change for one of the most bizarre films I watched in 2018, and I watched a lot of bizarre films. Carnivorous mermaids in 1980s Poland. Who join a band. In a nightclub. With music. It is entirely sui generis. It also looks fantastic, the mermaids are scary as shit, and the music is pretty good – if not technically entirely 1980s. I watched a rental of this and love it so much I bought myself the Blu-ray.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK) [2] No change here either. And the fact I love this film continues to astonish me. I’m not a Nolan fan but something about this – the cinematography, the sound design, the total absence of plot… appealed to me so much, I bought myself a Blu-ray copy after watching a streamed version. Perhaps it’s because the hardware features so heavily in it and I love machines. I’m not sure. It’s one of the most immersive films I’ve ever watched. Perhaps that’s it.

3 Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden) [-] Three girls discover a magic seed that transforms them into boys, and they get to experience life as the other gender – and they’re each in a position to appreciate the advantages of being male. This film just blew me away with its treatment of its premise, and then did more by turning the stereotype – girl becomes boy becomes bad boy – into something meaningful.

4 Shirley: Visions of Reality, Gustav Deutsch (2013, Austria) [-] A film which comprises a series of vignettes in the life of the eponymous woman, all of which are inspired by, and set up to resemble, paintings by Edwin Hopper. It sounds like something that belongs in a modern art museum, and it probably should be there, but it is also a beautiful piece of cinema. There’s something about the look of the film – attributable to Hopper, of course – which makes something special of it. It also made me more appreciative of Hopper’s art.

5 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway) [3] Comparisons with Carrie are both inevitable and do this Norwegian take on the story an injustice. When something is a thousand times better than something it might resemble, why forever harp on about the resemblance? De Palma’s film is a blunt instrument compared to Trier’s, although to be fair to Trier he does push the religious angle quite heavily. But Thelma looks great, and its lead is very impressive indeed.

Honourable mentions: to be honest, I’m not sure if some of these should not have appeared in the above five – that’s the peril of choosing a top five, especially when you’ve watched so many bloody good films, or just so many bloody films… Here, Then, Mao Mao (2012, China) [-] although not associated with any “generation” of Chinese film-makers, this film exhibits all the hallmarks of the Sixth Generation: a semi-documentary feel, disaffected youth, narrative tricks… and it does it like a master of the form; Vampir Cuadec, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain) [4] I loved this experimental film so much I tracked down a 22-film collection from Spain of Portabella’s works and bought it, this particular film is a heavily-filtered re-edit of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula that turns cheap commercial horror into avant garde cinema; India Song, Marguerite Duras (1975, France) [5] my first Duras and such a remarkably different way to present a film narrative, sadly her movies aren’t available in UK editions but I would dearly love to see more; Mandabi, Ousmane Sembène (1968, Senegal) [-] I love Sembène’s films and this might be his best, the story of the hapless eponymous man who spends money he doesn’t have and chases down the paperwork he needs to cash it in, even though it’s not his, a beautifully pitched comedy; Stellet licht, Carlos Reygadas (2007, Mexico) [-] precisely the sort of film that appeals to me – slow, beautifully shot, and a slow unveiling of the plot; War and Peace, parts 1-3,  Sergei Bondarchuk (1966-1967, USSR) [-] movies as they used to make them, a cast of tens of thousands, more technical innovations than you could shake a large stick at, and the widest screen on the planet, and despite there not being a single decent 70 mm print in existence what remains is more than sufficient to show this was a remarkable piece of film-making… and I’ve not even seen the final part yet; Bambi, David Hand (1942, USA) [-] why not a Disney animated movie? I’ve been working my way through them and this is one of the best, despite the mawkishness and frankly dubious message.

albums
Frighteningly, I only bought ten albums in 2018. Music really seems to have drifted out of my life. Which is a shame as, well, I like it a lot. But I generally have a fast turnover in music and will move onto something new quite quickly. I’m not one of those people who can listen to the same album over and over again for years. But I do have my “classics”, albums I return to again and again. And that list, of course, is always evolving…

On the other hand, my album picks each year tend to be from albums published during the year as I don’t “discover” older music as much as I do books or films.

1 No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland). I liked Kontinuum’s previous album, Kyrr, especially the track ‘Breathe’, but No Need to Reason is much much better. In places, it’s a bit like mid-career Anathema, although deeper and heavier. In other places, it’s a bit post-metal, or a bit rocky, or a bit, well, heavy. It’s probably that melange of styles that appeals to me the most – all filtered, of course, through a metal sensibility.

2 Slow Motion Death Sequence, MANES (2018, Norway). Frank Zappa once wrote that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and certainly I’ve yet to find a way to explain in print why some music appeals to me and some doesn’t. I don’t, as a rule like EBM, but MANES might well be classified as that – although, to me, they come to it with a black metal sensibility because they were once a black metal band. They changed their sound, quite drastically, yet for me something of their origin remains in the mix. I’ve no idea if that’s true or exists only in my head. I do know that MANES approach to electronica, and their occasional use of heavy guitar, seems very metal to me and I like it a lot.

