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2020 – the best of the year

And what a year it’s been.

I refer, of course, to the pandemic. And Brexit. And Trump.

Admittedly, the last didn’t impact me at all. And I was sensible enough to flee the UK before Brexit.

Then there’s Covid… When you look at the low number of deaths in Asian nations, it’s clear no Western nation has handled the pandemic well. While Covid has been the most documented pandemic in history, it’s also been the most politicised. The latter is never going to result in intelligent or useful commentary, especially during a time when so many Western nations are led by populist governments and the press actively lies and misinforms in order to serve its owners’ agendas.

But enough about Covid. I’m profoundly glad I didn’t have to experience it in the UK, but I have many relatives and friends there, so there’s scant relief in that. I deliberately fled the UK because of Brexit, and I do not for one single fucking minute regret that decision. BoJo’s mishandling of Brexit – an appalling decision, in the first place – has made my situation confusing at best, and difficult at worst. Don’t forget: Brexit hasn’t just affected everyone in the UK, but also every UK citizen currently resident, or who owns property, in EU member states. Not to mention all those who operate businesses across what is now the UK-EU border. It is a criminal enterprise, and everyone associated with it belongs in prison. There is no outcome which is better than remaining a member of the EU. And if you believe otherwise, then you are a fucking idiot.

But let’s not talk about 2020… Except, well, this post is all about 2020. Specifically, the books, films and music I enjoyed most during the year. I usually do two of these a year: one in June (see here) and one in December or January. Because, well, things change. Although perhaps not that much. The numbers in square brackets below are that item’s position in my June best of the half-year.

books
1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK) [1]. Moore has spent a lot of time exploring the history of UK comics, and not just in this property, which originally set out to explore early fictional heroes. But here the commentary on UK comic history is explicit, and even though married with the Shakespeare play of the title, it still hangs impressively together and provides a coherent commentary and story. I find Moore a bit hit and miss, although I don’t doubt he’s the smartest writer currently working in comics. This book is the best he’s done for a long time. One day, I must read his prose novels. I’m told they’re difficult…

2 Still, Adam Thorpe (1995, UK) [-]. I stumbled across Thorpe’s debut, Ulverton, by accident several years ago and was impressed. I put him down as a name to look out for when I was browsing charity shops. And subsequently read a couple of books by him. But it wasn’t until reading Still I realised how singular a talent he is. The book is framed as a spoken narrative by a second-tier British film director, who nonetheless is present for many of the great cinematic moments of the twentieth century, or at least knows the names involved. It’s an impressively sustained narrative, and a clear indication that although Thorpe is not a popular writer he has a voice that will continue to impress in decades to come.

3 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK) [2]. Gwyneth Jones is a favourite writer. Joanna Russ is a favourite writer. This is almost a dream pairing. I know Jones is a sharp critic, I’ve read her criticism. But I was not so sure how she would approach Russ’s fiction. Happily, I need not have worried. Jones’s treatment of Russ’s career is factual and sympathetic. And extremely informative. Jones discusses Russ’s stories in relation to her life and career and the general shifts in science fiction occurring at the time. True, her essay on Russ in Imagination/Space does a better job on The Two of Them than this book does, but Joanna Russ is more of a career overview. Good stuff. Especially for fans of Russ.

4 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2017, Israel) [3]. Tidhar either writes alternative histories of the Jewish people, often involving Hitler, or sometimes only involving Hitler, or novels about superpowers made manifest in actual recent history. And sometimes he writes other types of science fiction. In Unholy Land, the Jews were offered land in central Africa after WWI, and accepted it. They called their country Palestina. A Jewish pulp writer based in Berlin returns to Palestina, and as he explores the country’s capital, and his past, so the history of Palestina, and the story itself, begin to unravel. It’s territory Tidhar has explored before – I’m pretty sure there’s an early short story buried in part of this novel – but Unholy Land is a much more effective treatment. His best yet.

5 The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North (2019, UK) [-]. North’s novel may sometimes wander a bit, but she shows an impressive degree of rigour in the treatment of her ideas and clearly puts a great deal of effort into her research. It pays off. Abbey is being chased by a shadow, after failing to save the life of a boy in late 19th-century Natal, and that shadow means he can now hear the truth in what people say. Unless the shadow catches him, in which case someone he loves dies. The British Empire have learnt to make use of people like Abbey, and he is co-opted into the Great Game. The premise is pure fantasy, but it’s treated like science fiction. North does an excellent job on its ramifications, and if the book tends to melodrama in places, it’s also an intelligent commentary on colonialism and imperialism.

