My partner and I got together on NYE 2008 hence this very Valentine’s Day post on New Year’s Eve …
I have been fortunate in many ways to only ever see the upside of love.
My partner is endlessly supportive and caring, the balwark I often need to weather the sometimes harsh vagaries of life, my family and friends are the best you could hope for, and I have never really had someone do something so diabolically awful that I have grown bitter and disillusioned about love itself.
But the therapist in the short film, Blissful Melodies, and at just 1 1/2 minutes its most definitely short but tells an elegantly-perfect story even so, comes across one man who, for very obvious reasons, has seen the good and the bad of this thing we call love.
And he doesn’t seem to be in the mood to be talked down from his funk.
For all of its darkly despondent confessions, Blissful Melodies, the result of a project on the subject of “love” by Mohamad Houhou, Valentin Lucas, Myriam Vhin and Andrei Sitari, students at Gobelins, L’École de L’Image in Paris, is an intriguingly touching piece of animation.
Rich with thematically on point visual flourishes from the feather in Cupid’s fingers to the rose-filled stained glass and a deftly-placed shadow to the arrow used to gauge out the table, its a judicious, succint piece of animation that is takes a wry look at the way love, perfect though it is in so many ways, doesn’t always work for everyone.
Especially the one person you think would have a completely un-flawed take on matters of the heart.
My partner and I got together on NYE 2008 hence this very Valentine’s Day post on New Year’s Eve …
In A Heartbeat follows a closeted red-headed teen named Sherwin whose heart literally pops out of his chest and chases after his classmate and crush, Jonathan. Sherwin must track down his heart before it reveals to his crush how he really feels about him. (synopsis (c) Mashable)
2017 was an exhausting year to be gay and in love in Australia (or just to be gay, really).
For three months – thought in truth it felt like an eternity – we endured people voting on whether we could enjoy the right to marry the one we love; in effect, we had our human rights voted on by the public at large, many of whom were lovely and supportive, a virulent, poisonously-obstructive minority who most certainly were not.
In the middle of all the bitter slanging matches, the insults and the outright nasty lies, what got lost often was why gay people like myself were fighting for the right to marry – because we really, REALLY, love our partners and want to get married to them like everyone else.
On the eve of my 9th anniversary with my beautiful, sweet, caring, lovely, selfless, huggable guy Steve, it’s films like In a Heartbeat, with its simple, unadorned and yes universal depiction of the purity of love, which the bigots and homophobes fail to realise, is the same no matter your sexuality.
Love is all may sound like a cheesy tagline but as this exquisitely touching and insightful film by filmmakers Beth David and Esteban Bravo beautifully declares, that is exactly what it is, and both Beth and Esteban are hoping that the film, which they completed courtesy of a Kickstarter campaign that generated over $14,000, will break the us and them gay/straight divide and help people to see how rich and true falling in love is for everyone.
“Hopefully, it’ll resonate with those who identify with this character – and for those who don’t, we hope they’ll gain an understanding for people who go through this experience.” (source: Huffpost)
Happy anniversary Steve – falling in love with you fell every bit as wonderful as In a Heartbeat (though we were a tad bit older when it happened!) and I’m glad we have a film that let’s everyone know how special a moment this is no matter who you are.
Sequels are, for the most part and for a thousand different reasons, the unloved siblings of modern cinema.
But Paddington 2, the sequel to 2014’s Paddington based on the stories of Michael Bond who sadly passed away this year, bucks the trend in the most fulsome and heartwarming of ways by delivering up further adventures of everyone’s favourite bear from “darkest Peru” (voiced once again by Ben Whishaw) that engender nothing but fervent praise and adoration.
Much of that lies with the beautifully faithful way that Paul King (who also directed the film) and Simon Farnaby bring Paddington to life once again on the big screen.
Capturing the spirit of the books perfectly, Paddington 2 offers up the world’s foremost proponent of marmalade sandwiches as a spirited force of generosity of spirit and kindness who looks for the good in everyone as Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) reminds cantankerous neighbour Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi) and simply wants to buy the loveliest gift possible for his much-loved Aunt Lucy on her 100th birthday.
Without giving away too much, it’s Paddington who ends up with the best gift possible as the universe pays him back in glorious kind for the way he has transformed the Browns’s neighbourhood.
With Mr Brown in the throes of a middle-aged crisis thanks to missing a job promotion, Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) getting ready to swim the Channel after a summer illustrating books, and children Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) in various growing mild dramas of their own, you see Paddington hopping on the bike of one neighbour to whom he delivers breakfast, bringing another two neighbours together in love sweet love, helping his garbage man study for his tax license and ensuring another neighbour doesn’t end up perpetually locked out of his house.
How profound an effect he has had on the people around him is illustrated when Paddington is wrongly imprisoned for a robbery he hasn’t committed (of course) and in a brief but potently impacting It’s a Wonderful Life-esque sequence, the neighbourhood descends into a benignly ramshackle comedy of opportunities and life blessings lost.
It’s hardly catastrophically-awful since this is Paddington after all, but it is enough to remind how much the absence of the most goodhearted of bears affects everyone around him.
Particularly the Browns who, along with housekeeper Mrs Bird (Julie Walters who is handed one of the best lines in the film), can’t imagine life without Paddington in their midst.
But live with it they must when Paddington spies a thief breaking into his good friend Mr Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antiques shop and bravely heads in to stop him stealing the valuable book he has had put aside for Aunt Lucy’s momentous birthday.
The bearded man, with “dazzling blue eyes”, makes away with the book, a rare pop-up book of London by Madame Kozlova, who established a beautiful steam fair many years earlier where she was the star attraction, but disappears in a literal puff of smoke, leaving Paddington, who is in earnest pursuit atop a stray Irish Wolfhound he has befriended, to be collared by the police.
Sentenced to prison for 10 years by a judge with whom Paddington has an unfortunate past that involved marmalade and glued-on hair, the young bear inadvertently sets about transforming HMP Portobello into a place of fairy lights, bedtime stories and delicious food, not to mention pink prison uniforms, where he makes many new, eventually lifesaving friends.
It’s fantastically-whimsical as is all of the film, replete with Wes Anderson-ish visual flourish that lend the entire film a rich, brilliantly-pastel glow that amplifies the rich narrative storytelling and humanity that percolate through every scene.
There is even a nod to Paddington’s 1970s/80s animated TV iteration when the pop-up book springs to life, offering up a cardboard-cutout view of London and a gorgeously-affecting imagined reunion between Paddington and Aunt Lucy who finally makes it to London after so many years (in her nephew’s mind, at least).
It’s all gloriously, preposterously over the top, with coincidences flung about like a fallen mountain of marmalade-making ready oranges, but you don’t begrudge a moment of it, so sweethearted and richly-adorned is Paddington 2 in just about respect.
Feel good the film may be but at no point does Paul King rest simply on creating a general, paper-thin air of happy bonhomie.
As with the books, Paddington 2 is substantially sweet, beautiful, funny and delightfully joyous, peppered with Paddington’s inadvertent but nicely well-intentioned errors of judgement, possessed of a spirit that is deep, wide and life-transforming.
It’s rare to walk away from a film feeling like your heart has been rendered utterly and completely glad but Paddington 2 manages that with an artfulness and cleverness that will leave you wishing every single children’s film could be this well-made and filled with such goodnatured spirit.
Paddington 2 is even more impressive when you realise how little time the Browns and Paddington actually spend together in a film which has Paddington in prison changing the lives of Nuckels McGinty the cook (Brendan Gleeson) and his softhearted cohorts, and his adoptive family facing around to prove his innocence by demonstrating that Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant is superbly comic form) is the real thief.
While they may not have physical proximity, they are indelibly and irrevocably connected by love and belonging, and while that may sound twee in the extreme, King and Farnaby (who reprises the role of Barry from the first film) make it feel real, connected and moving in the truest of ways.
