Another year in books and film – 2012

Another year, another crop of books read and films watched. It’s been a bumper year in books – 60 completed, and 2 more weighty tomes mostly-completed before being abandoned in disgust (well, that makes the Worst Of The Year easy). Movies have been pretty typical (12, plus the cinema presentation of the NT Frankenstein), and very typically front-loaded. Autumns are not about cinema, apparently. Again, being frugal in going means we don’t see things we don’t want to, so a high satisfaction index for the year.

Best and worst in film
As noted last year, there’s no real “worst” when you’re picking cinema trips carefully. The awful was consumed via DVD rentals (which I don’t track), and was either so awful that I’ve blanked it out of memory, or not awful enough that I can recall it. Well, that’s almost true. I’d like the minutes of my life back that were used up watching Melancholia for a start. For the record, I actually didn’t mind John Carter.

As to cinema, there was nothing wrong with The Woman in Black. I loved the art direction and set detail that helped build atmosphere, but along with This Means War (and we know I harbour a guilty affection for this pile of trash) it would go bottom of my list for the year’s viewings because the field is so strong.

I love that the year featured two great movies dedicated to the subject of ageing (dis)gracefully. I thoroughly enjoyed the witty one-liners of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and I was delighted that Quartet – a by-the-numbers but very sweet romantic comedy set in a home for retired musicians – largely featured retired musicians outside the headlining quartet. Given my general hatred of the romcom, it’s refreshing to see something non-teen, non-slapstick, non-bright-young-thing creeping in to grab ratings.

Even Bond tackled ageing in Skyfall, which I thoroughly enjoyed (twice now). Every criticism I have seen levelled has been fair, but it doesn’t matter – this is a lot more fun than Quantum of Solace nad more digestible than Casino Royale (although Casino Royale probably remains my favourite Bond – probably). I expect women to be served poorly in Bond films, but I am still disheartened with this aspect of Skyfall in every respect. Not good enough, on all counts.

Controversially, I’m reserving judgment on The Dark Knight Rises. I can never fault Wally Pfister’s cinematography and I appreciate the Nolan approach to storytelling, but I remain uncertain whether watching a film should feel like reading a book in its dedication to detail. I left the cinema drained as much as satisfied, and I suspect that a second viewing will either convince me of the Nolans’ mastery, or persuade me that maybe – just maybe – it was all a bit much.

Possibly my year just needed more positive and hope rather than unrelieved bleakness in its media consumption. Enter Avengers Assemble, which was over-long, over-shiny and over-silly, all of which I forgave for the bromance between Tony Stark and Bruce Bannister, and the scene between Loki and Black Widow. I can still happily do without Captain America and Thor, who are just muscle-bound mouthbreathers; easy on the eye, but contributing little of interest. However, the overall package was a lot of fun, and the Whedonisms put a smile on my face.

Happily, there were many slices of scifi action available and I am one of the few who love(d) Prometheus. I enjoyed the story, embraced the stereotypes, and forgave the insane decision-making embraced by the supposedly top-of-their-field characters as well as the odd bits of wood walking about set (that Scottish actress was dreadful in Game of Thrones and she’s dreadful here – although she did have unforgivably awful McGuffin script to work with). It remains a firm favourite for re-watching for the excellent David (Fassbender), ice-cold Vickers (Theron) and under-used captain (Elba) as well as reliable Noomi Rapace – plus I am a sucker for production design, and the attention to detail here was gorgeous. I don’t think this was technically one of the best films of the year, but it is probably my favourite. Go figure.

The other strong contender is Looper, where Joe Gordon-Levitt is unnerving in his mimicry of Bruce Willis, and the story unfolds with the clockwork precision of time-travelling predestination. I thought this was clever, engaging, glossy and dark without inducing suicidal man-is-monster thoughts, and I can’t wait to see it again.

However, film of the year (because I was late to see it) has to be the first film I saw – The Artist gets the crown for being exuberantly delightfully magical. Craft, design, style, and heart. Cracking.

