The Oscars are happening! Hooray for the Oscars, especially this year because all of the films are enjoyable on at least some level and none of them are Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, which in a precise display of why the awards and everything about them are empty and stupid – including posts like this – really did get nominated for best picture just two years ago.
The Oscars are happening! Have you seen all the best picture nominees? Probably not, one of them is a black and white film about what it’s like to be confused and old and the average running time is three and half weeks because the Academy regularly conflates length with importance. I have, and since the Oscars is above everything else an interesting way to gauge how Hollywood thinks about itself, here’s a short look at what we might be able to learn from the inclusion of each nominee.
In which we learn: That the Academy still feels bad about Goodfellas missing out on the 1990 best picture award in favour of fucking Dances With Wolves.
Although of course that’s not entirely true – Hollywood is easily swayed by tales of period glamour and wig-wearing swazz, but American Hustle deserves a spot among the nominees for an extraordinary ensemble performance if nothing else. And, really, there’s not that much else – the film has it’s own sleazy, romance-slanted spin but it’s working very closely to a Scorsese formula of East coast underworld presented with urgent cameras and contextualising voiceover to the pace-shifting rhythms of a pop soundtrack. This is fine filmmaking, but it’s also another O Russell echo of a real classic: just like The Fighter felt like the best boxing film people who’d never watched Raging Bull had ever seen, to my miserable eyes there’s little going on here that Sharon Stone didn’t do already in Casino.
In which we learn: That Tom Hanks could probably star in a biscuit and it would still get nominated for an Oscar, although maybe in the short film category.
This is not a bad film – it makes a serious attempt at balance and is covered in Greengrass’ remarkable and grounding eye for detail in the apparently mundane. At the same time, that balance essentially boils down to “having a bit with subtitles for a minute” rather than any real examination of the lives of the hijackers, and a rolling tank of unsubtlety clears a path three awards cabinets wide through the middle of the movie to give Hanks the space required to be heroic in a middle-aged way that makes the Academy hard and to do a bit of crying.
Dallas Buyers Club
In which we learn: That issues movies and – this year more than any – true-life stories are catnip for Hollywood.
Perhaps that’s an unfair thing to pin on Dallas Buyers Club, because aside from getting almost transparently thin Matthew McConaughey is more importantly also charming, desperate and furiously alive, continuing a run of form that seems to be confusing people who remember him mostly from EDtv and all those times he took his top off, which is a lot of fucking times.
Still, it’s mad to ignore the fact that the Academy enjoys watching things that make the movies look important. Second only to movies about the movies are movies about Important True Things. Dallas Buyers Club deals with AIDS, social injustice, abuses of corporate power and homophobia, all with a sprinkle of truth that transforms that pleasure of having watched a good story into a moral affirmation of somehow having been involved in a righteous, moving or momentous event. I can see why this would be an attractive feeling for people who’ve given their lives to the film industry.
In which we learn: Hollywood is just fine with women over 40, so long as they’re among the most successful actors of the last 20 years and their film is a technical masterpiece.
I guess what Gravity really shows is that Hollywood is still making a genre of movie recently declared extinct: the adult drama. Gravity has no love interest, no alien creatures, and no antagonist to speak of, barring the enveloping blackness of forever that waits for us all behind autumn clouds. In a field dominated by true stories and the easy significance conferred upon them, Gravity does something I’d argue is more important – it delivers us to an environment and a situation that none of us will ever experience, thrillingly removed from our terrestrial plodding, pinned to meticulous practicalities, and with a sense of scale and spectacle that only cinema can offer.
In which we learn: That Spike Jonze has made the best film of the year and it will not win the Oscar.
And that’s okay – I don’t even want it to win, even though I like it best. Her pulls into focus the fact that it can be hard to distinguish between the excellence of a film and the significance of its subject matter, which is particularly confusing in a nominee field like this where lots of films about important, contentious, heartbreaking issues also happen to be really fucking good films.
But not, if you are me and live in my brain, as good as Her. It rebels against testimonial storytelling not unlike Gravity – while Cuarón’s film shows us the mercilessness of orbit, Her smartly conjures and then refuses to boringly shout about a near future smartly extrapolated from our own. This future might look like one built on the pop-tech concerns of young affluent men – one of videogames, mobile computers and hipster waistlines – but really it’s one designed to stage a perceptive story about loneliness and the emotional legitimacy of our relationships with things.
It’s really good.
In which we learn :That Alexander Payne has somehow become an auteur of leftfield road movies starring sad men and dysfunctional old people.
It’s also better than The Descendants, which was nominated in 2012, although it deals with the same intractables (the flat mundanity of aging, the restlessness of regret) with the same wry, unremarkable eye. His films are sad, in an understated way that suggests everything is sad, but we’ll carry on anyway for the times it seems less so. It refuses to be glib and, as part of an unusual general trend for treating older characters as real people, features two excellent comic actors in Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk but gives all its really funny lines to Bruce Dern and the utterly fucking luminous June Squibb.
In which we learn: That Harvey Weinstein could get a biscuit starring Tom Hanks nominated for best picture, if the biscuit was gay, catholic, or had been given an X rating.
It’s not that Philomena is a bad film, it’s just that it’s one perfectly – if unintentionally – engineered for a Weinstein push: the treasured British thesp, the dash of European intellectualism, the emotive issue underpinning a narrative of warming character growth. Films about the Catholic church, about unlikely friendships, and about charmingly written class clashes have been bread and butter for Weinstein for nearly three decades – he understands the value of these elements to specialist audiences in exactly the same way he understands the value of an Oscar nomination to the same, self-identified-rarefied crowd. That’s why he got this nominated, and why it has no chance of winning.
(You know, probably).
12 Years A Slave
In which we learn: That cinema continues to usefully and vividly recreate the atrocities we often forget in order to carry on feeling human.
Which is to say that 12 Years A Slave is a terrifically powerful film about a shameful and recent period of history, a period so recent that it’s difficult to pass off as the uncivilised misstep of a prior shape of man and which, in the typical run of things, it’s more comfortable to forget we were ever capable of. I hope it wins.
The Wolf Of Wall Street
In which we learn: That Martin Scorsese never fucking lost it.
I mean, of course he didn’t. But The Wolf Of Wall Street offers lurching, lurid proof, with a subject matter that seems to have piqued Scorsese’s fascination with greed and evil like nothing since Goodfellas (which really should have won that Oscar), and a star in the shape of Leonardo DiCaprio who is no longer standing in for De Niro, but filling the screen and powering the exhausting three-hour tirade in a way that can stand unapologetically alongside the previous efforts of both De Niro and Ray Liotta.
In what threatens to become a tradition, today is another big day for those who enjoy the imperfectly glimpsed and almost certainly incorrectly processed – welcome to a review of the year in film which is limited to the things I have been able to see as a human man who moved house, changed jobs and ate enough to stay alive during the 12 months constituting 2013.
