Best of the Year 2013 – Joe’s picks
As is traditional around these parts we preceded our blog crew’s own selection of favourites from the last year with our guest series of Best of the Year picks. Every single day from December through to the start of January we had different guests – writers, artists, publishers, commentators on the medium – from a number of different countries choosing some of their favourites. So many we had to double up on some days! Forty eight guest posts throughout the festive period, which I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I did (see here for the whole lot).
The only problem is that editing those each year reminds me of works I had meant to read but hadn’t gotten around to (and why I should), works I missed totally and need to pick up, or works I had forgotten were earlier this year and should have in my own list. Which we’re coming to, finally, now… Now that’s not a problem in the bad sense of the word, more a reminder that there are far many more interesting works coming out than any of us can find, read and discuss! Which is one of the reasons we have that annual guest tradition, so we get a wider, more diverse range of recommendations. Time, then, for mine, and I know fine well I’ve forgotten something I will see on my shelf after I post this and think how did I forget to include this, that? Always the way with these things, so apologies to those I do miss here. As is also fairly traditional, my picks will be probably far too long and rambling (the comics are first if that’s all you want to see, but the books and movies/TV are also in there, further down), but I’m allowing myself this indulgence because A) I can and B) as I said, so many excellent (and yet very different) works to choose from…
Some of his work had been out before, but 2013 was the year I discovered the works of Neil Slorance, finding copies of a couple of his small press works tucked away in a Glasgow store (Nine Lines of Metro and Seven Days in Berlin, reviewed here). I picked them up and read them during a very stressful and physically and emotionally exhausting period while dealing with a seriously ill family member’s slow recovery, and they perked me up when I needed it with their warmth and charm. More followed – the lovely Amateur Astronomer’s Journal (reviewed by Nicola here) and quite recently Dungeon Fun Book One, collaborating with Colin Bell (reviewed by me here). And I had the pleasure of meeting Neil at the fab free mini comics fair the Edinburgh International Book Festival included as part of Stripped. We’re almost embarrassingly overflowing with talent on the UK small press scene, and yet we keep finding even more to flag up as someone you should be checking out – Neil certainly is one of those. You can pick up some of Neil’s work in our Edinburgh and Glasgow stores.
March Book One, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell (Top Shelf). The history of the Civil Rights movement seen through the personal lens of Congressman John Lewis, veteran politician, veteran campaigner for the Good Fight. Where do I start with choosing this work? The struggle for equality and dignity drawn from the memories of a man who was there at that great march in Washington and talked from the same podium as Martin Luther King… But this is no heavyweight, dense work, rather it takes a very serious subject and elements of recent history and makes it so accessible through the very personal recollections of Mr Lewis, from boyhood on the farm to national office, from having to practise with friends how not to react to violent, bigoted abuse (to keep their protests non violent, at least from their side, to behave better than those who would try to keep them down) to being honoured by the President. It’s a very important piece of history, both upsetting (you can’t help but read it and think how could anyone behave like that to another?) and inspiring, but always warmly personal and a book every person should read and events every person should be aware of, especially in the current climate when some elements in society keep trying to tell us that others are “not like us” and should be treated differently. Perhaps one of the most touching and important books I read in 2013.
The Hartlepool Monkey, Wilfird Lupano, Jérémie Moreau (Knockabout). I’ve often thought comedy and satire are among the finest weapons against unreason, hatred, bigotry and jingoism, and Wilf and Jérémie take this ludicrous (but, at least allegedly, true) incident from the Napoleonic wars, where a monkey, ship’s mascot from a wrecked French ship, is washed up ashore in his little uniform and persecuted by the rabid locals who believe this ‘ugly’ creature uttering ‘gibberish’ must be a Frenchman, maybe a spy, vanguard for an invasion… It is bizarre, outrageously funny and tragic all at the same time, and the easily whipped up hatred and xenophobia is all too believable (we only need to see certain groups attempting to do the same about immigrants and minorities in our own society right now to realise that). It’s clever, funny and sad, biting and lampooning, while Jérémie’s artwork creates memorable grotesques in the manner of Steadman. The original French edition won a major history award in France for its clever depiction of this event (my review here, guest Commentary by Lupano here).
