Movies of the Last Year (pt. 2) – rundown and conclusions

Second part of this post about the films I’ve seen this year.

Best Picture

Well, how about I count down in reverse order:

9. Robocop. Now hang on a second, no sniggering. I was actually pleasantly surprised by Robocop. Sure, it was junk. Sure, it wasn’t the original. Sure, a key fight scene was basically made entirely of some random video game footage that was lying around the studio somewhere. But actually, I found it pretty fun. The action scenes, while not the best, weren’t terrible. The acting wasn’t terrible. There were some nice little cameos and jokes. I don’t regret seeing it. I certainly preferred it to, say, Man of Steel

8. Calvary. Oh dear. There were things about The Guard that I really liked, and things I didn’t like. I hoped that Calvary would retain the former and remove the latter. It was mostly the other way around. Brendan Gleeson gives a good performance. The scenery was stunning. There are some good funny lines, and in particular there’s a little two-hander in it that was the funniest thing I have seen all year. But the director has never seen a performance he thought was too loud, too ridiculous or too broad, and has every actor ham up massively (other than Gleeson, who instead downplays everything and seems to be floating in an entirely different film). This perhaps wouldn’t be such a problem if the screenplay weren’t headbangingly obvious, unsubtle and patronising. At times it was brilliant, but at other times it was difficult to keep watching it was so bad.

7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Half an hour in, I thought to myself: ‘ok, narrative cinema is dead’. But actually, by the end, I’d mostly changed my mind. It’s clunkingly obvious and wholly conventional with scarcely an iota of distinctive genius to any of it. But once it’s cleared the painful infodumps and foreshadowings, it becomes a respectably well-made film with a plot and characters and everything, and I came out of the cinema having moderately enjoyed it.

6. The Imitation Game. You know, I was tempted to bump this down behind Dawn… but that would have been spite, and would represent my problem with the reception of the film, rather than with the film itself. The film itself… well, it’s hard to think of anything wrong with it (other than Keira Knightley, obviously). It looks very pretty, it’s well acted, the writing has no glaring faults (except perhaps the lurch into cheesy psychology at the end), the score is exactly what you’d expect… everything is exactly what you’d expect from it. Exactly. If you designed a film to win Oscars and be generally well-liked, this is what you would design. There is no risk in it anywhere. My bigger problem, however, is perhaps the trend it seems to represent to me: the idea of the ‘biopic’ that has absolutely sod all interest in the subject or their works. Turing was a fascinating character; ‘Turing’ in this film has very little in common with him, and is instead just the generic ‘genius with Aspergers’ stock cartoon character that has become fashionable. Turing, incidentally, did not have Aspergers, and was by all accounts a sociable man with a witty and pleasant sense of humour. Turing was among those who broke the Enigma code, but the film has virtually no interest in the substance of this, reducing most of it to a brief and early “obsessive genius scribbles incomprehensibly on bits of paper” montage copied from a dozen other films. As for the other code-breakers, the film shows them as mere irrelevences (rather than, say, showing how Knox independently broke the form of Enigma used by German military intelligence, by an entirely different method). Turing developed some of the first functioning computers, but there is little discussion of this – it’s just something for him to stand in front of looking dramatic. His contributions to the philosophy of AI? Food for a brief and disconnected scene that serves mostly to provide the title. How about his life as a gay man at a time when it was illegal? Nope. We don’t even meet any of his lovers. Apparently his entire sexual life was one chaste infatuation as a child followed by a life spent pining for that one true love. Yeah right. The investigation that led to his arrest? A framing device with no time spent on it. His sensational trial? No. OK, how about the idea of a man voluntarily opting for chemical castration to change his sexual orientation? No, just tell us that it happened, don’t explore that, nothing interesting there. And an exploration of his death – was it suicide, and if so why? (His hormone treatment had actually already been discontinued, and he had apparently regarded it with good humour). Or how about public attitudes toward him? No. No, there is basically nothing here actually about Alan Turing or what he did or what was done to him. There is a generic Hollywood Biopic, and then there are few lines of trivia here or there to connect this Biopic to a real historical person. To be honest, I’m actually kind of offended that this was nominated for Oscars. Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t hate it. Like I say, it’s very well put-together, for what it is. I mostly enjoyed watching it. If it were on TV when I needed to, say, do some ironing, I would not object. The production qualities are somewhat higher than something like, say, an episode of Foyle’s War, even if the depth of the writing and the historical specificity are not…

