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Best of the year 2019

I’ve been doing these best of the year posts since 2006. Which is a long time. They’ve never been the best of what was published or released during the year in question. I’ve never chased the shiny new, so there wouldn’t be enough material there for a best of and, really, how could it be a best of if there’s only a dozen items to chose from? So all those best of 2019 releases, they’re mostly bollocks. Unless the person has read/seen everything. Which I doubt. They’ll have only have read/seen the stuff they like, which just feeds into the whole online fandom tribalism thing.

Anyway, my best of… is the best among what I’ve read (books), watched (films) or listened to (albums) during the year in question. I don’t limit my consumption of culture to genre. Which does, I admit, make my best of lists something of a mixed bag.

books
It was an odd year, reading-wise. I set my reading challenge target at 140, the same as last year, but managed only 112 books. The move northwards was partly responsible, although not entirely. Several of my favourite writers published new books, but I only managed to read a couple of them – including, unfortunately, the last one we’ll ever seen from one author as he died in November. Overall, it was not a year of especially high quality reading – I read a number of enjoyable books, but none really blew me away. (Several did prove especially bad, however.) It made the year’s best of list much harder to put together than usual. Deciding to reread two series – Dune and the Wheel of Time – probably didn’t help, although I’ve only got three books into either series so far. The plan wasn’t to read the instalments back to back, but to take my time working may through the series. So it’ll be a while yet before I finish them.

1 Longer, Michael Blumlein (2019, USA). I’m not sure this deserves the top spot, but it’s such a close call between the top three so I gave it to Blumlein because we lost him in 2019 and I think he was a seriously under-rated author. Longer is, I think, a work that will reward revisiting and will linger, because Blumlein packed a lot into his prose – his later works were almost ridiculously dense, especially when compared to the genre works getting all the buzz throughout the year… Sadly, Blumlein doesn’t have a body of work coherent enough – and much of it is no longer in print – for it not to fade away, which is a huge shame. He was bloody good. Do yourself a favour and read one of his collections.

2 Big Cat & Other Stories, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). Speaking of collections, Gwyneth Jones is a writer better-known for her novel-length works but her short fiction is just as good – if not, in some cases, actually better. But she’s no longer considered commercially viable by the major imprints, which is why this collection was published by a small press, the ever-excellent NewCon Press. That’s a crying shame. She is the best science fiction writer still currently being published the UK has produced. True, “still being published” is a bit hand-wavey as I don’t think Jones is in contract – her last novel-length work was 2008’s Spirit: or, the Princess of Bois Dormant, and her pendant to the Bold As Love Cycle, The Grasshopper’s Child, from 2015 was self-published; but she does still have short fiction published, including a novella from Tor.com in 2017. Her career is not as robust as it once was, certainly – even her Ann Halam books seem to be mostly out of print – but she has yet to retire. Big Cat & Other Stories shows she’s still on fine form. This is good stuff, none of that awful over-writing currently in fashion, just sharp prose, clever ideas worked out carefully, no flashy reskinning of tropes to hide a paucity of ideas… Well, you get the picture.

3 The Waterdancer’s World, L Timmel Duchamp (2016, USA). I read two Duchamp novels in 2019 – this one and 2018’s Chercher La Femme, but this one I found the better of the two. It’s a purely human story, and also very political, both of which play to Duchamp’s strengths. A colony world is suffering both economically and culturally under the yoke of its occupiers, a situation not helped by the fact the world’s upper classes are routinely educated on the occupiers’ home world and take on board its culture. It’s a much better exploration of colonialism than I’ve seen in any other genre work – colonialism is a favourite topic of twenty-first century fantasy – and Duchamp has created another great character in Inez Gauthier. Duchamp remains one of my favourite genre writers with good reason.

4 As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (1930, USA). I read my first Faulkner in 2018, The Sound and the Fury, and was blown away. This book had less of an explosive impact, but the prose was so good it deserves a place on this list. The idea that books could be all about the writing doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of the genre commentators I see on social media, or if it has they have very little idea of what constitutes good prose. By twenty-first century sensibilities, Faulkner could be considered problematic in some respects, given he wrote about the deeply racist South. But the two novels by him I’ve read don’t strike me – and I admit to a degree of ignorance here – as problematical in a way that doesn’t accept them as historical documents. Which is not to say I would accept historical documents that are explicitly racist or whatever. I just have yet to find it in Faulkner, and I don’t know enough about the man to know if I’m likely to find it.