January was its regular self, an overflow pipe of awards season self-flattery which started spectacularly when I accidentally saw the numb sub-De Palma hattery of Gangster Squad instead of catching up on last year’s The Master. Then a procession of grovelling worth – Les Misérables included a moment of face-smudging emotion from Anne Hathaway but was dominated by Russell Crowe looking like a bearded pastry and the camera leaning at every fucking angle except level, and Lincoln was hattery on a languid, self-important scale that can’t be described as bad, but can’t be described as interesting or fun either. Django Unchained made a nice pairing with Inglourious Basterds of films exploring controversial moments of history with all the sensitivity of a brick with its cock out, while also proving Tarantino still has the untouchable urgency that forged Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, though he may never have the discipline to make anything that good again. Zero Dark Thirty was a furiously myopic account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden that span the propaganda machine in reverse in order to not have any opinions about anything, and the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger in knockabout modern western The Last Stand fractured the robot-skeleton invincibility of my generation’s thick Austrian-accented John Wayne by being rubbish. Above all January shall be remembered for crimes against Hugh Jackman: for every lash of fortune that fell upon him in Les Mis, nothing beats stitching a pair of CGI bollocks to his throat in the worst film I only managed 10 minutes of in 2013, Movie 43.
In February Sylvester Stallone provided the sinewy correlative to Arnie’s stiffening dotage, appearing in uneven revenge thriller Bullet To The Head as an angry pink tangle of veins in a laudable but presumably exhausting rejection of both softness and time. Hitchcock was a kinder look at director Alfred’s reputed trouser-rubbing than the BBC’s The Girl but also a ridiculous exercise in unperforming in which a prosthetic-swathed Anthony Hopkins seemed to leave all the actual work to his silhouette. Wreck-it Ralph almost said something really interesting about the lasting value of design over the sheen of technology but then didn’t, A Good Day To Die Hard demonstrated a bewilderment with genetics by creating John McClane’s son as a miniature of the hairless action lump Bruce Willis has become rather than the charismatic smirker he once was, and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was at least more insistently violent than the suffocating cycle of PG-13 horrors Hollywood has fallen into. The best film of the month was Cloud Atlas, which was preposterous in a dozen easy ways but extraordinary in dozens more, and dared to dream a little bigger even if that dream was sometimes Tom Hanks doing a terrible accent.
In March Mark Wahlberg wrestled invisibly with Russell Crowe to see who could be the most boring in un-thriller Broken City and they both won. Or rather they tied with Jason Statham even though he was in a different but equally unremarkable film, Parker, in which the most exciting thing that happens is that Statham wears a hat for a little bit and then takes it off. The month saw fairy tales take their turn occupying the hole in Hollywood’s brain where originality used to live, with Oz The Great And Powerful so busy nodding vigorously towards the original Oz it forgot to not have James Franco in or to be any good, and the rather better Jack The Giant Slayer proving to be ‘diverting’, which is another way of saying “this film exists in a tough to describe critical space where I could have gone for a walk and thought about the emotional complexity of dogs instead of watching it and my life wouldn’t be any better or worse”. Steven Soderbergh released the floaty pharmaceutical mystery Side Effects which was compelling but also a good example of the speed-over-precision priorities which have made his last decade of work distant and difficult to love. Forming a monstrous Channing Tatum double-bill with Side Effects was the delayed GI Joe: Retaliation, which refused to be the disaster everyone insisted it should be despite ditching its entire principal cast (including Tatum) like toys it was bored of playing with, confirming something Fast And Furious has already told us about how the rules of Hollywood sequels – especially featuring The Rock – have changed forever. To finish the month James McAvoy had his own double-bill of nasty London noir Welcome To The Punch and amnesiac art thriller Trance – the films were fine, he was fantastic – and then everything was made better by the release of Good Vibrations, a story of the punk scene in Belfast during the Troubles which was good enough to catch the energy of the movement and let its political significance speak for itself.
Two of the worst things currently happening in cinema manifested themselves during April. Firstly Jason Blum took his extraordinarily successful microbudget formula (“make a shit horror film for 12p and sell like it’s powdered Jesus”) and made the almost-identical-to-everything-else-he’s-made-even-though-it’s-science-fiction Dark Skies. And then Harmony Korine not only continued to exist but made a film called Spring Breakers with James Franco who attempted a savage satirical assault on the vacuousness of Mickey Mouse culture by wearing gold teeth and threatening to put a gun up his bottom. Everything else mankind has ever done that was this stupid has resulted in instant death. Adding to the pile of unnecessary waste, Evil Dead attempted to remake Sam Raimi’s classic apparently without realising it was a comedy as well as a horror, leading to unleavened unpleasantness posing as entertainment. If The Place Beyond The Pines had been 90 minutes of Ryan Gosling riding a motorcycle set to this music it would have been a triumph, but it reached for the epic with unnecessarily length and complication and is the lesser for it. Oblivion set the tone for original science fiction in 2013 – there was a lot of it, and it was striking but flawed – before Olympus Has Fallen set the tone for Die Hard derivatives set in the White House for 2013 – there were two of them, and they were rubbish. The month was rounded out by Iron Man 3, a blockbuster of range and character directed by Shane Black that, like last year’s Avengers, gets the people and the words right and lets the action take care of itself.
For my birthday in May I got lots of parties but none of them were real and mostly they were awful. The Hangover Part III was avarice burnt onto celluloid, a hollow mechanical reflex lacking the memory-recovering structure of the earlier films, any kind of hangover, or indeed any reason to exist except money and the momentum of greed. Predictably the best bits of The Great Gatsby were when Tobey Maguire was reading directly from Fitzgerald and the worst bits were the overwhelming use of CG sets which made everything look smaller when it was trying to look bigger. 21 And Over was a generic Hangover-lite about ending college that did at least prove, as Pitch Perfect initially suggested, that Skylar Astin is very watchable, and that’s more credit than can be given to The Purge, a Jason Blum-produced thriller that has a Carpenter-esque hook but no budget to see it through (there’s enough coherence to cut a good trailer, which I suspect might have been precisely the aim). For different reasons I enjoyed Epic, a story as much about dads and daughters as it is about tiny leaf warriors, and Star Trek Into Darkness, although if I look at them too closely I’ll find Epic’s use of decay as a villainous force ecologically unsound and Star Trek empty aside from the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch, so I won’t do that.
There were loads of films in June. The Will and Jaden Smith-starring After Earth continued the flawed sci-fi theme except with extra flaws, not least of which was their spaceship seemed to be made of pasta and Jaden isn’t very good at acting. Steven Soderbergh said goodbye and really meant it this time with Behind The Candelabra, which struck an awkward balance between flamboyantly funny and emotionally earnest, while Tina Gharavi’s I Am Nasrine was a quietly effective drama of immigration and integration. Man Of Steel went big on Superman’s sci-fi side, which meant Russell Crowe flew a big space bird (he still had a head like a fucking savoury palmier, mind) and our hero’s journey of self-discovery was difficult to engage with, something not helped by the fact I would take Christopher Reeve fumbling for his glasses over Henry Cavill’s lumberjack shirt and tits forever and ever. Snitch and Despicable Me 2 were both films about fatherhood, only one was a minor social issues drama given unexpected (and literal) weight by Dwayne Johnson, the second was an animated sequel that was good but also relied on small yellow clowns above story and character in a way that suggests Despicable Me 3 won’t be nearly as much fun. This Is The End was an apocalyptic comedy set in what by this point in the year seemed the suitably hellish location of James fucking Franco’s house, although happily it was stupid and likeable and the actor seems very nice when he’s pretending to be himself. Finally the world ended again in World War Z, a film which robbed us of another anticipated fiasco in favour of being starkly shot and quite good (even if, like 28 Weeks Later, its opening sequence would stand alone as a far stronger short film).