Goddamn This War! Jacques Tardi, (Fantagraphics). It’s no secret to regular readers that I love the work of Tardi, surely one of the greatest creators in the medium. His It Was the War of the Trenches impressed me hugely a few years ago (I even struggled through it in French until Fanta translated it) and this much later follow up was always destined to be on my list, I think. Unlike Trenches this follows the same solider through the war from start to finish, and the horrors and madness he witnesses, starting in bright colours, the palette slowly fading as the years and war grind on. Tardi’s burning rage at the injustice and immorality of what was done to so many is undimmed by the passing of time, and as we enter the centenary year of the start of that awful war this work becomes even more vital for readers. I’ve recently written a story for an alternative WWI comics anthology coming out later this year, and frankly if it is a tenth as good I’d be a happy man (my review here).
Clockwerx, Jason Henderson,Tony Salvaggio, Jean-Baptiste Hostache (Humanoids). Humanoids has been putting out some superb titles, and this was an absolute delight of a read – Steampunk Victorian robots, fiendish international conspiracy, plucky heroes taking them on, strong female lead (not just the leader but the smartest and most capable of the lot, also the chief engineer), some lovely character interaction (including a will-they, won’t-they? hint of romance) and on top of it all some utterly glorious comics artwork. Seriously, the art by Hostache is magnificent, be it depictions of wonderfully detailed giant Victorian Steampunk robots or beautifully rendered depictions of Victorian London in all its glory, the sort of pages you go back through again just to sit and admire the visuals (see here for my review).
Lighter Than My Shadow, Katie Green (Jonathan Cape). Katie is someone who’s work we’ve followed for a good while on here and we were all eagerly awaiting this huge, autobiographical work. It was worth the wait – dealing very honestly not just with her eating disorder but with the multiple effects it had on her (psychologically as well as physically) and on those around her such as her friends and family, it is extremely moving and the delicate subject is handled with great sensitivity and delicacy (with one eye to fellow sufferers and how they might interpret it, which I thought showed huge compassion). It’s also beautifully drawn and the fact that this is a comic work with that graphical aspect, for me anyway, pulls the reader further into those events than even the best prose biographical work could. More than that I consider this to be one of those rare comics works that will stand up for years to come and, like Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales or Bryan Talbot’s Tale of One Bad Rat, be used by teachers, librarians, therapists and charities as a way of reaching and talking to those suffering from the problems depicted within. Powerful yet personal. You can read one of our guest Commentary posts by Katie about creating the book here.
Winter’s Knight, Day One, Robert M Ball (Great Beast). Richard first reviewed this in its earlier self-published form, but I caught up with it when Great Beast did a handsome new edition (see here). It won the Best Comic category at the British Comic Awards in November, against some very stiff competition. A mostly wordless piece the stylised artwork utterly enchants the reader, while the mostly silent nature of the work means that here Ball is relying on the readers to be his partner; these aren’t just narrative images, they are symbols, signs, portents, that each different reader will interpret in their own way, from stark winter landscapes to scenes reminiscent of Mignola to much more colourful dreamlike imagery, partaking of those great Chivalric Romances and more modern interpretations of those stories (such as Boorman’s wonderful Excalibur), this is a simply beautiful piece that you can lose yourself in.
