Thursday, 21 December 2017

Review of 2017: Part 3 – Movies

I’ve cut back a bit on film-watching in recent years, aiming for a slightly more balanced and healthy existence, but movies are still a huge part of my life. Here’s my top 10 of 2017, plus a few personal recollections of the year, and 13 older films I ‘discovered’ in 2017, and which you might like too.

Parts 1 (books) and 2 (gigs, shows and exhibitions) of the year in review are up on those links.

My 10 favourite films of 2017



It's been a great year at the cinema: I rarely see a new film as good as this year's #3, let alone two even better, and there are so many up-and-coming directors doing interesting work. This list is based on films which received a general release in the UK this year, so it includes some films from last year's London Film Festival. To read about some of the best movies coming up next year, including Guillermo del Toro's masterwork, The Shape of Water, you can go here.

Bubbling under (but still marvellous): Christine, The Beguiled, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Tower, Call Me By Your Name.

***

10. Paddington 2



Director: Paul King
Cast: Ben Whishaw (voice), Hugh Grant, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Brendan Glesson
They did right by Paddington again. The prison sequences are all kinds of lovely. Full(ish) review.

***

9. Battle of the Sexes



Director: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman
A hugely uplifting, entertaining movie, with a typically dynamic central performance from Emma Stone, who inhabits the character of Billie Jean King almost entirely, as the tennis legend breaks away from the sexist tennis establishment, confronts the fact she's a lesbian, and gears up for the eponymous match, opposite self-styled 'male chauvinist pig', the shy and retiring Bobby Riggs. Full review.

***

8. The Salesman



Director:Asghar Farhadi
Cast:Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajadhosseini, Mina Sadati
An utterly compelling moral thriller from the writer-director of A Separation, Asghar Farhadi, about a couple (Shahab Hosseini and Taranah Alidoosti) whose marriage is thrown into turmoil by the hand of fate, as they prepare to appear together in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. It contains a late shock so well-executed that it made the person next to me in the cinema do a little fart. Now that's movie-making. Full review.

***

7. Tickling Giants



Director: Sara Taksler
A wonderful documentary about 'the Egyptian Jon Stewart', Bassem Youssef, a heart surgeon who becomes a TV satirist and national hero following the Arab Spring. As the political climate festers and the military intervene, his potshots at authority start to divide the revolutionaries, leading to protests, boycotts and threats, but he and his staff remain unyielding – at least at first. After one of the writers says she doesn’t care about the outcry, a colleague asks if she’d care to provide a more diplomatic answer. “Yes,” she replies. “I don’t give a shit.” I expected Tickling Giants to be insightful and powerful, but not such fantastic fun as it is, and if you’re worried that Egyptian humour won’t translate across language and cultural barriers, you couldn’t be more wrong. Full review.

***

6. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi



Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran The first sequel that feels like a film on its own terms. It's also a tremendous antidote to gung-ho macho heroics, plays deliriously and drolly with our expectation of good-bad guys, and features the coolest new series vehicles since Return of the Jedi's speeders. I wrote this piece just after emerging, dazed and happy, from the cinema.

***

5. I Am Not Your Negro



Director:Raoul Peck
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson (narrator)
A profoundly powerful polemic that forces you to view the African-American experience through the piercing gaze of writer, thinker and activist James Baldwin, who speaks with authority, insightfulness and a broiling anger about the way his people have been exploited, abandoned and killed by their own country. It's a superb film in itself, and it also turned me onto Baldwin's writing, which has been one of this year's greatest joys, and changed the way I look at myself and the world. Full review.

***

4. Fences



Director: Denzel Washington
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson
An astonishing drama, based on August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which tells an archetypally American story in the manner of Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller, but does so to elucidate the African-American experience, which as 13th so eloquently expressed, is the result of decisions that have never been in their hands. It's both extraordinarily original and utterly timeless, with a polemical power that comes along rarely, and two of the finest performances in years. Full review.

***

3. La La Land



Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Finn Wittrock, Jessica Rothe
The problem with contemporary musicals is the undercurrent that says: “Isn’t this wacky, we’re doing a musical!” It was musicals’ everyday nature, their centrality to the national psyche that made them so magical. Somehow Chazelle has made that live again. Full review.

***

2. Certain Women



Director:Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, James LeGros, Jared Harris
A film of unwavering, unflinching honesty and quiet poetry – from Williams’ piercing, scarcely likeable performance to that shot of a rogue truck tumbling off the road – a gift from a filmmaker at the very peak of her powers. Full review.

***

1. Moonlight



Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali
An enveloping, once-in-a-lifetime film about the constancy, malleability and complexity of human nature, the pain and ecstasy of love, and the world's vicious but not quite unrelenting assault on the weak. Full review.

***

Five obsessions that defined my year in movies



Orson Welles
My intense infatuation with Awesome Orson flares up every three or four years. This time it was a first big screen viewing of The Magnificent Ambersons that set it off, sending me on a fast-paced journey through established classics (Kane, Touch of Evil, The Trial) and oddities both remarkable (The Immortal Story) and not (Journey Into Fear, Too Much Johnson). Though Ambersons will never be seen again in its proper state – having been cut by a third against Welles’ wishes before release, with the culled footage dumped in the sea – it also cast its spell on me more thoroughly and enduringly than ever before. I’m still thinking about it now, three weeks later, and I haven’t been able to look at any other film in the same way since. It’s the greatest thing he ever did and, even in its butchered form, one of the key works of screen art, with a look, a feel and an atmosphere – playfulness giving way to an exhausted, defeated malaise – that is like nothing else in cinema.



The big screen
More than half the films I saw this year were at the cinema, thanks to both the BFI’s magnificent programming and a newly rekindled love of the big screen experience. There’s still nothing quite like it, and it’s got me off my arse and out of the house and then back on my arse to catch films I love, that I have on DVD, but that I’ve never quite seen before. After experiencing countless movies ruined by dodgy prints or the Odeon’s laissez-faire attitude to keeping a projector in focus, I’d begun to see digital as a simple solution, especially after the great 4K job done on films like The Third Man. One of my favourite film writers, Ian Mantgani, took me to task a while ago for such naïvete, and he was right. Seeing Minnelli’s The Cobweb on film – the widescreen image tactile, its brash colour scheme turned a touch gaudy – or Ambersons with grain and flicker and the odd scratch, the soundtrack a little screechy now and then, but as it was shot and should be seen, is the ideal filmgoing experience, and one which perfectly polished pixels are never going to be quite able to match. Having said that, if the print is a hissy, fuzzy mess, don't take the piss by putting it on.



