Stuff of The Year 2016, 1: Movies

As a new (foster) dad in 2016, my movie watching and blogging in general has been curtailed; an app on my phone has a lengthy list of ‘must see’ when South African release dates or TV schedules or plane journeys or streaming services or life in general permit  Despite that, here’s a few comments (in no particular order) about each of the films I’ve seen this year that I’m recalling with good memories at the end of 2016 (note: they may not all have been released in 2016). Where possible, I’ve linked to earlier blogs about them, and/or a trailer. I’m confident that all of these films will enhance your life; but there’s no accounting for taste … 
 
 
By rights this should be a traumatic, so painful it’s barely watchable, experience. That the film manages to do justice to the pain of the situation it portrays without ever feeling invasive or voyeuristic, is a testament to the brilliance of the direction; that it goes still further, finding beauty, hope and even transcendence is almost miraculous. Brie Larson’s central performance is extraordinary, and Jacob Tremblay as the young boy through whom the awfulness is seen puts in a turn that somehow weds maturity and innocence. It’s an almost overwhelming film; one that breathes some life and hope into a painful 2016.
 
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Quentin Tarantino needs someone to say ‘no’ to him; or at least to cut 30-45 minutes from most of his films when he’s not watching. The Hateful Eight isn’t immune to those truths; but I really enjoyed it. The self-imposed restrictions of the setting force a kind of economy (granted, not an economy of length) onto the film; the film drips with the simmering threat of violence and treachery in which Tarantino specialises. There’s a swathe of fine performances, the cinematography is brilliant. It’s been a long, long time since this prodigiously talented director made a truly great film; but this one is the most out and out enjoyable one he’s given us in many years.
 
I was fully prepared to take a tone of sneering distance to this film; especially as some mentioned it in similar tone to Kick Ass, a film which had much to admire but with which I had some significant problems (though not the ones some had). I was totally won over by Deadpool, though. I laughed, and I kept laughing for the whole film; I don’t think it’s in the same league as Shaun of The Dead, but I think that was the last film in which I laughed as much as I did in this one. Ryan Reynolds has superb comic timing; the rest of the cast know their roles, and play them well. The postmodern knowingness never alienates; the film has a surprising warmth despite the tone of the humour.
 
Due to my personal connections with this film’s subject matter, I approached it with nervous caution. I was surprised, and encouraged, to find an exciting story that does justice to the complexity of my own journey around how to respond to the terrorists who murdered m y friend. I’m a little biased to any film with Aaron Paul, and on reflection perhaps Helen Mirren was miscast; but I’m deeply grateful for a film which makes an attempt to do justice to the complexities of one of the defining issues of our era. I suspect I’ll find it hard to re-watch, but that’s no criticism; it’s simply the story of my experience.
 
This is a joy filled piece with the Coen brothers displaying the lightness of touch that lies behind the best of their comic work. As is so often the case, tremendous performances are drawn from all the players, and there are so may scenes that still linger with me months later, causing me to chuckle out loud in awkward silences when my my mind wonders. Would that it were so simple for me to just recite to you the jokes; this isn’t, though, a film of jokes and one-liners. It’s rather a delicate plot that strings together a series of brilliantly funny, carefully constructed comedic moments and exchanges.
 
Of course I was looking forward to this; I’ve always enjoyed the Harry Potter stories; I felt the films were patchy (the first two especially so). I was excited to see how her world would play out on screen without a book to adhere to. I was also apprehensive; as a new foster dad, I’d taken my 13-year old foster son to the cinema a few times this year. I don’t think he’d seen many films before coming to us; he certainly found it hard to sit through a whole film this time last year. He saw The BFG with my wife which he really liked (I’ve not caught up with it); Zootopia/Zootropolis (again, I missed it) was enjoyed. As a child who has experienced a lot of loss in his life, he thought Finding Dory was too sad to really enjoy. I wondered about Fantastic Beasts; was it too British for a boy who’s never been outside the Western Cape of South Africa, and is only just learning to read? Does he even like fantasy? His comments on coming out: “It was brilliant. It was scary. I want to see it again”. Job done; the first time he’s come out of a film with me, desperate to see it again (he has). I loved it too – much to say, joy and wonder in the right measures. Small criticisms – like the scenes inside the suitcase don’t quite work – don’t detract from this is a magical piece of storytelling.
 
