Stuff Of The Year 2013, 4: Movies

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2013. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules. This is the last in the series, and it’s the films that have stayed with me. I’ll stick with films I saw at the cinema in 2013. I’m in South Africa, so we don’t get all the same films or release dates as the rest of you … there’s a lot I miss or catch up on at a later date on TV or DVD or planes.To read my full review of each film, click on the movie title.

Silver Linings Playbook On the face of it a straightforward romantic comedy, this had layers within layers, good performances (even, and this has been a rarity for a while) from Robert De Niro, a healthy and helpful perspective on mental health issues, and was another feather-in-the-cap of the increasingly likeable Jennifer Lawrence. Deserved the recognition it got, and is better than you expect.

Gravity  There are faults in this film, but it’s a great ride and is the film that to date has made the best use of 3D to propel a story and enhance the cinematic experience. It’s not the best film of the year but it may well be the most significant, representing a change in the way films are made. Only the future will tell us, but this film looked and sounded like that future.

Argo  It seems a long time ago, but this nerve-shreddingly tense true-story directed by Ben Affleck came out on top in an Oscars race that could justifiably have been won by any of several films. With much to say and show about courage, humility and fake movies, it’s one you shouldn’t miss.

The Great Gatsby  I’d rather watch director Baz Luhrmann fall short than other less ambitious folk get everything they want done just so; inevitably a little mad, inevitably unable to capture the full magic of the book, there’s still whole segments of this film seared onto my memory. The film industry is better off with Luhrmann free to run a very colourful riot.

Zero Dark Thirty  With so much controversy blazing ahead of the film’s release, there was a moment when I thought I’d seen a different film to everyone else. What offended people so deeply, it seems, was being presented with one take on the truth and being invited to make moral decisions for yourself as opposed to have them made for you. An adult, intelligent, exciting film about one of the era’s defining issues pulled off the same trick as Argo and Captain Phillips: making a true story with an ending we all know gripping and engaging.

Pacific Rim  Director Guillermo Del Toro looked like he was letting his not inconsiderable intelligence have some fun here; the end result was the most outright enjoyable film of the year. My wife and I spent the whole film grinning and continued to do so for hours to come; and still do whenever it comes up in conversation. Deliriously enjoyable entertainment with wit, heart and soul.

Les Miserables  Irresistable, frankly. There are faults here, but the film doesn’t lack for courage; taking a high-wire approach of recording all the singing live and a director who found a way to make the cinematic theatrical without losing its essence. Anne Hathaway stole headlines, and justifiably, but there was much else to admire too. Once seen, never forgotten.

Captain Phillips A true-story thriller with political awareness and things to say about globalisation; two brilliant central performances and tension that grips like a vice and doesn’t let go. If I had to pick a film of the year, this would probably be it; it deserves awards recognition and it will be interesting to see if a film like this proves tempting to awards voters. If it does so, it will deserve every plaudit it gets.

The rest of this series …




Stuff Of The Year 2013, 3: TV

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2013. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules, so it may not all have been produced in 2013 – the point is that the media in question have all been a big part of my year. Where possible, I’ll link to the media in question, or an article I wrote about them; click on a title to follow a link if I’ve found one suitable. This post’s about the TV I’ve been stimulated by in 2013.

Remember when you were told that TV would rot your brain? Someone once told me that having a TV is like having an open sewer in your living room. Nonsense. Of course there’s rubbish stuff on TV; the immoral, the bad, the lazy, the vacuous. I’d also argue, as many others have, that we’re in a golden age of TV drama – writing, acting, direction and effects have gone up several notches in the last few years as the juggernaut of pay-tv has continued to bring more money into the industry and forced those who produce new material to up their game. Downloads and DVD box sets mean you can enjoy whole series at your leisure, and PVRs make recording and watching only what you want to see viable. Ironically the vacuous on TV these days is pseudo-reality; talent shows and inane rolling news, with all the depth of analysis and honesty of Victorian penny-dreadfuls. There’s great art out there in 45 minutes chunks. Here’s what I’ve especially enjoyed in 2013.