July was really good, partly because everyone watched Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England on television and enjoyed not having a fucking clue what it meant together (whatever else, it had something to do with Wheatley’s ability to amplify the dread thrum of English midland banality). Pacific Rim caught flack for being a stupid expensive film about robots, which it was, but it also had a sophisticated sense of humanity thanks to Guillermo del Toro that’s totally alien to the likes of Transformers (plus those robots kicked ass). Pegg, Frost and Wright reunited for The World’s End, which couldn’t stitch genre film scenario to character drama as successfully as the mighty Shaun Of The Dead, and Hugh Jackman returned without a second pair of bollocks for The Wolverine, a film which if nothing else proved the ruthless appetite for superhero movies as I was sure this one had already been made once. Two female-led comedies saw the month out – The Heat was by-the-numbers buddy cop nothing given guilty pleasure substance by Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, and Frances Ha was, quietly, one of the best films of the year, a neurotic Manhattan tangle of awkward youth stumbling into whatever comes next.
In August Only God Forgives came as a shock to people who presumably thought Nicolas Winding Refn only made films about cool guys in shiny jackets and had forgotten the one he made about vikings staring at hills for two fucking hours – which is to say it was interesting in an obstinate way but also casts doubt on Refn’s ability to tell stories that don’t involve men looking at stuff and then punching the stuff. More enjoyable – and, honestly, a sharper study of masculinity – was Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, which was as tightly focused and minutely observed as The Lone Ranger was a big fucking bollocks.Getting worse before we get better, Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain was an emotionally illiterate flex of ego and ugliness, hesitantly, clumsily presenting real-life murders and extortions as a comic grab at the American dream, delivering empty tastelessness where it aims for profundity. Perhaps its worst crime was wasting both The Rock and Mark Wahlberg, both physical stars at their best being funny, as Wahlberg got to show in the otherwise nonsense 2 Guns later in the month. Also largely nonsense were Kick-Ass 2, sequel to a film which had already said its piece and exhausted its controversy, even if Hit Girl – and Chloë Grace Moretz – are still amazing, and The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones, which wasted a Neil Gaiman-ish supernatural underworld on tedious infatuation with a pretty boy and reminded me that I was annoyed nobody’s made a film of the far superior Mortal Engines books yet. Three very different film round out the month – Elysium brought us back to Neill Blomkamp’s wonderfully tactile vision of how fucked up we’re eventually going to make everything, even if this time he told us a lesser story than he had with District 9. I enjoyed One Direction: This Is Us as a study of instant fame, and was surprised by both the awareness of the boys and the touching interviews with their parents, who were adjusting to the loss of success even as the band were contemplating the end of it. Finally, there was Upstream Color, which was carefully elliptical and meaningfully fragmented, apparently allegorical but defiantly, bizarrely coherent, and a film about which I am still not sure what I think, but sure I like because at least I am still thinking.
Luckily from September onwards I didn’t see very much, and I began with Riddick, which showed an understanding of its hero by returning him to the wilderness, and then comic misunderstanding of what you Earthlings call ‘women’ with Katy Sackhoff’s terribly written, awkwardly objectified, unnecessarily naked space lesbian. Thank every shade of fuck, then, for Casey Affleck, who is brilliant in everything and especially in dark southern crime dramas like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which was shot like an accomplished Terrence Malick forgery and was rather fine besides. Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty was excellent, a good approximation of what Fellini might have made of Berlusconi’s Italy, and it was just as well because all the rest of the month had was horror: White House Down, which was a replay of Olympus Has Fallen only with a car chase sequence on the lawn where it’s entirely possible I did the fucking effects myself; RIPD, which on paper was a strong Men In Black-style effects comedy with Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds which onscreen became unending death; and The Call, which gains points for reminding me very slightly of the Judge Reinhold TV movie Runaway Car, but then loses them all again for being Rear Window on wheels meets rubbish revenge porn.
I saw nothing at all in October, and just two more films all year. In November, Gravity made me grateful all over again that I’m not a shrinking white speck spinning away from Earth and into the cosmos, and did so by tethering us to detail and magnifying the importance of process and practicality. It’s meticulous, and earns its sentimentality with a long hard look into the abyss. Finally, in December I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, which I somehow enjoyed less than last year’s Hobbit even though I’m sure it’s the better film. I’ll be honest here because I can and say my compass is shot when it comes to these movies – I suspect it’ll be years before their actual worth separates itself from the expectations set by the Rings trilogy and my joy that they’re being made at all.
And that’s everything. The things I feel stupidest for not seeing are Before Midnight and American Hustle, and the best film I’ve caught up on is Night Of The Hunter. The most fun I had seeing movies this year was a Lynch all-nighter at the Prince Charles Cinema, because even (especially) with Lynch seeing a film with a crowd is a different experience altogether: The Elephant Man is unbearably sad, Blue Velvet shocked me after all these years, and Wild At heart might be fucking terrible.
I’m leaving Future Publishing this week. I’ve worked there for just over six years, and written for its magazines for nearer ten. I am sad to go, though much of what I’ll miss about the company left before I did. Naturally I wanted to write something wry and important to sum up the things I’ve learned and my conflicted feelings at this goodbye, but that was too hard so I did this wan overcooked dear diary nonsense instead. As ever, I am sorry.
I first joined Future as a staff writer on Official PlayStation 2 Magazine in the summer of 2004. We moved down from Sheffield and I found the magazine packed inside a tumbling, turning office building in the centre of Bath, busy and full of funny and creative people it seemed I could never keep up with. I remember a summer party with bumper cars and cocktails. I remember learning a great deal. I made good friends, and I remember being sad to leave when I went back to Sheffield for more post-graduate study.
Three years later the relationship between me and my never-finished PhD became problematic, which is to say that I hated everything I’d ever written and thought. I called Tim Clark and asked for a job. He said yes, and I came back in 2007 as reviews editor of the new Official PlayStation Magazine, launched alongside the PS3. Odd to realise while typing that my tenure has lasted almost exactly as long as the machine itself.
I was 26, which now seems very young, and the magazine had a strong, talented staff that barely changed for the next two years. We were confident and the magazine was good. We all knew print was in decline, but I was starting a career – it seemed so obvious to me, to us, that what we were writing and thinking was better than almost anyone else, better than the vast majority of barely-written and overly-read American sites. At some point, it seemed inevitable, someone would notice, or come up with a new website or magazine that would allow us to show just how good we were.
26 is very young.
