Unusual Valentine’s Day Recs (mostly movies) (but not just movies)

Okay, I never said that I would not write ANY lists anymore. This list clearly needed to be made. (Note: I also think list-writing is a great way to keep a blog, it is just that I personally want to focus on different type of posts). So, Valentine’s Day: fun time for all things romantic, or overly syrup-y commercialized crap? Or perhaps both? For anyone who cannot handle the sheer amount of sappy-sweet movies usually recommended around this time, a list of alternative categories to plan a movie marathon around tomorrow. (Note: not that there is anything wrong with sappy-sweet movies, but, you know, we could use a little variety).

(Film posters/stills via IMDb, book cover via Goodreads)

First, a reading recommendation (OK I snuck in one more book rec below): What better way to get through Valentine’s Day than with a serial killer? NO, WAIT, IT’S A SERIAL KILLER IN LOVE! Still not convinced? How about “It’s a retelling of Jane Eyre where Jane is a serial killer”? Jane Steele by Lindsay Faye should have become a complete gimmick of a novel, but somehow ended up a genuine historical novel/romance with a somewhat dark twist. Jane’s life has been difficult, and as a result she has run into some very shady people and sometimes had to deal with them like a period drama Dexter. When Jane finds her chance at love and happiness, she has to ask herself if she is ready to face her dark past and believe herself worthy of redemption. The writing is really what makes this book work as well as it does, being a clear nod to the original, but still contemporary at the same time, which makes for a very unique narrative voice. It is sharply witty, but can also be very beautiful. If you need any more convincing, watch these two reviews.

Jane Steele

Movie recommendations for ironic or even cynical Valentine’s viewing:

My main recommendation for this category, without a doubt, has to be Danny Devito’s War of the Roses. If you are in a very anti-Valentines day mood, you can’t go wrong with this movie about a couple whose divorce gets mean when they realize they both want to keep the house (or rather: not want to other to have it). It can be a bit too cartoonish for its own good, and while DeVito’s direction mostly works really well, I found his character largely an unnecessary addition. Having said that, when this movie fires on all cylinders, it can be deliciously, hilariously mean. The lead performances by Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas (cast wonderfully against type – as a duo, they were mostly known for playing the leads/romantic couple in Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile) are fantastic.

(content warning for: (slapstick) violence, animal death, possibly an attempted sexual assault – but I don’t know if I recall correctly)

Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses (1989)

However, honorable mentions must go to Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman) and Young Adult (Jason Reitman). Love & Friendship is much less cynical in tone than the other two, but still updates its Austen-written source material (the novella Lady Susan) with some slight changes that make it’s chosen title notably ironic (although it should of course be mentioned that Austen herself was no stranger to irony – but this adaptation really doubles down on that). Lady Susan is willing to manipulate everything and everyone in order to arrange a good marriage for herself and her daughter. Clearly, any Austen book or adaptation is a good go-to but if you want something slightly different but no less witty, this one comes highly recommended. Young Adult is a bit darker, following a writer who returns to her home town in hopes of seducing her high school sweetheart – even though he is married now. This might sound like a romcom set up, but that is very much not how things work out. It is interesting to watch a character who is such an unrepentant mess – especially when she is being brought to live so convincingly by the always-great Charlize Theron.

Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny in Love & Friendship (2016)

Does Young Adult’s premise sound vaguely familiar? Well, of course I’m not going to miss the opportunity to briefly discuss the category of romcom deconstruction, for which I have to mention Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, (once again, yes). The show is currently in its last season, but on a short hiatus before the last episodes come out in March and April – so now is a great time to catch up on this subversive/deconstructive take on many romance clichés. It is also an investigation of various stereotypes of modern womanhood, AND somehow turned into a thoughtful examination of mental health. Crazy Ex starts out with a pretty similar set up as Young Adult, though it is completely different in tone, characterizations, and themes. Oh, and it’s a musical. That makes it stand out, too.

The artsy sad sack rec: Feeling up for some genuine romance, but instead of something nice and sappy, you’d prefer to just crushed by a story where the central romance is one that doesn’t happen? Let me introduce you to Wong Kar Wai’s famous arthouse masterpiece In the Mood for Love. Two neighbors suspect their spouses are having an affair together, and try to reenact how that possibly could have happened. Slow, subtle and heartbreaking, this is the perfect watch if you are in the mood for a more melancholic Valentine’s Day.

“BUT HEY”, You say, “WHAT ABOUT THE HAPPY ROMANCES? You have only given me one nice romance (and that one’s about a serial killer!), the rest are either sad or overtly or covertly unromantic.” Well, I’ve got you covered: here are some delightful romances with a twist, divided in two last categories.

Lesbians and Crime.

Look it was just something I noticed among some of my favorite movie romances so it seems like an awesome idea for a queer valentine’s day double feature.

