4.4.14

Under the Skin

So what are we left with here? Scarlett Johansson plays a predator who is a skeletal obsidian void – her purpose to suck lusty men into another black void at the command of fierce male motorcyclists. These silent beings are hungry for the fleshy red insides they themselves lack. The contrast between humanity and the alien other comes down to the biology that underpins our sexual and romantic lives. Perhaps... The film really leaves you to work it out for yourself.

What I am certain of is that Johansson's casting was quite deliberate. A bit like Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave, her star-power is impossible to ignore, which is all to the film's purpose. Her role here almost feels like a comment on parts she has played in so many other films (Lost In Translation, The Other Boleyn Girl, Vicky Christina Barcelona) – the babe who isn't quite aware of how alluring she is. Here she is given her skin and forced to seduce men, and she does it clumsily. And yet even that is part of her charm – a corruptible innocent, a bambi-eyed femme fatale who rewards saviours with sex.

When Johansson is damselled for real she encounters two men – the first seemingly benign, the second a rapist and murderer. The first is a proper gentleman, but her silence and passivity means that his interest in her can be little more than physical, since her inwardness is entirely alien and strange. The second turns the tables on the honey-trap predator and destroys her – her sensuality is both her means of survival and her downfall. There is something slightly slut-shamey in this, except that the film suggests that Johansson is being coerced into her role. The motorcycle men collect a dead prostitute at the beginning of the film, which may be a defective model Johannson is replacing. In any case, the women here are disposable and shaped for male ends.

In all these scenarios, the film is gesturing towards ideas that are hardly new or surprising: the automated doll that starts developing a sense of self and begins to dissent gave this blog its title. That this revolution is stirred by the solidarity Johannson finds with the lonely and marginalised is also an unsurprising character arc – in fact, it's romantic almost to the point of cliché. Even the final images, where she is burned to death and the falling snow extinguishes her funeral pyre, evoke allusions to witchcraft, martyrdom and nature's indifference to all the living and the dead.

All of the art-film trappings – the black to white framing device (suggesting the birth and death of both the protagonist and the universe), the great soundtrack by Micachu (minus the Shapes) – doesn't quite disguise the fact that pulp has covered this territory already. Under the Skin is stylish, but it isn't all that clever.

1.4.14

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Given the compromising position S.H.I.E.L.D. was in at the end of The Avengers, there was only one way this film could go - and it's a credit to Marvel that they went the whole hog, getting arch-liberal Robert Redford to play against type as the villain. My fellow movie-watcher, long-time comrade and true believer remarked that the major flaw with the film is how black and white the conflict ended up being. Redford could not just be himself, he had to be the head of a 60-year-old Hydra conspiracy as well. If you had to have Hydra there (to link back to the battles of the first film and hammer home the difference between the state Steve Rodgers fought for and the one he is now fighting against) they could have played a more muted role. Perhaps Redford could have been Zola's dupe - someone who betrayed his country in order to achieve that vision of absolute security. The film's failure is that it didn't give Redford the space to articulate just how seductive that vision can be.

I don't tend to watch a lot of action films, but do think this is one of the best I've seen. I'm paying a compliment when I say the competence on display was dazzling. The directors are most well known for television comedy, but they prove that that's no barrier to really solid stacks of gunfights, car chases and lightning-fast fisticuffs. At points it reminded me of Bad Boys II (again, a compliment) were the sequences pile up without the pile ever feeling too big.

The actors also play their (little more than) functional roles perfectly, their modest little arcs neatly composed in tidy satisfying packages - like an assortment of delicacies in a bento box. Chris Evans is brilliant in what is a tricky part to pull off. Being Mr Sincere in such an arch film can slip into parody, and to his credit there were very few times in which he reminded me of a pre-self-aware Buzz Lightyear. Again, it's a compliment.

30.3.14

Blue is the Warmest Colour

I balked at watching the 3 hour film – the original comic looked far more manageable. It also turned out to be impressively put together. Julie Maroh studied comic art at university and self-published three comics before getting to Blue is the Warmest Colour, and it shows. Her artwork is most impressive when it plays with focus – lines becoming increasingly blurry further in the background, which creates amazing immersive crowed panels (at the demonstration, the bar, the house-party). And it accentuates a great effect when Emma's distinctive blue hair is gradually revealed and then gradually swallowed up by the crush of monochrome people.