This is not some treacly romp through emotions that feel as deep as a kids’ wading pool; even amongst hilariously manic, over the top chase sequences, train chases and treasure hunts that take in all of London at its romanticised, poetically-lovely best, the spirit of Paddington shines through, as we reminded, in the middle of all the laughs and awww-worthy moments, that being kind and generous of spirit beats cold, hard, nasty and greedy any day.
(Oh and stay around for the credits; they are almost worth the price of admission alone.)
That’s not because of some great philosphical turning against television, with which I continue to have a passionate and longstanding romance – one that endured despite a rock start at age 4 when I encountered TV for the first time fresh home from Bangaladesh where there was no TV to speak of – but rather due to rebalancing my pop culture consuming priorities to return books to the mix in a far bigger way than they had been recently, and to see more movies than last year (with so many great ones on offer, how could I refuse?).
Honestly in a world where the number of scripted TV shows is increasing by the nanosecond – Variety noted in early August that 342 shows had aired – and the storytelling possibilities on offer are endlessly exciting, I would happily watch TV for hours and hours on end. But alas, I have to eat, breathe and do other things and so my list of shows that I am partway through or have ignored completely is increasing at far too great a pace.
Sorry Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, iZombie, Glitch, 12 Monkeys, Mr Robot, Brooklyn 99 and countless others, I want to get to you but I simply can’t. At least not right now.
One thing I’ve had to learn to do this year is accepted this growing list of unfinished viewing with good grace and minimal stress and enjoy what I can get to and not regret what I cannot.
Sounds so Zen right? Well maybe but who’s got time to check? There are shows to watch baby!
Like these fine examples that kept me engrossed throughout the year …
Legion is one of those shows I was initially quite dubious about. It is based on a Marvel property and while I have enjoyed many of their movie outings, despite little familiarity with most of their superheroes, their TV shows had largely left me cold or uninvolved. Legion, which is bizarrely, freakishly, fantastically, brilliantly imaginative and so, SO clever, was so much more than I expected. It managed to be loopy af while still being deeply emotionally resonant and wholly affecting; hell even in the middle of weird dream sequences and trippy scenes which give Alice in Wonderland a run for its money, the innate humanity of the characters shone through, which speaks to the superb writing and acting involved. If you want accessible yet like nothing you’ve seen before, Legion should be your new favourite show ever.
I am not a fan of sports generally, let one the over-staged world of wrestling. But there was something about Glow‘s trailer than intrigued me – it was set in the ’80s which is always fun (I grew up through the decade but it ‘s always fun to see it in a retro setting), the characters looked diverse and funny. and there looked to be a lot at stake for each and every one of them. Sure it got a little cheesy melodramatic at times, but it was mostly grounded, meaningful storytelling with a huge emotional payoff that made sense of everything that had gone before. One of the year’s BIG highlights.
How can you not love the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? It’s off the wall daffy, courageously over-the-top, very, very funny, and consistently so, and packed full of memorable characters who are way more than the butt of the show’s jokes. In fact, it’s the sitcom’s attention to balancing goofy silliness with real, authentic humanity that means this is far more than a throwaway load of fun. Sure it’s freaking off-the-wall hilarious with a healthy sense of the absurd, but it’s also meaningful and sweet, all of which means you just want these wonderful people to be as happy as possible … but not completely so. I still want me a good laugh every few lines or so please!
I fell in love with Grace and Frankie pretty much from the first episode. The two titular characters, played beautifully by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, who are broadsided when their husbands, close friends and law firm owners Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston) declare they are in love and getting married, perfectly complement each other, offering a thoroughly enjoyable mix of laugh out loud humour and real, affecting emotion. Throughout the three seasons, you’ve got know them and their families well, watched as they navigated their new realities and blossomed, as life reset itself and moved in ways neither character imagined.
I have faithfully watched Grimm every season for the last 6 years. A brilliantly-realised mix of old world fairytales and modern policing with a rich thread of characterisation running through it, Grimm was consistently well-written, cleverly imaginative and gave a great deal of time and effort to weaving together mythology, our modern, largely supernaturally-unaware world and a real sense of humanity that meant this was way more than a mystery-of-the-week gig. I loved each and every one of the characters and will miss have them in all new adventures; thank goodness for reruns right?
Fear the Walking Dead is clear case of the televisual child eclipsing the parent. A spin-off from AMC’s ratings juggernaut The Walking Dead (it’s fading considerably in its latest season), it has, from the start, taken a far slower, more thoughtful and finely-wrought approach to its storytelling. Starting right at the beginning of the epidemic and transporting us clear across to L.A. from The Walking Dead‘s Southern surrounds, Fear the Walking Dead in a master lesson in rich characterisation, slow-burn storytelling and drip-fed tension that understands at its heart the humanity at the heart at the zombie apocalypse and how real people would actually respond to the unthinkable end of the world. Sure there’s violence but there’s thoughtfulness and insight into the human condition, making this one of the more intelligent, involving shows on TV.
I adore Issa! Both the actor/creator/writer of Insecure, and the lead character who has the best of intentions but like all of cringing flawed execution so much of the time. It was Issa’s innate humanness than won me over, that and she was a damn likeable person with some complicated but likeable friends. Set in the world of contemporary African-American Los Angelenos, it also contained some biting social commentary, all too aware that as a black person in a society still inimical to their equality in so many ways, there’s a whole range of life complications that white people simply don’t face. Clever, funny and incisive, this is one show that demands more chances to tell its story, which will happen in its upcoming, and eagerly-awaited third season.
Oh but I hate it when shows, especially ones on the up-and-up, are axed well before their time. It happened rather dramatically with Firefly, and again with Stargate: Universe and now with Dark Matter. I’ll admit, the show wasn’t all that and a bucket of ratings bonanza chips in its first season, but there was enough there to persist with, and all that hanging in paid off when seasons two and three showed tremendous improvement, not to mention way better special effects. It was really hitting its stride, part episodic TV, part grand arc narrative and it worked with characters that compelled you to turn in every week. I greatly laments its premature passing.
Oh but Orphan Black was a clever, CLEVER show! Ending with its fifth season just a few months ago, it’s brilliance was in a captivatingly good premise mostly perfectly-realised and the astoundingly great performances of Tatiana Masleny as a host of clone sisters who sit at the heart of a devilishly complex, of the moment conspiracy. Balancing knife-edge action, engrossing narratives and an immense amount of heart – that final all clones dancing at the end of season 2 was breathtakingly clever and some emotional in its own way – Orphan Black was an absolute triumph no matter how you slice it.
My housemate was begging me to watch this show for the longest time, and after bingeing the two seasons on Netflix, with sadly no immediate offer of a third, I can see why. Chewing Gum explored what it is like for a young woman on a council estate in Britain, from a family of strict religious conservatives, to explore her sexuality, for femininity and find possible true love (or not). It was enormously clever and insightful but crazy fun, a little surreal and over the top but always possessed a huge amount of hilarious heart. To be honest, it did end perfectly at the end of season 2 but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t embrace a third season with instantly open arms.
The Good Place is such a revelation, a throwback to a time when sitcoms actually went to the trouble of giving us well-wrought characters and a witty, clever premise and let the jokes flow from those two influences rather than hackneyed, over-engineered attempts at lame set up-and-execute punchlines that evaporate as soon as they’re uttered. The cleverness of this show is that it manages to be thoughtful and philosophical while being very, very fun, a balancing act that they pull off with aplomb each and every episode.
There’s no such thing as normal. Social conservatives may well argue the point with me but anyone who’s bothered to consider humanity’s vast fabulous diversity will acknowledge that normal is a concept with no sustainable validity in the real world. Atypical, the story of a person with autism, 18 year old high school senior Sam (Keir Gilchrist), teaches this lesson with nuance, charm and humour. While it never diminishes the distinctiveness of Sam’s condition, it certainly makes it clear that Sam is no less or more human than the rest of us. He is inquisitive, sweet and passionate, and gravely serious much of the time, his family are a flawed delight with the show consistently balancing drama and humour to insightful effect.