The Handmaiden (Chan-Wook Park) already made my top 5 movies of 2017, so what do I say without repeating myself too much? It is so good! Its thrilling twist and explicit scenes might don’t take away from the fact that at its heart, this truly is a love story about two women finding freedom in and because of their romantic and sexual connection with each other. The film is loosely based on Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, which is (especially in the last act) very different but equally excellent so I recommend it just as much. If you have liked one, you should try the other, BUT even if you have seen the movie and not liked it you should still give the book a chance, or vice versa. Bound (Lily and Lana Wachowski), one of the more under-watched films by the Wachowski sisters, is a neo-noir thriller about the girlfriend of a low-level criminal falling in love with a female neighbor. Together, they concoct a scheme to steal mob money and pin the blame on her horrible boyfriend. Of course, the plan does not go as expected… honestly if “queer neo-noir” does not sound like an awesome Valentine’s watch to you, what does? (OK, movies without violent murders, probably.)

(Please note that both can be quite violent. The sex scenes are also quite explicit.)

Weird and occasionally dark but still cute romance fantasy films:

Liza, a rókatündér (2015)

The most obvious one for this category is Guillermo Del Toro’s oscar-winning The Shape of Water, which I also discussed in a previous top 10. If you have not watched it yet, how? Maybe you should correct that right now. For some lesser-known, much more comedic recommendations (that I haven’t seen in a while, so hopefully my recollection of them is sufficient), I offer Liza The Fox Fairy (Károly Ujj Mészáros) and The Mermaid (Stephen Chow). The first is a quirky Hungarian fantasy comedy about a nurse who is desperate to find romance, but her every opportunity is thwarted by the spirit that lives with her in the form of a dead Japanese pop star. He is is jealous of her would-be suitors and therefore has cursed Liza to become a fox fairy, meaning every man who desires her is destined to die a horrible death. This movie is both darkly humorous and genuinely charming. It is kind of like Amélie but with much more death. The Mermaid is a comedy about a mermaid society who sent one of their own undercover to seduce and then assassinate a playboy businessman whose technology is destroying their home. Things get complicated when the two truly start to fall for each other. This movie is absolutely ridiculous. It gets very slapstick-y at times and a little dark (as well as obvious in its environmental commentary) at others. I can imagine either of those things or the combination being off-putting for some people but if you are looking for something silly and unlike any other romance you have seen, give this one a chance.

Sheung-ching Lee in Mei ren yu (2016)
No context given

So, what is a niche book/movie romance category you’d like to see more of?

Julia

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Blog update: THE FUTURE

Fun idea: let’s review my own blog! OK, not quite a review, but still: I’ve had this blog for over a year now, so I thought it would be a good idea to think & talk about what I have done with it so far, what I want to do, what I’m happy with, and what I want to change.

I really want to say I am going to have a more regular posting schedule, but in combination with my other goals and having classes for my Master’s AND having to, you know… rest and such, I have decided to sacrifice THAT goal, mostly because I do not want this blog to start feeling like something with deadlines. But what are those other, blog-related goals? Well, I want to keep writing reviews of any film festival I attend, and occasionally making list/recommendation posts, BUT what I really want(ed) to do with this blog is write more in-depth posts. So: recaps, discussions, analyses, etc.

I liked writing favorite lists etc, but the most fun and/or rewarding posts to write were probably the posts that focused more on a certain topic, like the Supergiant games post, the Hellblade post, or that time I recapped an entire movie about a murderous refrigerator. So those are the kind of posts I want to do more off, but since they take more time to write, posting more often and/or having a schedule is probably not a realistic goal right now (maybe next year?).

What I also want to do is comment more actively on other posts. I am very good at hoarding posts I want to read and read them… a while after they’ve been posted, which makes commenting a bit awkward. That’s a habit I really want to change.

But, what are some examples of posts I want to write? I have several ideas, some vaguer than others… some things I’ve been thinking about are:

In general: more recaps, of bad movies but also of good things that are maybe underwatched, or movies that are, for example, less accessible, and approach them from a more lighthearted but still genuinely interested and analytical perspective.

Comparing adaptations! I’m especially interested in how an adaptation of something really good can turn out really bad, or how completely different takes on the same material turn out. What makes the storytelling of Avatar: The Last Airbender, where Shyamalan’s notoriously bad film adaptation fails at almost every step in summarizing/telling the same basic story as season 1? Do I dare to watch Spike Lee’s remake of Oldboy? What about good remakes? I’d also like to ONE DAY compare the Fullmetal Alchemist manga to its two anime adaptations BUT THAT WOULD TAKE FOREVER so I’m shelving that idea for now.

BOOKS! Say, rereading and discussing a novel per chapter or few chapters… I was thinking of Lolita, since I have already read a normal version, now own the annotated version and one very interesting book ABOUT Lolita (I also had my eye on this one for a while but reading some of the reviews I’m reconsidering). I’m pretty sure it might be better to pick something a bit less difficult and disturbing for a first try though?