Top Of The Lake  Cinema’s Jane Campion directed this New Zealand set short series about the hunt for a missing girl in and around a small-town. So much more than a police story, this was about gender and power, fear of the unknown and how our past changes our present, all laced with beautiful photography and some brilliant performances. Especially outstanding was Mad Men‘s and The West Wing‘s Elisabeth Moss in the lead role; all the better for giving us a complex and conflicted female character around whom the whole drama focussed.

Mad Men  I’m a couple of seasons behind the rest of the world here, but this understated, complex drama around a 1950s American advertising firm continues to show us the origins of the modern age of consumption, the way work can eat a person’s soul and the danger of private and public not matching up. Lead character Don Draper is a disintegrating personality in whom we can all see ourselves.

Justified  Pretty much anyone who writes about TV agrees that there is no logical reason to explain why Justified isn’t one of the biggest shows on TV. The performances are note-perfect, the episodes set around crime in small town Kentucky are full of whip-crack smart wit, dark foreboding and shoot-outs that may not be frequent but when they do come are brilliantly staged. Using Elmore Leonard’s crime story as a jumping-off point, this series took the great writer’s trademarks and has given them flesh, blood and texture on-screen. The title refers to a law-enforcement officer’s justified use of force; scratch the surface, of course, and each character is searching for his or her own unique brand of justification. Brilliant, and bizarrely you probably haven’t heard of it.

The Newsroom The Newsroom isn’t as good as the writer’s most famous work, The West Wing; then neither is A Comedy Of Errors as good as Romeo and Juliet. A stronger, still flawed second series, about a TV news show set around the reporting of real-life events broadened scope to largely good effect and took characters to interesting new places. It’s far from Sorkin’s best work; but that’s still exalted company.

Doctor Who   To rise to the challenge of 50 years of the show, and a growing global audience, and to pull it off with two classy, different, year-end specials was an achievement of note. One of TV’s longest-running shows, and arguably one of the UK’s most significant piece of homegrown pop culture has had a very good year.

House Of Cards  Taking a set of novels and a show from Thatcher’s Britain, transporting to contemporary America and launching it on an online service only initially was bold, and destined to annoy. That it didn’t is down to the inspired casting of Kevin Spacey in the central role and faithfulness to the original’s eternal themes of power, corruption, truth and falsehood. Into the bargain, it may just have initiated a new revolution in how TV is made and consumed.

Breaking Bad  I watched the first series of this in the UK several years ago, then annoyingly lost track on moving abroad. Having watched every episode of the 5 seasons this year, I’m in no doubt in joining the many ready to hail this show about a family man with a terminal cancer diagnosis who turns to drug manufacturing to leave a legacy to his family as a genuinely great achievement. One or two narrative mis-steps early on, and female characters less on the periphery would have lifted this even further. A morality play, thriller and family portrait for the ages.

Veep  A winning British formula, translated by British writers to American politics worked against all expectations. Behind the scenes political comedy, with fine performances, addictively and acerbically funny.

Other posts in this series:

Stuff Of 2013, 1: Music

Stuff Of 2013, 2: Books

Stuff Of The Year 2013, 2: Books

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2013. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules, so it may not all have been produced in 2013 – the point is that the media in question have all been a big part of my year. Where possible, I’ll link to the media in question, or an article I wrote about them; click on a title to follow a link if I’ve found one suitable. This post’s about the books I’ve read in 2013 that have most shaped me. You may notice from this that star-rating books is, for me, a fairly arbitrary process. They’re in the order I finished reading them, if you’re interested, ending with the most recent.

A Year Of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans Spending a year doing something and writing about it is in vogue at the moment. It lends itself to the discipline of blogging and the momentum gathering potential of social media. This book chronicles one woman’s journey through a year taking everything the Bible has to say about women literally. She’s a Christian with the desire to take both the Bible and society seriously, and the results in this book are funny, deceptively weighty without necessarily showing the academic working and respectful. Required reading, especially for any Christian (male or female) who’s ever quoted Proverbs 31 in reference to how a wife should be.

The Compassion Quest by Trystan Owain Hughes  There are very few authors who can make me think of  Eugene Peterson, but Trystan Owain Hughes is one of them. Concise at around 100 pages, this is a beautiful book inviting us to humble awe, to find God and each other in the everyday and to rescue us from lazy, culturally skewed discipleship which has the powerful lording it over the powerless.