5 The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North (2016, UK). I tried the first two North novels several years ago and enjoyed them, but never thought of them as anything other than above average. This one strikes me as much more ambitious, and I applaud that ambition, whether or not it was entirely successful. The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a book that wears its research lightly, but still demonstrates North has done her homework. Its plot has a few too many targets, but it wears its heart on its sleeve and I happen to agree with its politics. The novel tries to be more than it is, and doesn’t entirely succeed, but it shows a damn sight more literary ambition than most successful genre works.

Honourable mentions: Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945, UK), generally acknowledged to be Waugh’s best novel, and indeed one of English fiction’s great novels and, while I’m not sure it’s the best Waugh I’ve read, it’s certainly less offensive than a lot of his oeuvre. Planetfall, Emma Newman (2015, UK), Newman’s sf novels had been recommended to me several times but I take most recommendations with a pinch of salt… I finally bit the bullet and this one proved a pleasant surprise. The Green Man’s Heir, Juliette E McKenna (2016, UK), although I’ve been sort of meaning to read one of McKenna’s novels for a number of years, it took a 99p ebook promotion for me to try, and I found myself really liking this book’s mix of urban fantasy and rural crime novel. Time Was, Ian McDonald (2018, UK), I’ve bounced out of McDonald’s novels on a number of occasions so I usually don’t bother with his stuff, but a 99p ebook promotion on this novella persuaded me to give it a go, and I found it to be an engaging and well-constructed time-travel love story/mystery.

films
If it was an odd year for books, it was a quiet one for movies. In 2018, I watched 563 films new to me. In 2019, I managed only 242. Less than half. Partly this was due to my relocation – I no longer had access to as many films (no more rental DVDs by post, no more 1-day delivery from a certain online retailer) – but it was also thanks to some box set bingeing, including five seasons of Stargate SG-1, five seasons of Andromeda, seven seasons of Futurama, three seasons of First Flights, and yet another rewatch of Twin Peaks, among other assorted TV series.

1 Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). Well, I couldn’t not give this the top spot, could I? An adaptation of a 1956 epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and set on a spaceship on a routine trip between Earth and Mars. But a meteoroid strike damages the ship and it goes off-course, with little or no hope of rescue. The film presents the ship as a cross between a shopping mall and a Baltic ferry, and its low-key presentation of a world in which people regularly travel between planets amplifies the distress as rescue proves impossible.

2 The Untamed, Amat Escalante, (2016, Mexico). When a film opens with a woman having sex with a tentacled alien, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Japanese. It’s a thing there, I believe. The Untamed then moves onto documenting a failing relationship between a young couple, in which the husband is having an affair with a man, a nurse, who makes friends with the woman who has sex with the alien… and it all sort of circles back around. Despite the presence of the alien, this is very much a film about humans and their relationships, told in a slowly-revealed almost-documentary way.

3 Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017, Argentina). I’d been impressed by Martel’s earlier films – she is one of several female South American directors making excellent movies – so I was keen to see Zama when it was released on DVD. It’s a more straightforward film than her other work, a straight-up historical movie set in the late eighteenth century in a remote part of Argentina. It looks absolutely gorgeous – especially on Blu-ray – and if it’s not perhaps as compelling as some of Martel’s earlier films, it’s still an excellent movie.

4 Eva, Kike Maíllo (2011,Spain). Daniel Brühl plays a robotics researcher who returns to his research after a decade away, and finds in the daughter of his old partner the perfect model for the robot he is building. Except the girl turns out to be a robot, the previous project Brühl walked away from, completed by his partner. The eponymous robot girl is the star of the movie – although Brühl and his robot butler, Max, come a close second. This is one of those films set a few years from now that still manages to look like the near-future even a decade after it was released.

5 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman (2018, USA). Everyone said this was an amazing film, but I’m not a fan of MCU and most animated films leave me cold, so I was in no great rush to see it. I mean, Marvel has been turning out cartoon versions of their comics since the year dot and they’ve all been pretty much as disposable as the paper on which the comics were printed… But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was apparently something different. And, I was surprised to discover, it was. I can’t say I was taken with either the characters or the story, but the way it was animated, its look and feel, that was astonishing. I described it here on my blog as a “game-changer”, and I think it will certainly change the way animated films look over the next few years.

