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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.)

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.

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.

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, #37

This is what my film watching looks like pretty much – one in six films is from the US. That’s not one in six is Anglophone, as the Israeli film is mostly in English, and One Way was entirely in English as it was set in the US. But there are two excellent Chinese films.

Zhou Yu’s Train, Sun Zhou (2002, China). A woman is on a train between Chongyang and Sanming. She is carrying a vase. A man asks her about it and she admits she made it. He insists on buying it, but she refuses. He introduces himself, he is a vet (a man collapsed earlier on the train and he denied being a doctor because a doctor of human medicine would have been preferable). The woman is on her way to visit her lover in Sanming, a poet. The film follows the woman, and her encounters with the vet and the poet, and that of another woman, played by the same actress, Gong Li. But the narrative is cut up and presented non-chronologically, which means it’s often a bit of a puzzle trying to figure out what’s going on, especially when the same actress plays the two female leads. It all looks great, and the cast are excellent. I’m reminded of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, especially In the Mood for Love and 2046, although without the arthouse cinematography, just the unadorned faux-documentary style used by Sixth Generation directors. I liked this film, but it really needed a rewatch. I’ll have to try and arrange one.

One Way, Jorge Darnell (1973, Mexico). The blurb for this film on Amazon Prime explains it is about an illegal immigrant in the US and declares it is still relevant today. In other words, the US is just as racist as it was in 1973. Probably more so. Although not as bad as the 1960s, when it practiced segregation and lynching. We’re no paragons of virtue here in the UK, but when it comes to racism the US is definitely a world-leader. And this forty-five year old film is ample proof. A farmer from Mexico moves to New York, illegally it must be said, but when someone gives me a good logical reason for secure borders then I’ll start believing “illegal immigration” is a thing. He finds himself subject to racism, but he can’t do anything because he’s there illegally. In one scene, he’s beaten up by drunk Americans at the bowling alley where he works restacking pins. In order to stay in the US, the farmer gets in deeper with criminals, as situation not helped by his desire – reciprocated – for the gangster’s girlfriend (I think she was his girlfriend). Unsurprisingly, it’s all about hiding from the authorities and so being driven into the arms of criminals, which only feeds into the myths surrounding illegal immigration in the first place. It’s like junkie culture – decriminalise drugs and there’s no reason for junkie culture to exist. Welcome immigrants, streamline them into becoming members of society and there’s nothing there for criminals. But then, there’s always the racism. That’ll remain as long as the establishment condones, and practices, it, and until there are real consequences for being a racist arsehole.

Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer*, Thorold Dickinson (1955, Israel). According to the Wikipedia page, the plot of this film “revolves around the personal stories of a number of soldiers who are on their way to defend a strategic hill overlooking the road to Jerusalem”, which is true but completely misses the point of the film. It is also Israel’s first home-produced feature film. Edward Mulhare plays an Irishman in the British occupying forces, who returns after Israel’s unilateral declaration of independence (the film says it was “sanctioned” by the UN, but that word has two meanings and the film is clearly hoping one will prevail). Anyway, Mulhare fancies a Jewish settler, and returns to help her in the fight for Israel. The problem with any film about the early days of Israel is framing their enemy. Who were they fighting? The Palestinians they had displaced? The British who had already left? That there was fighting is beyond doubt. Parts of Palestine were mandated to the Jews by the UN, the rest was won by blood. And what they were mandated was defended with blood. Let’s be fair here – the Israeli state has a right to exist, but so does the Palestinian one. And when you have two nations sharing the same territory, what do you do? China Miéville’s solution in The City & the City is obviously untenable, but neither can you privilege one group over the other as both have legitimate claims – after the fact, if not before. Making Jerusalem an international city is a step in the right direction, but hardliners will block that, and have. Wars are not going to resolve anything, especially when one side is funded by the US. But I’m not about to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem as it requires someone with bigger guns than me. As early Israeli film culture goes, this isn’t too bad – the Arabs are mostly treated fairly, as are surprisingly the British. The latter are the architect of Israel’s woes, that much is made clear, through their repressive control of the region after WWII. But they’re not demonised. The main focus seems to be on the burgeoning romance between Mulhare and Israeli lead Margalit Oved. It’s a film that deserves to be better known, even if it doesn’t fit the current narrative about Israel. It’s home-grown, it makes a good fist of its story, and any challenges it might make to the current narrative are welcome.