The God Of Intimacy And Action by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling  One of the very few books linking a passion for social justice with spiritual practices, aiming to deepen our relationships with God as we live with responsive awareness to the needs around us. Worth reading not just because it’s one of the few like it, but because it’s a rich book born out of deep experience.

Absolution by Patrick Flanery  A crime story; a family drama; a thriller; a mediation on present-day South Africa; a book about fear; a book about hope; a book about writing books. A masterpiece.

On Warne by Gideon Haigh Cricket has a tradition of quality writing, and this is a good addition to that history; a small, beautifully formed and written book which isn’t so much a biography of the greatest bowler in history  as a reflection on him.

Bringing Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel  I know some struggle with her style, and I understand why. I don’t, and all I can say is that I’m a believer in these books. Historical fiction made vitally relevant to all our todays; we’re one book away from this being one of English literature’s greatest set of novels.

11/22/63 by Stephen King  When he’s good, he’s very good. This is a romantic, thrilling, time-travel-love-story-thriller showcasing King’s genius for storytelling, based around the assassination of JFK. It’s not a horror novel … I urge you to read this on your next holiday, especially if you’re one of those who thinks King is populist hack. Sometimes success is awarded to those with talent and an understanding of what people enjoy. This book is the perfect illustration of that.

The Pastor by Eugene Peterson I’ll blog on this in due course – the man I’ve never met, whose beautiful books have pastored me over the years writes his memoir of a life in pastoral work. It’s beautiful, and essential for anyone who is a pastor, has a pastor or is considering being a pastor.

Stuff Of 2013, 1: Music

Branching out from the Films Of The Year post last year, I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2013. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules, so it may not all have been produced in 2013 – the point is that it’s been a big part of my year. Where possible, I’ll link to the media in question; click on a title to follow a link if I’ve found one suitable. First up, music. 

No Church In The Wild – Jay Z & Kanye West  Dark, addictive and hypnotic hip-hop, used to stunning effect in the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby movie. How can a song this catchy take in urban unrest, youth alienation, philosophy, hedonism, religion and some other stuff too? By ludicrous levels of talent, that’s how. A reminder that when he’s not believing his own hype, Kanye West is capable of matching Jay Z. (Note: the song contains explicit language).

 Crazy In Love – Emeli Sandé & The Bryan Ferry Orchestra (Kid Koala Version) Also on The Great Gatsby soundtrack, this takes Beyoncé’s modern classic pop song, serves it with a side of 1920s dance hall music and in so-doing proves a great pop song is always a great pop song.

Gold Teeth – dan le sac vs Scroobius Pip and Flux Pavilion 3 albums in and yet to let me down, these authentically British-sounding hip-hop types remain among my favourite artists. Relentlessly creative, witty and intelligent, subverting a flesh-obsessed culture and posing serious questions, they represent everything that can be good in their genre. This track is stick-in-the-head brilliant, and as good a piece of rapping as you’ll hear. It’s explicit, but don’t let that deceive you. This is a poem calling us to a better way.

So much for individual songs, now for a handful of albums. Links on individual track names.

AM – Arctic Monkeys A band who promised so much early on in their career lost their way for a while, but found it again … and then some. It’s a more grown up sound, and all the better for it; they show every sign of maturing into a group around for the long haul. They still write great songs, so why not sample … Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High or Do I Wanna Know?

Random Access Memories – Daft Punk  Sometimes an album does well because the publicity campaign is irresistible; sometimes because the music is good. It’s not perfect, of course, but this lived up to the hype, serving up an album of music you don’t so much listen to as inhabit. If you dismiss it as all done on computers … well, I’m sorry for you. Sample … Instant Crush or Lose Yourself To Dance or Get Lucky


Modern Vampires Of The City – Vampire Weekend It’s a long time since I fell head over heals in love with an album, and what a joy to do so again. It’s top of many end of year lists, and rightly so. Indie-pop that covers love, lust, theology, urban anonymity and much more with melodies to die for, stunning musicianship and rhythms, lyrics to linger in the memory. And some jokes too. I’ve laughed, cried, read, written sermons, been to the desert, celebrated and grieved to this. It’s just brilliant. Unquestionably my favourite album for years. Sample all of it, if you can. Or one of these … Step or Diane Young or Ya Hey or Unbelievers or Obvious Bicycle.