Porcelain, Benjamin Read, Chris Wildgoose (Improper Books). It’s a fairy tale for adults. It’s a Gothic Romance. It’s Steampunk. It’s Dickens. It’s Bluebeard. It’s Little Orphan Annie. It’s two wounded souls, one a child, the other an emotionally injured man. It’s simply gorgeous. Matt at Improper Books showed us the preview of Porcelain they were taking to the 2012 Thought Bubble and I couldn’t wait to read the whole thing. I fell totally for it, with an intoxicating combination of enchanting wonder with the subcurrent of fear and horror that is a hallmark of the old fairy stories, before they were sanitised for small children, and were still cautionary tales of what happens if you stray from the path in the dark woods… Ben spins some beautiful characters and Chris crafts luscious artwork you will find yourself going back over again and again to drink in. In my review I called it one of the most beautiful books of the year. And it is. Don’t just take my word for it, in a recent Twitter conversation about comic art JH Williams joined in to say how much he loved it. That’s a recommendation you can take to the bank… New wordless fantasy Butterfly Gate from Chris and Ben is due this year and from advance looks at it I can say again it looks wonderful and I can’t wait for it to be properly released. You can read a guest commentary by Benjamin and Chris here on the blog, and my review is here.
The Silver Darlings, Will Morris (Blank Slate). Blank Slate again brought us some top work from UK and European creators this year, but for me this debut work by Will was simply outstanding. It’s well-paced and structured (hard to credit it being a debut, it seems so assured) and conjures up the time and setting so perfectly you can almost feel the sting of salty sea waves and wind on your face, the screech of gulls over the trawler, the smell of the fish. The artwork is exquisite, with a lovely, silvery feel to it and BSB have published it in a very handsome slim hardback that wouldn’t look out of place among the best bande dessinee in Europe. The debut of someone I think will prove to be a remarkable creator and a book anyone who loves quality comics should have on their shelves. Will was another of the creators featured at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2013 and I know from talking to folk around the festival that his book enticed not just comics readers but some of those knew to the medium to dip their toes into comics reading, and that can only be a good thing for comics as whole when some works do that (and especially when they get to shine at huge literary events to a massive new audience too).
3″: a Game of Zooms, Marc-Antoine Mathieu (Jonathan Cape). This is a remarkable work, a totally wordless piece, a “murder mystery in three seconds”, was one of the most immerssive reading experiences I’ve had in recent years. Each page of this silent work is nine panels, each frame leading from one to the other, riding the same beam of light, an image, the reflection of that image in another surface leading to a reflection in another surface and so on, until Mathieu’s deceptively simple looking system rewires the visual processing centres of your brain until you suddenly find partway through the book that the entire scene being depicted in zoomed-in flashes that it is recreating itself, in three (or really four dimensions, counting time) within your head, you are actually in there, right within the narrative, in fact the artist has made the reader an integral part of the unfolding story. I know in all reading there is an interaction between reader and author (reading is far from passive) but here it is on another level. This is the Matrix’s Bullet Time in comics form, a bravura experiment in pushing the envelope on the way in which the medium can tell a story (my review here).
Peter Pan, Regis Loisel (Soaring Penguin). Loisel’s Peter Pan came out in Europe in multiple volumes over several years, selling a ridiculously large amount yet remaining unknown to most of the Anglophone reading world, so kudos to Soaring Penguin Press for translating it and publishing it in this huge volume. Loisel takes young Peter, an imaginative but neglected child (his mother is awful, he daydreams constantly she is wonderful) in the cold, Victorian city, his only friends some kids in the orphanage and an old man. This covers how he gets to Never Never Land and how he becomes Peter Pan, a clever creation inspired by JM Barrie’s immortal tale, by turns child-like and delightful fantasy mixed with violence and horror. And sex. Oh yes, the sex… Not in an OTT manner, this is more rather seedy adults around, shameless, immoral and their examples frightening young Peter from intimacy and ‘girls’ (his cry of “dirty grown ups” speaks volumes) – don’t give this to a Freudian, their head will explode. It all comes to an intoxicating mixture of fairy tale, child’s adventure, adult themes, friendship, longing (one of the things that will turn Peter into the Boy Who Never Grows Up). Loisel’s art is similarly delightful, some lush fantasy art of Never Never Land and its inhabitants from Tinkerbell to pirates (and a certain crocodile, of course) to grimy, wretched Dickensian street scenes in the city.
