After sterling work from my guests, it’s my turn to talk up the work that floated my boat over the last twelve months. This is by no means a complete list, but we’d both be here all day if I went down that route. In no particular order, then, but sorted in terms of delivery vector, here we go. Titles are clickable and lead to further reading, viewing or listening.
Probably, if I was to be brutally honest with myself, my film of the year. The triumphant return of Lynne Ramsay to the director’s chair, a career-best performance from Tilda Swinton and a new rising star in Ezra Miller made this brutal examination of a woman’s relationship with her bad seed son a must see.
Best soundtrack of the year, for sure. Nicholas Winding Refn’s homage to the driver movie gave Ryan Gosling the breakout role of the year, and provided some of the most powerful visuals of 2011. A touching love story and a chilly, unflinching crime film all at once. If nothing else, everyone has an opinion of the lift sequence.
Best horror film of the year, hands down. Pollyanna Mackintosh astonished in the title role, never vulnerable, always in control, even when chained to a garage wall. The Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum script explored issues of power, gender and the myth of normality in a world of Lynchian suburbia. Funny, thought-provoking and bloody scary.
David A. Russell’s The Fighter was a remarkable and Oscar-worthy piece, but for me the fight film of the year was Warrior. Gavin O’Connor’s film gave the much-maligned field of mixed martial arts a sense of gravity and worth. Nick Nolte as an ex alcoholic boxer and Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy as his two sons who are pitted against each other in a winner-tale all tourney give riveting and utterly believable performances. A Rocky for 2011.
Animation of the year, in a tough field that included Miyazaki’s beautiful Arrietty. But Gore Verbinski’s loving and lunatic acid western was genuinely like nothing else on screen this year. Full of mind-boggling moments and set-pieces, screamingly funny and life-affirming, this was Pixar by way of Jodorowsky.
If there was one must-see film for all the wrong reasons this year, it was Charles Ferguson’s documentary on the collapse of the global financial markets. Flint-eyed with a righteous fury, Inside Job skewered the greed, venality and hubris of the men who believed they were too big to fail. Show this to anyone that thinks our financial woes are down to public sector pay or pensions.
My foreign language film of the year. Shocking, brave and sumptuous, Takashi Miike brought us a work of astonishing grace and authority. Like Inside Job, this tells the story of powerful men who believe they are untouchable. Unlike Inside Job, those men face a town full of traps and the sharp end of a sword. There’s no justice anymore.
Tender as a first kiss, heady as your first pint, Elbow’s 2011 album made friends with everyone and cemented their reputations as the country’s finest boozy balladeers. A big fat woozy hug of an album, that sticks to your ribs and will definitely keep you warm this winter.
Tom Waits: Bad As Me
Any year with a Tom Waits album in it is a year to celebrate, and 2011 saw the arrival of his best work in years. Perhaps not his most experimental work, but one where he hammered new fences in and prowled his property with a snarl and a shotgun. No-one else does it like Tom, and Bad As Me was the moment where he proved it. You will be satisfied.
This is an album that goes from minimal bleeps and drones to lovely, weary pop stylings to hammering motorik–on the first track. Wilco have never been more ambitious, more experimental, more widescreen than on The Whole Love. But they’re still accessible and effortlessly rewarding. There’s no art of almost here; this is the real deal.
It’s been a grand year for folk-rock, and although a lot of people have been raving about Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver’s sophomore efforts, the more satisfying album for me was The King Is Dead. Filled with lovely ballads and proper stompers, this was a rich and enduring treat. A simpler album than their epic The Hazards Of Love, but that’s no bad thing when the end product is so uplifting and heartfelt.
Miss Marling had always been an almost girl for me; great songs, but I was never quite drawn in. But A Creature I Don’t Know grabbed me by the lapels and yanked me in for a big sloppy snog. I finally figured it out: she’s embraced her inner Joni Mitchell, and grown up into a smart urban troubadour in one graceful move. There’s still mud on her strides, but she wears really nice boots now.
Hip-hop doesn’t get any more high concept than this. Geek MC and one-man music empire Akira The Don puts together a mixtape based around the soundtracks of all his favourite old-school anime, invites a ton of lairy rappers over to freestyle over the top, and comes up with an absolute gem. Why watch the throne when you can watch Fist Of The Northstar?
Lazily praised as The Sopranos with swordplay when it first came out, the HBO version of the GRR Martin fantasy series is richly textured, strange and beautiful. The shocking plot twists and brutal deaths of central characters made the show one of my few TV musts of the year. Immersive and utterly addictive. And unlike The Sopranos, this has dragons.
