Via my Goodreads profile, these are (most of) the books I read in 2011:
Via my Goodreads profile, these are (most of) the books I read in 2011:
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA)
At first glance, ‘Black Swan’ appears similar to Aronofsky’s previous film, ‘The Wrestler’, with its shaky documentary style and focus on a single struggling performer. But soon enough the film reveals itself as an out-and-out horror film with a fresh treatment of genre tropes (transformation, mirrors and doubling). Perhaps what seals it as not only my favourite film of the year, but my favourite cinema experience, is that I saw it amid a well-to-do North Oxford audience who’d been terribly misled. Many of them were ballet aficionados who saw ‘Black Swan’ following a screening of the Bolshoi Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’, and seemed utterly unprepared for Aronofsky’s nightmare film, which resulted in an electric tension in the cinema.
The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, USA)
Watching the credits at the end of ‘The Tree of Life’, I felt less like I’d finished watching a film, and more like coming to after a protracted daydream. I struggled at the start, where the structure of the film comprises of tiny snippets of footage, but lost any scepticism during the ‘creation of life’ sequence (and felt that the dinosaurs fitted in perfectly well). After that point the pacing slows and the story becomes more accessible, I think, and I was totally won over. The ending on the beach may have enraged some critics but I thought it was wonderful and that it didn’t compromise Malick’s vision at all.
True Grit (Ethan and Joel Coen, USA)
‘True Grit’ contained some of my favourite suspense sequences that I’ve seen in any film this year. Jeff Bridges may have been wonderful, but I think it’s Hailee Steinfeld that steals the show, and it was great to see Matt Damon tackle something out of his normal range. After ‘True Grit’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’ (and the teeth-grinding awfulness of ‘Burn After Reading’), I’m starting to dread the Coens’ return to comedy.
Rango (Gore Verbinski, USA)
It was the involvement of the Coen’s cinematographer, Roger Deakins, as visual consultant that tipped me off that ‘Rango’ might be a treat. The film pastiches are accurate and funny and all the western signifiers are in place, but I wasn’t prepared for the tightness of the script. All of the key elements are laid out within the first twenty minutes, whereupon the rest of the film plays out satisfyingly. It makes ‘Toy Story 3’ seem rambling and incoherent in comparison. And the creature designs are so gruesome and gormless that it’s hard to imagine anyone involved believed that they were really making a children’s film.
Win Win (Thomas McCarthy, USA)
Yet another reason to hate Thomas McCarthy, director of ‘The Station Agent’ and ‘The Visitor’, respected actor starring in the fifth season of ‘The Wire’ among other things, and by all accounts a very nice man. There was no easy way to promote this midlife crisis/wrestling/parenting tale, but it’s a real shame that more people didn’t get to see this at the cinema.
Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, UK)
From the brutal opening sequence to its bleak ending, ‘Tyrannosaur’ is hard to watch, but the moments of humour lift the film from gratuitous misery. Olivia Colman has deservedly garnered lots of praise – her character is introduced with apparent whimsy recalling Colman’s ‘Peep Show’ persona but then changes out of all recognition – but Peter Mullan’s Joseph is equally compelling, in particular in any scenes without dialogue where his suffering is most apparent.
Point Blank (A Bout Portant) (Fred Cavayé, France)
This is the only film on this list that I’ve seen more than once, and just thinking about it makes me eager to see it again soon. At 84 minutes, it’s one of the punchiest action thrillers I can imagine. There may be some plot twists that challenge credulity, but this is a fantastic rollercoaster ride as Gilles Lellouche’s main character becomes trapped in a violent world, making bizarre choices that always seem perfectly logical in context.
Troll Hunter (André Øvredal, Norway)
Another action film that really delivers. Øvredal surprises us by laying out all his cards on the table almost immediately, as it becomes apparent that the trolls aren’t going to be shrouded in mystery, but seen up close throughout. The pacing is surprisingly nimble and the film gives viewers everything they could possibly hope for, with humour, scares, a variety of trolls and some fantastic chase sequences.
The Ides of March (George Clooney, USA)
It’s not quite up there with ‘Good Night and Good Luck’, but ‘The Ides of March’ at least proves that Clooney is dependable at delivering considered, mature political thrillers. Ryan Gosling comes into his own, and the support cast is fantastic, particularly Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. We saw this at the Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg and even the horrendous hotdogs with George Washington sauce couldn’t detract from this excellent film.
Beginners (Mike Mills, USA)
Like ‘Win Win’, this is another film that must have caused headaches for the marketing department. The pre-release emphasis on Christopher Plummer’s character, an elderly father who comes out as gay, suggested an entirely different film. The true focus is on Ewan McGregor’s Oliver, to whom his father’s attitude is just another factor in his wavering indecision about his own life. Mills fills the film with curious touches which add up to create an intimate portrait of his lead character and produce a romantic comedy that feels natural and reaffirming.