On which note: the film is also a good example of a worrying modern trend among filmmakers: not giving a shit about responsibility. The Imitation Game is essentially a gross slander of a bunch of people who lived not very long ago – some may still be alive, while for others their children, grandchildren and friends are still alive. The director has responded condescendingly to complaints by explaining that this is a film, not a documentary, and thus Art, and thus has no responsibility to be accurate – even the post-film text, which is untrue, is only Art, not an attempt at fact. But this is not written on the tin. The film is marketed as a historical film – indeed, it’s only real selling point is that this is the true story of persecuted genius Alan Turing. The fact that it is not anything like the true story of Turing is therefore a cogent objection to it. People were coming out of the cinema say “wow, I never realised that…” – because they thought, as all the advertising said, that it was a true story! Now of course, we all know that minor alterations must be made to almost any true story to make it fit the dramatic requirements of a film – but those alterations must be made responsibly, with the adapter balancing the requirements of drama with a responsibility to history and to the memories of real people, particularly when, as here, the film deeply slanders real people who cannot defend themselves against it. It is only filmmakers who seem not to understand it – if a biography were presented in written form that was so wilfully negligent of reality, people would not passively accept this. The only reason I think they accept films like The Imitation Game is that for many people cinema is their main source of information on many subjects (which only adds to the responsibility filmmakers have not to lie). And of course it’s not just The Imitation Game – this year alone, those responsible for Selma and American Sniper have issued similar “Art has no responsibilities” defences for the historical liberties those films take, with varying levels of “all truth is relative, I’m just showing the subjective experience of the reality” cod philosophy alongside (which I would have less problem with if it were made clear to the general viewing public, in advance, that that’s what they were trying to do). And perhaps I would feel less strongly about this issue if these films took liberties to make surprising or novel claims, to show new perspectives. Instead, all three films (from what I’ve read in the case of the latter, and from what I’ve seen in the case of TIG) re-write history to conform to more simplistic, more infantile, more conventional and reassuring tropes. For these filmmakers, ‘historical drama’ seems to mean trying to make history conform to the expectations of drama viewers, reducing history to cartoon and blockbuster, rather than trying to show viewers the drama inherent in the real history. The three films all profess different political views, but in their desire to infantilise the audience they are all fundamentally reactionary, conservative propaganda.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy. Genuinely a good film! Fun, and funny, and quirky. Not very original (other than the wallpaper), and not exactly a work of genius or anything, but solidly good film.

