Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 10: 2013 Reads

I may as well give up pretending that this blog exists for any real writing purpose at the moment, so in the spirit of year end here's a list, lists are the easiest posts of all.

In 2013 I've read 122 books, not quite half of what I read last year but priorities change, so my Top 10 Reads of 2013 accounts for just under ten percent of the total. Noir has taken precedence over everything in my reading as well as my viewing but this list isn't all blacker than black. I promise.

10. Fierce Bitches by Jedidiah Ayres (2013)
Jedidiah Ayres' prose is sparse and his tale is bleak as fuck, mirroring the carefully constructed locale and the unforgiving sun baked desert that surrounds it. This appears to be his first novella but its written with the skill and voice of a much more experienced man to the point that I wouldn't be surprised if this was Jim Thompson still writing after faking his death back in '77. Most impressive is his use of the second person narration, a device that can horribly backfire in the wrong hands but in this case was so perfectly done that I hardly noticed it until the chapter was over.

9. London Under by Peter Ackroyd (2011)
Example chapter titles include Holy Water, Forgotten Streams, Buried Secrets and The Heart of Darkness and every page contains at least one moment of wonder to those uneducated yet enthusiastic readers (which is exactly the target audience for this work) like myself. For a chapter or two I thought it was going to take me weeks to read due the sheer quantity of google and wiki searches I was performing to acquire further knowledge of a proffered fact whilst reading before readjusting my mindset to just let the author entertain me with his seemingly endless supply of poetic historical tales.

8. The Pirates! In an Adventure With The Romantics by Gideon Defoe (2012)
If you were to take a poll of people reading you might find a lot of votes for great use of ham in a nautical setting, there may even be several readers who enjoy the excellent names created for the motley crew of pirates but guaranteed that majority will tell you that the best bit about reading a book about The Pirates! is all the running through that happens. Just ask Jeffrey Keeten about the time he ran a man through for daring not to wear a fencing cup in school colours if you are unsure of the unique pleasures a good running through can provide.

7. Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson (1964)
This tale of small town America is littered with pimps, whores, crooked lawmen, private detectives, women no better than they ought to be, incestuous men, wife beaters, murderers, corrupt politicians, vindictive women, peeping toms, mentally challenged cuckolds, religious zealots and plenty of sex. Of course on top of that there's Sheriff Nick Corey, a noir protagonist the likes of which you may never have seen.

6. Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block (1982)
The fifth Matt Scudder takes a further dark turn in to a city plagued by demons and lawlessness, taking a pessimistic cue from the classic movie/TV show The Naked City this is the story of a dead call girl, of 2000 murders per year, of a private investigator, of an alcoholic on a path of self-destruction. During his investigation Scudder comes in to contact with all kinds of filth and degenerates, he makes acquaintances with a good cop, a good pimp, five hookers and a black albino informant. There's violence and paranoia, sobriety and alcohol related blackouts, it's a rocky ride and I shan't spoil it for you. Soon to be a Liam Neeson movie it could easily have been directed by Harmony Korine.

5. Bit of a Blur: The Autobiography by Alex James (2007)
From the opening lines I was impressed with his ability to write, weaving together a series of interesting and entertaining anecdotes with an infectious enthusiasm, granted if you can't have enthusiasm for your subject when you're writing about yourself you may as well give up writing altogether, but James is erudite and witty and incredibly frank about his occasionally abhorrent behaviour. I was enamoured from the start and James (and obviously a great editor) didn't let me down, becoming, by quite some margin, my favourite autobiography/biography that I've ever picked up.

4. The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno (2006)
A deep melancholy permeates the pages of The Boy Detective Fails, a magical little book that asks questions about growing up and growing old, the death of innocence and imagination, loss and grief via the story of an adult boy detective. People reference something called Encyclopedia Brown plus the usual suspects of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, popular characters from an American childhood that seemed too Other to me as a young man in small town England. I preferred the much more English series, The Mystery Kids, myself. But anyway take those kids who had magical crime busting adventures and crush their spirit and enthusiasm and send them out to solve the mystery of death and you've got the essence of The Boy Detective Fails. And in his straight-faced magical realist style of writing he crafted something of a Lemony Snicket for adults, something smart and haunting, laced with real pain and sorrow and wit and heart and situational humour. It's a truly surprising piece of work that deserves to be lauded and paid homage to with countless imitators who just don't have the skill to get past the original surface gimmick and imbue their novel with actual life.