Honourable mentions: Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK) [5], set in a post-climate change UK where migrants and refugees are indentured labour, it’s technology-driven but smells uncannily like recent political changes; All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA), excellent collection by a writer I’ve admired for many years, who sadly died in 2019; Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (2015, Malaysia), Regency fantasy that makes a good fist of its setting but perhaps leaves a few too many bits of the plot unexplained; Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK), women-only island retreat keeps one of the Greek fates in check, and so allows men the freedom to be themselves, but then the retreat is destroyed, resulting in a somewhat off-centre literary fantasy; Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord (2010, Barbados), Senegalese-inspired fantasy that may not be hugely original but has bags of charm; The Green Man’s Silence, Juliet E McKenna (2020, UK), third instalment in an urban fantasy series, and probably the best yet; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), third and sadly final episode in the adventures of the Athena Club, a group of female Victorian fictional characters, and I like the fact the books are explicitly framed as the written-up adventures of the club, including commentary on the narrative by the characters.

films
1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK) [1]. It probably says something about the sort of year 2020 has been that my pick for best film is 79 minutes of a single unchanging shot of International Klein Blue accompanied by a voiceover by Nigel Terry. But I could listen to Terry’s voice for hours. And Blue is such a perfect endpoint to Jarman’s remarkable career, an encapsulation of the life of a man who was more than just a film-maker, whose art defined an aesthetic and possibly a country’s cinema (more so than Richard fucking Curtis does). The BFI have released two Blu-ray collections containing all of Jarman’s movies. I urge you to buy both box sets. He made some remarkable films and they’re worth watching.

2 Kaili Blues, Bi Gan (2015, China) [-]. Although this film is not unlike those made by Sixth Generation directors, as far as I know Bi does not belong to that group. Yet Kaili Blues has all the hallmarks – a simple and yet very personal story, told in a a very stripped-back way. The centre of the film is a 41-minute single take, which is not only a remarkable piece of film-making, but also makes extensive use of the stunning Chinese geography in the area. It is a less overtly political film than those made by most Sixth Generation directors, but its commentary remains effective all the same. A man tries to discover the fate of his nephew, and ends up in a village where past, present and future co-exist. But not in an obvious way. A beautiful-looking film.

3 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon) [2]. A young Lebanese boy sues his parents for having him, which is merely the entry to a story of child brides, indentured labour, refugee abuse, and Western imperialism. Everything in Capernaum is true, everything in Capernaum is the consequence of the foreign policies of centre-right and right-wing Western nations, everything in Capernaum should be condemned by anyone with an ounce of humanity. I was surprised I’d not heard of this film, and I’m familiar with Labaki’s previous movies, but given its subject perhaps that’s not so surprising. Capitalism does not work, the current world order is broken. We need more films about its victims. Capernaum is a beautifully-made and important film.

4 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Fred Schepisi (1978, Australia) [-]. If Capernaum suggests that things might change for the better, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith demonstrates they won’t. It’s a heart-breaking movie, set in late nineteenth-century Australia. Which is probably all that needs to be said. Australia’s history of race relations, especially with its indigenous people, has been far from exemplary. Jimmie Blacksmith, who is half-Aboriginal, accidentally kills a white woman after his white wife is persuaded to leave him, and subsequently goes on the run. The film show cases both Australia’s landscape and its systemic racism. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith may be set at the turn of the twentieth century, but more than 100 years later it often seems little has improved.

5 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA) [4]. I loved Twin Peaks. It started out as a perfect pastiche of US daytime soap operas, before heading off into some very strange territory – which was not entirely unexpected, as I’d followed David Lynch’s career for several years. For all that, the last thing I thought the series needed was a third season, especially one made 27 years after the last season. But… it not only worked, it was brilliant. It recapitulated the strangeness of the original, it advanced the plot, it remained just as fucking strange. It also looked gorgeous. It didn’t answer any of the questions left over from the  original two seasons, but it was clearly never intended to. It was, as the UK branding makes abundantly clear, a “limited event”. I think this may be a good strategy for TV series.

Honourable mentions: Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Run Waiter, Run!, Ladislav Smoljak (1981, Czechia), amusing comedy in which a man supplements his income by posing as a waiter in various restaurants and taking diners’ money, and gets so good at he becomes a folk hero; Sami Blood, Amanda Kernell (2016, Sweden), dramatic treatment of a Sami teenage girl turning her back on her culture, and encountering prejudice and racism as she tries to fit into 1930s mainstream Swedish society; Rift, Erlingur Thoroddsen (2017, Iceland), a man goes to stay with an ex-boyfriend who is holed up in a secluded cabin, but someone has been prowling around the cabin, and then things start to get really strange; Dodsworth, William Wyler (1936, USA), classic Hollywood melodrama of the period, with a razor-sharp script. Heckle, Robbie Moffatt (2013, UK), extremely low-budget UK film, set in Selby, about a woman who shows promise as a comedian; The Gardener, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2012, Iran), beautifully-shot documentary about the Baha’i religion, especially in regards to a man who tends a Baha’i garden in Israel.

television
I’ve been doing a lot of box-set bingeing this year, so I decided to introduce this category. And, to be fair, the music category has been somewhat moribund these last few years.