There is also a good deal of attention payed to page construction. Individual pages frequently balance each other – the last panel echoing the first and compositionally underlining the the change (in plot or character) that has occurred across the page. There are also some clever effects playing with panel borders and panel shapes, speech bubbles and captions.

Interest in the comics form extends to the title and theme. Blue is traditionally perceived as a cold colour (an association perhaps encouraged by the way we experience natural phenomena like rivers, lakes or the sea). At the beginning of the book, the narrator Clementine redefines it as warm – a personal association based on her own unique experience (of her infatuation with her blue-haired lover). This calls back to the theme of the book: that love isn't a universal, fixed (Platonic) ideal, but shaped by the individual. The closing lines of the book are a tad saccharine, but they are about something: "love may not be eternal but it can make us eternal". The book puts the people before the idea – for Clem and Emma blue is the warmest colour even if most of us tend to see it as cold. As Emma gazes into the sea at the end (a liminal setting if ever there was one, and perhaps indicating the threshold at which she becomes a true artist), we see her redefining it with her own memories and associations – suffusing it with warmth, as Clem had done.

23.3.14

Ulysses Episodes Ranked

Taking inspiration partly from this brillant ILX post, although my list is of favourite chapters rather than easiest. Rankings reflect the fact that I still find Stephen (Joyce's avatar) more fascinating than Bloom. Bearing in mind that Ulysses is a sequel to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, my preference is a bit like when His Dark Materials introduced Will as a protagonist in the second book, and my connection with Lyra carrying over from the first book meant I couldn't detach myself entirely from her perspective. That may explain the top choice, in which Bloom hardly features at all, but to the list itself:

18. Eumaeus
The most frustrating of all the episodes – not because it's difficult to understand, but after the phantasmagoric circus of Circe which unifies Bloom and Stephen at the end, we end up in a limbo of parallel conversations only momentarily connecting with each other. And on top of that, the narrative voice is purposefully designed to annoy you. A couple of moments worth the time spent getting to Ithaca: D.B. Murphy's unreliable tales of heroism contrasted with Bloom's own mundane voyaging, Bloom's quick sketch of a socialist paradise and Stephen's solipsistic response.

17. Proteus
Stephen's solipsism reaches its heights in this chapter, where we hear what his stream-of-consciousness sounds like. I found it by far the most difficult, since I was reading without much recourse to annotations and the incursions into French and Latin lost me completely. I should have tried harder, since the episode covers in scattershot flashbacks the crucial period between Stephen leaving Ireland at the end of Portrait and us discovering him back in Dublin at the beginning of Ulysses. In any case, the commencement of Bloom's stream-of-consciousness in Calypso came as welcome relief (which may not be an accident).

16. Aeolus
The first half of Ulysses is far more stylistically consistent than the second half (after Wandering Rocks). While this early episode breaks up the text with newspaper-like headlines, it still retains the feel of Bloom's narrative in the episodes around it. Bloom leaves the centre of the action for half of the episode, which is then occupied by Stephen, and their almost but not quite meetings throughout the novel are the main (and not-inconsiderable) source of tension in the plot.

15. Hades
I read Dubliners 10 years ago, so it wasn't easy for me to keep track of all the people we meet again at Dignam's funeral. Bloom's (very temporal) observations suggest he was an acquaintance rather than a close friend. Moments that stand out: Hamlet's gravedigger reborn as Corny Kelleher (who will save Stephen in Circe), the acute awkwardness of Power condemning suicide after which we flashback to Bloom's father's suicide note.

14. Lotus-Eaters
Bloom's stream-of-consciousness continues from Calypso. Main enjoyment in this episode comes from his opportunistic letching, his clandestine erotic excursions as Henry Flower, and the final image of him reclining in the bath as we zoom in to his limp, floating (flowerlike) penis.

13. Oxen of the Sun
Reading aloud does help as Joyce cycles through the history of the English language. The Latinate beginning and slang-slinging ending are the most difficult bits – but there's some enjoyment to be had in between (I liked the medieval pastiches in particular, although they are not as good as the ones in Cyclops).

