NEW: Top 10 films of 2016

So, today, I want to try something new. As you’ve probably guessed, I read a lot of books in my day-to-day life, and it’s something I enjoy a lot. However, I also watch a lot of films, and today I want to talk about the ones I saw in 2016 which I consider the best. I’m going to write it from 10-1, 10 being the worst and 1 being the best. Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading this, and let me know what your favourite films of last year were.

Disclaimer: There are a lot of supposedly good films which won’t be on this list (like Your Name, Moonlight, and some other films) because I haven’t seen them yet. I intend to see them in the future, though, and maybe there’ll be a post about those when I have seen them.

10) The Conjuring 2

James Wan has a pretty clear goal when it comes to film-making. He’s not trying to push the boundaries of cinema, or give commentary on any kind of political or social issue. What he is trying to do is create horror films that classic in style, even if they are pretty modern in their execution, and he does it with mixed results. The Conjuring 2 is his best effort since Insidious, and that was a fairly flawed film. For me, the only films he’s written that are worth watching are Saw and this.

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9) Green Room

Jeremy Saulnier is a bit like James Wan in the way that he looks back to genre films of the past. The only difference is that he’s interested in revenge thrillers, not horror films. Green Room is pretty by the numbers, but it’s also a very tense and well-written film with a great performance from Patrick Stewart. This one may not be for people who don’t like violence, but if you’re looking for a thriller, then you could do much worse than this.

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8) Sing Street

Considering his skill at making very feel-good musicals with a lot of character, I’m surprised John Carney isn’t more famous. Although this film isn’t quite as good as Once, it’s an improvement on Begin Again, his second film. What I like about this one is that it’s not afraid to be bittersweet instead of purely a feel-good film. If you’re a fan of musicals, and you’re interested in a film which is suitable for the entire family, then this is the one for you.

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7) The Witch

When I saw this film, I thought it was going to be higher on the list, because it is great. The only thing stopping it being in the top five is the pacing issues in the middle of the film. But despite those issues, the film is incredibly atmospheric and scary, and the ending can be interpreted in a lot of ways. Also, this is nothing like The Conjuring 2. It’s very experimental and plays with traditional horror tropes, and the result is something very original. If you’re a fan of horror, this is a must-see.

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6) Midnight Special

I went into this film with pretty much no idea what to expect. In fact, I think the only reason I went to see it was because I was going to see Sing Street, and it was sold out. But I was pleasantly surprised. Midnight Special is a pretty unique Sci-Fi film with good acting and a very tense plot. Imagine a more down-to-earth Stephen Spielberg film with a less commercial storyline – if that sounds like your kind of thing, then I’m sure you’ll enjoy this.

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5) Nocturnal Animals

The best thing Nocturnal Animals has going for it is how original it is. Although the film is adapted from a novel by Austin Wright, the way it was transposed onto the screen is pretty impressive. The acting in this film is great, too, particularly Amy Adams and Aaron-Taylor Johnson as Ray Marcus. This film is very dark and disturbing though, and includes a lot of violence, so be prepared for that.

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4) Arrival

This is another Amy-Adams led film, but it’s very different from Nocturnal Animals. In this, she plays a linquistics professor employed by the US government to decipher the language of an alien species who come to earth. I loved this film from start to finish, and I went to see it three times when it came out. The cinematography in this is amazing, and so is pretty much everything else about it. It’s also a very fresh take on the alien invasion genre. Without spoiling too much, all I can say is that the aliens are not really invaders.

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3) Embrace of the Serpent

Embrace of the Serpent is probably the most unique film on this list. Shot entirely in black and white, this film transports you into its world pretty much from the opening shot. It gets across the feeling of being in the amazon rainforest so well, yet never feels exploitative. There isn’t really much I can say to sell this film. It’s the kind of thing you have to see to understand exactly what’s so good about it.

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2) Under The Shadow

Under the Shadow is probably the least well-known film on this list, but it’s the best horror film I’ve seen in years. It’s scary and an incredibly intelligent and socially aware film. It’s short, but it never feels rushed. If it was any longer, I think it would have been fleshed out with unnecessary exposition or weak jump scares that you’d find in a less well-made film like Ouija: Origin of Evil. This is great stuff.

