90th Academy Awards – Best Picture Nominees

My thoughts on the nominees for Best Picture at the 90th Academy Awards, tomorrow I’ll share my picks and predictions for the other awards.

Call Me By Your Name
I wasn’t enthusiastic about seeing this, I thought the trailer was tedious and the name ridiculous. But there was nothing else on and it’s getting a lot of award nominations, so I gave it a try. It was insufferable. I was bored, annoyed and irritated by hokey writing and cheesy direction. The characters never talked like normal people, the development of the relationship never felt natural and it was so slow I was begging it to be over. The film makers made a critical error when they didn’t spell out the age difference, they did eventually indicate that Elio was 17, but Oliver’s age was never given (apparnetly he’s 24 in the book) and Armie Hammer is 29 and looks considerably older, so I wasn’t sure how creeped out I was supposed to be. The acting was good though, even if they were delivering a nonsensical script.

Darkest Hour
This is a film of a performance. Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill is nothing short of miraculous. The physical transformation is key to it, I don’t believe that anyone but his closest friends would have recognised Oldman beneath the prosthetics and makeup. However this isn’t just an impersonation, because Oldman also delivers depth to the character. I’m sure the physical transformation helped him find the character, and mimicking the intonation and phrasing helped the voice; but it is the realisation of complex, contradictory and fully rounded person that is gaining him the awards. I don’t think the film around the performance really rises to the same level. The rest of the characters are sorely under-developed, with people either for, or against our hero; heroes and villains. The narrative itself indicates just how precarious events were, and just how easily Churchill could have been wrong; but the emotional presentation manipulates you to villainise the critics anyway. While the period sets and costumes were very impressive, much of the direction was unremarkable, bordering on twee at times, and there were some clunking scenes and lines in the script. Really this is a 10/10 performance in a 7/10 film.

Dunkirk
I had a couple of problems. First – I didn’t understand the structure of the film until near the end. I’ve had a couple of people suggest that I’m an idiot, but a similar number of people have agreed that it’s confusing. Once you know that the there are three stories woven together but that each is covering a different period, it makes sense. But without that knowledge, I was distracted by the fact it was dark in one scene and light in the next; everything seemed to be happening too fast in one of the stories and that meant it lost some emotional impact (it’s not an incredibly bad day, it’s an absolutely horrific week). The second problem was that I couldn’t keep track of the young soldiers, I think that was intentional, after all these are just a small representation of the thousands of men there, they are just faces to some of the numbers. But it did mean, in a practical way, I couldn’t keep track of some of the action and connect bits up.
Everything else about the film however is incredible. Literally breath-taking, I can’t remember the last time I jumped or gasped so much in the cinema. It’s an immersive and intimate experience that shows up in your heart rate. Every actor gave it their all, but also showed restraint – there are very few moments of big emotion, for the most part everyone is just too tired and resigned for that. It’s a superb piece of film making.

I, Tonya
The early months of the year are always a mixture of optimism and slog for film watching. The wave of award nominated films make for some real jems, but also some dull pretentiousness. I seem to have had a bit of a role with films that I’m told are Good, Important and Worthy, and that I have found underwhelming and frankly a bit dull. Thank heavens for I, Tonya. Finally I got to watch a film that I found both impressive and thoroughly entertaining. I knew the headlines of the story of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, but none of the details or the backstory. A mark of the success of the film is that by the time it came to the ‘incident’ I had sort of forgotten about it. The background is absolutely fascinating and that, and the quality of performances would probably have been enough to make this a good film. But it’s the construction of the film with interviews to camera that really make it stand out. I laughed out loud throughout the film from the humour, the ridiculousness of the situations and occasionally the horribleness of the characters. Despite the number of award nominated films I’ve watched in recent months, I can’t think of one I’ve been so happy to have seen.

Ladybird
I’m kicking myself because this is the only film that I haven’t managed to see. It doesn’t actually seem to have got a very wide release in the UK, neither my local Cineworld or Odeon are showing it which is a real shame, particularly as it has only been on release a week and it’s been snowing pretty much the whole time limiting my desire to travel. I am looking forward to seeing it, the trailer had a nice balance of humour and drama, and also looked quirky and stylish without being irritating.

