Saturday, 21 January 2012

The Year in Review: 2011 (mildly late...)

That Was The Year That Was: 2011

Let me start by wishing you all a very Happy New Year!

It was quite a year for the arts, with a whole bundle of great books, films and television to choose from. With such delights last year, 2012 has a lot to live up to, although I am already excited for things like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Mass Effect 3’, and ‘Bioshock: Infinite’.

And so, without further ado, my highlights of 2011 – not necessarily everything I watched, played or read, but everything that stood out.


A truly vintage year, although there were a few duffers. ‘Green Lantern’ was a bit of a mess; lots of potential, from the concept, the mythology, and the cast, but most of it was squandered on a generic action film. A couple of good gags and some occasionally interesting uses of the Ring’s power aside, there wasn’t much to recommend it. Sticking with green, while ‘The Green Hornet’ did at least attempt something different, it didn’t really manage to create something worthwhile. Unlikeable and pointless characters, a horribly mixed tone and cheap humour undermined decent direction. A shame.

On the more successful side of comic book films, ‘Thor’ was an absolute triumph. Kenneth Branagh clearly knew his material, and crucially knew just when to prick the pomposity with a knowing wink. The fine script, mixed with some solid acting and fantastic action scenes, not to mention the marvellous rendition of Asgard, all added up to the best entry so far in the Marvel film-verse. Given the stiff competition from ‘X-Men: First Class’, which achieved far more than I had expected it to, this was no mean feat. Regarding ‘X-Men’, much credit must go to Michael Fassbander and James McAvoy for, if not quite eclipsing Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, for doing a fine job of replacing them. Fassbander in particular was incredible.

Of course, I cannot move from comic films without mentioning ‘The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn’. A strong contender for best film of the year, this didn’t put a foot wrong for the entire running time. From the charming opening credits, which riffed on the classic animated show, to the superb motion capture and ludicrously over the top and exhilarating action, it was an absolute masterpiece. Top marks, as ever, to Andy Serkis for his wonderful demonstration of just how well motion capture can work, given the right talent, but he was hardly the only one. An unrecognisable Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as Thomson and Thompson raised giggles at every point, while Jaime Bell captured just the right level of innocent determination as our heroic boy reporter. Here’s hoping that it was enough of a success to warrant a sequel, although I do wonder whether the script would be as good with the absence of Stephen Moffat.

Speaking, as we were, of motion capture and Andy Serkis, he delivered another excellent performance as Caesar, the monkey who started the apocalypse. Well, possibly. ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ was a mixed pleasure – whenever it focused on the apes themselves, it was very clever, and very entertaining, but the sections that centred on James Franco’s rather tedious scientist lacked both credibility and originality. A forced subplot to introduce the fall of humanity failed to convince, but overall it was worth seeing. It is all too rare to watch a film and feel connected to the rest of the audience, strangers and companions alike; Caesar’s first step towards escape managed to induce such a sensation brilliantly. I hope to see more, although hopefully with a less clunky title.

One of two films to centre around aliens (to be discussed here, that is), ‘Super 8’ does, I think, deserve the title of film of the year. Masterfully acted by the cast of unknowns, and elegantly directed and told, it was a simply wonderful film. The train crash was one of the most jaw-dropping sequences this year, and if the final reveal of the alien was a little traditional compared to what had gone before, it was a very minor blip on an absolute must-see of a film.

The second, ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ was a film which promised to do exactly what it said on the tin. To be fair, it managed this. Sadly, while one of the more anticipated films of the summer, it delivered little else. Daniel Craig did his patented tough stare, while Harrison Ford was the tough but firm rancher who slowly revealed a softer side – phoning it in, in both cases. Olivia Wilde looked suitably striking, and there was some decent work from Sam Rockwell in a secondary role. The script was distinctly average though, and the film didn’t even come close to delivering on the promise of the concept. It didn’t even really deliver anything good that hadn’t already been in the trailer.

Also disappointing was ‘In Time’, a potentially fascinating film about a world where time is currency. You are born with a digital clock showing on your arm; when you reach twenty five, the year of time you are born with begins to count down, and you have to earn more by working. Alternatively, you can be lucky enough to be born into a wealthy family, thereby rendering you functionally immortal. It’s a nice idea, with plenty of potential for a great SF film; sadly though, the promise of the first half descended into an average Bonnie and Clyde-esque crime film, with an overwrought and simplistic message about class and wealth divisions. Justin Timberlake was good as our ‘hero’, while Amanda Seyfriend and Cillian Murphy provided decent support. It was good to see Vincent Kartheiser working again though.

