Monday 24 December 2018

Films of the Year 2018

2018: the return of Lucrecia Martel and Debra Granik; 2 films from Sebastián Lelio; masterpieces from Alfonso Cuarón, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Valeska Grisebach and Andrea Arnold; some of the best YA films ever (hyperbole - me!?). Plus, who would have believed Paul Schrader could still make a film this good? Why hasn’t Widows received the praise it deserves? Why haven't you all seen Faces Places???

It has been a truly awful year in many ways but a rare one for movie lovers. Most of the films listed below raise significant political and social questions without ever offering complacent answers. I've put a couple of crowd pleasers in the top 20 just to show that I haven't lost my genre roots - there just hasn't been a Logan or a Fury Road to get behind this year so I've fallen back on other old loves - musicals and YA movies.

There seem to be more films being made in the US by black filmmakers. Moreover it's the range of tone and style that is just as exciting as the number being made. People might wonder why The Hate U Give places higher than more formally inventive films like Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman. I'm a sucker for a good YA film anyway but I also watched it with an audience mainly composed of young black and Asian youth who responded to it as I did with oohs and aahs, tears and indignation. It even got some applause at the end - fairly unusual in Birmingham cinemas. I persuaded 9 other people to see it in the week that followed. We need subtle examinations of our broken societies, we need acerbic satires but we also need the odd, rousing call to arms wrapped up in a coming of age drama that everyone can appreciate. If you didn't see it I urge everyone to support it when it comes out on DVD/streaming etc. Note too that Life and Nothing More - a fine neorealist take on poverty, racism and working class lives in the US - is easy and cheap to stream.
There are are more must-watch films coming to UK cinemas early in 2019. I can't wait to see Hale County This Morning, This Evening, If Beale Street Could Talk and Regina Hall in working class comedy Support the Girls.

It should be easily evident that many of those films below feature fantastic roles for women. If you haven't already, make sure you watch Leave no Trace, A Fantastic Woman and Shoplifters. They are, anyway, beautiful, mesmerising and urgent films but they also feature performances by Thomasin McKenzie, Daniela Vega and Sakura Ando that are - I'm not sure what words to use really - otherworldly, fierce and profoundly tender: subtle yet eye-catchingly perfect. The criticisms of Roma are fascinating but watching it for the second time I find myself thinking about the performance of Yalitza Aparicio more and more. Finally I'd urge you to watch Beast. It's a fairy tale noir that had me thinking about all the noirs and anti-heroes I've loved before - Jessie Buckley in the lead role is mesmerising.

And yes, then there is Zama. The Headless Woman and La Nina Santa are films I've watched repeatedly, studying the unique techniques and tones of Lucrecia Martel and now we have another film to study, appreciate and love. For some this will be a hard sell but I would urge you to give it a go.

If you need to be convinced further there are plenty of great articles around that will provide clever and subtle insights. Try Sight and Sound, Little White Lies, Variety, Roger Ebert, Film Comment and the Guardian.

There is little here that you won't find on many of the 'Best of' Lists so its easy to find reviews and recommendations, context and background.

My top 5 in a Sight and Sound stylee:

  •    Zama (Lucrecia Martel)
  •    Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
  •    A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio)
  •    Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
  •   Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Related image

I usually have a top 10 (or twelve) but this year it’s a Top 20! 

Image result for Shoplifters
  1. Zama (Lucrecia Martel)
  2. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
  3. A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio)
  4. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
  5. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
  6. The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr.)
  7. Faces Places (Agnes Garda)
  8. Western (Valeska Grisebach)
  9. You Were Never Really Here (Andrea Arnold)
  10. Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
  11. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
  12. 120 BPM (Robin Campillo)
  13. Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski)
  14. Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada)
  15. A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper)
  16. A Ballad for Buster Scruggs (Coen Brothers)
  17. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhava)
  18. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
  19. Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton)
  20. Love Simon (Greg Berlanti)
Image result for First Reformed

I would happily watch all of these again too and on a different day some of them would be in the top 20:
  • Life and Nothing More (Antonio Méndez Esparza)
  • Widows (Steve McQueen)
  • Jeune Femme (Léonor Serraille)
  • BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
  • The Square (Ruben Östlund)
  • The Breadwinner (Nora Twomey)
  • I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)
  • Beast (Michael Pearce)
  • Annihilation (Alex Garland)
  • Disobedience (Sebastián Lelio)
  • Coco (Lee Unkrich)
  • Apostasy (Dan Kokotajlo)
  • Summer 1993 (Carla Simon)
Note too that The Golden Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) is my Christmas morning film this year and so that isn't included.