Titanic films
As I mentioned in passing in my books review, my friend Jess and I are watching all the films we can find about the Titanic. Our grand experiment is in its infancy, but we have managed Titanic (good), Titanic (great), A Night to Remember (excellent) and Raise the Titanic (absolute shit), and we’ve secured further titles for 2018 already. Next up: S.O.S. Titanic.



Lillian Gish
There haven't been quite the opportunities to further my Gish fandom that previous years have offered, but I've done my best. I tracked down three more of her films: The Greatest Question (a derivative but persuasive star vehicle), The Cobweb (a big, bold Minnelli soap with Gish in an unusually large supporting role), and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (more a historical curio than A Good Film), and saw a watchable version of her 1928 classic, The Wind, for the first time. Anyway, we're very much in love, even though she died in 1993.



François Truffaut
I finished my voyage through the lesser-known works of François Truffaut, drawing the inescapable conclusion that this is one of those rare times the popular canon has it right: some of them were crap. Here's the full list of his 22 features, with plenty of reviews to go with it.

It's also important to mention at this point that IN OCTOBER I MET DANNY DEVITO.

***

13 'discoveries' of 2017

Perhaps because many of them were on at the BFI, this year's discoveries are perhaps a little less obscure than in previous years (a notable dearth of 1930s B-movies, sorry), especially if you're interested in seeing the established 'classics' of world cinema, but hopefully there'll be a couple that are new to you.



Chloe in the Afternoon (Éric Rohmer, 1972) – The last – and greatest – of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, with businessman Frédéric (Bernard Verley) torn between his marriage to quiet, repressed academic Hélène (Françoise Verley) and the sensual, erratic Chloe (Zouzou), who returns to Paris six years after driving his best friend to the point of despair. Shot in 1.37:1, reinterpreting Murnau’s Sunrise for the sixth time, and equipped with an unreliable, self-justifying narrator who’s obsessed with women, it feels like the summation of the series, and also its cleanest, clearest and most narratively inventive example: full of profound insights and observations wrapped in a light, sexy, playful exterior that simply doesn’t prepare you for what’s coming. Full review.

Cria cuervos (Carlos Saura, 1975) – A miraculous film, quite unlike anything else I’ve seen, that plays out on the face of its young heroine (Ana Torrent from Spirit of the Beehive) and exists in that strange place between memory, reality and fantasy, as scenes bleed one into the next, and Torrent recalls her authoritarian, adulterous father, conjures the gentle spirit of her neurotic mother (Geraldine Chaplin) and cautiously negotiates a new, lonelier life in the bosom of her strict aunt’s family. Full review.



Le Trou (Jacques Becker, 1960) – Jacques Becker's final film is a tough, meticulously detailed and incredibly suspenseful prison break movie, as four men awaiting trial acquire an apparently callow, privileged new cellmate (Mark Michel), while preparing their painstaking, painfully slow escape from the Big House. Cast mostly with non-professional actors (as opposed to unprofessional actors, like Marilyn Monroe) and based on an autobiographical novel by José Giovanni, it works as both a gripping thriller and a socialist allegory about class, co-operation and bourgeois hypocrisy. Full review. I saw Bertrand Tavernier talk about Becker, his great hero, at the BFI in September.

The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966) – A pulsating, gripping, brilliantly-directed docu-drama about the Algerian revolution, which works as a history lesson, a thriller and a study of a handful of memorable characters on both sides of the battle, all augmented by Ennio Morricone's exceptional score. Full review.



Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989) – For all its rough edges (or perhaps because of them), Soderbergh’s debut still looks astounding. Full review.

Claire's Knee (Éric Rohmer, 1970) – The Rohmerest Rohmer film ever (hot French people talking unreliably about love and sex amid beauteous locales), with great acting, stunning Nestor Almendros photography and some of the finest examples of Rohmer defining his characters, their dynamics and his audience's perceptions through understated and apparently effortless composition. Laura > Claire, tho.



Babette's Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987) – A film full of painterly imagery, complex truths and quiet wisdom that echoes long after the curtain has fallen, and the virtuosic storytelling − hopping between time-frames, mood and media − takes the breath away. Full review.

Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987) – Near-perfect biopic of gay '60s playwright Joe Orton (Gary Oldman), focusing on his volatile relationship with live-in lover, Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina), powered by a superb Alan Bennett script, and Oldman's best performance. 'Synthesisers by Hans Zimmer'! Full review.



Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) – We meet Chihiro just minutes after an emotional farewell to her old friends: she’s sitting in the backseat of her parents’ car, as they trail a moving van to their new home. The family stop to investigate what seems to be an abandoned theme park, and soon the parents have been turned into pigs, Chihiro’s life has been saved by a boy who it turns out is a dragon and also a god, and she’s been forced to find employment in a fully-functioning bathhouse populated by ghosts, assisted by a multi-armed man who lives by a furnace with his friends – sentient bits of soot – and under the cosh of giant-headed Thatcher-a-like Yubaba, whose beloved germaphobe baby is bigger than she is. That’s the first 20 minutes. Full review.

Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969) – So much for the tolerant left.



Le deuxième souffle (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969) – A violent, grimply poetic underworld epic from Jean-Pierre Melville, with Lino Ventura as a brutal train-robber – obsessed with his own personal conception of honour – who escapes from prison only to be drawn inexorably towards a heist plot. Relatively unknown within the Melville canon, it takes a little while to find its rhythm, but once it does it's stunning, with mesmerising set pieces and several superb supporting characters, including ironic, omniscient police inspector Paul Meurisse, and Denis Manuel as a short-tempered gypsy gunman.

All This, and Heaven Too (Anatole Litvak, 1940) – An exceptionally classy melodrama, with Bette Davis giving one of her most extraordinary performances as a silhouette of a woman who enters the Duc de Praslin's tempestuous household in Paris of 1848 to act as the governess, falling in love with her master and becoming beloved of his children, before incurring the formidable wrath of his jealous, unstable wife. It's a beautifully balanced and restrained performance, with the star often saying one thing and playing three more, her heroine having to keep her emotions in check, know her place in society and her household, and juggle the conflicting responsibilities to her employers, her charges and herself. She's a character rarely permitted to speak honestly, but yet at every instant we know what she's thinking. Full review.