Now I’m leaving I’m conscious of how much growing up (or, more less romantically, “aging”) I’ve done in the last six years. That’s why it’s probably a good thing for reasons I still can’t quite grasp that FirstPlay, the video project that grew from Official PlayStation Magazine in 2009, was a grinding horror that ended in failure. It was weekly and made weeks in advance, and it gradually become clear that it was, if not impossible to make, then impossible to make good. I learned a lot about video production, and working late, and, probably most importantly, about what happens when self-belief crashes into a solid wall of immovable Fuck You.
For the last two years I’ve been the editor of PlayStation Access, and these have been the best times – I’ve been lucky enough to work with excellent people, and I’ve also been able to tell them to do things that I don’t want to do. Although I’m leaving Future, we’ll still be making Access for Sony.
It will be strange to live in Bath and not ride into the office in the morning. Living here has always been synonymous with working there. Bath is a wonderful, small, stupidly perfect place to live and raise children, and there’s not been a morning, even during the worst times, that I have woken up with the dread stomach of facing work. I remind myself of this as often as I can. We gripe, and complain, and feel undervalued. But we live here, and we do this job, and we do it together.
So, that summing up. Even through the hotel-and-taxi blur of work travel, I’ve seen more of the world than I suspected I would. I’ve glimpsed Tokyo, New York, Montreal, Prague and many others, and I got to discover first hand how much I hate the lurid emptiness of Las Vegas. I’ve met scores of brilliant people and almost certainly didn’t make the most of them being forced to talk to me. I’ve gained a small understanding of a business and a craft that is finally attracting the kind of attention and study it deserves.
Thanks to Rich Keith for giving me a job. Thanks to Tim Clark for teaching me how to do it. Thanks to Helen Woodey, Ben Wilson, Leon Hurley, Rachel Weber, Mark Wynne and Paul Fitzpatrick for being the best. Thanks to James Jarvis for being the hardest working, hardest-to-work-with person I know. Thanks to David Boddington for being a gentleman in a more ordinary age. Thanks to Matt Elliott for fuck all, as usual. Thanks to Kim Richards, Ade Ruiz-Langan and Becky Preston for coming back for Access, and thanks to Dave Jackson and Robert Pearson for coming with me.
I’ll leave you with one of my most treasured memories of working at Future – that time I was reviewing Kane & Lynch 2 and realised there were two naked old men sliced to pieces with razors on my telly and I took pictures of it and sent them to everyone.
It’s been a long console generation, and I am tired.
I decided to write a thing about my favourite games of the generation, mostly because I realised I didn’t know what they were and partly to remind myself I had some. Then I had a little trouble deciding the exact qualification for “generation”, though I think I’ve landed on a formulation that will annoy almost everybody: I’ve excluded handheld games, for reasons, and also Wii games, because they exist on an entirely different track to the PS3 and Xbox 360 titles I spend the bulk of my time playing. This is arbitrary and almost certainly short-sighted, and I’m doing it anyway.
Choice number one – Mirror’s Edge
It’s depressing how long ago Mirror’s Edge was, and how at the time it already seemed a searing white riposte to overbrown shooter fatigue. I am so fatigued, and browned. The things I love about it include but are not limited to the rare appearance of a female protagonist, landscapes that felt designed for beauty rather than realism, and the striking notion that running away from guns might be more interesting than running around holding one like a metal comforter.
Secondarily I loved the game’s use of motion and space, which made movement and agility its own pleasure rather than, as is usually the case with first-person scenarios, a grudging necessity. Sliding, rolling and wall-jumping through Mirror’s Edge oriented me in a virtual space in a way nothing has done – or even tried to do – since, probably because Mirror’s Edge sold four copies, which is the fault of everyone I called a baby at the time for reviewing it badly because it was sometimes a bit hard. You BABIES.
Choice number two – Dead Space
Dead Space arrived in the same year as Mirror’s Edge during a halcyon time when it seemed as though investing in new IP, rather than iterating Call Of Duty at the precise speed it takes a nation of 14 year-old boys to save up another £40, might be the key to winning the games industry. This was never a realistic hope, but the upside is that Dead Space is an excellent game that I again want to describe as “striking”. I think striking might be one of my favourite words. Striking.
Dead Space is the grizzly end of sci-fi as learned from the blue-collar crew of Alien’s Nostromo. The future, it says, will be a place where replacing washers and making sure we can all breathe in trans-galactic flight will trump having a name like Dex Forearm and regenerating health. Our hero Isaac fixes things – trams, lifts, shuttles, navigation modules – and wears a rusty brown suit.
He’s likeably functional, and the game is impressively focused around him. His weapons are tools – cutters, saws, flamethrowers – and his enemies require precision dismemberment rather than undirected aggression. He is the artful shed-dad on an Autumn afternoon of videogame protagonists, and he lives in a satisfyingly unglamorous future of realistic moving parts. It’s a design of brilliant cohesion and visual strength, and I’m extraordinarily attached to it.
Choice number three – Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
This is really difficult to leave out. A feature of this generation has been the perfection of the ten-hour focused single-player campaign, and – without saying “striking” over and over again – this is the best one. It had moments of technically astounding action, a leading character capable of carrying an unheard of tonal range (tension, comedy, tragedy – where most comparable blockbusters do anger as one long machinegun burst) and it embraced an idea of storytelling and entertainment that brought everything together very successfully.
What makes Uncharted 2 remarkable is that I remember the people I met while playing it as brightly as I remember all the things I blew up inside it. And I really like blowing things up – just not as much as I love Tenzin the non-English-speaking Sherpa, who took me back to his village in the Himalayas (and then helped me blow up a tank). In that Himalyan village, while injured hero Drake walks peacefully through Tenzin’s people, the button for melee attack becomes the button to shake hands, and for just a few moments a square-jawed hero is capable of interacting with his surroundings by reaching out and making connections rather than swinging fists and breaking faces.
This is a mark of Uncharted 2’s accomplished storytelling and all-round polish, rather than a suggestion that humanitarian positivism is the bedrock of acing the third-person shooter. I’m not going to attempt to reconcile the contradiction of this being my favourite moment in a game about killing hundreds of pirates – I don’t have to, because this is my list, and I’m about to say something far more ridiculous.
Choice number four – Halo 3
This choice is especially exciting because I can’t remember much of what happened in the single-player side of Halo 3 except me getting quite cross and wishing Bungie had read more Robert McKee. Its inclusion is based entirely on the strengths of its multiplayer, which is the best online console shooter there has been, and which has been washed away by the pervasive influence of Call Of Duty, a tragedy on a par with the disappearance of Native American wisdom from the Great Plains or, more likely, the fact we don’t see so many red squirrels about these days.
The system is balanced and level in a way which encourages skill and strategy. Starting weapons are standardised, more powerful alternatives are to be fought over on the map – a game of territory and tactics. There are no geography-defeating power-ups of flight or speed, making knowledge of and fleet-footed navigation around the maps crucial. And there’s skill-based matchmaking to ensure a mostly steady curve of challenging opponent.
With Reach and Halo 4 the series’ points of differentiation were worn down to nothingness. CoD-inspired loadouts, perks and killstreak drops threw chaos into a system that thrived on even-handed stability, and made it faster and stupider.