12. Wandering Rocks
This montage sequence appears in the middle of Ulysses and tries to evoke the churn of the city, but the finest moments are the glimpses we see of Stephen's family, and the choice Stephen has to make when he comes across his desperate younger sister. Also priceless is Father Conmee witnessing an illicit tryst in the bushes.

11. Sirens
The musical episode starts with an overture chopping up the sounds we will encounter as we read along, and finishes with Bloom's contribution of a surreptitious fart at the end. Not knowing the context (and a lot of the content) of the songs put me at a disadvantage, but there was quite a lot of enjoyment in working out the various noises and what they mean. Best moments include the intercutting notes of Blazes Boylan's trek to his liaison with Molly, and the drinkers being treated to a flash of thigh by one of the barmaids.

10. Lestrygonians
Perhaps slightly overrating this long section of Bloom's wanderings in search for lunch (vegetarian, in contrast to his carnivorous breakfast), but it's one of the best accounts of the character's fundamental decency in the book.

9. Calypso
Bloom's introduction to the story sets up some of the key plot strands that we follow through in the rest of the novel – his relationship with Molly and their mutual sexual infidelities, as well as their differing relationship to their daughter Milly and the buried trauma of their dead son. Bloom remains caught in Molly's orbit despite these strains, his quiet acts of devotion mirrored in the final moment in the book when Molly is transformed from Calypso into Penelope.

8. Ithaca
Joyce may have derived much of his enjoyment in this episode from subverting the form of Catholic catechism into a relentlessly secular investigation into the causes of things. The moments of ponderous detail weigh into what should be the dramatic climax of the novel, and there is the slight frustration that we cannot hear Bloom and Stephen talk to each other in their own voices. The displacement is all to the novel's purpose – the omniscient perspective circles around the characters without providing final solutions to their dilemmas. Stephen refuses the offer of a place to stay and walks out homeless (his, and Joyce's, odyssey is just beginning), and Bloom and Molly are deprived of their symbolic son. The finest moment is Stephen chanting the anti-semitic poem, which to me has echoes of a Fall myth in which the boy loses his (maiden-)head. This transformation from innocence to experience comes as Joyce anchors Stephen to the Ithacan rock of Bloom's open, curious, de-mythologised view of the universe.

7. Nestor
Stephen's musings on history and his recalcitrant attitude to authority was always going to win me over, even though this is a comparatively slight episode in the book. Stephen's silent inward retorts to Deasy's arguments are like catnip to me, and none are finer than his rapid mental calculation of all the debts he owes when exhorted to pay his way in the world.

6. Circe
Circe's comically absurd nightmare is at its finest when it exposes Bloom's very kinky sexuality, and the weird persecution/punishment complex he has developed. It also underlines Stephen's association with Hamlet, as here he is confronted with the ghost of his dead mother, and the guilt he feels for abandoning his family in order to pursue his own freedom and development. The drama whirls around unceasingly up until the final moments in which Bloom sees another apparition of his son, this time bringing hope. It's a bravura performance, bewildering but impressive.

5. Cyclops
The down-to-earth unnamed narrator taking over the episode makes this a comparatively easy read, and the lapses into sarcastic reproductions of heroic, legal and other styles provide some of the funniest moments in the book. The final sentence, in which Bloom's ascension is described as being "like a shot off a shovel", merges the different voices together and reveals the digressions to be part of the unnamed narrator's consciousness – the background linguistic and ideological formulae that underpin the average Dublin male's world-view. The narrator's exasperation at Bloom's multi-polar take on every subject ("till he near had the head of me addled") is both hilarious and underlines his own simplistic, one-eyed P.O.V.

4. Nausicaa
After the macho Cyclops, Nausicaa puts us in female company. As devotions are offered to the Virgin Mary, the various expectations imposed on Dublin women are exposed on the rocks below. Gerty's crush on the boy with the bicycle is sweet, but her misplaced romantic daydreams about Bloom add a bitter edge to her story arc. The revelation of her disability is a crude assertion of reality knocking down the sexual and romantic fantasies conjured by the fireworks display.