Phantom Thread
I was uninspired by the trailer, but my favourite film reviewers both vouched for it – Mark Kermode has a tendency to like rather pretentious twaddle, but Simon Mayo is usually more reliable for knowing what ‘normal’ people actually like to watch. So given they both gave it an enthusiastic review for being both meaningful AND enjoyable I gave it a try. They let me down.
Firstly it committed the cardinal sin of being boring, I continually wanted to look at a watch I wasn’t wearing to see how much longer I’d have to endure, and while it wasn’t quite bad enough that I would have given up on it, I certainly was wishing for it to be over faster than it was. There were brief moments of wit, but they were too small and too dispersed to give any real enjoyment. I didn’t quite get a handle on the characters, I never felt like they had a strong enough core to define them. I didn’t really know whether they liked each other, let alone loved one another. The style of it was vaguely interesting, and some of the ideas too, but neither was well enough developed to really make that the centrepiece of the film. I was utterly underwhelmed.

The Post
It’s somewhat astonishing that Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have never worked together before, and when you add on an excellent supporting cast and an interesting, and topical, historical event you’re on to a winning formula. I would suggest that the film doesn’t really do much more than put those ingredients together and let it go, there’s not much in the way of embellishment or decoration to it, but then good ingredients do speak for themselves. Everyone is on solid form and the whole thing trips along nicely, just about keeping me understanding a story and background that I knew almost nothing about. I don’t think there’s anything particularly remarkable about the film, but when it brings so many greats together, it can’t help but be something a little bit special.

The Shape of Water
I’d been looking forward to this film. I’ve enjoyed many of Guillermo del Toro’s films and been impressed by the style and blending of fairy tale and horror. For the first half hour or so of the film I tried to immerse myself in the beautiful look of it, the quirky characters and the unusual pacing of the dialogue with chatty characters balanced by the silence of the lead characters, who still managed to say a lot even if they weren’t speaking. But after a while I realised that I was trying to immerse myself in it, and trying to enjoy it, rather than actually being immersed or enjoying it. It felt like it was trying to force feelings that weren’t there. After I realised that, the rest of the film became a little bit of a slog. When the dream sequence started my brother and I looked at each other and just rolled our eyes. I was actually very glad it was over when it eventually trudged to a halt.
There’s something bugging me about the whole film. At its heart it’s a basic monster movie, I know a lot of people have related it to Beauty and the Beast, but for me it was more King Kong. I don’t know at what point it was decided to try and make it ‘more’ than ‘just’ a monster movie, but I think that was a real mistake. Monster movies, or science fiction, or horror already have all the scope to say more than just “the monster needs to escape”, there is always subtext and metaphor, but they don’t have to make a song and dance about it. Yes, they can form a connection without speaking, we get it, we don’t need long drawn out scenes to make the point. You can still get all that power without sacrificing pacing, action, comedy or character. And you can certainly integrate those things without having to have each scene and character fulfill one aspect. For the amount of talent, money, and runtime that this film has, it actually had less impact than something like Hellboy, or Pan’s Labyrinth. Fundamentally – I was bored. Also the constant sound of trickling water left me quite distracted by my need to go to the bathroom.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
A film which is hard to really describe, and I find hard to decide whether I liked it or not. I think for me it fell a little too much in between a lot of different posts, but I know that is the very thing that has worked for a lot of people. I laughed, cried, gasped and flinched in all the right places; and each with a depth and enthusiasm that isn’t often found in films; but somehow the combination left me cold. The elements of farce driven by the underlying tragedy is certainly deftly delivered by cast and crew. However there seemed to be a lot of unanswered questions and unexplained character steps that didn’t really sit right with me. At the start characters were hated and excused and I didn’t understand why, and then by the end there seemed to be forgiveness and redemption that likewise didn’t seem explained. I didn’t understand (and still don’t) why a town would be so angry at the mother of a murdered girl, why the town wouldn’t be scared at the idea of a rapist, why they wouldn’t be questioning the sheriff more. I didn’t understand why such a ‘nice’ sheriff would do a bad job liaising with a murder victim’s relatives, or why he would do nothing about a staff member who was clearly completely out of control. I think to me this is a film where all the individual scenes were excellent, but bringing them all together and understanding the underlying context of the characters and the community around them, just made no sense at all.