Image result for Faces Places

What is everyone else watching?
Of the top 100 grossing films in the UK this year I've seen 25. I have no desire to watch most of the others - maybe another 10 when they are free on TV. I went to the cinema 2 or 3 times a week for the best part of 10 years and saw all  kinds of instantly forgettable crap. Never again! What's noticeable is the quantity of children's films and the number of poorly reviewed blockbusters that are on the list. So, great that families are going to the cinema but, obviously, you have to ask what part critics play in cultural debate amongst the majority of working class people and since the answer is probably not much, should anyone care? 

It's always been the case that most of the films I watch are from Hollywood or the art-house circuit. I often wish there were easy (and cheap) ways of seeing other films and more documentaries as it's clear there are a different layer of films out there. So I would point you to the Louis Proyect Blog. He is fun to disagree with and there is a lot to discover in the films he reviews and searches out.

Many of these films will generate some sharp disagreements and discussions I suspect. I loved the experience of watching BlacKkKlansman for instance but Spike Lee made some very debateable decisions with the source material. Owen Glieberman poses some fantastic questions about First Reformed in his Variety articles. There are two differing opinions on Zvyagintsev's Loveless in Sight and Sound, and so on  There is much to be discovered if you find yourself fascinated, angry or confused.

I LOVE most Wes Anderson movies but have no desire to see Isle of Dogs ever again. Oscar season was fine but somewhat forgettable – I enjoyed The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. As for Phantom Thread? I'm not convinced and though i'm usually happy to watch Paul Thomas Anderson's films again and again, I'm not eager at all with this one. I may be wrong though.... Finally A Gentle Creature...I like, often love, tortuous and difficult eastern European films and I'm a Sergei Loznitsa fan but I'm not sure about this. Nor am I ready for a second viewing quite yet! 

Guilty pleasures?
I Tonya and Thoroughbreds are terrific and there is no guilt involved whatsoever. BUT…I left my brain at home when I went to see Molly’s Game and enjoyed it too much - It has all kinds of the usual Aaron Sorkin related issues! And yes, I almost put Red Sparrow in my Top 20. A violent thriller with a Hollywood goddess in the lead role - what's not to love?

I saw a few of them - less than usual perhaps - and enjoyed Deadpool 2 and Mission Impossible. I realize why Black Panther is so important and so unusual - I did a lot of reading and listening, and I learned a lot. I loved the women, but thought the men were a little lacking in charisma and thought the last half hour was pretty dull in a generic superhero film kind of way. Please don’t hate me!

Hereditary, Mandy and A Prayer Before Dawn are all worth watching and will generate much discussion! I enjoyed A Quiet Place but wonder if it is somewhat reactionary. And what about Revenge? I'm not confident that it is the feminist indie it thinks it is but I kind of loved it and will look forward to the next film from Coralie Fargea. 

Of note, I still haven't caught up with The Rider, Dogman, Bad Times at the El Royale, 22 July, The Happy Prince and Shirkers. And many more! Less than a hundred films this year so I'm sure there are, especially, plenty of documentaries and independent worth watching. Also these lists are Africa and Asia lite. Birmingham IS a difficult place to watch new films but I suspect the market for independent foreign movies is diminishing? And Peterloo? I've hardly ever liked a Mike Leigh film and just couldn't be arsed. :-)

Just give me an F. I mean to start again in the New Year with renewed vigour ;-)

Wednesday 12 December 2018


“I'm afraid of people who claim their experience of themselves & the world isn't fractured & fragmentary, when it clearly is; but I'm even more afraid of people who genuinely don't experience things that way.” M John Harrison

   April to November was lost to depression, an accompanying anxiety and some middling (for me) self-destructive behaviours. I call it depression but more accurately it has been about grief and despair. It felt like all my usual safety valves were missing and I was unable to look away. Some of this was about myself – approaching middle age and unable to imagine a way forward, a way to live and thrive - and some to do with my family – I’ll let you off that part.

   But the personal stuff is intimately connected to the much larger grief of the social and political – homeless people everywhere, refugees treated like criminals, the people of Syria and Yemen left to die, the hourly violence directed at people of colour and women, the daily inequality and injustice, the rise of the right and of fascism, the extraordinary stupidity and venality of politicians and of course, more than anything, the accelerating environmental crisis. I have been unable to shut it out. Often the horror of a present and a future I can clearly see has eclipsed any sense of daily pleasure, wonder or satisfaction.