Two of the series I watched this year were structured around the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. If it takes nigh on 100 years to comment on these horrible events in our popular culture, then perhaps we need to look again at our popular culture. Drama series about the Windrush scandal are not going to cut it in 2115. Get that shit out now, put it in front of as many people as possible, show them that the Tories are Nazis. Fascists shouldn’t have to storm the Capitol for people to take notice, especially when the evidence is there all along.

But, I digress. Or rant. One or the other. TV is a a more immediate medium than books or films. I suspect it’s also a more demotic medium than cinema or books, and so punches above its weight. It’s a medium that’s interrupted by what’s allegedly called news. Not if you box-set binge or stream, of course. But even so, we’re still at the point where a significant portion of the electorate have trouble accepting anything beyond the terrestrial channels… Which might not be so bad if the terrestrial channels had remained true to their charters, but they plainly have not.

1 Watchmen (2019, USA). I am perhaps in a minority in thinking the ending to the movie adaptation of Watchmen superior to the original comic book ending. And Watchmen, the TV series, was written by Damon Lindelof, best-known for Lost – which, when it wasn’t doing “backstory of the week” wasn’t all that bad, although it clearly wasn’t planned – and Prometheus, which is an appalling piece of writing. And yet, Watchmen is… seriously clever, both fitting within the world built by Moore and Gibbons and also extending it. Watchmen starts with police officers hiding their identities in order to protect themselves from Neo-nazi militias and then folds that into the universe of the graphic novel – which had much to say about fascist violence – before eventually dragging it back, as all things Watchmen-related must do, to Dr Manhattan. Smart television.

2 Lovecraft Country (2020, USA). I’d heard good things about this, but it didn’t sound like it would appeal as I’m not a fan of horror and, let’s face it, Lovecraft was a horrible fucking racist so it would take some fancy footwork to re-imagine him for a twenty-first century audience. Happily, Lovecraft Country sidesteps that problem by only referencing Lovecraft obliquely and – more controversially, for US TV at least – by basing it on black history. The end result is a mini-series that feels complete after two episodes, but still manages to keep the plot going for a further eight episodes. Nigerian/British actress Wunmi Mosaku stands out as Ruby Baptiste, and not just because her character comes across as the most rounded of them all. I didn’t expect to like Lovecraft Country, but I thought it excellent.

3 His Dark Materials (2019 – 2020, UK). An adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, which I read back in the 1990s – and the first book was adapted for the cinema back in 2007, but no sequels appeared after underwhelming US box office performance and public criticism of the movie from the Catholic Church… But I had fond memories of the books, and occasional rumours of adaptations kept me hopeful we’d see it gain eventually on big or small screen. This British TV adaptation, however, has proven really good – despite not having a $180 million budget – and the second season, which aired this year, is even better than the first.

4 Morden i Sandhamn (2010 – 2020, Sweden) This is a police drama set in a small village in the Stockholm archipelago, about 60 km east of the city centre. It’s all a bit chocolate-box, which is what I call TV designed to showcase the appeal of places, even if the stories involve murder. They are… comfortable. Sufficiently fictional not to upset prospective tourists who like the look of what they see. Like Midsomer Murders, which features murder but nothing so upsetting as brown people. Morden i Sandhamn wins hands-down on the scenery front, and it did have a tendency to reach for cliché at moments of high drama. But it had a likeable cast – that were not exemplary, it must be said – and it took some effort over its plots.

5 Murder Call (1997 – 2000, Australia). A police drama set in Sydney. It is… extraordinarily ordinary. If that makes sense. Its gimmick is that its chief detective, Tessa Vance, would subconsciously solve the case three-quarters of the way into the episode’s 45-minute slot. While the crimes the homicide squad investigated ranged from the banal to the bizarre, it was Vance’s epiphany that pretty much defined each episode. I’ve always had a soft spot for female detectives – my favourite crime writers are Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton – and I’ve always much preferred police procedural TV series which feature female leads. Murder Call was very much a product of its time, but I quite liked the fact it made its central premise seem entirely reasonable and plausible.

Honourable mentions: Star Trek: Picard (2020, USA), Patrick Stewart is dragged out of dotage for one last mission, and it’s probably the smartest bit of writing set in the Star Trek universe ever put on screen; Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010 – 2013, USA), the eleventh incarnation of the series, but the smartest yet, filled with clever references and in-jokes, including spoofs of David Lynch’s work: Beck (1997 – 2018, Sweden), definitive Swedish cop show, entertaining to see how it changed – and the genre changed – over a decade; The Mandalorian (2019 – 2020, USA), Star Wars fanfic TV series, never very convincing but it did have its moments; For All Mankind (2019, USA), alternate Space Race which, unsurprisingly, reminded me a great deal of a quartet of novellas by someone or other…


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Best of the half– fuck, what a year it’s been so far… year