What I think should winI’ve found this a rather disappointing year for best picture nominees to be honest. I thought Call Me By Your Name and Phantom Thread were actively bad; Three Billboards and Shape of Water were flawed, and Darkest Hour was clunky. The Post was a solidly entertaining film which i would happily recommend as a good film to watch, but not as remarkable as the names behind it might have inspired and not really Best Picture material. I haven’t seen Ladybird which is massively annoying me as I come to write this. So I’m left with Dunkirk and I, Tonya. What a bizarre choice to have to make. While I really, really enjoyed I, Tonya, and actually found Dunkirk a little confusing on first watch, I think I have to go for Dunkirk in the end. It’s the far greater achievement in terms of filming the un-filmable and deserves the accolade.

What will win
I think it’s down to Three Billboards or The Shape of Water really and I’m not sure which way it would go. Would the Academy give it to a ‘monster movie’ or is it actually time that people are looking beyond the simple labels. I think Three Billboards will be recognised in the acting categories, and that might be where the emphasis is. So, I think The Shape of Water will win.

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Mindhunter: season 1

I’d normally start a review with a brief description of what the show is about and what sort of style it is. Unfortunately that’s a bit tricky for Mindhunter because I’m not sure that anyone involved in this show knew from moment to moment what the show, or any of their characters were about.

I guess the essence of it is that it’s set in the 60s and the FBI are just starting to dip their toe in the water of psychology – understanding why people commit crimes so it’s easier to catch them. It’s the very early days of profiling, they’re even just beginning to introduce the term ‘serial killer’.

Immediately however, I hit upon a problem. I’ve watched a lot of Criminal Minds and other shows and films like it. So without a very clear introduction, it was hard for me to work out just how little the FBI know about any of this at the start of the series – when characters *should* know something, when they should be sniffy about something new. It was never clear how innovative characters were being, much of what they said was totally obvious to anyone who’d watched 2 episodes of Criminal Minds, so it really didn’t feel like they were being startling brilliant.

The series also never settles down into a format. One of the reasons I watched the whole series was because it was one of the least episodic things I’ve ever seen and stopping any earlier would have felt like walking out in the middle of a film. I don’t mind having one long arc (especially on Netflix and when it’s only 10 episodes) but this wasn’t really that either. it wasn’t one long story with a beginning, middle and end, but neither was it broken into smaller chunks with their own beginning, middle and end. There were a few ‘case of the week’ stories, but spread over a few episodes and rarely with a satisfying and conclusive ending. Basically it seemed to have several beginnings, lots of filler and no ends.

Similarly the different characters never quite seemed to settle either. Eventually some of them meandered their way towards some defining characteristics and histories, but it was a long time coming and there were many wrong turnings. The lead character, Holden Ford, seemed to waver between an academically minded book type and someone winging it on his own initiative; between a back-office bore and a complete rebel. Don’t even get me started on his approach to dating which had me shouting at the screen in disbelief at his lines and the improbable reaction of his girlfriend.

Ultimately, I think this was a mess. There were moments that I could see some potential in, but it felt like the whole thing was done off a first draft. If you are going to make the whole series one box-set view, then you have to write the whole thing at once. You can’t get halfway through and realise that you need to go in a different directly. The cast definitely deserve better, and so do the audience.

Altered Carbon

I didn’t know anything about Altered Carbon going in, nothing about the characters, the story or the setting, nothing beyond what was being shown in the very expensive looking trailers – i.e. mostly that it looked expensive and a bit like Bladerunner. After watching all ten episodes in just a few days, I’m not sure about the characters or the story, the setting was fascinating and it definitely looked like Bladerunner.