The Mouthpiece (Elliot Nugent and James Flood, 1932) – Few pre-Code films were ever as sweet and affecting as this one, in which William’s noble prosecutor reacts to tragedy by reinventing himself as an amoral shyster for the underworld (with a moustache, naturally), only to be changed back by the guileless southern office waif (Sidney Fox) he’s been trying to shag. It’s a little clumsy in places, and mistakes audacity for humour, but it’s saved by the performances. Full review.

***

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Review of 2017: Part 2 – Live



I'm not blasé about how lucky I am to have the job I do, to live in London, and to have just enough money to go to some incredible events (provided I don't go on holiday, and shop at Aldi quite a bit). In 2017, I've strolled around the Royal Albert Hall auditorium laying out Santa hats as Chrissie Hynde sang '2,000 Miles', gone for an extended drink with the Pern team after a day of filming with Christopher Eccleston, Paul Whitehouse and Nigel Havers, met Billy Bragg (straight in at #1 on the Nicest Celebs spreadsheet) and been to a celebration of Joe Orton featuring his sister Leonie, Kenneth Cranham and John Lahr. I've seen Allison Anders talk about Gas, Food Lodging, Bruce Robinson and Richard E. Grant discuss Withnail & I, and Kazuo Ishiguro reveal a deep love of screwball comedy. And through jobligations and a fast finger on the F5 button, I've been fortunate enough to go to the BAFTAs, Oliviers, the London Film Festival and the athletics world championships, and to see John Grant interview Elizabeth Fraser. It's been a bit daft.

That's everything that doesn't fit into my rigorously regimented Part 2 of the Review of the Year, which is split into Gigs, Shows and Exhibitions:

Gigs



12. The Best of Elmer Bernstein (June, Royal Albert Hall) – A fantastic concert showcasing Bernstein's pioneering work in everything from epics to comedies, Westerns to romances, and nature documentaries to sweaty, cynical, claustrophobic fag-end noirs. It was cosy, conversational and emotionally overwhelming in turn. Bernstein’s rhapsodic homage to/pastiche of classic Hollywood music – evoking the very history of Hollywood and composed for a ‘60s TV show called Hollywood and the Stars – was a revelation, captivating me with its sweeping, Steiner-esque beauty. Full review.



11. Martha Wainwright and Ed Harcourt (February, The Roundhouse) – An often brilliant evening in the company of one of the 21st century’s most compelling performers. Her new record is patchy, but she is such a mesmerising performer that she can wring brilliance from almost anything, her hips rotating sensually, her foot coming off the floor and her knee up towards her chest again and again in a mannerism that seems both inexplicable and inevitable, as much a part of her act as her easy humour, constant between-songs swearing and that unapproachable voice, racing over the octaves, blasting the roof off the Roundhouse or staying husky, deep and disgruntled somewhere in her larynx. Leonard Cohen’s 'Chelsea Hotel #2' is the highlight: among the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen or heard, at a gig or anywhere else (even after a false start in which she leaps straight into the second verse). At one point she’s crouched on the floor, her voice somewhere in the rafters, her heart somewhere in Hell. There are versions of it on YouTube, one from 10 years ago, another when she started doing it again live in December – clutching a lyric sheet, skitting around the tune – but nothing will ever come close to the way she sang it that night in February. It was revelatory. Full review.



10. The National (September, Hammersmith Apollo) – The best band since Suede (it's true, check your paperwork), and one of the most viscerally exciting live acts around. After three solid years of touring Trouble Will Find Me, they seemed keen to get away from it, delving further back into their catalogue and playing nearly everything from their new record, Sleep Well Beast. Highlights were a blistering 'The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness', a hushed, harmonised 'Dark Side of the Gym' featuring support act This The Kit, and a brass-backed take on that stuttering, syncopated hymn to escapism in a hellhole, 'Fake Empire'. My only quibble is that Matt Berninger, one of the most gifted lyricists of his generation and a dynamic stage presence, can't sing in tune live. It's not that hard.



9. Jens Lekman (March, Oval Space) – Glorious. Imagine how good he is when he doesn't have the flu. Full review.



8. David Ford's Milk and Cookies (December, Bush Hall) – Every Christmas, the protest-singing multi-instrumentalist puts down the economics textbook and plays a covers show for charity. Milk and cookies are on sale from a table at the back. This was the first time I'd been (though I've seen Ford live twice before), and it was a total joy, Ford effortlessly judging the mood as kicked off with 'Free Fallin' ', put his heart into a Whitney cover ('Didn't We Almost Have It All'), and played a joshing bromantic duet with Tom McRae (John Waite's 'Missing You'), between self-penned classics and randomly generated 'requests'. At one point, he asked the audience to sing a succession of notes, then used them as the synths for an inspired take on 10cc's 'I'm Not in Love'. What a treat. See you next year. I've put up a setlist (from memory) here.



7. Mike Heron and Trembling Bells (August, Cafe Oto) – As I said in the books review, my summer was commandeered by a burgeoning infatuation with the Incredible String Band. Robin Williamson's show at a Putney pub was distinctive and enjoyable, but ISB-free and dragged down by his wife's tuneless vocals. That felt in keeping with his character, and so did Mike Heron's hits set, backed by Glasgow folk-rock outfit, Trembling Bells. After support by a bad poet and a good young folkie, they took the stage for eight Incredible String Band numbers, including mesmeric versions of 'Douglas Traherne Harding' and 'A Very Cellular Song', probably the best thing Heron ever wrote. Pushing 75, he couldn't take a lead on all the numbers, so a backing singer unconvincingly deputised on 'Maya', but his voice has held up pretty well, and there's no questioning the enduring, singular quality of the material, nor the talent of his polished but flexible ensemble. He ended the show by duetting on the ISB rarity, 'Bright Morning Stars', with his daughter. Immediate reaction.



6. Yasmine Hamdan (March, Scala) – Every time I see her live, Lebanese electro-grunge pioneer Yasmine Hamdan features in this list. She topped it in 2014. The crowd was full of people farting and petting, but the performance itself was packed full of Hamdan's easy sensuality, instinctive creativity and megawatt charisma. The aftermath was somewhat spoiled by Yasmine not remembering me (we once hung out for like three hours) and then proceeding to offer me a fist-bump, which I misjudged and shook hands with. I can hear you cringing from here. Full review.



