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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, #60

It’s been a while now, but I’m at the stage where I’m not so much wondering why films appear on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list as I am watching films and wondering why they do not appear on it. One of the films below is from the list, and I’m not entirely sure why it made the grade – early Chinese cinema, and for the 1930s a good piece of drama, but it’s basically just a retread of The Phantom of the Opera. Bambi, on the other hand, was a surprise – not the over-sentimental Disney blockbuster I expected, but an animated film with some lovely design work in it…

The Debut, Gleb Panfilov (1970, Russia). I started watching this film thinking it was a more recent piece of work than it was. The Amazon Prime blurb suggested it was some sort of Russian art house black and white film, and while it was certainly black and white and Russian, it was actually nearly fifty years old and a mainstream USSR release. None of which makes it likely to be a bad film. Which it certainly wasn’t. Panfilov made a bunch of films, and usually cast his wife, Inna Churikova, in the lead. This is one of them. She plays an amateur actress who is cast as Joan of Arc in a professional production filming in her town. It’s her dream role. She is also in a relationship with a married man. I like Soviet films – they may present a somewhat rose-tinted view of life in the country, but I expect they’re a damn sight closer to the reality than anything Hollywood has produced set in the USSR, or indeed the USA. I especially like the fact that equality – both gender and race – seems pretty much baked into Soviet society. Yes, Churikova is seeing a married man, but in terms of her acting career she’s not expected to accept less pay even though she’s playing the title role. It’s hard not to consider Western society a step backwards in some respects. As a movie, The Debut (AKA Начало AKA Nachalo AKA The Beginning) has its moments and Churikova is generally good in the title role. It feels like a solid film of its type, with nothing that stands out. I’d watch more by Panfilov, and The Debut is definitely worth a punt if you’re interested in Soviet cinema.

The Man with the Iron Heart, Cédric Jimenez (2017, France). The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is certainly one of the more dramatic stories of WWII which might be considered worthy of film adaptation, especially since it comprises plucky underdogs killing an evil Nazi monster (and how long before that is considered offensive by the right-wing commentariat?). But of all the books to use as a source for the story, Lauren Binet’s HHhH is the last one I’d have chosen. Chiefly because it’s about Binet researching his subject – ie, Operation Anthropoid – and the impact of his project, and what he discovers, on his life. It’s an excellent book, neither fiction nor autobiography but something of both. Which is all very good, as Binet is an excellent writer. But the film adaptation turns it into, basically, a biopic of Heydrich. And we do not need biopics of evil Nazi monsters. When a film is about the assassination of a high-ranking Nazi officer, then the assassins are the heroes. The Man with the Iron Heart either does not understand that or has chosen to ignore it – and neither position is defensible. To be fair, the film covers the major elements of the assassination. But it also spends far too long establishing Heydrich as a sympathetic character. We’re told he’s a monster, and we witness some of his monstrosities, but the film is invested in him as the protagonist to the extent it feels like we’re supposed to be upset when he’s attacked and dies. Disappointing. Read the book, it’s way better.

The Arch, Tang Shu Shuen (1968, China). I found this on Amazon Prime. There’s a shitload of really quite good stuff hidden away on Amazon Prime… but, of course, most viewers are only interested in the Hollywood crap. The Arch is an early Hong Kong historical drama and is generally recognised to be one of the first Hong Kong “art house” films. Fifty years later, it’s hard to determine what might back then have been considered art house, especially with Hong Kong cinema, which during the 1960s was dominated by rom coms and wuxia films made by the Shaw Brothers (at least to Western observers). And while the time it was made is important when considering a film, from half a century away The Arch doesn’t seem substantially different to other art house movies of its time. But Hong Kong had no such tradition then, nor any female directors (Tang also graduated in film studies from the University of California), and it may well be that Tang’s gender is a major reason why The Arch exists. This is a good thing, of course. The film is set in a small village during the 1900s. The chief pillar of the community is a widow, who is so revered an arch in her honour has been erected on the lane leading into the village. But then a troop of soldiers arrive and the widow finds herself drawn to the troop’s captain… The Arch is also in Mandarin, not Cantonese, which is another difference to commercial Hong King cinema of the 1960s. Tang made only four feature films – The Arch was her first – but she definitely seems like a director whose oeuvre is worth exploring.

