I could go into obscene amounts of detail in this section, but I’ll confine myself to a few notable highs and lows. On the highs, and kicking the year off with surprising quality, was rom-com ‘Warm Bodies’, which retold ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in post zombie apocalypse style, and Romeo dying long before the start of the story instead of at the end. A sharp script which managed to do voice-over right, and great central performances from Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer grounded the outlandish concept. An unconventional date movie, but one worth watching.
Elsewhere in movies that you defied obvious expectations, Guillimero del Toro’s ‘Pacific Rim’ was a triumph of spectacle, but managed to secrete a surprising amount of substance into a film about giant robots beating up bigger monsters. It wasn’t quite as original as some would have you believe, essentially being Power Rangers versus Godzilla, but it had characters with depth, a coherently constructed universe, outstanding art design and, of course, giant robots using oil tankers as offensive weapons, which automatically makes it one of the best films ever made.
On the comic book front, Marvel’s output in 2013 was outstanding. ‘Iron Man 3’ wrapped up (maybe) that particular arc of the wider franchise, and while the Iron Man films have always had a broad streak of comedy, which was exacerbated wonderfully by Shane Black taking the helm, it was actually a surprisingly sombre, thoughtful film, and was a worthy finale to the series. “Thor: The Dark World” was perhaps even better, and definitely funnier. Christopher Ecclestone was wasted as the villainous Malekith, hidden behind too much make up and with zero characterisation, but the laugh rate, the stonking action, and first rate performances carried the day. The inevitable third film will no doubt be a must see.
They were certainly better than the other big superhero film, ‘Man of Steel’. A more controversial entry, largely due to the ending, which saw Superman break a man’s neck, I felt it for the most part a highly entertaining and surprisingly clever film, but one that was occasionally bent under the attempt to make the character ‘relevant’ to a modern audience, not to mention some appallingly heavy-handed Messianic imagery. Opinion on it will probably vary depending on how much of a fan of Superman you are, but it’s worth watching to make up your mind if nothing else.
To wrap up the blockbuster overview, and a comfortable winner of film of the year in my book, Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’ was the single most thrilling cinematic experience I have ever had, and a welcome reminder of what Sandra Bullock can do when given a decent role. The story of one woman’s attempt to survive an appalling accident while servicing the Hubble telescope, it was all at once horrifying, awe-inspiring, heart-wrenching and visually spectacular, to the extent that even Mark Kermode, who has devoted entire swathes of his blogs, radio shows and books to the horrors of 3D, admitted that it was worth spending ninety minutes wearing silly glasses for the privilege of seeing it done so well. Whether it will have the same impact on smaller screens is subject to testing, but that’s a mild concern with an astonishing film.
If it hadn’t been for ‘Gravity’, film of the year would probably have gone to ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’, perhaps best known for Ryan Gosling’s quietly intense performance as a stunt rider turned bank robber, but worth seeing for a whole host of other reasons. Despite its reputation, it isn’t actually Gosling’s film; he’s very much part of an ensemble, and is really only in it for a third of the film or so. If you’re looking for a film of his though, go for this over the over-rated ‘Drive’. But you should also watch it for some excellent direction from Derek Cianfrance, and a couple of tender, heartbreaking performances from Bradley Cooper and Dane deHaan. Melancholic but hopeful, and unlucky to have been outshone by ‘Gravity’.
On the downside, I shall gloss over the truly terrible ‘Mortal Instruments’ to mention ‘Oz: the Great and Powerful’ and ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’, both reasonably entertaining in a fairly mindless sort of way, but falling far short of the level of quality one might expect from the source ideas and creative teams involved. ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ was great fun for eighty percent of its run time, but crippled by appallingly lazy writing, while Neill Blomkamp’s ‘Elysium’ was simply a couple of hours of being told that rich people are bastards.
I’ve probably watched too many TV shows this year, but an awful lot of them have been fantastic. Sadly, many of the best have been old(ish), and watched on DVD; ‘Breaking Bad’ is without question the best thing I’ve watched this year, but that was the first series…which I started the day after the final episode of the show ever was broadcast. Great timing. Anyway, it is absolute must-see television. Bryan Cranston is outstanding as the terminally ill, and morally misguided Walter White, and the whole show just oozes intelligence and class. A close second was ‘Community’, a very funny American comedy set in a community college, and revolving around a crowd of somewhat familiar misfits. A nice blend of laughs are to be found, ranging from slapstick to verbal banter nearly as slick as the master of the genre, Dr. Frasier Crane. Well worth checking out.