TV SHOWS: also very recappable things. My current thought is to perhaps start with a rewatch of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend when the series finale has aired. Then discuss the show not by episode, but by discussing a number of songs and related plot points/themes in each post.

Those are just some ideas though, it might take a while for me to actually get started on them. I can already say that, if something would take up a series of post (say, a TV show recap), I will try to switch those posts up with other other ones (probably shorter posts, like reading/movie wrap ups), so this blog does not become about just the one niche/topic.

I hope some of these ideas sound fun, though. Feel free to let me know if there is one that appeals to you, or if you have other suggestions!

And, if you have a blog yourself, what are some posts from 2018 that you are still very happy with, and what are some things you’d like to change about your writing?

Looking back at 2018: some more movies (and one special)

Here are some movies or movie-ish things that left an impression on me but that I did not have a chance to mention in my actual top 10 of 2018.

(Images via IMDb)

A GREAT CLASSIC I SAW AT THE CINEMA: the absolutely wonderful “noodle-western” Tampopo got a re-release this year, and I am very happy to have seen it on the big screen. It is a wonderful reflection on our relationship to food as well as cinema, all told through an array of charming characters. Small warning for those with an intense dislike of eating/drinking/slurping noises: this movie contains A LOT of those. I also could have done without the scenes that were close to… let’s say a more literal interpretation of food porn? But still. Great movie.

A 2018 MOVIE THAT WAS NOT RELEASED IN CINEMAS, BUT NEEDS TO BE SEEN NONETHELESS: Jennifer Fox’s harrowing The Tale is probably the most important movie I have seen in the past year. Apart from being an incredibly honest look at how a young teenager could be coerced into a relationship with an adult, it is also a very well-made film with excellent performances. The storytelling especially shines, interweaving several narratives to create a meditation on the power of stories to do both good and harm. There’s the story that younger Jenny wrote, the one older Jenny believes and the one she discovers to be the truth – but there is also the one Jennifer Fox is telling to the audience, right now, which might help her or people like her heal and be understood. If you only watch one difficult-to-watch movie this year, this should be it.

Laura Dern and Isabelle Nélisse in The Tale (2018)
The Tale

NETFLIX MOVIE: I cannot believe Annihilation did not get a cinema release in the Netherlands! I would have LOVED to watch this on the big screen. It’s very different from Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach novels, but still has a very similar feel to it. The themes are somewhat different, focusing a bit more on the human characters instead of the possibly alive/sentient environment they find themselves in. It is difficult to explain the exact appeal of this movie since it will probably either be up your alley or be too weird. “Too weird” is, in this case at least, definitely up my alley, especially combined with some heavy themes and beautiful, creative (and sometimes deeply disturbing) imagery. The score is great, too! It’s a very different beast from the trilogy, but still clearly inspired by it (or at least the first novel), and it stands on its own very well.

Annihilation

I have not included Roma in this category because that one did get a cinematic release and I am going to try and see it on the big screen. Speaking of movies that everyone was praising in 2018 but that I did not have a chance to see until this year, Yorgos Lanthimos’ dark, strange and witty costume…. Drama? Comedy? The Favourite would have probably made it into my top 10 had I seen it earlier. I have seen it earlier this month, and can definitely say it has a chance of making it into my 2019 favorites.

NETFLIX SPECIAL (OK not a movie, but I don’t know where else to mention it): I mean, I knew I liked her from her superb performance on Please Like Me, but I was still surprised by how impressive Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special Nanette was. I maintain on calling it a comedy special because (even if it is up for debate whether or not it stays comedy after the halfway point), it is always very much ABOUT comedy. Specifically, it takes a critical look at how sometimes, the idea that laughter helps us put things in perspective/helps lighten dark times/etc., makes us overlook the harm that can be done by it. What is lost by, in Hannah’s words (albeit lightly paraphrased), turning an entire story into a simple set-up/punchline structure?

She takes aim at “angry straight white men” comedy, for sure, but does not leave her own work (or life) unexamined in the slightest. Is she still preaching to the choir? In a way, maybe – people who are staunchly opposed to what she has to say here won’t be inclined to see her point of view. But people at least willing to give her the benefit of the doubt might come to see, if not necessarily agree with, the validity of her statements on anger, on sensitivity, on comedy… It is a smart, genre-defying performance that is at once deeply (often painfully) personal and widely applicable, and very timely. Give yourself the chance to listen to Hannah’s story, it is one worth hearing.

Hannah Gadsby

A CHEAT MENTION BECAUSE THIS MOVIE WAS ALREADY IN MY TOP 3 OF 2017, BUT WHATEVER: Look, I know I put You Were Never Really Here on my #3 spot of 2017 (and, upon rewatch, it would probably have been #2). Having said that, because it was officially released in 2018, it was the first movie I saw in 2018, and one that I saw discussed everywhere else in 2018, it feels very much like a 2018 movie anyway – and one that I cannot resist giving a mention here. Lynne Ramsay’s haunting portrayal of a fractured, traumatized mind is both disturbingly brutal and strangely beautiful in ways that you rarely see within the thriller genre. I love this movie a lot.