A Jester’s Tale, Karel Zeman (1964, Czechia). I know of Zeman from his excellent adaptation of the adventures of the Baron Munchausen, which has a singularly Czechian mix of live action and animation, in a way that is so obviously an inspiration for Anglophone animators like Terry Gilliam (who does cheerfully cite Zeman as an influence). Anyway, Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (see here) was great, but I forget why I added his A Jester’s Tale to my rental list. But I’m glad I did. In fact, I like both films so much I think there should be a collection of Zeman’s movies. He made only six features films, plus a whole bunch of shorts, so he’s an excellent candidate. I’d certainly buy it. A Jester’s Tale is based on the work of seventeenth-century Swiss engraver Matthäus Merian and is about two warring nations, and the principality located between them, during the Thirty Years’ War. A peasant masquerades as a duke, his girlfriend as a jester, and they’re accompanied by a man-at-arms. After stealing a coach full of silver and gold, they find themselves in the principality’s castle. But every time the wind changes direction – shown graphically by a face in the clouds blowing – the principality swaps allegiance… and the “duke” is either a prisoner or a welcome guest. There’s lots of clever animation, plenty of broad comedy, and a clever use of matte paintings to create the sets. I found A Jester’s Tale a more entertaining film than The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, although both have similar plots (A Jester’s Tale was made after The Fabulous Baron Munchausen). I now want to see the rest of Zeman’s films.

Song at Midnight*, Ma-Xu Weibang (1937, China). This film is pretty much a Chinese version of The Phantom of the Opera. I had a ripped copy for a while (it’s public domain, don’t worry), and then a copy appeared on Amazon Prime… and it was close call as to which had the most… creative subtitles. I have seen nearly a hundred Chinese films and the quality of the subtitles varies immensely. I can’t actually vouch for the quality of the translations as I don’t speak either Mandarin, Cantonese, or any other Chinese language. But I can certainly vouch for the quality of the English used in the subtitles and “The fish can make a wave” and “You are the water in the pond, and I am that duckweed aquatically” don’t, er, make much sense. But then interpreting the subtitles is part of the experiencing of watching non-Anglophone movies (although it’s more fun when you do understand the language being spoken and can spot the differences). Anyway… the Chinese film industry is huge, and has been around since the medium’s early days. Certainly the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list should include some early Chinese classics – and it does – but I’m not convinced this warmed-over take on The Phantom of the Opera is a good candidate, especially since the earlier adaptation by Rupert Julian is so good. There must have been other films that could have been chosen – although many early Chinese films may have been lost. Neither copy of Song at Midnight I had access to was especially good, and I have to wonder if a remastered copy might have led to me being more impressed. But if you want to see an early Chinese film, then The Goddess (see here) or Spring in a Small Town (see here) are much better examples.

Bambi, David Hand (1942, USA). I have a very clear memory of seeing The Jungle Book for the first time on a screen in the main hall of the Doha English Speaking School, which would make it somewhere between 1972 and 1973. I can also remember bits and pieces of Pinocchio and 101 Dalmations from my childhood. But, while I’ve convinced myself I must have seen Bambi at some point while I was a child, I can’t call up any corroborating memories. And having now actually seen the film, none of it, I must admit, seemed especially familiar. I suspect I knew of it, and that was it. But I have now seen it… and it was not at all what I was expecting. Or rather, my expectations were quite low and the film exceeded them. I shouldn’t have to describe the story, but… Bambi is a deer, the “prince of the forest”, hunters turn up, his mother dies, he grows up, there’s a forest fire, then more hunters, but all the animals live happily ever after… Which sort of implies the message of the film is that it’s okay to kill animals. After all the hunting and forest fires, the film ends with a repeat of the opening scene – except Bambi is the father and not the newborn – as if the film is trying to point out that Nature carries on. Kill all the deer, but more will be born. Yet for much of its length, Bambi feels like a paean to the simplicity and noble savagery of the animal world and its right to be left undisturbed by humankind. Okay, so the animals are characterised as, first, American kids, and then as American teenagers – but that’s the nature of Disney films and they’ve even characterised alien creatures as American kids… And yet… I’d put Bambi in the top five Disney film for beautiful animation and design. I’d still rate Sleeping Beauty top, and Cinderella second, but it would be a toss-up between Bambi and 101 Dalmations for third place. Bambi doesn’t have 101 Dalmations‘ charm but it does have these abrupt shifts to almost abstract art – which was one of the things Disney used to do back in the day and which really did add to the movie. When the forest fire takes hold, the art on screen is really quite striking, not in an especially realistic way, but it looks lovely. It’s not much – the use of silhouettes, an abstract representation of the threat… But it’s hugely effective. It’s when animation turns into animated art. When Bambi is at its most, well, mainstream it’s less appealing, although the character design is excellent and the animation has that clarity of line I wish Disney had not later dropped…  I was surprised, as mentioned earlier, to discover after watching Bambi that I’d rate it in the top five of the Disney animated films I’ve so far seen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933