The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018, USA) I’ve been following Panopticon since stumbling across one of their albums which mixed bluegrass/folk and atmospheric black metal, and over the past few years I’ve seen them – well, him, as it’s a one-man band – grow increasingly sophisticated in his use of the two musical genres. And here he’s at his current best – the folk sections are excellent and fade naturally into the black metal and vice versa. I’ve been impressed by all of Panopticon’s albums, but this one was the fastest like of them all. Everyone should be listening to them.

Currents, In Vain (2018, Norway). Ten years ago, I suspect this may not have made my top five. It’s good – because In Vain are good, But their previous albums were better, and this feels less musically adventurous than them, which is perhaps why I think it less successful. It’s solid progressive black metal from someone who has made the genre their own, but nothing in Currents is as playful as tracks on earlier albums. I liked that about them. Good stuff, nonetheless; just not as good as previously.

The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018, USA). Some bands are easy to categorise, others require such detailed tagging that they might as well be in a category all their own. Entransient are sort of progressive rock, but they’re a little too heavy to be just rock, and yet their music is not intricate enough to be metal. Some might call that heavy rock. But Entransient feel like they have elements of metal in their music, even if they mostly make use of non-metal forms. One of the tracks on this album has harmonies you would never find on a metal album, and yet works really well. Entransient give the impression they aren’t trying very hard to be anything other than what they want to be. They’re just writing songs down the line they’ve chosen… But they seem to be operating in a much bigger, and more interesting, space than they might have imagined.

Hopefully, my changed circumstances in 2019 will have me watching less films, reading more books, and listening to more music. And buying less books too, of course.

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Moving pictures 2018, #44

Not a single US film in this half-dozen. I’m steadily reducing the number of American films I watch, although there are still a large number of countries I’ve not seen films from.

Deewaar*, Yash Chopra (1975, India). There are only three or four Bollywood films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, while around half of the list are from Hollywood. Despite the fact the two film industries are not so different in size (Indian cinema, including Bollywood, is around a third bigger than Hollywood, and Bollywood accounts for nearly half of Indian cinema’s ticket sales). Of course, the list is aimed at English-language film-watchers, but even so there are some excellent historical Bollywood films that have been missed off, such as Kaagaz ke Phool (see here), Mughal-e-Azam (see here) or Pakeezah (see here), just to mention a few of my favourites. Anyway, Deewaar is neither an historical epic, nor the usual boy-meets-girl Bollywood story, but a family drama and thriller. The film opens with a police officer being decorated, and in his acceptance speech he tells everyone he owes everything to his mother… And then the film heads straight into flashback territory. The two sons of a trade union activist go their separate ways after their father is blackmailed into betraying his fellow workers. One son becomes a criminal, the other a police officer, and… you can guess where this is going. Deewaar apparently had an enormous impact on Bollywood, and it’s certainly a much grittier and realistic – and yes, with singing and dancing – movie than others I’ve seen. In places, this means its age tells against it, as later films have covered similar territory – and, to be fair, it’s not an uncommon story in other countries’ cinemas. I think there should be more Indian films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I can see why this one is there.

Accident, Joseph Losey (1967, UK). Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter made three films in the UK during the 1960s: The Servant (see here), The Go-Between (see here) and this one. Accident opens with a, er, car accident, from which Dirk Bogarde manages to rescue Jacqueline Sassard but Michael York is already dead. The two were on their way to visit Bogarde, who was York’s tutor at Oxford. But this is Pinter, so nothing is quite as it seems, and the female characters are never treated well – in this case, that’s Bogarde sexually assaulting Sassard after the accident. Confusing matters is Stanley Baker, another Oxford don, who has been sleeping with Sassard but, unlike York, has no plans for matrimony. The car accident is amazingly shot, not like it would be these days with OTT physical/CGI effects, shot from a number of surprising angles that really evoke the accident extremely well. It’s an arresting opening, and the film takes advantage of it, so when it starts the flashback main narrative it still has the shock of the opening sequence echoing. Which is just as well, as the story which follows is not the most exciting. It’s a cross-between a romantic triangle and a campus professor/student illicit affair story, and fuck knows what sort of shape that makes. It doesn’t help that it all takes at Oxford University, and over-entitled white men no longer play as sympathetic as they once – apparently, bafflingly – did. Bogarde plays a role he’s good at: the quiet restrained type who doe something nasty. Michael York plays, well, Michael York. As usual. Jacqueline Sassard is apparently better known in Italian cinema, and retired from acting two years after Accident when she married the head of the Lancia family (that’s cars, of course). The three Pinter/Losey films are worth seeing, but I couldn’t say which was the best of them. Probably the first.