Top three: It’s hard enough trying to pick out just a few titles from the comics works I read last year, but now I also have to select a top three so we can combine these with the rest of the Best of the Year recommends and do some number crunching to see if any title came out with more selections than others. I really hate doing this part (I’d make a lousy literary judge) but here we go: my first choice is Goddamn This War by Tardi, second March Book One by John Lewis et al and thirdly Porcelain by Benjamin Read and Chris Wildgoose.
So many other seriously good comics and graphic novels passed over my desk this year – I can’t go into depth on every single one, but I have to at least give some Honourable Mentions (yes, that’s me cheating to sneak some more good stuff in!). Edginton and Trifogli’s Hinterkind marked a welcome resurgence in DC’s great Vertigo line, a fascinating mixture of post-apocalypse SF with fantasy, and some lovely visuals (my review of issue 1 here, Matt Badham’s interview with Edginton here). Similarly Cailtin Kittredge and Inaki Miranda’s Coffin Hill has also marked another strong return to form for Vertigo, with a tale of a young woman, scion of the wealthy but screwed up Coffin family, trying as a cop to make amends for a deed done in adolescence and now finding that dark magical element that runs in her blood is still around the old estate and still has consequences years later (review of issue 1 here). I must mention Neil Gaiman returning to the Sandman for Vertigo, with astonishing art from JH Williams III (surely one of the most innovative artists in mainstream comics right now?), although it doesn’t make the Big part of the list since only one issue made it out due to delays meaning the second issue isn’t due till this year (review of issue 1).
Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s female-lead superspy series Velvet has been superb (and so stylish) so far (issue 1 reviewed here), while one from my 2012 list, Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, is still on my monthly must-read list and still mixing humour, great character interaction and cracking stories with seemingly effortless style (and the Pizza Dog story? Brilliant!). PJ Holden and Gordon Rennie’s Department of Monsterology (Renegade) is proving to be a fabulous adventure romp (first issue reviewed here).
Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s East of West is still grabbing me each month with it’s Book of Revelations meets sci-fi Western and romance approach (volume 1 reviewed here), and Hickman, this time with Nick Pitarra has continued to hook me with one of my previous year’s selections, Manhattan Projects – utterly bonkers alt-history science fiction and one of the most inventive slices of SF around. On a similar note another of my previous year’s selections, Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga is still continuing and still proving to be a fantastic read and, like Manhattan Projects (although vastly different in style and approach) I reckon it the equal of any of the recent prose science fiction I’ve read.
I’ve not had time to do a proper review yet, but Chris Kent, who impressed me with his haunting Medusa earlier in the year returned with Golem, stylistically very different looking from Medusa, boasting some lovely art, I reckon it’s a good sign of him continuing to experiment and progress (more on that one to follow when I can). Two of my favourite things, reading and movies, are combined in Edward Ross‘ Filmish and after a fair gap I was delighted to read a fourth issue in that series (reviewed here) in 2013. Also fab to see Ed on stage at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Just making it in before the end of the year the tiny but quite lovely Winter’s Tales from the always wonderful Metaphrog (reviewed here by me and, we liked it so much, again by Richard here)
Mark Russell’s God is Disappointed In You (Top Shelf) had me roaring with laughter as he took main stories from the Bible and interpreted them for a modern audience, with some cracking cartoons from Shannon Wheeler alongside. It’s not actually simply putting the boot into religion though, even though it shows up inconsistencies, contradictions and some not terribly nice behaviour (not least from a supposedly all-loving god), in fact Russell notes some religious instructors have used it in classes as a good way to discuss problem areas in scripture. Clever and hugely funny, without being mean, and Top Shelf even did it in a lovely small edition with silver-edged pages so it looks like a wee Bible! A late arrival just before the festive holidays, Jesse Reklaw’s Couch Tag (Fantagraphics) has been delighting me over the holidays; as with Jeff Brown’s A Matter of Life (Top Shelf) it dealt in the well-worn tradition of autobiographical comics about family life, neither focusing on some huge event, rather inviting us into all the little ups and downs that make up everyone’s life, and both were all the more charming and welcoming for it, each in their own styles.