I am a Star Trek fan from way back. Not The Original Series far back but Next Generation vintage, and I have long held its mix of utopian ideals and gritty realpolitik which found its zenith, in my humble opinion, with Deep Space Nine. A close second now is Discovery which far exceeded my expectations, delivering up classic Trek combined with some startling good, gripping story arcs. Set 10 years before Kirk et al, it is visually lush, character rich with narratives that are deeply immersive and emotionally resonant. Did I have time in my schedule for another TV show? Not really but is it worth making time for a show this good? Absolutely.
Lordy but season of The Flash was an arduous ordeal. Dark, depressing, with a thousand horrible happening seemingly every episode, I got to the end of it and wondered if I really wanted to persist with the series. But then I realised what I loved most about the show, one of two Greg Berlanti-produced DC comics shows I regularly watch (the other being Legends of Tomorrow) is the characters and the tight bonds between them. They were sorely tested in season 3 but they endured, and season 4 has rewarded my viewing tenacity and devotion by mixing a lot of much needed lightness and humour back into the superhero battle between good and evil.
Schitts Creek is so wonderfully funny. I mean, FUNNY. Taking a well-worn idea, the fish out of water concept, in this case a rich-turned-poor family forced to live an idiosyncratically odd town, their only remaining asset, and breathes new quirky hilarity into it. The characters are invested with both oddity and humanity, the jokes, damn good ones, flow thick and fast and there’s as much emotional resonance as there is comedic absurdity. Schitt’s Creek is a gem and I am loving it more than I can possibly adequately express.
I will be the first to admit that Superstore is no Frasier or The Good Place; it’s an average run-of-the-mill sitcom and you know what? That’s perfectly fine. Largely because Superstore does what many of the average sitcoms fail to do which is use their characters well and ensure they are more than the sum of joke-setting-up parts. It has also has a tremendous amount of heart which means that even when things go seriously wacky, and they do, narratively and visually, you still feel emotionally engaged with this sweet, clever, and handily for a sitcom, funny show.
I am not a king of nostalgia. I love revisiting the pop culture touchstones of my youth but I am not consumed by them, and given a choice I will pick the latest and greatest every time. Stranger Things is that curious creature, and I am not talking about the Demogorgon, that is bright and boldly original and yet happily wears an entire back library of brilliant influences very proudly. Throw in a rip-roaring narrative, characters you emotionally cement to, and some awesome visuals and music and you have one of the most engrossing, justifiably-lauded, binge-immersive shows of the year.
You can’t beat a well-made fantasy film or TV series (think Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, not The Shannara Chronicles). Game of Thrones is currently the unbeatable king and queen of the heap, a thrillingly convoluted, intense tale of the struggle for power and influence in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and beyond. It is also, and here’s The Walking Dead angle, a titanic battle between the living and the dead, which if you think about it is pretty much the ultimate battle of all. This last season was derided by someone as not substantial enough, that it failed to add anything new to the story; what these allegations miss is that we’re officially in the final two-season wind down and adding too much in now would imperil a satisfying ending to things. As far as I’m concerned it’s as good as ever, a brilliant journey to fantastical realms that is still very raw and human.
I have to confess when I first heard about Z Nation, my enthusiasm for a zombie apocalypse parody show was minimal. True, it’s ripe territory for such an effort, but given it was coming from The Asylum (they of Sharknado fame), I wasn’t particularly hopeful. But you know what? It was not only good from the get-go, it’s gotten even better since, full of surreal, off-the-charts crazy shifts, insightful commentary on the human condition and some real, actual honest-to-goodness emotional resonance. I know right? So good is it in fact that it’s become required Sunday night viewing for my boyfriend, my housemate and I, a rare moment of levity and goofiness before the week, thankfully sans the zombie apocalypse, kicks off in earnest.
However much derided the inspirational biopic might be, they are popular for one very good reason – we want to believe that adversity can make you a better person.
Or, at the very least, that it doesn’t derail, to too great an extent, who you already are.
The reality is, of course, that encountering a traumatic incident of some kind comes with no guarantees of any particular type of outcome, other than nothing will ever be the same again; not that you would know that from most of the movies that depict it in rose-coloured tones of quiet triumphalism.
Breathe, a loving homage by Jonathan Cavendish to his father Robin (Andrew Garfield), who contracted polio at the age of 28 in the late ’50s in Africa, very much fits into this mold, giving us a rousing portrait of a man who took one look at the cards dealt him and decided it was winning hand at poker, not a lose-your-house kind of deal.
To that extent, it is a business as usual entry in the inspirational biopic genre, a tale of a plucky, vivacious and handsome man who travelled internationally for business, won the heart of the most beautiful girl on the scene (Diana, played by Claire Foy) and was preparing to be a father when tragedy struck.
Knocked sideways like anyone would be by the paralysis that polio brings on in its war with the body’s central nervous system, Robin, as is par for the course in these films, variously begs Diana to leave him, let him die, and keep his son Jonathan (Dean-Charles Chapman as an adult) away from him.
He has, in other words, given up on life, an understandable reaction and one that feels very authentic, especially for someone of such a onetime “seize the day!” mentality.
He rallies naturally and goes on to defy expectations that he will, like all polio patients of the time either die a quick death, tethered to a respirator in the hospital or in an iron lung – one of the most harrowing scenes in the films is when he is taken to a state-of-the-art German hospital in the early 1970s and see polio patients stacked up in a white, futuristic and soulless room – by developing a wheelchair, with his friend Oxford professor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville).
This chair, with a battery-powered respirator to boot, gives him unparalleled freedom, allowing Robin to leave the hospital, move home, and spend copious amount of times with the wife he adored and the son on whom he doted, and a gloriously idiosyncratic group of devoted friends who went to extraordinary lengths to make his life far more than just a simple story of survival.
His move was a bold one, a slap in the face to the medical establishment of the day (represented by Dr Entwistle, played with Vaudevillian flair by Jonathan Hyde) who, for no doubt sound reasons of good patient care, wanted to keep their polio patients immobile and in hospital.
So far so good when it comes to being a staunch card-carrying member of the inspirational biopic club.
What makes Breathe such a huge amount of fun, and for all its heavy subject matter that’s precisely what it is, is that it beautifully captures what Jonathan describes as the “swashbuckling band of eccentrics” who surrounded his parents as he was growing up.
Comprising people like Hall, Diana’s twin brothers Bloggs and David Blacker (Tom Hollander) and fellow British expat from Kenya days Colin Campbell (Ed Spelleers) and a seeming cast of thousands, these people speak to the magnetism of Robin who, initial post-diagnosis aside, refused to let life defeat in.
At this point, I’m sure, the more cynical among us are rolling their eyes and tut-tutting the laughably unrealistic nature of such a portrayal, and to be fair, the film could do with a little more of the gravity and life-altering reality of a life, a marriage and countless other things upended by the kind of adversity Robin and Diana encountered.
It must have been exhausting and awful, and there would undoubtedly have been countless occasions when Robin was ready to throw in the towel – this is addressed in some form, providing one of the most wrenching scenes of the film – but conversely, there are plenty of people who refuse to let a situation like this bring them down and Robin was one of them, as was Diana who is portrayed by Foy as an indefatigable trooper.
So yes, contracting polio, losing mobility and having your bright and shining life derailed must have been horrific but Breathe chooses to focus on the fact that Robin and Diana – the two were reportedly devoted to each other and the story cannot have one without the other – chose to focus on what could be gained, not what had been lost.
There’s such an irrepressible sense of joy and joie de vivre to the film that you can’t help but fall in love with the characters, and the amazing places their never-say-die approach (well, almost) to life takes them.
There are delightful scenes of the Cavendishes on holiday in Spain, forced to camp by the side of a road miles from their holiday house when Robin’s wheelchair blows a massive fuse and ending up in an impromptu party that lasted days while they waited for Hall to reach them in Spain.
We see too the countless parties, the richness of the friendships, and the way in which the family was surrounded and enabled and supported in the most extraordinary ways by a stellar group of friends who were, in every way you can imagine, family.
