A Good List Goes a Long Way- 2021 Edition

FILMS. 2021 was the year my film watching went decidedly eclectic. I kept mostly out of cinemas- wondering whether someone’s cough is COVID or the nachos scratching their throat is not conductive to great entertainment. Online cinemas can be fun if a little odd- the chat rooms are an unexpected throwback to the weird years of making niche interest based friendships on mIRC. I ended up with subscriptions to too many streaming platforms- Amazon isn’t worth much beyond The Grand Tour, but MUBI is a keeper, a treasure trove of non-mainstream gems. I also became less hung up on watching all the new releases and patched up some unforgivable gaps in my cinematographic culture. The below selection brings a little of all these worlds.

Nomadland it seems eons ago that this won the Oscar, and as any best picture winner it has both passionate fans and rabid detractors. Its bared down, melancholy tone is however perfect for these confusing times.

The Trial of the Chicago Seven– I never expect to like anything that contains Sacha Baron Cohen, but he is in fact one of the attractions of this film, alongside the witty, insightful script.

My Neighbour Totoro– this was one of those unforgivable gaps, alongside the rest of the Miyazaki oeuvre. I stand very much corrected on my lack of enthusiasm.

Minari- I’m not fully on the bandwagon of all things Korean, but Minari’s tone, not much dissimilar to that of Nomadland, makes it unexpectedly poignant and emotional in all the right ways.

The Long Goodbye I didn’t expect to like an adaptation of Chandler either, but Altman strikes the perfect balance in keeping true to the original while adding personal twists. A thought provoking and highly entertaining addition to the Marlowe universe.

Old Timers– two grumpy seniors wrestle with the troubled past of their country, which in the Czech Republic invariably involves a heavy sprinkling of highly absurd and very dark humour. The online festival chatroom was centred around beer preferences and became decidedly erratic towards the end, when said preferences had been consumed.

Teret an unsmiling middle aged man wrestles with the troubled past and present of his country, which in Serbia invariably involves much bleakness and an ominous sense of danger. Definitely not the most light hearted cinematic experience, but compelling nevertheless.

Pity a particularly stylish issue of Greek weird wave, courtesy of MUBI, the story of a man who is only happy when he is unhappy. Life is never quite what it seems, and beware for whom you bake cakes.

The Power of the Dog– I very much expect Bandysnuggle Cumberswabbles to be excellent in everything, so he goes and exceeds my great expectations, because he can. I have many further notes on this, and they’re all highly exalted- which, if there was an order on this list, would probably put this one on top.

The Sound of Metal insert swooning over Riz Ahmed here, but this is another overall tour de force, that touched a nerve for a (in pre-Covid times) regular concert goer with the occasional concerning post show tinnitus.

MUSIC. The most shocking thing, for me, in Adele asking Spotify to remove the shuffle button from her recent album was that someone would shuffle albums. It’s probably my age showing (rewinding and forwarding cassettes came with a non negligible entanglement and breakage risk I was not willing to take), but the only way I can imagine listening to a really good album is first song to last, no exceptions, in the order the artist lined them up. Enjoying them is an altogether different beast to hopping from song to song in a playlist (not better, not worse, just different). With songs, I usually fall in love at first or second hearing, whereas full albums usually grow on me slowly- Lorde’s (by her standard) minimalistic piece took me about a month and several listens to really appreciate.

James Blake- Friends That Break Your Heart:  has so many eclectic things going for it, among others, it is home to the most entertaining video of the year

The Killers- Pressure Machine: the textbook example of slow burner enjoyment, no classical Killer(s) zingers, but very evocative of a place and a feeling

Sam Fender- Seventeen Going Under: the Geordie version of Bruce Springsteen, both being compliments. The title song is the ‘Dancing in the Dark’ our generation didn’t know it needed.

Self Esteem-Prioritise Pleasure: I have lived my life with little to no awareness of the magnificent Rebecca Taylor until now, and I regret everything

Damon Albarn- The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows: basically takes up all the space with the title, a quote from the poet John Clare, because Damon can do frankly anything he wants and it will be perfect

Lana Del Rey-Chemtrails Over The Country Club: further evidence that all Lana Del Rey songs are essentially the same song, but it’s an excellent song, and you don’t mind listening to it for as long as it takes

Arab Strap- As Days Get Dark: because I like to contradict myself, here is an album that I absolutely loved from the very first listen.  Insanely catchy, with Scottish spoken word bits, who needs more from life.