Halo 3 is an elegant bare box. Learning its depths takes time, and there is no stat-tracked record of your progression. Halo 4 is a barking arcade of head-pats and ADD reinforcement. We’ve lost something intangible that used to happen between four men starting with BRs and grenades on Guardian with a count to 25, the swinging sense of paralysis and power, of gridlock and frenzy, that no game with a fucking jetpack will ever come close to.
Choice number five – Bioshock Infinite
This currently squeezes in ahead of The Last Of Us, which is a surprise not least to me as I’d half-written the entry for Naughty Dog’s game. The switch comes down to the fact that The Last Of Us is a brilliantly controlled depiction of a world I’ve seen in various forms before, while Bioshock Infinite’s great strength is its ability to conjure stop-and-stare moments of symbolism and spectacle from a place beyond my imagination.
It’s easy to say “games should do this” without thinking about how boring it would be if they all really did, or how hard it must be to construct engaging combat-heavy gameplay around a stars and stripes theme – but games really should do this. Fighting a metaphor of fallen idealism among the clouds feels transportive in a way that scoping the slightly big bugs of this season’s apocalypse will never be again. There were perhaps a dozen moments during the steady wonder of Infinite that I paused to enjoy an audacious idea or image – Booker’s opening baptism, the sad-faced Handymen, the incredible use of music.
The music! I’m in love with Bioshock Infinite as a culturally erudite game that has the technical prowess (and development resources) to play meaningfully with ideas and themes coherently within a sophisticated fictional environment. Its use of music just drives me crazy. Booker’s journey is peppered with period covers of popular hits from across the twentieth century. The titles and lyrics add meaning to the scenarios in which they’re found, like ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ playing as a newly-freed Elizabeth dances through a fair (‘Some guys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world… Oh daddy please you know you’re still number one…’) and sometimes their original context layers extra meaning on top (counter-culture anthem ‘Fortunate Son’ plays during a worker’s revolution).
I recently played some of my old Mega Drive games for something else I’m writing, including the Simpsons tie-in Krusty’s Fun House, the soundtrack to which is basically atonal farting set to a backing track designed to unreel your mind. The idea that a game like Bioshock Infinite can exist and that there can still be any handwringing as to the legitimacy of games is an idea ridiculous enough to make me so angry I’m going to stop.
Choices I did not make
In no order, things that came close and on another day could conceivably be on this list are Portal 2 for being the funniest game I’ve played, Batman Arkham City for the noise of punching men as Batman, GTA IV for the first time I saw the city at night listening to Philip Glass, Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for getting SAS men so right, Journey for the best sand, Burnout Paradise for the 100 hours I spent playing it online, FIFA 09 for being the first really new football game we’ve had for years before or since, Bulletstorm for being fun, Dishonored for being a lot like Thief, and The Last Of Us for everything.
The Oscars are happening! These days the Academy nominate loads of films for Best Picture instead of just five, an inflatory move presumably intended to boost revenue by increasing the number of DVD boxes parading awards contention stickers. More immediately, though, it makes writing posts like this a pain in the ass, especially considering a prerequisite of being nominated is your film lasts for two and half fucking hours.
The Oscars, everybody! Have you seen all the best picture nominees? Probably not, some of them look super worthy and one of them is about slowly dying. I have, and here’s a look at them all and a little about what their Academy attention might mean.
Amour is nothing short of the undoing of a person onscreen, and in Riva it’s an alert and still-beautiful person (let’s not be crude, but if we all look like her when we’re 85 octenagerian banging is going to take off in a big way). Comparisons have been made to the life montage of square-headed miseraberk Carl in Pixar’s Up, but that’s allusive and warm and has a sad balloon as a metaphor for mortality, where Amour has a sparkling soul who shits and monosyllable-ises her dignity to nothingness while her husband tends and suffers. Of course, Up should blink tidily from hospital bedside to empty wake, because otherwise I could have stayed at home with the children to google gunshot wounds for two hours and saved £30. But equally Amour’s whole purpose is to dig into the distressing space in between – the slow loss of self, the small touches that comfort flintily, the inevitable triumph of decline.
Oh, fucking hell. If for any reason you want to accentuate the film’s cliff-face bleakness by all means remind yourself of the glamourous new wave peak of its leads – Riva a glaring feast of cheekbone in Hiroshima Mon Amour and Jean-Louis Trintignant wearing a high collar for all of fucking France in The Conformist, which is one of the Best Films. Alternatively you could read some @Michael_Haneke tweets to subvert the whole gazing into the human abyss heaviness. Good luck with that.
Ben Affleck’s true story spy thriller has all the characteristics of the career he’s trying to forge – it’s a bit political, a bit serious, and the period setting allows for his continuing tribute to ‘70s New Hollywood to extend to accurate swirl-bowl haircuts and plastic everything.
The problem is that it’s clearly the worst of the three films Affleck has so far directed, a small kernel of fascinating truth spread thin over flailing xenophobia (a lazy grab at tension from a filmmaker who’s smarter than this shows) and a final act that wrings idiot suspense from an airport escape using a shameful bag of manipulative clichés. As such I’d have trouble recommending Argo despite the fact Alan Arkin says “fuck” perhaps as many as fifteen times, which is excellent.
Beasts of The Southern Wild
Beasts Of The Southern Wild was made for a piece of string and three hammers using a cast of people who needed several months of training to become non-professional, and it’s still 68 times better than John Carter, the movie responsible for the Great Depression.
There are three reasons I love Beasts Of The Southern Wild even more than I love being sarcastic about the indie credentials of art films: because it projects a compelling image of a not-quite-sci-fi America divided along the lines of class and poverty shamefully exposed by Katrina, because the music is a soaring fairytale of hope that lifts a sodden nightmare, and because it includes the line “I hope you die, and when you die I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake by myself.”
The music bit is important – like David Simon’s HBO series Treme, Beasts looks at what makes communities strong even after their abandonment by the establishment and decides it’s probably getting drunk and dancing. It’s vital and defiant, and I expect it’s also too small and unspectacular to win – not when there are self-importantly staged musicals and presidential dramas in competition. Still, if 2012 featured a big-screen joy purer than watching Hush Puppy run through the Bathtub with sparklers held in each hand then I blinked and missed it.
In which we learn: That Tarantino can still pick his collaborators, even if none of them happen to be a strong-armed editor or anyone with balls enough to say “Hey, Quentin, maybe don’t be in this scene as the least convincing Australian ever. The Bonnie Situation was a long fucking time ago and this is pretty embarrassing for everybody”. Which is another way of saying that it’s Christoph Waltz, rather than the film around him, that makes Django Unchained feel fresh and arresting, and whenever he’s not onscreen the self-indulgence and lack of focus weigh heavily.
Problems include the apparent belief that obstinately protracted scenes accrue significance proportional to their length, that Taratino’s script over-pronounces its racist insults like a schoolkid trying out his first swear words, and that Samuel L Jackson has come dressed as a jar of Uncle Ben’s sauce. It’s a big pile for fine casting to overcome, which is why it doesn’t.
In which we learn: That Oscar voters love a musical, even when it’s shot like a sixth form vision poem.