2020 has certainly been a year for the history books. True, more people died in the early decades of last century, but that did result in actually intelligent people being in charge for a while. But then old habits kicked back in and the British once again mistook privilege for intelligence and the US once again mistook the possession of wealth for intelligence, and so both countries now have the worst and most inept governments in living memory.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the pandemic. I’ve spent most of this year so far cooped up indoors. And all my holidays plans – conventions in Stockholm and the Åland Islands – were cancelled; and ones later this year – in Reykjavík and Copenhagen – may also come to naught. You would think that working from home and not socialising would mean I’ve spent the last six months readings tons of books and watching shitloads of films. Sadly, no. Which has made this best of the half year both easier and harder – easier because there’s less to choose from; harder because there were no real stand-outs, just an even split between good and bad. But here goes, anyway…

books
To date, I’ve read 49 books, of which ten were rereads. Female authors accounted for 43%, and male authors for 47%. The remainder were graphic novels and non-fiction. Half were by British authors, a third by US authors, and the rest from Sweden, New Zealand, Israel, France, Belgium and Canada. The oldest book I read was first published in 1923, and the most recent was published this year. The best five books read in 2020 so far are…

1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK). From a relatively easy to understand premise – a group of “superheroes” taken from late Victorian/early Edwardian fiction – this extended series has turned increasingly metafictional as it has progressed. And every piece of British fiction sooner or later references Shakespeare. And if you’re going to do that, and you’re genre, why not go for the big one, The Tempest? (It’d be King Lear for other genres, I suspect; but A Comedy of Errors for, er, comedy.) This latest installment of The League of Gentleman doesn’t just up the metafictional states, it also functions as a history of UK comics. I can understand the motives behind this – and I’m well aware it’s something Moore has tackled many times in other properties – but certainly the breadth of British comics doesn’t seem so well-known – US comics: superhero comics … UK comics: everything from the Bash Street Kids to Dan Dare to Judge Dredd to Susan of St Bride’s to Lord Peter Flint…

2 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve been a fan of Russ’s fiction for many years, and a fan of Jones’s writing for considerably longer, and in hindsight the two have a great deal in common. The science fiction of both is intensely feminist, although in Russ’s fiction it feels more combative – but claiming that’s a consequence of its time is too easy an answer, because while Russ may have been earlier, the war is far from over, even 65 years after the publication of Russ’s first story in 1955. Jones provides an overview of Russ’s life, and then discusses her fiction, both short and long. This book does what all good books of its type should do: it makes you want to go back and revisit the subject’s works. I finished Joanna Russ wanting to reread Russ’s stories and novels. Job done.

3 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2018, Israel). Tidhar has spent a lot of time exploring alternative Israels and, sadly, history has given him plenty of plausible alternatives to explore. In Unholy Land, the Jews are offered land in Uganda by the British – which really sort of happened – and they accept the offer and call it Palestine. But Tidhar can never tell a straight alternative history, there has to be some sort of spin. In Unholy Land, a science fiction author returns to this Palestine, except he’s not from that reality, and his presence changes things. For all that this is not new territory for Tidhar, it’s good stuff. I’m also pretty sure one of the stories written by the sf author in the novel is the first sf story by Tidhar I ever read.

4 Metropolis, Philip Kerr (2019, UK). It’s not just sentimentality that earns this novel its spot in this top five  – it’s the last of the Bernie Gunther books, as Kerr died the year before it was published – but as the last book in what has been an excellent series, and one of the better entries in that series, it definitely earns a place. Yes, there is a link with Lang’s film, but it’s pretty tenuous (Gunther is interviewed by Thea von Harbou, Lang’s scriptwriter and wife, and suggests the plot which becomes M). Metropolis covers Gunther’s career in its very early years, specifically an investigation into two serial killers, one who kills prostitutes and one who kills WWI veterans, and it’s excellent stuff. If you’ve not read these books, you really should give them a go.

5 Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK). This is previously-mined territory for Charnock as Bridge 108 is set in the same universe as A Calculated Life and The Enclave. In fact, the opening chapters of the novel were previously published as The Enclave. Charnock presents a future UK suffering from both climate change and the migrant crisis, but also a world split into haves and have-nots where the distinguishing item is a brain chip allowing direct access to, well, something probably not unlike the internet – but without the trolls and fake news and shitstorm social media. Bridge 108 is a bit like Law and Order – a format I’ve used myself – as the story is carried forward from one character to the next. Science fiction which interrogates our world is becoming increasingly rare – indeed, science fiction which interrogates its own world seems on the wane – so we should value such novels when they do appear.