Honourable mentions: War and Peace, part 4, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia), the final part of the most epic adaptation of Tolstoy’s, er, epic, and possible one of the most epic films of all times; am eagerly awaiting the new Criterion Collection remastered version. What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi (2014, New Zealand), Waititi’s humour had not clicked with me in his previous films, but in this one it seemed to work really well and I chuckled all the way through. Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee (1986, USA), I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much of it, but I loved the way McElwee’s life sort of took over his researches, and yet he still managed to make a fascinating documentary. Thadam, Magizh Thirumeni (2019, India), a polished Kollywood thriller, which kept me guessing to the end – one of a pair of twins is a murderer, but which one? Peterloo, Mike Leigh (2018, UK), somewhat polemical retelling of an important event in English history that should be much better known than it is – local magistrates ordered the army to attack working class people at a rally to protest their lack of an MP, 18 people are known to have been killed. Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan), not, at first glance, the sort of movie that would get an honourable mention from me but, despite the usual incomprehensible plot, this CGI anime looks gorgeous, has some really interesting production design, and the characters are not quite as clichéd as usual (well, almost not). The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China), which is a not a great movie per se, but as the first international sf tentpole blockbuster from China – financing problems notwithstanding – it deserves some mention; it also looks pretty damn good, and its story is so relentless it steamrollers over any plot-holes.

music
When I left the UK, I gave six boxes of CDs to a friend to dispose of as he saw fit. I’d ripped them all, of course. Unfortunately, my old USB drive – which contained all the ripped MP3s – then decided to go on the blink. And I’d never backed it up. So I lost it all. Well, not all – I’d ripped some albums to a newer USB drive and that still works. Nonetheless, on my move to Scandinavia, I found myself without access to much of my favourite music. While the last few years had seen my listening decline, I can’t go totally without. So I did something I swore I’d never do: I bought a subscription to Spotify. Which has had the perverse consequence of me listening more to 1970s rock than my usual death metal, because those bands are better served by the platform. Ah well.

However, several of my favourite bands released new albums in 2019, and I also stumbled across several albums new to me, which received much play.

1 Deformation of Humanity, Phlebotomized (2018, Netherlands). I actually contributed to the kickstarter for this album back in 2015, but I’ve no idea what happened because I never received the CD and only learnt the album had been released because I follow the band on Facebook. But I can’t hold a grudge against them because Deformation of Humanity is a brilliant album. It’s the Phlebotomized of the 1990s, but much better-produced and with twenty years of progression built in. Album closer ‘Ataraxia II’ is a near-perfect instrumental.

2 Scars II (The Basics), Panopticon (2019, USA). One of my favourite tracks on 2018’s The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness double album was an acoustic track called ‘The Itch’ whose lyrics were a savage attack on Trump and Republicans. Scars II (The Basics) is an entire album of acoustic songs, including ‘The Itch’, although it’s the only one with that lyrical content.

3 Miami, James Gang (1974, USA). I’ve liked the James Gang’s music for a couple of decades, although I’d only ever heard the original trio, the one that included Joe Walsh. I hadn’t known Tommy Bolin, who I knew from his stint in Deep Purple, had been a member. That is until I subscribed to Spotify and started listening to the albums the James Gang recorded after Walsh’s departure. Miami has Bolin’s stamp all over it, and I really do like Bolin’s guitar-playing. This album got a lot of play.

4 In Cauda Venenum, Opeth (2019, Sweden). They’ve yet to match their high-water park of 2001’s Blackwater Park (wow, was it really that long ago?), and not everyone has been a fan of their relentless drift into 1970s prog. I didn’t mind Heritage, but Pale Communion and Sorceress felt a bit forgettable. Happily, In Cauda Venenum, originally planned as a Swedish-language album but then also recorded in an English-language version, is something of a return to form. Åkerfeldt has said in interviews he wanted to make something “bombastic” and this album certainly qualifies in parts. The pure proggy bits also seem less, well, gratuitous than in preceding albums.

5 Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs, Orphaned Land (2018, Israel). The last couple of years I’ve sort of lost track of some of my favourite bands, and only learnt of new releases more or less by accident. Orphaned Land I’ve liked for many years, and have seen them perform live three times, but I discovered Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs when I followed them on Spotify in mid-2019. They are perhaps a little more melodic than they were previously, and perhaps even a little, well, less bombastic. There are some excellent tracks here, and some guitar-playing to rival that of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, who left the band in 2014.