Another fine year for SF&F publishing – seems like I say that about my science fiction and fantasy reading (and my comics reading) every year, but hey, each year it is true!
Shaman, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit). Let’s start with an old favourite – Stan has consistently been one of the finest and most intelligent writers in science fiction for many years. Here he is as far from his classic Mars trilogy as he can get, instead of the future the far distant past, the Paleolithic, and the desperate struggle of our early ancestors to survive. In a world of dangerous climates here are they puny creatures without warm fur, big teeth or sharp claws. But they have brains, hands, courage and language, and the Shaman is the repository of their history, all held in the head, totally oral, passed on generation to generation, some stories tell of how to survive, what to eat, where to find it, but like the later oral bardic traditions of Homer’s time and beyond they tell us about ourselves: this is us, this is who we are, we are here, our ancestors were here before us, their stories are ours, ours will belong to tomorrow’s children… In all of his diverse writings the one element that always stands out in Robinson’s books is his fascination for human society and interaction, and here it is, in it’s early, dreamtime state (see here for a great review by Mal).
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit). From a long-time favourite to a new writer. Don’t be put off by the rather dull and generic cover to Ann Leckie’s debut, Ancillary Justice was one of my best new author finds of the year, following a being who was once, many centuries ago, an individual, then co-opted into a military empire, transformed into a multiple being, consciousness spread between various bodies (ancillaries) and the starship it controls, then after a betrayal brought back to being a single individual. The main plot follows a quest for revenge for a betrayal, but really it’s more about exploring the human soul, what it is to be a person, to realise yourself but also to be able to understand the perspectives of others. My long-running SF book group is reading it this month and I can’t wait to see what they make of it. A new SF author to watch our for – I’ll certainly be looking out for her next novel.
Bone Season, Samantha Shannon (Bloomsbury). Another debut – and what a debut: a very young author (still finishing university as she was writing!), a fascinating book and a tale that has already been snapped up by Andy Serkis and his production company to adapt into film. Set in a world where history diverges from our own after the death of Queen Victoria, a royal killing spree (echoing rumours of a prince being Jack the Ripper) by a psychic prince sees the monarchy overturned and Britain becomes a Scion state, a puritan dictatorship which roots out those with mental powers (voyants). When Paige is caught she is sent to Oxford, now sealed off from the outer world, run by strange, non human creatures who use the voyants for their own ends in a brutal manner. It’s a cracking tale, hints of V For Vendetta and Phillip Pullman, with some beautifully elegant writing that seems far too self assured to be a debut work. And it’s one of those works that is perfect reading for both adult and young adult alike. One of the strong debuts of the year and another author you want to get in with at the ground floor. (reviewed here)
The Dog Stars, Peter Heller (Headline). One of the books shortlisted for the prestigious Arthur C Clarke award in 2013, this was a deeply emotional tale of survival after the end of the world. A virus of some kind has eradicated almost the entire population, Hig somehow keeps going. Living on a remote airfield in the far north of America with only his dog and a survival nut of a neighbour (the sort who would normally prefer to be alone, but Hig can fly, and flying offers supply runs and reconnaissance, both vital for survival, so he is tolerated). Although the work is about trying to survive in the face of civilisation’s collapse, really this is a deeply personal novel about love, life and loss. His wife is dead before we meet him, glimpsed only in memories, but when his elderly dog dies it triggers a well-spring of grief in Hig that impels him to a course of action which may be foolhardy, but not to do it would probably end him emotionally. The sense of overwhelming loss and grief is palpable, and if you’re not thinking on someone you loved and lost and crying your eyes out when he goes through the loss of his dog then you’ve either been lucky enough not to lose someone who means everything to you yet, or you simply have no soul. For all that though this is not a depressing read and Heller leavens these traumas with a light of hope.