4. Birdman. A very professionally-crafted film. Some good acting, camerawork, some good lines. But… sorry, but this is just a good mile up its own arse. It is hollow and soulless. There is one line in it that did resonate with me: when Keaton’s character talks about how he was miserable as a Hollywood star, but then answers himself back saying “yeah, but Hollywood miserable”. Not real miserable. That, to me, encapsulates the film. It’s not that Hollywood Miserable isn’t genuinely, life-destroyingly, suicidally miserable in some cases. It’s that it’s hard to care, because it’s so artificial. It’s the sort of misery where the guy has to find reasons for himself to be miserable, because he’s bored of feeling fine and because everybody else is doing it. A combination of narcissism, martyrdom and attention-seeking. That’s this film. I can see why Hollywood loves it, and even why it might be a good film for Hollywood. But for everybody else? It’s unimportant. Now, sure, it claims to know this – a character even yells at Keaton that he doesn’t matter and nothing he does matters (because nothing in this film is left to the imagination, every subtext must be yelled). But here’s the thing: telling people loudly that you don’t matter at all is still a form of narcissism. It’s still megalomania, it’s still attention-seeking. It’s just the B-side to the self-aggrandisement. Put simply, this is a film that showbusiness types will come away from feeling smug about: because look how enlightened and self-aware and open to criticism they are to like a film that is willing to criticise showbusiness… and because nothing here will actually sting any of their egos because hell, they’re still the star of the show. It’s the annoying old lady who monopolises dinner conversation by telling everybody loudly how humble and self-effacing she is. Because of course it only dares to judge itself by its own standards. If you really want to take on Hollywood, if you really what to show us how irrelevent it is, show us some glimpse of the world outside showbusiness. Take us to the slums, show us what really matters. [But of course, that would also risk showing how showbusiness is important…] Instead it’s a bunch of shallow people patting each other on the back for how deep they are. And again, I did actually enjoy this, as a piece of entertainment, for a little while, and it is impressively constructed, in many ways. But it’s a vacuous and hollow technical exercise designed to appeal to vacuous and hollow Oscar voters (while explicitly seeking to look as though it doesn’t care what they think).

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is also a hollow and vacuous technical exercise! However, I preferred this to Birdman because Budapest authentically recognises its own limitations – not only does it not try to be more, it even sets out to limit and distance itself (the nested story frames, for instance, or the way that the most “important” facts are mentioned in an off-hand manner while “trivial” details get extensive coverage). This is the film that really discusses the virtues and limitations of storytelling, and it does so by breaking out of the clique of storytellers, rather than by a bunch of storytellers arguing with one another as in Birdman. If it doesn’t seem as emotive and as relevant to real life as Birdman does, that’s because Birdman revels in its illusions of relevence, is never afraid to throw in a gritty, meaty speech about something that doesn’t really matter, whereas Budapest has genuine meat to it, but, as often happens in real life, the emotional core is kept confined, only delicately touched on. There is always something terribly unrealistic about realism – something theatrical and artificial about soul-bearing honesty. Even in real life, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that grand speeches about feelings and the meaning of life may be playing to the crowd, and that the most genuine emotions are those that we keep concealed, or that we have no words for. Meanwhile, in its own way Budapest is every bit as technically proficient as the more acclaimed film. It was, I’ll confess, something of a disappointment to me – it lacks the passion and specificity of The Royal Tennenbaums (one of my favourite films) – but it was nonetheless a distinctive and memorable film that I’m sure will end up somewhere on my shelf of films to rewatch over the years.

2. Edge of Tomorrow. You know, I actually thought about putting this #1. But in the end I can’t quite defend that. I do feel, however, that I can defend #2. Edge of Tomorrow is a popcorn film, sure – but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. What, after all, is really wrong with this film? There are a range of exciting and visually impressive action shots. The pacing is almost perfect; I never became bored (and I get bored easily in action films). Perhaps it is five minutes or so too long, but that’s quibbling. It’s true that the ending isn’t perfect, and there are also a few too many tropes employed – but that has to be seen in the context of the film as a whole, which is continually enjoyable, and surprisingly original. It’s always finding new angles and developments. It doesn’t speak down to the viewer (much). It’s got two really good central performances (and if you hate Tom Cruise, don’t worry, that might make you enjoy this film even more!) and a bunch of good minor roles. It’s got real emotion – not a huge amount, sure, because that’s not what this sort of film is for, but it is there, and it’s enough to provide us with stakes we care about. The writing is good throughout, with some really great lines. As a result, it’s really funny. Not, again, an outright genius comedy, but funny enough to lighten the mood, make the film likeable, keep our attention when the action slows, and provide a bit of tonal whiplash to keep us on our toes. The special effects look good, and the sound is great. It’s a really clever film. It’s a popcorn action film and it’s really clever, and that’s the sort of film there really needs to be more of.

