Category Archives: 'Best Of' Lists

Things of 2016

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Crocodile stone

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I’ve never understood the need to ceremoniously dismiss a calendar year from sight. Every December you hear the same, from so many people: this year was shit and it can fuck off. Bring on next year. Bad things happen, and people grasp at the opportunity to sweep them aside, but I considered myself above raging against an arbitrary construct wholly unrelated to the actual sources of one’s bitterness. I thought myself level-headed when it came to apportioning my annual misgivings. And then came 2016.

There was a failed overseas adventure that ended in frustration and debt. There was an assault, one that I sort of saw coming but was no less upsetting for it in the aftermath. There was a shocking death in the family, and the grief and support that followed. These three shunts spun me around and brought unfamiliar feelings to the surface. There is a thrill in learning from new experiences, for sure, and I have learned a lot: about what is really important to me, what I want to do with my time, how I respond to trauma, and how capable I am of carrying others. But the negative effects of these events linger, regardless of what they have taught me.

I am being deliberately vague here. At this early stage, I can’t articulate all of the lessons and wounds and how I have changed, other than that I know want to have kids as soon as possible. A phrase I’ve returned to again and again in the last couple of years, both in relation to my own life and to global current events, is ‘the more you know, the more you don’t know’; perhaps this is how I sweep the bad things aside.

Then there were all the jolts in the obituary pages. David Bowie. Alan Rickman. Prince. Anton Yelchin. Muhammad Ali. Leonard Cohen. George Michael. Carrie Fisher. Et cetera.

And, in June and November, the United Kingdom and the United States of America voted to turn the tide away from global citizenship and toward isolationism. They washed their hands of the various crises on their doorsteps and further afield in favour of looking out for number one — but with no clear or functional plan even to improve their own lot.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. It never is. I got a new job — after some months of trying — and so did Tara. We moved into a new flat two minutes’ walk from a Sunday fruit and veg market. I was in better touch with my parents than I have been years. Nothing was easy, but it could all have been a lot harder.

Still, as 2016 disappears over the horizon, I find myself filled with trepidation for the year to come. 2017 promises at least one great boon: I will get married. Pretty much everything else is up in the air, both at home and in the global sphere. Eighteen months ago, Tara and I upended our lives in the hope of improving them out of sight. It could be another eighteen before we manage to settle back down to Earth.

Sports & Leisure

Black Caps fan at the Basin last week. Here's hoping today's #nzvaus #cricket goes a bit better.

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There was a lot more watching than doing this year. No tramping. No indoor football. A few hikes. A few jogs, the longest stretching to an easy eight kilometres. A couple of hits at the beach with a cricket bat. I attended a full Australia vs New Zealand cricket Test and watched us get absolutely hammered. There was also the World Twenty20, which started so well and ended in disappointment. There was EURO 2016, which promised a surprise champion and delivered the worst surprise champion possible: Portugal, every neutral’s least favourite team.

The one thing I did more than any other year was swim in rivers. Around these parts, rivers are very cold in summer and icy cold in winter, and believe me, there is nothing quite like the rush of endorphins you get from immersing yourself in cold water. Back in July, at the end of the Five Mile Track south of the Wainuiomata, I swam in the Orongorongo River and it was so cold that I found myself literally unable to think after about ten seconds in the water. Survival instinct kicked in and I hauled myself back to the riverbank. There is video of this — I’m not going to show you — but I appear to have aged ten years between hitting the water and emerging from it.

Music

The solemn mood and darkly glorious lyrics made Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ my song of 2016. As a species, we did in fact seem to want it darker.

As a valedictory statement, You Want It Darker (the album) was as complete as they come, rich with memorable tunes and words to sum up Cohen’s life and the times in which he left us. I group it with David Bowie’s Blackstar, which was followed, two days later, by the artist’s death, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree, so pregnant with the aftershocks of Cave’s son plummeting from a cliff on the South Coast of England. Mortality hung heavy over this year, and in confronting death head on, these three great musicians bestowed dark gifts.

The Field brought out a new record, The Follower, and I eventually fought past its repetitiveness — normally so comforting — to find the beauty within. He is a genius. Radiohead are geniuses, too: A Moon Shaped Pool was perhaps the most cohesive album they’ve ever done, but it was also their saddest, with Thom Yorke’s previously bitter voice stepping over into resignation.

Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was a tight country masterpiece accessible even to the likes of me. Two easily digestible pop albums, Kaytranada’s 99.9% and Francis and the Lights’ Farewell, Starlite!, got me tapping my feet under the desk at work and dancing around the house. And Solange’s A Seat at the Table spoke brightly and angrily for black women in America, linking the past to the dire present but still finding joy in one’s skin. (I didn’t hear Lemonade but it sounds like Solange’s superstar older sister tackled similarly weighty issues in 2016.)

My biggest new discovery of the year was Angel Olsen, whose My Woman showcased an artist reaching the peak of her considerable powers. It isn’t just that she’s good; she knows she’s good, and if you are lucky enough to see her perform in the flesh, you get the feeling she could destroy or exalt any of you with a single look. With the backing of her outstanding, blue-suited band, Olsen delivered one of the best gigs I’ve seen.

But if there was one single musical highlight I had to pick out, it would be from WOMAD, where, after walking Cathy back to the motel at about 10pm, I bounded back down the hill to the sound of Calexico filling the valley with the sweet, wistful strains of ‘Falling from the Sky’. I was alone, but I was dashing toward the light, where I would be enveloped once more in the pleasure of performance — a performance that was everything I hoped it would be and more, but still not as special as the exquisite promise of being able to hear it before I could yet see it. It was like nostalgia in real time.