In the same league was ‘Pirate of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’. It was far better than either ‘Dead Man’s Chest’ or ‘At World’s End’, but not a patch on either ‘Curse of the Black Spot’ or indeed the Tim Powers book that inspired the latest instalment.

Much, much more than disappointing was ‘Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon’, which managed to be slightly better than its predecessor by virtue of not being quite as offensively awful. It still had a piss-poor script, mediocre acting, confusing action scenes, a touch of homophobia and Rosie Huntington-Whitely, who whatever her skills as a model is plainly not suited for acting. Still, at least Michael Bay had fun filming tracking shots of her arse. It all adds up to what was without question the worst film of the year. The news that Bay is considering a fourth one brings tears to the eyes.

Infinitely better was ‘Kung-Fu Panda 2’. It didn’t show all that much ambition, taking many of the same beats of the first film and doing them bigger, but it did them well. Jack Black, remaining far more appealing as a voice actor than actually being on screen, and Gary Oldman as a villainously insane peacock were a great double act, and the action scenes remain some of the best in cinema, putting ‘proper’ action films to shame. A blatant sequel hook at the end indicates that the series has life left in it yet, and I look forward to future entries. The flashbacks also managed to be magnificently cute.

This was a trick similarly appropriated by Dreamworks stablemate ‘Puss in Boots’ , which surprised by being far better than it had any right to be – given the diminishing returns of its parent series, and the traditional failings of spin-offs, I was expecting little more than a mildly entertaining and amusing story. It actually turned out to be really rather sweet, with some sly jabs at fairy-tales that smacked of Shrek at its best and some excellent jokes. Puss himself was an engaging if fairly stereotypical mildly anti-heroic lead, voiced with great energy by Antonia Banderas. Salma Hayek was suitably sleek as Kitty Softpaws, while Zack Galifinakis was really quite creepy as Humpty-Dumpty.

Moving away from animation, although still in the run up to Christmas, ‘Hugo’ was a simply adorable film. The story of a young boy living in the walls of the Gard du Nord station in Paris, and the history of Georges Méliès, one of the fathers of modern cinema, it was charming from start to finish. Chloe Moretz continues to establish herself as more than just adept at delivering a crude one liner, while Ben Kingsley actually graced the film with a performance, always a treat. Hugo himself, as portrayed by Asa Butterfield, was earnest but awkward, a winning combination, while the supporting characters at the station – Sacha Baron Cohen, Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour – all provided heartwarming detail. A plot line about a clockwork automaton felt cut short, as if a previous version of the film had been brutally cut, but that is my only criticism of a wonderful love letter to film and imagination.

My final stand outs of the year in terms of film are ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’ and David Fincher’s remake of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. ‘Sherlock…’ followed a similar path to ‘Kung-Fu Panda 2’ by making everything bigger and louder, although in this instance not necessarily as good as the first film. Much of the deductive process that worked surprisingly well in the first was lost, replaced by more action and gags. Entertaining as those were, it did rather undermine it as a Sherlock Holmes film. It also treated us to the unedifying sight of a naked Stephen Fry, for no particularly obvious reason. Another black mark for the woefully underwritten female roles. It was still thoroughly entertaining though, if wonderfully silly at points.

I wish I could say as much for ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. While David Fincher is an excellent director, he has here succeeded in making a beautifully shot, acted and written film that still managed to be thoroughly unpleasant and far from enjoyable. True, much of this is I assume down to the source material, but I’m not convinced that quite so much detail needed to be lavished on the anal rape, or the mutilated cat. However, Rooney Mara was excellent as Lisbeth Salander, while Daniel Craig was far more impressive as a disgraced journalist than as a cowboy. His presence would seem to be the only explanation for the bizarre opening credits, straight out of James Bond and thoroughly inappropriate for the film.


‘The Wise Man’s Fear’, the eagerly anticipated sequel to ‘The Name of the Wind’, turned out to at least have a big enough word count to justify the wait, finally rolling in at close to a thousand pages. The content within was perhaps Marmite quality; the glacial pace and borderline character torture of ‘Name of the Wind’ are still present, with some sections definitely bordering on filler, there is still a heavy amount of cliché (admittedly frequently subverted or played with), while if you found Kvothe too perfect a protagonist you are unlikely to have changed your mind by reading ‘Wise Man’s Fear’. That said, I adored it. Yes, it could easily have been stripped down, but all that world building does add up to something beautiful. The books are a life story, after all – a biography, even in-universe. Detail is to be expected.