Will Edge of Tomorrow enter my personal favourites? Probably not, but for some people it probably will. It will enter my ‘things to suggest watching whenever I’m having a pizza with friends’ list. Of all the films I’ve seen this year, it’s probably the film I’m likely to want to rewatch most often – and while a film can be great without being rewatchable, anything I want to rewatch a lot must be a pretty damn good film. After all, entertainment is the aim!

  1. Whiplash.

Now, don’t get ahead of yourselves. Whiplash is not a perfect film. In fact, it’s got some glaring errors in it. There are two or three scenes here that had me going ‘nooo! baaad wriiiting!’. The thing is, though – those are a tiny fraction of the run time overall. More importantly for me, those are things you expect from a new writer who hasn’t quite polished off the rough edges yet. For the most part, this was a seriously, seriously good film. Every element of it was working excellently, and I probably had higher adrenaline levels watching a guy hit a drum with a stick than I did for any other film I saw this year. It’s a claustrophobic, intense little martinet of a film. As much as I love Natalie Portman and lesbian sex scenes and adore Tchaikovsky (and, I’ll confess, I’m really keen on all three), this feels like the film Black Swan should have been. And Birdman? Hey, Iñárritu, this is a film about the importance/unimportance of art! This is what real passion and obsession look like. Not Hollywood-passion or Hollywood-Art, but real art. And the music! Speaking as someone who likes classical rather than jazz, there’s some really appealing jazz in this film… and that drum solo! That’s how the drums are meant to be played. [Although apparently ‘real’ drummers consider that sort of thing to be ‘very passé’ (quoting here from a noted drummer) and not fashionable at all. Yeah, well, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was passé too – but who do people listen to now, Tchaikovsky or Cui?]

Did I want more from Whiplash than it delivered? Yes. Yes, I wanted more, and I was a little disappointed by it. But that’s only because it so good. It’s so good that I perhaps I wanted it to do everything. Watching films like The Imitation Game (conventional) or Birdman (Hollywood-unconventional), you can be drawn in, seduced, made to think “well what more could a film do?” – those films couldn’t have done more than they did, their limitations were built into them and you applaud when they do exactly what they say on the tin. Whiplash is a film that feels so free, so authentic, so capable that you have to remind yourself that it’s only mortal, or else you get disappointed when you realise that it can’t actually fly.

‘Winner’: Whiplash.


So there you have it. My last year in films. I’m pretty pleased – there was nothing I saw that was a total disaster. Some films disappointed me, some irritated me, but they all had things to like about them. Even Robocop was non-awful. In terms of all-time rankings, I would put them in the following categories:
Wouldn’t give recommendation for or against, but don’t regret seeing: Robocop
Might recommend to some people, if they like this sort of thing: Calvary; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; The Imitation Game
Would recommend widely, though with caveasts: Guardians of the Galaxy; Birdman
Will passionately recommend: The Grand Budapest Hotel; Edge of Tomorrow; Whiplash
All-time favourites: probably none (so far – films may be upgraded on a re-watch).

Of course, I did watch other films this year too. There’s no point listing everything I’ve watched, but I can think of two other films I got around to watching for the first time: Let the Right One In, and Oh, What a Lovely War!

Both films were very impressive, but neither will be all-time favourites. Let the Right One In probably ranks somewhere around Grand Budapest for me – I didn’t quite get the general adulation, but it was really good. [I rarely get the general adulation, just as I rarely get the hate. Most films – most art – tends to seem to me more mediocre than other people think it is, neither as brilliant nor as terrible]. Oh, What a Lovely War! probably ranks even higher than Whiplash – it’s not as well-made a film as Whiplash, but it benefits from insanely catchy songs and more powerful subject matter. It’s not going to be a favourite film of mine per se, but I may find myself rewatching it a lot just for the music…

