It’s a bit early for a grand review of the year, but as Resident Music are doing their albums of the year annual at the end of this week, and I want to pick my own before they launch that, this post is going to be November, not December.
Not all of you will like all of the stuff here – maybe you’ll know some of it and we can bond, maybe some of it will be unfamiliar and intrigue you and maybe some of it you’ll think yuck, hell no. It’s okay, we’re still cool.
So music will be part 2, because I am stalling for time.
Here’s a bunch of stuff that I really enjoyed this year, and my quick thoughts as to why.
I went to see a LOT of films this year, because I signed up to one of of those all-you-can-eat movie cards. Money well spent. It meant that I went to see stuff I might not otherwise have gotten around to.
I rated Detroit as my favourite film this year – Kathryn Bigelow (who just flat-out doesn’t make bad films – she doesn’t make ENOUGH films, but everything she does is great) telling the story of the Detroit race riots, through the prism of the experience of a handful of people at the Algiers Hotel. It begins very cinematically with broad sweeps over what’s happening in the City, before zeroing in on a select group of characters and then it is almost just theatrical. It is a small cast, in essentially two rooms and a corridor, and it is intense and claustrophobic and troubling and brooding and you feel bruised but better for the experience.
I was very intrigued by Death of Stalin – and oddly, the thing that nearly put me off seeing it – Jason Isaacs playing a Russian general with a broad Yorkshire dialect actually was one of my favourite things when I saw it. There’s dark comedy and there’s comedy where you’re in the middle of laughing when someone on screen gets casually murdered and makes you feel appalled for laughing – but then you’re laughing again a minute later and appalled all over again. It won’t be for everyone, but again Armando Ianucci is someone who for me doesn’t ever do a lot wrong, and this is in my opinion his best work (I feel guilty for even typing that, because of Alan Partridge and the Day Today, but I’ll stand by it).
In terms of big dumb action movies, it was a refreshing delight to see DC remember that superheroes are allowed to be fun in Wonder Woman and I’m delighted to see Gal Gadot (who I majorly crushed on when she had her breakout role in Fast and Furious.. five, I think? ) getting the acclaim that she deserves. Logan was everything that I hoped it might be – pensive and bloody and sparse and with great chemistry between the three leads – the bad guys were meh, but that’s become a major problem for superhero movies – it always is. How do you make a villain (a) threatening to protagonists with superpowers, (b) credible as someone who goes out to pick a fight with superpowered adversaries and (c) with some actual motivation?
That remains a problem, pretty much the only problem with Thor Ragnarok, which sets out to be a big dumb and funny action movie and delivers on that big time. Cate Blanchett (hooray for her first genuine mention on the blog rather than being the carte blanche gag) does her best with Hela as the villain, but the character is underwritten and you never actually feel like she might triumph. Maybe a superhero movie needs to be brave and have the Empire Strikes Back style downbeat ending. Avengers 2 hinted at flirting with that, when you felt sure that Hawkeye was going to die in the final act, but he was always the most disposable of the Avengers anyway, and they duck out of it. Anyway, Thor is pacey, genuinely funny, everyone seems to be having a blast and the director gives himself all the best lines in his cameo as a remarkably chilled-out gladiator made out of rock.
I’ve been getting into podcasts a lot this year. I listen to Stuff you Should Know pretty relentlessly – Josh and Chuck have really comforting voices to listen to and are very welcoming – they just pick a topic and tell you lots and lots about it. I love learning new stuff, and even when the topic sounds like something that isn’t going to grab me, I’m genuinely into it just minutes in. It’s also very eclectic – I’ve learned about sunscreen, restaurant hygiene and inspections, spy camp training in World War II, Amelia Earheart, how headhunters make shrunken heads, truth serums, handwriting analysis, and so much more.
I’m currently jonesing for more My Dad Wrote a Porno, because I’ve finished series 3 and there isn’t new content until Christmas. If you don’t know it, the premise is simple. James’ dad, who is in his late 60s, has written and self-published a series of erotic novels, under the magnificent psuedonym Rocky Flintstone. They tell the story of Belinda Blumenthal, who works in the pots and pans industry, which turns out to be a hotbed of sexual shenanigans and bizarre business deals. James reads a chapter of the book aloud each week, interrupted by his two friends Alice and Jamie, who interject every time the text says something baffling, ridiculous, appalling or just downright impossible – which is every other sentence. Rocky is either the worst writer in existence, or some form of unusual genius, and you often change your mind as to which mid-sentence. The book is filth, and you will obsessively check that your headphones haven’t come out whilst you’re listening to it, but it is not and has never been and will never be, erotic. It is, however, screamingly funny. People often talk about things being laugh out loud funny, but Dad Wrote a Porno has made me regularly laugh until I cried, and I have to quite often pause because I’m laughing too much to go on. The characters are all utterly deranged. It’s ace.
I also like And that’s Why we Drink – which is two friends, Christine and Em, who live in LA. Christine tells a murder story each week, and Em tells a ghost story usually around a haunted house. They make you feel like you not only want to be friends with them, but that you sort of are.