The universe of the story is a tremendously rich one, and the series introduces the audience to it very elegantly. The exposition is relatively limited and there were times I was on the very edge of not knowing what was going on; but either through incredible design, or lucky accident I always stayed just the right side of lost. The central character is in the odd situation of knowing all the foundations of the society, but being a couple of hundred years out of date, so there’s a good excuse for some exposition, while still plenty left to the audience to work out. I’m often frustrated by this kind of thing, so I’m very happy to award praise when it’s done this well.

The story and characters I’m not so sure about. I was engrossed in it as it went ,following the twists and turns, but as threads start resolving and mysteries are explained, I didn’t quite feel settled. Even as episodes were still playing, I had more questions than were being answered about whether motivations were really solid, characters would really act that way, and emotional responses were really appropriate. I wasn’t screaming at the TV in frustration or anything, it was 80% good enough, but the 20% niggled.

The characters are also a bit spotty. There are a lot of good characters, and some borderline exceptional character moments. Detective Ortega is beautifully developed and rounded character. She manages to both be a character where her gender and race are irrelevant, but are also completely ingrained in her character. It’s a wonderfully diverse cast and the response to characters in the show is inclusive but not blind in a very aware way. At one point a woman’s mind is placed in a man’s body; and while everyone is briefly discombobulated by that, it is quickly adapted to and subtle changes of costume, makeup and body language gradually build. I was really impressed by that kind of attention. It was therefore a shame that there was some quite needless nudity in places. Some of it was reasonable for the plot (and reasonably gender balanced) but there was slightly too much leering at women in showers.

I’m not sure their decisions and attitudes of the characters were always consistent and logical. Some of that is about the context they live in and the range of social strata. With the technology available to the wealthiest of characters they seem closer to gods than humans (and see how that worked out for the Greek/Roman gods). For everyone else though the changes from our own lives aren’t so epic, yet they are more than aware of the ‘gods’ living just out of reach. So there’s a huge range of personal contexts to keep track of. I’m almost tempted to watch the series again, because it’s possible that the things that I thought of as inconsistent may actually be a more rich response to the varied contexts. However I’m more inclined to believe that certain jumps and stretches were made to make the story fit regardless of what characters would reasonably do.

I often divide series between those that are good and those that are enjoyable, it’s rare to get something that excels in both areas and I think Altered Carbon would probably get an A- for enjoyability and a B for goodness. Both still pretty good grades, but I think it’s more successful if you approach it as a show to look at the pretty design work and enjoy the detective story. That means that you’ll then be pleasantly surprised at just how good it is as well.

Glow: Season 1

I was looking for something easy to watch and Netflix was enthusiastically advertising Glow and… well to be honest I’m not sure what about it made me want to watch. A half hour comedy (rarely my thing), about women’s wrestling (what?) set in the 1980s (ugh). About the only thing it had going for it was Alison Brie who I’ve loved in everything she’s done, not least Community.

I did end up watching the whole series. Not with a huge amount of enthusiasm I confess, it just sort of kept going and I felt it was more effort to chose to not watch the next episode than it was to just finish the season.

The tone of it is rather muddled. I don’t think it was ever quite clear to anyone involved whether they were making a comedy, a drama with black comedy in it, or an out-and-out parody of something ridiculous. There is something inherently ridiculous now about the ’80s – the fashion and the styles, and those are exacerbated by the subject matter. But some of the characters seem to be aware of the extremeness of their costumes etc, while others approach them as completely natural. Similarly plots around sexual harassment, miscarriage and abortion are inconsistently handled with either great tact and care, or completely inappropriate humour that left me close to turning off a couple of times.

There are some threads in there that worked really well and Alison Brie in particular managed to hold things together so she at least felt like she was consistently performing in the same show. But everything else was just too much of a mess to really work.

The Crown: Seasons 1 and 2

Apparently I never got round to writing a review of The Crown Season 1 when I watched it last year, but that’s ok, because I re-watched it immediately before watching Season 2 so I’ll do them as a combo. Given that I’ve just told you I re-watched a season (something I rarely do) before pouncing on the second season when it was released probably tells you this isn’t going to be a bad review. If I add that I watched both seasons in about 5 days, that probably tells you it’s going to be a very good review.

