OK, let me preface this by saying choosing my top three books of the year this year was a bit of a nightmare, not least because I read some startlingly good ones, but because, as you'll see when I post my 2010 reading list tomorrow, I read a mind-boggling number of the things. Anyway, after a fair bit of sighing and rubbing my face in exasperation, I settled on these:
03 The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse
Short stories seem to get a bit of a raw deal these days (I'm looking at you, publishers who say the public don't read them), which is a bit of a shame because when they're done right, a short story can, I think, deliver more of an impact than a full length novel for the simple reason that it's so short and precise, a bit like a punch to the gut. A couple of years back I named Knockemstiff, a collection of loosely connected short stories by Donald Ray Pollock, as my favourite book of the year, and The Madonnas of Echo Park follows a similar conceptual path. In this instance, the stories that comprise this book are based around a number of people in L.A.'s Mexican community whose lives are connected to, and affected by, the shooting of a three year-old girl while she was dancing to the Madonna song 'Borderline' on a street corner. It's a bit like the movie Crash, but less Hollywood. In fact, the greatest compliment I can give to this book is that it reads a lot like a prose version of Los Bros Hernandez's Love and Rockets comic book. It's that good. And the author has an amazing name.
02. Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin
The third novel by the frontman of the band Richmond Fontaine didn't initially appeal to me when I first read it's premise, being set, as it is, in the world of horse racing - a passion of the author. I'm not a fan of the sport, but I needn't have worried; Vlautin's story doesn't actually focus on that world, and instead uses it as a launchpad to tell an utterly heartbreaking tale of a young boy's attempt to find his aunt - the only family he has left - after stealing an ageing racehorse. It's basically a road trip story - one that is at times dark, but filled with a sense of hope. I can't praise Vlautin's sparse, poetic writing style and unique voice enough, and the ending very nearly had me in tears. Utterly beautiful, and highly recommended.
01. Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne
For years I've told people that my favourite book was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. It's a masterful comic novel filled with memorable characters, not least the central figure of the story, Ignatius J. Reilly. Ask me now, though, and I might just say that my favourite book is Youth in Revolt. I first became aware of Youth in Revolt when I saw the trailer for the movie version. To be honest, I wasn't terribly sold on it, and didn't bother seeing it. A few months later I found out that it was adapted from a book - a book that scored incredibly highly in Amazon's reader reviews - so I spontaneously decided to give it a whirl. After about 30 pages I'd already decided to order the sequels off Amazon, committing myself to well over 1000 pages of reading. Put simply, Youth in Revolt is quite possibly the funniest book I've ever read, as it tells the tale, via journal entries, of how 14 year-old Nick Twisp seeks to win the heart of his beloved Sheeni Saunders. In Nick, C.D. Payne has created one of the most memorable and outlandish anti-heroes I've ever had the privilege to read about. Nick's voice is so unique and well-defined, his mastery of the English language so unlike that of any other teenager but so utterly brilliant that I found myself stealing lines and using them in everyday conversation. And the situations in which he finds himself are so outlandish, so brilliantly conceived, that I literally became so involved in the storyline that I found myself wanting to shout at Nick to warn him of the pitfalls ahead, because there were plenty of them; I loved how, for example, one of his journal entries might end with something like 'things are definitely looking up for me!' and the next would inevitably begin with something like 'UNMITIGATED DISASTER!' It's just a wonderfully written, laugh out loud book, and I loved every page of it.
(Honourable mentions go to the Youth in Revolt sequels, Revolting Youth, Young and Revolting, and Revoltingly Young, which, while not quite as memorable as the first book in the series continue Nick's story in that inimitable Twispian style; Love and Rockets: New Stories Volume 3 simply for Jaime Hernandez's amazing, funny, and ultimately heart wrenching story 'Browntown'; the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels which I loved; and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist which I found to be an exhilarating tale of love, lust, spontaneity, and what it means to be young)
I'll be honest with you: I thought it was remarkably slim pickings at the cinema this year, although I think we can put some of that down to my changing tastes; I really am finding myself going off the vacuous summer blockbusters, and that's something I never thought I'd write.