However: the best three hours of film I’ve seen this year wasn’t Whiplash, or Oh, What a Lovely War! – it wasn’t a film at all. It was probably the first three episodes of this season of The Americans. Or perhaps it was the last four episodes of the third season of Person of Interest. Maybe it was an early-to-middle stretch of True Detective or of Hannibal. In any case, it was on TV, not in the cinema. Whatever your interests, so long as you don’t need a colossal budget of explosions, it seems there’s better writing, deeper themes, more character development and more risk-taking in modern TV series. [I’d also put the visual appearance of Hannibal or True Detective or even the noirish affectations of some Person of Interest up on the level of the best films – and even The Americans, which is much more visually conservative, is still really pretty]. So maybe this year of watching more film has come too late? When we get right down to it… aren’t films a bit passé?

Movies of the Last Year (pt 1) – my awards

I don’t normally watch a lot of new films. I like film in theory, but in practice I find it hard to make myself sit down and dedicate time to a film – an hour of TV feels like a cheaper price (even if in practice one hour can turn into two or three). And when I do watch a film, it’s usually something from years ago – a favourite, or a classic that I’ve never seen. There are, after all, just so many films out there.

But this year, one way or another, I’ve managed to end up seeing a bunch of new things, including a few that are in competition for the Oscars this weekend. So for once, I can actually share an opinion!

So far as I can remember, in the last year (give or take) I have seen nine new films: the Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, and Whiplash; and the non-Oscar-nominated (well, non-big-prize-nominated, a couple have got technical nominations) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Robocop, Edge of Tomorrow and Guardians of the Galaxy; plus Calvary, which doesn’t really fit in with any of the others.

So, on the basis of the above, here are my own opinions on some of the key prizes on offer on Sunday…

Or you can skip through to part 2 for my ranking of these films, and some final words.


Best Supporting Actor/Actress

Who have we got? Keira Knightly? That would be a definitive no. The entire cast of Grand Budapest Hotel? There were plenty of stirling performances, but most were just too brief. Tony Revolori deserves mention as a newcomer, but spends a lot of time being told to look blank. So I think the standout from that film in this regard was F. Murray Abraham. Birdman has Edward Norton. It also has Emma Stone, but I really don’t understand why she’s been nominated – she’s exceptionally pretty (as, incidentally, is Amy Ryan!) and plays an attractive if conventional character, but she does nothing out of the ordinary in the film, and it should take more than a pretty face and solid acting in a nothing role to get an Oscar nomination. Whiplash… I’m not going to mention J.K. Simmons, for the minor, pedantic, technical issue that he’s not in a supporting role. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has a range of actors hidden behind pixels – it’s hard for me to judge their acting ability, although in the interests of embracing technology, and since the end product was good (I don’t know how much was acting and how much was animation) I’d mention Toby Kebbell as Koba. Gary Oldman’s role, incidentally, may be scenary-chewing but he manages to put more nuance and appeal into it than most actors would in that position. Robocop… well, Oldman, Keaton and Jackson all put in pleasing performances, but the former is nothing fresh and the latter two are only really cameos. Edge of Tomorrow has a great performance from Emily Blunt – sure, it may not be historic, but it’s probably the best performance by a woman I’ve seen on film this year. You could probably argue it should be a lead performance based on screentime, but structurally she’s clearly only supporting. Guardians of the Galaxy has a good ensemble, but it’s Dave Bautista who stands out as Drax, combining broad deadpan comedy with emotional depth and physical and vocal intimidation, and doing it despite being saddled with a lot of makeup – it’s a larger-than-life role, but the complexity he finds in it is impressive, and in particular his comic beats could have gone very, very wrong in other hands. And Calvary? A bunch of talented supporting actors who have been told to chew that damned gorgeous scenery as hard as they possible can.

Shortlist: F. Murray Abraham; Ed Norton; Toby Kebbell; Emily Blunt; Dave Bautista

Bautista’s performance is good for the role, but the role lacks depth, and in any case he’s drowned out somewhat by the scale of the movie. Toby Kebbell and/or his animators are very good for someone pretending to be a chimpanzee, but again this lacks depth. Emily Blunt is powerfully charismatic, and in particular does a great job displaying her character through her physicality… but it’s not very subtle.