An 80s (Irish) school romance-musical? Too much? Not at all. This is one of those films that you can’t help but walk away from smiling. Life-affirmingly uplifting, with proper new songs that work in their own right. If you watch this and don’t come out happy, then I’d find it hard to love you.
 
A few years ago the director of Arrival made a thriller/drama (Prisoners) that was much lauded but didn’t quite work for me. Then he gave us Sicario, an excellent thriller around the Mexico-USA drug trade. Then Arrival, which is simply wonderful. Though the plot is largely a staple one, it still kept the tension brewing and boiling; I didn’t see the resolution coming, which is testament to how engrossed I was. It demands much of star Amy Adams, who puts in a performance of depth and compassion; the soundtrack is devastatingly powerful (and, to my non-musically trained ears, unconventional); the cinematography creative – there some startlingly beautiful images that you just can’t shake from your mind for weeks to come. It recalls 2001, Momento, Inception, Interstellar and much else  – doing justice to all of them whilst still being its own vision. It’s themes are never more relevant at the end of such a difficult year; and to those of us nervous as to how this director will approach the Bladerunner sequel in 2017 now have much excitement and hope to manage.

Stuff Of The Year 2014, 4: TV

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2014.  This post’s about the television that has most improved the year. They’re in no order. Click on the titles for links to trailers for the shows.

Fargo

From a distance, this could only go wrong. Taking the one of the Coen brothers’ most loved films and turn it into a series? The reality was more of an extended riff on the film, taking it in whole new directions to masterful effects. It carried many of the hallmarks of the film directors’ work: a script that shifts effortlessly from quirky humour to dark foreboding, brilliant lead performances and sudden, powerful, thrilling action sequences. Season one was a triumph; we have familiar fears about making it work for a second series.

Broadchurch

We got this about a year after everyone else, so it feels like we’ve come hopelessly late to the party. Brilliant though, wasn’t it? Essentially a fairly standard issue murder story, with a variety of suspects, it was lifted way above average by David Tenant and Olivia Coleman’s lead performances. That, and a good portrayal of a vicar.

The Americans

An entry in the ‘can’t believe it’s not hugely popular’ category. It’s a thriller-drama about a deep cover pair of Russian spies in 1980s America, posing as an ordinary suburban family. Yes, it’s a thriller: it’s also an insightful meditation on family, marriage, trust, loyalty and identity in the same way The Sopranos was as much as about family as it was the mob. It’s worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as that show.

The Knick

This show is what you get when you give one of cinema’s better directors (Steven Soderbergh) time and space to develop an idea. In an age when scientists are the new, infallible priests, this was a timely drama about the price of scientific progress set in turn of the century New York, focussed on one hospital and one man (Clive Owen) in particular. Historically set, but of urgent contemporary relevance.

True Detective

A murder story told in two time-zones; the original investigation and a revisiting years later, this was dark and troubling at times – as much for its conclusions about human nature and what it takes to weed out evil when it rears its head. Made with cinematic flourishes and outstanding performances, it was often hard viewing but always deep and true.

Homeland

Homeland suffered from a great first series – series 2 and 3 tried but failed to live up to the launch. Series 4 has been outstanding, a morally complex investigation of the war on terror and the political and personal price it exerts on all of us. Outside America we’re often tempted to think of US views on some issues as uniform; shows like this undercut our assumptions and ask us think very hard about the conclusions we draw on our eras biggest issues.

Rev

After 3 series, this is still the sitcom that understands faith and ministry, a televisual companion to cinema’s Calvary. Funny, sad and true in all the ways that real-life ministry is.

Gotham

A dark, funny, exciting Batman origins series – there’s too many comic-book adaptations around; this is one of the best, though. It feels fresh and exciting, and it’s made with so much conviction that it’s hard to resist.