Expanding a bit on what I just wrote above, I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with Hollywood's summer output. In an age where CGI can bring anything and everything you imagine to life, it seems that the studios have, for the most part, rejected decent plots and good characterisation in favour of spectacular visuals, amazing set pieces, and more bangs for your buck. Thank god, then, for Christopher Nolan, who showed that you can do a summer blockbuster filled with spectacular visuals, amazing set pieces, and plenty of bangs for your buck while also having a complex plot and some decent characters. Of all the films I saw this year, Inception is the one that really made me THINK while I watched it, and that's something to be applauded. It's also a film that I think will reward subsequent viewings, and I can't wait to see it again.
The complete antithesis of a big-budget Hollywood film, Monsters was filmed for something like a six figure sum, and is proof if it were needed that art thrives on restrictions. On the surface it's a film about gigantic alien life forms inhabiting a vast part of Mexico, but to label it a movie simply about aliens would be a disservice to this wonderful little film, because the monsters are little more than a background element to a story about two people growing close as they traverse the restricted zone in an attempt to get back to America. It's a beautifully shot, understated tale that remained with me long after I left the cinema.
01. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World
I noted in the honourable mentions for books that I loved the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels, and evidently I'm not the only one because director Edgar Wright transformed them into a brilliant, heartwarming, and visually-stunning movie. At its core, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is essentially a story of boy meets girl, but the twist here is that to win the heart of the beautiful Ramona, Scott has to do battle with her seven evil exes. It was a great concept in the books, and it works well onscreen, helped by the fact that it's perfectly cast; I'm not really a big Michael Cera fan, but he keeps popping up in movies I really like, and the guy is beginning to win me over. Particular kudos also to Keiran Culkin as Scott's gay roommate Wallace Wells, who works wonders with such a small role and pretty much steals every scene he's in. Combine all that with a witty script and a great soundtrack, and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is a pretty terrific little film.
(Honourable mentions go to Tony Scott's Unstoppable which although it was incorrectly titled - the train is, after all, obviously stoppable - proved to be a gripping thriller enhanced by brilliant performances from Denzel Washington and Chris Pine; Kick-Ass which I enjoyed greatly up until it turned into a superhero film-by-numbers in the second half; The Social Network which told the story of Facebook's birth but suffered slightly by being a chapter in a story that is still ongoing in real life; Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist which I discovered on DVD and completely fell in love with; and Youth in Revolt, which brutally truncated the book's story, but was saved by Michael Cera’s performance as Nick. See - two more Cera films there. WTF!? Also, it was a lovely to see Back to the Future on the big screen once again - a fantastic, timeless film that knocks many of today’s movies into a cocked hat - and while I only saw it yesterday, I enjoyed the hell out of Tron Legacy, even if I didn’t have a damn clue what the hell was going on most of the time. Ooo - neon!)
Another category where I felt it was slim pickings this year; as a result, and as you'll see, with one exception I've fallen back on two old favourites.
God, I enjoy the hell out of this show. It's perfectly cast, utterly enjoyable, and even after five years and multiple long-running story arcs, totally accessible for new viewers. The fifth season, which I blitzed over the course of a week on DVD, put the Winchester boys in the line of sight of Satan himself as the apocalypse was finally unleashed on the world, and while I wouldn't say it was my favourite year of the show, it was still great fun. What I love about Supernatural is the ease with which it can go from serious, end of the world stories (‘The End’) to laugh out loud funny (‘Changing Channels’) all while remaining true to the over-arcing plot, consistent with its established universe, and without ever feeling forced; it's a trick few series can accomplish. Supernatural is a wicked little show, and long may it continue.
02. Blue Mountain State
This was an unexpected little gem: a series I bought off iTunes with little knowledge about what its premise was other than it dealt with an American university football team, and it was supposed to be funny. And it was. Very. The whole American football thing actually plays little part in the series, and instead it dwells mostly on the team's frat-house partying, of which there is much; think Animal House/Van Wilder and you wouldn't be far wrong. It works well as a half-hour comedy, with wonderful performances from Darin Brooks as the likeable Alex Moran whose only reason to be on the team is to get drunk and hook-up with as many girls as he can, and Alan Ritchson (Aquaman on Smallville, if you’re interested) as the somewhat ridiculous jock Thad Castle who captains the team. The 13 episodes that made up Blue Mountain State's first season went by too quickly, and I can't wait for the second.
