Seen, Read & Heard in 2014
Inside Llewyn Davis — Ethan and Joel Coen
In a year of great filmmakers releasing films that didn’t quite match their best (Grand Budapest Hotel, American Hustle and particularly Wolf of Wall Street), the Coen Brothers came out of left field with what may be the perfect synthesis of their diverse career. It will never achieve the iconic status of their greatest hits, but this tale of a struggling musician in folk-era Greenwich Village brought together all the elements that have made the Coens so rare and wonderful — the joyful sending up and celebration of America’s sub-cultures and film genres; that mix of popcorn schlock and uneasy menace; the pitch-perfect ear for accents and foibles. In the past, they have toyed with their audiences — throwing in images just to give fans something to argue about — but here the tricksy conceit (a flashback that isn’t really a flashback) carries a deeper meaning, evoking the endless cycle of hopes dashed and luck failing in which our hero is trapped, and making this an unsettling and profound elegy to failure.
The Lego Movie — Chris Miller, Phil Lord
It was a bit hectic — the makers lacked the perfect comic timing of Trey Parker and Matt Stone — but The Lego Movie showed once again that it’s much easier to make a funny, original and clever comedy in an animated world than a live one. And by managing to combine a lengthy diatribe against commercialisation with what is essentially one big Lego commercial, it could be argued this is the quintessential film of the era — the perfect expression of modern capitalism, which works best when it’s selling rebellion against itself. Irony piles on irony until you give up trying to figure out where the subversion begins and the sales pitch ends, and agree that everything is indeed awesome.
I Origins — Mike Cahill
Quite flawed, but Cahill deserves credit for trying something different with his films, giving us sci-fi concepts in the midst of lo-fi indie dramas, like a Ray Bradbury or Steven Spielberg for millennial hipsters. Here, the doomed stupidity of young love occupies the foreground while an intriguing science-meets-religion tale gradually unfolds in the back, making things far more interesting than they at first seem. The whole thing occasionally sounds a bit too much like the product of an extended bong session, and isn’t up to the standard of his previous mini-masterpiece Another Earth — but it has heart and imagination, and a couple of excellent scenes, including surely the best ever use of a Radiohead song.
Better Angels of Our Nature — Steven Pinker
A simple point — we have grown remarkably less violent as a species — is drawn out over 800 pages, yet there is never a dull moment as Pinker corrals an astonishing array of art, religion, science, history, maths, and psychology in the service of his argument, quoting everyone from Homer to Humbert Humbert to Bruce Springsteen along the way. We leap from chimpanzees ripping each other’s genitals off to a dissection of the horrific violence that fills the Bible to stats showing how stupid American presidents are more likely to go to war. Pinker has heard all the arguments against him before and tears them down methodically. It’s deliberately argumentative and many will take issue with some of his points— certainly he comes across uncomfortably conservative at times — but his basic thesis that increased interaction and intelligence have transformed our attitudes to tearing each other apart is convincing and far more fascinating than might be expected.
Solo — Rana Dasgupta
This is a great, weird, inventive novel that skirts along the line of quirkiness without falling into the more irritating flourishes of magical realism. It careers around in all sorts of directions, engaging in obsessions with music, chemistry and revolution from the perspective of a 100-year-old Bulgarian man who has seen and lost it all — including his sight —and now relies on his shifting and slippery memories. The book takes a sharp turn in the second half into a world of organised crime in Georgia. It’s hard to know how they hang together but its beautiful insights suggest deeper links lurking behind the disparate parts and it’s very good fun along the way.
The Blood Never Dries — John Newsinger.
This angry book about the British Empire is the perfect antidote to the blind celebration of the colonial past that still exists in Britain — a reminder that it operated as a ruthlessly violent occupation in many parts of the world, defending slave owners, pushing drugs and stripping countries of their assets. By zooming in on the details — of Jamaicans nailed by their feet to the ground and slowly burned alive, for instance — Newsinger reminds us of the real victims behind the civilising mission. Two shocking episodes stood out for me: Britain’s role in crushing liberal Islam when it emerged in Egypt, helping to foster a far more brutal and fundamentalist version in Sudan in the 1880s; and the brutal way in which Britain went about invading and re-conquering colonies after the Second World War, having apparently forgotten what they had supposedly fought against back in Europe. I read this at just the wrong moment, with the D-Day commemorations coming up, leading me to write this diatribe.
* These are just books I read this year. Only maniacs have time to keep up with new releases.
Singles — Future Islands.
This was Future Islands’ year just on the basis of that song and that performance. I’m reliably informed Taylor Swift and La Roux nailed their entries in 2014, but these guys were the ones you really rooted for — circuit grafters stumbling out of nowhere into the big time. The album holds up just about, with a few more gems tucked away in there (particularly Back in the Tall Grass), and the sheer straight-facedness of it all made it much weirder and more compelling than anything else out there.
Lost in the Dream — War on Drugs.
It’s not ground-breaking, it’s not particularly smart or different, but somehow this album emerged as a perfectly formed piece of classic American guitar rock that could turn a tee-totaller to whisky and cigarettes. It’s not clear how, but it managed the near-impossible task of turning what should have been long, tedious pieces of guitar noodling into something urgent and unpretentious and exciting.
Love — Amen Dunes.
Not far removed from Lost in the Dream, another album that evokes log cabins and firelight, but in a slightly more skewed and unhinged way. Simple, stripped down — again, it’s far from original, but there are some beautiful sounds for those who would have liked Bon Iver to stay in his log cabin and eaten the wrong plants.