Well, it's that time of the year when everyone is doing their 'best and worst of' lists, so here is mine. I'm going to list the books and movies and records I read/watched/listened to in 2021 and then pick my favourites. This isn't restricted to what was new in 2021, but what I actually watched and read and heard - some of these items might be very old indeed.
I read the following in 2021:
Alison Moore – The Lighthouse
That's worked out at 60 books this year, up eight from last year's 51 so pretty good, and much helped by deciding to keep an ongoing list on Twitter and Instagram and posting a monthly summary on Facebook. I should mention that I also proofread and copyedit and adding those novels into the mix would increase the number by about 38 books this year (those which were exceptional also making the above list).
There were a few books this year that I was looking forward to, but which really didn't do it for me. The Strugatsky brothers, "Hard To Be A God", I just found muddy and confusing, despite the neat central concept; David Peace's "Tokyo Year Zero" uses a deliberate rhythmic repetitive style which unfortunately began to grate very quickly; Ray Bradbury's collection "Machineries of Joy" really didn't cut the mustard: it felt dated and run-of-the-mill; Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Petrolio" probably contains an excellent 60 page novella within its turgid 450 pages but it's not worth looking to find it; Hideo Furukawa's "Slow Boat" is a simple, quick and easy read but with little to say; and Kerry Hadley-Pryce's "The Black Country" started brilliantly then completely disappointed with a same-old / same-old denouement lacking the originality of the earlier pages. That would probably have been the worst read of the year for me, but then I picked up Catriona Ward's "The Last House On Needless Street" which went from bad to worse and ended with a thirty page info dump of mindnumbing boredom detailing everything we already realised mid-way through the book. For a work that seems to be incredibly popular, I found this astounding.
Thankfully, I also read many great books this year. Having made more effort to read female writers (over a third of the total, excluding anthology appearances), several of those were amongst my favourites including "The Lighthouse" by Alison Moore, a simple story of the loss of what could have been; Laura Lam's "Shadowplay" (book two in a fantasy series) which was more than equal to its predecessor. Another SF/Fantasy title, "The Offset", by Calder Szewczak was equally well-written with a clarity of purpose and an interesting central idea; "Speculate", a collection of surreal micro-fiction written in a call and response collaboration by Eugen Bacon and Dominique Hecq, created prose poems that echoed and informed, entwined and correlated. I also greatly enjoyed Bacon's collection "Danged Black Thing". Laura Mauro's "On the shoulders of OTAVA" was a beautifully told story, dreamlike and subtle. Also beautifully written was "Ice" by Anna Kavan. I do love Kavan's fiction, and this was no exception, the fluidity of story matched by events and sense of time. Equal to these was the collection, "Nudibranch" by Irenosen Okojie, such a brave stylist who uses language in new ways to make the unfamiliar familiar. Kate Elizabeth Russell's "My Dark Vanessa" is billed as a counterpoint to "Lolita" and whilst it contains none of the beauty in that work, it was a compulsive read, with Russell not shying away from the fact that some relationships are based on love, some on abuse, and some on both. "Wilder Girls" by Rory Power is a YA novel that reminded me of both Sarah Pinborough's "The Death House" and Sophie Mackintosh's "The Water Cure", but stands in its own right as an exploration of female relationships and body horror and is well worth your time.
In reverse order:
"The Electric" by Andrew David Barker
"Territory of Light" by Yūko Tsushima
And the winner is:
"Within Without" by Jeff Noon
I watched the following in 2021:
As usual, however, I'm discounting movies I've previously seen. So this knocks out one of my favourite films that I haven't rewatched for many years, "Diva", directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix - one of the films that ignited my love for modern French cinema as a teenager - which I'm glad to say I absolutely re-loved. Other pivotal films that I originally watched when much younger and influenced my way of thinking (and I enjoyed watching again) included Claude Chabrol's "Le Bonne Femmes" which oozes Parisian character and has a truly tragic ending; Woody Allen's "Love and Death" ("if only he would just cough"); Polanski's home alone nightmare that is "Repulsion"; Australian eco-horror movie "The Long Weekend"; director Marcus Reichert's Deborah Harry neo-noir film, "Union City"; Orson Welles' epic "Citizen Kane"; Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" which was much better than I remembered, and I remembered it great to begin with; Nicholas Roeg's masterful "Don't Look Now"; and more recent re-watches of Leos Carax's bizarre "Holy Motors" and Luc Besson's surprisingly affecting "Angel-A".