More importantly we also learn that the songs in Les Misérables are really good, and that Hugh Jackman hasn’t forgotten his classical stage training despite ten years of doing press-ups and building a body that looks like the flank of a horse. Russell Crowe is both ridiculous as scowling man-of-law Javert and the least wretched he’s been for years – his pompous “I’m doing acting” furrow happens to be an exact match for Javert’s dickishness, and it’s tough to dislike a man who’s throwing his all into singing and is still a bit rubbish.
It’s okay to admit to having a small cry while Anne Hathaway sang I Dreamed A Dream – or at least it had better be because I’m doing it here – and also to acknowledge the success of the film’s technically ambitious decision to record all the vocal performances on set, which is largely what gives Hathaway’s steady, single-shot showcase its saddening whack. Plus points, too, for being filmed partially at Chatham’s Historic Dockyard, where I once gave guided tours of various maritime attractions, something which enabled me to make what’s likely to stay my least-heralded joke of 2013 in a one-line review of the film: It’s a bit ropery.
BECAUSE THERE IS A ROPERY IN THE DOCKYARD WHERE THEY MAKE ROPES .
Life Of Pi
Full marks anyway to the tiger, who eats a goat and a zebra, is called Richard Parker, and is my second favourite pretend tiger only after the one who came to tea because he drank all the water in the tap. Next to that drifting across the ocean on a transcendent journey of self-discovery and creaking analogy really is a piece of saved-in-a-bag-until-we’re-dying-of-thirst piss.
Life Of Pi is technically superb in a self-negating way whereby incredible effects work is a minimum requirement of making the story simply occur onscreen. Years of human endeavour sink the creature animation invisibly into the film’s reality, the crowning touch of this remarkable achievement being to give the audience an unobstructed view of the Booker-winning story which, it turns out, is really boring.
Still, as an adaptation of an award-winning novel which has made a giant pile of cash at the box-office, this is a smart shout for Best Picture, even though I secretly enjoyed fellow fiasco-magnet Cloud Atlas more as a movie less inclined to strike me in the face with its hammer-blow attempt at profundity.
While explaining his 2013 ballot card to The Hollywood Reporter, an anonymous academy voter recently said that “Spielberg deserves an Oscar every 10 years or so out of respect for what he does for the industry.” What he does for the industry in this case being to make a long-ass film about caucuses and securing the immediate financial future of Hollywood’s fake beard craftsmen.
Oh fine, Lincoln better than that – it’s also an engaging if heavyweight political drama dealing with issues of race and presidential legacy. The film was timely and serious, and we should thank it for showing by contrast the pop-culture shallowness of Django Unchained’s treatment of the same themes, even if it was also like an episode of the Old West Wing without Bradley Whitford
A special word for Daniel Day Lewis, who is here a model of tempered passion and thoughtfulness, and who delivers the kind of subdued intensity you’d expect from a president whose reward for bearing the weight of a civil war and successfully abolishing slavery was to be shot in the fucking head.
Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook has the haphazard profundity of As Good As It Gets, an apparently straightforward emotional drama given extra flight and poignancy by excellent performances and an interest in the awkward imperfection of human contact.
What it’s doing on the list is anyone’s guess – it’s enjoyable, but bar De Niro stripping back the irony and for once laying it on the line, this is good rather than great, a smart romance that embraces weird and shows Bradley Cooper can do more than glow from his teeth while wearing perfect tanned abs.
Zero Dark Thirty
While fellow-favourite Lincoln is celebrated as a recreation of a president’s historical decisiveness, Zero Dark Thirty is notable for not featuring Barack Obama or his nod to proceed with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and being pilloried by various logic-illiterate sections of the media for it anyway, an idiot’s circus that only gave way to an equally tedious discussion about whether the film promotes or condemns the use of torture during interrogation.
All of which is to miss the point that Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t give an improvised fucking device about political gamesmanship or the eye of history – it’s a film about process and precision, about the front end of conflict, which in a modern context involves being Jessica Chastain and doing a serious face, and it’s told with a spareness and neutrality that borders on disinterest.
Still, it’s interesting that in a presidential election year the Academy’s best picture nominees are or less split between heavyweight politicising and searching for the meaning of life, with Django Unchained happier to pop a collar and think about how cool it is, the answer to which if you haven’t been paying attention is: nowhere near as fucking cool as Trintignant in The Conformist.
Here once again is a review of the year in film which is limited to the things I’ve been able to see in between having a job that doesn’t require me to watch films, raising two children and drinking enough coffee to fill the warmest, scariest lake in the world.
So, January, which had the benefit of being Oscar hangover month for the UK which caught up on the awards-angling pair of The Descendants, a family drama by Alexander Payne which was good even though the most exciting thing that happens is George Clooney running in loafers, and Shame, which was much more than its “pean to a penis” tag suggested and not too far off an internet pornography-age Taxi Driver. There was also The War Horse, which I didn’t watch because. In less gilded quarters The Darkest Hour was an alien invasion movie interesting for being set in Moscow and boring for every other reason including the fact its aliens were invisible, while Haywire was a spy story in which Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum made a deal with Gina Carano where they did all the acting and she punched them all in the face. Finally there was The Grey, in which Liam Neeson was supposed to elbow drop a pack of wolves for an hour and a half to amuse sniffy critics but instead snarled, survived and meditated on death in a way which was meaningful if you can swallow great snowy mouthfuls of received Hemingway.
The bitterly cynical Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close was a pretended cry of innocent profundity, a glib, mawkish fuck of a film that, if it were a man, would deserve death at the corner of a brick. Thankfully the rest of February was less awful: Freud and Jung drama A Dangerous Method was a David Cronenberg pilgrimage to the monocled font of all his knob-based neuroses and sex wounds, while Chronicle was a lo-fi superhero story strong on character and blissfully weak on capes, super-sized budgets and things that may or may not be CAAAAARRRs. The Woman In Black was a coming together of two great British institutions – Hammer Films and Harry Potter – which put enough fog and Ciaran Hinds on the screen to obscure the fact that Daniel Radcliffe isn’t ever going to be very good at acting. Conversely Woody Harrelson was a perfect James Ellroy hero in Rampart – a difficult mix of domestic fascism and obdurate intelligence – though the movie couldn’t keep pace with his performance, and there was no pace at all in Man On A Ledge, a film notable for being the moment we all realised Sam Worthington is the most boring man ever to accidentally become a Hollywood star. The film I enjoyed best all month was The Muppets, which was not only a joyous and skillful resurrection of past stars, but a brilliant film about the past (Eighties robot, Amy Adams and Jason Segel’s out-of-time couple, this glorious bit of dialogue) that pulled off the not inconsiderable trick of conjuring nostalgia without succumbing to it.