Honourable mentions: Garden of Storms, In Mourning (2016, Sweden), they’ve yet to deliver an album as consistently brilliant as 2012’s The Weight of Oceans, but there’s always at least one track on each album that blows you away. Illusive Golden Age, Augury (2018, Canada), it’s been a 9-year wait since Augury’s debut, but here’s more of their trademark batshit progressive death metal. Heart Like a Grave, Insomnium (2019, Finland), it all seems a bit over-polished these days, but Insomnium are still the dictionary definition of Finnish death/doom. No Need to Reason, Kontinuum (2018, Iceland), I’m not sure what you’d classify this band as other than, well, Icelandic; it’s doomy post-metal but very melodic, and even a bit like Anathema in places. The Hallowing of Heirdom, Winterfylleth (2018, UK), an acoustic album from a black metal band known for their acoustic interludes; like the Panopticon above, it works really well. Teaser, Tommy Bolin (1975, USA), I started listening to Bolin’s solo albums after liking his work in the James Gang; I find his solo stuff slightly less satisfying, perhaps because he covers a lot of musical genres and I prefer his rock songs; but this is still good stuff and it’s a tragedy he died so young.


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Moving pictures 2019, #14

Since moving to Sweden, I’ve pretty much had access only to Amazon Prime. I bought my Blu-ray player with me, and a bunch of discs, but I’ve yet to set it up. Funnily enough, they don’t sell 3-pin to 2-pin electrical plug adaptors here, only the reverse…

A Dry White Season, Euzhan Palcy (1989, USA). This is based on a novel by noted Afrikaner author André Brink, originally published in 1979, and apparently banned in South Africa. Which is hardly surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the book was around for over a decade before apartheid was ended, and the film for three or four years. And while apartheid was rightly reviled and condemned internationally, I’m surprised books and films which showed its true horror, such as A Dry White Season, weren’t more widely known. Which hardly normalises apartheid, but certainly makes international resistance to it by individuals entirely passive and ineffective. Of course, it doesn’t help when your government – for me at that time, that would be Thatcher’s – cosy up to these vile regimes, or even worse, like Pinochet’s, which more or less much makes them criminals by association. So no, Thatcher does not deserve a statue. Anyway, A Dry White Season. A black teenage boy is rounded up by the police during a schoolboy protest, even though he wasn’t involved in it. His father, the gardener at a posh Afrikaner school, tries to have his son’s criminal record wiped as he was innocent. But then is himself arrested as a “black activist” and tortured. He dies during interrogation. One of the school’s teachers, a famous ex-rugby player and “friend” of the gardener, tries to help out and gets embroiled in the whole thing. He decides to get justice for the dead man, which involves taking the state security police to court for his death. He loses the case. Soon afterwards, he is murdered by a state security police officer. This is grim stuff, and all the ore so for being set in a real world regime that behaved pretty much exactly as depicted. Apartheid was an abomination. A Dry White Season makes an excellent fist of its story, and Donald Sutherland, despite a somewhat wobbly accent, is good in the lead role. Worth seeing.

Thadam, Magizh Thirumeni (2019, India). A successful engineer spots a young woman he fancies on his commute to work – in fact, she works in the same building. He tries asking her out, she plays hard to get, but eventually she agrees. The two are very happy together. But then she heads off to a distant city for a celebration of some kind and is never seen again. Rumour has it she ran off with another man. Some time later, a man is brutally murdered in his apartment. The investigating police find a video taken on a phone from the balcony of a neighouring flat during a party – and it clearly shows the engineer on the balcony of the murdered man’s apartment around the time of the murder. He is arrested, but it seems he has an alibi. Meanwhile, it also transpires the engineer has a doppelgänger, who works as a con man and gambler on the streets. He turns up at the police station where the engineer is being held, after being arrested for drunk-driving. So now the police have two identical men, one of whom murdered the victim, but both have alibis. It turns out the pair are twins, who separated when their parents divorced and the two now hate each other. But one of them must have committed the murder, even though both have alibis. The court reluctantly lets them go. This is a clever thriller, and while it’s pretty long by Western standards, it never flags. It kept me guessing for much of its length, although the resolution is hardly a surprise. But if you’re going to watch a polished thriller, why not watch an Indian one?

