Pictured Above: The Zelda Calendar where I documented my cultural intake
We’ve come careering to the end of what feels like one of the longest years in living memory. Remember the World Cup? That was six months ago. What is going on?
In a blind attempt to attach some sort of anchoring grapple onto this hoary beast we call Time, I have diligently tracked the meatiest chunks of my cultural consumption this year. I’ve noted down every book I’ve finished, every film I’ve watched and every video game I’ve completed, regardless of whether they were released this year or not. In July, I took a mid-year look, crunched some data, regurgitated some stats. Turns out I was being (surprise, surprise) dominated by white male creatives, so I tried in the latter half of the year to do something about that, at least in my book-reading habits.
I rather enjoyed keeping track of everything, although I did detect within myself a certain hurriedness. At times, I felt I was reading, watching and playing just in the desperate service of these stats. I’m not sure who I was trying to impress or what I was racing, nor did I set myself any particular targets. Like the Cookie Monster, I just wanted to consume ALL OF THE CULTURE and in the process perhaps I didn’t pause to allow for enough reflection or meditation on what I was supposed to be absorbing. I shall, therefore, continue to record my habits but I will actively aim to read, watch and play fewer books, films and games next year. I want to train myself out of rush-reading and swim against the rampant tide a little.
Nevertheless, I did take in some astonishingly wonderful pieces of culture this year, including some important games, some classic works of literature, and some of the finest films ever committed to celluloid and/or digital space. Let’s look at some details:
Pictured Above: The frantic, infuriating but always wonderful Overcooked
I completed 16 games this year. These be they (in order of completion):
A delight to play both Breath of the Wild and Shadow of the Colossus in the same year. I’m pleased with the amount of indie gaming I did this year – largely down to the Switch being such a wonderful pick-up-and-play console for these sorts of shorter and sweeter games. Poured a lot of time into Heavy Rain just for it to f*ck me over with the stupidest plot twist in gaming history, but I appreciated some of its aesthetic and drama. Everyone should play Mario & Rabbids, it was my surprise hit of the year and the game I had the most fun playing. I also dearly loved Overcooked and it was a rare joy to complete a game with the assistance of my non-gaming wife. We are currently chopping and frying our way through the sequel.
Breath of the Wild takes the crown this year as the best game I played. I am currently thumbs-deep in a whole raft of recent releases, including Red Dead Redemption 2, Super Smash Bros Ultimate, Thumper, The Sexy Brutale and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. It is kind of like being in the late 90s again and I love it.
Pictured Left: The poster for Son of Saul, the best film I watched this year. Essential viewing.
I’ve watched 126 films this year. Well. That’s quite a lot isn’t it? It’s nearly two and half films a week that is. Not bad going at all. And most of those have been damn good films as I do tend to be quite good at avoiding the dreck. Of those 126, forty-one were 2018 releases (in the UK), thirty-four of which were cinema trips. This latter would have been a few notches higher if it weren’t for the sly new trend of Netflix grabbing some key releases and putting them out on very minimal cinema distribution, if at all. These include the new Coen Brothers anthology film The Ballard of Buster Scruggs, the David Mackensie epic Outlaw King, the new Alfonso Cuaron film Roma, and, most annoyingly of all, the Alex Garland visual treat Annihilation. I doubt the small screens of the world did justice to the incredible cinematography of these offerings but perhaps it has meant that more people get to see the work of these particular auteurs. It remains to be seen if this trend continues. It might depend on the Academy Awards…
Here are all the films I watched this year (sorry the text is so tiny - hopefully if you click the pic it gets bigger):
And some stats for ya:
Only twelve films directed by women. That is a shocking statistic and lays bare the sexism entrenched in the film industry – but also in my own viewing habits, perhaps. Next year I need to make a more active effort to better address this balance. In terms of nationalities, my habits are still very much dominated by American film making and this might also be a good thing to reduce down next year if I can. Time to spend a little more time in the ‘world cinema’ aisles.
Of the new films I saw this year, Phantom Thread remains my favourite, followed in second and third place by Leave No Trace and Lek and the Dogs, with American Animals and Peterloo in the runner-up positions. I did, however, miss some key releases of the year which I’ll be endeavouring to catch-up with. These include Hereditary (was too scared to see it), You Were Never Really Here, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Spider-Man: Enter the Spider-Verse, and Sorry to Bother You. I had no interest in Isle of Dogs because, controversially, I can't stand Wes Anderson films any more.
Setting aside revisits of some of my top favourite ever films (Blade Runner, The Third Man), the best film I watched this year was the astonishing but brutal and difficult Son of Saul. It is one of the most affecting films about the Holocaust I’ve ever seen and fragments of it constantly echo into my brain when I least expect it to. Absolutely essential viewing – it’s a complete masterpiece. But get yourself ready because it is not an easy watch at all.
Pictured Left: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. An incredible book with some of those take-your-breath-away moments.