You can deride it as cheesy schmaltz if you like but you would be missing the point entirely – in a world where the powerful overtake the powerless, the dark seems to cover the light and hope seems less eternal than ephemeral, it’s heartening to be reminded by bright, effervescently lovely films like Breathe, which do portray a realistically upbeat side of life (it’s not all doom and gloom, even if the circumstances are), that it’s possible for good things to come from dire places.
There’s plenty wrong with life, but the Cavendishes refused to accede to that truism, with Breathe being a thoroughly delightful and buoyant reminder that facing up to adversity with smiling tenacity and a Carpe Diem mindset is exactly what the doctor ordered (or didn’t in Entwistle’s case) and can be more than a series of bright inspirational moments; that’s it vitally necessary and the only sane response in a world where the options are none too palatable and giving up doesn’t get you far at all.
So deriders of the world, step away please; Breathe, the directorial debut by Andy Serkis, is a brilliant antidote to the dark and cynicism of life, a film that follows a conventional, trope-heavy narrative route for sure, but carries with it a remarkable spirit, sense of fun and a wonderful understanding of the limitless possibilities of life, even one interrupted by adversity.
Every last part of it in fact. Whether I’m commuting, exercising, sitting and working – but not when I’m writing alas; I’m one of those people who must write in monastic silence or the worlds will not flow – or simply sitting and watching the world go by (doesn’t have to happen but it does happen), music is there providing a rich and varied soundtrack for every moment.
And when I say varied, I mean varied.
I dash from genre to genre like a ferret on speed, one minute singing along to Scandipop, the next to glacially dark electronica, before throwing in some P!NK, some Coldplay and as much indie music from all corners of the globe as I can manage.
That barely scratches the surface really but suffice to say I listen to a lot of music, all of which makes my life a better, lovelier and more energised place, but which also makes selecting just 25 songs for the year quite a challenge.
But I’ve managed it so sit back, read, enjoy and most of all listen to some of the finest music you could ever hope to soundtrack your life to.
Melbourne duo Fluir (singer-songwriter Siobhan Krelle and producer Jesse Marantz) are a talented duo, blissfully mixing together pop and electronica to utterly beguiling, danceable effect. “Only One” is proof of their ability to craft songs that stroke at the heart – who hasn’t fallen so deeply in love that they know they need that person more than anything right down to the core of their being – with Purple Sneakers aptly noting that the song is an “is an 80s-inspired bop that starts bouncing immediately, and never ceases … with the staccato synths are covered perfectly with Krelle’s sombre, breathy vocals.”
Up until a few months ago, my interest in the Goo Goo Dolls began and ended with their luminously-affecting song “Iris (City of Angels)” which provided the musical heart-and-soul of the 1998 film City of Angels. Then I heard their new track “Use Me”, a giddily upbeat, harmonious as hell – the chorus alone is worth the price of admission – piece of catchy music a bit of ’60s-Roy Orbison-esque thrown in for good measure, and I was hooked all over again.
Released as the first single of Las Vegas-based band Imagine Dragon’s 2017 album Evolve, “I Don’t Know Why” is a full-on force of nature that drives brilliantly and mercilessly forward, complete with a catchy beat-heavy melody and lyrics celebrating the adrenaline- pounding fun of “dangerous” love. I am also rather partial to the “whoops” that punctuate the song at regular intervals, making this a gem of a song to exercise to.
American music producer Matthew Dear, a man known for “subtle and heady dance production”, according to Pitchfork, is throwing his considerable talents to add some lusciously dark notes to pop music with the latest recipients being Canadian duo Tegan and Sara. The lyrics are open, honest and self-aware, the music has a suitably less-than-sunny but still wholly approachable vibe to it, and it moves at such a winningly loping rate that you can help but hit “repeat” over and over again.
So “Because I Love You” is from last year, which makes me considerably late to this particular pop gem party, but my lord was it worth waiting for. Intoxicatingly bitey with an insistently catchy melody that will not be denied, the song, by Sydney-based singer-songwriter Montaigne, is all about how we rationalise sick relationships in the hope they will fulfill our romantic hopes and dreams. They never will of course but while Montaigne struggles with that, we get a brilliantly-good, socially-aware piece of pop that has consumed my soul in all the best ways.
I discovered Grizzly Bear years ago courtesy of a now sadly shutdown record store in Newtown (next to my home suburb) and fell in love with them pretty much instantly. Technically a rock band that hails from Brooklyn, New York, Grizzly Band are adept at weaving all kinds of interesting and diverse sounds and influences into their music, a skill that finds gloriously-good form in “Mourning Sound”, lifted off their Painted Ruins LP. The song is musically loose-limbed, mellow, loping, the kind of track that blissfully carries you along, one that comes with a pretty cool video clip to boot.
Wow just WOW. “Deliverance”, by stunning Zimbabwe-born British singer-songwriter Rationale, is a bracingly poignant song of loss. The artist is mourning the end of a romantic relationship, caught in that disorienting afterwash of conflicting emotions that can do your head in. He articulates the pain and sadness with achingly affecting beauty with the song gripping your soul tight and with soul-searing passion. Just gorgeously emotionally-resonant.
When I first heard Lorde, along with the rest of the world back in, back in 2013 when the then-17-year-old music prodigy dazzled us with the lo-fi brilliance of “Royals”, I could immediately sense the New Zealand artist was capable of many great things. Just how great became blisteringly obvious when “Green Light”, the lead single from 2017’s LP Melodrama landed, bringing with it a host of life lessons learned from a now-defunct, enormously-healthy romantic relationship. The song embodies pain and regret, the bitterness of loss and the calmness of acceptance, all bundled up in a driving, piece of danceable power pop.
There is a ethereal ’80s-drenched synth darkness to the music of LA-based duo Bad Wave, who pour every emotion possible into their music. “Daniel” is the story of the last man alive on Earth in the 22nd century and its redolent, musically and lyrically, with everything that scenario entails. The song is fantastically moving and sad and yet intensely, richly listenable, intelligent pop with a beating, driving melodic heart.
K.Flay, known to her no doubt very proud parents as Kristine Meredith Flaherty, is an American singer with the ability to infuse her powerfully-intense but amazingly-intense songs with a raw, self-aware humanity. “Giver” is right up there, an honest exploration of who she is as a person set to a sometimes distorted piece of grungy, musically-buoyant pop.
You would expect someone who has worked with the likes of Drake and Frank Ocean to know their way around a magnetically appealing song and Francis Farewell Starlite, possessed of a magically-wonderful name I want as my own, and the leader of an Oakland, California-collective, Francis and the Lights, most certainly does. “My City’s Gone” from the group’s debut album Farewell, Starlite, is possessed of an incomparable emotional resonance that anchors the entire song through its melodically-meditative length. Drawing on soft piano and electronic flourishes, that beautifully wed the digital and the organic, and with a star turn by Kanye West no less that adds a whole other element to this remarkably poignant song, “My City’s Gone” is exquisitely, transportively beautiful, one of those songs that feels like it is full of every heartfelt emotion that has ever coursed your veins.
There is a mesmerising beauty to “Deadly Valentine” by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the daughter of legendary French singer/actor Serge Gainsbourg and British model/actor Jane Birkin, a breezily lush, ethereal, emotionally-resonant song that speaks to the glorious permanence of wedding yourself to that someone special, mixing in key phrases from wedding vows to add to the message.
“Do It” is the song you need to listen to when you really, really, REALLY want to do something but aren’t sure or emboldened enough. As the artist herself says – “This song is a dare to myself; it’s about daring to take a risk and choosing to take the more exciting route!” Exciting, unknown, risky is always better, and sure you could play it safe, stick with the beige, the monotone, the unchallenging but where the hell is the fun in that? Just do it already! And make you play Rae Morris’s catchy, beautiful song as you do.
Santa Barbara’s own DENM creates pop songs possessed of rich melody, abiding humanity. In that vein “Bless Your Heart” serves up some deeply romantic longings with the artist making a determinedly upbeat pitch for the heart of a girl who’s nothing like all the people around her which works out perfectly since DENM says he’s a breed apart too. Sure, there’s some playful confidence at work in the loping bright slice of pop but can you blame the guy? He’s trying to woo the girl of his dreams and if he’s going to succeed then some bold overreaching may be just what St Valentine ordered.