5. Susanne Sundfør (October, Union Chapel) – For me, one of this year's happiest musical discoveries, along with my numbers 10, 7 and 1. I saw her at the Scott Walker Prom in July (more of which later), and quickly became besotted. Y'know, musically. This show at London's most tranquil, atmospheric and welcoming venue (though the pews aren't ideal if you're a handsome 33-year-old press executive with a bad back) leant heavily on her new record, Music for People in Trouble, and its stylistic siblings: songs like 'Walls' and 'The Brothel', introspective, teasingly extroverted synth-folk ballads a world away from the stomping electro-pop of 2015's irresistible Ten Love Songs. Occasionally the show dipped into plonky nothingness, but there were stand-out moments from 'Reincarnation' to Paul Simon's 'American Tune', and when Sundfor rips the lid off that extraordinary voice for 'Trust Me' (a heart-stopping version) and the year's best song, 'Undercover', there's simply no feeling comparable.



4. John Grant (May, Union Chapel) – My first ever visit to Union Chapel was to see Review-of-the-Year stalwart John Grant, staying true to his reputation as rock's nicest genius with a charity show (to fund a kidney transplant for his friend Oleg) full of rarely-aired fan favourites ('Global Warming', 'You Don't Have To') and definitive versions. His 'Glacier' was the greatest I've ever heard, and I've seen him duet on it with Kylie. Full review.



3. Seu Jorge (May, Royal Albert Hall) – I loved The Life Aquatic from first sight, and one of its great joys is the Seu Jorge soundtrack: Portuguese-language covers of Bowie songs that give it so much of its poignant, perfect atmosphere. This year he toured those songs for the first time, pitching up at My Office for an intimate, conversational show. It was uplifting, unique, but deeply moving too: speaking very personally to the sell-out crowd, many of them sporting those iconic red beanies. “I am glad to see so many members of Zissou Team here,” says Seu. (A Team Zissou member calling Team Zissou 'Zissou Team” is the most Team Zissou thing ever). When a hidden screen comes down and his backdrop is The Life Aquatic and you realise that though it’s only 13 years, it’s already 13 years, and that the passing of time set to music is a rhapsodically poignant thing. Full review.



2. Prom 15: The Songs of Scott Walker: 1967-70 (July, Royal Albert Hall) – Perhaps the best show I've ever seen at work, a stunning reinterpretation of Scott Walker's early solo work from four of the most distinctive musical voices of later generations. Backed by Jules Buckley's impeccable Heritage Orchestra, each brought something different to the show, representing a different facet of Walker's mercurial persona: John Grant power and eloquence, Richard Hawley an urgent, tuneful melancholy, Jarvis Cocker a stage presence in place of the voice required to do Walker's songs justice, and Susanne Sundfør the insolent sensuality and super soaraway top notes. I'd come for Walker and Grant, but left as a Sundfør superfan. I first saw her in the soundcheck, doing something strange to 'The Amorous Humphrey Plugg'. By the end of the song I couldn't wait to hear more, and when she stepped out to sing it in Bond-theme style that night, I was just a foot away. It damn near lifted me to the ceiling. You can watch it here.



1. Father John Misty (November, Hammersmith Apollo) – In which the psychically tortured confessional artist puts on the most joyous pop concert of the year. Full review.

Would you like some more? I've written about plenty of other shows, from Jackson Browne being pretty damn great to Angel Olsen being pretty damn poor, and Richard Thompson not really being arsed.

Extra bits: Here are the best three pieces I wrote for the Royal Albert Hall blog this year: - My best pun of the year headlines this piece about Elmer Bernstein's greatest hits - Go behind the scenes at the filming of Brian Pern: A Tribute - And, after the untimely passing of the great Tom Petty, I wrote about seeing him live in 2012

***

Theatre


Yes, I like this sort of thing, what exactly is your point.

7. The John Wilson Orchestra presents Oklahoma! (August, Royal Albert Hall) – This counts, right? A semi-staged performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein's morally incomprehensible 1943 musical, in which the hero decides that a mentally ill love rival who owns pornography doesn't deserve to exist, and tries to convince him to commit suicide. Helluva show, though, powered by John Wilson's tight, exuberant orchestra, as a first-rate ensemble conjured Oklahoma from thin air with the help of a washing line, a couple of chairs, and impeccable song-and-dance smarts. Robert Fairchild was unquestionably the stand-out, but a mention too for Marcus Brigstocke. When I heard he was in it, I thought that was funny. It wasn't, but he was. I'd forgotten too how much great music there is in Oklahoma! I'll always prefer Rodgers and Hart to Rodgers and Hammerstein, but I prefer Rodgers and Hart to most things.



6. An American in Paris (March, Dominion Theatre) – An explosive, intelligent stage version of MGM’s 1951 masterpiece, direct from Broadway, which sags now and then in its book, but offers unmissable entertainment of a type rarely seen in the West End. It was the first night too, so Leslie Caron turned up to take a bow. Full review.



5. Girl From the North Country (July, The Old Vic) – A jukebox musical of Bob Dylan album tracks, allied to a Depression-era melodrama, and nearly as good as that sounds. Its greatest virtue was Shirley Henderson's performance. I've never been that taken with her, seeing her in films, but she had such a presence and physicality, flitting between pitiful and sensual, rabid and comatose, that I was transfixed. Though I tend to have a problem with portraits of mental disintegration which are big and tic-laden (as the journalist Tim Lott once wrote, a realistic piece of fiction about mental illness would just be very boring), this one managed to be funny, intelligently allegorical, moving and somewhat unpleasant, without traversing into unbelievability or hysteria, while her moments of lucidity unveiled an unexpectedly beautiful voice, shot through a Scandi-Minnesotan lilt. It was her, the songs and the atmosphere of quiet desperation that stayed with me, but mostly her. Full review.


Pennycooke as the dandyish Francophile, Thomas Jefferson.

4. Hamilton (December, Victoria Palace Theatre) – The top four could be in any order, really: I've been incredibly lucky to see four shows so thrilling and affecting in a single year. Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway sensation makes it to the West End in considerable style, delivering for an audience so hyped that they were whooping with barely-contained delirium when the lights went down. The writing is magnificent – two small moments that just blow me away are Lafayette's appearance in 'Guns and Ships' and "... we dream in the dark for the most time", a wail of impotence in the stand-out number, 'The Room Where It Happens' – and the staging and playing aren't far off. Rachel John (as Angelica) and Giles Terera (as Aaron Burr) are both incredibly classy performers, and there's explosive, pint-sized support from Jason Pennycooke. The West End audience seemed to retain its comfortable fondness for warbly show tunes (the cheesy if unquestionably effective 'One Last Time') over lightning-paced wordplay, but the atmosphere was something special all the same.