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1) La La Land

It took me a while to decide which film to put first, but it couldn’t really be anything else. This is the latest film by Damien Chazelle of Whiplash fame, and if it doesn’t make you appreciate musicals, I don’t think anything will. The cinematrography in this is exquisite, the songs are great, and Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are fantastic as Mia and Sebastian. I went into this with reservations. I didn’t want to be disappointed because of the amount of hype the film was receiving, but from the minute the film began to the moment it ended, I was completely swept up in it. Go and see La La Land – I’m almost certain you won’t regret it.

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So, there it is. My top ten films of 2016. What do you think? do you agree? would you like to see more of this kind of stuff on the blog? Let me know in the comments, I’m always interested to know what other people think.

NEW: Book Haul

This month has been pretty slim in terms of the amount of books I’ve actually bought, because two of them are pretty long – at least 700 pages. That being said, they are books I’m pretty excited to read. Maybe some of you have read them before and if so, please let me know what you thought of them. I’m pretty curious to know. Anyway, here goes.

  1. South of the Border, West of the Sun

Author:
Haruki Murakami

Synopsis:
Growing up in the suburbs of post-war Japan, it seemed to Hajime that everyone but him had brothers and sisters. His sole companion was Shimamoto, also an only child. Together they spent long afternoons listening to her father’s record collection. But when his family moved away, the two lost touch. Now Hajime is in his thirties. After a decade of drifting he has found happiness with his loving wife and two daughters, and success running a jazz bar. Then Shimamoto reappears. She is beautiful, intense, enveloped in mystery. Hajime is catapulted into the past, putting at risk all he has in the present.”

 Thoughts:

This one is a bit of a departure for me, because it’s the first book I’ll ever read in German (for those curious, the German title is Südlich der Grenze, Westlich der Sonne.) I don’t know how easy it will be to understand for me, but the book’s short – no longer than 200 pages – and Murakami’s an author I really like. Generally, I do prefer his more experimental books, and this sounds more in the vein of Norwegian Wood, but I still enjoyed that book a lot. So I’m excited for this.

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2. The Name of the Wind

Author:
Patrick Rothfuss

Synopsis:
“Told in Kvothe’s own voice, this is the tale of the magically gifted young man who grows to be the most notorious wizard his world has ever seen.

The intimate narrative of his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, his years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, and his life as a fugitive after the murder of a king form a gripping coming-of-age story unrivaled in recent literature.

A high-action story written with a poet’s hand, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that will transport readers into the body and mind of a wizard.”

Thoughts:
Generally, I don’t read many fantasy novels, but now and then a book comes along that garners so much attention it’s pretty hard to ignore it. The Name of the Wind is one of those books. I’m gonna go into this one with cautious optimism, because this particular kind of fantasy is not something I really enjoy. But at the end of the day, a good book is a good book, and I don’t really believe in tarring an entire genre with the same brush.

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3. The Goldfinch

Author:
Donna Tartt

Synopsis:
“It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.”

Thoughts:
I recently reviewed another of Donna Tartt’s books, The Secret History, and loved it. What drew me to this one is that it seems as if it will be completely different to that novel while still being fast-paced and intelligent. Donna Tartt may well become one of my favourite authors in the future, if this book is as good as The Secret History.

There’ll be reviews coming soon, definitely during February, and I’m looking forward to talking about them in more detail. In the meantime, what do you think about these books? Would you recommend? Which is your favourite?

Thanks for reading.

REVIEW: The Secret History

AUTHOR:
Donna Tartt

FILM ADAPTATION:
No

SYNOPSIS:
Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.

REVIEW:
The main selling point of The Secret History is that instead of being a book that makes us wonder who committed the crime, it’s a book that makes wonder why it was committed to begin with. In fact, the first thing you find out about is how Bunny’s murder happened. The rest of the novel explains the motivation behind the crime and the aftermath of it.

Here are the things I liked about the book. First off, it’s really well written. Either Donna Tartt has studied how exactly people at liberal arts’ colleges act and speak, or she’s spent a lot of time around them, because the dialogue in this novel is probably the most authentic thing about it. The second thing I liked is that all of the characters have pretty distinct personalities, as they should in a novel like this. It’s pretty obvious that Donna Tartt is knowledgeable about the murder mystery genre, and it shows in her writing.