March cheered me up with John Carter, not because it was good, but because the way in which it was nearly good but also ridiculous, self-defeating and full of sand reminded me of David Lynch’s Dune, which is always an excellent thing. There were genuine disasters too – Wrath Of The Titans vied for least distinctive sequel of forever, earning a reprieve from oblivion thanks to the few seconds during which Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes beat the godly shit out of everything, and Act Of Valor might have had good intentions but also might as well have been a 90 minute shot of an erect penis wearing a marine special forces hat. Like this one. Drab smuggling thriller Contraband was further, tediously plotted proof that Mark Wahlberg is a better comedian than he is action star, something that fellow meat-lump Channing Tatum seemed to figure out for himself in the remake of ‘80s TV show 21 Jump Street, which had no business being as good as it was. Victim of an even bigger miscasting was the ever-intense Tom Hardy, who didn’t so much look uncomfortable in romantic comedy This Means War as like he wanted to tear the skin from the faces of everyone else in the film with his teeth, which lent the bantering courtship scenes an odd rhythm. I enjoyed that The Hunger Games was a movie aimed at the post-Twilight teenage market that had a capable female lead instead of a simpering leaf, but weirdly didn’t enjoy all the bits where kids killed each other, although I did enjoy the thrill of Aardman in full flow in The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! even though the speed and imagination were compensating for a plot as messily constructed as that rubbish title. Lastly, Project X was basically Risky Business with a found-footage gimmick and a steady conviction that throwing up is funny, and on that basis couldn’t provide more of a contrast with This Is Not A Film, a poignant documentary from banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi that touches on the frustration of his forced retirement, but also on the magic of collaboration and hope for the country’s future.
April was good but also included Battleship. I’m generally forgiving of Hollywood’s moneymaking foibles, but there’s a biting emptiness here – even Transformers has a glued-on storyline about bad robots, but licensing Battleship, an archetypal game of chance based upon the existence of war rather than any specific instance of it, is no more narratively meaningful than adapting a roll of dice. Things improved marginally with Guy Pearce doing a Liam Neeson in sci-fi prison thumper Lockout, which must have been OK because all I can remember of it is the lopsided smile Pearce did every time he was punched in the face, then got actually good with Headhunters, an authentically Hitchockian manhunt grounded by practical set-piece panic but also stretched to dramatic extremes. The Cabin In The Woods was the kind of wry meta-take on the teen slasher genre you’d expect from writer/producer Joss Whedon, though the film’s best moment was Bradley Whitford being allowed to say “Oh COME ON” as sarcastically as possible. A mainline of Whedon arrived with The Avengers which it’s difficult to credit as anything but a triumph – a stable of stars and super-characters marshalled with unifying self-deprecation, a deftly managed set of character interactions and a fine way with pomp-nixing one-liners (“There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that”). The month was rounded off wonderfully, as things often are, by Audrey Tautou in La Délicatesse, which I enjoyed as an “after the fairy tale” follow-up to Amelie in which her Kassovitz-esque soul-mate dies suddenly and she’s cast into a world of imperfect second choices. It revels in the clumsy and the unappealing, and at least tries to get at the truth of caring for people.
For my birthday in May I got a Wes Anderson film I didn’t love very much in the shape of Moonrise Kingdom. Seeing as everyone is currently complaining about Brad Pitt’s ubiquitous perfume ad here’s an example of him selling something gloriously, the point being this kind of meticulously controlled joy explosion is what Anderson’s capable of at his best and nowhere to be seen in Moonrise Kingdom which reminded me of Max Fischer’s high school plays in Rushmore, a drama pretended by kids and at one ironic move from anything heartfelt (also Pitt should maybe do a Tati film). It was loads better than The Dictator, though, which without the outrage and explosive potential of unwitting collaborators felt overly scripted and trite. Getting worse before we get better, Piranha 3DD wasn’t so much a film as a flock of tits being dragged underwater in the company of David Hasselhoff, and American Pie: Reunion was a failure to let go which, even as someone who went to university the year American Pie was released, bored me to bastard tears and I only saw it because the stupid digital print of The Cabin In The Woods wouldn’t work at the local Odeon. Men In Black 3 didn’t need a smart plot or script because it had Josh Brolin doing a sinew-perfect Tommy Lee Jones impersonation and Will Smith, who is the most natural film star currently barely working. Romanian prison drama If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle… was controlled and angry, but the month’s best film was the breathless invention of The Raid, which turned a story about a policeman who’s good at kicking and walks up a tower block into a ballet of snapped shins and horrid landings.
Things slowed down a little in June. George Lucas showed why it was a good thing he’d sell LucasFilm to Disney at the end of the year with World War Two drama Red Tails, which proved once and for all that despite the vast technical resources at his disposal he’d become SOMEHOW INCAPABLE OF MAKING FILMS, while Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter wasn’t half as awful as everyone complained, sadly leaving it plenty of room for still being quite awful. Friends With Kids was a modern-day When Harry Met Sally blessed with a splendid cast (mostly, the cast of Bridesmaids) led by Jennifer Westfeldt, who also wrote and directed the film and probably smells really nice too, while Rock Of Ages drew a frankly unnecessarily good turn from Tom Cruise as a slow-moving Axl Rose-shaped monument to excess and was quite good fun, though this might be because I’m increasingly sure Don’t Stop Believing is the pinnacle of Western civilisation. Even this version. William Friedkin’s southern gothic Killer Joe was greasy and sickening like eating a bucket of cold chicken wings, and finally, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus arrived, and was almost a delicately constructed bridge between the rich universes of his past classics Alien and Blade Runner, but then, for reasons I’ve sworn about at length, wasn’t.
In July I found the world of Dr Seuss adaptation The Lorax generically right-on and a little threadbare, and then the month was given over to two giant superhero vehicles. The Amazing Spider-Man did a perfectly fine job of retelling the Peter Parker origin story, the more interesting thing being how soon it did so after Sam Raimi’s mostly-good series had stumbled, which says something about audience appetites for consuming the same superhero tales dressed in new costumes and the genre’s similarities to old Western cycles, but not nearly enough about how awesome Emma Stone is in this and everything else. Then there was The Dark Knight Rises, the biggest and somehow also smallest of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Nolan might be the only filmmaker working in superhero films to think of them consciously as myth, which makes his Batman movies rewardingly elaborate and serious but also tips them towards pretension, by which I mean the film was good but let’s all agree Bane’s voice wasn’t an example of the Emperor’s new clothes so much as the Emperor nakedly crotch-chopping his way down the high street (it’s also more or less unwatchable after you’ve seen this dead-eyed parody).
August threatened to be unbearable thanks to The Watch, a urban sci-fi comedy which relied on Richard Ayoade deadpanning about his balls for its only two laughs, and veteran action slog The Expendables 2, which felt like plugging electrodes into a dead muscle and watching it convulse uselessly. Mark Wahlberg was good in Ted, though the dry-humping cuddly bear concept become a friction burn all too soon, and Jeremy Renner was good in The Bourne Legacy, which was stripped, spare, and about the best anyone could have hoped for from a Matt Damon movie without Matt Damon. The best film of the month was Pixar’s Brave, which redrew Scotland as a paradise of lush green hills and tumbling red hair. I loved that it featured another crafty, self-assured female lead, and that the film was about a nuanced relationship with her mother and not drab daddy approval issues, but ever so slightly disappointed it didn’t come together as magically as it might.