3. Wake In Fright by Kenneth Cook (1961)
You know, from the opening paragraphs, that this book is going to stay with you as only the most powerful books do. Cook captures the essence of the vast emptiness of the desert, the punishing effect of constant heat from sun up to sun down and the isolation of man in a place he doesn't belong, and wraps it up in a tight little novel that suffocates the reader. I felt almost claustrophobic whilst reading, the pressure and closeness of the heat described transferring itself to me on my nice air conditioned bus. 

2. The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George Higgins (1972)
It's all fly on the way stuff with dialogue feeling so authentic you have to retune your brain to the sounds of criminal class Boston, the kind of stuff Elmore Leonard is widely praised for but better. When not in conversation TFOEC is narrated with the kind of matter of fact attention to detail you might find in a Martin Beck or 87th Precinct novel for example, it's dry in itself but the subject matter isn't. The action might largely appear to be happening in between these chapters of conversation but the combination of dialogue and narration create a portrait of the life of these people, their criminal actions, the lifestyle choice, that will certainly serve as an anthropological study and an entertaining crime read for future generations.

1. The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley (1978)
Crumley writes this stuff better than just about anyone I've experienced to date, the way he took hold of the genre, seemingly educated himself on Chandler, Hammett, Willeford, Thompson et al and crafted this masterpiece is a remarkable thing to have witnessed, it is a true shame that he isn't more widely known and respected. Having said that it is only through the praise lavished on his work from the fourth generation of hard-boiled and noir writers who claim to be in his debt that I stumbled across this work. People like George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane have described this book as one of the best pieces of fiction written in the past fifty years. Very high praise indeed and in my experience fully justified.

How about you guys, any favourites from amongst these? How about your favourite discovery of the year? Tweet me, comment, send me a letter, whatever.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Movie Diary #17: November 2013

November has been and gone, another month of throwing myself in to the watching of copious amounts of movies as a way of coping or dealing with my failed attempts to make a movie. It's time to stop dwelling, time to stop wallowing, time to get up, get out and do something other than watch film after film after film.

November also brought about a discovery of the film criticism of Graham Greene, his collected writings from 1935-1940 were published as The Pleasure Dome and should be considered as essential reading for any wannabe critic such is the quality of the man's words and insights.

The tally reached a quite improbable 118 over the thirty days in the month of my thirty first birthday, beating my previous best of 116 in May and bringing me up to 829 year to date. I limited myself to 8 rewatches (88 YTD) but unless I can watch over a hundred films without rewatching too many in December I'm not going to make my 10% target. I plan on having a Whit Stillman day in the middle of Summer which certainly won't help matters and I've got an urge to have a weekend of only watching my favourite films too. A sacrifice worth making and not even much of one really.

I saw 17 new releases (132 YTD) with two in the highly recommended category below which features 12 films you really should see. Other recommendations include avoiding 9 films I wish I hadn't bothered watching, one of which will surely upset some people and for the first time since June I offer up 5 masterpieces which have blown me away in the past month.

Why Why Why Why Why Bother?
Qwerty (2012) Dir. Bill Sebastian
Nice idea but as with all nice but absurd ideas it really needed to be played straight otherwise, as in the case of Qwerty, you come off like a bunch of amateur arseholes TRYING to be funny.
Superman (1978) Dir. Richard Donner
They wanted Sam Peckinpah to direct this movie but Peckinpah took a gun to the meeting and waved it about. I'd much rather watch that in slow motion for nearly three hours than this merchandise shilling garbage about a concept that doesn't exist anymore. The American way of truth and justice is a sugar coated myth they sell the idiots, they actually knew that in the 70s and yet this still got made.
The Kings of Summer (2013) Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts
A truly irritating little teenage shit of a movie that takes the very worst characters from American teen comedies and puts them in a hut in the woods where they can indulge in being "real men," adds a half assed attempt at surreal farce and romantic imagery and plays itself off as a coming of age drama. 
How I Live Now (2013) Dir.  Kevin Macdonald
You can't annoy the shit out of your audience with an awful American teenage girl and a noisy as fuck soundtrack from the very beginning and expect them to give a shit when World War 3 breaks out. Granted I didn't realise Meg Rosoff wrote exclusively for little girls before watching.
End of Days (1999) Dir. Peter Hyams
The general premise is laughable and borderline offensive and I do wonder why this film couldn't have been made without the Arnie storyline. Also the resolution is one of the worst I've witnessed.
Timecop (1994) Dir. Peter Hyams
An all round bad movie, with no redeeming features except for the initial idea. Has anybody read the comics this was based on? Are they as badly written?
The Delta Force (1986) Dir. Menahem Golan
Considering the premise of Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin joining forces to fight terrorism 80s style this is a giant sack of shit that can't get past the fact that it's a Menahem Golan movie. Robert Forster as an Arab terrorist and Hanna Schygulla as a German air hostess who seems sexually aroused whenever she looks at him are other notable casting choices.
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) Dir. Renny Harlin
What the hell has everyone been smoking? The Long Kiss Goodnight is a dumb movie of interminable length, directed with all of the skill of a blind sloth. There are a few jokes to raise a half smile and Jackson does what Jackson does but beyond that the best part by far was the brief clip of Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye.
The Island (1980) Dir. Michael Ritchie
Absolute garbage. Michael Caine had no quality control on what he said yes to and puts in one of his worst performances. Michael Ritchie was a mediocre director at best but the complete lack of tension, thrills, drama, cohesive structure and well delivered dialogue combined with bizarre editing and horrific exposition must rank this as one of his very worst pictures.