So yes, I love this series. In fact I may go so far as to say this is one of the best things on television at the moment. Possibly this decade. That it isn’t actually on ‘television’ but is on Netflix is maybe an indicator of the shifts that the television landscape are going through. The amount of money that this series needed and the quality that Netflix’s money can buy is a different league to what television, even American cable television, can compete with.

I’m not sure whether it’s easier or harder for a series to be based on true events. In the case of The Crown they certainly have enough phenomenal material to work with, even just in terms of what is in the public access already, let alone what can be extrapolated and guessed at. When you start looking at historical figures as real human beings and thinking about what their nature and nurture would be, it’s an amazing story to tell. The writers have then found a compelling way to tell that story, picking and choosing events, structuring into episodes and seasons and then filling in and adjusting with dramatic licence just enough to make it really shine without losing the reality.

Then you add a cast. And what a cast. There are huge names in there and relative unknowns and they are all, every single one, stunning. Of course the key roles of Elizabeth and Philip draw a lot of attention, and so they should. I’d not heard of Claire Foy, but she is perfect; just enough of an impression to make it connect, but not so much to be cheesy. The mannerisms and voice feel natural (despite being odd) and the restraint of the held in emotions is palpable. By contrast I was of course familiar with Matt Smith from Doctor Who but never imagined he would work in this role, but he really does. I thought Phillip was going to be a comic figure, but I came away feeling so much sympathy for him.

The surrounding actors are just as incredible, they may be “minor” in the royal household, but they shine in this series. John Lithgow has rightly got a lot of praise for his portrayal of the ageing Churchill, but I think the standout for me was Vanessa Kirby, bringing such complexity to Princess Margaret, in some ways getting the best story across the two seasons. I also want to mention Victoria Hamilton and Jared Harris as their parents, who show the previous generation and really bring alive the nurture element to Elizabeth and Margaret’s personalities.

Once you’ve got that script and the cast, then you add the money. A lot of money. It would have been hard to make this series work without the incredible richness of the sets, locations and costumes that are integral to the lives of the characters. The scale of the endeavour is amazing, it’s hard to remember at times that you’re not looking at the real Buckingham palace.

I enjoyed this series immensely, and with so much detail and character development the first season easily stood up to a second viewing. I do think the second season had some miss-steps in it. Some of the focus got a little bogged down, and the episode towards the end of the season with the flashbacks to Phillip’s schooling didn’t really help the momentum towards the end of the season leaving me a bit frustrated that I’d rather be spending time on other things. However, I can’t wait to see how the series continues to develop, particularly given the entirely new cast next season to mark the passing of time. If they sustain this quality, I think this could be one of the landmark television series of all time.

Films I watched in 2017

Overall 176 films watched this year, 133 (76%) of them were films that were new to me, which I’m pretty pleased with, including 31 cinema visits. I joined Picturehouse and regularly go to the Central which is generally a really lovely experience (we even refer to it as the Happy Place). 89 of the films from the now sadly departed Lovefilm, that was about £1.12 per film. I’m really missing the service, my film watching plummeted after it ended. It was such an easy way to watch films, no faffing about trying to decide what to watch (something fun, versus something worthy) from the limited selection available between Netflix and Amazon. Without Lovefilm I would never have come to love film so much. Between Netflix and Amazon I watched 23 films. The rest are a combination of normal TV, my own DVD collection or other sources and are often watched in bulk with days where I just decide to watch films, barely moving from my sofa and binging through 6 or 7 films. Bliss.

2017 films
I’ve slightly modified how I track dates so it’s now going by UK release dates, not the year that IMDB gives by default, this will stop films falling between the gaps at the beginning of the year. I watched 52 films from 2017 and my film of the year was Hidden Figures. I’ve watched this film 3 times and it has never failed to make me laugh, cheer and sniffle a little. It’s a very rare thing unfortunately – a film with an important dramatic core that’s also hugely entertaining.