Just outside of my top ten of films released in 2011:
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, UK)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade, UK)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, USA)
Source Code (Duncan Jones, USA)
And some notable, high-profile disappointments. All of these films make me shiver slightly to recall them:
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, Spain/USA)
Hanna (Joe Wright, USA, UK, Germany)
The Fighter (David O. Russell, USA)
There are various films released in 2011 that I haven’t yet got around to seeing, including Lars Von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’, the Dardenne Brothers’ ‘The Kid with a Bike’, Terence Davies’ ‘The Deep Blue Sea’, Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Contagion’, Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants’, David Cronenberg’s ‘A Dangerous Method’, Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’, Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’ and particularly Michel Hazanavicius’ ‘The Artist’, which I’m really excited about.
Click the image above for a Spotify playlist featuring all of these songs.
Isabel – Baxter Dury
I love Baxter Dury’s album, ‘Happy Soup’ as much as I did last year’s ‘Things To Do and Make’ by Ergo Phizmiz. Dury’s vocals have a sloppy, sub-rehearsal quality, he mutters, he’s cynical and he sounds wonderful. ‘Isabel’ is probably my favourite song of the year, mainly for the chorus: Isabel’s sleeping / Isabel’s sleeping / I think my mate slept with you when you were in Portugal. There are at least three other tracks on the album that are standouts, too.
Lonely In Your Arms – Deep Sea Arcade
Excellent jangly surf pop.
Satellite – The Kills
I first listened to ‘Blood Pressures’ in my now-deceased Ford Ka. The speakers were barely operational and the music was being fed from my iphone to the radio via FM transmitter. The door kept vibrating with the farting motion of the ragged speakers and it sounded like nothing on Earth. One of my favourite moments in any track this year is one minute and twenty-three seconds into ‘Satellite’, where the thumping guitar winds down to an abrupt silence – for just a moment it feels that the track ends, making the remaining three minutes a joyous lap of honour.
Future Crimes – WILD FLAG
This will keep me going until the reformed Electrelane finally record some new material. WILD FLAG’s self-titled album is rock-solid and raw.
If I Keep On Loving You – Let’s Wrestle
Straightforward indie pop and all the better for it.
Shark Ridden Waters – Gruff Rhys
Andy Votel’s sampling adds a kitsch, comic element that, in retrospect, seems to have been missing from the majority of Gruff Rhys’ solo work. I only wish that the final sampled chorus had been used more throughout the track – other than that, it’s blissful pop.
FFunny FFrends – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s music sounds like it’s been recorded on C-90 cassette and then retrieved from a puddle. A bizarre slice of grungy funk through destroyed speakers.
Midnight Wave – Two Wounded Birds
More surf pop, this time even more indebted to Dick Dale.
Waveforms – Django Django
Oh, I love this. Beta Band vocals against DIY, skittery beats and 303 mayhem.
Mindkilla – Gang Gang Dance
Another of my absolute favourites this year. More than any other track on this list, this is the one that’s been drawing me back again and again. And surprisingly, I found that ‘Eye Contact’ was the perfect album to use as a backdrop for November’s novel-writing frenzy. Who’d have thought it?
Hipster – Monky
I love the chiptune vibe here. If I was a DJ, you’d all be dancing to this.
Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win – Beastie Boys featuring Santigold
It was a bit of a surprise to find this catchy dub pop buried in the Beasties’ ‘Hot Sauce Committee Part 2’. It definitely benefits from pushing the Boys down in the mix and the bassline is infectious.
Please Don’t Take Him Back – Bearsuit
Bearsuit straddle the line between catchiness and annoyingness throughout ‘The Phantom Forest’. This song is one of the more conventional but still catches them at their best.
Be a Doll and Take My Heart – Herman Dune
I still haven’t really got over the disappointment of ‘Strange Moosic’, in which David Herman Dune’s freewheeling lyricism is cut back to endlessly looping choruses. ‘Be a Doll and Take My Heart’ is lovely, albeit far less special than the brothers are capable of being.
There’s Nothing in the Water We Can’t Fight – Cloud Control
Is this great or awful? Last.fm tells me that this is one of the tracks I’ve listened to the most over the last six months, so it’d be hypocritical not to include it, even though Cloud Control is the worst band name ever.
Now the Smile Comes Over In Your Voice – The Wave Pictures
In an opposite trajectory to Herman Dune, The Wave Pictures have upped their game this year. Now that they’re signed to Moshi Moshi they’ve achieved a cleaner studio sound that befits them and sounds far closer to their live shows, but Dave Tattersall’s focus on British mundaneness remains intact.
Lotus Flower – Radiohead
‘The King of Limbs’ is the Radiohead album I’ve been hoping for since ‘Kid A’. I may be in the minority here, but with this release, Jonny Greenwood’s soundtracks and Thom Yorke’s coming out as a dubstep DJ, I think that Radiohead have never been in better shape.
Death Major – 13 & God
This track is more heavily weighted towards Anticon’s Doseone than the Notwist’s sweet choruses and features one of the best raps I’ve heard this year.
The Merry Barracks – Deerhoof
This appeared on last year’s list as a pre-release single, but is worth including here now that ‘Deerhoof vs. Evil’ is on Spotify. It’s a shame the rest of the album couldn’t live up to this glorious mess.