Film

Film posters of 2016 Film posters of 2016

Film holds less and less importance in my life with each passing year, which is to say that where film was once my brightest, fiercest passion, it is now an essential but occasional diversion from the everyday lists of tasks. In 2016, I managed to see about 40 films I hadn’t seen before, and a solid handful of new releases that impressed me. Here we go:

45 YEARS felt like a lesson in how not to go about my impending marriage, and its haunting final shot is worth all the attention it has received. THE BIG SHORT came from nowhere and demanded my attention and admiration by being terrifically entertaining and desperately depressing. Micro-budget Wellington pic CHRONESTHESIA offered a high-concept vehicle for well-written and performed character interactions, and was one of the more enjoyable films of 2016. I relished the brutal thrills of GREEN ROOM, roared at the Warriors reference in HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, and jigged about in my seat at SING STREET, which did teenagers the service of presenting them as real people with real problems. SPOTLIGHT was a work of outstanding focus and importance, much like the work of the reporters it chronicled; in particular, Liev Schreiber’s performance as editor Marty Baron was perfect, laden with power and prestige but never showy. No film of 2016 was sadder than TONI ERDMANN, which was billed as a comedy and made me laugh (a lot) but not without horrible cringing at the deep cracks in its characters’ lives. And YOUR NAME allowed me to bask in the distinctly Japanese state of natsukashii, which is some untranslatable combination of cherishing and yearning.

films-of-2016-3

Now, you may not believe this, and I still have doubts myself, but I think ZOOTOPIA was my favourite film of 2016. I remember blundering around Queensgate Mall one day back in February or whatever and seeing a poster for another stupid computer-animated film in which animals walk on their hind legs and crack wise. Then I went and saw it, and I found it to be funny, touching, well-plotted, visually spectacular, and thematically rich. Its subplots of political puppetry and migration/segregation seem almost prophetic in hindsight. I can’t wait to see it again.

Books

Christmas off to a good start. Both of my chief needs met.

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The only new book I read in 2016 was Can You Tolerate This? Personal Essays by Ashleigh Young. Ashleigh is a friend but she also happens to be one of the best writers in New Zealand today, although I would say that. It’s been wonderful to see more people discover her writing, which broaches difficult subjects in a way that is gentle and curious but doesn’t flinch from the hard bits. She makes no excuse for the fact that she is still figuring all this stuff out, too.

Of the 45 other books I read over the 12 months, Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville and (in particular) Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen were a joy to after so many years of keeping meaning to getting around to reading Dylan Horrocks. Even more satisfying: I neared completion of Rupert Thomson’s oeuvre, knocking off Death of a Murderer, Katherine Carlyle, and This Party’s Got to Stop. Only The Five Gates of Hell remains unread. Thomson is my favourite author, an unclassifiable literary force whose work exists in a slightly off-kilter universe, both familiar and disorienting in the details. His talent for pithy description is pretty much unrivalled. I find myself often re-reading a sentence, looking up from the book to reflect on it, then carrying on.

From a Thomson profile a few years ago: “I do build quite a lot into the words and I’m often trying to slow the reader down”. 2016 was the year I started setting myself reading targets and greedily racing through pages with one eye on the tally, but Rupert Thomson’s writing is a reminder that the pleasures of reading are more numerous than just the numbers.

Politics

The work dishwasher has something to say about #yourmum

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After the 2014 New Zealand general election, in which the Greens and Labour got smashed by a surging, John Key-led National, I attempted to mitigate my shock by engaging the other side. I wrote a Facebook post inviting National voters to message me with their reasons for voting that way. The aim was to understand their perspective, whether I agreed with it or not, because the election had acutely demonstrated that I lived in an ideological bubble divorced from the concerns of the majority. The only response came in person, a friend, who was happy to elucidate his vote over beers. ‘Lack of a credible alternative’ was the key phrase he used. It was hard to argue with that, regardless of the whole Dirty Politics palaver.

After Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump, I decided I needed to go deeper down the conservative route. There was a whole world of media out there that I never gave a second thought because I didn’t believe it could offer genuine facts or considered opinion. Clearly, a lot of people found that appealing in 2016, so if I wanted to understand their side better, I had to engage more directly. I watched some panel discussions on Fox News, which were invariably confusing and boring, laden as they were with impenetrable policy speak, although at least people listened to one another. I read through the top stories on Breitbart, which included a heartfelt endorsement of Trump by prominent Dutch racist Geert Wilders. And I subscribed to The Weekly Standard Podcast, on which white, middle-class men put the boot into ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ and performed backflips to find the silver linings in Trump’s repurposing of the Republican Party as his own plaything.

This broadening of heard opinions has changed my thinking somewhat. I appreciate the messages Trump voters were sold, and I understand why they voted that way, if they believed what he was saying. And even if they didn’t believe him, their desperation (in many, if not all, cases) seemed a reasonable catalyst to vote for change. The folks that actually produce the hogwash they read, though — the titles listed above, but also the cynical opportunists parlaying credulity into clicks and cash — deserve fiery contempt. I mentally pick holes in their arguments as I listen/read, throwing in the occasional profanity, and hope for some cataclysm to jolt them out of their plush comfort zone.

All this turned John Key’s resignation into a bit of an anticlimax. After eight years of complaining about the guy, I’m almost going to miss him. But we have an election coming in New Zealand in 2017, with more potential for change, and for shit-throwing from all sides. National will do what it’s been doing for years — steady hand on the tiller, can’t trust the other mob — and they will probably win again, but not without some mad interference from your Dotcoms and Morgans and whoever else decides they’ve got what it takes to be the Kiwi Trump.

All I hope is that more people vote than last time. A lower vote count helps no one.

Tech

Millennium Falcon pancake

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still get angry at things. The hinges on my pleasing little Medion laptop gave way in a minor tantrum back in July; poor bugger didn’t deserve it. If I spend any time in the kitchen at all, I am best avoided as there is a likelihood of swearing and thumping on the bench. Funny, because I love cooking. And people think I’m so calm.

The other tech note is that my social media use declined further in 2016. I remember a time when I craved likes and retweets to the extent that they effectively sustained my continued existence. Nowadays, I post whatever I feel like whenever I feel like and am thrilled if even one person interacts with it. I live in a warm cocoon of my own nonsense.