L.A. natives Sure Sure have crafted a bouncily upbeat song that’s all about the glories and bliss of love, and the frustrations of its inability to always deliver on all that romantic promise. The song marries the maudlin realisations of heartbreak with the sort of lopingly happy music that suggests there’s still some hope in there somewhere.
With an appealingly Jamiroquai modern soul funk beat that is smooth af, “Am I Wrong” is a dream of a song that percolates along with a playful, chilled jauntiness that is a joy to listen and groove to. Paak, hailing from Oxnard, California has enlisted ScHoolBoy Q to add some deliciously catchy rhyme to a song that is well night perfect in every way.
You can practically feel the snow and ice falling off Snow Culture’s cover of Maroon 5’s hit “Cold”. The Stockholm-based duo, featuring vocalist Ana Diaz, have crafted a song that is as emotionally resonant as they come, a heartbreaking recognition that the once bright-burning flame of romance has cooled to the point where it cruelly cold and hurtful. For all that, it is unquestionably beautiful in a way that many of Annie Lennox’s odes to the darker parts of life manage, a pleasing mix of light and dark that will get into the very recesses of your still warm-and-beating heart.
French artist Petite Meller is gorgeously, fabulously, wonderfully, appealingly odd. Styling her music as nouveau jazzy pop, the music of this wholly original, fantastically-imaginative singer is propelled by her little girl lost voice and a knack for channelling irrepressibly catchy melodies such as the one in “The Flute” that are always underpinned by a feisty intelligence. Meller, for all her playful imagery, is the thinking person’s pop artist, who understands that the best place for surprising people with weighty insights is where they least expect to find them – in pop sings so gloriously hook-laden that you can’t help but sing and dance and yes, muse on life.
Drawing from Brazil (specifically a poem by the Brazilian poet Chaca), New York-based SOFI TUKKER (Tucker Halpern and Sophie Hawley-Weld) are a fold-dance duo who delight into mixing a slew of interesting inspirations and see what results. In this case, “Best Friend” is one hell of a result that is all fun-in-the-sun hanging-with-friends jaggedly-bouncy musical fun that celebrates the bonds of friendship. It’s addictive, entirely catchy, one of those songs with all kinds of cool moving parts that makes for an enormously attractive song.
“Oh No Pedro” is exquisitely, beautifully, emotionally-resonantly lovely. The work of independent music artist, London-based Tom Rosenthal, who has made quite a name for himself through the featuring of his songs on TV shows such as Skins and Hard Knocks, films like Comet and The Odyssey and even Vodafone’s official campaign, the song grants us a deep insight into what We Are: The Guard calls “the internal and external battles faced by transgender people”. The song speaks to the soul of the poet that anchors Rosenthal’s clever, intelligent and insightful music
Ever had those moments where everything feel totally and utterly viscerally real and raw and you realise that all those pleasant outer layers of civilised behaviour, those stories we tell ourselves, the tissue thin paper of rationale and justification feels utterly superfluous? K.Flay does and in “Blood in the Cut” she lets every last honest feeling and thought hang out over a purringly aggressive, melodically-rich beat that speaks of brokenness and loss and wanting to feel it fully but also the possibility that this could lead to somewhere beyond the abyss. It’s real, true and fantastically intense, making me feel alive in ways that too often stayed buried.
Driving, pulsating ethereal brittleness and power (yes all at once), “Bitter by the Apple”, with vocal richness supplied by New Zealand’s Kimbra, is classic Big Bad Delta, the solo project of Mellowdrone’s Jonathan Bates. It’s a potent mix of dark electronica and scintillatingly melodic pop that draws you in with its raw power and drivingly infectious tunes and keeps you there with intelligent lyrics that really saying something as bates told Clash: ““It’s helplessly returning to a vice (whether it be a person or substance) that you know for a fact will destroy you. A shuffle over a march. Kimbra’s character and mine having a verbal back and forth over gluttony.”
Sure you can accuse Kate Perry of playing to the Top 40 crowd, serving up music that plays to what they what and doesn’t really push beyond that. And yet, songs like “Chained to the Rhythm”, which to be fair is not all that cutting edge musically or lyrically, somehow transcends all the formula, serving us a catchy, really interesting and fun song that really calls for repeated listens.
Describing her song “Feel It” as being about the times “when our mind and bodies are consumed by a powerful feeling, and the sense of nobody or anything being able to affect or ‘shatter’ it”, British-born Georgia, singer and drumming wunderkind, has delivered up a song that DIY observes is “a euphoric, pulsing celebration of all things percussive”. Its punchy, catchy as hell and one of those songs where the lyrics find their perfect home in the music.
Australian-born, US-based singer-songwriter Betty Who has a gift for creating bright effervescent songs with a deliciously clever, literate and all too human core. They may like light and bouncy, and they most certainly are, but they have substance to go with the fun and “Some Kind of Wonderful” channels it all, a bursting with addictive fun song that celebrates the wonderfuless of romance and love.
A distant father confronts a heroic but troubled past-life as an ’80’s TV show mascot named Pombo. (synopsis via Vimeo)
It’s pretty much a given that at some point in your life, and this will be different for everyone, your past will come back to haunt you.
It could be something as innocent as a photo of you drinking way too much shots of tequila surfacing on a Facebook page or a call out of the blue from an old high school friend who reminds you of more than one embarrasing occasion, you’d rather not be reminded of, now or ever again.
But for many of us, the memories take on a more debilitating form, imprisoning us in a web of regrets and loss, and potentially, worse case scenario, distancing us from people that matter in the here and now.
That’s the case for the man in Steve Warne’s (Frankenweenie, Isle of Dogs) touching short film Pombo Loves You, who is haunted, and honestly once you see the film you’ll understand why that word was chosen particularly, by a role he played on TV back in the ’80s.
Things didn’t end well for him, and as the memories begin to consume him again, he has a choice – let the pain overwhelm him or be there for his daughter in the here and now.
It’s beautifully done, fantastical and heartfelt in equal measure and you won’t be able to watch it without realising how much you gain from putting old demons to rest.
This time last year I was mired in the grief of losing my beloved father and while I still miss him dearly, life returned to normal, or whatever normal looks like after you lose a parent because nothing is ever the same again, which meant in my case, lots and lots of movies.
Not as many as I wanted to see of course but then there are only so many hours in the day and I am a pop culture omnivore, which means I somehow need to fit in movies, books, TV shows, comic books and music, as well as eating, breathing, sleeping, and oh yeah, catching up with friends.
Still I managed to get to a shade over 60 films this year, ranging from blockbuster-y behemoths that bestrode the zeitgeist like Thor: Ragnarok, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Wonder Woman to fantastically incisive indie films like Ingrid Goes West, Maudie and God’s Own Country to the richness of foreign films like Rosalie Blum and The Salesman. Throw in some Oscar darlings like Loving, Hidden Figures and Dunkirk and I was rewarded with a year of inventive, clever cinematic storytelling.
As always, the list that follows reflects the Australian release schedule.
This was a brilliant movie to begin the year with. Both a sprawlingly expansive story and an incredibly intimate one, Lion is about loss, belonging, redemption and forgiveness and ultimately, coming to terms with life and its many contrary, messy outworkings. Patel and Kidman are just superb throughout.
It would be easy to regard Wilson, played with irascible brilliance by Woody Harrelson, as a thoroughly unlikeable character with few redeeming features. But like all of us, he is a man of deep emotional needs and raw vulnerabilities and this very clever film balances his less appealing qualities with his innate humanity for an affecting outcome that neatly sidesteps expectations.
Parts stalker-creepy and parts innate French charm, Rosalie Blum offers a quirkily unique perspective life, one that accepts happy endings are possible but that getting to them is anything but neat and straightforward. After all, when does life ever play solely to our expectations? Rarely and this joyously clever, determinedly offbeat and yet charming, it’s a refreshing take on the idea that life can get shaken up in ways we don’t see coming and when we least expect it.