Doctor Who

We’re only a couple of episodes in here, but we’ve seen enough to know that Peter Capaldi is more than up to the task of one of the biggest roles on television – sufficiently different and subtle to move the character and the series along. Looking forward to what lies ahead, that most of you have already seen.

 

Also In This Series

1: Movies

2: Books

3: Music

Stuff of The Year 2014, 3: Music

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2014.  This post’s about the music that has most improved the year. They’re in no order, the year in brackets is the year of release. I’ve included links for some of the music. 

Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn (2014)

Remember the Britpop wars? Liam and Noel, where are you now? Was there really ever a question about who was going to emerge from the coke and money blizzard of the mid-90s British music scene with creative integrity intact? Damon Albarn’s 2014 solo album is a thing of understated beauty: a series of diverse influences, well-written songs and more than a dash of contemporary social relevance and wit.

Mr Tembo – if I had such a thing as a song of the year, this would probably be it. 

Heavy Seas Of Love

Hostiles

The music of Steve Lawson  (late ’90s to present day)

2014 has been a very tough year at times – there have been some spectacularly low lows. Engaging with Steve Lawson’s music has done a lot to get me through the year intact. He’s an ambient instrumental bass guitarist. If that sounds pretentious, it isn’t; Steve’s music has a deep honesty and powerful yet hard to define healing quality. I’ve lost count with the number of times I’ve reached for his music in the midst of a very dark day; the day hasn’t got easier as a result, but at least I was able to turn on a light. He’s also a really engaging social media presence.

Steve Lawson’s website (including links to buy his music)

Sleep Like A Baby Tonight by U2  (2014)

Only U2 could give something away for free and still annoy people; the new album was a patchy affair. When it was good it was very good; it’s hard, though, to tell the difference between many of the songs. It’s in danger of being very bland. Given this is the band that gave us Achtung Baby, that’s sad. This song was one of the highlights, a slow-burner that reveals it’s theme slowly and powerfully.

The Take Off And Landing Of Everything by Elbow (2014)

Not the best Elbow album, but its charms revealed themselves journeying across Morocco; so this is as much about the context I ‘got’ this music in as much as it is the music itself. Plus they use the word ‘shindig’ in a rock song. Which is awesome.

Fly Boy Blue/Lunette

New York Morning

I’ve just noticed that compared to last year’s equivalent, this is short. Oh well – in my defense, there is the entire work to date of one artist in there. Plus time and money mean my purchase of music is limited these days. Of course, it’s not like last year’s entries aren’t still nourishing me…

Also in this series … 

1: Movies

2: Books

Stuff Of The Year 2014, 2: Books

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2014.  This post’s about the books I’ve read in 2014 that have most improved the year. They’re in the order I finished reading them, if you’re interested, ending with the most recent. The year in brackets is the year of publishing.

Stillness and Speed: My Story by Dennis Bergkamp and David Winner (2013)

A great sports book, that transcends its subject. Thematic rather than strictly chronological, this is the anatomy of genius; it does justice to one of the greatest exponents on his art and it’s hard to imagine a genuine football fan or anyone interested in what goes into making greatness not enjoying this. (Click here for a longer post on the book)

Tresspass by Rose Tremain (2010)

An elegantly written, finely tuned novel by way of Ian McEwen, this exerts a vice like grip on the attention and never fails to develop its big themes of family, expats and greed. Rose Tremain at her understated and gripping best.

The Circle by Dave Eggars (2013)

Contemporary literary fiction of the most urgent, relevant kind; a convincing portrait of a near-future nightmare at the hands of omnipresent corporations and social media; never less than accessible or fun, too. (Click here for a longer post on the book)

This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You by Jon McGregor (2012)

One of my favourite writers, McGregor is the great painter of contemporary urban Britain, spinning beauty out of the mundane and everyday. This is a collection of short stories, poems and bits and pieces around the broad theme the lenses we view life through and how they shift over time. Sometimes accessible, sometimes odd; always brilliant.

How God Became King by N T Wright (2012)

NT Wright is the era’s defining theologian, and this is one of his more popular level works, aiming to make his take on the Gospels accessible to the everyday reader. It’s pretty much essential reading for the Christian looking to really get to grips with the scope of what Jesus came to do.