3. Angels in America (July/Aug, National Theatre) – The first half, Millennium Approaches, just blew me away: a clear-headed, literate and ambitious piece of art, lit by the NT's masterly, expansive stagecraft and a stunning ensemble. Part two, Perestroika, wasn't quite in my sweet spot, its abstract and metaphysical elements sometimes more confusing than compelling, but taken as a whole it was a vivid presentation of an extraordinarily ambitious, eight-hour play, with a sprawling focus but an enduring, unblinkered humanity. The performances from Nathan Lane (as Trump's mentor, McCarthyite lawyer Roy Cohn), Denise Gough and the relatively unknown James McArdle were absolutely terrific.



2. The Ferryman (August, The Gielgud Theatre) – What I always imagined theatre might be, and yet rarely is: both political and personal, with a specificity that gives it its universality, and a crackling, super-charged atmosphere that here buzzes with desperation, danger and the particular energy of unspoken love. Written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Sam Mendes, it stars Paddy Considine as a former IRA heavy whose tranquil farm life remains in the shadow of his brother's unresolved disappearance, setting up your expectations only to subvert them or – in the case of a moment of lucidity amidst the fog of dementia – time and heighten cliche with such effortlessness that it works just the same, before a descent into inevitable, ironic violence. Everything about the play is first-rate, but especially Laura Donnelly as the missing brother's wife. The play was based on Donnelly's own experiences, and her knife-edge performance is warm, tortured and erotic – sometimes all three at once.



1. Hamlet (April, Almeida Theatre) – Andrew Scott's Hamlet is the best I've seen − probing, philosophical, introspective and bitterly witty − and this intimate, innovative, cleanly modern production rises to meet him, keeping your attention rapt and your emotions engaged. He's also the first to whom I've felt a natural and personal connection, and it runs deep. He's groping in the dark, beset with an impotence of action from which he's trying to rip himself free, questing for self-knowledge, while praying for a relief from it. He's an existential Hamlet: thoughtful, melancholy, feeling deeply, a decent, anguished, emotionally tender Prince with an adolescent's loathing of hypocrisy and duplicity, a child's guilelessness, and a self-loathing born of immobility in the face of dishonour. In pegged black trousers and a collarless shirt, barefoot or in shiny black shoes, stripped to a vest highlighting his voluminous biceps, or dressed in cream and white for the graveyard scene, the wiry, wild-eyed Scott commands the stage, and all of your attention. Full review.

***

Exhibitions



"The bees are getting suspicious." My favourite exhibition of the year is on until April: the V&A's wonderful Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic, which approaches its topic from the angle of E. H. Shepard's perfect illustrations. That was presumably through necessity, as Shepard's drawings are part of the museum's collection whereas the smaller number of Milne items are borrowed, but it offers a fascinating new perspective on the works, examining Shepard's preparation (sketches from life in the rural locations), his subtle tricks (lengthening Piglet's snout to bury it in a balloon, showing his ears streaming back in the force of a gale) and his genius, while celebrating a creative marriage of two forceful, remarkable talents that extended to the artistic layout of the text, which echoed and so enhanced the stories they were telling. Don't miss the little side-room which takes that one step further! The rooms are full of life-size recreations of the drawings, including a Poohsticks bridge with an electronic river, and of remarkable insights and artefacts. The best are the alternate, unused Shepard sketches, among 270 drawings that he donated the museum in 1973. What I also found fascinating, looking at a gallery of later Pooh editions illustrated by Shepard, is that it was only in his dotage that his colour portraits began to work. His watercolour paintings, at least in these reproductions, seem blocky and charmless, but when he returned to the subject in his eighties, his eyesight failing, he opted instead for simple washes over his old ink drawings, and it's those indelible editions (making Pooh's jackets red, where sometimes they'd been blue) which have become definitive – and rightly so. There are a few references to the abhorrent D*sney bastardisation of the books in the opening room, but otherwise we're fine.



Grayson Perry's small-scale offering at the Serpentine Galleries, The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!, made me very happy: a sly, self-referential and extremely funny collection, from a vase decorated with delicately hideous cartoons of the Brexit mob to a tooled up motorbike for his teddy bear and (my favourite), a pastiche of miners' gala banners that contrasts the vilified 'archetypes' of the contemporary working class with the hazy image of their forefathers' macho monochrome nobility.



I saw two great exhibitions at the British Library, as well as their enjoyable Harry Potter one: a collection of Jane Austen's teenage writings in the Treasures gallery, and a fine study of the failed communist experiment – already in tatters by 1920 – in Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths. The Imperial War Museum's People Power exhibition was impressive, multi-faceted and a little unfortunate in having to follow the V&A's Disobedient Objects, which is one of the best exhibitions I've seen since moving to London, and dealt with a similar theme: public protest.

If you like the idea of going into a warm hut and trying not to stand on some butterflies, then I'd really recommend the Natural History Museum's ever-popular Sensational Butterflies (seriously, it's terrific).



My favourite of the art exhibitions was Tate Modern's Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, which had its philosophically impenetrable collections of twigs, but also works like Benny Andrews' provocative, 'Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree' – with its challenging, tactile 3D created partially by using an everyday zip for a mouth – and Betye Saar's 'Sambo's Banjo', its gaudy exterior covered in the infantilising, dehumanising racism of a blackface caricature, while its inside contains a black figure strung up for a lynching. Saar said, though, that the plight of the black man in America was not hopeless, destiny was in his hands, and so a sniper rifle lies within reach, waiting for him to free himself. I was less enamoured of the Rauschenberg exhibition, though it contained the greatest factual description of an artwork ever written, though American Dream at the British Museum got me thinking about the ways we see America, and the ways it sees itself.

***

Thanks for reading.

Review of 2017: Part 1 – Books

One of my new year's resolutions for 2017 was to read a book a week. And, ladies and gentleman, I did it. *inexplicably waits for applause from readers who are too busy raising a family or tending the sick to read a biography of 1930s gossip columnist Walter Winchell*

I come here not only to brag, though, but to share. Here's a whistle-stop tour of the high and lowlights of my year of books.