3. Penelope
Molly's final "yes" comes after a long and looping screed in which she complains about Bloom almost incessantly. But while she seems exasperated by her husband, the fact that her thoughts keep reverting back to him reveals her underlying longing (and loneliness). The strain in Bloom's marriage is in part due to him ignoring or condescending to his wife. They haven't had sex in 10 years, since the death of their son Rudy, and neither of them are fully satisfied by their extra-marital entanglements. Bloom's discovery of paternal feelings towards Stephen, and Molly's own idealised view of the "professor and author", may (it appears, and I hope) lead to some kind of reconciliation in the future.

2. Telemachus
The first time I read Ulysses I think I understood about 60% of what was going on. This time around I may have raised that to about 85% with the help of the internet. But I started, as before, with no guidance whatsoever. Thankfully, I knew both The Odyssey and Hamlet a bit better, and the way Joyce layers the parallels in Telemachus is a wonder: the prince deprived of his castle, his mother slandered, his father absent. Reading without the Gilbert schema would be a huge deprivation, and it's puzzling why Joyce (and some commentators) believed revealing the structure underpinning the novel would be distracting.

1. Scylla & Charybdis
Stephen's finest hour, puncturing the inflated Platonism of his contemporaries with appeals to the material reality of producing literature and the fact that art is always embedded in life. Joyce here is at his most self-reflexive (even more than when he lists the episodes of Ulysses in Circe and Ithaca), not only giving his avatar his own ideas on Shakespeare, but his justification of the novel itself. This is the only episode which refers to the Roman hero (twice!). Stephen mentions how tired Ulysses can have his heart softened by his son, teasing his own encounter with Bloom at the end of the book. Furthermore, John Eglinton mocks Stephen's attempt to make "Ulysses quote Aristotle", and insists they cannot now "combine a Norse saga with an excerpt from a novel" as Shakespeare would. And yet this is exactly what Joyce does, outgunning the entire Irish Literary Revival in the process (Stephen's inward response "Bear with me" may be my favourite moment in the novel). While Bloom is almost entirely absent in the episode, there is symbolic portent in the final image of the way he passes unrecognised between Stephen's inflexible and self-obsessed genius and the whirlwind of Buck's superficiality, the golden mean which proves him to be the true philosopher.

17.3.14

Dotter of her Father's Eyes

This comic raised eyebrows by winning the 2012 Costa Biography Award. I had heard from comics enthusiasts that it was tame and boring, and the insinuation was that comics could only win prizes by doing everything they can to badge themselves as 'literary', and therefore 'worthy' of being treated 'seriously' (liberal use of scare-quotes entirely deliberate). I picked it up despite these warnings because I was re-reading Ulysses and wanted a little bit more biographical information about James Joyce (since there is so much autobiography in the novel). As it turned out, I was much better off reading the excellent Joyce: A Graphic Guide instead.

Dotter offers very little insight into the Joyce family. Lucia's breakdown and death is treated with almost callous brevity – two splash pages cover 8 years from her first breakdown to her death. Neither is the link between her story and the author's particularly well justified. The comic is framed by a day in the life of Mary Talbot in which a chance encounter with a memento of her father triggers a series of flashbacks. Despite a sources section at the back detailing the research that went into putting the story together – it retains the sense of an off the cuff riff.

The most egregious example of this is two instances in which Mary Talbot adds textual notes correcting her husband's inaccurate depiction of her story – bewildering since by their own account the collaboration was a very close one and therefore should have nipped these mistakes in the bud. Is this supposed to underline Mary Talbot's Molly Bloom-like assertion of independence within the co-dependent structure of the family – something Lucia Joyce was incapable of in the 1920s and 30s? Perhaps, but it also adds to the overwhelming impression of a book hastily put together, and therefore a throwaway example of the comics form.

9.3.14

Byzantium

Gemma Arterton says she signed up to do the film because she was interested in the mother-daughter relationship and because of its feminist themes. The producer remarks that vampire movies are rarely if ever led by two female protagonists, which makes this interesting in itself. But while Arterton and Saoirse Ronan have some room to dig down into their characters (the two have opposing sensibilities: one loudly untroubled by the memory of the past and the other quietly obsessed with it), the tension between them boils down to the necessity for the child to fly the nest and be free to "tell her own story".