I just read Matthew Weiner’s “Heather, the totality” and that’s probably going to be my favourite piece of fiction of the year. Matthew Weiner is the man who created Mad Men. The book is slim, clocking in at only 135 pages, but I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any longer – and it is one for re-reading, more than once. So it’s still value for money. It is a story about an ostensibly perfect family intersecting with a very damaged young man. The prose style is journalistic – stripped back, clean, sharp. Almost if you think Hemingway is too flowery sometimes, this is a response. With that in mind, a single paragraph of the book can cover a single moment, or a period of change covering months or years.
The tension in the book is almost unbearable as you get closer and closer to the end (which is why I said I was content that it wasn’t longer).
Here’s a one sentence taste
“Having Bobby did little to alter his Mother’s belief that heroin was the best thing in her life”
I also really enjoyed J T LeRoy’s Sarah – a hallucinatory story about a girl who lives in a trailer at a truck stop and who wants to become a Lot Lizard, a hooker who entertains truckers principally to spite her mother. You feel like the world is real and that you are in it from page one, and though there’s some grimness it is laced with invention and humour and detail and a skewed look at the world. It is full of surprises, just like the lead character (and indeed the author, who has her own interesting backstory)
Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was beautiful sci-fi, not hard sci-fi in terms of the science, but lovely world-building, characters that you want to spend time with and lots and lots of heart. I wish THIS book had been a thousand pages longer. I never wanted to leave the world.
Non-fiction the one that has stayed with me is Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer – a documentary collection of essays from people who came into the Chernobyl story, from firefighters, soldiers, scientists, politicians and widows, a lot of widows. It opened my eyes not just to the tragedy but how a completely different approach and mindset about nuclear power and a country’s own mindset of showing that we are not afraid caused far more loss of life than was necessary. Not a cheery read, but still an inspirational one.
This year has just been dominated by one creative partnership – Tom King (writing) and Mitch Gerads (art). Their main book is Batman, which has had a great run of writers, Grant Morrison and Scott Synder, and that would be a tough pair of writers for anyone to follow. Tom King hasn’t just followed them, he’s taken writing Batman to a whole new level. He’s hitting the characters perfectly, making them think and sound and react like people with real weight and showing sides of them that we haven’t encountered before but that are in keeping with everything we knew about them whilst still surprising us. His dialogue is snappy and crunchy, and utterly quotable, and his plots are interesting and unpredictable and pacey. And the best thing is that he just keeps getting better.
When Batman reminds Catwoman of their first encounter, when she stole a diamond and jumped off a rooftop, and he recovered the diamond but let her go, that’s a lovely callback to history. But then Tom King has Batman say something extraordinary. He kept the diamond. He never returned it. He knew that he would need it. He always knew he’d need it some day.
And I don’t need to tell you what a great artist Mitch is. You can see it.
The next storyline was the War of Jokes and Riddles, flashing back to Batman’s early days, when the Joker and Riddler went to war with one another, roping in all the other villains of Gotham to pick a side. Batman wants to stop the loss of innocent life, but the way he goes about this is intriguing, shocking and develops the character in ways you couldn’t predict. The arc also uses one of the gag-villains of all gag-villains, Kite-Man, and makes him not only human and tragic, but someone that you want to actually cheer for. Kite-Man, hell yeah.
Joker is more terrifying than he’s ever been in this arc – he has a horrible stillness about him – he’s lost his sense of humour and that makes him much more frightening. He’s saying this to a room full of mobsters, by the way…
And whilst the Riddler often comes off like the Cyberman to the Joker’s Dalek (you know, he’s supposed to be menacing and dangerous but he often ends up being badly written and a joke and clearly inferior to the number one adversary) in this arc, he’s powerful and whip-smart and manipulative.
It’s a fantastic story. Is it the best Batman story since Hush? Absolutely. Is it maybe better than Hush? I think it is. Time will tell.
And in case that isn’t enough, the same creative team produce what’s either the second best comic series of the year or the best – Mister Miracle. Mister Miracle isn’t a character that’s ever really grabbed me – Scott Free is an escapologist, from another world. The hook is that two powerful beings – the Highfather (sort of God) and Darkseid (sort of the Devil but worse) have fought for centuries – an uneasy peace is brokered when each swaps their son as a hostage to honour the truce. Darkseid’s son Orion goes to live with the Highfather, and The Highfather’s son Scott goes to live with Darkseid where he is brutalised and mistreated. What’s more powerful, nature or nurture? That’s the old Jack Kirby take on it.
The King/Gerads take on it is to treat Scott like a person. What’s the impact on him of a childhood like that? Of an adulthood of fighting wars that you didn’t start and don’t understand? What’s the human cost to him of his experiences. It’s a dark series, have no doubt about that, but it makes you connect with Scott in a way that I’ve never done before, and you just can’t take your eyes off the page and as soon as you finish an issue you are craving the next one. They are half-way through an 8 issue run on Mister Miracle at the moment, and we’ll have to judge it when we see the full story (but the Batman arcs have left us in no doubt that King can finish a story – he’s not just setting up a fascinating premise and then running out of steam – he delivers on the premise.)
So in terms of art and creativity this year, I’d say that the best piece of art I’ve enjoyed this year has definitely been written by Tom King and drawn by Mitch Gerads. Whether it is Batman or Mister Miracle, I don’t yet know. We are very blessed to have both.