Honourable mentions:

  • Ma vie de Courgette (My Life as a Courgette) – a Swiss, 65 minute stop motion animation about abandoned/rejected/alone children and it’s absolutely beautiful.
  • Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi – I’m a little surprised to see this on the list, but I can’t deny that it did everything a Star Wars film sets out to do (which comes with its own constraints), and it did it well.
  • Paddington 2 – this is one that maybe says more about me (and possibly the world of 2017), but the easy humour and HUGE heart of this film really spoke to me.
  • Bar Bahar (In Between) – an Israeli film about three women living their lives in Palestine. This film was immensely satisfying to watch and has really stayed with me since I saw it.
  • Dunkirk – literally took my breath away. Even though I didn’t understand the construction it was still a stunning enough film to get 8 out of 10, and I suspect if I watched it again and understood the interweaving timelines, it could go higher.
  • Kedi – a Turkish documentary about stray cats. Beautiful cinematography by and about people who love the city and love cats.
  • Wind River – a very well put together thriller that easily avoids a lot of the annoying cliches that lesser writer/directors would have fallen into and therefore deserves considerable praise

Worst of 2017
14 films go only 4 or 5 out of 10 which counts as ‘bad’ in my book. Some ‘standouts’:

  • Bad ‘good’ films – I seem to be in the minority, but I really didn’t like Jackie, La La Land or The Big Sick; respectively too narrow a focus, unsympathetic unrealistic characters, and a film about a relationship where one half is unconscious most of the time.
  • Not funny enough – The Party, and The Lego Ninjago Movie
  • What a colossal waste of talent and idea – Suburbicon (two different stories, one of which was interesting but completely smothered by the other, which in turn is trite compared to the other), and The Greatest Showman (so many good elements and so completely botched in delivery).
  • Just plain rubbish – Power Rangers, Life, Bright

Foreign Language (16, 9%)
When I looked at the long list of films a set that really stood out to me were some of the ‘foreign language’ films that I saw. Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary) and Mustang, alongside the above mentioned Bar Bahar (In Between) are all incredibly powerful and enjoyable watches, each about groups of girls/women living in very different locations, cultures and contexts and how they live. Each film had me completely engrossed and sad when they ended that I wouldn’t get to spend more time with the characters. Train to Busan (Busanhaeng) meanwhile was one of the best zombie films I’ve seen in a long time, a masterpiece of the genre. Mind you, there were still some turkeys in there and while many people raved about them I found Toni Erdmann absolutely unwatchable due to the cringe factor and The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge) boring beyond belief.

Documentaries (12, 7%)
Film documentaries are as varied in tone, subject and quality as the rest of the film landscape. While Kedi was my favourite of the year, I have to acknowledge that it was literally and figuratively fluffy. Similarly The Beatles: 8 Days a Week gives a wonderful insight for those of us too young to experience Beatlemania was like, but is hardly challenging. Unfortunately the films that were more hard hitting slightly stumbled for being obviously one-sided in their investigations, but 13th and Where to Invade Next are both still worth a watch. Somewhere in the middle areLife, Animated; Weiner and Williams all of which get unprecedented and fascinating access to talk to respectively an severely autistic who engages with the world via Disney films; a disgraced-redeemed-disgraced politician; and the incredible man and family who runs the Formula 1 team. I wouldn’t bother with either Notes on Blindness or My Scientology Movie though, the first was INCREDIBLY boring and the second which was too broad and one-sided.

Animation (18, 10%)
Animation is another genre that is a microcosm for film as a whole able to deliver any genre, just through the medium of hand or computer drawn, or stop motion animation. On the pure fun side of things I really enjoyed Sing and Trolls, neither doing anything particularly original, but they were enjoying to watch. For something with a bit more depth I’d recommend Kimi no na wa (Your Name) or Kubo and the Two Strings, the latter in particular had an utterly gorgeous animation style. Weird to have a whole year with no new Disney or Pixar films.

Comedies (26, 15%)
Given that I don’t like cringe comedies, or gross-out ones, there’s often not much in the comedy section that I’d recommend, but this year’s viewing felt a little better. From this year the standout was The Death of Stalin which had a very weird tone whereby the comedy was absolutely hilarious, but it was combined with some horrible historical tragedy that was rather bizarre. A trio of films about men also gained 8’s out of 10 – Eddie the Eagle, Swiss Army Man and The Nice Guys. For a bit of gender balance Bad Moms was a lot better than it sounds.

Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror (30 in total, 17%)
I couldn’t be bothered to tie myself in knots about whether something is SF or Fantasy, so I’ve lumped a load of stuff into this broad bucket, and still haven’t ended up with much of note. Except for Star Wars, and very well put together horror film Get Out there were no 2017 films scoring above a mediocre 6. In fact overall there were only two 8/10 films – Age of Adaline which surprised me as a surprisingly rich storyline and subtle performance from Blake Lively; and WarGames which holds up really well despite being over 30 years old. Sadly there were far more disappointments – Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2 just seemed to lack the magic, I think thanks to a trudging plot. Wonder Woman did absolutely nothing for me, boring me like the other DC universe films that fail to balance humour, plot, character and action. SF was responsible for some of the big turkeys I saw this year – Life, Power Rangers, Bright and The Circle; and some older awfulness from Ghosts of Mars, Gods of Egypt, Assassin’s Creed and The Love Witch.

Action (20, 11%)
A broad genre of ‘films where stuff happens’, often at volume and with explosions. To be successful in this category I should not want to take my eyes off the screen and ideally be on the edge of my seat; a bonus would be actually caring about the outcomes. That’s more of a challenge than it should be, many of the superhero films for example failed to have me engaged in the battle scenes due to the lack of jeopardy with seemingly invulnerable characters (Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad). Dunkirk is the outstanding offering in this category though, I was completely engrossed in every moment and fully engaged with the characters as well. Free Fire meanwhile took the other extreme basically committing almost every moment to a protracted gunfight to entertaining effect. I gave bothThe Accountant and The Legend of Tarzan 8/10 as well, but now have almost no recollection of them; but that’s not necessarily the nail in the coffin that it would be in other genres.

Other (53, 30%)
For stuff that doesn’t fall into the other categories I’ve just grouped them together, everything from hard hitting message movies, to films almost without plot that are just letting you share in the characters’ lives for a while. The standout here was I, Daniel Blake will have you feeling all the emotions with an intensity that will leave you exhausted – I raged, cheered and laughed out loud and sobbed my way through half a box of tissues. Amazing characters – Sully: Miracle on the Hudson gives Tom Hanks full potential to show his mastership of this, and the structure of the film had me gripped; Captain Fantastic took me on a complete rollercoaster of emotions about how a single father raised his children – confusion, support, respect and horror. Hell or High Water is a film that almost defies description but I would highly recommend it. There are a lot of films in this category that could easily be unremarkable but shine because of the performances – 20th Century Women, Lady Macbeth, Manchester by the Sea, Trumbo, Battle of the Sexes and Weekend.

Rewatches
These are films that I can watch over and over again and they never disappoint me, they’re all good at what they do, which may not always be about being outstandingly challenging films, but they always leave me happier after I’ve watched them. Musicals (Kinky Boots, Singin’ In the Rain, Moulin Rouge!), Disney films (Zootropolis, Lilo and Stitch, Moana, The Incredibles) and other animations (How to Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me) tend to fall into this category. And just to prove I don’t dislike all comedies, there are a fair few of those too – Hot Fuzz, Deadpool, The Full Monty, The Birdcage, A Knight’s Tale. And the ever reliable Ocean’s Eleven and Gosford Park

The full list
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Books I Read in 2017

Oh dear – only 22 books this year, that’s not great. A long way down on last year’s 49, but also a bit above my worst (10). I got ‘blocked’ a couple of times this year, either in the middle of a mediocre book that just didn’t inspire me to pick it up (and I’m pathologically unable to stop reading a book I’ve started) or with a lack of inspiration for what to pick up next. I need to get in a mind-set again of defaulting to reading at certain times (tubes etc) rather than just reaching for my phone, so I’m setting another page count target for the year to see if that helps.