AND FINALLY, SOME HONORABLE MENTIONS (again, movies seen in cinemas in 2018, could be late 2017 releases or early 2019 ones): Call Me By Your Name, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Sorry To Bother You, Family, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, I Am Not A Witch and Love, Simon.

This is a somewhat shorter post, but I hope to have my last looking-back-at-2018 post up later this week or early next week. It will be a review of sorts. Or a preview? Anyway, I will take a closer look at… my own blog. NOTHING COULD GO WRONG THERE.

How’s your 2019 so far? Seen or read anything great already?

2018: a reading year in review

Let’s start with some honesty: 2018 wasn’t my best reading year. Not that 2018 was TERRIBLE. I read quite a few notable books, and I got really into audio books because of the Storytel app. So that was nice. However, having to do a lot of reading for my classes and my BA thesis, I ended up mostly gravitating towards video games and films for fun. I really miss reading a lot, though, so I’m trying to actively make more time for it this year. My current strategy is to set a reasonable goal (in amount of pages rather than books, to stop myself from only reading 200-page novels and comics for the upcoming few months) for myself each month. If I don’t make it, I have to get rid of one of my many unread books. This seems like a good way to motivate myself to a) read more and b) look critically at which books I actually want to keep/read.

It’s working out pretty well so far. You know, for those few weeks that 2019 has been happening. Oh well.

Anyway, for this post, rather than make a neat top 10, I thought I’d try to pay a little attention to some of the books that made me want to keep reading or listening, making me want to miss appointments/sleep/etc – despite not being in much of a reading mood for most of the year. I tried to categorize them based on what made them so compelling (or at least played a major part).

So, which books reminded me that I love reading?

https://www.headline.co.uk/assets/HeadlinePublishing/img/book/229/isbn9781472258229.jpg
Cover image via Headline Publishing

Favorite novel: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

It was my favorite when I listed my winter favorites, and it is still my favorite after rereading it for a paper a few weeks back. Butler does a remarkable job of doing what all good historical fiction does: bring present and past together. Here, that happens in a more literal manner, since this is not just historical fiction but also a time travel narrative. The collision of past and present here shows that they may never be as separated as they seem. Dana is also a great, relatable yet unique character, both flawed and likeable. Giving the readers a more contemporary lead character to identify with and through whose eyes we can see the horrors of slavery is such a masterstroke, because it destroys the ability to keep the past at a distance – would we do better if we ended up in the past? Even if we tried, could we do better? How come that people accepted such horrible conditions as everyday life? Those are just some of the questions Butler deals with here, and she does so marvelously. I cannot reiterate my recommendation enough (though, obviously: huge content warnings for depictions of slavery, sexual assault, torture and racism).

Favorite comic or graphic novel: My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris

Another one I already wrote about in the aforementioned winter favorites post. It still belongs on this list, though. Writing about it for my BA thesis only made me love and appreciate this graphic novel more. I love the unique character at its center, I love the gorgeous art that uses many different influences, I love the monsters… Most of all, I love the meta-y part of this book about how different stories and different forms of art can help people find meaning in their lives, or help them make sense of the confusing world around them. The stories that are told here are also already captivating in themselves, though, the way that the two main story lines intersect lifts both of them up to a higher level. I cannot wait for the second book to come out. I realize that Emil Ferris is probably going to break my heart, but it will be worth it.

Scan from My Favorite Thing is Monsters

Favorite nonfiction: The Good Immigrant (Essays by various authors, edited by Nikesh Shukla).

I always have trouble getting into nonfiction, so it says something that I got through this relatively quickly. Well, not counting the pause around halfway through because the audio book disappeared from my streaming app and I had to get my own copy. Which I did, because I kind of wanted one anyway, so I could look up the author information and such more easily. Still, a bit of a shame, because the audio book is excellent, as all the authors read their own essays. The essays are varied, but they all are about the experiences of people who are immigrants or who have an immigrant background, living in the UK. The essays are often bitingly funny, deeply personal and sharply observed. As a story-obsessed person, essays that touched on media representation and the like were the one that most spoke to me, but I don’t think there is a bad essay here. Whether you yourself have a similar background and are looking for something you can connect to, or – like me – are interested in hearing from people who don’t always get a chance to speak for themselves rather than be spoken about, this essay collection is well worth checking out.

Favorite new series: Books of the Ancestor by Mark Lawrence

I mentioned this series in my list of eagerly awaited sequels (LESS THAN THREE MONTHS LEFT UNTIL HOLY SISTER COMES OUT, YESSSSS) and I stand by the recommendation. These might be the best examples of books I almost could not stop listening to or reading once I got into them. It was such a thrilling story set in an interesting world, with, most of all, intriguing characters that feel well-realized but also unpredictable enough to keep you guessing what they will do next. I love our protagonist, the angry and fiercely loyal Nona, but not as much as I love Abbess Glass, as we don’t see a lot of characters like her: a cunning middle-aged woman willing to do whatever it takes to protect her plans but also those she cares about – even if that means being ruthless at times. She seems always several steps ahead of everyone else, much like Lawrence seems to be several steps ahead of his readers, knowing full well where he wants to lead you while you have no idea where everything’s going – except that you want to be there, too, because you can be sure it will be exciting and emotional, even if it gets very, very dark. Plus, strong female friendships! Between magical assassin nuns! HOORAY. Good stuff.