Interzone/Black Static (TTA Press). I must, as I normally do, praise the virtues of Interzone, that great stalwart of British science fiction publishing, and its sister Black Static, which deals in darker matters. Both bi-monthly journals come with a raft of features, but it is the short fiction which has always been at their heart. I’ve always said that short tales are where writers hone their skills, and although digital means more people can post their stories, there are fewer professional outlets where writers must strive to meet high standards and be professionally edited- kudos once more to TTA Press for continuing to stand proud in that tradition and along the way bring some quite superb short fiction. In fact I think Black Static is slowly edging out Interzone for me these days – horror tales work so damned well in short form and the length also makes them perfect for quick but satisfying reads on lunch breaks, the train etc. And I’m so looking forward to seeing a short tale by a good chum of the blog, Maura McHugh, in one of this year’s volumes.
A shout out also to new kid on the block who seems inspired by Interzone and Black Static, the new Beware the Dark. I’ve only seen the first issue (reviewed here) but hugely enjoyed some deliciously disturbing short horror stories. Always good to see another professional outlet publishing short work from established and new authors (especially new writers – getting your short work into these sorts of well edited mags is the band equivalent of gigging in pubs and clubs and learning and honing your craft before you take to the big arenas, or in this case your own novel. It’s also where we readers get to spot new writers we will watch for should they get that book deal).
The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes (HarperCollins). Lauren’s Arthur C Clarke Award winning Zoo City was the first of her books I read when it was chosen for my long-running SF bookgroup, and it was an intoxicating read. The Shining Girls, however, is a very different beast from Zoo City – taking place in Chicago instead of her beloved South Africa, this multi-genre work (part science fiction, part crime, part thriller, part horror) is a remarkable, powerhouse piece of fiction by a writer at the top of her game. Following a serial killer given access to an unusual house that allows him to move through time in search of victims, he marks out the girls he wants to murder when they are children, his ‘shining girls’, something about them drawing him to them. He’ll give them some odd memento and then travel to their future to slowly kill them as adults. Until one girl survives – just – and starts trying to track him down.
Imagine how hard catching a serial killer is, then imagine one who can time travel: how do detectives build up a case study and MO when deaths are decades apart? They will never connect the dots. Lauren bravely refuses to back off on the sheer horror of this: we, the readers, are almost complicit voyeurs, spared none of the vile brutality of these scenes. It’s shocking and horrific and so it should be – Lauren makes exactly the right call here, showing such violence and its consequences for the monstrous evil that it is. This makes it a hard read in places, even for those of us brought up on a lot of horror fiction, but a subject like this, even in fiction, should be hard to take. The structure is clever and inventive as the murders are terrifying. One of the most remarkable novels I have read in recent years. (see here for James’ review)
Les Revenants/The Returned. How cool and intriguing was this superb French series? I’m a sucker for French cinema (often so effortlessly stylish) and so this high quality series (like the French TV company decided to go down the HBO high-end production route). People who died at different times return to a small French country town, seemingly normal (no zombies or vampires here) but with no memory of where they have been since they did till their resurrection. That idea itself is intriguing but the series weaves in some unexplained oddness in the drowned village submerged when the new dam was built (and dark hints at a previous dam which gave way years before) and the townspeople’s mixed reactions to some people returning from the dead (a whole bunch of schoolkids on a bus died, only one returns a decade later – why just her?) and the fact the fantastical elements are so grounded by an ordinary wee town and folk makes it much more emotionally accessible. It all built to a perplexing season finale and I can’t wait for the second season. It also didn’t hurt that Mogwai did the soundtrack, which I’ve been listening to on and off for most of the last few months.
