In what has undoubtedly been a cursed year, I have been thankfully kept sane by a number of things, namely films and books but also a few other outlets of frustration. Suffice to say, when you’re taking solace from a hobby for which the tagline is ‘In the grim darkness of far future, there is only war’, you can bet it has been a pretty tough year. My thoughts are with those who have had it much tougher than I have. I have counted myself lucky to be in a line of work which has been only partly affected by the various crises of the year and, though it absolutely made making ends meet incredibly difficult, I’m alive and so are my loved ones. That is the main thing. With that out of the way, here are some highlights from a year we’d probably all rather forget.
- Sonatine (1993) – Takeshi Kitano
- The Boston Strangler (1968) – Richard Fleischer
- The Line-Up (1958) – Don Siegel
- Folle à tuer (1975) – Yves Boisset
- The Squeeze (1977) – Michael Apted
- Destry Rides Again (1939) – George Marshall
- Payroll (1961) – Sidney Hayers
- Le Silencieux (1973) – Claude Pinoteau
- The Leopard (1963) – Luchino Visconti
- Police (1985) – Maurice Pialat
In what has been a questionable year for film criticism, I have thankfully found a great many pleasures in film itself. Away from the increasing dominance of dodgy clickbait, I have found immense pleasure in continuing my deep dive into cinema from the 1930s to the 1980s which is thankfully resistant to such critical emptiness. Almost (but not quite) uniquely, my viewing has consisted of films made before 1980 with two out of the five or so exceptions making my top 10 (and still not being older than the early 1990s). Working within this vague framework, as happened last year, boosted the number of hit-rates and level of quality no end. The vast majority of the films I watched were on some level crime or noir, with Westerns a close second. This is evidenced by the films of my top 10.
I delved ever deeper into French cinema this year, working my way through the film equivalents of neo-polar work as well as further exploring pre and post-Nouvelle Vague classics. The quality was high and I particularly enjoyed Mariage (1974) by Claude Lelouch, Marguerite de la nuit (1955) by Claude Autant-Lara, La belle équipe (1936) by Julien Duvivier, Espion, lève-toi (1982) by Yves Boisset, Mort d’un pourri (1977) by Georges Lautner, The Police War (1979) by Robin Davis, No Exit (1954) by Jacqueline Audry, Folle à tuer (1975) by Yves Boisset , Une Si Jolie Petite Plage (1949) by Yves Allégret, Nous sommes tous des asssassins (1952) by André Cayatte, Le train (1973) by Pierre Granier-Deferre, Compartiment tuers (1965) by Costa-Gavras, Dernier domicile connu (1970) by José Giovanni and many, many more. Coming out on top of these was undoubtedly Maurice Pialat’s Police (1985), a stunning and patient film with a focus on character that feels neither morally forced nor condescending. I watched a few of Pialat’s other films this year that I hadn’t seen but sadly found little to commend in them besides their cinematography (I’m thinking in particular of We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972) which I found frustratingly without purpose). I’m hoping some of his other work still not seen reaches the same heights of Police, Loulou (1980) and À nos amours (1983).
Other fantastic discoveries came in the form of Takeshi Kitano’s cinema, particularly the trilogy consisting of Sonatine (1993), Violent Cop (1989) and Boiling Point (1990). Sonatine made my top 10 though it could easily have been Violent Cop which felt like a Japanese equivalent of both Derek Raymond’s novels and The Sweeney. Suffice to say, neither film’s endings will leave me for quite some time. Talking of which, I’ve enjoyed many British noirs (Payroll (1961) by Sidney Hayers and The Squeeze (1977) by Michael Apted being the strongest), A Prize of Arms (1962) by Cliff Owen, The Long Arm (1956) by Charles Frend, Double Confession (1950) by Ken Annakin, Jack the Ripper (1988) by David Wickes, Cash on Demand (1961) by Quentin Lawrence and Man on the Run (1949) by Lawrence Huntington being the main highlights.