However, in terms of television actually made this year, it has been a decidedly mixed bag. ‘Doctor Who’ got off to a very shaky start, with more than a couple of duff episodes, including a surprisingly disappointing entry from Neil Gaiman. Matters weren’t helped by a lacklustre storyline revolving around Jenna Coleman’s ‘Impossible Girl’, Clara Oswald, a fine performance in desperate need of some characterisation from the production team. However, a few cracking scripts, an outstanding final twist, and Matt Smith’s always wonderful performance carried the day, and then it was time for the 50th anniversary. ‘Day of the Doctor’ was an absolute triumph, blending comedy, time-travel, and moral debates about genocide into one of the most entertaining hours of television in a long time. And then came ‘Time of the Doctor’, which did everything ‘Day…’ had done, and did it even better, while managing to answer more or less every hanging plot thread from the last three or four years. Matt Smith’s regeneration was magnificent, and nearly had me in tears; as an unashamed fanboy, I’m going to miss him. But Peter Capaldi is looking pretty impressive already, and the prospect of a full series with him is very enticing.
On a related note, one-off drama of the year was ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’, Mark Gatiss’ dramatization of the origins of ‘Doctor Who’, which was superbly written and acted, and positively heart-wrenching.
Elsewhere, the BBC also triumphed with David Mitchell and Robert Webb’s new series, ‘Ambassadors’. The tale of two ambassadors in the fictional state of Tzbekistan, trying to walk the line between moral certainty and the demands of the malevolent POD (Matthew MacFayden, in no way inspired by Peter Mandelson), it was reminiscent of ‘Yes, Minister’ at its best, but surprisingly more focused on drama than laughs, for the most part.
However, the show of 2013 was without question, for me, ‘Orphan Black’. Telling the story of Sarah Manning, a young woman trying to escape the mistakes of her past and reconnect with her young daughter, it was a thrilling, intelligent and twisting drama. It had me hooked from the first scene: Sarah at a train station, watching in horror as another woman throws herself in front of a train. A shocking enough thing to see, but when the dead woman is a perfect doppelganger of you…the eventual twist was fairly predictable, at least to watchers familiar with genre tropes, but the execution was more or less perfect. Particular praise must go to Tatiana Maslany as Sarah – and four or five other characters within the series, each one of them so nuanced and varied that you could have difficulty believing it’s the same person. Series two will be starting in April, and I cannot wait.
On the side of the disappointments though, there are two entries. Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’ came with a lot of expectation attached, partly due to the weight of the franchise, and partly because of the Whedon name attached to it. It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t going to be the spectacular super-hero fest people had wanted, which was fair enough; most of the Marvel heroes would either be too complicated or expensive to recreate on a television budget, or would work better as their own franchise, at least initially. More serious was the lack of decent characterisation and coherent tone. Although the quality did pick up as the show progressed, it never quite rose above solidly entertaining, which isn’t quite good enough for a seemingly key development of one of the biggest franchises around. In any other year, it would likely have been the most disappointing show of the year, but fortunately for Marvel, we’ve also had series three of ‘Homeland’.
The first series was outstanding, a thrilling, engaging, morally ambiguous tour de force that gripped you by the scruff of your neck and would not let go. Series two was disappointing, reduced to a more bland spy thriller, but still had spark, and finished with an outstanding few episodes that re-ignited interest with a bang. Series three…well, it’s never a good sign when a show that has been so focused on two characters, both in terms of the plot and their developing romance, has one half of that duo off screen for two-thirds of the series. Damian Lewis’ Brody has gone from a terrorist who made you sympathise and support him to a wishy-washy drug addict with no real purpose in life, so you can understand why he was out of focus. It might not have mattered so much if Carrie’s (Claire Danes) storyline was more believable; sadly, while ‘Homeland’ has never made claims to rigorous adherence to reality, in series three it completely abandoned such concepts as common sense and logic, preferring to spend more time on the teen angst of Brody’s daughter. True, she has more reason to whine than pretty much any other teenager on television, and Morgan Sayler gave her best performances of the show so far, but that’s not why anyone is watching the show. Frankly, the majority of the series was poor, and I only kept watching in the hopes of a last minute save akin to the second series. Alas, it was not to be, and I won’t be bothering with the inevitable and seemingly pointless fourth series.