Not Quite Some of the Best Movies Ever Made
Blue Caprice (2013) Dir. Alexandre Moors
Director Alexandre Moors takes a slow, thoughtful approach to his material, somewhat akin to Van Sant's Elephant but with much more substance, to what could easily be a sensationalist piece of cinema in the wrong hands. A fascinating and terrifying character study of two killers, Isaiah Washington in the perfect role for his intense brand of performance and youngster Tequan Richmond brooding his way through his first real movie gig, of the grooming of one by the other and the driving on of each other as their incomprehensibly evil plan comes to fruition.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1973) Dir. Joseph Sargent
It never really feels like a safe decision was made throughout. The characters, hostages aside, are wonderfully interesting people with their own personalities and the interactions between them dance from comic to tense and back again and it is this that is sorely lacking in modern cinema. Nobody is there to score focus group points and as such none of them are really a cliche or stereotype. If you haven't seen this version yet you really should, it's one of the best crime films of the 70s, which was by far the best decade for American crime cinema.
The East (2013) Dir. Zal Batmanglij
This is an incredibly solid little film (albeit with the assistance of Ridley and Tony Scott so not that little really) that deserves to be seen and should be highly praised, not necessarily for the things that it isn't either. I've seen how Hollywood would make this movie and time and time again I've not been impressed but Batmanglij sets a really unobtrusive tone with a slow pace from the beginning and has the luxury of Brit Marling's intense lead performance to lean on when required. Yet he is able to incorporate some really tense moments as the anti-corporation group carries out their "terrorist" plans.
F For Fake (1973) Dir. Orson Welles
In film school we took an entire year to look at the documentary, the way the borders of fiction and non-fiction can be and are blurred. We discussed many different films, including Nanook, Blair Witch and Night & Fog but at no point in any lecture or any article or any textbook was this almost definitive statement on the veracity of the documentary by Orson Welles. How can I trust any of the three years of by university education when such a travesty of an oversight occurred? Did they not know anything? And does that make my degree even more worthless? It's quite the brilliant piece of cinema, yet another one from the mind of one of the greatest men to ever work in the medium.
Nashvile (1975) Dir. Robert Altman
The pinnacle of Robert Altman's unique brand of cinema. If I'd seen this as a younger man I wouldn't have hesitated to get lost in rewatching this countless times as I did his earlier Elliot Gould-fests (Gould makes a wonderful cameo as himself here) but as it stands I don't feel like giving up days of my life to a movie about Nashville. Once is enough, to understand the grand scale of the great directors vision, to grasp the intricacies of the intertwined lives of the participants, to marvel at the audacity of it all.
Monte Walsh (1970) Dir. William A. Fraker
The late 60s really marked the death of an era for the western movie and William Fraker's adaptation of Jack Shaefer's (Shane) novel is a movie that takes a stark look at the end of the traditional cowboy era of American history. Within that framework is another traditional narrative, that of the old man struggling to come to terms with his advancing years in a world changing faster than he can possibly keep up. And Lee Marvin excels in that role better than almost any other actor in the history of American cinema.
Busting (1974) Dir. Peter Hyams
The script by Hyams is wonderfully cynical, a true classic of crime screenwriting from the 70s, that amazing period of grimey creativity that brought us 98% of all the very best crime cinema that was ever made. It is filled with wit, delivered perfectly (naturally) by Gould and another really good performance from Blake who really underplays his character, becoming almost a straight man for Gould's typical bafoonery. But Gould has an edge to him that you tend not to see in his more famous roles, a serious, determined existential edge that turns him much more in to the "sad clown" than even his bumbling private eye in Long Goodbye could achieve. He has a pretty brilliant 'tache too.
Straight Time (1978) Dir. Ulu Grosbard
Dustin Hoffman is at his subtle and intense best as a career criminal who makes his choices and is prepared to live with them. With support from Harry Dean Stanton, M. Emmet Walsh and a remarkably reined in Gary Busey this is a quality film with a quality cast that doesn't quite scale the heights it might have.
The Bothersome Man (2006) Dir. Jens Lien
The Bothersome Man is a Norwegian satire of modern consumerism and obsession with appearances, a surreal comedy and utopia gone wrong, a fable about daring to be different, an original tale of what may even be the afterlife yet still manages to recall Jeunet et Caro, Gilliam, Andersson and Wenders, even more specifically at times I was thinking of The Truman Show, The Matrix and Wristcutters. Beautifully framed using an unassuming palette of greys and blues and filled with wonderfully strange moments that more often than not will have you laughing out loud.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) Dir. Sergio Leone
At nearly three hours Once Upon a Time in the West is most definitely not long enough to do all of it's many storylines and complex characters justice. It's a majestic western, visually astounding with a score to die for but suffers in the storytelling department, as have the three previous Leone films.
Crossroads (1986) Dir. Walter Hill
Colour me surprised to find that Crossroads is without doubt one of the highlights in the career of Walter Hill, this take on the legend of Robert Johnson is essentially The Karate Kid with blues guitar instead of kung fu but with real soul and no contrived fist pumping moments. Ry Cooder's soundtrack is perfectly matched to the mood of one of the best films about music I've seen.
Autumn Sonata (1978) Dir. Ingmar Bergman
Wow. Ullman and Bergman are sensational as the repressed emotions boil up and two women set out seemingly to destroy each other. Everything about this feels completely authentic. At least from watching mothers and daughters interact over in my family over the years anyway.