   I suspect I am not alone in this.

   I have largely been unable to read – the readers amongst you will know how painful that is. Fiction has felt pointless. I hate that I’ve felt that way. Movies, a constant source of emotional stability, sustenance and inspiration since I was young, have felt pointless too, though I have, almost on muscle memory, still managed to visit the cinema occasionally.

  The current mini project of posting images on Facebook – I’ve posted an image a day for 10 days of movies that had an impact on me aged 6 to 11 – has thus been a small way to reengage with myself and with memory and what is important. A bit of therapy perhaps. Though I need to go back to the £60 a week variety!

The movies I choose, in the order I saw them, were:
·         Watership Down (1978)
·         West Side Story (1961)
·         North by Northwest (1959)
·         Singing in the Rain (1952)
·         Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
·         The Magnificent Seven (1960)
·         Planet of the Apes (1968)
·         Some Like it Hot (1959)
·         Elmer Gantry (1960)
·         All the Presidents Men (1976)

   Already you start to see the main influences. Westerns, musicals and SF were part of the family geography that remain lifelong loves – little islands of stability and meaning in a household that was becoming increasingly dysfunctional (or maybe I was just becoming more aware of the disfunction). More than that I was already watching lots of films by myself – hundreds of westerns certainly, but also Hollywood films of all kinds from the 40s, 50s and 60s that were a constant on the nation’s 3 channels back then and increasingly the political cinema of the 70s. My love of movie stars, of glamour and beauty, of romance, of melancholy, of screen violence are all there too. All have remained, and for a socialist and critical thinker, it is hard to admit that some of those superficial elements are still central to my dreams and desires. I am still beguiled by beautiful charismatic men and women. If they can sing and dance too…

   My memory is terrible but I can remember the feeling of watching all those films for the first time – the wonder and the weirdness, the joy and excitement and, more than anything, a huge and complicated world being revealed to me. The yearning to connect and to escape my loneliness is ever present but on most days of my 47 years if you’d offered me the choice of a good film or the chance to go out and meet people there would have only been one answer.

   There are 5 films that didn’t make it though they were probably just as influential:
·         Star Wars – obviously perhaps. Growing up in the late 70s the new blockbusters would have a huge impact on many of us.
·         Superman 1 and 2 – Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder!!! Duh!?
·         True Grit – I watched all the John Wayne films again and again. This is still a brilliant, beautiful film. And it has Glen Campbell!
·         The Jazz Singer – what can I say? Neil Diamond was big in our house.
·         Grease - a rare trip to the cinema with the women of my family: my mum, sister, auntie and cousin.

Pink Ladies Grease Quotes. QuotesGram

I’m going to continue with the project and hope that I can start writing a little. I have started lists for my teen years and for my adult years. Already I don’t how I can cut numbers down and how I will avoid editorializing. What have I forgotten? What don’t I want to admit? What has changed? How can I place things in order when my memory is so hazy? How do I separate out the moments that formed me from the ones that didn’t? How does one avoid it becoming an exercise in nostalgia? Luckily, more than ever I don’t care what people might think. Woody Allen, Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood and various other divisive figures will all feature. Better the truth – as near as I can get to it – than a definite lie.

For anyone out there going through a difficult time I hope you get through it. I’m 6 weeks without hitting self-destruct and 2 weeks back at the gym. Baby steps. And just about able to engage with some of the things I love. People? They are still a way off.

Thursday 12 April 2018

Clarke Award 2018

This year there are 108 books on the submissions list so first of all well done to the judges - that is a massive undertaking to read so much. I've only read a tawdry 24 and doubt I'll get round to too many more - with the Man Booker International and the Women's Prize long lists plus my own non-fiction projects there isn't enough time! For the record I've read Allan, Barker, Booth, Bradley, Campbell, Charnock, Doctorow, Hamid, Harkaway, Helle, Hunter, Jemisin, Kalfar, Leckie, Ha Lee, Lennon, McAuley, Mieville, Newitz, Palmer, Roberts, Robinson, Tea, Vandermeer. I hope to get through Kleeman, Robson and maybe Sullivan before I go to back to school.