I don’t want to ruin it, but there’s a central tension in the first half of the novel which makes it practically impossible to stop reading the book. There are just enough clues to keep you drawn in. It never feels like Tartt is using heightened emotions to make you get lost in the novel, though. She drops a fact here, a small incident there, and it works so well.

All of that stuff results in a novel that’s as smart as it is thrilling. There’s a lot to like here, and I’m looking forward to reading more novels by Donna Tartt.

SCORE:
9/10

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The Illuminatus! Trilogy Review

AUTHOR:
Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

FILM ADAPTATION:
No

SYNOPSIS:
It was a deadly mistake. Joseph Malik, editor of a radical magazine, has snooped into rumours about an ancient secret society that turned out to be still alive and kicking. Now his offices have been bombed, he’s gone missing, and the case has landed in the lap of a tough, cynical, streetwise New York detective. Saul Goodman knows he’s stumbled onto something big – but even he can’t guess how far into the pinnacles of power this conspiracy of evil has penetrated.
Brimming with sex and violence – in and out of time and space – the three books of The Illuminatus! Trilogy are only partly works of the imagination. They tackle all the important cover-ups of our time – from who really shot the Kennedys to why there’s a pyramid on the one-dollar bill – and suggest a truly mind-blowing reality.

REVIEW:
I can’t deny that The Illuminatus! Trilogy is an ambitious project. If nothing else, these books are a work of passion through and through. It’s all incredibly well-researched, and I think the initial draw of the books is that they’re a glimpse into a world that is shunned by the general public, and for good reason. But the books ask the audience to suspend disbelief for a while and ask, what if?

That being said, I found the concept of these books a lot more interesting than the act of reading them. Around half way through these novels, I started to notice how little must have been done in the way editing on them. Of course, I can’t know that for sure, but they’re so dense, so full of inconsequential descriptions and dialogue that it’s easy to imagine that they barely saw the inside of an editor’s office before being sent to the printer’s.

I was pretty impressed with the amount of character development in these three novels, but really, I think that’s the only thing it has going for it. A lot of the stuff which is supposed to be funny kind of falls flat, and considering the majority of the book was intended to be a comedy, I was pretty disappointed by it.

I can’t deny that this is an ambitious, passionate piece of work and maybe if I was another person, someone more interested in the idea of conspiracy theories, or if I could lose myself in them enough to find the novels funny, then maybe I would have enjoyed it more. But in the end, it just didn’t win me over.

SCORE:
3/10

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NEW: The Haters Review

AUTHOR:
Jesse Andrews

FILM ADAPTATION:
No

SYNOPSIS:
“Corey and Wes are convinced nothing cool can come of their lame summer at jazz camp, when along comes Ash – all blonde hair and brash words – who cracks their world wide open. Finally, something they can’t seem to hate. Convinced that a great musician is made on the road, the three friends flee camp and begin an epic, hilarious road trip: The Haters Summer of Hate tour.”

REVIEW:

I was a pretty big fan of Jesse Andrews’ last book, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It was a pretty familiar/popular topic at the time (probably owing a lot to The Fault in our Stars) but it was fresh and funny. I went into The Haters expecting something that had a similar vibe, except less bittersweet. I was right and wrong at the same time.

This novel is a lot more generic than his debut. If I had a pound for every book or film I’d heard of that was based around a group of people road tripping, or starting a band, I think I’d be rich. The only thing that really sets this novel apart from the others is Jesse Andrews’ writing style, which is actually quite distinctive. There’s lots of deadpan humour in the novel, and although he doesn’t do anything original or inventive with the formula, the jokes are frequent enough to keep it entertaining.

The problem with this book is the lack of narrative depth. It’s a very breezy read, and if you pick this novel up cheaply somewhere, you’ll most likely get your money’s worth. But there’s nothing in it which merits multiple readings. In the future, I think Jesse Andrews needs to take into account that humour alone isn’t what makes a good novel. The characters need to adopt a new worldview by the end, or go through some kind of change for the experience of reading it to be worth it. Unfortunately, he couldn’t repeat that with his second novel.

