2009 offerings

I shall barely let the leaves settle on the year before posting my thoughts on the best and worst of (what I experienced of) movies and books, because if I delay I’ll never get it done.

In spite of my feeling that we missed some great films this year (choosing to stay home and work on the house instead of going out), we managed to see 17 this year. Looking back at the last few years, this is a good crop. I also note a pattern: a solid rush in the first half of the year, followed by disinterest through the autumn and winter. My boy suggests this relates to good film releases early in the year for Oscar season; I note a reflection of early summer blockbusters, followed by meaningful movies on DVD.

Books fared less well. 2009 is the first year I haven’t passed the 50-book threshold. This reflects evenings spent working on the Grand Design, and a move to overland commutes: as the trains are often full by the time they reach my stop, I end up sardined in with no space to read.

Best and worst in film
After a cerebral start to the year (Frost/Nixon, Fugitive Pieces), the year focused largely on escapism.

Bad or just plain boring
I can’t say I’d recommend Fugitive Pieces, which I saw at a film festival. The history of a Polish Jew who escapes the Germans through the intervention of a Greek archaeologist, the film looks at how our pasts colour our present and future. Lofty and aloof, it has remarkably little to hang your hat on emotionally, which rather lets it down. There are many other coming-of-age, war, and survivor films; see one of those instead.

That said, it was uberbudget scifi blockbusters that really left me cold. Pretty special effects do not cover all evils, even for a geekgrrl like me (James Cameron beware; I am yet to see Avatar).

Transformers 2 was absurd, over-long, headache-inducing, and geographically unsound*. It traded the original film’s charm for increasingly childish humour, leaving it none the richer, and making both sub-par Wolverine and desperately flawed Terminator look quite good by comparison. Which took some doing. At least Jackman and Worthington are easy on the eye.

Worst of the year was Watchmen. I endured the full length (fnarr fnarr) only because my companions were enjoying themselves (and I had a bottle of red wine to numb the boredom). I found it beautifully made, but poorly paced, self-indulgent, and another film I just couldn’t care about. In spite of a 6 foot blue cock. How much harder does a film need to try?

My inner fangirl loved District 13: Ultimatum for its exuberant plot recycling (Terminator scriptwriters, take note), but it was by no means a good film. I similarly enjoyed Sherlock Holmes (and look forward to watching it again and again), but it didn’t do enough to rocket into my top 3.

For sheer movie-making brilliance, my vote has to go to masterful Frost/Nixon, political swearfest In the Loop and scifi masterpiece Star Trek. I’ll eat humble pie here: I walked out claiming that Star Trek was well made and riffed cleverly on the original, but that I just didn’t care what happened. But it stayed with me, and a second watching in-flight convinced me I was in fact an idiot: it’s a damn good film and as successful a reboot as Batman Begins. dizzykj, I bow to your greater wisdom. It is now firmly on my favourites list.

However, In the Loop has to be my favourite film of the year, with pitch-perfect performances from its bumbling cast and a script as clever as it is funny. I had my doubts about whether the half-hour fly-on-the-wall comedy could transition to the big screen, but the “modern Yes, Minister” passed the test with flying colours. I do like professional swearing well-delivered.

* This last was not the main reason it makes my “Worst of the Year” list, but continues to irritate me.

In spite of my resolution, I managed just one work-related book this year (on Lean Six Sigma; an interesting concept, but hardly a book you read for fun). I managed only 4 other non-fiction books, leaving it too light for a top 3. My pick of the lot is Charlie Connelly’s Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast, a light-hearted travelogue exploring that most English of radio programmes. This thoroughly entertaining volume provides laughs and (a little) learning, and left me with the warm, fuzzy sense of well-being normally achieved by listening to Radio 4.

My least favourite was Ishmael Beah’s autobiographical A Long Way Gone, an account of his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone. Awful in its truth, it was a difficult read as much for writing style as content, and I felt I learnt very little. Still, it’s important such books exist and are read to bear witness.

The second half of the year has been characterised by re-reading, familiar friends providing much-needed comfort through what has been a very challenging six months.

Also rans
I have had had a good year in books, with just 3 making my list of disappointment: Yasmin Khadra’s Sirens of Baghdad and Shelley’s Frankenstein both too angst-ridden for my taste; and Alan Campbell’s Iron Angel less intriguing while still as flawed as Scar Night.

There was just one outright stinker: Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur, which was so bad I still haven’t read the last 20-or-so pages: I can’t work up the enthusiasm to find out what happens, or to drudge through the poor writing. Newton seems to think that characters are made up out of interesting features (to whit, the captain of the Imperial Guard, both gay and albino) rather than actual substance, and has no idea what to do with any of the interesting ideas peppered sparsely throughout. Instead, he has turned out a hackneyed and amateurish novel that suffers from bad grammar, questionable sentence structure, and a lack of joy.

Right good stuff
Strong new efforts this year from favourites Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book), Richard Morgan (The Steel Remains) and Joe Abercrombie (Best Served Cold), all of which I enjoyed enormously. I also derived great delight from Mischa Berlinski’s excellent and intricate Fieldwork, Michel Faber’s unusual scifi thriller Under the Skin and Nick Harkaway’s post-apocalytic ninja joyride The Gone-Away World.

Of them all, my top three would have to be The Steel Remains for proving the case for fantasy noir (and, unlike Charan Newton, showing that you can make your main characters a bunch of freakish stereotypes and still tell a good story); The Gone-Away World for sheer over-the-top exuberance; and Fieldwork (reviewed here).

Honourable mention goes to Peter Watts, who put his Rifters trilogy out as free ebooks, converting me to the format. While the trilogy goes off-piste in the final volume, it appealed to my fondness for cold, hard, unflinching unpleasantness in its story of social outcasts in a biological apocalypse.

On a lighter note, I also recommend the delightful fluff of Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and Alan Bennett’s analysis of Her Majesty’s reading habits (An Uncommon Reader), both reviewed previously here.

This year, I’ll have my hands full with the Grand Design and the Job of Challenging. I hope I manage more than 50 books, having received a bushel of excellent volumes for Christmas, and having discovered that reading on a busy train is simple if you read ebooks (thanks iPhone).

I have no doubt my reading material will be escapist this year, and I look forward to sitting in my attic library and inhabiting those other worlds for a space in time.