Fiction



My favourite book of the year, and the only thing to make me cry in 2017 (I am hard), was Kazuo Ishiguro's justly-celebrated The Remains of the Day, (1989) a work of sublime brilliance with a guarded, reticent narrative voice that gradually unfurls the book's devastating secrets, both professional and personal. From its gloriously stilted ruminations on motoring and "bantering" to that incomparable climax, in which the floodgates open, just an inch, it's the book that taught me the most about writing and about life. Another book that was incredibly special to me was Timequake (1997), by my favourite writer and human, Kurt Vonnegut. Supposedly his final novel, though it's not exactly a novel, it's been unjustly dismissed, perhaps because he spends such little time and effort dealing with his alleged plot: that of luckless citizens (including recurring character Kilgore Trout) forced to endure a ‘rerun’ of the past decade following the ‘timequake’ of the title, in which they go through every moment of every day of every year in exactly the same way, the only novelty being that they are aware this is happening. Instead, he leaves us with just "choice cuts from the carcass" of that story, shooting off at glorious tangents. The book shakes with pain and sadness in its early passages, as Vonnegut details his crippling writer’s block and rails at the innate cruelty of the world, appearing almost defeated by it. After all, he says, “No-one asks to be born”. Soon, though, he’s brimming with brilliance both comic and humane, picking himself – and us – off the floor and arming us with compassion, insight and practical ideas for combating the societal plagues of poverty, loneliness and despair. I see it as a self-help book for sarcastic socialists.



A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), I knew from Elia Kazan's 1945 adaptation: despite considerable competition, his first and best film. The source novel doesn't just come with deleted scenes, but a greater scope in terms of time and characterisation, though its great virtue is what it shares with the movie: its detail, its unsentimental sensitivity and its atmosphere of hard-won wisdom and desperate yearning. Another American classic, recently added to the canon, is John Williams' Stoner (1963), an extraordinarily sad, straightforward but poetic book about a life: that of ungainly farm boy William Stoner, who becomes an academic but finds disappointment and disillusionment in the compromise of adulthood. I picked up The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) because I loved the front cover (in fact, all of its front covers are amazing ), and it was wonderful, so Rick 1, Cliches 0. After 150 pages I was wondering how it had won the Pulitzer, 450 later, I was wondering if it was possible to give it some more. Telling the story of an ink-stained immigrant comic book artist fighting Nazis on the page and in secret, it's a tremendous feat of storytelling, completely impossible to second-guess, with a consistently confounding sense of irony, and a mind that won't always allow its warm, beating heart to get what it wants. I'll be reading much more of Michael Chabon's work.



Another author I 'discovered' this year was Elizabeth Taylor (my first reaction being, predictably enough, "I bet she's crap, it's easy to get a book deal if you're famou- oh, it's a completely different person). Her 1957 book Angel is an impeccably restrained work by a great and hilarious author, about a poor and humourless one. Its heroine is Angel Deverell, who seeks to transcend the pathetic life of servitude mapped out for her, through sheer, incandescent genius. Her genius, though, isn’t for art but for matching the taste of the public, which greets her epic, florid, ‘risqué’, wildly inaccurate tour-de-force, The Lady Irania, with little short of hysteria, catapulting the waspish, selfish and humourless egomaniac into a life of which she has merely dreamt, and yet has dreamt relentlessly. Similar in subject matter, but not as rich in scope, was Jane Gardam's fascinating, funny A Long Way From Verona (1970), which also deals with a brutally honest teenage writer and outsider in a vanished England. And like Angel, it has an innate, fierce unpredictability and a rapturously distinctive voice (ideally utilised in a first person narrative) which, by definition, make it nothing like Angel. Its wartime Yorkshire setting is intrinsic – the story set against the mercilessness and the brutal lottery of war, even on the Home Front – and it crashes into the narrative, but it isn’t a book about war. It’s a book about Jessica Vye and the world she inhabits, ridicules, abhors and attempts to negotiate, with uncertainty and arrogance and perseverance, and a conviction that never shakes, but does latch onto passing whims, and falls prey to her explosive temper.



One of the greatest treats of the year was Truman Capote's Music For Chamelons (1980). Comprising six short stories, seven conversational portraits, and a non-fiction (?) centrepiece about a serial killer, it's a book of extraordinary grace, incisiveness and honesty which further bolstered my impression that Capote remains one of the most important, original and underestimated writers of his era. Fuck his artificial image as a catty, trivial, morbid starfucker, and study the work: dark, devastating, morally decent writing shot through with his actual character, the shadows of an encroaching darkness creeping across the sun-dappled idyll of his New Orleans childhood. Perhaps my favourite piece is 'Dazzle', a multi-layered story with a time-shifting perspective that’s about love, fear and guilt, as Capote relives the story of his paternal grandfather, a fortune teller and two terrible secrets: one comic, the other tragic. It is flecked with wonder, touched by horror, and redolent with an unstudied compassion for his younger self, before a climactic sucker-punch that knocked me sideways. But it’s just one masterpiece among many.



The Heart of the Matter (1948) was my favourite of this year's two Graham Greene books: a masterwork about Scobie, a rigorously upstanding colonial policeman in an unnamed African state, whose unimpeachable integrity is challenged by his capacity for pity and lust, threatening him with eternal damnation (at least in his fevered Catholic mind). Greene crystallises the nature of memory in 56 words, the colonial experience in a sentence or two, and the nature of its protagonist through a description of a room containing nothing of his own, all within the first five pages. The Quiet American (1955) covers similar ground, and both starts and ends tremendously, with real economy coupled to mystery or revelation, but the mid-section isn't as compelling, plodding in places. That was matched pound-for-pound in terms of nihilistic bleakness by Jack Kerouac's miraculous Big Sur (1962), a sort of journal of self-abasement, written in his familiarly roving, unstinting style, and basking in naturalistic, colloquial language, in the juxtapositions of ideas and words, in the unvarnished, unprettified honesty of a man at the end of his tether, who despairs at his lack of 'human beingness' and yet displays both the compassion, innate, clear-sighted judgement of character and the ruthless, pitiless self-awareness that is being human. Camus's short, unsparing The Fall (1956) was a little light on laughs too: a brilliant book which is radically conceived, simply written, and almost endless in its potential interpretations, though it is, primarily, a book about conscience, judgement and the loss of innocence. And I completed the cycle of six 'proper' Jane Austen novels with the witheringly sarcastic Northanger Abbey (1917): not quite the spoof of Gothic literature suggested by its reputation: that's merely one of its many facets, and accessible at that.