Justly lauded as one of the great films of 2016, Loving is, like pretty much everything that speaks to our shared humanity these days, a heartwarming but robust rebuttal to the idea that there is far more that separates us than unites us. The film fights this malignant philosophy one quiet life moment at a time, demonstrating that while love does triumph over all, we must stand with it and fight along too if victory is to be assured.
A riveting film on just about every level, The Salesman concerns itself with the grey areas of life, which if we’re honest is most of them, a notion that is unpalatable to the bigots and extremists who seem so thick on the ground at the moment. Repudiating the idea that a complex thing like life has easy answers and that you can simply sweep trauma under the carpet with no consequences, it’s a hearty, intelligent pushback to the simplistic legalists of the world.
What a glorious film this is. It manages, with breathtaking narrative deftness and an eye for richly-wrought characters, to be both heartwarmingly inspiring and incisively clever, portraying one small but very important part of the civil rights struggle in the United States, one that simply began as three women wanting to make the most of unexpected opportunity. Taraji, Monae and Spencer are awe-inspiringly-good, reminding us that at the heart of every revolution are extraordinarily ordinary people wanting the same chances at life as everyone else.
Grim and bleak and yet deeply, affectingly emotional resonant, Logan is the Wolverine film we didn’t know we needed. Anchored by Hugh Jackman is gritty, disillusioned mode, Logan is about second chances and hope and the idea that it’s never too late to stake a claim at redemption. A valuable and necessary to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it offers a brilliant new perspective on the usual glossy, black-and-white world of superheroes.
Do we need all these live action remakes seems intent on foisting upon us with near overwhelming regularity? Probably not, but if they have to come and they will, then may they all be as inventive, rich and affecting as Beauty and the Beast, that manages to find all new ways to dazzle, impress and reach our hearts, in a story that you may think you know so well there is nothing left to surprise you.
What a stupendously brilliant, awesome, amazing film. It soundly, and with firm conviction, captivating characterisation and immersive, gripping action, reminds us that not only is Wonder Woman one of the best superheroes out there but that she is capable of carrying a movie of her own and how. The highest-grossing superhero origin movie of all time, the film is spectacle, heart, morality play, embodying a refreshing honesty about life and an intelligence that warms the heart and mind simultaneously. Here’s my review of Wonder Woman.
Families are complicated right? We know that but seeing it play out with heartfelt honesty and truth as it does in 20th Century Women, anchored by the inimitable Annette Bening, is engrossingly reassuring. Even better is that this is a family both born and chosen, one of those increasingly common entities that offer a sense of belonging and home to people who may have neither. Sure they’re messy and problematic and as flawed humans we rarely get it as right as we want to, but it’s an engaging reminder that it’s worth pursuing however it plays out.
Described by its creators as Australia’s first Muslim romantic comedy, Ali’s Wedding is a delight on every level. Cleverly-written, deftly acted and possessed of an appreciation for the great cultural differences of the Muslim community and yet their deep, shared similarities to any of us who value love, family and belonging, the film is sweetly, laugh-out-loud funny, proof you can be insightful and hilarious at once with one negating the other.
LEGO movies are fast becoming a gold comedy standard. Brilliantly and mercilessly lampooning Batman’s gruff, emotionally-cut off persona, The LEGO Batman Movie gives us a great tale, wonderful characters and sizzlingly funny oneliner after oneliner, a parody that never puts a foot wrong and even manages to be a little emotionally resonant into the bargain.
Monsieur Chocolat, like so much European, and particularly French, cinema refuses to accede to the idea that life is neat and easily-told. A biopic that tells the story of turn of the 20th century Afro-Cuban clown Rafael, the film is at turns painfully sad and incisively socially observational, and riotously, giddily joyful, just like life if you think about it, especially when you inhabit a world, as Rafael does, where some people think they are better than others and act, sadly, accordingly.
Not normally one for wartime movies, I found Dunkirk effortlessly, endlessly gripping. Finding the raw humanity in a film that is ultimately a story about survival against the odds, both collectively and personally, the film is a visual feast, a narrative delight and intensely, beautifully real that manages to be massive and intimate at once, a rare feat that lends it so much majesty and emotional impact.
A wholly different war film, War for the Planet of the Apes is a brilliant end to what has been an exceptionally and uniformly good prequel trilogy, proving they can be done and done well (right Star Wars? Oh, yeah, no, you didn’t get that memo alas). Doing what every film in the trilogy has done best, which is find the intimate and the real in amongst the big picture expansiveness of a world literally gone to the apes, the film upends the idea of hero and villain, excoriatingly revealing how little humanity often has when the chips are down and how perhaps our passing is some sort of cosmic justice.
An absolute, quietly passionate delight, Maudie is one of those films that looks unassuming and fey on the surface, telling its story with little fanfare and no gimmicks, that is as robust and substantial as they come when you dig down. With the odds stacked against her, the titular character nevertheless refuses to let life or people best her, suffering and gaining in equal measure as she winningly does so.
The idea that love is love is love has been bandied about a lot this year during Australia’s god awful same sex marriage survey, but that’s because it is innately true. I know my relationship with my husband is as real and committed and heartfelt as any straight person’s but God’s Own Country quietly and yet powerfully makes that abundantly clear, serving up a timely reminder that is there far that unites than separates us and that love is never as bigoted and judgemental as we all too often are.
It took until this year to watch the original Blade Runner – who knows why; living in the country, it was the ’80s, I was a “good Christian, honestly I can’t recall – but I loved it, obviously, from its first mediative frames, as the unexpectedly evocative music of Vangelis swept me up in a thoughtful, measured rumination on what it means to be human. Blade Runner 2049 has much the same look and feel, albeit with much more modern patina, and an intellectual commitment to exploring many of the same issues. It is beautiful, sprawling and expansive, one of the few movies I have seen in many years that feels truly immersive, a world entirely and richly unto itself.
In my review, I call Thor: Ragnarok a hoot. It may sound like a glib, tiny little term to bandy around for a Marvel blockbuster but it fits perfectly. Helmed by the immensely talented and inordinately clever Taika Watiti, the film is clever, rich in intent and fiercely intelligent while being spectacularly, immensely blockbuster-y and insanely, endlessly, hold-your-sides funny. I … LOVED … IT.
Granted Breathe is hardly, ahem, breathtakingly original. It’s your standard inspirational, Vaseline soft-focused, rose-coloured glasses biopic where a determined individual triumphs over grave infirmities. And yet for all that, I found it deeply charming and often funny, lifted by fine performances from a stellar cast and a script that tried to inject humour into what is, on paper at least, a not even remotely funny situation. You leave the cinema feeling buoyed and good about life and frankly in these dark and trying times, isn’t that a wholly good thing?
Sure it’s schmaltzy and in many ways entirely predictable but Wonder, the story of Auggie, a young boy who due to a genetic condition looks nothing like anyone else and suffers because of it, is an absolute delight from start to finish. The film is a substantial, real, honest and exquisitely-lovely film about accepting yourself, no matter what others think, and accepting others without qualification that leaves you feeling like anything is possible, no matter how big the challenges your life may contain, and given life’s messy contrariness at the best of times, that’s something we all need to be reminded of no matter who we are.
Coco is a masterpiece, a film that takes top flight animation, music and a culture impossibly resplendent in music, the value of family and a thousand other things besides, and delivers up a story that reaffirms the importance of family, but family which grows, is alive and develops, and understands that sometimes healing and an appreciation for the diverse talents that make it up, may be needed to keep the memories alive and renew and enliven the bonds that keep it strong and make it something truly special and worth belonging and celebrating at every turn.
If you’ve been alive longer than five minutes, you will be painfully aware of how cruel and unyielding life can be. But in The Florida Project, where life is grim indeed for the poverty line residents of motels on the fringe’s of Orlando’s golden tourist mile, young Moonee is protected from its worst excesses by a motley group of people but most powerfully by her own innocent belief that life is a playground full of infinite possibilities. Moonee doesn’t know that yet and as you journey to the point where that bubble of sweet child-like delusion is going to have to be burst, at least partly, you are hope and pray that Moonee’s happy little world can endure in some way so sweet and beautifully alive is it.