Honourable mentions: The Green Man’s Foe, Juliet E McKenna (2019, UK), a trunk novel rewritten as a sequel to The Green Man’s Heir, and while it’s a bit, er, bitty, it’s a fun read and a good instalment in a series that deserves to continue; The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (2017, UK), the Hitchcock connection, to be honest, is a bit of a red herring, as is the crime which opens the story, but this is a typically Robertsian exploration of political conflict between two worlds, in this case the real and the virtual, which on reflection seems particularly British; A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA), a short collection of metafictional pieces by an author who probably writes the best prose of any US genre writer currently being published; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), the third and, sadly, final, volume in the adventures of the Athena Club, a female-only group of fictional characters from Victorian literature, and, while it doesn’t celebrate the metafictions it explores, this trilogy is pleasingly metafictional; Beneath the World, a Sea, Chris Beckett (2019, UK), Ballard meets Greene in strange adventures in an alien zone in South America, which succeeds because it’s on strong on atmosphere and appropriately vague on rigour; Shardik, Richard Adams (1974, UK), after rabbits Adams turned to secondary-world fantasy, and managed something that is more literary than is common for the genre, even if it wasn’t published as genre per se, but is just as grim and bleak.

films
I bought a dozen Blu-rays with me when I moved here and I’ve still not watched them all. Admittedly, one is 17.5 hours long, so it may be a while yet before the shrinkwrap comes off that one. I’ve not watched any Swedish TV this year, but then I was never a fan of Midsomer Murders. But I have been binge-watching several sf TV series. After finishing off Stargate SG-1, I moved onto Quantum Leap. And there was a season of Space: 1999 in there somewhere as well- and that definitely didn’t match my fond memories of it. There were also some newer series, such as Watchmen, Avenue 5 and For All Mankind, of assorted quality. And then there were the films…

This year, I’ve seen 198 films, so slightly up on last year. Two-thirds were new to me. A third were from the US, slightly less than a third from the UK, and the rest from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China (including Hong Kong), Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, New Zealand, Norway, Russia (including the USSR), South Africa, South Korea and Sweden. China, India and Italy were the top three among those – that’s a lot of Jackie Chan and Shaw Bros movies, Bollywood films and gialli. The best films – and one “limited event series” – I watched in 2020 so far are…

1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I remember watching some of this back in the 1990s – I’m pretty sure I did, although I left the UK in March 1994 and it was broadcast on Channel 4 in September 1993, which would have been my only chance to see it… So perhaps I didn’t it. I certainly knew of it. And at that time I likely thought it hugely self-indulgent – 79 minutes of a single shot of International Klein Blue? But I’ve now watched it several times, and I find it an extremely moving film. Plus, I could listen to Nigel Terry’s voice for weeks.

2 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon). I’m surprised I’d not come across this film sooner. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and the name Labaki is not unknown to me. Admittedly, it’s getting harder and harder to find the sort of films I like these days. New releases on streaming services seem to dominate social media, and Amazon’s search engine is notoriously useless. And I no longer subscribe to either LoveFilm (which is defunct anyway) or Cinema Paradiso, which was one way of finding new films that might interest me… Fortunately, I stumbled across Capernaum on Amazon Prime, a film about how the West has comprehensively fucked up the Near East, as told through the story of a twelve-year-old Lebanese boy who stabs a man who buys his eleven-year-old sister as his wife (and she dies in childbirth), and the boy wants to sue his parents for having him. This is harrowing stuff, and a film that should certainly be better known.

3 In Order of Disappearance, Hans Petter Moland (2014, Norway). Skarsgård plays a taciturn Swede living in Norway who has just been made Man of the Year of his small town. Then his son is found dead of an overdose, except Skarsgård is convinced he never touched drugs. (He was actually murdered by a drug dealer.) Skarsgård investigates and works his way up the drug cartel hierarchy, killing off each person he finds, and inadvertently kicking off a gang war between the Norwegian drug dealers and a gang of Serbian drug dealers. This is the blackest of comedies and it’s perfectly pitched. The head of the Norwegian gang, a pony-tailed Vegan, is an excellent comedic character. Bizarrely, some of the characters spoke Swedish, some Danish, and the rest Norwegian. Which resulted in a somewhat weird viewing experience.

4 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA). I’ve been a fan of Twin Peaks since it was first broadcast on British TV. The one thing I never thought it needed was a third season. And, to be honest, I’ve sort of gone off David Lynch’s movies. So expectations were mixed when I started watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series, as it was branded in the UK. And… The second season of Twin Peaks ended in a very strange place, and this third season takes that and runs with it. It’s almost impossible to summarise or make sense of the plot. Most of the original cast return, including several who had retired, but especially notable in this season was the cinematic quality of camerawork. The original two seasons of Twin Peaks were television soap opera, and both looked and felt like a – somewhat bizarre, admittedly – television soap opera. But the third season often looks and feels like a string of arthouse films. There’s that famous theme tune, and lots of familiar faces, but watching Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series is a bit like watching the entire oeuvre of an alternate world David Lynch.