Those are all the cast-iron classics, but I found joy in plenty of other fictional forms: in the parts of The Amber Spyglass (2000) dealing with Lyra and Will, and in Pullman's new voyage into the world of His Dark Materials: La Belle Sauvage (2017), a very wet story of nobility, bravery and sacrifice: moving, magical and brilliantly sentimental, though with some increasingly samey imagery and a villain who was more nasty than novel. Other British authors I explored included Ian McEwan, whose On Chesil Beach (2007) relies so heavily on its ending to enter the pantheon of the greats that it seems a truly special book only in retrospect; John Mortimer, author of The Sound of Trumpets (1999), an astute, immersive, neatly (and viciously) plotted book with a few shortcomings; and Nick Hornby, whose concentration of hard-earned wisdom in the accessible and funny High Fidelity (1995) took me completely aback.



My further adventures in Philip Roth were mixed: The Ghost Writer (1979) is the first book narrated by his serious-minded, horny and human alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, and a vigorously and continuously brilliant story of three father figures and a barely acceptable reverie, but I Married a Communist (1999) felt like a pale retread of American Pastoral and The Human Stain. It has some great passages, and credit to Roth for twisting something as tangible as HUAC into a story about his enduring preoccupations (irony, chance, the unknowability of everyone), but his resistance to capitalising on his premise's obvious potential may be ultimately what scuppers it. I really liked The Lathe of Heaven (1973) by Ursula K. Le Guin, a high-concept slice of sci-fi with a sure sense of its self, but Stephen King's stab at a time-travelling tale, 11/22/63 (2011), was less impressive: blessed by a gripping, meticulously plotted story and an unexpected moral grace, but also overwritten and overlong, with clunky prose, a silly climactic dystopia and a lot of superfluous, blunt humour.



Donald Trump's favourite book, which he definitely hasn't read, is The Fountainhead (1943) by Ayn Rand, a strident, remarkable, often ridiculous crowdpleaser that lays out her philosophy of ‘objectivism’, in which self-interest is the driving force of progress. It's violent and nasty and has a lot to answer for, but it’s also enormously readable – far more so than I was expecting – with a patented contrariness and counterintuitiveness in its language and ideas, a starkly impressionistic vocabulary full of “smears” and “smudges”, “parapets” and “porticos”, and bursts of sudden, shocking violence: in its architecture, its relationship with an imperfect world, and its characters’ creativity and cruelty. The first time that visionary architect Howard Roark reshapes a hackneyed, ignorant design by slashing thick black lines through it, you can’t help your heart beating a little faster. Her earlier book, Anthem (1937), rewritten and republished after her success with The Fountainhead, is less arresting, but not bad: a short, precise critique of totalitarianism, with flashes of stark, brutal poetry, as Equality 7-2521 learns to love and question and create.



I also read several books about race and diversity, a couple of them novels. James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), the first book by the great poet-philosopher of the Civil Rights movement, isn't the easiest to read or to like, with a relentlessness that becomes more like reputation, complex characters and an obscure frame of reference – the intricacies of rebirth within a specific section of the black Christian church – but it's well worth it: a deep and profound and sustaining work. Mudbound by Hillary Jordan (2008), a white author writing about race in the late-1940s, is the opposite: a pageturner that's undoubtedly sincere, but ends up feeling rather synthetic and shallow. I read both that and On Chesil Beach before I saw the movie adaptations at the London Film Festival.



Among my books about movies was one piece of fiction: Nathanel West's legendary work, The Day of the Locust, nasty, nightmarish blast of Hollywood alienation, full of foreboding. Written in Hollywood’s greatest year, the near-mythical 1939, it’s an unremitting horror story in economic sentences: an acidic counterpoint to Steinbeck’s contemporaneous novels, depicting the unified masses not as a humane, nourishing whole, but as a blankly vicious mob, hooked on an unfulfilling dream, and chillingly ripe for fascism. It's still not as sour as Kingsley Amis's The Folks That Live on the Hill (1990), though, a mystifyingly joyless, poisonously misanthropic book about an outwardly avuncular academic and his troubled family. It makes the early '90s in England seem like the most awful place on earth.

Children's books



Two absolute stunners this year. The first was Journey to the River Sea (2001) by Eva Ibbotson, a beguilingly beautiful novel about orphan Maia, who travels to Brazil in the early 1900s to stay with distant relatives. There, she’s tormented by her new-found family, but finds solace in her friendships with governess Miss Minton, a child actor named Clovis King, and a mysterious boy named Finn, while discovering escape in her exploration of the seductive, enrapturing world of the Brazilian jungle. It’s timeless but modern, character-led but immaculately constructed, and paints a vivid and unforgettable portrait of early 20th century Brazil, while drawing much of its humour and conflict from the virtues and vices of Englishness. It’s unquestionably a great book, but perhaps more importantly it’s a good book: rich in human decency, and as deeply and desperately moving as anything I’ve read in years. It knocked me absolutely sideways, and by the end I was choked to let it go. The second was Allan Ahlberg's The Bear Nobody Wanted (1992), concernsing a nameless bear who arrives off the production line feeling smug and superior – after all, a bear’s character is defined by his facial features – only to be tossed into a bin, rescued, rejected, burnt, used as a duster, savaged by a dog, repaired, briefly welcomed, relegated, forgotten, lonely, nameless, catatonic and bombed by the Nazis, en route to a happy ending. A couple of other favourites were lovely gifts from close friends: Katy Laura and the Dream Boat (1984) and Dr Seuss's inspiring Oh! The Places You'll Go (1990).

***

Non-fiction

In terms of non-fiction, I tend to read 20th century history – especially biographies – and about cinema, but if my interest is piqued by a subject, or I feel hopelessly out of my depth when I hear it talked about (which is often), I'll try to read up about it. I know the limitations of my brain, though, and that rule applies more to, say, philosophy or fast bowling than, for example, chemistry.



The two best biographies I read in 2017 were Neal Gabler's Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity (2007) and Jean Edward Smith's FDR (2000). The two characters weren't unrelated: FDR was Winchell's hero, and the president's unexpected death sent the muckracking tabloid-journalist-turned-political-commentator spinning, with no North Star, towards McCarthyism. Smith's moving, powerful book shows how America's greatest president, for all his errors and failings, dragged the country up from its knees (I've written about it at length here). Gabler's incredibly entertaining mix of biography and social history explains much that has happened since: after all, Winchell's protégé was Trump's mentor.