Yes, I know I named it my number one show in 2009, but Smallville returned to win me over with it's ninth season again this year. While I wouldn't rate this season as highly as the eighth (seriously, over a year after I watched season eight's Doomsday storyline I'm still raving about it), Smallville once again fashioned a riveting 22 episode story arc dealing with the arrival of the Kandorians - cloned versions of Kryptonian soldiers led by a young Major Zod. The season also saw Chloe take on a new role as Watchtower, overseeing the actions of the show's ever-expanding lineup of heroes, a feature-length episode that introduced classic characters from the Justice Society, and, of course, Clark's continuing growth and acceptance of his role as, Earth's greatest champion. Lord knows how they managed to fit all that coherently into one season, but they did - and it was brilliant. I'm constantly amazed that Smallville has managed to remain so consistently entertaining after so long, but it has. The question now is: can the 10th and final season maintain this incredible momentum while also wrapping up the show's many dangling storylines...?
(Honourable mentions go to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which I continue to love even as Danny DeVito’s performance as Frank gets increasingly more vile by the episode; Family Guy, which still makes me giggle like a speshul; One Tree Hill, which I was close to abandoning after a dire first half of the season, but which then picked up dramatically, concluding with one of the most joyous and shocking season finales I've seen in a long time; and, I'm pleased to report, Doctor Who, which began its fifth season with a new head writer (Steven Moffat) and a charming and charismatic new doctor in the form of Matt Smith, and wisely dropped the over the top performances and reliance on pointless running everywhere that had come to characterise previous seasons; ‘The Time of Angels’ was without doubt one of the best things I watched on telly all year.)
Despite having listened to a fair bit of really good music this year, picking my top three albums was a relatively easy task. Thank god, because I don’t think I could cope with having to deal with another category like books again.
03. Avi Buffalo by Avi Buffalo
I can’t remember how I came across this band - I think it was either a free single of the week on iTunes or I heard them on 6Music - but I was pretty quickly won over. Amazingly, Avi Buffalo is made up of a bunch of talented folk the oldest of whom is just 21, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to this sublime little album; it’s a dreamy, wistful, ageless collection of remarkable and beautiful songs (even if some of them have titles such as ‘Five Little Sluts’ and ‘Summer Cum’) that would make the perfect soundtrack to a hot lazy summer. This lot are pretty high up on my list of bands I want to see live in 2011.
02. The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens
As I mentioned in my Mix CD post, Sufjan Stevens’ latest album marked a somewhat startling change of direction for an artist previously best know for quiet acoustic offerings. Gone were the banjos and pianos of previous albums, replaced by drum beats and synthesizers; only Sufjan’s unique voice remained to provide a link to what had come before. What made the transformation even more surprising was that just a month or so before The Age of Adz hit shelves, Sufjan released an EP (although it was the length of an album) that WAS traditional Sufjan. In hindsight, you could say that it felt like he was saying something along the lines of “this is what you expect of me - and it will cushion the blow when the new album drops.” I don’t know if that was his intention, but it sure felt like it, especially as the first track on The Age of Adz, ‘Futile Devices,’ segues from the old-skool Sufjan sound to the new over the course of its 2:11 runtime. And from there on, The Age of Adz is just brilliantly mad, psychedelically bonkers and completely brilliant; ‘Too Much’ and ‘I Walked’ are classics in the making, while the title track is a dark and ominous epic that ends with an uplifting sense of hope - like the musical equivalent of driving through the heart of a fierce storm and emerging unscathed on the other side. There’s not a duff track here, which is something I don’t usually say about albums that feature a 25 minute-long finale.