5 Gloria, Sebastián Lelio (2013, Chile). A middle-aged divorcee decides she has spent long enough on the shelf, and begins to enjoy a social life. She meets a man of the same age, and they start seeing each other. But he’s still tied to his kids, and he can’t let them go and enjoy their relationship. Middle-aged women are not a common subject of movies – and particularly not, you would have thought, in South America – so such films should be treasured when they do appear. It helps that Gloria is so good. It’s mostly a one-hander, but Paulina García is excellent in the title role (and won a Golden Bear for it). Again, like the other two non-Anglophone movies above, this was a lucky find. I’m glad I found it.

Honourable mentions: Enter the Fat Dragon, Kenji Tanagaki & Wong Jing (2020, China), highly entertaining kung fu action/comedy that starts in Hong Kong then moves to Tokyo; Thale, Aleksander Nordaas (2012, Norway), two nobodies who clean up after deaths get more than they bargain for when they discover a hulder, a Scandinavian forest satyr, in a dead man’s bunker; Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Nabil Ayouch (2000, Morocco), a movie with an amateur cast of Moroccan kids who decide to give one of their own a fitting funeral after he dies in a senseless gang fight.

albums
No albums, I’m afraid. I’ve spent most of the last six months listening to playlists on Spotify. Some I created myself, some myself and colleagues put together, and others I found on Spotify. If I had the time, I could probably pick five best songs I’ve stumbled across in 2020, but that would be a monumental task and I don’t track the music I listen to like I do the films I watch and the books I read. But perhaps by the end of the year, I may have found some albums new to me in 2020 worthy of a top five.


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Movie roundup 2020, #7

I’ve been trying to catch up on all the blog posts I should have written and posted over the last few weeks. I’m not sure what’s prompted this sudden burst of productivity. Perhaps it’s because the weather has turned and it’s been (mostly) sunny for the last week. Unfortunately, at this time I also have to contend with the sun rising at you-must-be-fucking-joking o’clock and setting at stupidly-late o’clock …

Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino (1992, USA). I don’t remember where and when I first saw Reservoir Dogs, but it has certainly not survived a twenty-first century rewatch. I’d thought Pulp Fiction much more racist than I remembered it, but Reservoir Dogs is much worse. Tarantino’s characters as written spend most of their time spouting racist slurs as if that’s some sort of badge of authenticity. It certainly makes them authentically racist. Most of the dialogue and the acting is over-the-top, which doesn’t play well with the stripped back locations and simple camera-work. In those respects – framing and blocking – Reservoir Dogs works well. And Tarantino clearly had the smarts to hire a good DP. But Tarantino’s films are notorious for their stories and snappy dialogue and, oh dear, that does seem to be somewhat unearned on the strength of this film. Best forgotten.

Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Mohammed Sadiq (1960, India). A classic bit of Bollywood starring Guru Dutt. Two men fall in love with the same woman. Unfortunately, this is Muslim Lucknow, and one of them is married to the woman and the other didn’t realise she’s his best friend’s wife. There’s plenty of comic scenes, courtesy of Johnnie Walker – yes, that really was his screen name, and he had a long and successful career – and Dutt proves he’s the “Orson Welles of Indian cinema” just as much as an actor as a director. This is classic Bollywood, perhaps not up there with Pakeezah or Mughal-e-Azam, but certainly one that should be on every Bollywood fan’s watch list.

Armour of God, Jackie Chan (1987, China). I’d thought in Andrzej Żuławski’s L’amour bracque I’d found the most 1980s film ever, but Armour of God runs it a close second. The former qualified because its cast robbed a bank in shoulder pads, Armour of God, however, features some concert scenes that are even more 1980s than I remember the 1980s actually being. None of which has anything to do with this plot. There’s this suit of armour that was involved in a fight between good and evil, and a guy who is trying to collect it all, and Chan and his partner are sort of hired to find the last few pieces of it in order to prevent its misuse by a bad guy. Like most Jackie Chan films, Armour of God is a string of cleverly done fight scenes, bad dialogue, cheesy romance and relentless action. It’s a formula that’s produced many entertaining Hong Kong movies, but the presence of Chan at the centre of it does give them that little bit extra.