Best and worst in books
I joined my work bookclub this year in the hope that it would help encourage me broaden my reading habits (it did, although not as much as my new Kindle). While I contributed 4 of the 12 books on the list, I only submitted books I hadn’t read, so along with the other selections this made for an interesting – and often challenging – set of reads along the way. Sadly, it also resulted in the three worst reads of 2012: The Fear Index, The Black Book and A Million Tiny Pieces.

Robert Harris’ latest thriller nosedives from enjoyable airport novel to sub-Dan-Brown trash. Stupid plot, inane (cardboard cut-out) characters and no effort on style made me gnash my teeth throughout, although I did manage to finish it. The Black Book was simply too literary for me; I found it utterly impenetrable and found it impossible to care enough to force myself through the final third. Worst prize goes to James Frey for A Million Tiny Pieces– this bookclub favourite was torture, and I gave up about three-quarters of the way through. Is it an autobiography? Is it fiction? Do I care? No – I was bored, faintly disgusted, and not learning anything (full rant here).

Whilst my reading towards the end of the year was mostly disappointing (and frustrating, as I could have done with an enjoyable pick-me-up), there were many noteworthy delights tucked in along the way. Honourable mentions go to The Crimson Petal and the White (Michel Faber), The Witch and her Soul (Christine Middleton) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell) – three excellent historical novels that make up the second tier of awesome across the year. It’s tough to pick a favourite for the year, so in no particular order:

Angelmaker – the second effort from the always entertaining @harkaway – features a reluctant criminal overlord with a knack for fixing antique clocks, the sexiest (and sauciest) legal heiress in London, a kick-ass octagenarian spy (a little old lady, no less, with a stinky pet dog) and an evil mastermind with cohorts of mechanical monks. This is as irresistible as The Gone Away World – I was sucked in and rapidly giggling in glee at the rollercoaster ride. Sheer escapism of the highest order, and damn good fun.

The Night Circus was deceptive, in that I spent most of it admiring the stylish setting and carefully-orchestrated plot, but convinced I wasn’t really enjoying myself. Two magicians set their apprentices to duel to the death through the medium of an enchanted black and white circus, which arrives in the night and shows marvels. As the apprentices build ever more intricate set pieces to demonstrate their skill, they inevitably meet, fall in love, and start seeking ways to avoid their fate. It felt too contrived – and then I got to the end, and the speech on storytelling, and the loop back to the beginning, and burst into tears. This novel has played on my mind ever since. It can only be described as bewitching. Thank you bookclub.

Among Others – the now multi-awardwinning work of love by papersky – is delightful from start to finish. A Welsh girl is sent to boarding school by her estranged father after her twin dies and she flees her mother. The novel twines together the challenges of fitting in (our heroine has the wrong accent, a gammy leg, and an unfashionable love of science fiction), moving on, falling in love, and trying to establish to what extent it’s ethically acceptable to practice magic to improve your life and ward off your mad mother. The reader is given much latitude to dismiss much of the magic as being a product of Mori’s lonely imagination – or you can choose to believe in faeries, magic and witchcraft as she does, and let the spellcraft sweep you along in this enchanting paean to growing up and loving scifi.

Night Waking was an accident for me – a cheap buy on the Kindle – but this perfectly pitched exploration of the challenges of motherhood for the reluctant mother engaged me from the start. Sardonic, hilarious and moving, the novel follows Anna’s frustrations with her faltering career, the dismantling of her relationship with her absent husband Giles (spending more time with puffins than with his family), and her failure to cope with her 2 young sons. Genuinely funny, often moving, this little gem is not going to persuade reluctant mothers to dive in any time soon, but it is a delight to read, with a brilliant cast of supporting characters and an entertaining subplot to solve the mystery of the dead body the family dig up in the back garden. This could easily be the big British movie of a future summer.

Put on the spot, I’d have to drop The Night Circus to create a top three – but after that I really can’t impose any sort of preference, and I’m delighted that – unlike last year – I read this many excellent books for the first time.

I’m already looking forward to 2013’s reading. I seem to have accumulated a lot of books over Christmas, thanks to some brilliant gifting and my total failure to resist the deals Amazon have been offering for Kindle editions over the holidays. I think I should probably impose a no-buy rule until I catch up a bit!

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