Travel

In the queue for free hours at the Prado.

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Tara and I cut our European sojourn dramatically short at the six-month mark, hurrying back to New Zealand as our finances reached into the red just in time to avoid a student loan repayment. It was devastating to give up on the dream of living and working abroad, but we consoled ourselves with the fact that we had done it before and we had tried to do it together, and this obviously wasn’t the time. We had felt a pull back to NZ ever since we left, anyway. There’s so much to love about being here.

Best new travel discovery of 2016 was Castlepoint. More specifically, the $120-a-night bach ten minutes up the coast in Sandy Bay, with its big lawn, ocean views, and soothing quiet. I can’t wait to go there again.

People

Christmas is better in the Hutt.

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2016 was the year Tara and I were engaged, all 366 days of it. We took two steps forward and one step back, over and over, in pretty much every aspect of our lives — except in our relationship. Together, we took on the enormous logistical challenge of planning a wedding, moved back to NZ, changed both of our careers, moved house, felt the earth shake, and grieved, but we kept talking and listening and hugging and have come out the other end with as strong a bond as ever. This time next year, we’ll be married. (Gosh, in a little over a month we’ll be married. Getting exciting now.)

Otherwise, apart from regular Skypes and lunch dates with my parents, and board game sessions with Tara’s family, I was more absent from the lives of those I care about it than I would prefer. Part of this is just drawing inward during a rough year. Part of it is the continued renegotiation of friendships as my live-in relationship takes precedence. Part of it is the cult of busyness, convincing myself I’m unable to go and meet people because I have too much on.

These are all excuses. I intend to be a better friend in 2017. If you’re reading this and thinking the same, let’s go for a beer sometime.

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Things of 2014

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As a child, I would often think about turning 20 in the year 2004, 30 in the year 2014, and so on. While 20 seemed within reach, I didn’t imagine I would ever actually turn 30; it seemed too distant and grown-up a number to attach to myself.

But now I am 30. I’ve breached the asymptote. And I’ve come out the other side feeling much the same. I constantly refer to myself as not being a ‘real grown-up’ or ‘proper person’ yet, perhaps because I still don’t have kids or a mortgage or a clear career path. And yet I am in my thirties, and a lot more of my thoughts are taken up with long-term planning. After all, I am sure I want kids, and a house, and a satisfying career. I just don’t feel quite ready for them yet. The itch to travel still tingles, and I expect I will scratch it before I embark wholeheartedly on any of the above legacies. Round up a few other 30-year-old New Zealanders and see how many say the same thing.

A lot of what follows is about me, but for much of it, there’s someone important beside me.

Sports & Leisure

Indoor footy remained integral to my physical well-being in 2014, as it was in 2013 and 2012. But it became one of many athletic pursuits rather than my sole half hour of proper exercise each week.

Early in our relationship, Tara explained that she used to be just as sloth-like as me and passed endless wasted hours on Reddit. She wasn’t happy, so she started hiking, tramping, and scuba diving instead, replacing idleness with a thirst for new outdoor experiences.

When you spend so much time with someone who has so much energy, that thirst will become part of your life, too, and you have a choice to reject or embrace it. After a few weekends of farewelling Tara as she headed off on another expedition in her trademark yellow cap, I embraced it. I went tramping in the Tararua Range, hiking in the Orongorongo Valley, swimming at Titahi Bay, stand-up paddle boarding at Port Nicholson, and wire-walking at Porirua, all things I would have hesitated to even attempt in the past. Now I marvel at how much the world has to offer, and I occasionally wonder how much I’ve missed over the years.

It wasn’t that I was necessarily afraid of any of these things. It was just that it all seemed to take up so much time. But all I did with that time, sunny day or no, was sit on the computer and chastise myself for not doing any writing. I’m finding that as a general rule, it’s better to be outside.

On an international scale, the success of the Black Caps (New Zealand’s national cricket team) in 2014 has been a great source of joy and even made me shake my head in amazement at times. It began with a one-day series win in January and a glorious fightback to draw the Basin Reserve Test in February, both against India. I was there for the fifth one-dayer, and I watched nearly every ball of the Basin Test, including the one Brendon McCullum dispatched to the backward point boundary to reach his triple century. Those five days were probably my favourite five days of the year for they also encompassed a super Valentine’s Day out at Wellington Zoo, a successful and sunny dinner party on the deck with Tara’s family, and an Italian dinner with Tara to celebrate six silly months together.

There was also the Football World Cup, which is always a joy. This was my favourite ‘fuck yeah’ moment.

Music

My favourite album of the year was Morning Phase by Beck — great song after great song — and my favourite 90 seconds of a song this year was the final 90 seconds of closer ‘Waking Light’.

Those 90 seconds feel like the meandering calm of Morning Phase finally breaking the shackles and bursting out into triumph — but it’s still tinged with all the uncertainty that preceded it. Morning Phase seemed dark and depressed to me at first, but with each listen, I found it more and more beautiful, even as an underlying sadness remained. Beck seems to aim for ambivalence rather than assuredness with this album. I think that’s why I like it so much.

I also enjoyed Lost in the Dream by The War On Drugs and rediscovered Floating Into The Night by Julee Cruise. I didn’t give Syro or a whole lot of other new albums enough of a go. There was a lot of music I missed, largely because I now live with someone who has different tastes in music. And music is one of many areas of life subject to renegotiation when someone moves in with you.

In 2014, Tara introduced me to songs by Auditorium, Cloud Cult, Avalanche City, Sam Cooke, Semisonic, Disney heroes and heroines, the a cappella stars of Pitch Perfect, Hanson, and some Mutton Birds albums I hadn’t previously heard. I’ve liked some of these songs, and she’s liked some of the ones I’ve played for her. Our shared command of Spotify has been an interesting and enjoyable challenge. Rewards have included butchered harmonies and spontaneous living room dancing.