2036 Origin Unknown, Hasraf Dulull (2018, USA). Sometimes you can find hidden gems among independent sf films, and with the sophistication of present-day CGI they can look every bit as good as big studio sf films. But without the zillion-dollar budgets, something has to give… and it’s usually either location or cast. This film takes place almost entirely in a single room, so that it’s not that one. And while Katee Sackhoff is a good actress and reasonably well-known, I should think her price-tag is pretty modest. Plus, the entire cast of 2036 Origin Unknown is single figures. A mission to Mars crashes mysteriously on landing. Years later, Sackhoff, on her own, is running an AI-controlled follow-up robot mission to investigate that crash. They discover a huge cube covered in alien carvings. It vanishes. And reappears in Antarctica. They trick it into returning to Mars. It is apparently some sort of instantaneous interplanetary or interstellar vessel. Some point during all this, the AI – which was put in charge over Sackhoff’s objections – decides to exterminate all life on Earth. Oh, and Sackhoff’s father died in that original Mars mission, so she has an emotional stake in the investigation. Sackhoff tries gamely to carry the film, but the plot has too many ludicrous moments and slowly unravels under the weight of ambitions it can’t meet. It’s a sight more original than many other independent sf films I’ve seen, but even original ideas need to be rigorously worked through.  Meh.

Part-Time Spy, Kim Deok-su (2017, South Korea). Gang Ye-Won is 35 and has spent most of her adult life trying to get a job with the Korean civil service, occupying a wide range of positions before she finally lands a job. In a state intelligence department. But then her boss is phished for $500,000 and he tasks her, secretly, with recovering the money. But the company responsible for the fraud – a call-centre that runs a number of phishing scams – has also been infiltrated by an undercover police agent. So this is basically a buddy movie, where the buddies came together through circumstance rather than choice, and the drama comes out of their interactions. Because neither has much time for the other. Gang is an accident-prone nerd but proves to have a gift for talking punters out of their hard-earned cash, and so gets in with the senior management. The undercover police officer, Han Chae-Ah, is skilled at unarmed combat, a maverick and arrogant. But, of course, they learn to like each other and work together to bring down the evil mastermind behind the phishing scam, not to mention Gang’s inept boss who lost the money in the first place. The comedy is broad, and the fight scenes aren’t that good… but then it would be churlish complain about a female buddy movie that actually has fight scenes. Entertaining. And it makes a good point about the human cost of phishing too.

Here, Then, Mao Mao (2012, China). I seem to remembering stumbling across this one on Cinema Paradiso’s website. Certainly the director is not a name I knew, and I’ve been exploring the oeuvres of both Fifth and Sixth Generation Chinese directors. But I like modern Chinese cinema – both the commercial films and the film festival ones, although the latter much more than the former. Here, Then, Mao’s debut feature, not only does the things I like about Sixth Generation films, but also the things I like about cinema from other countries. It tells a story about a group of twentysomethings in a provincial town, using the sort of faux-documentary style, with minimal dialogue, used by Sixth Generation directors. But it also uses long, often static, takes, and equally often pulled back so that the action takes place only in a small area at the centre of the screen. There are other tricks in there too – in one scene, two young women waiting for a bus dance to music, and the camera zooms in toward one until she is staring out of the screen, suggesting she is breaking the fourth wall. Characters move in and out of focus as the dynamic changes in other scenes. It’s a polished debut, displaying a facility with cinematic language unusual in a first film. I’d like to see it again, so I guess I’m going to have to pick up a copy. I suspect it might make my top five by the end of the year, although it has stiff competition. Highly recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 922