I also enjoyed Evan Thomas's Robert Kennedy (2000), which rejects the lionisation and demonisation of RFK for something more complex and credible: a psychologically insightful portrait of a decent but deeply-flawed subject who felt deeply, erred frequently and grew through tragedy to become a great man. And I finally got around to John Lahr's celebrated Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton (1978) prior to seeing him speak at the BFI's brilliant What the Butler Saw event (part of an 'Orton at 50' celebration that also included 'Loot' at the Park Theatre): a literary biography that remains controversial for its fatalism, psychological studies of Orton's work, and sympathetic approach to his murderer (and lover), Kenneth Halliwell, in whose crime Orton is supposedly complicit. I thought it was exceptional. In the 'bad biog' corner, we have Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin and a Century in Two Lives (2013) by Karen Wieland which stank the place out in its interminable closing chapters. It's not entirely without merit, but I'm sure you can find better.

Another sub-par film book was Anne Helen Petersen's Scandals of Classic Hollywood (2014). The author is currently being pilloried for her nasty pseudo-woke take on the career of Armie Hammer, but I was calling her book on Harlow, Brando et al 'unsatisfying' months ago. Easy Riders and Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures was a highly readable account of the indie film distribution wars of the 1990s, which painted Harvey Weinstein as a cruel, capricious, manipulative, finagling, terrifying bully, but missed the story. Biskind responded to this accusation by saying that covering the rape allegations would have made his story "juicier", from which we can deduce that he's an absolute waste of a human being and shouldn't be listened to any more.



There were a couple of film books I just loved. Pamela Hutchinson's brilliant new study of Pandora's Box (2017), in the BFI Film Classics series, is an extremely astute, readable reading of a fascinating film, explaining the enduring appeal and allure of both the picture and its heroine, the shimmering, sensual, black-helmeted Lulu: chauvinist avatar turned feminist icon. Paul Seydor's unapologetically obsessive The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (2015) is invaluable for anyone who's still not quite over Peckinpah's imperfect 1973 masterpiece. I collected its liveliest revelations in this blog entry.

My younger brother bought me a copy of Rob Young's Electric Eden: Uncovering Britain's Visionary Music (2012) for my birthday, which was why I spent the entire summer listening to the Incredible String Band, and saw both of the band's visionary songwriters live. It's an elegant, passionately-argued history – and defence – of British folk music from its origins in the pastoral socialism of William Morris and classical composers Holst, Vaughan Williams and Delius, through to Kate Bush, Julian Cope and Talk Talk in the 1980s. The meat of the book is a conversational, amusing and astute evocation of the British folk boom of 1965-74, with vivid, condensed portraits of the likes of Pentangle, Fairport Convention, John Martyn and ISB, their origins, obsessions and place in the canon impeccably but accessibly explained and elucidated, alongside that of an abundance of odd, often forgotten contemporaries, from the bleak and furious art rock of Comus to a moonlighting Playaway presenter involved in naked pagan rituals.



Patti Smith's Just Kids (2010), a memoir of her life with idiosyncratic, doomed artist Robert Mapplethorpe, is probably what you'd expect from one of the most important and pretentious voices in modern music: at its best, uncommonly insightful, raw and moving, but decreasingly revelatory and compelling as it progresses, with Smith slipping into unbearable posturing with increasing frequency and intensity. By contrast, I unequivocally adored Robert Webb's wonderful How Not to Be a Boy (2017), an extraordinarily perceptive, funny and moving memoir about masculinity, familial relationships and loss. I lost my mum at 17 too, but Webb – with his characteristic self-analytical unsentimentality – shows how I could have used that to get laid at university. Bit late now. Even the incidental, throwaway gags (like the one about David Mitchell "bumming some fags in a pub") are fantastic.

Lost at Sea (2013) was yet more Jon Ronson goodness, each of his (sometimes formulaic) features revealing something about humanity or the world we inhabit, whether looking at bravery, open-mindedness or the rationalisations we make for being callous. Speaking of being lost at sea, my friend Jess and I have been watching all the films we can find about the Titanic. After seeing A Night to Remember, I read the 1955 source work by Walter Lord, an invigorating, intensely moving work that counterbalances the tragedy of the sinking with the triumph of the rescue, which is exhilaratingly brought to life. The chapter headings may be the greatest ever written, loaded with emotional import: most of them made me want to burst into tears.



The release of Denial made me finally get around to reading Deborah Lipstadt's Denying the Holocaust (1993), a self-congratulatory, endlessly repetitive book that's on the right side of history. Its most interesting aspects are the way it anticipates the far right's move into suited respectability – a move far more advanced now than then – and her astute, academicised rejection of presenting hate speech as a credible force in a two-sided debate (note to Piers Morgan: you do this whenever you're feeling unpopular, so several times a month). It's quite long-winded and dry, though, so congratulations to David Irving for getting to the end of it so he could sue her for libel (and lose, lol, the twat. *SPOILERS*).

The prize for the year's most unpleasant book (I'm not sure why there's a competition, but there is) goes to Black Dahlia Avenger (2015) by Steve Hodel, who remains convinced that his dad was one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. The revolting close ups of a severed corpse turned out to be Not Really My Thing, and I'm pretty sure Hodel's wrong, though his father was unquestionably a monster.



Being enormously woke and therefore attractive to women at music festivals, I read a few books on diversity. One of them was superficially about cricket: the tremendously readable if choppily non-linear Fire in Babylon (2015), which tells the story of the brilliant West Indian sides who played under Clive Lewis and Viv Richards. At times it reads more like a series of loosely connected newspaper features than a coherent, complete history, but exploring subjects from slavery to seam bowling, it explores the phantom nation at the team's centre, how its success fostered racial pride in Britain's booming black immigrant population, and the fires of injustice that burned within the side's most remarkable players. James Baldwin's miraculous The Fire Next Time (1963) simply changed the way I see, and engage with, the world. Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People about Race (2017) was, I think, an attempt to do something similar for Britain in 2017 but, reader, it was shit.

My final book of the 52 was James Naremore's The Magic World of Orson Welles (1978/89) (more about him in Part 3 of the annual review, I've been on a Welles bender), an acclaimed study that's great (if brief) on the director's technical innovation, and incisively considers his essential duality, but undermines the validity of its often valuable psychological and thematic analysis through an overly Freudian approach that sees sexual repression everywhere, rather than just in The Trial.



***

Thanks for reading. My resolutions for 2018 are to keep plugging away with my own writing and to be kinder. I probably won't blog about that. Unless I am very kind.

Part 2 will be about LIVE STUFF.