This film made my heart utterly and completely glad. What a sweet, beautiful, funny, fantastically-whimsical delight and joy which perfectly captures the spirit of the books, a gorgeous, visually-lush reminder that being kind and generous of spirit beats cold, hard and nasty any day.
If you cast your mind back to the heady days of childhood, a feat that may be less taxing for some than others, you will recall how even the most troubling of events could be coated with a playful glow with little to no effort.
That’s not because you were masterfully able to bend reality to your will but simply because you were a child, of limited life experience, and hopefully pain and deprivation, who saw the world less in terms of what it wasn’t or couldn’t deliver, and more in terms of what you thought it could.
In Sean Baker’s masterful exploration of childhood lived on the margins, The Florida Project, we meet Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a child who is able to stare down, without realising she has to, some deeply uncomfortable truths about her life.
We witness her power to interpret things through her childlike lens when she and her carefree friends – sure they can be naughty, petulant and rude but they are at heart simply kids being kids – Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera) go on an “adventure” (that word springs up again and again) to an abandoned housing estate near the motel where she lives with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite).
With not much in the way of possessions or a permanent home, or you could argue a fully-functional mother – Halley, who hawks cheap perfumes to rich middle class tourists and acts as a prostitute to make ends meet, is both attentive and neglectful all at once – Moonee imagines a vacant, derelict bedroom as a girl’s palace full of a bed, bookcase and toys filled every available space.
It’s a beguiling vision and one that Jancey, Moonee’s best friend that she meets one days when she spits on the car of Jancey’s grandmother and guardian Stacy (Josie Olivo), brings disarmingly to life; perhaps she knows it has no chance of coming true, at least not right then, but Moonee betrays no sign of that or any other sobering realisation, choosing instead to imagine what could be.
It’s part of wider pattern of the way Moonee and her friends approach a life on the edges of Oralndo’s glittering, resort-filled tourist district.
While Disney World and its satellite tourist havens exist in a rarified bubble where everything is possible and magical, on the fringes sit motels such as The Magic Castle (where Mooney and Hallee live), Futureland and The Arabian Nights, places long past their glory days but still trying to cash in on the tourist dream where they can.
Sitting cheek-by-jowl with Disney mechandising outlets and standalone shops like Fruit World that exist in a time and place most modern tourists don’t have time for – that becomes painfully obvious when a Braziliain honeymooning couple arrive at The Magic Castle, realising it’s not as magical as it’s online persona suggested – the only magical things about these motels are their names.
The largely in-charge manager of The Magic Castle, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who is, despite initial appearances, just hanging onto the tattered edges of the American Dream himself, does his best to keep the place ship-shape and ready but it is, like much of the area around it, a mere shadow of its former hopeful self.
It’s in this world that we find Moonee, cocooning herself, without knowing she has to, in the endlessly colourful possibilities of childhood.
Unaware that she is deprived, she successfully fashions each day into a realm of adventures, ice cream and fun-filled escapades, with the cinematography by Alexis Zabe, bathing the film in bright, exuberant colours that belie the hand-to-mouth existence of many of the area’s residents.
At no point though does the screenplay by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, which exists in an un-augmented slice-of-life drama milieu that simply exists without narrative beginning or end (despite the very clever and moving final scene), judge any of the characters.
Everyone’s story, most poignantly Moonee’s is allowed to play out as is, giving out harrowing insight into a world that requires far more than a precocious child’s rich and vibrant imagination to paper over.
And yet that, for the most part all Moonee needs – out of days that filled with little in the way of timetabled rigour or parental attentiveness, she carves out excursions to old trees covered in hanging moss where she and Jancey eat the bread and jam delivered by social workers, where hotel buffets are a place of extraordinary deliciousness and unheard of choice, and where ice cream is a rare and breathtakingly exciting step away from a life not filled with the kinds of things most middle class kids take for granted.
Looked over by Bobby who, despite his exhaustion at life, acts as a kind of father to many of the kids, Moonee’s life is one that defies the odds, untouched thanks to her power of conjuring the possible out of the impossible and Halley’s half-hearted attempts to fashion a reasonable life for her daughter.
While, as noted, no judgement is meted out, it becomes all too apparent very quickly, that there is no happy ending waiting in the wings.
This is life lived on the precipice, and while Moonee remains blissfully unaware of the deprivations that are the stuff of everyday life for Halley and best friend (and Scooty’s mum) Ashley (Mela Murder), she is in the firing line as much as anyone around her, a sobering prospect for anyone watching the film.
But what makes The Florida Project such a sublime, warmhearted joy despite all the swirling barbs of reality poking their way through the nuanced, slowly-unfurling narrative, is the sheer, cheeky exuberance of Moonee who approaches life as a carpe diem of banquet buffet proportions (quite literally in one especially poignant scene).
It’s nothing of the kind, of course, and is cold, nasty and uncaring for the most part, but Moonee realises none of this, happy to treat life as a playground of possibilities, a delightful outlook that you hope and pray she will never lose.
Alas, the film’s ending which is all too predictable – not because of poor writing but simply the way life is – suggests that will not be possible, or at least a struggle of epic proportions as Moonee’s blissfully happy world of ice creams and carefree fun is impinged upon by the unflinching reality that everyone else in the film is all too familiar with.
Ever since I was a kid, reading has been a central, if not the central, way for me to relax, to escape, to find adventure, excitement and quirky emotional resonance far from the banalities of everyday life.
There is something deeply wondrous and magically exciting about the promise of a new story, and the thrill of meeting new characters, new worlds and encountering new beguiling perspectives never ever grows old (unless the biook is awful or not to my taste in which case I got tired of it all REAL fast).
Surprisingly there were a few years not that long ago where I deserted reading, too overwhelmed, in the best possible way, by all the movies and TV shows I wanted to watch; but I couldn’t deny my love of diving into a good book and now I’m back to reading 50-60 books a year.
Granted that number doesn’t reach the heady heights of most book bloggers, and certainly doesn’t match the 100 plus books I read each year in school (I even got a certificate at a school assembly from the librarian; yeah I was picked upon and bullied at school and hid in the library – why do you ask?) but it’s way better than I was managing and a perfect way to balance out all my other pop culture obsessions.
I continued my love of quirky settings and characters with humanity and sci-fi/fantasy this year with some truly beautiful books leaping from bookstore shelves and my towering TBR pile making their way into my reading this year, a select number of which made it to my favourites list this year.
You only need to have been alive for five minutes to know that grief is a catastrophically enervating thing. It guts your life so completely and abolsutely that you can wonder how you will ever emerge back to whatever version of normality is left in the wake of this major life event. In Tor Udall’s emotionally-resonant and poetically insightful brilliant debut novel we catch a beautiful glimpse of what life before, during and after grief (is there really an after? Not really, it’s just not as intense) feels like in all its flawed human glory and how maybe, just maybe, life can begin again in ways we son’t expect.
Growing up is never easy and in Ben Hobson’s gorgeously evocative and rawly emotional debut emotional we come to understand just how difficult it can be when grief is added into the mix. Examining issues of masculinity, belonging and the strength, or otherwise, of family bonds, Hobson expertly paints a picture of life on the Queensland whaling stations of the early 1960s and particularly what that is like for a father and son who have a long way to go until they’re close to being anything like a family.
I love a quirky lead character; even better when they are rendered in fulsome, three-dimensional terms that helps us seem them as a real person with needs, wants and desires, and not simply the punchline for an offbeat narrative. Eleanor Olpihant is decidedly quirky and shutdown, the result of a lifetime spent being subjected to horrific emotional abuse. As her life unexpectedly opens up, she’s forced to make a decision- does she stay in the stultifying world she has created for herself, which is safe but lacking in life and vigour, or does she step into the unknown and see where it takes her? It’s an extraordinarily affecting, sweet and heartfelt journey that Gail Honeyman takes us on and you’ll be so glad you walked every step of the way with dear lovely Eleanor Oliphant who isn’t completely fine … but will be.
