26 films in 2020

I managed to avoid watching a single film released in 2020 this year – as with other things, lockdown has merely accelerated pre-existing trends. Nevertheless there was plenty to enjoy on different streaming services. In a shrewd and extremely welcome move, Netflix responded to the advent of Disney+ by making the entire Studio Ghibli back catalogue available, meaning I've now watched pretty much everything they've made. Although best known for Miyazaki's fantasy films, I found that some of the Studio's best work is in a realist vein – Whisper of the HeartOnly Yesterday and Ocean Waves are masterpieces comparable to Nausicaä and Mononoke.

For a couple of months I was subscribed to Mubi, which I used mainly to get to know the works of Céline Sciamma. I traded that in for a BFI Player subscription late in the year, which has a larger and more interesting selection of films, particularly if you're into arty schlock from France and Japan. This Chrismas has been a feast on the BBC iPlayer, where I've gorged on the very best of recent Disney/Pixar (Frozen, BraveInside Out, Moana) and Hollywood classics (Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, Singin' in the Rain).

Below is the list roughly in order of preference. I've succumbed and set up a Letterboxd account, partly in a futile attempt to work out how many films I've watched in my life (not that many, it turns out). I've started to jot down more casual thoughts on films over there, which don't deserve a full blogpost here. 

Yoshifumi Kondō - Whisper of the Heart [link]
Céline Sciamma - Portrait of a Lady on Fire [link]
Isao Takahata - Only Yesterday [link]
François Ozon - Swimming Pool [link]
Tomomi Mochizuki - Ocean Waves
Ken Russell - Crimes of Passion [link]
Yasujiro Ozu - Late Spring [link]
Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly - Singin’ in the Rain [link]
Céline Sciamma - Water Lilies [link]
Georges Franju - Eyes Without a Face [link]
Shinya Tsukamoto - A Snake of June [link]
Thom Eberhardt - Night of the Comet [link]
Greta Gerwig - Lady Bird [link]
Céline Sciamma - Girlhood [link]
Atom Egoyan - Chloe [link]
Damien Chazelle - La La Land [link]
Nobuhiko Obayashi - House [link]
Jean Rollin - Lips of Blood [link]
Ben Stiller - Reality Bites [link]
Tim Burton - Beetlejuice [link]
Tsai Ming-liang - The Wayward Cloud [link]
Hiroyuki Morita - The Cat Returns
John Hughes - Ferris Bueller's Day Off [link]
Alexander Payne - Election [link]
Masaaki Yuasa - Night Is Short, Walk on Girl [link]
Jim Henson - Labyrinth [link]


33 books of 2020

The Alzabo Soup podcast has continued to exert an influence on my reading this year. The start of their coverage of Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun spurred me to gallop through the four books over the last three months, and it's been a hugely enjoyable experience. Wolfe best known work is dense and knotty with riddles, but Long Sun is much more relaxed and easy to get into. Can't wait to start on the concluding Book of the Short Sun in the new year.

The podcast also took a detour to look at Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest, which got me to read it as well. And I filled out some gaps in my knowledge of the fantasy canon by dipping into Fritz Lieber, and also looking at the authorised Tolkien biography. Turns out I really can't get enough of this stuff.

The libraries closing during lockdown meant I was able to focus a bit more on the backlog of weird comics I had bought and never got around to reading. The majority wasn't particularly revelatory, but Alex de Campi, Ram V, Ho Che Anderson and André Lima Araújo stuck out as talents that deserve a bigger audience. 

I try to write something about most of the things I read over on Goodreads, even if it's just a paragraph. Most of the links below point there.

Paul Collier - The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties
Gabriel Pogrund / Patrick Maguire - Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn [link]
Humphrey Carpenter - J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography [link]

Gene Wolfe - The Book of the Long Sun [link]
Philip Pullman - The Book of Dust vol 2: The Secret Commonwealth [link]
Elmore Leonard - Killshot [link]
Paolo Bacigalupi - The Windup Girl [link]
Catherynne M. Valente - Palimpsest [link]
Natsuo Kirino - Real World [link]
Fritz Leiber - Swords and Deviltry / Swords in the Mist / Swords against Wizardry [link] [link]