So where does the feminism fit in? Firstly, in its unique twist on the vampire mythos. These 'soucriants' have an interesting variation on the 'vamp face': their thumb grows a talon when they are about to kill, and also unintentionally when they are sexually aroused. This is a more "phallic" weapon than a mouth ringed with fangs, and in claiming these metaphorical dicks for themselves, the vampire ladies can be seen to challenge the supremacy of the male vampire.

Indeed, the plot of the film revolves around a challenge to male authority. We learn that Arterton and Ronan are in breech of a code (enforced with maximum prejudice) by a cabal of vampires who insist that only men can be trusted with immortality. The fact that this breech occurs 200 years ago with the French Revolution and the Rights of Women may not be an accident. They are on the run, and set up shop in a seaside town where Arterton takes over a disused hotel called Byzantium and converts it into a brothel. The brothel is used in part to contrast with the safe (sex-free) spaces of the orphanage where Ronan grows up and the school she goes to. But its name takes on a new significance when it is revealed that the vampire patriarch is an old Greek who fought in the crusades. His 'Byzantine' attitude is what the women are up against: medieval, outdated and showing an undue reverence for ancient and obscure rituals which have been robbed of meaning by the march of history.

It's Buffy vs the Watchers Council, basically, and the comparison gets at something interesting about where the film ends up. Neil Jordan had worked with Angela Carter when adapting her short story collection The Bloody Chamber into the film A Company of Wolves, and I wonder how far that influence carries over into this film (Ronan wears a conspicuously red hood when delivering death to old grannies). I say that because there is a faint echo of the Bluebeard story in the climactic final sequence of the film, in which Arterton is bound and about to be beheaded by the patriarch. In Carter's retelling, the build-up to the seemingly inevitable execution of the heroine is disrupted in the final moment by an out-of-the-blue intervention of a female maternal force. Something very similar happens at the end of Byzantium, but in this case the force is male and romantic.

This potentially troubling conclusion is in part defused by the fact that we see Arterton behead a male vampire at the beginning of the film, and the fact that in many respects she's a very Carterian heroine (I think Arterton would be perfect playing Fevvers from Nights at the Circus). So perhaps there's a way to rehabilitate Sam Riley's role in rescuing the damselled Arterton. While Arterton has the willpower to survive in a patriarchal world, this inevitably leads to a lonely existence in which she is subjected to and subverts the desires of men. Riley holds out the possibility for another kind of relationship amongst equals. But in order for this victory to be achieved, Riley has to betray the organisation that empowered him and denies him a romantic life.  Dismantling patriarchy, the film suggests, requires many more such defections.

1.3.14

Girls

Should forewarn, I've only seen up to the end of season two (the box-set was bought at Christmas for my girlfriend, and we are both very infrequent television-watchers). Just a couple of notes:

The "voice of a generation" pitch in the pilot is delivered during a bad trip and couched in irony, providing creator Lena Dunham with enough cover should the critical viewer wish to interrogate that claim. But I'm mindful to take the boast seriously, since it hits at something true about the profession Dunham (and Hannah) have chosen – the determination to write to a degree requires the belief that you can write something of significance, despite the world doing its level best to discourage such ambitions.

The gaps between Dunham and her character are not as easily distinguishable as she would perhaps like them to be. She puts an awful amount of herself into her creation – including her battle with obsessive compulsive disorder in the second season. I wonder what part wardrobe (or even the lack of it) plays in her personal differentiation technique. Hannah's outfits are often outrageous, hair often unkempt, make-up non-existent, while Dunham looks super suave and composed in interviews. Hannah does (and wears) what Dunham wouldn't dare.

Dunham acknowledged the race problem in the show, and the scenes with Donald Glover in the first two episodes of the second season were an effective, and funny, apology. In fact, the confrontation scene between them was one of the best pieces of writing Dunham has produced. Her (quite valid) explanation for the lack of black actors is that she's half Jewish, half WASP, and wrote what she knew – four characters that represented parts of that culture and heritage. The question to be asked is why other people don't have a HBO series to write about what they know.