The numbers:

  • 22 books, of which 17 were new reads. All of them were read in dead tree form except one which I read on my poor neglected Kindle, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t make it through the pile of books on my shelves to read. .
  • A little under 8.5 thousand pages, that’s about 23 pages per day on average, this year I’ll set the target at 40 pages.
  • 16 different authors (two books had two authors, and there were two authors that accounted for 10 books between them). Mostly British (74%), a few Americans (38%), one Irish and one Danish (if Sandi Toksvig counts as anything other than a British institution).
  • Dead even split between male and female which I’m quite pleased with, (I’m counting Robert Galbraith as female as it’s really JK Rowling).
  • Genres – only 3 non-fiction (14%), about half were some form of SF/Fantasy, and the rest were some sort of drama, crime, thriller type. None that I would say are ‘young adult’ this year which is odd for me.
  • All of the books are from the 21st century except two (one from 1990 and the other 1932). 9 (41%) were published this year or last.

Read of the YearThe Power – Naomi Alderman. Lots of people have raved about the important messages in this book, and it is a fascinating (and slightly terrifying read), but what struck me more was that it was incredibly enjoyable to read. Many books that are delivering strong and complex arguments lose track of the fact that the plot and characters need to be believable and interesting, but this one didn’t. The plot and characters are well thought through and developed, and the way the book jumps though time moves things along quickly, but it’s always easy to fill in the gaps of what happens in the missing time.

Runner upRobert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series – something about the TV series spoke to me, so I decided to give the books a try and I wasn’t disappointed. I think seeing the TV series first helped because the actors gave a depth to the lead characters that was possibly not entirely there in the writing. They’re not going to go down as great works of literature or anything, but they are a very solid entry to the genre and I spent hours curled up in an armchair unable to put them down and they made me want to read again after some disappointments.

Lifetime Achievement AwardBen Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series – I re-read the whole series before moving onto the new book 6 and the novella that counts as 7. The series is just as good on second read through and a complete joy which I can’t recommend highly enough. From the first pages of the first book, Peter Grant leaps from the text and is one of the most natural characters I can ever remember reading. The plot occasionally gets away from me, but the characters, and London itself never feel like anything other than pure reality.

Non fiction – only three this year (pathetic!) and two of them were television related. Alan Sepinwall is one of my favourite TV writers and his book (unimaginatively called “TV (The Book)” co-written with Matt Zoller Seitz is a scientifically calculated list of the best American TV series. I don’t necessarily agree with all the entries, but they’re fascinating to read nevertheless. Watching The Crown left me wanting more information and Robert Lacey’s companion book delves a little deeper, although possibly still not deep enough to scratch the itch. Finally, Felicia Day’s autobiography (You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)) is just as vibrant, funny, inspiring and open as she is, and just as wonderful.

Disappointments

  • A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers – After the hugely enjoyable Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, I was really looking forward to the second book in the series. Unfortunately I’m disappointed. The story being told was incredibly basic, with limited settings and characters and very little carry-over from the first book. It felt like it had been rushed out.
  • The Sudden Appearance of Hope – Claire North – one of the books that killed my reading momentum. The great ideas and depth of development are here, but the delivery was awful. Way too much time telling us how we should feel about everything, long lectures spelling out all the nuances and intricacies of the issues.
  • Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel – Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor – I thought this could be a good entry way for the podcast, but it was just too weird for me, too incoherent.

Miscellaneous

  • Lying in Wait – Liz Nugent was a random thriller a friend gave me which was ok but predictable and disposable.
  • Flying Under Bridges – Sandi Toksvig – I love Sandi, but this was unremarkable and a bit of a drag.
  • Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons – normally I make an effort to read some classics, but this was the only one I managed this year. It was quirky and fun, but not really outstanding.
  • Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton – does this count as a classic, it was 1990, which I guess now is a long time ago. I was slightly underwhelmed, while the fundamental ideas are great and the writing surprisingly as good as film at conveying both the wonder of the dinosaurs and the tension of the action, unfortunately the plot mechanics are a little clunky.
  • Revenger – Alastair Reynolds – a quilt assembled from very familiar panels from SF tv and books, but sown together competently.
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