The Spring River Flows East, Zheng Junli & Cai Chusheng (1947, China). I’m a big fan of current-day Chinese cinema, especially that of the Sixth Generation directors (and Fifth Generation too), but I also like early Chinese cinema a great deal, especially contemporary dramas from the 1940s, like Spring in a Small Town (see here) and this film, The Spring River Flows East. Which is a bit epic. 190 minutes epic. Released-in-two-parts epic. The story opens in Shanghai in 1931 and follows the fortunes of a family during the Japanese invasion. A man joins the resistance, but his wife and child are put in a refugee camp when the Japanese reach Shanghai. The man is later captured but manages to escape and heads for Chungking, which is under the control of the Kuomintang. Years pass, the man becomes a successful entrepreneur and marries another woman. The Japanese are defeated. The man returns to Shanghai. At a party, his first wife, working as a waitress, recognises him and reveals he is a bigamist. His second wife insists the first divorce him, but she finds another solution. The story is pretty much a soap opera, but played out against a backdrop of war, occupation and postwar deprivation. Obviously, the first wife is the sympathetic heroine – she’s played by Bai Yang, the foremost of China’s “Four Great Actresses” – although much is made of the fall from grace of the husband, from working-class hero to bourgeois lackey. The film isn’t as well-shot as Spring in a Small Town, which is really excellent, but what it lacks in cinematography, staging or script, The Spring River Flows East makes up for in breadth of story and scale. I can understand why it’s so highly regarded in Chinese cinema. I’d like to see it again too.

Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas (2007, Mexico). After watching this, I added all of Reygadas’s available films to my rental list – which, fortunately, appears to be all of them. This film takes place in a Mennonite community in Mexico, and the dialogue is chiefly in their language, Plautdietsch. The cast are also mostly non-professional – with the exception of Miriam Toews, a Canadian Mennonite author and actor, who plays the wife of the main character. He is having an affair with a single woman, and his wife knows about it. She confronts him, whch leads to her suffering a fatal heart attack. At the wake, the mistress kisses the wife’s body and she comes back to life. This is one of those films with long static takes and sparse dialogue. The movie opens with a gorgeous shot of the sun rising, and closes with one of it setting, and I thought the whole thing from start to finish excellent. It’s very much the sort of cinema I really like, almost faux-documentary, but with those long slow-moving takes where the very lack of action draws attention to the smallest of details. It’s the polar opposite of Hollywood action movies, with their relentless series of short-span jump-cuts, CGI-enhanced action, and so much detail on screen you’ve no idea where to look or what the fuck is actually going on. Reygadas is definitely a name I’ll be keeping an eye open for from now on.

Yellow Submarine, George Dunning (1968, UK). I think I may have seen this before, although whatever bits and pieces I remembered may well have been from watching only parts of it rather than the whole movie. And that was likely over thirty years ago, during the early 1980s or late 1970s. So when it popped up free-to-view on Amazon Prime – and there’s some surprising stuff on there, but searching on the Fire Stick TV interface is next to useless (mind you, it’s next to fucking useless on the Amazon website too) – I decided to watch it. It’s… very much of its time, and very much what you see on the DVD cover-art. Young Freddie is sent in the Yellow Submarine to recruit the Beatles to help free Pepperland from an invasion by the music-hating Blue Meanies. En route, we’re treated to a number of tracks from various Beatles albums, some well-known, some pretty much forgotten except by fans of the band. I was never much of a fan of the Beatles – I’m still not one – and of the bands popular at the time (which was, I hasten to add, years before my own time), I much preferred the Hollies. I’ve always been slightly baffled by the Beatles’ level of success, but one thing I noticed watching Yellow Submarine was how familiar so many of their songs’ melodies were. I don’t mean familiar because the songs were famous, but familiar because the melodies were simple and sounded very like many other songs. Everything felt, well, a bit re-used. Maybe that was the secret of their success. After all, Oasis were huge too, and every one of their songs sounded like it was ripped off from something else. (I still think Oasis were a scam played on the British public by a jaded music press.) Anyway, I’m glad I watched Yellow Submarine, but I doubt I’ll bother rewatching it.

Le Samouraï*, Jean-Pierre Melville (1967, France). I borrowed this from David Tallerman, as it’s not available  for rent in the UK. (There isn’t even a UK release, and the only one for sale here is the US Criterion Collection DVD.) The only film by Melville I’d seen previously was Bob le flambeur, which has, to be honest, sort of mingled together in mind with a whole bunch of noir films I’ve seen over the years, so much so I don’t really know whether something I remember from it is actually from Bob le flambeur or a film by Dassin, Carné, Tourneur or Duvivier. So Le Samouraï came as a bit of a surprise, as it reminded me of Tati’s Playtime more than anything else. I mean the colour palette, of course. And some of the staging. Not the plot. Alain Delon (I prefer Belmondo, to be honest) plays a hitman, who lives alone in a small barely-furnished apartment with a canary in a cage. He shoots the owner of a nightclub, and is witnessed in the act by the club’s singer. However, when he is pulled in by the police – among many other men – the singer insists he was not the killer. He also had an alibi for the time of the murder – his girlfriend claims he was at her place. Then the hitman finds himself the target of an assassin, but he succeeds in forcing the assassin to tell him the name of his boss. While the plot was almost pure noir, the look of the film was definitely not Nouvelle Vague. The subdued colour palette and the minimalist set design, along with several industrial locations, gave the film a flat affect which suited its story. Delon played his role mostly stone-faced, but the rest of the cast felt more like types than characters. I’d not expected much when putting the disc in the player, but I found myself liking Le Samouraï a great deal. A good film, but I’m unsure whether it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 929