Red Letter Christianity by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo (2012)

The authors are at the forefront of a movement seeking to transform how Biblically faithful Christians are viewed. It’s an American-centred book, but still vital reading if you say you care about Christian faith and social justice.

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery (2013)

Absolution was one of my favourite books of the last few years; the follow-up isn’t quite that good, but nearly. It’s a literary thriller with some dazzlingly good touches; it’s thematically about truth, lies and the security we crave. It entertains and feeds the brain.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

A bona fide masterpiece of sinuous prose, bravura characters and hallucinogenic portrayals. Every bit as good as you’ve heard.

Winter of The World by Ken Follett (2012)

The middle volume of 20th century spanning trilogy of  historical fiction, setting the trials of families from various nations against the backdrop of World War 2. Brilliantly executed, crowd-pleasing and no small achievement.

Dominion by C J Sansom (2012)

I love the Shardlake novels, but his may be his best; an alternate history novel set in a Britain which sought peace in 1940; it’s thrilling and chilling in its portrayal of how history turns on a sixpence. Characters are rich and deep, and not just the main ones – even the bit parts are richly textured.

Also In This Series

1: Movies

Stuff of The Year 2014 1: Movies

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2014. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules. This is the first in the series, and it’s the films that have stayed with me. I’ll stick with films I saw at the cinema or in 2014. Probably. Actually I cheated; there’s a few I watched on (legal) download or DVD. 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. Planes don’t count as they’re a rubbish place to properly absorb a film. To read my full review of each film, click on the movie title. Years are the year of original cinematic release. Titles are listed in the order I saw them. 

The Raid (2011)

An Olympian-scale celebration of martial arts and the action movie genre in general. Breathtaking, even on a laptop screen, it really has to be seen to be believed.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

A richly textured tragic-comedy from Woody Allen, distinguished by uniformly excellent performances and lifted to a whole other level by Cate Blanchett’s remarkable central turn. It’s good enough, too, to ask the viewer searching questions of him or herself.

12 Years A Slave (2013)

Everything has been said about this film, and it’s one of those that the wary viewer might avoid for fear it’s over-worthy or over-praised. That would be a mistake. It’s every bit as remarkable as has been said, and every bit as essential. Somehow I never found the pain or injustice oppressive; it’s as humane and hopeful as it is hard and true.

Pitch Perfect (2012)

A college comedy about music that I first saw on a plane is pretty much a guaranteed disaster. I’ve seen this at least 4 times now, and every time I’ve cried with laughter. It’s a grin-inducing joyride. 2015’s sequel worries me; but we’ll always have this.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (2014)

Two films in and this is a franchise reboot in danger of serious quality. Special effects used to serve the story, never overwhelming the human element; great action sequences that feel tangibly real; actual ideas to feed the head. It’s hard to credit that people choose Michael Bay films over this.

Boyhood (2014)

A remarkable film in every facet, there has never been anything like this. The scale of vision and commitment from director and actors is staggering to comprehend; that it falls together into a coherent, gripping, entertaining whole as opposed to collapsing into a self-important artistic experiment is barely believable.

Calvary (2014)

On paper this is a self-conscious and artificial film; in reality it’s a deeply human, funny, and gripping meditation on the pastoral calling, community and changing cultures and much else besides. The brilliant and devastating closing sequences are masterful.

Sunshine On Leith (2013)

Insubstantial, but as addictive and sky high on smiles as it’s possible for a film to be. Irresistible fun backed up by The Proclaimers’ indestructible set of songs.

Gone Girl (2014)

A darkly entertaining neo-gothic thriller and troubling state of the nation address on our romantic relationships, David Fincher’s on his game and in his sweet spot here. Stay spoiler-free and this will stay with you for a long time.

Interstellar (2014)

There are lots of reasons not to see this. It’s flawed. It’s packed with science. It’s long. It’s got some philosophy in it. None of these are remotely acceptable reasons to miss this on the big screen. Staggering, breathtaking, awe-inspiring. A film doesn’t have to be perfect to haunt the memory long after final credits roll.

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 …

Music

Books

TV

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