That leaves Abraham and Norton. It’s Norton who’s been nominated by the Academy, and I’m not surprised. It really is an impressive performance, taking what could be a caricature and suggesting hidden complexities, producing a character who is both repellent and likeable at the same time (both for us as viewers and for the inhabitants of that world). It’s showy, it’s noticeable, and it’s about showbusiness.

However, Abraham’s performance is the one that I’ll remember. Sure, he does very little. But he doesn’t have to do much. Abraham is able to convey emotions – atmospheres – through the slightest inflections of his voice, or the slightest softening of his eyes. Above all, he continually conveys a vast impression of loss and sorrow, even when doing nothing at all… but at the same time, a perfectly cultivated civilisation. And at times a boyish whimsy, and the outcast’s inescapable pleasure at receiving attention from others. Abraham creates the entire mood of the film, frames our interpretations of everything, and somehow stops us from ever questioning whether this aged old man is really the same as the young boy we see in the primary time period. And he does all of that with dialogue that, on paper, would look like nothing, would look terribly dry.

‘Winner’: F. Murray Abraham

Things the Academy got wrong: haven’t seen enough of the films to say anything on the male side (though I don’t think Simmons is in the right category) – I think Abraham is better than Norton, but I can’t complain about Norton being on the list, because it is a great performance; on the women’s side Emily Blunt just plain gives a better performance than either Emma Stone or Keira Knightley, and if Edge of Tomorrow weren’t a SF action film (and an overlooked one at that), she would have gotten a nomination ahead of either of them.


Best Cinematography

Birdman and Budapest were both nominated, and it’s hard to argue with those. They’re both attractive and distinctive – although Birdman feels more like an exercise, whereas Budapest feels carefully composed. Whiplash was good at using its visual appearance to establish mood and setting, although I didn’t particularly like that appearance (it has a sort of jaundiced, foggy look that seems to be in fashion now – sorry, I don’t have the vocabulary or knowledge to explain it better than that). The Imitation Game had an appearance that I generally think of as just ‘Oscar bait’ – very perfect, very pretty, very conventional, no strange choices. But I think mention should be made of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which sells both the reality and the distinctness of both its forest paradise and its post-apocalyptic urbanism. Of course, the Pacific North West helped out a fair bit in making it the most beautiful film I’ve seen this year. Oh, and Edge of Tomorrow had some great kinetic action sequences, and in particular did a good job conveying the desolation of France. Calvary, meanwhile, does look gorgeous – OK, maybe it looks better than Dawn – but let’s be honest that was just a matter of sticking a camera on a helicopter and flying it over some hills. That’s down to the gods and the heavens and the earth, not down to the cameraman.

Personally, I would feel that this was between Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and I’d have to give it to the latter.

‘Winner’: The Grand Budapest Hotel


Best Actor/Actress

Benedict Cumberbatch is a good, if unspectacular Turing. Ralph Fiennes gets his character down to a tee. Michael Keaton is both appealing and nuts in Birdman. You may mock me for saying this, but Tom Cruise gives a great performance in Edge of Tomorrow, expertly turning his defects (he’s a slimy, odious creep and everybody hates him) into an asset in the role. Brendan Gleeson gives a convincingly tired, yet convinced, performance in Calvary, not helped by the script. And then there’s Whiplash. J.K. Simmons is clearly a leading actor here, even if he’s not the protagonist – he’s not just in most of the scenes and almost all the key scenes, he’s the focus of most of the key scenes. Ask youself: if that role were for a woman, would she be considered a co-lead? Hell yes! Simmons is only in Supporting for strategic reasons (and perhaps because we find it hard to imagine two men both being in lead roles in the same film and naturally ‘demote’ one whenever possible to fit our perceived hierarchy). But we shouldn’t overlook the protagonist, either: Miles Teller is much less flashy, but is even more important to the film, and gets everything right. The fear, the obsession, the combination of arrogance and obsequiousness, a certain charm… he’s asked to, in essence, spend a large percentage of the movie looking gormless while someone yells at him, and I think that’s probably a lot harder than it might seem, while still maintaining the integrity of the character and enough agency/charisma that we see him as the protagonist. It’s possible that it’s actually a better performance than Simmons gives.