Another counter-argument that has been advanced is that someone living in New York would interact with non-white people a lot more than is suggested in Girls. Only having visited the city a few times, I can't judge whether it really is more integrated than what the show presents to the viewer. Either way this shouldn't let Dunham off the hook, not least because Girls is hardly true to life anyway.

In the first episode, the show explicitly sets itself up as an antidote to Sex and the City and the high-flying lifestyle it presents, but is it really a cold injection of realism? While Girls tries to circumvent any attempt to frame it as an aspirational show (featuring uncompromisingly unlikable characters predestined to make the worst of any situation), I think it remains aspirational, since it asks us to care about what happens on screen despite giving us precious little reason to. Marnie in particular displays no redeeming features whatsoever throughout the two seasons, and yet Charlie remains besotted with her (at the end of season two both him and Adam become male incarnations of the manic pixie dream girl). The result of watching all the terrible things these characters keep doing over and over again without lessons being drawn is that their behaviour becomes normalised. You're allowed to be this selfish and callous and irresponsible, because this (the show suggests) is what being in your early 20s is like.

Dunham can save the show from making this conclusion by treating her characters as more than fodder for jokes and drama, and she is capable of it. I say this because episode five of season two, "One Man's Trash", managed to convey a complexity to Hannah that was not evident before. Dunham finally presents us with an explanation for why Hannah is such a self-destructive moron. Hannah courts pain and distress not only to be supplied with material to write about, but because it separates her out from other people and makes her feel special. Unlike normal "selfish" people who want to settle down and be happy, Hannah will beat herself up in order to give expression to the suffering of others. She is the everyman holding the experiences of her generation within her. The fact that this position is itself extremely self-serving and arrogant is a potent irony. Her masochism is what keeps her initial relationship with Adam afloat, and the inklings of an arc suggest itself which will turn Adam into the stable Joshua character Hannah encounters in "One Man's Trash".

16.2.14

12 Years a Slave

I watched this about a month ago and only now do I find the time to jot down some notes:

Post-cinema trip discussions touched on how little this had to say about the legacy of slavery and what it means for us today. In fact, any comment in this direction is confined to a single shot of Chiwetel imprisoned in a cellar and the camera moving up to reveal the skyline of Washington D.C. – suggesting that it is literally built on the backs of slaves.

Instead the film addresses the more abstract question of what it means to be a slave, for owner as well as owned. As has been pointed out everywhere, Chiwetel is an African American, not an African, and yet his being ripped away from his recognisably bourgeois lifestyle brings home to the western bourgeois viewer the injustice of the whole trade, since Africans also had families and liberties before they were coerced onto the slave-ships.

Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance is brave and noble, serving as the point of entry for the audience, the viewfinder through which we observe mid-19th century American slave society. He's an actor I have a great deal of respect for, managing to appear in two of the best science fiction films of recent times (where he essentially plays the same character). But Michael Fassbender's performance is more interesting and integral to the film's purposes, as it captures the way the owner class are corrupted by the institution of slavery.

Fassbender is a brute: in his first scenes he gives scriptural justification for whipping his slaves, like a torturer describing his tools to the victim. But he is also the adult version of the Paul Dano character Chiwetel encounters first. Dano commands the slaves to clap while he mockingly sings "Run, Nigger, Run". We also see Fassbender orchestrating his slaves in a deeply surreal dance at his house. His violence, like Dano's, is caused by a childish petulance at not getting what he wants. They are both spoiled children who have grown up in a society that replaces their toys with human beings.

Brad Pitt plays a small but crucial role at the end of the film, handing Chiwetel the possibility of freedom. Amidst the respected but relatively unknown cast walks in one of the biggest Hollywood stars around to berate Fassbender for owning slaves – the glamorous hero coming to the rescue. This may have wound people up the wrong way, but I suspect Steve McQueen knew exactly what he was doing. Played by Pitt, the part has a distancing effect that takes you out of the film, but perhaps this is intentional, since Pitt's intervention is exactly an insertion of anachronistic values into an environment where they do not exist. I think it's a clever use of star-power.