I’ve read 89 books this year, but I have been a bit cheaty here. I’m counting as a ‘book’ anything that has a front and back cover that could be deemed literature, so that includes single-issue comics, collected volumes of comics, single publications of plays, literary magazines, poetry collections, and little single-issue novellas/collections like the little green Penguin Modern books. So, I managed to fire through a heck of a lot of very quick reads which put my stats up considerably. In terms of solid novels and novel-length books of non-fiction, the figure is more like 52 – and one a week feels about right.
As mentioned above, I tried to modify my reading habits at the turn of the mid-point of the year after quailing at the domination of white male writers. So, in the second half of the year, I read two female-authored books for every one male-authored, a habit I’m going to try and keep up. I didn’t quite get to a 50-50 split of male and female authors (in fact I got nowhere near), but I was glad of the opportunity to see that bad habit and subsequently try to do something about it.
Next year I’m planning a big read of key female-authored fantasy series. So, I’m lining up Atwood’s Madd-Adam trilogy, Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (as well as the last in her Inheritance Trilogy) and – the big one – the whole Harry Potter series. I’ve also recently introduced my other half to Shirley Jackson so we’ll likely move through her back catalogue together too. I’m getting all excited about all of this even as I type it.
Anyway. Here are the books I read and the corresponding stats:
Of the books I read this year, Lincoln in the Bardo remains my favourite, but I was also knocked sideways by One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Vegetarian, Chernobyl Prayer, Aliya Whiteley's fantastic slice of weirdness The Loosening Skin (Unsung Press), The Stone Book Quartet, and The Naming of Adult Autism by Dr James McGrath. I think books might be my best friends.
A quick look at this last pie chart reveals a concerning trend in regards to the literary magazine. I only read three this year - one Interzone, one Black Static and one Shoreline of Infinity. I must confess to struggling to find space in my reading habits for literary mags, despite the fact that I still send a lot of my own writing out to them. In truth, I think I only really read lit mags if one of my stories is printed inside it. I do believe in lit mags as part of the essential life-blood of the literature world, but why don't I pick many of them up? It may be partly to do with the fact that they don't tend to be readily available in bookshops or newsagents, most of whom don't want to take the chance in stocking them. The alternative is subscription, but I used to do that with Interzone and found myself stacking them up month-on-month and not getting round to reading them. Plus, I found that the stories weren't always to my taste - I got a bit burned out, for example, by the constant hard-SF tales about future cyberpunk China (yawn). Nevertheless, I do want to support the literary mag scene - so if anyone has any damn fine recommendations for particularly good mags, let me know!
I didn’t keep track of the other bits and pieces I encountered, but it would be nice to mark a few other key encounters with culture that I particularly enjoyed this year.
In the TV box we summoned up Ken Burn’s The American Civil War after an extremely strong recommendation from an excitable friend. It didn’t disappoint. It probably is one of the finest pieces of television ever made. Both This Country and People Just Do Nothing were as delightful as ever (especially when Fantasy took that orange. Did you see Fantasy take that orange?). For some reason we watched Bodyguard instead of Killing Eve and I’m not quite sure why. Better Call Saul was on point as ever whereas Daredevil very much disappointed, and I think I might be done with Marvel’s TV series now. The BBC adaptation of The ABC Murders seemed to have everyone divided, but I for one absolutely loved it.
Art-wise, I went to one of the finest exhibitions I’ve ever been to in the shape of the Keith Haring retrospective at the Albertina in Vienna. A perfectly laid-out exhibition with just the right level of descriptive interpretation. I did rather enjoy the Bee in the City public art installations here in Manchester and the day when my wife and I took it upon ourselves to see as many as possible in one trip was one of my favourite days of the year. Further excellence was found in the woods of Macclesfield at the Bluedot Festival where Luke Jerram had strung up a gigantic, glowing, humming Earth (pictured above). Over at the Liverpool Biennial, we took to the basement of the Cunard Building to a beguiling exhibition of modern art from Shanghai which was delightful, inspiring and memorable. Also in Liverpool, we caught the strange wonder of Aurora at Toxteth Reservoir – an installation of light, sound, ice, lasers inside the tomb-like bowels of this suburban reservoir. A complete wonder.
At the theatres and music gigs this year, we ached with laughter at Garry Starr Performs Everything recently, while the Flim Nite presents Jurassic Park cavalcade at the top of the year was delirious fun from start to finish (check out my performance for it with Rickerly here). Its also been a delight to get my new spoken word night Big Words started with my pal Ali, and I also spent a very special day inside NIAMOS in Hulme for the (In)sane mental health arts event. Gigswise, Jon Hopkins at Albert Hall was soul-cleansing, Flaming Lips & Chemical Brothers at the Bluedot were everything we dreamed of, and it was hella nice to see Interpol do their Turn on the Bright Lights anniversary tour. I also had a lot of fun watching the Toronto Bluejays play their baseballs when I skipped over to Canada.
Favourite music of the year included Skee Mask's album Compro, that Idles album everyone is banging on about, ditto Janelle Monae's Dirty Computer. According to my Spotify my most listened to artist this year was Childish Gambino, but my actual favourite album was, of course, Anima by Rickerly. Bro done good.