Friday, January 03, 2014

Everyone Else Does Lists

Last year, as a way to help stall until I could do the end of the year comic review, I did one for the books and movies I'd read and watched in 2012. So I'm doing it again, because I enjoy going back and seeing some of the things I'd kind of forgotten about. This isn't going to be a complete recounting of everything, just the ones that were best and worst. There's quite a bit that I don't think qualifies.


I read quite a few more books than I did in 2012. Some of those were Hemingways I'd read previously, so I guess I'll exclude those from consideration for best or worst like I did last year. It's only relevant in that I was going to put For Whom the Bell Tolls among my best of the year. Besides the return to Hemingway in July and November, there were the usual stretches of military histories and mystery novels from my dad throughout the year, plus a few Asimovs I grabbed in the spring.

Among the Hemingways I wasn't previously familiar with, I'd rank Death in the Afternoon as the best, then A Moveable Feast. I give the nod to the former because I had no particular interest in bullfighting, but he made it interesting, but also fairly easy to understand. Of the worst, To Have and Have Not wasn't truly bad, but it didn't feel as though he'd laid it out very clearly, so the points he tried to make came off muddled or rushed. True at First Light was probably less enjoyable, especially when I had read Green Hills of Africa and could contrast the two. His fiction sometimes exaggerates the characters too much, when he's perfectly capable of writing about people and bringing the intriguing facets of their character to light when writing about real people in his non-fiction.

Stepping into the military historical side of things, I'd rank Monty and Rommel: Parallel Lives by Caddick-Adams, as well as The Desert Generals up there at the top, along with Hornfisher's Neptune's Inferno. The latter two both have that element of trial and error to them that I find horribly fascinating (horrible because lots of people are dying while these guys try to figure out how to succeed under new circumstances on the fly). As the Monty and Rommel, I liked the picture it gave of both men, the ways they were similar and different, how some of the similarities where shared strengths, and others were shared weaknesses (like making powerful enemies).

Sliding to less military history, I'd rate Denis Mack Smith's biography of Mussolini as considerably better than Bosworth's. Certainly less of a slog to get through, which is why Bosworth's in the "worst" pile, and Smith's in the "best". I'd put Nigel Jones book on the Tower of London (aptly titled Tower) in with Bosworth. Some of that may be my lack of interest in the part of British history, but some of it's his organization and his almost total focus on just people being imprisoned and killed there. I was expecting more of a diverse range of uses for the structure over time, and that didn't really come through.

When it comes to my dad, as you may have noticed, most of the fiction is mysteries in various historical periods. Some work for me - Jeri Westerson's Veil of Lies - some don't - Lynn Shepherd's The Solitary House. I was about to put Fasman's The Unpossessed City in with Shepherd, then I remembered I bought that. Whoops. Better for Fasman's book to be lumped in with The Old Gringo under "Calvin's mistake purchases". None of those books were terrible mind you, but they all had either stylistic choices in their writing style that killed the books for me. The Broken Teaglass was one of dad's but wasn't historical, more a mystery that concerned itself with language, so maybe that change of pace was why it appealed to me. Also that Emily Arsenault avoided falling into a plot pattern I would have really hated, which surprised and delighted me.

Let's wrap the book section up. Best book I read this year? Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. That's the third of his books I've read, and he hasn't let me down yet. Even if I included For Whom the Bell Tolls, I think Marquez would still win (I'm sure he's so honored). His dialogue is less stilted than Hemingway's, or at the least, it doesn't draw my attention with how odd it seems. I suppose some of Hemingway's could be how people in that region of Spain actually speak, once you translate it to English. I don't know, but the phrasing kept distracting me. Worst book? Tower was pretty rough, but I was never that enthused about reading it, so the nod goes to Philip Kerr's The Shot. There were parts of it, things he set up subtly, I was really impressed by, but every character was such a drag to deal with, it turned into a slog to get through.


As it turns out, I didn't watch a lot of movies the second half of this year. At least, not many I felt were worth blogging about. I guess the selections my dad sent along in the fall weren't very appealing. On the plus side, there aren't many bad movies. A lot of mediocre ones I'm not going to bother mentioning, but not a lot of ones I thought were truly awful. I guess I should apply the "No previously consumed media" rule I had with books to movies, so that rules out 12 Angry Men and The Professional on the good side, and Frogs on the bad.

On the bad side of things, that still leaves Capricorn One, which was a mess of plot holes and stupid decisions by the bad guys, made only to help the good guys survive a little longer. There's The Mist, which was a sort of blandly inoffensive movie until that stupid, stupid, ending. I still find it telling there were a dozen of us watching, and not a single person didn't think that ending was hot garbage. Welcome to Hard Times was a tonally discordant mess, with some questionable ideas packed in there. Star Trek Into Darkness was movie so poor, I have to consider a sound effect used in one scene, for a few seconds, as one of the rare positives in the movie. CumberKhan is a poor, pale shadow of MontalKhan.

I have The Lady from Shanghai on the list, but I don't if that was really a bad movie. By Orson Welles standards it was, but it was still a fair sight better than the others on the list. So Worst movie I watched this year goes to. . . The Mist, for that awful, awful ending. I considered Into Darkness, but I was more bored than anything else by it.

All right, forget the dreck, where's the good stuff? I put The War Lover on here, but honestly, that's strictly because I was impressed with the direction they took Steve McQueen's character. Taking the normally smoldering intensity and making it more frightening by pushing it further than in his more heroic roles. The film isn't good enough overall, though, Ditto for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but in that case, I enjoyed the style of the movie, how Edgar Wright mostly committed to the quirks of that world without having characters call attention to it in that knowing, embarrassed way that is sometimes used.

So that leaves five movies: Porco Rosso, The Magnificent Seven, JCVD, The Third Man, and Ferry to Hong Kong. Hayao Miyazaki, two Orson Welles films, one of the most highly regarded American Westerns, and a movie starring Jean Claude van Damme. You laugh (or maybe that's just me), but I did find JCVD well-directed, well acted, and deeply affecting. It gave me a new perspective on some things. I'd put it ahead of Magnificent Seven, which exceeded my expectations, but is unlikely to crack my list of favorite Westerns any time soon. Ferry to Hong Kong was a surprisingly funny movie - I hadn't realized Welles was that good at comedy - but I would give the edge to The Third Man between the two. It's hardly a cheery film, but there are a lot of layers to it that are fun to pull apart a look at separately or together. Porco Rosso was gorgeous, funny, and moved smoothly between sad and hopeful. For the very best of the year, it comes down to either Porco Rosso or The Third Man.

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