September inadvertently offered a selection of films about masculinity. The Sweeney was a nasty film about men who breath frantically through their nose before headbutting something – impressive for £2 million, in the same was as making a bomb packed with shit in your kitchen is impressive – while Depression-era standoff Lawless was huskily acted but never coherent enough to be powerful, and Dredd was a purposeful science fiction success that dealt efficiently with all the big-city-in-the-future essentials in order to better spend its time beating the shit out of criminals. I enjoyed it so much I barely had time to think about how fascist it was. Elsewhere The Babymakers was a sub-Atapow life comedy about an infertile man stealing his own sperm from a fertility clinic that might have had a wry point to make if it wasn’t so focused on making wank gags instead. Fnally there were contrasting Joseph Gordon-Levitt films: Premium Rush, a shallow thriller about fixie-bike couriers in New York with some fairly unforgivable “Wow, X-Games!” moments, and Rian Johnson’s fantastic film about time-travel and hitmen, Looper, which is my favourite of the year thanks to its economically constructed near-and-further futures, and thanks to a dazzling set of ideas that contract to a cold kernel of truth: that the time we have is limited and this gives our choices meaning and weight.
October was somehow the most consistently enjoyable month of the year despite including Madagascar 3, a film which opted out of unbearably smug Dreamworks franchise building, hired Bryan Cranston, and did a nightmarish/brilliant remix of two of the worst songs of all time to somehow become my favourite animated film of the year. Ruby Sparks offered just enough unpleasantness in its cosy intellectual story of a trembling boy-genius writer and the perfect girl he accidentally invents, Skyfall explored the interesting things that can happen if you make Bond human again – in weakness he’s restored the half-century-old series to strength – but far and away the best film of the month was Beasts Of The Southern Wild, an out-of-time tale of American disenfranchisement that’s really about the joy of being alive, and holding close all those who get to share it with you. It’s a near-miracle of communal filmmaking and untrained performances, and you should see it without reading another word about it.
I’m a fan of Ben Affleck but Argo, which came out in November, isn’t his best film – it’s rich in the political buzz and New Hollywood style that make him so interesting, but over-amplifies its true story through manipulation and cliché when it’s strong enough to stand on its own. Happily the only other film I saw all month was End Of Watch, an escalating drama surrounding a pair of patrol cops in LA which derives all its strength from the touching, unforced friendship of Michael Peña and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Then, in December, I saw just one film – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Speaking as a man who grew up thrilled at glimpses of even the most stilted fantasy worlds on the big screen, this was a huge, belting version of one of our most important stories, and all those who say otherwise haven’t lived a life desperately convincing themselves the fucking Rankin/Bass animation was watchable, even though Gollum was a frog.
And that’s everything. The things I feel most ridiculous for not having seen yet are Berberian Sound Studio, The Master and Rust And Bone. The best films I’ve caught up on from previous years are Night Moves and A Matter Of Life And Death, and the best television series I watched were the BBC Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People (having caught up on the fine film version of last year, it still has nothing on Alec Guinness) and Breaking Bad, season three of which is probably the best television I’ve ever seen.
The things I like about Cologne include: the large number of bicycles ridden throughout the city, which features a positively continental proportion of curved cruiser handlebars, the clattering of loaded freight trains as they pass over the Rhine and into the night, and the thick, urgent downpour of rain which seems to hit the city every evening, and is gone again so quickly that it might be just a very efficient way of cleaning up.
In contrast the list of things I don’t like includes: the refusal of both my colleagues in this nightly game of “sit by a window and upload video files very slowly” to adopt my suggested German slang term “Michael” when talking about memory s(ch)ticks (not strictly Cologne’s fault) and our taxi driver from today, who invited us to stare at a girl in tight denim shorts before sliding with cliché-lubed grace into a remark about how many black people there are in England. I suspect he doesn’t ride a cruiser. I suspect he rides a flaming cross with “I am a shitwheel dickeating racist” written on it.
Talking of racism, today we interviewed Warren Spector, who’s at the show with Disney showcase Epic Mickey, and for a very brief period of time I considered asking him if he’d thought about making the crows from Dumbo into a swooping, taunting, white supremacist boss battle. He’d be able to do this on the grounds that Epic Mickey is a device through which to trawl the Disney archive – it features a world called the Wasteland filled with forgotten works and characters, a canonical fictionalisation of Disney’s industrial and creative evolution that I find fascinating. Of course he wouldn’t do it, because he’s not a lunatic.
Listening to Spector speak is a pleasure. He’s both affable and shrewd, making him one of those rare people that it’s quite nice to be patronised by. My second favourite thing that anyone said today was his reply when asked which Disney movie he enjoys the most. ”That’s an easy question to ask and a hard one to answer,” he said, which we totally deserved because half of Europe has already asked him the same thing, twice. It doesn’t beat my favourite thing said today, though, which was Beyond director David Cage explaining his philosophy of game design, emphatic French accent wrapping around each syllable for barely sustainable conceptual torque: “I care about what people are doing with their minds,” he said, tapping his temples,”not what they’re doing with their thumbs.”
Having uttered the most singularly David Cage-ish thing of all time Cage went on to prove he had a sense of humour by admitting that at this point Quantic Dreams probably has the technical resources to create a virtual porn film starring Ellen Page. Even more than wondering who would dub such a performance (I’ve passed David my card) what I was thinking during his presentation was the actually fairly obvious thought that productions like Beyond and The Last Of Us are finally answering the question raised implicitly by Dragon’s Lair and early 1990s Siliwood – “How can we make interactive films that aren’t a crock of shit?” And the answer is “By spending millions of dollars to painstakingly subsume human performers into a virtual world and even then we sometimes get the mouths wrong,” which probably wouldn’t be of much comfort to those early pioneers, though thinking about Ellen Page all nude and digital and speaking with my voice just might be.
Really the most remarkable thing about Gamescom day three is that it was the first day open to the public, which means the show floor became a sea of bodies apparently programmed to stop at random and look at their fucking shoes. The ludicrousness of the whole enterprise was summed up this morning as the doors were about to open for the first time, with our cameras trained on hundreds of visitors behind a barrier who were looking back at us with their own cameras, an empty note of imagined significance bouncing infinitely back and forth.
My usual distraught cynicism has mostly been tempered during Gamescom by how much I’ve enjoyed Cologne and my boundless enthusiasm for cruiser handlebars. But the agitated eagerness physically bubbling just under the surface of so many of the public attending the show makes me feel wretched. Today the first man through the doors following an anticlimactic countdown (chanted uproariously by the crowd, but followed by an orderly trickle of ones and twos through the show’s rigid turnstile gates) walked briskly past the first of the Kolnmesse’s giant exhibition halls, unable to stop himself breaking into a nervous run as he turned a corner onto the main concourse, and gathered pace until he was sprinting through the PlayStation area and finally to the huge white walls of the Assassin’s Creed III booth. He hurried up and down the swerving queue track and finally settled into place under a sign which read “60 minutes from this point,” behind a pack of trade visitors who’d snuck in early.
The worst thing was he didn’t look sad, he just pulled out his camera and started filming again. It might be because it’s half three in the morning and there’s still half a gig to upload and I’ve slept for seven hours out of the last 48, but it hit me with a thud and it might be the worst thing I’ve ever seen.