The Almighty Johnsons. I’ve been absolutely loving this oddball piece of fantasy from New Zealand, and in 2013 Syfy brought it to a sort-of conclusion which wrapped up the main arc so long term fans won’t be cheated if it doesn’t get another season but left a door open for possible return too. Dealing with a dysfunctional family of brothers in NZ who just happen to be the mortal incarnations for the spirit of Norse gods who fled their homeland after the coming of Christianity, this is as much about love, life and family as it is the more fantastical elements such as youngest sibling Axl and his quest to find his Frigg (Axl, it turns out, is host to Odin), which will release their godly aspects back to full power. The downside being if he fails a huge natural disaster will come along killing not just the family but a lot of other folks too… Each of the characters is flawed but each has some appealing aspect and the very grounded, character and emotion driven approach made this a show that was one of the highlights of my viewing week. If you missed it, it’s well worth seeking out in box set form, a lovely, quirky, unusual and addictive series from New Zealand.
Doctor Who. The show I grew up with, now in its fiftieth year… Sadly I have to say I found the 2013 season very hit and miss, with a lot more miss than hit, some good bits but a lot of disappointment. The fiftieth anniversary episode more than made up for this though! Scoring John Hurt as a ‘secret’ regeneration we hadn’t heard of before was a huge coup and a reminder that for decades the show has been one that the cream of Brit thespians have wanted to play a part in. We saw the source of the guilt Eccleston’s Doctor was carrying around and which Tennant and Smith incarnations had edited out to save their sanity, and we saw what happens when a good man, the hero, is pushed to a position where no matter which decision he makes he knows he is damned for it and worse, he thinks he should be so damned…
Add in UNIT, a welcome return for the Zygons and best of all for us old hands, dear old Tom Baker. “If I were you… Ah, but perhaps I was you…” Similarly Mark Gatis’ Adventures in Time and Space was a delightful take on a slice of televisual and science fiction history, and that moment where he breaks with history to have Hartnell’s Doctor see Smith’s Doctor in the console room was simply wonderful.
Byzantium, (directed Neil Jordan). I love Neil Jordan’s films and was so looking forward to his new take on the vampire mythos. Starring Gemma Arterton and the remarkable Saoirse Ronan as a mother-daughter pair of immortals trying to live off the radar from the Brotherhood (a literal brotherhood – this immortal club is for men only), they’ve been on the run for centuries, but Saoirse’s character may be immortal and always a teenager, but inside she is growing. It’s slow-burn, as we see in flashbacks how Arterton’s character became a vampire, then her daughter, in a scene that feels like something out of Celtic mythology. The whole film, as you might expect from the man who adapted Company of Wolves to cinema, is replete with symbolism and references to myth, folklore and older tales and art, while the female characters are the main focus and questions of gender, responsibility, freedom and power over others are prominent. Lushly shot with some beautiful cinematography and the soundtrack by Javier Navarrete is similarly beautiful and haunting.