Nona fanart by Craig Houghton, taken from this cool fanart post by Mark Lawrence himself

Favorite (atmospheric) writing: The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wrecker

This one is also on my list of anticipated sequels, yes. Not that I thought this book NEEDED a sequel, but now I know there might be one, I sure as hell WANT it. The reason the sequel took so long is because of Wreckers meticulous research into the historical aspects of her novel. This could lead to the story getting bogged down in exposition, explanation and unnecessary detail – but the opposite is true. Wreckers beautiful, and yes, atmospheric, prose truly brings to life faraway times and places – whether they are historical or mythological. She also knows how to show the world through the eyes of different characters, some human, some – like the titular characters – mythical beings. She somehow manages to make her story feel wholly magical and yet simultaneously grounded in a very real historical setting. Showing the world through the eyes of Ahmad (the djinni) and Chava (the golem) it becomes both recognizable and refreshingly new for the reader. It’s simply a stunning novel and I can barely believe it was Wrecker’s debut. Because I was reading this as I was moving into a new apartment, I listened to parts of it on audio book, which I recommend. Surely, the writing is also a treat to read on its own – so listening to it instead is far from necessary. However, if you prefer audio books or want to try them, this is a very good one, because George Guidall’s narration fits the tone and style extremely well.

Favorite audio book: Any Man by Amber Tamblyn (various narrators)

I don’t know if I would have liked Amber Tamblyn’s brutal thriller as much if I’d just read it, since the audio adaptation truly adds a whole new layer to the experience. All the narrators – especially those portraying the main characters, the victims – do a great job at giving their roles their own personality and convincing emotions. This makes the experience almost more like an audio drama than an audio book. I highly recommend it if you’re into literary thrillers that succeed in making you feel for the main characters and fear the villain. And what a villain. Female villains don’t often get as brutal as the mysterious serial rapist known only as Maude. The book also steers clear of glorifying her awfulness however, consistently staying sympathetic to Maude’s (always male) victims, who are portrayed each with distinct voices (…and not just in the literal ‘you listened to the audio book’ sense). There are a few issues here, and obviously the book comes with huge content warnings for rape, violence and graphic sexual assault. Having said that, if you can deal with that and are looking for a timely, harrowing and at times heart wrenching thriller, I highly recommend this, especially the audio book which is full of noteworthy performances.

And now, three of my favorite characters from all the stuff I read in 2018:

The Hate U Give
Cover image via Goodreads

Favorite hero: Starr from The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

OK, so, Starr isn’t a hero in the super- sense. She’s just (“just”) a teenage girl. And exactly that convincing portrayal is what makes her arc towards bravery so remarkable. It took me way too long to read Thomas’ smart and timely YA novel, but I’m so glad I finally did. Apart from it’s important subject matter (for those who have lived under a rock the past few years OR don’t keep up with YA/book news: The Hate U Give deals with contemporary race relations in America, specifically with police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement), Starr’s voice and characterization were the main reasons that compelled me to keep reading and finish the book in a few days. It’s impossible not to get affected by Starr’s growing sense of justice and her awareness of the lack of it in the world around her. While her strength can be inspirational, Thomas always avoids making her just a source inspiration or a pamphlet for the important ideas contained in the story. Instead, Starr is a realistically written teenager – which actually makes the messages and emotions in the book all the more powerful. I know everyone already said it, but: THUG is an important book, and Starr is an important character. Whether she shares and strengthens your own perspectives or challenges them, it is well worth reading her story and thinking about all the real-life stories that it echoes.

Favorite anti-hero or anti villain: Xifeng from Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

No, I have not read or even bought the sequel yet. I know now that Xifeng is apparently not a POV character anymore, so I am just less interested. Because Xifengs uniqueness as a YA protagonist is what drew me to this novel, what made me tear through it and what made it linger in my mind afterwards. Xifeng is not a good person, not by a long stretch, but she is understandable because of the way Dao shows us every single step she takes along a dark and disturbing path in order to gain power. It is unusual to see a young female character that is so ambitious, ruthless and even cruel, yet portrayed with a certain degree of sympathy (but not in a way that excuses her more repellent actions). Through her, Dao also explores some interesting themes and well-worn tropes from fantasy fiction, like fate and destiny in relation to agency and choice. All that taken together made for one of my favorite books of the year, one of my absolute favorite characters – and a book I am sure I will reread, even if I am not quite sure I still want to read the sequel (has anyone read it? Can you recommend it?). More anti-heroines like this, please. And more deeply disturbing yet beautiful books like this, please.