A Candle’s Fire – Beirut
This song does little to further Beirut’s sound and even sounds familiar on first listen. But it’s absolutely joyous, all the same.
Teenagers in Heat – Caged Animals
Childlike and wonderful, with a chorus that endears itself to me by sounding a little like ‘Tim Major’s in heat’.
Ping – Hauschka
More than any other Hauschka album, this captures the excitement of one of Volker Bertelmann’s live performances. It’s a rush of staccato rhythms and rattling, often achieved by placing a bundle of ping pong balls into the grand piano to be bounced up and down on the strings. Like Battles’ ‘Mirrored’, the effect is of machine-like intricacy, but ‘Salon des Amateurs’ somehow manages to remain soothing throughout. ‘Ping’ is one of my top tracks of the year.
It’s Choade My Dear – Connan Mockasin
Is this as lovely as it seems? I just looked up the word ‘choade’ and now I feel queasy.
Balance Her in Between Your Eyes – Nicholas Jaar
Chosen as a representative of the excellent album, ‘Space is Only Noise’. Once again, this woozy, hypnotic album turned out to be an excellent writing aid.
Abu Dhabi – Rough Fields
In its own odd way, this is probably the most beautiful song on this list. The listening conditions need to be perfect, but if you get it right this can be transcendent.
by this river – Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto
‘summvs’ is another of my favourite albums this year, even though I still don’t have much of a handle on it after many listens. This cover of Brian Eno’s song is the most accessible track on the album. I really love the high-pitched tone that’s used as a kind of punctuation mark.
2011 is, in terms of reading, off to a good start. I’m two novels in, just over one week into the year. Here’s a list of the books that I’ll try to make sure I read in 2011. I think this list of 13 ‘must-reads’ leaves plenty of room for impulse purchases, new publications and recommendations.
Candide (Voltaire, 1759)
After a conversation about humanism, my dad insisted that I read this. What sealed the deal was finding and buying the beautiful new Penguin edition with a cover designed by Chris Ware – one of the most enticing books I’ve seen in a long time.
Freedom (Jonathan Franzen, 2010)
I’ve been in near-feverish anticipation of this book since The Corrections – and the reviews upon publication last year were stellar. And yet, I was still a little too stingy to shell out for the hardback, so this will have to wait until the paperback comes out in April.
Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy, 1985)
I read and loved The Road, and this is shorter than committing to McCarthy’s entire Border trilogy. Everyone I know who’s read this recommends it, and everyone else seems intent on reading it.
The City and the City (China Mieville, 2009)
This has been on my shelf for six months and is one of the books I’m most looking forward to reading. I normally try not to read book blurbs too closely, so while my expectations involve detectives and parallel worlds, I still don’t know quite what to expect.
Doctor Faustus (Thomas Mann, 1947)
Taissa and I have made a pact to run a two-person book club in which we’ll read weighty novels that we wouldn’t otherwise get around to reading. This was her suggestion, but I’ve had my eye on it for a decade or so. I’ll probably read this one in parallel with easier, shorter novels.
How I Escaped My Certain Fate (Stewart Lee, 2010)
I’ll certainly finish this one, as I’ve already started it. Sure, it’s ‘only’ a comedy memoir, but Lee’s deconstruction of his work (mainly in the form of lengthy footnotes) is considered and serious, while the transcripts of his stand-up shows are typically genius.
Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)
I meant to read this last year. Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ principle (people are most effective when they’re tackling tasks involving a balance between familiarity and challenge) is often quoted with respect to videogame design. I imagine it’s appropriate reading for my day job which involves, among other things, commissioning educational interactive resources.
Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis, 1954)
I know not a thing about this novel but Kingsley Amis seems like an author I should have read. The edition that my dad lent to me has a funny caricatured cover, so appears accessible.
Our Town (Thornton Wilder, 1938)
I read and was blown away by Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey at the end of 2010. I then followed it up with Timequake, in which, coincidentally, Kurt Vonnegut waxes lyrical about a performance of Our Town. Must find and read a copy of this soon.
Nights at the Circus (Angela Carter, 1984)
Carter’s The Magic Toyshop was great, but felt like a young novelist flexing her muscles. Nights at the Circus is the novel I’d meant to read first, and the one that people at my book club most recommended.
A Universal History of Infamy (Jorge Luis Borges, 1935)
I think this is the one work by Borges that I’ve not yet read, and I found a copy in Wigtown just before new year. I’ll probably put off reading this as long as I’m able, because this will be an indulgent treat.
Disgrace (J M Coetzee, 1999)
Recommended by Chris as the best novel he read in 2010. I know almost nothing about the book, but that recommendation is good enough for me.
Human Diastrophism (Gilbert Hernandez, collected 2007)
I read the first collection of Palomar comics, Heartbreak Soup, a few days ago. It was a fantastic experience (reviewed on Goodreads here), and this follow-up collection is the graphic novel I’m most looking forward to reading this year.