Gravity (directed Alfonso Cuarón). I know several of our guests picked this too and it’s not hard to see why – the sheer power of the visuals alone would commend it to your viewing (and film is, after all, a visual medium). Right from the start I was mesmerised, the huge screen showing a glowing Earth rotating below the astronauts as they hang in space making repairs to the Hubble. It’s one of those moments that remind you that, even jaded by years of increasingly detailed and imaginative CG effects that can conjure almost anything to the screen, we can still be awestruck by the simple image of our own planet slowly revolving in space… But it isn’t just visuals, this is a seriously tense thriller, gripping like a hungry Python, right through to the final moments, a desperate fight for life against the odds. A reminder that we never evolved to live in space, and just how damned dangerous and environment it is for human beings, and yet despite that message it also carries a positive message, I think of admiration for human ingenuity that we find ways to make it into this environment, to live and work and explore it despite all the odds, all the danger, and also that each life and its connection to that world below is precious and worth fighting for, even when darkest thought try to claim us.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (directed Ben Stiller). I’m not a big fan of Stiller and normally someone remaking a classic sends me rapidly in the direction of Away. But a couple of months ago in the cinema a special trailer came on, with Stiller himself in a recorded message talking about the film, why he made it (he directs as well as stars) and what it meant to him. And I got that vibe that tells me I am probably going to like this, so over the festive holidays (it just gets into 2013!) I went to see it and I was smiling for days afterwards. Stiller keeps away from his most common mannerisms he deploys in most of his other films, giving a suitably low key performance, with some beautifully done visuals – for instance, set around the publication of the final issue of Life magazine we see Walter finally stop daydreaming and take charge of a real adventure, the motto for Life appearing on the various airport signs as he passed on his way to claim his own destiny. It’s a lovely bit of work, very human and approachable, about the power of fantasy (and we all need some of that in our lives, its our escape hatch to save life grinding us down) but also about realising that sometimes some of that dreaming can be used in the actual world. Touching but not schmaltzy, personal without being a weepy or mushy, romantic without being over the top, and adventurous without being a silly action movie; an absolute delight of a film.
Frances Ha, (directed Noah Baumbach). I adored this film, following Greta Gerwig’s eponymous Frances, facing one of those what-do-I-do-with-my-life periods everyone gets at some point (and often at several points!) in life, when her domestic arrangements (having shared with best friend for years, now she is moving out, moving on) and vague career plans (in dance) both start to fail at the same moment. It’s a small movie, up close to the lead, beautifully shot in crisp, silvery black and white that gives it an air of classic French cinema and also mid 70s Woody Allen (as does some of the subject matter). There are no huge moments of revelation here, it’s that trying to muddle through and work out how you do it (while being convinced everyone else you know is so much better at this life, career, romance thing than you, but really they’re not sure either), it’s simply charming, lo-fi cinema and by the end of it I think I had half fallen in love with Gertwig’s Frances.
Elsewhere though, looking back although I enjoyed a number of movies in 2013 it wasn’t what I’d call an outstanding year – plenty of good, solidly enjoyable films but not brilliant films (apart from those I just mentioned), I mean the sort I know I will buy on disc and watch and re-watch over the years. The second Thor movie was great fun, The Conjuring was that rare thing, a mainstream horror release that was nice and spooky (and, for horror fans at least, funny in places), Wreck-It-Ralph was a pleasure to watch and also a nostalgia trip for those of us who remember those old coin-op arcade games, Spielberg’s Lincoln was a moving depiction of an astonishing man (Daniel Day Lewis restraining his recent over-acting for a subdued, quiet, thoughtful portrayal, much the way I imagine Lincoln to have been), but I wouldn’t say they were terrific, just pretty good, while some I was looking forward to (such as Blue Jasmine and Upstream Colour) actually disappointed me badly.
I must give a shout out to two unusual flicks I caught at the Edinburgh Film Fest as well though – the very peculiar but wonderful Iranian science fiction tinged Taboor (reviewed here) and the spectacularly bonkers, over the topness of Frankenstein’s Army – mad, mental but so much fun! – reviewed here. And Israeli crime-horror Big Bad Wolves which turned out to be a seriously compelling and tense film with fairy tale elements woven into a story of child abduction, murder, torture and all with an underlying moral commenting on Israeli-Palestinian relations, and a plot that keeps you guessing right to the end (reviewed here).
Well, there you have it, after our massive (about 48!) guest series and now the blog crew’s own choices, that’s it wrapped up for another Best of the Year series. I’d like to thank again everyone who took part in our traditional guest series for making it such a large and diverse list and to the blog contributors past and present who make the blog what it is. Hopefully somewhere in all those Best of posts (you can see them all here) you found some that were your own faves too, or, better still, found new recommendations which will become future favourites (and feel free to leave some of your faves in the comments).
Now, 2014, you already have some releases lined up that I am eager to partake of, so bring it on…