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2014, the best of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moving pictures, #12

More films seen recently, and it’s the usual mix. As if all that many of the films I’ve been watching this year could be described as “usual”…

fast_timesFast Times At Ridgemont High*, Amy Heckerling (1982, USA). Time has not been kind to this film. Pretty much everything in it has since been used in later high school films, so it now looks like a string of tired old clichés. Which is not to say much of it wasn’t clichéd to begin with. I’m not a fan of high school movies to start with, chiefly because I never went to an American high school – so such films mean pretty much nothing to me. I’ve no idea why this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It was perhaps mildly amusing in 1982, but in 2014 it’ll make for an evening’s entertainment only if you’re easily please and if you’ve consumed several beers.

Au Hasard Balthazar*, Robert Bresson (1966, France). The title refers to a donkey, owned by the young daughter of a farmer. As she grows up, so the donkey changes hands, and undergoes a series of indignities and cruelties – it may be a beast of burden, but it’s not treated at all well. The farmer’s daughter also suffers abuse at the hands of the various people, although emotional rather than physical. In fact, the two lives broadly mirror one another, although the similarities seem to bounce between too obscure to be easily spotted, or glaringly signposted. But a good film, and worth seeing.

wearethebestWe Are The Best!, Lukas Moodysson (2013, Sweden). I’ve been a fan of Moodysson’s films since seeing Lilya 4-Ever several years ago, so anything new by him goes straight on the wish list. I did consider going to see this at the cinema earlier this year – it was on around the same time as Under The Skin – but in the event decided to hang on for the DVD. Which is what I did. The film is based on the graphic novel Aldrig Godnatt by Moodysson’s wife, Coco Moodysson. It’s about two early-teen punks in 1982 Stockholm – in the graphic novel, one is called Coco, so its plainly based on the author’s own childhood; but in the film, the character has been named Bobo. The two girls decide to form a band, and recruit a shy Christian girl as guitarist. They then link up with a boy punk band, which causes a few problems as two of the girls fancy the same boy. There’s a beautifully-handled scene in which one of the mothers lectures the girls on tolerance for Christianity, which is not something I ever thought I’d say about a film. We Are The Best! is effortlessly good, and the central trio play their parts superbly.

Journey To Italy*, Roberto Rossellini (1953, Italy). George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman are in Italy to sell a property they’ve inherited near Naples. Things happen. Sanders flirts with another woman, Bergman is jealous. Bergman goes off and does her own thing, Sanders assumes she has a man friend and is jealous. Then, just before the end, they reconcile. By all accounts the production was pretty chaotic, and it shows. Not the most captivating Italian realist film I’ve seen.

americanhustleAmerican Hustle, David O Russell (2013, USA). I’d seen the trailers for this back when it was out in the cinemas, and it looked like it might be enjoyable. Of course, you should never trust a trailer, it’s a marketing tool, and a good one can make a shit film appear to be worth shelling out £10+ to see it. And while I rented this on DVD, so it didn’t cost me anywhere near a tenner, it was still a waste of money as I didn’t like it very much at all. The characters were all horrible, the production design was garish – yes, it was set in the 1970s, but so was Life on Mars, which was a little bit of a spoof, and even that didn’t manage such horrible production design – but worst of all, American Hustle was boring. And while Robert De Niro was supposed to be speaking Arabic, it didn’t sound anything like it. But then he allegedly learnt the language while visiting his casinos in the Middle East – I think Abu Dhabi was mentioned – which is rubbish, as gambling is haram and no Islamic state would licence casinos. (At Nad -Al-Shiba racetrack, they used to offer a prize, usually a car or a racehorse, to anyone who guessed the winners of the night’s races correctly; it wasn’t gambling because it didn’t cost money to guess.)

Shame*, Steve McQueen (2011, UK). I picked this up in a charity shop, which is where it’s going now that I’ve watched it. Michael Fassbender plays a self-centred, er, executive of some sort, in New York who is addicted to sex – he downloads porn at work, he sneaks off to the bogs for a wank, he frequents prostitutes… Then his sister comes to stay with him, and she has a history of suicide attempts. Although beautifully shot, the characters were so unlikeable, the pace so glacial, and the story so uninteresting that I’m mystified by the high regard in which the film is held.