Blow Out (1981) Dir. Brian De Palma
Visually it is an incredible experience from start to finish; littered with incredible single shots, amazing set pieces, stunning ideas pulled off with seeming nonchalance and even the dated effects are impressive. As you would expect from a film about the work of a sound engineer the audio design is top quality too, layer upon layer of noise and silence enhancing the sumptuous visuals and the career best work from John Travolta.
Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010) Dir. Edgar Wright
I'm honestly conflicted over giving this film the full marks. After tonight's screening at the Rooftop Cinema in Perth I reckon I must have seen it an even dozen times and it just keeps getting funnier. But it's a teen comedy comic book adaptation. Conflicted!
Edgar Wright has done such a great job in adapting the visuals, mood and attitude of the excellent graphic novels, the soundtrack is phenomenally well chosen and the cast all excel in their roles however small plus it seems like Michael Cera was born to be Scott Pilgrim.
I heart Scott Pilgrim so much. Full stars!
Tokyo Story (1953) Dir. Yasujiro Ozu
A devastatingly effective piece of cinema, carefully crafted with great pathos. I'd not noticed previously that it shares many similarities with another of my all time favourites, Secrets & Lies, especially in terms of structure, tone and the power held over the viewer, which has sort of blown my mind. Ozu directed what is probably the pinnacle of this little social realist drama sub-genre 43 years before Mike Leigh came close to matching him.
Spring Breakers (2013) Dir. Harmony Korine

It seems I just can't get enough of Spring Breakers. I can't believe that this film is tying with Gravity for my best film of 2013. In my head I'm doing something ridiculous, I'm including it on a list with Citizen Kane; the kind of incredible films that both entertain and leave you marvelling at the skill of the director, films with many layers that you feel like you will never come close to comprehending no matter how many times you watch them. I feel like that is wrong.
Army of Shadows (1969) Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
Pick a WWII movie, pick your favourite WWII movie, I guarantee you it's not as good as Army of Shadows. There's a very real chance that you could pick ANY other movie in the entire history of cinema and it wouldn't be as good as Army of Shadows.
For 145 tension filled minutes Jean-Pierre Melville keeps the viewer in the palm of his hand, a director at the height of his almost magical powers, every moment exquisitely crafted in tones of blue-grey and quite aptly shadow and light.

I'm ready for the fallout, Superman fans sharpen your claws and do your worst. Any other opinions also welcome, recommendations via twitter are invited.