Politics

We played board games while watching the NZ general election results roll in on TV, the sound muted. We shook our heads and swore repeatedly, and once the frustration faded, a week or two of disbelief set in: how are we so out of touch? I thought the Greens might bump up to 15% of the vote, and in the wake of Dirty Politics and Key’s relentless jiving, I assumed National’s vote would decrease. Instead, National romped to the biggest party vote since the start of the MMP era, and we on the left are still sitting down and having a think about it all.

My opinion is that in New Zealand, as in Australia and maybe in other parts of the world, people want strong leadership more than they want strong policy. In other words, voters want someone who will get things done, regardless of what those things are and whether they are in the voter’s own interest. The left in NZ didn’t seem to offer that.

As the dust settled, I made a vow to broaden my horizons outside the white liberal bubble of central Wellington so I have a more accurate picture of New Zealanders’ overall political sentiment. I haven’t done much about that, but I hope the Labor and Green parties have.

Film

The only film I saw twice in 2014 was GONE GIRL, largely because it was such a phenomenon that I knew multiple people who wanted to see it. That isn’t to say I didn’t like the film; I really enjoyed it, and in some respects — especially the ending — it worked a lot better than the book. It was interesting to read the book after seeing the trailer, then watch the full film after reading the book, meaning I had the actors in my head as I read but didn’t know what was going to happen. My conclusion is that Ben Affleck was perfect for the role and Rosamund Pike, who actually had to act, outshone him. And Carrie Coon outshone them both.

My favourite film of the year is tricky. There are quite a few contenders: BOYHOOD, THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA, VOICES FROM THE LAND, and UNDER THE SKIN. The latter was particularly memorable, one of those rare films that’s so unsettling I couldn’t shake its sounds and visions for weeks. I also really liked NOAHTHE LUNCHBOX, THE DARK HORSE, and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS.

But I have to go with ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, which left me buzzing with ideas and appreciation of cinematic craft. I hadn’t liked the Jim Jarmusch films I’d seen previously — they seemed too self-consciously aloof to let me in — but this was a delight in every way, from Tom Hiddleston’s centuries-old ennui to the incredible music, most of it by Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL. I didn’t think it was possible to get me engaged in a story about vampires, but ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE did it by grounding them in the real world: what it would it really be like to live for hundreds of years? How would you survive? What would you learn about life on Earth? This film answered those questions, and asked a few more. I loved it.

And then there were the losses, particularly Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose greatness is now a void in cinema. Neither of them will make any more films, and both cases but especially Hoffman’s, that is a great loss to the medium.

Tech

I bought a new phone in 2014, a Motorola Moto G. It’s pretty good so far. And my main computer keeps overheating and powering off, which sometimes makes me very angry. I still get angry at inanimate objects, technology more than anything else, and it’s still embarrassing to the point of making me feel like a spoilt little kid every time.

Books

Deno started a book club in 2014, and because I like Deno and want to read more books, I joined up. So far we’ve read some interesting books and repeatedly pushed back our deadlines, which I assume is what most book clubs do.

Travel

For the first time since 2006, I spent none of the calendar year outside of New Zealand. Instead, I got to know new parts of my country — Paraparaumu, Porirua, the Rimutakas, Taranaki, the Tararuas, and more — and revisited old favourites like West Auckland’s beaches.

Travel experiences became more about the adventure itself than the destination, and more about the company than the sights (although the sights were often exceptional). Tara witnessed just about everything I witnessed, and she usually instigated the trip. She is the lead explorer in our relationship and pushes us steadily on to the next adventure as soon as the last one is over. Her family call her the Labrador, partly because she goes a bit crazy if she doesn’t go for a walk each day.

People

As I am now 30, more and more of my friends are getting married. I was even best man at a wedding — that of my oldest friend Stephen, who married Cayley in March. That was a good day.

More and more of my friends are having kids, too. I’m watching them grow up photograph by photograph, video by video, nearly always smiling and happy. Their childhoods are being edited into a selective stream of joyous firsts and daily moments of delight. That sounds a little cynical, but I think it’s a privilege to be able to see those kids at all. I would rather see them all a lot more often and get to know them as people, rather than as two-dimensional flashes of colour, but my Facebook feed is the next best thing. And their parents — my friends — are changing too. A little more weight behind their eyes, a little more openness in their smiles.

I already had a family, but in 2014, I gained another family. Cathy, Jeff, Richard, Ruth, and Kazu have all become an integral part of my life in a very short space of time. We play a lot of board games — preferably ones that involve protracted arguing and shouting, like The Resistance — and we go on walks, picnics, tramps, swims, and holidays. Here I thought you weren’t supposed to get on with your in-laws. I fear these positive relationships in a new area of my life come at the cost of my relationships with family and friends; that the time and energy I’ve used to forge new bonds is limited and needs to be doled out more carefully. Finding a better balance of time spent with people important to me is the biggest thing I have to work on in 2015.

Through it all is Tara, there at my side — or stopped behind me, more likely, to run her hands through long grass or shift a snail from the pavement to the bushes. She adds so much colour to my world and somehow lightens each of my steps — into cold river water, into the vicious slope of another hill, or into the woods with twenty kilograms on my back. She is the constant source of love and intellectual stimulation that sustains me. With Tara, more than in any other part of my life, I am lucky.

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Things of 2013

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I’m now 29 and I have no kids. No property or other investments, either. I would like all of those things at some point in the future, but they aren’t my priority at the moment. I’m more interested in travel and pursuing new opportunities in my career. Round up a few other 29-year-old New Zealanders and see how many say the same thing.

Most of what follows is about me.

Music

The best twenty seconds of a song I heard this year were 3:10 to 3:30 of ‘The Red Wing’ by Fuck Buttons, from the album Slow Focus.

My music listening habits never really developed past the age of 16, when I got my first computer. I come across a new album and listen to it once or for months on repeat. Slow Focus was my favourite album of the ten or so new ones I heard this year. James Blake’s Overgrown would be next, and I also really liked Nothing Was The Same by Drake.