Furthermore, while their precise connection to the plot is as yet unclear, Rothfuss has at least packed the book with more action (or perhaps incident might be a better way of putting it) than its predecessor. Whether it is the eccentric Elodin’s lessons, always amusing, or Kvothe wielding Sympathy and lightning against a troupe of bandits, there is always a worthwhile payoff to any excessive length. Similarly, the antagonists have been improved. University nemesis Ambrose is now a far more malevolent threat than the arrogant bully he was in the previous book, while Kvothe’s journey away from the University reveals even more danger. Rothfuss is a consistently good writer, especially when waxing lyrical about music, and the frequent changes between first- and third-person are particularly impressive. Kvothe is a genuinely fascinating character – a real legend, so close to perfection but tempered by the fatal flaw of his temper (for comparison, see Achilles). The supporting cast never outstay their welcome, and there are some brilliant concepts, not to mention an enjoyable streak of humour laced throughout.

It is not, of course, perfect. The central love story is beginning to feel laboured rather than teasing, and the sheer amount of plot that has been hinted at between Kvothe’s current circumstances and the main goings on of the story hints at a third book that will surely be at least twice the length, if Rothfuss is going to keep to his projected trilogy. Similarly, while many of the longer stretches do justify themselves in terms of world building, some of the more exciting stretches of Kvothe’s life are skipped over (Kvothe himself either having no interest in them or not wanting to dwell on them, apparently). For the most part, if you get into the book these will be little more than niggles. If you aren’t enjoying it though, they will stand out like beacons.

Nevertheless, ‘The Wise Man’s Fear’ remains a worthy contender for the title of book of the year.

Running it close, both in terms of quality and in page count, is Brandon Sanderson’s ‘The Way of Kings’ (book one of The Stormlight Archive). In some ways, the sheer size of this book is far less justifiable; it is allegedly the first instalment of ten, and while Sanderson assures us that subsequent books will not be as long, with so much of the world having been established in the first, I cannot believe that some of it could not have been held back. However, as with Rothfuss, the sheer quality of Sanderson’s writing excuses a multitude of sins. The interlude of a naturalist studying a new type of spirit, for instance, seemed to have no relation to the plot of the book whatsoever, but the character was so well drawn, and the situation he was studying so gleefully spectacular, that it would be a shame to miss it. It must also be said, the length of the book does allow for some incredibly in-depth character studies. Rarely do we know protagonists so well after a single novel, especially in a series. I cared about their struggles far more than I did any other character this year.

In other areas, Sanderson has refined his fondness for detailed, rigorously rule-bound magic systems into a particularly elegant system that allows for some stupendously inventive – not to mention awesome – action scenes. I might quibble over the designation of magic – there isn’t that sense of mystery, of something inexplicable – but to deny the amount of entertainment that can be derived from these scenes would be madness. And of course, there are plenty of other action scenes that do not rely on magic, and it is to Sanderson’s credit that these are equally convincing. He also deserves praise for managing to make his ruminations on philosophy, theology and morality just as engaging, while never coming across as preachy.

Finally, the closing chapters are, as I have come to expect from his books, a master-class in suspense and revelation. The rug pull is jaw-dropping, taking in ancient warriors, older gods and long forgotten secrets. I am eagerly awaiting the second installement.

This was not Sanderson’s only book this year; he also released a continuation of his Mistborn trilogy, ‘The Alloy of Law’. In many ways a complete turn around from ‘The Way of Kings’, this was far closer to a classic adventure yarn, a self-contained thriller that combined action, romance, laugh out loud humour and an excellent evolution of an already intriguing world. All too often in fantasy, worlds remain much as they were at the start of a series – characters have been and gone, dynasties may have collapsed, and seemingly world shattering events may have come to pass, but by and large the world itself will barely change. Here though, the quasi-feudalistic world of the Mistborn trilogy has been upgraded to a steampunk world that combines the Wild West and glittering skyscrapers to great effect.

It is far more interested in plot than in world building (although of course, much of the essential detail was given in the ‘Mistborn’ books), and the characters are a great change to the introverted, brooding cast of ‘The Way of Kings’. Although our hero, Wax, has much to brood over, he is happy to lose himself in the chase, and equally skilled with magic (although see above), a revolver or a quip. Even the seemingly flattest characters get nicely shaded by the conclusion, and there are some suitably satisfying threads for sequels.