Finally, and this is where I am less certain in my interpretation of the film, having my confidence shaken by this revealing interview with the director in the Guardian where he admitted that he never examined himself. In McQueen's previous film Shame I identified some interesting contrasts between the the two main characters, and since they were of two different genders, I speculated about whether there was a bit of gendering going on. 12 Years a Slave may contain a subtle piece of gendering as well. There are two coin-transfer scenes: both attempts to purchase an escape. But for Patsy, the only escape she sees is death, and she isn't brave enough to go through with it on her own, while Northup is able to dream of an end to slavery. I'm not going to push this as far as I did with Gravity, however, as Patsy's experience and opportunities are different from Northup's. The parallel is worth thinking about, however.

Interesting also that when Northup is reunited with his family, he feels he has to apologise for his absence – ridiculous since his kidnapping is not his fault. But cycling back to the beginning of the film, where we see Northup in a moment of infidelity, the apology can be given a different gloss – an admission that whilst enslaved he could not fulfill his responsibilities as a father and did not always remain true to his family.

The final paragraph of the Guardian interview confirms what many critics and audiences have said – the violence in the film is extreme, but it is the opposite of gratuitous. Instead, it's something that is "important" and necessary to be seen and experienced. Almost a way to be shriven if not absolved for this crime in our collective past. Simply bringing that sense of what slavery was like is the film's ultimate purpose, and how it achieves its moralising effect.

12.1.14

Favourite Songs of 2013 (Part 2)

Part 1 is over here.

15. Friction & Skream feat. Scrufizzer, P Money & Riko Dan - Kingpin

Three generations of grime MCs on a track, although it's a shame that Riko only gets hook duty, as he could easily have wiped the floor with a bored-sounding P Money. Scru brings his best Dizzee impression at the front before speeding up to his trademark Twista-paced flow. It's a sad state of affairs when grime legends are reduced to vocalling dubstep and house tunes - and this is about as fun as it gets.

14. TC4 - Mango

The minimal strains of grime have captured people's interest this year, leaving TC4's omnivorous genre perversions unfairly overlooked. Their Alpha EP came out on Logan Sama's Earth 616 label, and I think they deserve as big a profile as Logan's previous protégé Preditah. Mango takes ideas from funky and bassline, but rather than producing a hybrid they've created a hydra, multiple heads snapping at your feet from all different directions. A cut-up vocal sample is there to guide you through the snake-pit.

13. DJ Mustard feat. TeeFLii, Constantine, Ty Dolla $ign & Tory Lanez - Fuck That Nigga

DJ Mustard's Ketchup is probably my most listened to hip hop mixtape this year, and although Lil Snupe's Intro, Burn Rubber, and Paranoid have been picked out as highlights, I've fallen hardest for this compilation of outrageous seduction techniques. It's almost as if cuckoldry adds an extra amount of spice to the liaison: the status-boost of being able to sleep with another man's girlfriend becoming the source of sexual arousal itself. The whole thing is horrible, of course, but its shamelessness is weirdly compulsive.

12. Ciara feat. Nicki Minaj - I'm Out

Ciara's self-titled album this year is probably her most consistent in what has been a long career, although it lacks the highs on 2010's Basic Instict. The opening track is a powerful introduction, particularly when the bass drops in the second half of the verses. Nicki is priceless, as pretty much always.

11. Walton - Homage

The swung drums are El-B to the core, but that gnarly bassline sounds like it was unearthed in an archaeological dig. "Maybe we'll find a different way" goes the chanting vocal, pitched half-way between hardcore chipmunk and sultry garage diva. The track is called Homage, to the nuum more than anything. I first heard it in a Logos set at one of the Boxed nights, and it stood out then as an arresting piece of demented 2-step. It's my favourite thing thing Keysound have released this year, which as noted above, is saying something.

10. Angel Haze - Echelon (It's My Way)

I like Angel Haze best when she's bullshitting, although even then she brings an outsider's twist to rapping about cars, clothes and clubs (she prefers to "get high and dance alone" apparently). Personal fave bit is her finding the religious fervour her parents tried to impose on her in a new and all-consuming love of hip hop: "me I spit that Gospel, that... LYRICAL BIBLICAL HOLY GHOST PENTECOSTAL"

9. Jon Hopkins feat. Purity Ring - Breathe This Air

Jon Hopkins's Immunity was impressive, although while most listeners alighted on the thumping techno of Open Eye Signal or Collider, my stand-out was the (now vintage) Burial-esque 2-step of Breathe This Air. And the fact that my favourite act of 2011 and 12 thought the same made the song just that bit more perfect.