The steady accumulation of layers and abrasions on ‘The Red Wing’ reaches a glorious, spine-tingling apex about halfway through. My second favourite twenty seconds of a song are also from ‘The Red Wing’ as it starts to devolve from 6:10 to 6:30. The album as a whole is relentlessly dark, loud, and repetitive; it calls to mind the twisted sensations of being off your face in a dark nightclub, or the sick emotion that accompanies losing something important you can never get back. It drags me through a 45-minute catharsis. My kind of music.

Oh, the best New Zealand album I heard this year was Anniversary Day by JP Young. It would be my favourite album of the year but it came out in 2012. I recommend you go and listen to (and maybe buy) it now, especially if you have any connection to Wellington. It is a genuinely great album, poetic and easy to get along with.

Politics

In my dictionary (the excellent WordWeb), the first definition of ‘politics’ is Social relations involving intrigue to gain authority or power. No wonder it fills so many pages in the newspaper and minutes on the airwaves. Not here, though.

Sport

Wellington Indoor Sports Shed 1

From in front of that massive, stunted goal in Shed 1 – about waist-high and about a third of the width of the pitch – James rolled the ball out to me. I was just on our team’s side of the halfway line, the opposition goal about fifteen metres behind me. We were ahead, but we’d just conceded a goal and needed to regain control of the run of play.

I leaned back slightly as the ball reached me and tapped it with the outside of my right foot to MHS, who was over by the left sideline. As he put his foot on the ball and drew a defender, I spun round and sauntered into space a few metres downfield. Just as I was nearing the penalty spot, with no defender near me, MHS took a couple more touches and tapped the ball past his marker, into my path. In my peripheral vision, I sensed two things: one, the opposition goalkeeper was positioned slightly to the left of the centre of the goal, back near his line; two, an opposition defender was rushing at me from my right.

As the ball ran in front of me, I controlled it with one touch from my right foot and – judging that I had less than a second in which to act before I would be tackled – snapped a left-footed shot along the ground, past the oncoming defender, and into the bottom right corner of the opposition goal.

The exact same sequence of events could have happened a hundred years ago, albeit on grass rather than turf and with a plain leather ball rather than a bright yellow plastic one. I will remember it for decades, just as I remember my chipped goal from near halfway in a second XI match at high school and a perfectly timed flick off my pads for four from the first ball I faced in house cricket. Such moments in our sporting lives are timeless.

Film

I seem to be getting more bored with the movies. I went dozens of times this year, more than I have since about 2006, and I always enjoyed myself from start to finish, whether it was any good or whether the dude behind me provided a running commentary throughout (as happened in The Hunt and at least one other film I can’t remember). But I rarely left feeling inspired to talk about what I’d just seen, or to think about it a week later. The prime example of this was Hyde Park on Hudson, a film so bland I barely remember seeing it.

Good films I saw this year included 20 Feet From Stardom, The Act of Killing, Before Midnight, Fast & Furious 6, Gravity, The Hunt, Like Father, Like Son, Mr. Pip, Much Ado About Nothing, The Place Beyond the Pines, Wadjda, and (if I’m allowed this one) Lawrence of Arabia in glorious 4K at The Embassy. Despite its flaws – particularly a lack of balance between its three parts – The Place Beyond The Pines has stayed with me, proving that striking a resonant tone in film is less tangible than the technical combination of good characters, dialogue, cinematography, sound, and editing. The Place Beyond The Pines only had these things in patches, but I haven’t forgotten it.

Mia Farrow | Cloud Atlas

Casting a wide shadow over all my cinematic joys this year was the disappointment that Cloud Atlas was not released in cinemas in New Zealand. The distributor must have gotten cold feet at the prospect of selling Kiwi audiences on a three-hour epic with six ongoing storylines painted in broad archetypes, which seems like a fair decision when I look at that sentence, but Cloud Atlas somehow fulfils its extraordinary ambitions and offers a new kind of multi-layered spectacle in film. I watched it at home, alone on the couch wearing headphones, oblivious to a storm raging outside. It was the best new film I saw this year, and when a stranger says they also loved it, I feel like the film is recommending that person to me.

Tech

A couple of months ago, someone did a memorably recognisable impression of me. They held a smartphone close to their face, jabbed it with their index finger, and muttered, “Just… fucking… work!”

The way I treat the technology in my life has become a good indicator of my mood. The more accepting I am of my phone becoming unresponsive or my laptop shutting down unexpectedly, the better my overall frame of mind. If I’m already frustrated, I swear and click the mouse harder and bang my foot on the floor. I apologise to my colleagues for this.

The fact that my use of electronics can be seen as a barometer of my psychological state suggests how deeply I’ve involved these objects in my daily life. When you spend more than half of your waking hours with someone, or something, some irritation is inevitable. But if I lost them, it’d be like losing one of my senses.

Yellow shoes, walking

Books

In August I went to the launch of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, putting one foot in the world that knows her as ‘Ellie’. She complimented me on my yellow shoes, and I asked her how she was feeling. “A bit overwhelmed, to be honest,” she replied, looking around at the faces and wine glasses packed tighter than ever into Unity Books. This was a couple of months before she won the Booker.

After the launch, Nik and Ant and I discussed what a positive occasion it was. A good person being celebrated for an amazing feat of creativity. I still haven’t finished reading the bloody thing because I am so terrible at reading books, but it really is great, and I will get there.

Travel

In September I went to Brisbane, and in December I went to Nelson. First holiday was alone, second was with a companion. The weather was great for both.

Walking at Anchorage, Abel Tasman National Park

People

I think it has to be Tara, four months in, as wonderful as my colleagues, friends, and family are. She plucks snails off the footpath and places them safely in the bushes. She attempts to identify each bird she sees: “Thrush? Female blackbird?” She is comfortable speaking to strangers on the phone. She writes good emails. She gives excellent gifts. Our conversations flow easily, weaving from meaning to silly madness and back. Perhaps I am overly observant, but she means a lot to me.