I’ve also swayed heavily into Italian cinema, something I’ve neglected these last few years having watched most of the canonical works in my early twenties. One that I hadn’t watched was Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) which began my year strongly and gave me a taste to finally explore the Italian cinema I had neglected, manifesting in particular in an exploration Spaghetti Westerns more thoroughly. A number of those could have made an appearance in my top ten but, suffice to say, I’ve enjoyed The Specialists (1969) by Sergio Corbucci, Day of Anger (1967) by Tonino Valerii, Django (1966) by Sergio Corbucci, They Call Me Trinity (1970) by Enzo Barboni, My Name is Nobody (1973) by Tonino Valerii and The Big Gundown (1966) by Sergio Sollima. I fully expect some Italian Westerns to be in my 2021 top ten. In any case, Destry Rides Again (1939) by George Marshall was ultimately my best Western of the year and, as my film ratings suggest that I’ve watched over 60, that’s a testament to that film’s credentials. Other American Westerns have been strong too, in particular The Tin Star (1957) by Anthony Mann, Gunman’s Walk (1958) by Phil Karlson, The Shootist (1976) by Don Siegel and Along the Great Divide (1951) by Raoul Walsh.
In terms of American cinema, noir played a huge part in my film viewings again. I watched a fair few classics, though only The Line-Up (1958) by Don Siegel made the final cut. Many deserve praise though there are too many to list fully: Prince of the City (1981) by Sidney Lumet, The Laughing Policeman (1973) by Stuart Rosenberg, Between Midnight and Dawn (1950) by Gordon Douglas, Edge of the City (1957) by Martin Ritt, The New Centurions (1972) by Richard Fleischer, The Seven-Ups (1973) by Philip D’Antoni, Hardcore (1979) by Paul Schrader and many more. The Boston Strangler (1968) by Richard Fleischer is likely my best film of the year. Having succumb to a certain curiosity regarding true-crime books and films, I savoured every moment of Fleischer’s startling and unnerving film. It manages to balance being horrific, moralistic and stylish, using every visual and aural trick to get to the heart of a brutal and irremediably grim series of crimes. I doubt I’ll see a better performance from Tony Curtis in a huge career shift from lovable rogue to a totally unaware killer. An overall excellent year of hard-hitting, gritty cinema that has given me pleasure and surprising comfort. Hopefully 2021 will provide a lighter backdrop.
- Portrait of a Man (2012) – Georges Perec
- Once Across, Two Down (1971) – Ruth Rendell
- Memoirs from Beyond the Grave (1848) – François-René de Chateaubriand
- Hell (1908) – Henri Barbusse
- Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009) – Olga Tokarczuk
- Great Expectations (1860) – Charles Dickens
- Train Dreams (2002) – Denis Johnson
- Nada (1972) – Jean-Patrick Manchette
- Journey to the End of the Night (1932) – Louis-Ferdinand Céline
- In a Lonely Place (1947) – Dorothy B. Hughes
My reading has followed a similar trajectory to my film viewing in its embracement of genre. I’ve enjoyed dipping back and forth between classics, genre and weird cult novels though, in the end, the balance was similar to last year’s blend of genre fiction and classics, in particular French fiction which occupies five out of my ten spots. I imagine that, with my current reading veering heavily towards American novels, this will change next year, but France appears to have an endless supply of writing tailored to my various needs at any given moment.
Georges Perec’s Portrait of a Man was a revelation and gave me faith in writers over the industry, considering its long list of rejections. Good books will always find their way through the industry’s ever constant, evangelical risk aversion. As for other great French literature, the overriding common denominator seems to be an enjoyable pessimism. Hell by Henri Barbusse was a sleazy, psychological thriller that I imagine will find a new audience as soon as it’s reprinted. Following on from enjoying Rousseau’s Confessions last year, I gave Chateaubriand’s Memoirs a go and the New York Review of Books volume was fantastic. A mixture of sheer adventuring, political intrigue and a sharp prose style, it certainly joined the dots between a number of other writers I’ve been enjoying this last decade, in particular Balzac and Proust. A combination of Céline and Manchette finished off my year of French pessimism, the former startling me with its fantastically acidic nihilism, the latter captivating in its violence and the political naivety of its characters coming undone.