8. Kahn feat. Flow Dan - Badman City

A persuasive argument could be made for Flow Dan being the best dubstep MC of all time, taking into account his work with The Bug and, more recently, Jubei. In fact, Jubei's follow-up to last year's Say Nothin' (which I loved) was pretty good, but this track with Kahn is even better. Wreathed in groaning vocal samples and sinister strings, Flow Dan evokes a nightmare world where "even the gyal-dem are trained to assassinate".

7. CHVRCHES - Lies

The album is stuffed so full of bangerz (The Mother We Share, Gun, Recover, Lungs), it makes choosing one song difficult. In the end, I settled on Lies because of the uncomfortable resonance "I can feed your dirty mind" has acquired given the stuff Lauren Mayberry had to deal with this year. A song about idolatry in pop music, the frontwoman becoming a master manipulator of her audience, and the ambiguous nature of that victory - themes that would have made it perfect for the Catching Fire soundtrack.

6. Charli XCX - Grins

An ecstasy-powered cosmic-sized night out compressed into Charli's bedroom: cliches suffused through the shimmering glamour of pop music to emerge as the real anchor of truth in your life. Charli XCX's music is a private, insular take on a genre that strives to be universal. Best bit is the whispered "Oh My God!" buried partway through the chorus.

5. Dawn Richard - Gleaux

Goldenheart takes a while to unveil its treasures - taking its cues from epic fantasy films rather than sweaty club music. Dawn Richard plays out her personal triumphs and tragedies on the mist-shrouded battlefields of myth and legend. Again, very difficult to pick one track out to exemplify the whole album. Gleaux's hand-claps and fist-pumping chorus is the current favourite.

4. Paramore - Last Hope

I didn't find Paramore to be a perfect album, but I've kept a good ten of its songs in my music library, which is an improvement on the six I retained from Brand New Eyes. The band lost members but emerged with an expanded palate of sounds, and it's surprising how many of their experiments have been successful. Last Hope is my favourite, a stadium-sized ballad large enough to accomodate a choir without collapsing.

3. Congo Natty feat. Rebel MC, Tenor Fly, Top Cat, General Levy, Tippa Irie, Sweetie Irie, Daddy Freddy - UK Allstars (Congo Natty meets Benny Page Mix)

I have a soft spot for jungle or grime posse cuts, at their best they can capture the sense of what it must have been like to listen to MCs chatting on pirate radio, which is a thrill-ride like nothing else in pop music. And when old school jungle survivor Congo Natty assembled the brightest sparks from twenty years of UK-based ragga/dancehall to toast over a propulsive track from Benny Page, the results are nothing short of spectacular. The album is great too.

2. Stylo G - Soundbwoy

My summer jam, which crossed over quite a bit when it came out but has been largely forgotten now that the end of year canons have been drawn up. Great because the build in the verses does not lead to an EDM explosion in the chorus. Instead the midrange buzzsaw baselines and piercingly high synths maintain a skank-comfortable tempo, as if everyone in the dance is moving in slow motion. A peak-hour epic.

1. Cassie feat. Jeremih - Sound of Love

Not the most loved r&b duet this year - for some reason Miguel's dorkiness doesn't appeal as much as the ridiculously depraved croonings of TeeFLii or Jeremih. The Cassie bandwagon has rolled on for so long without making an impact that it's not even cool to be on it anymore. And it's true that the mixtape this is taken from was mediocre, but Sound of Love is a gem nonetheless. The digital moans woven into the beat are soaked up by sleazy 80s synths, as the two voices writhe around each other, creating a deeply sensual declaration of devotion (indeed, post-climax Cassie says she actually isn't ready for love just yet). This is superior to things like Dawn Richard's Frequency or Nina Sky's Comatose because of the pleading tone of Jeremih's voice, and Cassie's gasps for air after admitting that "you make it hard for me to breathe".