As with television, I have to say that the best book I read this year was not actually written in 2013. Nonetheless, I can’t write this without mentioning ‘Wolf Hall’, by Hilary Mantel, an enthralling fictionalisation, although as far as I can tell thoroughly researched and accurate telling, of the early life of Thomas Cromwell, architect of Henry VIII’s divorce and the Break with Rome. Engaging throughout, beautifully written, and detailing a fascinating period of history through lesser known personal details (and presumably a few embellishments), it’s an outstanding book, and if you have any interest in history or simply good literature, you owe it to yourself to read it as soon as humanly possible.
However, in books actually released during 2013, the clear winner was Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’. Now, I’m a big fan of Gaiman anyway, and I’ll admit to a certain fondness for any book that results in an all too brief meeting with him, but it really is beautiful. It’s a simple story, really; a young boy meets a slightly older girl and befriends her and her family. Except slightly older is really very, very old, and her grandmother remembers the Big Bang. And then an Eldritch Abomination hitches a lift back to our world in the boy’s foot, and proceeds to try and take over the world. And then reality starts to die. Well, it is a fantasy story. For all that though, the best moments of the book are the sections that focus on the boy’s life. Gaiman perfectly captures and recreates the feeling of being a slightly lonely child, and how even the most ordinary things can inspire wonder. It might not be Gaiman’s best work – it’s always going to be hard to beat ‘The Sandman’ – but it’s probably the most accessible, and by far and away the most heartfelt. It’s already won at least one book of the year award, and if there’s any justice it will win a whole lot more.
There were others, of course. Stephen King’s rather belated sequel to ‘The Shining’, ‘Doctor Sleep’ was a pleasant surprise. Horror isn’t really my genre of choice anyway, and what I’ve read of his previous work, admittedly very little, hasn’t especially grabbed me. Having read ‘Doctor Sleep’ though, I came away feeling I may have misjudged him; it’s a much more mature, thoughtful work than I was expecting, as much about the dangers of addiction as the dangers of soul-eating, motorhome dwelling child killers. And while it didn’t quite have me scared to go to sleep with the lights off, fans of chilled spines will be more than satisfied. I also enjoyed ‘The Red House’, by Mark Haddon of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ fame. A very different book to his debut, focussing on two siblings and their respective families, on a week’s holiday after a bereavement. It’s a far from cheerful book – estranged family members, unhappy marriages, teen angst of so many varieties, and at least one affair all contribute to a rather stressful holiday, and that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. However, while the distinct shortage of particularly likeable characters does somewhat hamper proceedings, the writing is spot on, and the book has an uncomfortable familiarity to it that really makes it hit home.
Returning to fantasy, Kate Griffin returned with another instalment in her urban fantasy universe, thus far comprising two series: the Matthew Swift novels and the Magicals Anonymous series. ‘The Glass God’ is the second of the latter series, and related the return of trainee shaman and social worker Sharon Li, not to mention the imminent destruction of London by an ancient plague spirit and, of course, a new divinity constructed from glass. The major strength of Griffin’s works has always been the world in which they take place; the magical additions to London are so well thought out and constructed that it never feels anything less than believable, and any subsequent visit to London is bound to feel a little disappointing afterwards. However, as yet, Sharon Li and her co-stars haven’t quite captured the imagination as much as Matthew Swift. It must be said, that would be a tall order. Swift is a sorcerer who makes his debut waking up two years after his brutal murder, and turns out to have been inhabited by the new gods of the telephone wire. His defining characteristics are a slightly schizophrenic childishness and a propensity for mass destruction on an awesome scale. Sharon Li is very much a typical young woman in modern day London – it just so happens that she can walk through walls, turn herself invisible, and commune with the spirits…and her social work tends to bring her into contact with banshees who appreciate modern art, trolls with a talent for cookery, and vampires with OCD about personal hygiene. It’s all great fun, but as yet not quite as good as the Swift series, and this isn’t helped by the fact that both books in the MA series have featured Swift as an important secondary character, and in both books things would have gone horribly wrong without his intervention. Hopefully, future instalments in the series will push Swift to the background and develop the actual protagonists a little further.