Those movies which I found annoying or awful are easy to chronicle, and this includes "Aliens" (I know there's a lot of love for this movie, but it's an absolute stinker compared to Ridley Scott's original and I find nothing good to say about it at all); "Dark Mountain" (2018), a lost in the woods film which was just dire amongst a genre which is generally dire to begin with; "Preservation" (2014), another lost in the woods film with no logic despite a strong opening premise; "Throwback", another lost in the woods...well, you get it by now. "Saint Maud", a British psychological horror film which others seemed to love, but for me brought nothing new to a genre saturated with religion-is-bad films (whether it is or not is another matter, but I want something different); "Black Bear" which tried to be frightfully clever but I found just frightful; "Spree", an over the top serial killer film from the serial killer's perspective which became too nonsensical for the message it was trying to unsubtly hammer home; "American Mary" which tries for an "American Psycho" vibe but fails miserably and illogically; and "Wrong Turn" (2021), a remake of a superior lost in the woods film, which, well, here we go again...Truthfully, lost in the woods films are our go-to flicks when there's just trash we want to watch, but they don't all have to be trash.
Despite the above, there were so many films I highlighted as excellent this year that it's really going to be difficult to narrow down my top three, an almost impossible task. Here are those that absolutely deserve a mention: "The Trial" (Orson Welles), a beautifully shot, wonderfully designed film that perfectly captured Kafka's novel; "Joker" starring Joachim Phoenix (not generally a fan of superhero/supervillain films but this was excellently played). Clearly "Joker" was influenced by "King of Comedy" (Scorcese) which I also saw for the first time this year and thoroughly enjoyed. Thomas Vinterberg's "Festen" was a superb dissection of family trauma, made under the Dogme 95 manifesto. Another film made under that criteria was the gripping "Open Hearts" directed by Susanne Bier, with a great performance (as usual) by Mads Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen also turned up in "Pusher", which led a trilogy directed by Nicolas Winding Refn which were all thoroughly engaging and uniformly excellent. Denis Villeneuve is a favourite director and this year I thoroughly enjoyed his first feature, "August 32nd On Earth", together with "Prisoners" and "Dune" (although I was less keen on "Maelström"). Speaking of "Dune", I finally watched the David Lynch version after not making my way through it several times since release, and found it almost as good as the Villeneuve (which was epic in the right way). Moving on, Elliot Gould's performance in "The Long Goodbye", directed by Robert Altman, really grabbed me. When it came to more mainstream films, the post-apocalyptic "Greenland" was surprisingly good; Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" was an enjoyable piece of fluff, but perhaps without the emotional depth of some of his other work; and "i’m thinking of ending things" contained some excellent wrongfooted movements, although ultimately was probably too clever for it's own good.
"Annette" (2021) - Leos Carax
"The Painted Bird" (2019) - Václav Marhoul
And the winner is...
"Mauvais Sang" (1986) - Leos Carax
I listened to the following full-length albums in 2021:
Mattiel – Mattiel
You'll note that I listened to the entirety of the output of The Cure this year, having decided to listen to their first album and finding it surprisingly un-goth and post-punk. However it's odd to 'discover' an older band's back catalogue. There isn't the immediacy of waiting for new releases, and you're less 'in-the-moment' as you might have been when younger. "Disintegration" came top of that pile with a 9/10 rating, with "Three Imaginary Boys", "Faith", "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me", and "The Cure" all gaining 8/10. At the time of this post, however, I find I can barely remember a single track on any of them. Perhaps a binge wasn't the best way to approach it.
"Dark Matters" (2021) - The Stranglers
And the winner is...
"Nature Always Wins" (2021) - Maxïmo Park