Nada wasn’t the only great crime novel I read this year. I was spoiled for choice in regards to exactly what to include in terms of crime, and I did in the end limit myself to a handful rather than giving over the full final ten to crime. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes was undoubtedly the strongest, a genuinely terrifying book that often verges on horror, closely followed by a much more modern novel, Olga Tokarczuk’s stunning Drive your Plow. I also decided to place Ruth Rendell’s Once Across, Two Down in there for good measure which has crept up on me again and again since I read it earlier this year (partly due to its evocation of the London that I associate with such horrors as Jack the Stripper; that banal Post-War suburban West London that seems to have housed multitudes of forgotten horrors). I’ve explored a fair number of Rendell’s non-Wexford novels as well as a number of P.D. James’ Dalgleish novels too. One Across, Two Down could have easily been replaced with her fantastic A Judgement of Stone (making it the second Claude Chabrol-adapted novel of the year) as well as with Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, P.D. James’ Nightmare for a Nightingale and Unnatural Causes, Jim Thompson’s The Criminal and The Killer Inside Me, Ted Lewis’ Billy Rags, Derek Raymond’s The Crust on Their Uppers and Leo Malét’s Mayhem in the Marais. I look forward to exploring more and more on the genre in the New Year .
In terms of Literary Fiction, I’ve strayed a little found only a handful of books I’ve really truly enjoyed in its vaguely modern form. I finally got around to reading Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters which was superb, as was Attrib. by Eley Williams, The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy, Boredom by Alberto Moravia and Ash Before Oak by Jeremy Cooper. Most other Literary Fiction has, however, left me cold, something I hope will change next year though it is a growing reaction that will most likely influence how I want my own writing to evolve in the coming years.
Finally, I wanted to quickly outline a turn that will increase next year. As with my film viewings, I’ve been intrigued by the possibility of Westerns, whether subtle or overt, in literary terms (partly because I have a nagging inclination to write some). The ones I have enjoyed so far at the latter end of this year have included All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, True Grit by Charles Portis and (as of today), I am currently half way through and enjoying Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. Expect books by McCarthy, Elmore Leonard, Oakley Hall and Larry McMurty to make an appearance in next year’s roundup.
A quick note of thanks to all of the publishers who have kindly sent me books this year, especially the independents who will undoubtedly have had a tougher year than the big guns. Support your independent publishers and small bookshops if you want them to survive into 2021 and beyond.
It’s been a strange old year for work. My latest novel was released in February though that time feels like another world, and certainly make me feel odd considering it as part of 2020; a year which in reality will likely run from March to December in the history books. It really doesn’t feel like I’ve had a novel out at all. Either way, the book was a step forward, it had a lovely launch at Foyles with Deborah Levy and had some nice write-ups, including in The Guardian and the TLS. I’ve collected everything about it here but fingers crossed that my next one (released in February 2022) doesn’t coincide with another devastating pandemic.
I’ve thankfully stayed afloat through a range of chances and work, including a fair bit of radio work for the BBC, writing for various outlets as well as the usual avenues and a whole range of seemingly random work which I’m lucky enough to have got. I’ve actually written more this year than any year since 2016 when I was writing my PhD alongside Folk Horror (something I admittedly promised I would never put myself through again…). Suffice to say, I’ve been happy with a handful of the articles, a few of which are listed below.
Finally, film projects were virtually impossible this year, so only one made it through: a fake trailer for a Derek Raymond TV series. You can read about it here and on Dangerous Minds here, but it was just a small project to keep my hand in editing and not forgetting how to make things. Other than that, I’ve spent most of the year painting Orks and restoring Warhammer 40,000 models… What an odd year indeed. Here’s to 2021, a year which will have to try very little to be better.