Also, the Internet has a slightly diminished role in my life right now but I was lucky enough to get to meet Charles, Dan, Kathleen, Isabel, Martyn, Naomi, Neha, Reena, and Sarah this year – all people I came to know about through Twitter, and who have all been teachers in some way or another. Each year brings more new connections, and some old ones rekindled. Many bleed happily from one medium into another: Twitter, then Facebook, then a coffee shop or a pub. There will no doubt be more new people in 2014 – more good people, and more effort not to spread myself so thinly.

*

Thanks for coming and looking at this. The years are all arbitrary but regardless of what has happened in 2013, I hope 2014 is all right for you.

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The 00s: Film (Fiction) – 10-6

10. Sur mes lèvres (Read My Lips) (Jacques Audiard, 2001)


From one of the most consistently fascinating directors around came this riveting, subtle yarn of two individuals who could never have expected to fit together. Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) is a put-upon secretary whose near-deafness is viewed as a crutch, both by her associates and by herself; Paul (Vincent Cassel) is a greasy ex-con trying to get a start in the legal economy. If the tagline – “She teaches him good manners; he teaches her bad ones” – isn’t tantalising enough, there is a charged passion and emotion that builds through the film to a heart-in-mouth, near-silent climax and a perfect postscript. This is one of those films that it’s just so hard to find any fault with; it’s also a damned fine thriller in its own right.
Classic moment: An extraordinary, protracted scene of lip-reading that is almost too tense to bear.

9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)


Charlie Kaufman was the celebrity screenwriter of the 00s. Films like Adaptation. and Synecdoche, New York showed that there are still new things to be done (and done very well) in mainstream cinema, but Eternal Sunshine represented the most balanced harmony yet realised from a Kaufman script. It was the perfect marriage between his crushing cynicism and Michel Gondry’s playful, childlike aesthetic, and with great acting across the board, including the best turn of Jim Carrey’s career, this love story of memories, disappointments and ultimately hope had a unique shine. It reminds me of how unusual it is to see recognisable characters up on the screen – people you can identify strongly with, and feel like you’ve met before. If the characters have a somewhat defeatist attitude, it’s because that’s what Kaufman sees all around him in an age of short attention spans and hurried divorces.
Classic moment: Joel wakes up – again – to the tune of Jon Brion’s wonderful score, and the narrative threads start to connect.

8. City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)


When City of God burst onto the screen in front of a packed house at the Christchurch Film Festival in 2003, that now-iconic blade sharpening and running chicken made everyone shut up and pay attention. When we emerged a little over two hours later, the dynamic storytelling of Meirelles’ film had rendered the real world toothless and banal, as if everything was in slow motion – our own lives so much less interesting after witnessing those played out in the favekas of Rio de Janeiro. The kids, the gangs, the violence… it was so different, so brutal and alive. It was, as Empire magazine put it, ‘at once a laboratory for cinema technique and a victory for raw heart… a snot-nosed, blood-stained masterpiece’.
Classic moment: The motel murderer is revealed in truly chilling fashion.

7. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)


von Trier was probably the decade’s most controversial director, serving up Dancer in the Dark, Manderlay, Antichrist and Dogville – all fascinating works that completely polarised critical opinion. Those that liked him couldn’t get enough of him; those that didn’t truly detested him, leading to press conferences of an almost threatening tone (3:50 in this clip). I’m firmly in the former camp: his films are the work of an artistic genius, bursting with ideas that go against the grain of popular thought, and Dogville is his most triumphant statement – both artistically and philosophically – yet. Shot on a barren soundstage, it tells the story of a woman on the run from gangsters who is sheltered in a tiny village; this being a von Trier film, things do not go well. Far from being the anti-American statement so many made it out to be, this is a story that speaks to the whole of humanity and to the close-minded nature we all have in some way or another. The final scenes are some of the most truthful, and gripping, of the decade.
Classic moment: The gangsters catch up with Grace, and the boss tells her she has a tough lesson to learn.

6. Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)


While I’m on the subject of controversial films, this… is about as controversial as the 00s got. Told in reverse, this is the story of a rape and a murder, and both scenes are protracted, graphically detailed and almost impossible to watch. Still, Noé’s aim isn’t merely to shock. The film works on a number of levels: the nature of the beast within, the dynamics of human relationships, our voyeurism as filmgoers, the capability of CGI and special effects to enhance a cinema experience, and of course the film’s central conceit: that ‘time destroys everything’. Were it structured solely around those two scenes, it would be more of an interesting if off-putting experiment; however, with a third act in which the previously dizzying camera slows down and shows real-life husband and wife Vincent Cassel (that man again) and Monica Bellucci canoodling during a lazy morning in bed – the opposite of those earlier scenes – Irréversible is elevated to an uncommonly high level. At the same time it’s a film I hesitate to recommend to anyone, as it’s the most realistically violent film I’ve seen save The Passion of the Christ, but those who come to it with an open mind and a good deal of mental preparedness will likely be rewarded. It made me feel physically sick, and haunted me for weeks, but I left the cinema in stunned admiration.
Classic moment: The two friends go on a horrible, disorienting odyssey through the gay nightclub ‘Rectum’, searching for Alex’s rapist.

<< #15-#11 || #5-#2 (coming soon) >>

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The 00s: Film (Documentary) – 5-1

5. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)

Nothing can really prepare you for Dear Zachary, short of reading and digesting the entire plot summary before diving in.  For those easily upset, I would recommend doing this, or perhaps steering clear completely.  It is director Kuenne’s version of the events surrounding the death of his close childhood friend Dr. Andrew Bagby at the hands of a woman named Dr. Shirley Turner, and his effort to record as much of Bagby’s life as possible for his yet-to-be-born son, Zachary.  As such, the film is a completely subjective account, following Kuenne’s race around North America and England trying to capture people’s memories on tape, following his own emotions and mood through a variety of notable editing choices.  This was the most impassioned film I saw in the 00s.  Again, be warned: you’ll never be the same afterwards, especially if you have kids of your own.