The Cabin In The Woods*, Drew Goddard (2011, USA). I might not think every film on the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list belongs there, but for some of them it’s possible to make a case. But not this one. It’s a piss-take horror full of the usual allegedly witty Whedon banter, with some silly explanatory story driving the plot. This is a film better-suited to a midnight showing on some cable channel, to be watched after copious beers and a doner kebab.

hiroshima mon amour dvd (Small)Hiroshima Mon Amour*, Alain Resnais (1959, France). Resnais is one of those directors whose films I want to like, but every time I watch one I can’t bring myself to do so. He does interesting things, he pushes the boundaries of cinematic narrative. This one is a case in point – the central relationship between the two unnamed characters is handled beautifully, but the documentary footage of Hiroshima is disturbing and I’m far too squeamish to enjoy watching it . It’s too visceral to be likeable as a movie – I might have found it easier to appreciate as a book – but then, that was probably the whole point. Though I didn’t enjoy it, I can understand why Hiroshima Mon Amour is on the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list.

Far_from_heavenFar From Heaven, Todd Haynes (2002, USA). This was a rewatch, as I’ve had the DVD for a couple of years. I originally bought it because it is, of course, famously inspired by Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows – in fact, the film sort of follows the basic plot of Sirk’s film, and its cinematography is clearly inspired by it. Like other Haynes films I’ve seen, I love some things about it and dislike others. Haynes’ 1950s small-town America is beautifully coloured and shot, but I’m not really convinced by Julianne Moore in the lead role. And while her relationship with her gardener works really well, I’m not sure about her husband’s homosexuality – it feels like Haynes has thrown in two scandals for the price of one.

monumentsmenThe Monuments Men, George Clooney (2014, USA). It’s WWII and Clooney recruits a bunch of art experts to hunt through Europe during the latter weeks of the war to hunt for art stolen by the Nazis. Each of them has a piece they obsess over, and would even die for – it certainly leads them to take risks, and results in at least one death. We all know the Nazis were very naughty boys, but stealing art is pretty low down on the list of their crimes. And, to be honest, I think we might have been better off if much of it had never been recovered. Great art should be there for the world to see, not changing hands for ridiculous amounts of money and then hidden away in private collections. That’s just turning paintings into substitute penises, which pretty much misses the whole point of Art. Films like this don’t help.

violentsaturdayViolent Saturday, Richard Fleischer (1955, USA). I didn’t have high expectations for this film, it looked like it might be a minor piece of 1950s noir, something to do with a riot in a small town on the titular day of the week. But when it opened with a car driving down into a working copper mine, and then an explosion to bring down a section of cliff-face, it was obvious this was not going to be your average noir. In fact, Violent Saturday is 1950s melodrama meets thriller, with a trio of bank robbers planning a heist on the day in question, while about them various dramas in the lives of the townsfolk take place, including but not limited to: the wastrel son of the mine owner failing to hold his marriage together, the mine’s manager trying to keep his son’s respect despite not fighting in the war, a bank clerk trying to work up courage to ask out the mine’s nurse… And all shot in beautiful widescreen Technicolor. Loved it.

cloudcappedThe Cloud Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara)*, Ritwik Ghatak (1960, India). This was a bit grim. A young woman, a refugee from East Pakistan, lives with her family in a camp outside Kolkata. Her brother is a wastrel and wants to be a singer – he sings frequently throughout the film, and he’s good. Her fiancé is forever borrowing money off her so he can complete his studies. She is having trouble completing her own studies, with so many demands on her time and finances. And then things start to get worse. Filmed in a very stark black and white, intensely realist, and with an interesting and effective use of close-in mise-en-scène and much wider vistas, particularly across the Hooghly River, this is an excellent film, although perhaps a little long. Definitely a film that deserves repeated watches. And I might have a go at something else by Ghatak.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 528