01. Of the Blue Color of the Sky by OK Go
So the story here is that when OK Go first burst onto the scene I was a big fan, but then I slowly, not so much fell out of love with them as just … stopped paying attention. Yeah, I still sat up and watched when they released a new video, because who the hell didn’t after the treadmill one, but they didn’t really register terribly highly on my radar as the years passed. I subsequently ignored the release of their third album, Of the Blue Color of the Sky, not least because, well, I wasn’t paying too much attention, but because when I did bother to look at the Amazon listing, there were some pretty scathing reviews citing a change in musical direction. Big mistake, because when I did finally get the album after randomly ordering a USB stick from their website that contained two entire live gigs, a handful of videos, and Of the Color of the Sky all for just 15 quid or so, I discovered that OK Go’s latest effort was nothing less than an astonishingly awesome album. Admittedly, it did take me a couple of listens to really ‘get it,’ but I was rewarded with an album packed with joyous songs such as ‘This too Shall Pass,’ ‘All is Not Lost,’ and ‘Needing/Getting,’ and that's before we even get to the amazing ‘White Knuckles.’ Seriously, if any of those tunes come on the stereo while I’m driving you better hope to hell you’re not a passenger because I will sing along VERY LOUDLY. And as if it couldn’t get any more awesome, the band have released a new ‘Extra Nice Edition’ packed with demos and alternative versions; I’m totally going to get my grubby little mits on that, and I highly recommend you do too.
On a side note, one thing I discovered from the live gigs on the USB stick is that OK Go are an incredibly engaging band live; the between song banter at those gigs was just HILARIOUS, and I hope I get the opportunity to witness it firsthand if they tour the UK next year.
(Honourable mentions go to Flight of the Conchords who I saw up close - like, literally five rows from the stage close - in concert and were fantastic, Freelance Whales whose Weathervanes album was a lovely treat, David Bowie’s A Reality Tour which beautifully showcased a concert from the Thin White Duke’s last world tour, Screen Archives Entertainment’s wonderful expanded edition of James Horner’s score for Star Trek III, and The Californian, whose Sea of Love EP contained four utterly perfect songs that bode well for the group’s forthcoming full-length album)
Let’s see … well, joining Twitter for one. On the advice of the lovely Marsha and Lee, I finally caved and decided to give it a whirl - and since then I’ve been nothing less than addicted. I love the instantaneous nature of it, and how witty and creative people can be in just 140 characters, and even now, almost a year after joining, I still get excited by people tweeting and retweeting me. Bikram yoga continued to be a big part of my life this year, resulting in me throwing myself into a 30 day challenge, which quite frankly seemed like a crazy thing to do, but ended up being one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in a long time; plus it made me feel great and I dropped a belt-hole after just two weeks - RESULT. Other than that, buying an iPad proved an undisputed win; I had no idea what I was really going to use it for before it actually arrived, but since then it’s become a vital part of my life and has led to less hours spent sitting in front of my desktop computer (the bulk of this post was written on my iPad in Starbucks in Uxbridge, in fact). I think the writer India Knight, who I follow on Twitter, summed it up best when she said something along the lines of “computer: work, phone: convenience, iPad: JOY.” She ain’t wrong.
And the losers…
A couple of notable cinematic fails: Iron Man 2 was a noisy and charmless follow-up to one of the best superhero films of recent years, while I appear to be the only person on the planet that thought Avatar was a load of old toss; the characters were caricatures, and the aspect of it I was most interested in - Sam Worthington’s integration into the Na’vi culture a la Dances With Wolves - was glossed over in favour of a series of difficult to follow, although admittedly spectacular fight sequences. Coming from the man who brought us such stellar action films as Aliens, Terminator 2, and The Abyss, this felt, to me at least, like it was James Cameron’s Phantom Menace. While not a fail as such, I was also a smidgeon disappointed with Toy Story 3; yes it was an enjoyable movie, but after such a long gap between this and Toy Story 2 I just didn’t really feel like I really needed to revisit these characters. While we’re at it, 3D films in general? Jesus, give it a rest Hollywood; once I’ve seen one random object hurled out of the screen at me, I’ve pretty much seen them all. Please divert the money into actually paying some decent writers next year, yes? What else? Oh, yes, I kind of let running slide a bit in the wake of my 30 day yoga challenge; to be honest I felt like I’d lost my enthusiasm for it a bit and was forcing myself to do it, so it made sense to take a break and yoga suitably filled that gap. I’ll get back to it in the new year, I’m sure.
And with that, I think I’m about done for another year. Current swoon Erica Durance (Lois in Smallville, as IF you didn’t know) is handing out prizes to the winners, hopefully while wearing this little star-spangled number, while Lady Gaga is out the back fashioning something out of rancid meat for the losers. YUM!