Although arguably not as impressive as ‘The Way of Kings’, the skill demonstrated in taking to a very different genre and feel of the book, combined with the same level of quality and none of the excess, lead me to pronounce with no hesitation that ‘The Alloy of Law’ is my book of the year. I don’t think you need to have read the Mistborn trilogy to follow the plot, although I wonder whether that will be the case in any further books; however, there are numerous call backs to the previous books that add an extra level of enjoyment (I particularly liked the fact that the gangland slang of the Mistborn era has become the equivalent of Latin). A thoroughly excellent book.

On the theme of continuing series, ‘Ghost Story’ was the latest instalment of Jim Butcher’s excellent ‘The Dresden Files’. Coming as it did after a cliff-hanger of humongous proportions, it was possibly the most eagerly anticipated instalment in the series so far. It must also have presented quite a challenge to Butcher himself; by the very nature of Harry Dresden’s predicament for much of the book, much of the typical formula has to be…tweaked, if not thrown out completely. He cannot simply go charging in staff blazing anymore, despite technically having more power than he ever has in his life. So to speak. The fallout from ‘Changes’ has completely changed the world of the Dresden Files, and in ‘Ghost Story we get a much more introspective, almost melancholy tone. Harry spends much of the book considering the consequences of his actions, something which he has been prone to previously, to be sure, but never on such a scale.

Seeing what has changed between the two books is absorbing. There is huge, intense character development, particularly of Molly Carpenter, Harry’s apprentice. These changes are actually more interesting than the main plot, a perfectly serviceable if throw away game of ‘hunt the psycho’. Of course, being the Dresden Files, this may come back to the fore in later instalments, Butcher priming his Chekhov’s Gun’s several books in advance (there are apparently a few laid down in book 3 that still haven’t been resolved, ten books later). Nevertheless, the primary attraction here is a more mature, thoughtful Harry Dresden. There are some intriguing flashbacks to his past, including one event that has been mentioned fairly frequently since the very first book, ‘Storm Front’. And while the action is necessarily cut back, the nature of the story allows for some truly bizarre and wonderful displays of magic. The finale, setting up another polar shift for the series, promises even more excitement to come.

The usual drawbacks still apply. Butcher is a solid writer, not a great one, and some of Harry’s introspection can come across as particularly repetitive if you are an avid reader of the series, often recapping much of the series, or even the earlier part of the book in extreme cases. The resolution to a hanging plot thread from ‘Changes’ does, perhaps, smack a little of a retcon, but it is so stylishly done that I am more than willing to overlook it. However, for those with an interest in Urban Fantasy, The Dresden Files remain one of the finest examples of the genre, and well worth checking out. Just make sure you start at the beginning.

Staying with Urban Fantasy, ‘The Neon Court’ shares more with The Dresden Files than just the genre. Detailing the continuing adventures of Matthew Swift, urban sorcerer and avatar of the Blue Electric Angels, gods of the telephone wire, we are treated to an examination of the magical lore of London. However, the magic of this series is a far more interesting and bizarre type than Butcher’s traditional if entertaining system. A world where sorcerers draw power from train tickets and traffic lights, where oracles can be found in old libraries and monsters are formed of discarded kebabs and newspapers, there is always something new to behold around every corner.

Well, apart from the plot. The details are of course different, but much of the bare bones are instantly familiar from the previous instalments. Some ancient power threatens the very soul of the city, with its origins shrouded in secrecy and history. Matthew Swift is called in to stop it. Chaos ensues, largely because Swift himself is arguably insane. True, it is also arguable as to whether Swift is in fact alive at this point, sharing his body as he is with the aforementioned Angels. It is this duality that makes the books so distinctive, even more so than the inventive magic. Split personalities or possession are nothing new in fantasy, of course, but there is no conflict with this, certainly not as far as Swift is concerned. “I am me and we are he,” as he/they say on more than one occasion. It is not uncommon for Swift to be waxing lyrical about London only for the narration to segue smoothly into the Angels admiring the effect a kebab can have on you. There is a genuine love of London here, and Kate Griffin has clearly spent far too much time wandering around the city late at night.