Magenta- Monogramme: no year end album list is complete without some French electro, and Magenta landed as winners among pretty strong competition

Lorde- Solar Power: as mentioned, took me some time to get into it, but it works wonders both as summer soundtrack and antidote to gross winter weather

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis- Carnage: the album version of Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files. Wiser, nobler, more gracious, insightful, and articulate than any of us mere mortals will ever be.

And here’s the collaborative best of 2021 playlist, knock yourself out with that shuffle button.

BOOKS. Eduardo Galeano- El fútbol a sol y sombra (Football in Sun and Shadow): people often eye me suspiciously when I tell them I love to read books about football, but the thing is, the best books about football are not really about football, but about some fundamental existential truths that humans try to make sense of through the act of playing, watching, and debating football.  Galeano’s book is a splendid example of this noble exercise.

Aleksandar Hemon -My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You: a heart wrenching comfort read, Hemon’s book is about parents that anyone from the Eastern European/Balkan world will immediately relate to, but also about the tragic dissolution of a country and a dream, both personal and collective

Tove Ditlevesen- Childhood. Youth. Dependency: one of those timeless books that get to you no matter when and where you read them. When I finished it, I felt not only that I know infinitely more about the Copenhagen of the first half of the 20th Century, but almost as if I’d lived there, and Ditlevsen’s trials and tribulations were my own.

Charmian Clift-Peel Me A Lotus: this ended randomly right after Ditlevsen, but in many ways, the two authors are soul sisters. Ferociously talented women who were ultimately destroyed by a world that seems to fear few things more than ferociously talented women.

Fatima Daas- La petite dernière(The Last One) : a sparse, elegant and poignant trip into the world of a young Frenchwoman who happens to be Muslim and lesbian. The book’s greatest achievement is that, while the author remains deeply conflicted, the reader grows to realise that the three are by no means mutually exclusive.

Mieko Kawakami- Breasts and Eggs: I was surprised to discover that the Romanian translation of the title is the much safer and more sedate Summer Tale. I was a bit cross, because one of the novel’s strengths is the clairvoyant and merciless scrutiny on the fate of women, especially in a ritualistically conservative society like the Japanese one

Karl Ove Knausgård- Morning Star: Fair admission: Knausgård can do no wrong for me, I even love his most abstruse essays about inconsequential phenomena that most people feel slightly alienated by. But Morning Star should be a delight even for the more discerning reader. It has been dubbed Stephen King for snobs, which it may well be, since the horror element planted into Knausgård’s mundane universe works perfectly and haunts you long after you finished the book.

Jonathan Franzen- Crossroads:  While I love most of Franzen’s work, he has put his foot wrong once or twice (a couple if his early novels still lie unread at the bottom of my ever growing tsundoku pile). Crossroads, however, might just be his best work. I couldn’t put it down, except for brief moments when I was amazed at how effortlessly and beautifully some passages were written and I just needed a quick moment to absorb them fully.

Kapka Kassabova- To the Lake: I am a big fan of Kassabova’s meanderings in search of meaning in the lands of her origins, which turn out to be, quite typically for the Balkan world, liminal spaces almost too complicated to grasp at once.  As somebody who was born in Bulgaria but has lived in New Zealand and Scotland for most of her life, she has both the instinctive emotions of a local and the critical eye of a foreigner.

Viet Thanh Nguyen- The Sympathizer: The Vienam war always felt to me like an almost constant background noise to everything I knew about American culture, but I never actively sought to know more about it. Enter The Sympathizer, which can be read as many novels in one, a historical novel, a spy novel, a bildungsroman, and instantly opens up one’s appetite to really understand what the Vietnam war was, and to a certain extent, still is, about.

PICTURES. Notable absence: concerts. One of my major wishes for 2022 is finally making it to some shows with (mild) peace of mind. My ALT-J ticket for June feels like a tantalising promise. All in all, though, in its tentative way, 2021 was not fully unkind, and took me to Vienna, Athens, Hydra, Spetses, the Balaton, Sighisoara and even to a Euro 2021 (or EM 2022 as the Germans logically called it) game. And every now and then, the light on the corner of Andrássy and Izabella streets is magical, and one doesn’t wish to be anywhere else but there.

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