In Order of Disappearance (AKA Kraftidioten), Hans Petter Moland (2014, Norway). I mentioned this film to my mother and she said, “It’s brilliant!” and admitted she’d even recorded it so she could watch it again. Stellan Skarsgård’s son works at the local airport and is murdered one night by gangsters who thought he’d stolen some drugs. True, he’d been helping a friend smuggle in drugs, but he’d not stolen any. He wasn’t an addict but apparently died of an overdose. Skarsgård doesn’t believe this and investigates. And works his way up the drug dealers’ chain of command, killing everyone who had a hand in his son’s death. The drug dealers think a rival Serbian gang is muscling in on their territory and inadvertently kick off a gang war. Excellent film. And slightly weird for me as Skarsgård speaks Swedish throughout, and different bits of the Danish and Norwegian were sort of intelligible. Definitely check it out.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Takashi Miike (2011, Japan). After my last post’s disappointment with Miike, he goes and remakes a Masaki Kobayashi film from 1962, which is highly regarded, and produces something that is arguably better than the original (which, admittedly, I’ve not seen). A young ronin asks permission to commit seppuku in the palace courtyard of a lord, hoping he will be turned away and given money instead – a common practice. But the lord’s head samurai calls the ronin’s bluff, and he is forced to commit suicide with a bamboo blade, having already pawned his sword. Some months later, another ronin turns up and makes the same request. Flashbacks explain that the previous ronin was his son-in-law, and he holds the lord’s samurai responsible. This was excellent – gripping, violent, excellent fights scenes, sympathetic protagonists… Everything you could want in a samurai film. Worth seeing.

Hitch-hike, Pasquale Festa Campanile (1977, Italy). The title pretty much tells you the story. And there are no doubt a dozen films with the same title and plot. A couple holidaying in some canyons on their way home pick up a hitchhiker who proves to be a violent criminal on the run. He takes them hostage and forces them to drive to Mexico. Although set in the Us, the film was actually made in Italy – but it doesn’t long to get used to American set dressing and Italian dialogue in giallo, or even well-known UK or US faces seemingly speaking fluent Italian. The star here is Franco Nero, an actual Italian, who at the height of his career was probably as good-looking as John Phillip Law. The villain, however, was played by a Z-list US actor dubbed into Italian. Meh.

The Fox and the Hound, Ted Berman, Richard Rich & Art Stevens (1981, USA). This was apparently a hand-over film for Disney, when the Nine Old Men, Disney’s original team of animators, retired and passed the torch to a new generation. Unfortunately, the two generations argued over the story for this film, resulting in something even more mawkish than usual. The story is a Disney staple – kids from opposing sides grow up together, are forced to confront their differences once grown, manage to put them aside after a dangerous situation shows their hearts are in the right place. It’s such an American lesson. And completely unsupported by US history or national character. In this case, one kid is a dog and the other is a fox. They play together as pup and cub. The dog hunts the fox once adult. Fox helps save dog and his owner from a bear. Everyone lives happily ever after. sort of. Not one of Disney’s best.

The Incoherents, Jared Barel (2019, USA). Lead singer/songwriter of an alt rock band packs into because he can’t handle the uncertainty. Twenty-five years later, he has a mid-life crisis and decides to “put the band back together”. It’s never that easy, of course. But he persuades the others to follow his dream, they get some small online interest and perform a few well-reviewed gigs. The film is good on the the difficulties in succeeding in a greatly changed industry and market. Other than the giant conglomerates, culture in the twenty-first century has once again become a cottage industry, and The Incoherents makes a good fist of showing the perils, the work required, and the limited success available that entails. Of course, there’s a big showdown at the end, but its results don’t follow the usual Hollywood formula. Not bad.

Project A I & Project A II, Jackie Chan (1983 & 1987, China). Chan plays a sergeant in the Hong Kong Maritime Police, called, of course, Jackie Chan. Or was it Kevin? Might have been both. Pirates and corrupt businesses have Hong Kong tied up. The Marine Police are disbanded after one too many fight with the regular police and subsumed into the latter. This includes Sergeant Jackie Chan. He impersonates one of the business men doing, er, business with the pirates, infiltrates their lair, and defeats him, with the help of his Marine Police friends and the regular police. The sequel wraps in mainland politics, when Chan is given command of a Hong Kong district whose previous inspector was on the take. Chan gets involved with Kuomintang agents (coincidentally female) while trying to take down a gangland boss. The first film is best-known for a twenty-metre fall by Chan from a clock tower; the second features a climactic battle at a chili-drying factory and on a giant bamboo stage. Excellent stuff.


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Movie roundup 2020, #6

It’s been a while, but it’s time I documented the films I’ve watched over the last few weeks. As usual, it’s a mixed bag.

Sukiyaki Western Django, Takashi Miike (2007, Japan). An attempt to make a samurai film framed explicitly as an arthouse Western. It… doesn’t work. It’s like the entire movie was shot through Snapchat filters. It’s distracting. And the costumes all look like they belong in a visual kei promo video. I can’t actually remember what the story was. There might not have been one. I find Miike’s movies a mixed bag at the best of times, and while there are several Japanese directors whose films I actively seek out he’s not one of them. Meh.