The Way Ahead, Carol Reed (1944, UK). Given when this film was made, and its topic, I suspect it was partly, if not wholly, intended to encourage more people to sign up to fight. And yet it shows the British armed forces are just as shit and incompetent as Evelyn Waugh’s novels make them out to be – as indeed does their record in both WWI and WWII. (The modern British Army, however, is a highly effective and professional fighting force, often hamstrung by poor equipment bought by politicians.) Anyway, a number of men from various walks of 1940s UK life are conscripted. En route to their barracks, they have an encounter with an army sergeant that does not go well. Lo and behold, he turns out to be their platoon sergeant when they finally reach barracks. And they’re all convinced he – William Hartnell – has it in for them. In fact, the opposite is true: he thinks they’ll make good soldiers. The film follows them through their training, including all their whinging and attempts to shirk, and ends up with them being sent to fight, only to be re-assigned elsewhere before the battle… but their ship is torpedoed and they have to fight to for their lives. This is a surprisingly honest depiction of British conscription during the war, and of some of the characters are closer to caricature that’s hardly unexpected given the broad strokes with which they’re drawn. As WWII films go, it makes a good antidote to the bombastic crap both the UK and Hollywood churned out in the decades immediately following the WWII.

Animal Farm, John Halas & Joy Batchelor (1954, UK). Orwell’s novella seems an obvious candidate to turn into an animated film, but it took nearly a decade before it reached the screen. Perhaps it was too political for Hollywood – this adaptation is British, after all. Except… Hollywood has made plenty of political films, even ones that directly criticised Hitler. The story of Animal Farm, unfortunately, lends itself too well to animation, and what is clearly a political parable becomes something that feels more like a cartoon without jokes. There’s some good animation here, but I suspect afficionados of the artform are going to be the only ones who really appreciate it. To my eye, nothing especially stood out, and Orwell’s message felt like it was tacked on than the actual point of the piece. Worth seeing almost certainly, but be prepared to be disappointed.

Silence, Martin Scorsese (2016, USA). In the seventeenth century, the Japanese shogunate cracks down on Christianity and imprisons, or executes, all the Christian priests and missionaries in the country. Two Jesuits are sent to Japan from Portugal a few years later to search for a priest who chose to renounce Christianity rather than be executed. After all, who wouldn’t? Seriously, if you’re that invested in an idea you’d give your life for it, chances are it’s not a good idea. And religion, particularly Christianity, is not a good idea. It’s caused far more harm and destruction than atheism. Funnily enough. Anyway, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, a pair of naive young Jesuits, are smuggled into Japan, where they discover Christianity flourishing underground despite being outlawed. Yay for risking execution and torture in service to a promise of an afterlife. Like you’ll ever fucking know whether it exists or not. Show me someone who’s  come back. With proof. Heaven is one of the biggest marketing scams in history of humanity. Up there with the divine right of kings, capitalism, trickle-down theory and white supremacy. Anyway… Scorsese is an experienced and accomplished film-maker, so it’s comes as no surprise that Silence is a well-made film. Although it does still feel like a series of longeurs stitched together by brief moments of drama. In part, that’s the nature of the story Scorsese is telling – it’s spread across years, for one thing. The cast all give good performances, but in places there’s just so much open emotion up there on the screen it feels like a wet Sunday in winter. I’ve never been a Scorsese fan – at least not of his films, but very much so of his World Cinema Project and his work to restore and promote non-Anglophone cinema. That’s always made me feel like I should like his movies more than I do. Silence is by no means a disappointing film, and it ticks all the boxes as an historical drama, but it’s not a film I can have strong feelings about.

The Curse of Frankenstein, Terence Fisher (1957, UK). This was apparently the film which established Hammer as a maker of horror films – and they made some classic, if somewhat cheap, horror films during their time. Melvyn Hayes – better known to Brits of my generation as the female impersonator from the sticom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, plays a young Victor Frankenstein who engages Robert Uruquhart, a disgraced scientist, as his tutor. Hayes grows up to be Peter Cushing. And he and Uruquhart manage to recreate life. But Cushing takes it further and creates a human – his monster, played by Christopher Lee. The film takes a number of liberties with the novel, mostly by almost entirely ditching Shelley’s plot. Th end result is pretty much archetypal Hammer Horror material, almost a template for their later movies. The Curse of Frankenstein grossed more than seventy times its production cost during its release, according to Wikipedia, and spawned a number of sequels. It was not especially well-received by critics. It’s not a very good film, and it would take some real mental gymnastics to try to claim it as one. But it’s certainly germinal, and while none of the film it led to ever be classified as works of cinematic art, they did what they did well and with a welcome sensibility. I don’t like modern horror films, I’m far too squeamish. But I’d happily work my way through Hammer Horror’s back-catalogue, and consider myself richer for having done so.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 939