The plot may stick to familiar beats, but the flesh on the bones is excellent. We are introduced to new elements of the magical world, namely the modern equivalent of the Fairy Court (the Neon Court of the title), and an underground (literally) movement that I suppose roughly parallels anarchists, or maybe just the Morlocks as represented X-Men comics. As with ‘Ghost Story’, Swift learns several hard lessons about responsibility over the course of the book, and Griffin is not afraid to sacrifice long running characters to teach him things. Better written than The Dresden Files, but perhaps not as emotionally engaging or thrilling, ‘The Neon Court’ is an absorbing read and a fascinating world.

Finally, and on a completely different note, ‘The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex: What’s Wrong With Modern Movies?’, by Mark Kermode. Kermode brilliantly skewers everything that you’ve ever grumbled about after an over-priced, deeply average film, usually with a meandering, hysterical anecdote. He has the gift of presenting academic criticism in an interesting, easy to read fashion – I now know more about film, as in the actual reels movies were shot on, than I ever expected to – while still never diluting his argument. This is an essential read if you have ever given more thought to a film than whether you were entertained or not, although be warned: you may feel like boycotting the cinema until Hollywood starts making better films.


Let’s be honest, it was all about Skyrim in 2011. No, really.

Sure, ‘Deus Ex: Human Revolution’ and ‘Batman: Arkham City’ were excellent games, there’s no denying it. ‘Deus Ex’ combined intelligence, freedom, beauty and morals to create a simply outstanding package. There was some sporadically dubious AI, and while the plot was clever it wasn’t super-duper original, but the freedom to play the game your way was incredible, and the gameplay was tight as a nut. If you have an interest in cyberpunk, this is definitely a must play. If you don’t, you should probably play it anyway.

Arkham City’ was perhaps the perfect distillation of the Batman mythos, drawing on all the best bits of pretty much every incarnation – the look of the Nolan-verse films, the cast of the 90’s animated series, and the entire seventy plus years of comic history. While the plot was perhaps a little bloated, at least towards the end, it took everything that was good about its predecessor and improved it even more, while filing away all the rough edges to make the dodgy bits just as good as the rest. Justifiably hailed as the greatest superhero game ever, it is quite capable of standing up to the heavyweights of the gaming world and coming out on top. Quite appropriate, really, for Batman.

Both, in a roundabout way, highlight key bits of ‘Skyrim’.

For a start, ‘Skyrim’ is all about freedom of choice. Freedom to play as any one of nine different species, freedom to use whatever skills you want – and unlike ‘Deus Ex’, you don’t sacrifice possibilities with each decision. Start playing as a more magically focused character, and you can just pick up a sword and go crazy whenever you like. It’s also about the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want. ‘Skyrim’ is, quite simply, vast, and you can cover every last inch of it, should the fancy take you, whether on foot or on horseback. There again, you have a choice of quests. For a start, there are the hundreds of miscellaneous quests. Then you have the five secondary quest-lines, each probably lasting a good ten hours if you played them solidly. Then you’ve got the thirty or so hours of the main plot line. Then you’ve got all the random stuff to do that isn’t really connected to a quest at all, but is perfectly open for exploration.

Don’t feel like saving the world? That’s cool; follow that river and catch some salmon. Bored of helping people out with everything they can think of? Maybe you just want to spend the day working at the forge, crafting yourself some armour (highly recommended; you can improve your gear immeasurably and it’s a quick skill boost. Plus, who doesn’t like wielding a legendary class hammer?)

Of course, freedom doesn’t mean anything if everything you’re free to do is tedious or just plain broken. ‘The Elder Scrolls’ series is fairly infamous for its bugs, and the internet will produce wild stories of dragons flying backwards, or of not being able to marry particular people, or bears disappearing into trees, or whatever. Personally, I didn’t have much problem in this regard, bar the odd floating horse, although I have had the game just freeze up on me after prolonged sessions. While the level of broken-ness apparently varies from gamer to gamer, the enjoyment is there for all. There is, quite literally, never a dull moment in the game. I say this as someone who, having put in over one hundred hours in the game, has maybe done thirty percent of the game; forty at a stretch. It really is quite staggering.

Everything good about ‘Oblivion’ has been kept or refined, while the gameplay has been streamlined in a way Bioware can only dream of achieving with the ‘Mass Effect’ series. It is intuitive, easy to control, and quite simply astonishing to look at. The plot is more sophisticated than in previous instalments, with a better voice cast to boot.

I will never be done with this game.

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