OK, so I've done a quick search and I believe there is a 2:1 split with around 72 of the texts written by men. There were a couple of authors obviously keeping their gender from the publicity material and I didn't want to pry any further. Apologies if the number is out by one or two. I believe their are 5 BAME authors. Again, my search was relatively thorough but could be slightly out. Whatever way you want to think about those numbers you'd have to be somewhat heartbroken at the state of publishing and the state of the world. There are all kinds of initiatives in other realms and I would humbly suggest that everyone involved in SF and fantasy need to do more. 

     The good news however is that there are some brilliant books on that list. So many that my first request to the judges is to REBEL because I'm going to cheat and have a shortlist of 8: I think they should do the same too. Mwahahahahahahaha. Yep, don't care. Or rather, I do care.

First of all it allows me to contentedly keep to my own rules - at least a 50/50 split of men/women and at least 2 books by BAME authors in the shortlist; it also allows me to include all the books that I believe should be part of the discussion. That said I'm completely open to reading more of the books - if there is something like The Swan Book hiding in there I hope someone will let me know asap. I'm sure the Shadow Clarke discussions will persuade me to read more too.

There's one novel in particular that I love, but can't find a place for it on list - I would urge you all to read Spaceman of Bohemia. I'd also recommend Campbell, Lennon and Vandermeer - fantastic novels. It's nearly two years since I read Clade so it isn't imprinted in my mind like the other novels but it's a really important book and I'm hoping one of the Shadow Clarke writers will choose to think about it. I read The Real Town Murders last August and it suffered a little from my glum mood. I reread it again a couple of weeks ago along with Matha Wells's All Systems Red and I can easily say that it was the most joyful reading weekend of the year. Both novels are smart, funny and tense - a wonderful and unusual combination. Read them both.

More generally? There certainly is a lot of dystopian writing going on at the moment isn't there? I have to say that I find quite a bit of it irritating. What's most annoying is that some writers don't seem very interested in ideology or in the mechanisms of social and political change. It also seems as if many have bought into essentialist and determinist ideas about human nature. I appreciate that it's difficult - these are dark and absurd times. Our political leaders are venal and opportunistic simpletons. Their partnership with the ruling class makes for despair and fearfulness. I think it's genuinely difficult for people to imagine progressive political organisation and collective action unimpeded by a craven media and state bigotry. Yet I've been reading Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell desperate, perhaps, to remind me that humans are social beings that yearn for community, purposefulness and meaningful work too. Is there a way to throw off the muck of ages and the rank ideologies of capitalism? I don't know, but I do want my dystopias, utopias and SF to have some kind of interesting and searching political awareness. My suspicion is that too many are failing in this regard.

My now traditional (and provisional) list then:

The Rift - Nina Allan. Along with Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone, my novel of the year. It's sensational and fully deserves its BSFA and Kitschiest awards. A novel, like Central Station last year, to fall in love with.

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid. I read this almost a year ago I guess. There are lots of people in the speculative community that love this book. I have a reservation or two and so hope to read it again and join in Shadow Clarke discussions. Whatever my doubts it needs and deserves to be part of the discussion.

Gnomon - Nick Harkaway. Blimey! SO much to think about. So many notes. Mind blown.

The Stone Sky - N.K.Jemisin. I intend to read all three again before the Clarke is awarded and get my head around the full weight of the achievement.

Austral - Paul McAuley. Beautiful. McAuley is such a brilliant writer and this may be his best novel. Maybe his most important one too?

Too Like the Lightning - Ada Palmer. Copious notes and looking forward to parts 2 and 3.

New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson. There is so much I need to say about this novel. I know that some think it too big and baggy, some think it too Keynesian and too liberal. I loved every second and I'm fascinated by the decisions Robinson has made and the (possible) effects they have. Essay on the way.

Black Wave - Michelle Tea. Weirdly for me, I've been listening to this when I run. It's brilliantly read by Tea herself. As pleasurable in its way as the Harkaway (which is saying something)

First of all this list is almost identical to one Adam Roberts posted on Twitter. I promise I'm not copying Adam! Ian Mond and Nina Allan have played the same game so take a look at their provisional lists too. Finally people will know that I am a big Nicola Barker fan and maybe surprised by the exclusion of H(A)ppy. Weirdly perhaps, reading Gnomon subsequently has made me revise my ideas a little but there is much I can't seem to forgive in it. More later...

Good look to the judges and everyone involved. Don't forget that rebellion is GOOD.

Looking forward to the Shadow Clarke discussions with much anticipation.

All twitter recommendations appreciated :-)