Favorite narrative voice or character voice: Murderbot, from Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries

Via Tor.Com

OK, OK, I already read the first Murderbot novella – All Systems Red – before 2018, but I listened to the rest (the audio books are narrated by Welcome to Nightvale’s Kevin R. Free) in 2018 so give me a break. While the story is interesting enough (although I admit I sometimes lost track and should probably read/listen everything in a row to remember everything that’s going on) the main draw of this series is without a doubt the incredible narration. Written from the perspective of its main character – a gone-rogue robot who calls itself Murderbot – the series is both a funny and fresh sci-fi story centered around a character that is both very alien and (but don’t tell it this) very relatable to the human reader. Sure, Murderbot finds humans difficult and wishes the pesky things would leave it alone already – but still can’t resist helping the humans around it whenever they display their unparalleled talent for getting into trouble. Also, Murderbot wishes it could spent most of its time watching a variety of media/dramas, rather than get involved in real life drama. I mentioned it could be relatable. A heavy reliance on snark can be a bit overused nowadays, but Wells somehow makes it work perfectly due to the unique perspective of her main character. Seriously, these books are so much fun, and that’s mostly because of the unique and entertaining narration by the protagonist.

Finally, some honorable mentions:

  • The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
  • I finally finished reading the Fullmetal Alchemist manga by Hiromu Arakawa
  • Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
  • Monstress volume 3: Haven by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
  • Nation by Terry Pratchett
  • The Wells and Wong series by Robin Stevens
  • A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Best book I read this year so far: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

Currently reading: The Changeling by Victor Lavalle. On audiobook I’m listening to Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez (read by Tanya Eby)

So, what were your favorite reads from 2018? Especially, which ones where your favorites in terms of atmospheric writing or character voice?

Top 5 Favorite Films from 2018

Previously on Favorite Films From 2018: #10-6

These are the five films that I have seen in cinemas or at film festivals in 2018, that I currently consider my favorites. There are a few I already reviewed, but hopefully I can say something new about them anyway. They are sort of in ranking order? Maybe? But a pretty loose one.

(Images from IMDb)

Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)

Story: Follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson while she graduates high school, prepares to go to college, and navigates friendships, her first crushes, and her complicated relationship with her mother.

Like with Leave no Trace, a complex parent-child relationship forms the heart of this movie, albeit a very different one. The mother-daughter relationship is only one of its notable strengths, though. It is also an excellent coming of age story. The movie shines in that it doesn’t center around any larger-than-life issues or circumstances. It’s joys and heartbreaks both come from small moments: even if Christine’s preparations to move away from home in order to study are a big life decision, it is still a very normal thing to think about and struggle with for someone her age. The side characters are also delightful, they truly feel (to me) as if their lives all move on when they aren’t being supporting characters in Christine’s story. The movie takes time to, every now and then, remind the viewer that those people each have their own dreams and problems. It’s still Christine/”Lady Bird”, and her mother, that take up most of the story, and deservingly so. This type of relationship is one still rarely seen in film, especially written in such a nuanced way. Truly a wonderful movie.

Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Story: The romance between a renowned, middle-aged dressmaker and a younger woman ends up changing their lives forever.

I highly respect Paul Thomas Anderson’s artistic movies, where it always feels like every scene has been thought out. Having said that, I can’t say I always feel a personal connection to his work(though I might on rewatch, when I can pay attention to different details). Phantom Thread is an exception to that rule. That mostly has to do with the ending being exactly what I did not know I wanted from the film, making everything before it just click in a near-perfect way. Look, if there is one romance trope I don’t see often enough it is ‘two very flawed (or even kind of awful) people who are perfect for each other in a slightly messed up way’ AND THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT THIS MOVIE TURNED INTO. I mean, this is Art Cinema and all, but I spent the last few moments of the movie grinning and giggling like a weirdo. Anyway. Great movie. I’m selling it a bit short by only focusing on that part but IT’S MY LIST, SO I CAN DO WHAT I WANT. It’s also been a while since I saw it so I can’t recall every detail that I liked – but there was a lot (THE COSTUMES! THE PERFORMANCES! THE MUSIC! THE SUBTLE HUMOR! CYRIL!). In short: this is officially the bar for young woman + older man romances now. Don’t even try to sell me anything beneath this level.

Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda)

Story: A family of small-time crooks take in a young girl who is abused by her parents.

Can I say anything I haven’t said yet in my LIFF review? I CAN TRY. I did rewatch this movie a few days ago, after all. Still found it to be one of my favorites. There is just so much attention to detail when it comes to drawing the viewer into the lives of these characters. I especially love how many moments there are where this movie could have been judgmental – of characters living on the margins of society, of characters making questionable decisions or having questionable motivations, of characters doing something illegal, or doing a job that is often mocked or frowned upon… and every single time, it chooses kindness and understanding instead. The love and compassion that fill this movie are what make it stand out and what make it to me, a hopeful and positive movie in the end – even if the final act can feel like and unexpected cold shower after a nice warm bath.

Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)

Story: an insecure young teenager tries to get through her last week of middle school.

Josh Hamilton and Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade (2018)

Eight Grade is one of the best character studies of this year, and all it is is a snapshot of one week in the life of a young, anxious teen. It finds a lot of humor in awkward situations, but NEVER by turning its protagonist into a joke. It is always, consistently, at her side throughout. It reminded me a little bit of Lady Bird in that its main event is a big change in the protagonist’s life, but no unusual thing by any means. Apart from that, once again, it finds short moments of joy, connection, fear, sadness, alienation or hope in everyday situations. This honest portrayal of early puberty makes Kayla both very much her own character, as a(n at times uncomfortably) relatable one. It is also one of the more realistic, nuanced depictions of the ubiquity of social media in the lives of young people. And I know I have already said it in my review, but Elsie Fisher’s performance is astonishing. It might be my favorite performance of the year.

Tigers Are Not Afraid (Issa Lopez)

Story: After 10-year old Estrella loses her mother to the violence of the drug cartels, she joins a group of young boys living on the streets. The group is far from safe however, since they have something one of the cartel members desperately wants back. Meanwhile, Estrella is also haunted by the spirit of her mother and others killed by the gangs, spirits who seemingly need something from her…

Yes, I ALSO already raved about this one. But that was months ago – and even now, this is still clear in my mind as a movie that left a great impression and one I wish I could rewatch (and I already saw it twice at the festival). I can’t deny that this is one of those movies that absolutely plays into some genres and tropes that I tend to love, but I am also convinced that it does so INCREDIBLY well, in a way that should also appeal to other people. It tells a dark story, using magical realism and horror elements to guide the viewer through the very realistic problem of children orphaned by the Mexican drug wars. Like Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone, it manages to find both beauty and horror in both the supernatural and the real world, and shows this convincingly through the eyes of a young, brave protagonist. The Del Toro comparison is apt, but also sells the film’s unique qualities short. It has a very different, more grounded visual style and tells a contemporary story instead of a historical one. Despite depicting some terrible acts of brutality, it never becomes too grim. There is always a sense of hope, through the way it lets its young main characters find some joy in the bleakest of circumstances, and its belief in the strength of Estrella (the movie’s young protagonist). I really, really hope this movie will soon be available outside of festival screenings, because it is an absolute must-watch for anyone who loves a mix of supernatural genres with realistic settings/topics. Also, I want to be able to watch it again, dammit.

That’s it for my personal top 5! I still have a post planned discussing some other movies and movie-related stuff, but for the sake of variety that one will be posted later in the month. My next post will probably be about books instead.

What was your favorite movie? And, since it seems relevant to what I wrote about Phantom Thread, what was your favorite movie romance from the past year? Does not have to be the main focus of the movie.


Favorite movies from 2018: #10 – #6

I know, I know, I said wasn’t going to make lists like this. Well, I was wrong! Thing is, just this month I saw one movie that made my favorite list in a neat top 10, so I could not resist writing one. This post will list #10-6. The next will be the top 5, then I will probably have another post with some other movies I need to discuss but that don’t fit in this list for various reasons. These are my personal favorites from what I watched at the cinema or at film festivals this year. They are not the movies I objectively consider the best. They are also my favorites right now, in this moment – I already shifted the order around twice the last few days (before partially giving up on ranking anyway), and if I were to redo my favorites of 2017, that list would look slightly different as well. I’m also going by movies that were released or shown at festivals in the Netherlands this year, so there are still some 2017 US releases on this list, for example. But enough with all the caveats. Let’s discuss some movies!

(Images from IMDb)

#10 The Guilty (Den Skyldige, Gustav Möller)

Story: A police officer assigned alarm dispatch receives a call from a kidnapped woman.

Jakob Cedergren in Den skyldige (2018)

I love a movie (or any work of fiction) that puts itself under certain restrictions and manages to tell a good story that way. The Guilty is one of those movies that limits itself to one single location. More importantly, this is not even the location where the bulk of the plot action takes place – all of that happens off-screen. I have seen multiple reviewers say that The Guilty is a solid watch, but not a great movie because it probably doesn’t hold up the same way to a second viewing. I think I disagree. Think, because I have not yet rewatched it – but I definitely want to, someday. The first time around, it is so easy to get swept up in the compelling plot that you don’t always have time to pay attention to all the details. I’d love to look closer at how everything is foreshadowed, both in terms of story and themes, to how cinematography is used to make the most of the movie’s single location, to the important use of sound… I expected this movie to be thrilling and interesting if done well. I did not expect to find it so engaging on an emotional and thematic level. Add to that a magnificent lead performance, and this movie has definitely earned itself a spot on this list.

#9-6: I honestly don’t know how to rank these, so I’m listing them in alphabetical order.