As someone who spent much of my time growing up on the fringes of social acceptability at school, I could completely identify with Steffi Herrera, an outlier who simply doesn’t fit in with her peer group. Everything changes for her though when the talented young Swedish musician meets an ageing jazz great Alvar “Big Boy” Svensson and together they discover that life still has much to offer, contingent on staying true to herself, no matter how much pressure is applied. Combining the present day with Alvar’s memories of his heyday in 1940s and 1950s, Sara Lövestam’s book is an engaging, warmhearted but grounded delight.
There has been a lot written about the zombie apocalypse in recent years with many novels featuring the catastrophic rise of the undead filling bookshelves (and perhaps a few readers’ subsequent nightmares). Two of the best have been by M. R. Carey, the latest of which The Boy on the Bridge puts a refreshing new take on very well-trodden ground. What makes this book and its predecessor work so well is the humanity as its core; yes of course there are zombies and the world has ended but people endure and we bear beautifully articulated witness to their struggle to survive and retain what remains of their tattered humanity.
Taking flight, in some cases literally, into a fantasy world is one of life’s great pleasures. So removed are they, especially the good ones, from the everyday that you can very easily lose yourself in them and forget the real world exists at all. As least for a few hundred pages or so. Uprooted very much offers that kind of escape but imbues with a rich, resonant humanity that gives it so much emotional resonance that you feel deeply invested in the fate of all the characters. Novik gets the balance just right, balancing the fantastical and down-to-earth humanity in such a beautifully told way that you’re riveted from the first page to the last.
Think you’ve read or seen everything about time travel possible? Think again. Elan Mastai makes merry with this well-worn but captivating idea, taking it all kinds of imaginative, amazing places including the very depths of grief and the human soul. While time travel is the hook on which this heartfelt story pivots, Mastai never forgets the humanness at the heart of his tale, with every twist and turn anchored in the reality of life, its triumphs and sadly, its sorrows.
I’ll be honest – werewolves creep me out and if you’d asked me prior to January 2016 when Maria Lewis’s debut novel Who’s Afraid? was released if I’d read a book about them, you’d have received a resounding “NO!” And yet so well-written and deeply, beautifully human is the central protagonist in this book, a woman who’s intelligent, gutsy, funny and vulnerable all at once, that you willingly plunge into a supernatural world where werewolves are just one of the intriguing denizens. Who’s Afraid Too? doesn’t suffer from sophomore curse for even a second, a riveting tale that will have you drastically rethinking what lies behind all those unnerving bumps in the night (and day).
Before I launched into and fell in love with The End of the Day, I never thought I could like Death. Well, Death’s assistant anyway. Somehow though, North opens up a beguiling look at a figure usually cloaked in dark robes and carrying a scythe that is so enlightening that you can’t help but willing spend time with one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The book is tender, heartfelt, extravagantly poetic and richly emotional, a sublime journey into the way the closeness of death can often emphasise and light up life itself.
Way back in 1983 when my darling cat Fred died, I was painfully reminded of one of life’s more difficult lessons – that the animals who make our lives so delightfully, gorgeously smile-inducingly rich will one day die and leave us inconsolably bereft. But as Gizelle’s Bucket List movingly, and with humour-laced honesty reminds us, before they go they make a massive contribution to who we are as people and to the lives we lead. What was so appealing about this book is the way Fern Watt is very, heart-on-sleeve emotional while examining beautifully and eloquently why and how it is, through Gizelle’s all-too-short life, how our furry companions make such an indelible imprint on our lives.
As someone who suffers from Anxiety (the capital “A” is to distinguish from feeling a little concerned which this condition most certainly is not in full flight), I can well understand how the protagonist in this book, who desperately wants to move beyond her irrational fears, finds herself instead trapped again and again in them. A tug-of-war between connection and isolation that welcomingly doesn’t follow a conventional narrative route, and is all the better for it, Turtles All the Way Down (my favourite title of the year) by John Green, a man who lives with Anxiety and thus knows of which he speaks, is a warm, rich and very human story that never patronises, staying, funny, warm and real all the way through.
I have loved science fiction ever since it dawned on me that it could set you free from the realities of life in a way that few other things could. Breathtakingly imaginative and endlessly malleable, books like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet open a window to an amazingly diverse and unexpected future, one where humanity has taken a few fairly big knocks but still emerged alive and functioning and in some cases, thriving. The protagonist of this book is part of a spaceship that are more like family than anything else, echoing Firefly in the way it shows the importance of familial and friendship bonds in tackling the crazy things that come your way in life, especially out in the wilds of dystopian space.
To be honest while I buy an awful lot of celebrity memoirs, very few of them end up being startlingly good. Interesting and illuminating yes, but entertaining or compulsively readable? Not so much. Which is why Mara Wilson’s delightfully self-deprecatory, honest and often very funny book is such a joy. Known for starring in movies like Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda, Wilson is the first to admit that lucky though she was, she also ended up with quite a few less-than-glamorous issues to deal with and Where Am I Now? is as much therapy as it is memoir, while also being pleasingly instructive about the nature of celebrity and ultimately finding out what matters most in life to you, not anyone else, and living that out as best you can.
Up until my housemate convinced me, through an endless dripfeed of coercion and suggestion, to watch The Walking Dead, I was not really a fan of zombies (pretty much for the same reason of werewolves – I don’t generally do horror). To be fair I remain less than enamoured with them but god damn if they don’t provide some narrative rocket fuel and real storytelling oomph, qualities that Mira Grant, the pen name of Seanan McGuire uses blisteringly effectively to tell the story of a post-zombie apocalyptic USA where the world didn’t end but the recurrent presence of the undead, and the measures needed to ensure the living don’t join them have created a society in fear of itself, freedom, and openness. Save for a brave few members of the press, which now includes bloggers, this is a world that needs some shaking up, a task Grant and her fearless protagonists handle with compulsively entertaining aplomb.
Saying goodbye forever to someone you love is never, ever easy. It is made all the more worse though when it happens by degree and over a considerable period of time, an extended period of grieving that can years to run its harrowing course. Rachel Khong beautifully, humourously and with great sensitivity examines what this period of seemingly neverending goodbye is like for one family and how everyone, not simply the parent at the eye of the debilitating storm, is changed, and how families adapt and grow to meet new challenges.
In this beautiful book, which insightfully and compassionately the intersection of grief and identity in one Merseyside family, you gain a beautiful, sustained appreciation for the importance of knowing exactly who you are, and how gaps in that sense of self can often be filled, but never terribly well, by supposition and guessing. The truth can be scary but it is essential to face it if you’re going to truly live and not mired in the pain and sadness and unknown parts of the past. There is a great truth and emotional resonance to The Museum of You, which speaks to almost every aspect of the human condition from loss to gains, from deep sadness to incipient sadness, a richly-wrought meditation on how grief can destroy and wreck but how, given time and aptitude, it can be turned into something beautiful again.
Oh lord, this is a beautiful, heartrending and immeasurably romantic book that has one of the most extraordinary premises of any book I’ve read in quite a while. Combining elements of Gravity – the two protagonists, marooned in near-Earth orbit, only have 90 minutes of air left and diminishing options, epic romance and political insightfulness, Hold Back the Stars is deeply, beautifully human, less concerned with the survival aspect of the story, though that can’t be escaped naturally, that with the way this affects two people and how they react to a situation that no one would ever want to find themselves in.
Another sci-fi entry and this one is enormously original and very clever. On an Earth where the aliens arrived and didn’t Independence Day us into the ground, people have access to all kinds of advanced technology and myriad future possibilities that would never have been possible with our extraterrestrial visitors. The one big fly in this galactic ointment? The aliens don’t communicate, remain maddeningly mysterious and obtuse and demand payment in human lives for each piece of technology they share. Not quite a green and visionary utopia after all, one that might have an even darker underbelly than anyone imagined. Netherspace is a rip-roaring tale that’s dark yes but also very smart and unwilling to play to well-worn tropes.