The Die Hard series, comprising Die Hard, John McTiernan (1988, USA), Die Hard 2, Renny Harlin (1990, USA), Die Hard with a Vengeance, John McTiernan (1995, USA), Live Free or Die Hard, Len Wiseman (2007, USA) and A Good Day to Die Hard, John Moore (2013, USA). There’s little doubt the first is a classic piece of Hollywood cinema. It’s complete hokum, of course, but so were the 1970s disaster movies which inspired it. It’s completely clichéd superficial action from start to finish. Unfortunately, the series has been on a downward slide ever since. Die Hard 2 manages to stick to the formula but presents a set of villains, and a twist, that are completely implausible – or, at least, even more implausible than the other movies. Die Hard with a Vengeance at least gets its villain right, although Jeremy Irons is no match for Alan Rickman, and the audacity of the robbery is hard to swallow – as indeed is the existence of a bank in central New York that holds most of the gold reserves of many nations. Live Free or Die Hard is just plain bad. Willis’s character is dragged out of an alcoholic stupor to help a hacker with several million dollars worth of gear prevent an ex-NSA hacker genius from stealing a backup of every piece of financial data in the US – because of course all the banks and brokers and financial institutions in the US obviously let the US government copy their data and keep a back-up. FFS. When Willis isn’t pretending to be hungover – and might very well have actually been hung-over – he’s wearing an iff-putting smirk. And the central premise is so mind-numbingly stupid it’s a miracle anyone ever signed off the film financing. A Good Day to Die Hard is just plain shit. The franchise has sunk so low it’s had to relocate to Russia. Willis’s estranged son is in a Russian prison, so Willis goes to break him out, but his imprisonment was all a cunning CIA plot to rescue an imprisoned Russian politician. Except it turns out everything is actually the opposite of what it seems, except the quality of this movie which remains resolutely shit throughout.

Viking Blood, Uri L Schwartz (2019, Denmark). An odd film, made by an American, in Denmark, with a mostly Scandinavian cast, all speaking English. A mysterious stranger appears in a Viking village, where the Christians and the Pagans are in an uneasy stand-off. The stranger claims to be a mercenary, and seems to do his best in provoking the village to war. It’s all very low-budget, the acting is generally poor, the use of slow-motion in the fight scenes only displays how badly they are choreographed, and even a last-minute twist can’t redeem the plot. Avoid.

One Day: Justice Delivered, Ashok Nanda (2019, India). A modern Bollywood take on And Then There Were None. A respected judge retires, and after his daughter’s wedding party two of the guests go missing. More people go missing. An inspector from another district is called in to investigate, and she soon discovers all of the missing people were involved in one case or other that appeared before the judge. The judge has kidnapped them and is torturing them so they will confess to their crimes. Flashbacks handily explain those crimes and what total scumbags the missing people are. For all that it was somewhat predictable, I enjoyed this.

Killer Nun, Giulio Berruti (1979, Italy). The title pretty much says it all. A giallo, with Anita Ekberg in the title role. It’s about a nun. Who kills people. In the geriatric hospital where she works. It’s all very over-wrought and intense, even for a giallo. A notorious film, apparently, but not a good one.

Miracles, Jackie Chan (1989, China). It has always amused that Jackie Chan plays characters called Jackie Chan in his movies, even if those characters are different people in each film – I mean, Jackie Chan in Miracles, set in the 1930s, can’t be the same Jackie Chan as in Armour of God, set in the 1980s… Of course, when Jackie Chan is not playing Jackie Chan, he’s playing Kevin something, and it usually depends on the distributor, or whoever does the subtitles, what his character is called. In Miracles, Chan plays a hapless innocent who unwittingly becomes the chief of a group of gangsters in 1930s Hong Kong. The gang is at war with another gang, and it all comes down to a one-on-one fight in a rope factory with the usual clever and amusing stunts. Good stuff.

Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino (1994, USA). I can remember exactly when I first saw this film. I’d graduated and was stilling looking for a job six months later. I was staying with my sister in Chiswick, and she and some of her friends had planned a trip to the cinema to see a film. There were two to choose from: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Pulp Fiction. I chose the former but was out-voted. I know which film has aged better. Not this one. It’s, well, really racist. Especially Tarantino’s character, who drops the n-word like a nerd who’s too dumb to realise crackers are fucking horrible people. Perhaps the chopped-up chronology of the narrative was innovative in 1994, although I’m pretty sure Hollywood has been playing tricks with narrative chronology since the 1940s. Other than a lot of swearing and a desperate attempt at a hip soundtrack, there’s little in Pulp Fiction that justifies the reputation it once had.

Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott (2017, UK). After a hiatus of fifteen years, the series creator returned to it with a prequel. And I was bitterly disappointed. It looked great, but relied on idiot characters and idiot plotting and retconned the entire franchise so it made no sense whatsoever. And in the sequel to that film, Scott… doubled-down on everything. The visuals are even more striking, the plot makes even less sense, and the character are even more ridiculously stupid and stereotypical. A third film is due next year, I believe. I expect the downward trajectory to continue.

Bed & Board, François Truffaut (1970, France). The fourth film of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series. He’s now working for a florist and expecting his first child. So, of course, he has an affair with a Japanese woman. It’s easy enough to appreciate the skill with which these films are put together but I have no idea what point they are trying to make.