4. Dark Days (Marc Singer, 2000)

Singer, an untrained filmmaker who hasn’t directed since, was drawn by the plight of the homeless living in a New York City Amtrak subway tunnel, and decided to help them by making a film with them that would get them out.  What resulted was a fascinating ethnographic document, superbly shot on black and white and scored by DJ Shadow, depicting real lives as lived and proving that in a lot of ways, these guys are just like us.  While it’s surprising to see how well some of these guys can live, you’re aware that every single day is another struggle, wracked with uncertainty.  This is a film which helps the viewer to see an oft-maligned section of society with fresh eyes.  Watch the first 10 minutes here.

3. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2002)

Spelling bees seem to me a very American institution, so it isn’t too surprising that a film following eight teenagers in their quest to win the National Spelling Bee would play like such a chronicle of the American Dream.  There are the immigrants – the Indians (so many) and Mexicans; there is the white bread girl from Connecticut; there is the loner from Missouri; there is the ADHD wunderkind from New Jersey; there is the inner-city black girl from DC.  All have their own, fascinating stories, with widely varying ideas of what the word ‘success’ means, and as we grow to know and love them, the tension of the finals becomes almost unbearable.  I remember feeling bathed in a sweet glow of hopes and dreams afterwards, and in a way, I hoped that these kids would never grow up.

2. Anything by Adam Curtis (Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, The Trap)

Some films are ‘important’; Adam Curtis’ films, on the other hand, are absolutely essential.  Cutting deep into the building blocks of society and finding patterns everywhere, Curtis tackles subjects as monumental as the transition of Western thought from community-based to individual-based, or the political shift from promoting positive freedom to promoting negative freedom.  Curtis’ approach is fact-based, backed up by archive footage found after months of trawling the BBC’s archives, and the results are surprisingly entertaining once you get used to the format.  More than that, though, his films are eye-openers in every sense of the word, and I would personally say that they have changed the way I see the world.  If I had to single one out for higher praise, the four-hour Century of the Self is probably the one that impressed me most.  All are available for free online here.  Do yourself a favour and check them out.

1. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

With his majestic Grizzly Man, Herzog’s soothing Bavarian voice pretty much sums up life, the universe and everything.  Timothy Treadwell is his subject, a man who rejected society and turned to bears, and like many of the films on this list, the fascinations of Herzog’s work are largely psychological: what led Treadwell to this fate?  What does he truly believe?  How much of his reality is a delusion?  Herzog confronts the abyss as he so often does – with a grave but knowing outlook – and explains to us what we see.  You’ll laugh, and you may cry; you’ll surely be riveted by an incredible subject, and truly great filmmaking.  This is a film that would place at or near the top of any decade list.  Part 1 is here.

To go back to the previous part, the intro & #10-6, click here.

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The 00s: Film (Documentary) – Intro and 10-6

When it comes to the line between fiction and documentary film, I agree with Werner Herzog: such a line is unnecessary, and essentially imaginary.  Separating them as fabrication and fact takes something away from both: the truth that can be captured in a story written and performed well, and the art exercised by a director presenting the beauty of real events.  A far more worthwhile approach is to consider both simply as films.  You can learn as much about yourself watching a film from a Charlie Kaufman script as you can be entertained by Michael Moore polemic, right?  And anyway, when you have people like Herzog mixing truth and untruth in all of his films – documentary or otherwise – to quite magical effect, it is sometimes impossible to choose which category the film you’re watching belongs in.

Nevertheless, bookstores need sections to separate one genre from another, and blogs do too.  So here we are.

The 00s brought much wider recognition and appreciation for documentary cinema, and I would suggest two chief factors in this.  The first is called Bowling for Columbine, and I’ll talk more about that further down the page.  The second is called the Internet, opening up a massive global audience for all kinds of films and an ideal platform for docs – the proliferation of other media and information online makes it quick and easy to obtain as much or as little information about something as you would care to.  Added to that, making a film is much simpler nowadays with digital video and cheap and powerful editing software, so legions of budding filmmakers are able to produce something for nothing and then put it online for the world to see.

I’m one of those budding filmmakers.  Here are ten documentary films produced in the 00s which eventually inspired me to get started on my own movie (coming soon, watch this space…)

10. Jackass Number Two (Jeff Tremaine, 2006)

Weren’t expecting that, were you?  The Wikipedia page states, “Jackass Number Two is a compilation of various stunts, pranks and skits, and essentially has no plot.”  A remarkable document of extreme behaviour, voyeurism and (arguably) Dadaism, it is also one of the most entertaining films of the 00s – but only if you have the stomach to watch Steve-O attach a leech to his eyeball, or Chris Pontius insert his penis into a snake’s cage.

9. Darwin’s Nightmare (Hubert Sauper, 2004)

Perhaps the 00s’ most depressing film; certainly the one which made me feel most sick and sad at the state of the world and the human race.  Lake Victoria used to be a typical African lake, basically as it would have been millennia ago, until Europeans introduced the Nile perch – a particularly large and tasty fish – into its waters.  Within years the ecological balance became completely unhinged, and as this film shows, the ripples reach out from the water and into the lives of every person living in the area.  While I sometimes pine for those innocent days of ignorance before I saw Darwin’s Nightmare, this is a desperately important film that everyone who professes to care about their fellow man owes it to themselves to see.

8. Waves (Li Tao, 2005)

Read my full review for a closer look, but where sweeping statements are concerned, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that this effort from first-time director Li Tao was the most enlightening and inspiring film to come out of New Zealand in the 00s.  If nothing else, it was certainly the most moving, and offered a restrained yet deeply intimate portrait of the life of teenaged Chinese going to school abroad.  This is something that happens everywhere from Wellington to Washington, and Tao has made the film about the experience.  After seeing it, I prayed that it would reach as wide an audience as possible so the greatest number of eyes could be opened, and minds broadened.  The DVD can be ordered here.

7. Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)

Bowling for Columbine was the film that brought documentaries (back?) into the mainstream.  Grossing millions and garnering an Oscar, it cut a swathe through the film market and brought the masses to see that they could be entertained as they were being informed.  In many cases, it showed people such as myself that there are alternatives to mainstream media.  Its biggest impact, however, was probably to promote Moore’s personality to the point where his next film would gross over US$100 million – staggering for a ‘documentary’ – and his movements and polemic became worldwide current events.  In the wake of its cultural relevance, it might be easy to forget how good Columbine is; while Moore occasionally messes with the truth in order to keep the viewer hooked, he crafts a superb viewing experience that keeps you amused, shocked and riveted for the duration.  The best moment comes when Marilyn Manson has his turn to speak and, with no pomp whatsoever, quietly sums up the entire movie.

6. DiG! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)

Truly demonstrating the benefit of hard work and dedication, Timoner spent seven years following The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre and managed to edit weeks of footage into DiG!, one of the best films about music.  It has at its centre the towering talents and ego of Anton Newcombe, who would surely be a bigger star than the Dandies’ chiselled frontman, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, if he followed his rival’s music business motto: “if it’s good, it’s fun; if it’s bad, it’s funny”.  The film follows as the two bands start off as close friends, living and jamming together, then steadily drift apart under the gaze of Newcombe’s increasingly unhinged wild grin.  Tambourine player Joel Gion’s perpetually amused attitude is a joy for every moment that he’s on screen.

For the second half of the list, click here.

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The 00s: Overlooked or Underrated Films – Part 2

I realised as I was writing up Part 1 that the films on this list may be overlooked or underrated, but none of them are obscure.  Indeed, they are all basically American movies.  I guess that reflects how many films are made in America, and particularly how many of them come to global attention; as a result, there are more American films that slip by without due notice.  Fortunately, I have a sieve.  Onward…

Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)
Collateral, as Mann’s first DV-at-night opus, won the plaudits, but while the foundation of Miami Vice – its script – is shakier and less balanced than the handheld camerawork, for me it is a much better film.  If you are a viewer who appreciates grand moments or, as Herzog puts it, ‘adequate images‘, this epic ode to mateship and violence satisfies for its entire running time.  Strangely for a big-budget buddy action movie, it has more in common with Le Cercle Rouge than Bad Boys 2… though there are elements of both styles at work here.  Watch it with an open mind and try to not to worry about the plot, which really is just a bare frame on which to hang thick mood and atmosphere.  And that DV camerawork by Dion Beebe?  Mesmerising.

Narc (Joe Carnahan, 2002)
Carnahan’s chief reference point for his debut film was The French Connection, and it’s not hard to see the best of 70s crime flicks in Narc.  Carnahan has since expunged the credit on his CV with his offensively poor follow-up, Smokin’ Aces, but here the balance between script, character, acting and technique was just right.  Opening with perhaps the best chase scene of the 00s (definitely think twice about your tolerance for hyper-real violence before clicking that link) and then following Jason Patric’s weary cop through an investigation into the death of near-psychotic Ray Liotta’s detective partner, Narc pulls no punches and leaves a deeply satisfying imprint.

Palindromes (Todd Solondz, 2004)
Solondz is best-known for his study in audience discomfort Happiness, but admirers of that film will understand that its warmth lies in how seriously it takes its cast of misfits, and as such will find plenty to enjoy here.  Again, Solondz constantly skirts the ‘too-far’ line, but in this story of a teenage girl (played by 11 different actors) who wants nothing other than to have a baby, he hits the mark on a number of truths surrounding the Abortion Question and the notion of free will.  Like Kinsey, this is not a film for water cooler dissection, but an open-minded approach to watching it brings great rewards.

Ravenous (Antonia Bird, 1999)
(OK, not technically the right decade, but it didn’t gain a following until the 00s, and this is MY list.)  Ravenous is one of the most unusual and fascinating films I’ve seen, and one of my most adored.  A story of cannibalism during the Western expansion in 1800s America, it is funny, dark, graphically violent and strangely poignant.  It draws you into its off-kilter world from the get-go, and if I were a film academic, I could find much to extrapolate from its frequently hinted-at theme of opposing forces duking it out for good and evil.  The key to its success is its score by Michael Nyman & Damon Albarn, about which I have written before, which you will remember long after the credits end.

Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)
Before he made the most wildly overpraised fail of the decade, Cronenberg produced this low-key stunner with Ralph Fiennes as a mumbling schizophrenic (what is it with me and schizophrenia?) and his battle with his memory.  Cronenberg displays an impeccably sure hand and Fiennes is excellent, but Miranda Richardson steals the show playing Fiennes’ mother, his father’s mistress, and his landlady.  A brooding, masterful study of an outcast’s reality.

Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008)
I HATED this film the first time I watched it, finding it to be the most self-consciously gloomy offence to the medium in years; watching it again with my girlfriend, she gently coaxed me to see it with open eyes and by the end of that second time through, I knew I would never shake it from my mind.  Roger Ebert quipped that it’s a film you should only see if you’ve seen it already.  As such, it demands a degree of familiarity with its meta-referentiality and intensely dark subject matter – an existential nightmare, with loved ones becoming distant and bodily functions shutting down – so that its deep, resonant beauty can come to the surface.  I’ve since watched it twice more, and it grows in stature every time as it reveals more of itself.

Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain, 2001)
The funniest comedy of the decade – I never thought I would be so tickled by a summer camp movie.  Those with a taste for absurd humour are guaranteed huge laughs – the jokes come thick and fast, varying between subtle and completely over-the-top, and all are delivered to perfection by an ensemble cast led by Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce and Michael Showalter.  My favourite character, though, would have to be Paul Rudd’s Andy, the classic doesn’t-give-a-shit hunk with the best dumb grin in movie history.  Oh, and it has an awesome soundtrack.  Just watch it already.

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