That said, Simmons gives a really good performance too, and unlike Teller’s, his role is big and central and all eyes are on him, and he doesn’t put a single syllable wrong. Yes, it’s a conventional role, but he performs it perfectly… and manages to add surprising ambiguity to it as well (helped out by the writing, of course).

Cruise is good, but lacks depth or subtlety. To be honest, the same is true of Fiennes (though he has an adorable character). Keaton has some great moments, but… there were times I felt I was watching Michael Keaton. Not Riggan Thompson, but Michael Keaton. [It’s probably not wise to show us some intentionally bad acting and how superficial it is, and then shortly after ask your actor to chew some scenary… it invites too many comparisons]. It also doesn’t help that he’s in the same film as Norton. Meanwhile, Cumberbatch delivers a note-perfect, or at least note-cliché performance. The best bits are understated; I’m particularly impressed by the exactitude of his ‘1940s academic’ accent. I don’t like the role he’s given, but as a performance? Probably on a par with Keaton? Probably behind Miles Teller. But for me the best acting performance I’ve seen this year was most likely J.K. Simmons. Which surprises me, because at the time I was thinking ‘yeah, this is good, but is this really the best (supporting) performance this year in a landslide?’ And I still suspect that it isn’t, that there were other better performances out there somewhere. But from the limited selection of films I’ve actually seen, I can’t think of anyone better than him this year.

‘Winner’: J.K. Simmons


Best Screenplay

Whiplash is clever, but it’s also clunky in places. Budapest is delicate, but… doesn’t say much. Edge of Tomorrow, however, may be the best-written film of the lot. Which, I know, we’re not meant to say, since it’s a SF action film. But it uses a potentially overused gimmick and it makes a compelling film out of it, managing both action and emotional beats. Most importantly – and surprisingly – it doesn’t make the mistake of allowing any state of affairs to outstay its welcome, managing to continuously change into to something slightly different whenever it threatens to become repetitive. That’s a much harder trick than people give credit.

The other films are all recycled clichés.

‘Winner’: Edge of Tomorrow


Best Director

While I have problems with the film, Iñárritu did make Birdman much more watchable than it might otherwise have been, though he allowed over-loud performances from everybody involved (cast as well as crew). Anderson’s Budapest is a masterful and very personal creation, from the smallest decoration up to the whole scope of the film. But I think the outstanding contender here was Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle. It might not be as obvious as Budapest, but just think how many things had to be exactly right for Whiplash to work – the editing, the sound, the music, the camerawork, the sets, the supporting actors, all not just good but working exactly in unison with each other and with Chazelle’s script. You can’t build up such breathless tension in a film without every one of those elements being perfectly controlled and harmonised… and then of course Chazelle was also able to bring out arguably the best two acting performances of the year. In the end, aside from my personal ambivalence toward the look of the film – a stylistic issue that I know others disagree with – the only flaws with the film come from the script… which, yes, is also by Chazelle, but not Chazelle-qua-director! So…

‘Winner’: Whiplash



Next post: Best Picture, views on all films and closing comments


tough-travelingTrue Love

Love has often not been Fantasy’s strong suite – unsurprisingly, perhaps, for a genre for so long primarily marketed at geeky teenage boys. As among many geeky teenage boys, there was sort of an apprehension that love was incredibly important and solved all your problems, but not really too much idea of what exactly it entailed. The love of Aragorn and Arwen, for instance, or of Rosie and Sam, was ideal for a fantasy novel: signposted from the beginning so as not to be a cause of any anxiety or confusion, then conveniently absent while all the exciting stuff was going on so as not to get in the way, and finally dealt with once and for all with a marriage at the end of the book, because as we all know real life ends with marriage…

…but along the way, the genre has produced the odd interesting pairing. Some truly moving; others, just truly disturbing. Here, in accordance with this ‘Tough Travelling’ meme that I keep meaning to participate in but never quite get around to, are a few that I can think of.