I’m late to the party, but a USB stick with the first two seasons has changed my mind. The most geek-friendly comedy on the box (those of you screaming for the I.T. Crowd or The Big Bang Theory need to watch this) is an extraordinary feat of sustained metatextuality and full of characters that change and grow and don’t again. Remarkable stuff that frequently has me snorting my morning coffee through my nose on the train into work.
The surprise of the year. An unpromising pilot through the Channel 4 Comedy Lab last year and a late night Thursday slot rang warning bells, and I missed the first season. My mistake. This ensemble show on the life of the staff at a suburban mobile phone franchise has cracking performances and a part-improvised script that shows off a cast on top form. It’s consistently hilarious and deeply twisted.
Also back for a second season, this sweet-natured show featuring Tom Hollander as a put-upon priest in the worst diocese in London avoids all the cliches and comes up with a programme that works on all sorts of levels. Like all the best sitcoms, it’s part social commentary, part character study–and all funny.
More in the nature of an intriguing experiment than a success, Warren Ellis and Matt “Disraili” Brooker’s SVK is a book that quite literally works on two levels. The detective story, which Ellis described as “Franz Kafka’s Bourne Identity”, ships with a UV torch that you can shine onto the page to reveal hidden dialogue and thoughts–a neat way of showing the lead character’s telepathic ability. A slim volume, but packed with ideas.
Speaking of books packed with ideas. Matt Fraction and Los Bros Ba return with a second run at the exploits of reality-shafting, universe-killing superspy Casanova Quinn and give the whole shebang a decidedly metaphysical spin. Darker and tougher than Volume One, there’s still room for Matt, Gabriel and Fabio to crank up the gleeful strangeness. Any riff on Kung Fu Panda is always welcome.
I’ve been a fan of Kate Beaton since she had a madeonamac blog, so I’m enormously smug to see everyone else catch up this year. Her history-obsessed strips are effortlessly hilarious, and her comic timing is impeccable. She makes it look easy, damn her. Probably the purest and most talented cartoonist working today, and you need the collection of her strips on your shelves. She’s made Napoleon COOL again, dammit!
This. Blew. Me. Away. Best graphic novel of the year by a light year, Craig Thompson’s massive tome takes ideas of love and loyalty, the language we use to express them and the way it both unites and divides us to create a story nested within a tale folded into a romance in every sense of the work. One to come back to and cherish again and again.
The upcoming live-action movie of the Edgar Rice Burroughs classic led me to reread the original, which I remember loving as a kid. Yeah, sure, it’s rough round the edges, and a bit old-fashioned in attitude and language. But it’s also a proper no-holds-barred pageturner, stuffed full of imagination, action and adventure that starts on the run and just speeds up. It’s a fast read, and available for free on Project Gutenberg. Proper storytelling from a master of the pulp form.
Goddamn, I love John Lee. Curmudgeonly, contrary, innovative. He shook off easy rhyme patterns in favour something twitchy, febrile and earthy (“I see my baby walking down the STREET/She looking good from her head down to her TOES”). Spotify are pushing John Lee a lot recently, and it’s given me the chance to reacquaint myself with an old friend.
in 2012 I’m looking forward to: Prophet/King City
Comics discovery of the year for me, shamefully, putting me back behind the curve, is the astonishing Brandon Graham. His loose yet detailed, cartoony yet precise art does my head in. A more relaxed Geof Darrow, his books are filled with asides, footnotes and rambling offramps. He has two big releases out for 2012. A writing gig with Simon Roy on a reboot of a cheesy Rob Liefeld Image book, Prophet, reads like the most excitingly French SF-style book of the new year. A survivalist-punk story of a supersoldier revived far too late for a mission that no longer exists, in a world that has evolved without him. A far-future Conan. Has a preview.
The BIG news is a proper release for his magnum opus, King City. A slacker Transmetropolitan. Frank Miller’s Hard Boiled without the bombast. It’s got all the side shenanigans, puzzles and games that were in the original flimsies. This will be one to stow alongside Habibi on your shelves and cherish, true believers.
I mean, we’re all excited about this, right? The return of the most clangularly tuneful hookladed beer-fuelled band on the planet! We’re all practising our Salty Salutes, yeah? To the band whose out-takes and bootlegs outnumber the official releases by a factor of fifteen and are frequently better than the real records? The glorious reunion of Pollard and Tobin Sprout? Anyone?
Fine. Be like that. But 2012 is all about Guided By Voices to me.
and: The Muppets
because The Muppets. Because. The Muppets.
We’ll be back after Conspicuous Consumption Day for the X&HT Review Of The Year. If you thought this post went on a bit, you’re in for a shock. Whoooole lotta stuff happened in 2011.
Happy Saturnalia, Readership.