SCORE:
6/10

 

NEW: Dance Dance Dance Review

AUTHOR:
Haruki Murakami

FILM ADAPTATION:
No

SYNOPSIS:
“High-class call girls billed to Mastercard. A psychic thirteen-year-old drop-out with a passion for Talking Heads. A hunky matinee idol domed to play dentists and teachers. A one-armed beach-combing poet, an uptight hotel clerk and one very bemused narrator caught in the web of advanced capitalist mayhem. Combine this offbeat cast of characters with Murakami’s idiosyncratic prose and out comes Dance Dance Dance. It is an assault on the senses, part murder mystery, part metaphysical speculation: a fable for our times catchy as a rock song blasting from the window of a sports car.”

REVIEW:

At this point, I’m sure anyone reading this post has a little knowledge about Murakami’s books, whether it’s his Coming-of-Age book Norwegian Wood or one of the weirder ones, like Kafka On the Shore. Dance Dance Dance is a little on the weird side. Well, by the book industry’s standards, it’s an odd one. But by Murakami standards it errs a little to the normal side.

The first thing to say about the novel is that it never really gets boring. In this book, you can see the elements forming that pretty much defined Murakami’s career. It starts off enigmatic and strange, and only gets stranger from there. The novel is so off-the-wall that explaining anything about the plot will most likely ruin the experience of reading it. I think Murakami is an author who is more interested in mood, atmosphere and philosophy than a clear-cut ending.

Basically, I like the book. It’s not perfect, because a lot of the relationships that Murakami is trying to create between the characters sometimes end up being undeveloped. I guess I see the book as an experiment in form, and it’s a form that he has definitely perfected since.

If you’ve never read anything by Haruki Murakami then this novel isn’t really the right place to start. It was probably the fifth or sixth one I read by him, and I’m glad I left it that long. It’s an interesting book, but also a flawed one.

SCORE:
6/10

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NEW: The Girls Review

AUTHOR:
Emma Cline

FILM ADAPTATION:
No

SYNOPSIS:

“Evie Boyd is desperate to be noticed. In the summer of 1969, empty days stretch out under the California sun. The smell of honeysuckle thickens the air and the sidewalks radiates heat.

Until she notices them. The snatch of cold laughter. Hair, long and uncombed. Dirty dresses skimming the tops of thighs. Cheap rings like a second set of knuckles. The girls.

And at the centre, Russell. Russel and the ranch, down a long dirt track and deep in the hills. Incense and clumsily strummed chords. Rumours of sex, frenzied gatherings, teen runaways.

Was there a warning, a sign of things to come? Or is Evie already too enthralled by the girls to see that her life is about to be changed forever?

REVIEW:
I don’t think I was alone in anticipating this book. You can tell just by reading some of the reviews on the novel’s Goodreads page that a lot of people have been reading it, and you can also tell that people have got pretty divided opinions on it. The general consensus seems to be that the book wasn’t as good as the marketing would have you believe.

Personally, I liked it. The main thing I liked about it is that it doesn’t shy away from the reality of its topic. A lot of the time, I think YA novels come at pretty difficult topics in a non-confrontational, kind of sugarcoated way, but this book doesn’t really have any of that. It’d be very easy to make a book like this exploitative and victim-blaming, but it never goes down that road, and that’s a good thing.

The second thing I liked was how relatable the main character is. It’s been a while since I was a teenager, but I can remember feeling out of place, in my hometown. The book works with the premise that where you were born might not be the place you’ll thrive or be happy in. It also runs with the concept that the people in your (potentially small) hometown might not be people you have anything in common with, and the desire to meet new ones. All of this stuff is done incredibly well.

The novel does have a couple of flaws, though. Well, one fairly major flaw. A lot of the time, it does feel a bit overwritten. For example, check out the quote below:

““They didn’t have very far to fall—I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself. Feelings seemed completely unreliable, like faulty gibberish scraped from a Ouija board.”

It’s these slightly wordy similes and metaphors that make the writing a bit cumbersome, and I could do without them. There is a place for writing like that in YA literature, but I think Emma Cline does it a little too often. Readers don’t always need a metaphor or simile to understand what something is like. Sometimes descriptions can work on their own.

Still, this is a pretty enjoyable book and I think Emma Cline will probably go on to write some pretty great books in the future.

SCORE: 7/10

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