Alex de Campi / various - Smoke / Ashes [link]
Ho Che Anderson - I Want To Be Your Dog [link]
Jamie Delano / John Bolton - Batman: Manbat [link]
André Lima Araújo - Man: Plus – Electric Memory [link]
Ram V / various - Brigands [link]
Lovern Kindzierski / John Bolton - Shame vols. 1-3
Stjepan Šejić - Sunstone vol. 1 [link]
Kazuto Okada - Sundome [link]
Marc Guggenheim / Tara Butters / Ryan Bodenheim - Halcyon [link]
Marc Bernardin / Adam Freeman / Afua Richardson - Genius [link]
Yukito Kishiro - Battle Angel Alita vol. 1 [link]
Pat Mills / Olivier Ledroit - Sha [link]
Elaine Lee / William Simpson - Vamps [link]
Sam Humphries / Jen Bartel - Blackbird vol. 1 [link]
Andy Hartnell / J. Scott Campbell - Danger Girl: The Ultimate Collection [link]
Sessyu Takemura - Domin-8 Me!
Saburouta - Citrus vols. 1-3
Jim Mahfood - Grrl Scouts: Magic Socks [link]
Sophie Goldstein - House of Women
Christophe Gibelin / Claire Wendling - Lights of the Amalou [link]
Guy Colwell - Inner City Romance [link]
Kazuo Koike / Seisaku Kano - Colour of Rage [link]
Kevin Eastman / various - Roninbebop [link]


Favourite music of 2020

I've listened to a lot of music this year, but very little of it was released in 2020. Partly that's down to lockdown leading me to seek out the kind of introverted favourites I listened to as a teenager (Belle & Sebastian, The Sundays, a lot of R.E.M. thanks to this excellent podcast surveying their career). 2020 was a difficult year, as it has been for a lot of people, and I needed the familiar as a source of comfort and solace. Perhaps when things brighten up the urge to investigate the new will return. 

All of that dovetailed nicely with a playlist I was building of canonical pop songs for my baby daughter (Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Nick Drake, Motown), which for selfish reasons I preferred to singing nursery rhymes. That gradually morphed into a giant collection of things daddy likes, from Erik Satie to Aphex Twin to the mellowest jungle and grime I could find. The initial intention to familiarise her with the classics has been diluted somewhat, and she may not thank me for it. But then again maybe she will. I'm looking forward to finding out. 

A lot of the new music I've investigated this year has been on the ambient electronic side of things – stuff that comfortably slots into the background while working from home. I've listed them below, but first a short run down of 2020 songs that have managed to float above the melange of chill beats and old favourites.

Favourite songs:

5. Low End Activist feat. Flow Dan - Game Theory

Impossible for me not to fall for Flow Dan over a beat that harkens back to the earliest days of grime and dubstep, when the two genres were still somewhat indistinct from each other as they emerged out of UK garage. There's plenty of menacing low end business here, but it's elevated by the swing of the drums – encouraging a bit of a skip to Flow Dan's bars, which is a welcome change of pace for him. A great tune in a year where I haven't come across many.

4. Phoebe Bridgers - Kyoto

Not enamoured of the album as a whole, which melted into the background for me and not in a good way. This single is one of its more upbeat moments, where the soaring chorus provides a bit of contrast to the sullen and slighly dazed delivery in the verses. The production is weirdly restrained and muffled for something that has horns and cymbals propel the crescendos. It's a pop song that isn't entirely comfortable being a pop song – and that may be part of the charm.

3. Gulfer - Forget (Friendly)

This year's self-titled LP isn't quite the roaring success of 2018's more concentrated Dog Bless, which was my favourite record of that year. In fine math rock tradition Gulfer's songs studiously ignore predictable structures – with mixed results. They really hit the jackpot here, though. Each element builds on the previous one to a richly satisfying denouement. Chest-pumpingly huge as the best sweaty guitar music should be.

2. The Beths - Jump Rope Gazers

Again this year's album isn't quite the unparalleled success that 2018's Future Me Hates Me was, which may have beaten Gulfer as my favourite record of that year if I had heard it in time. But the title track on this year's effort may be the best thing they've ever done – anchored by a stadium-sized riff and leading to a very sweet and understated declaration of love that will mercilessly worm into your skull and heart. An anthem for the ages.

It's only four songs and I make the rules anyway. This is quite a personal one. When my daughter had a serious accident at the start of this month, the video for Skullcrusher's 'Day of Show' was one of the only things that would keep her calm through the frighening events that followed. The EP is just 12 minutes of ambient-tinged folk, whispy and ethereal in a way that tugs at the corners of your attention without imposing itself on it. Its use as a lullaby to soothe a toddler is very far removed from the intentions of the artist, whose lyrics detail the fraught moments of self-doubt and self-actualisation that you experience in that uncertain period after the end of your education and the beginning of the rest of your life. But the tone and melodies, inspired by Nick Drake by way of Radiohead, were exactly what my daughter and I needed during the long nights in the hospital ward. 

Other 2020 records I liked:

Akasha System - Epoch Flux

Minor Science - Second Language

Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension

Tengger - Nomad

And some amazing 2020 reissues:

Foul Play - Origins

Hiroshi Yoshimura - Green

Move D & Benjamin Brunn - Let's Call It A Day