All are variants on the idea of ‘true love’ as presented in Fantasy; some may be more loving, or more true, than others. The meme calls for five… I ended up with 13. Well, 14, technically. But then I do way fewer than 1 in 3 of these, so I reckon I’m still in deficit…

Warning: beyond this point lie moderate spoilers for the works of Tolkien, Feist, Wurts, Weiss, Hickman, Eddings, Abrams, McCaffrey, Abrams, Hobb, Jordan, Green, Donaldson, Pratchett, Gentle, and Nyx Smith…

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How I’m currently organising my SF&F on Goodreads…

Something monumental has occured: I have started to organise my Goodreads books by genre.

I tried doing this once before, when I joined GR… but I found the ad hoc categories I’d picked deeply inadequate, and rather than slowly reforming them I just scrapped them all in a fit of pique.

So now I’ve created a different set of ad hoc categories without adequate forethought, and I’ve no doubt it’ll all be different this time.

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Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett

By the twenty-third book in the Discworld cycle, Terry Pratchett is some sort of crop rotation system, regarding his subjects. Granny, Vimes, Susan, Rincewind, Granny, Vimes, Susan, (Vimes), Rincewind… OK, so Jingo dropped in an extraneous Vimes, but the pattern’s pretty clear and inevitably the next book had to be Granny. [And after that, it’ll be Vimes. The Truth will plop in out of sequence, but then it’s Susan and Rincewind again, before the new Maurice book takes the place of Granny…]

So we get another Witches novel for Discworld #23, almost as a matter of course. The problem is, as with The Last Continent, it’s not clear that Pratchett really had any great plan for this installment. Or rather, that’s the superficial problem. The deeper problem is that it’s just not clear that there is anywhere at all for these characters to go from here.

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Lord Foul’s Bane, by Stephen R. Donaldson

I have a feeling that Lord Foul’s Bane may come as a surprise to many readers. It’s on the ‘fantasy’ shelf, and fantastical things do occur, but this isn’t meant to be how fantasy works. At least, not these days.

Some history is in order. Lord Foul’s Bane is one of the most important books in the history of the genre. It came out in the epochal year of 1977 – in October, I think. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons had been released in stages through the year, with the Monster Manual released sometime that autumn so far as I can make out. Tolkien fans would have been at fever-pitch with the long-awaited release of The Silmarillion in September. In January that year, Terry Brooks had released his own shameless rip-off loving homage to Tolkien. Up until then, fantasy was mostly the soft fringes of science fiction, itself already a niche genre. Pern and Earthsea were established, but otherwise it was a matter of writers like Vance, Moorcock and Leiber, who did not exactly write for the masses. Anne Rice and Stephen King were just getting started, but keeping themselves carefully distant from the ‘fantasy’ label, despite their content. Rice, King, Brooks and Donaldson were all early representatives of the Boomer generation, a generation that had grown up with Tolkien and Lewis, and that in 1977 were just beginning to put their stamp on the genre they had inherited.

What happened next is obvious. Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara became the first fantasy novel to make the NYT’s bestseller list. The Silmarillion reached #1 at the beginning of October and stayed there until the middle of March 1978. AD&D was a cult success, and went on to raise up a generation of new fantasy fans. Even The Book of Merlyn made it to the list, the long-belated fifth novel of T.H. White’s old Once and Future King tetralogy. And Donaldson went on to sell 10 million copies of his first two fantasy trilogies. Fantasy went from being a strange half-genre of isolated works to a full functioning world of its own – and a profitable world too.

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