Leave No Trace (Debrah Granik)

Story: A father and daughter live a peaceful life in a park, away from society – until they are discovered and their lives are changed forever.

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace (2018)

This is a very slow but very beautiful movie that manages to convey much of its meaning through the visuals and two amazing lead performances. It took a while for me to let it sink in, but when it did, I knew it would be one of those movies that would stay with me for a while. It is a melancholy, quiet film that manages to say a lot without relying on the dialogues all that much. Plus, it’s shots of nature are both gorgeous and narratively relevant. Then you have the thoughtful exploration of a very difficult question: what if you have a very loving parent-child relationship, but parent and child might want and need completely different things?

Revenge (Coralie Fargeat)

Story: Jen, mistress to wealthy, married Richard, thinks she is going away with her lover to a secluded house in the desert. Then his two friends show up early for their hunting trip, and one of them rapes her. Richard, rather than helping Jen, attempts to kill her to avoid “trouble”. Little do the men know that Jen has survived and will do everything in her power to stay alive and get to safety, even if that means getting bloody revenge on the three men that did this to her.

Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz in Revenge (2017)

How did this happen??? A rape-revenge exploitation movie?? In my favorites? What has my life turned into? Revenge is much more than that though, except it also… isn’t? While it doesn’t quite subvert the tropes of the notorious genre, it instead leans into them until they break and can be reshaped into something new. While it might seemingly exemplify the male gaze in its first act, that changes quickly. Despite it’s exploitation-y roots, it’s depiction of the rape is surprisingly tactfully done (as far as that is possible). It also stays on Jen’s side throughout, even though she is clearly (intentionally) portrayed as the type of woman who does everything she isn’t “supposed” to do, everything that isn’t safe. The movie challenges the viewer (man or woman) who might disagree with her choices to ask themselves: ‘so…?” because it still shouldn’t matter. There is no way she is responsible for the terrible choices made by these men.

The movie is also visually outstanding, especially the use of gorgeous, popping colors. Despite being completely over the top with its violence it is also one of the few films (in my opinion) that manages to both get its thrills from said violence AND display it as undesirable. Believe me, entertaining ridiculousness or not, bloody wounds have rarely ever been displayed in such gleeful, visceral detail. This movie is NOT for the squeamish, obviously (not just the gore, also OH GOD THE SOUND EFFECTS. The sound effects. There is a lot of squelching in this movie. A LOT.)

The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

Story: I MEAN, YOU PROBABLY KNOW BY NOW. Woman works as a janitor for a super secret governmental research organization. Woman meets mysterious intelligent, humanoid fish-monster. They fall in love. Obviously.

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It’s not my favorite movie of the year, nor is it my favorite Del Toro movie (it would probably be #3 after The Devil’s Backbone and my absolute favorite, Pan’s Labyrinth), but I still love it quite a bit. Like Del Toro often manages to do, it feels both wholly magical and grounded in the real world. There is also just so much love you can feel in this movie – and I don’t mean it’s unique central romance, I’m talking about the love Del Toro clearly has for his characters, for storytelling (specifically fantastical stories) and for cinema as a whole. It has a lot of beauty and heart, and that makes up for the fact that it doesn’t feel quite as original as the other two Guillermo movies I mentioned.

Also, I don’t think it IS the best movie of the previous year (or this one) but I am definitely amused that the Oscars, the ultimate meeting point of ~cinematic Art~ and ~mainstream entertainment~, picked a movie that is about a woman having a romantic and sexual relationship with the Creature From the Back Lagoon’s hotter brother as the year’s best. Nowhere near as groundbreaking as the previous win, obviously, but it sure makes me smile.

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman)

Story: Miles Morales has to become his reality’s Spider-Man, AND team up with several Spider-y counterparts from other realities in order to stop Kingpin from using a machine that will tear all the dimensions apart.

This is the movie I meant when I mentioned a last-minute addition to this list. I don’t think it is the best movie I watched this year, or my personal favorite, but it is the movie that had me the most delighted for pretty much the entirety of its duration. This is mostly because of what it does with the storytelling possibilities from both animation and super hero comics. I’ve enjoyed a lot of comic book movies during the past few years, but I feel like they are often closer to action movies with a superhero costume on (ha) than to the storytelling of actual super hero comics. This movie reminded me exactly about what I enjoy so much about those type of comics: they are often very trope-y but manage to use and combine (sometimes even subvert) their tropes in fun ways and they can be completely over the top but somehow not just get away with it but make it perfectly fitting and incredibly enjoyable.

More than that, though, I have been WAITING for animated movies that experiment more with the freedom the medium offers, and this movie does that in such beautifully creative ways. It clearly uses the comic book art style as its main source of inspiration, but never forgets that it’s a FILM. I cannot really explain it better without spoiling the surprise, so just go see it. OK. Preferably in 3D. Didn’t think I’d ever recommend that, but it really works here. Seriously, I wonder how every live action superhero movie feels knowing that this movie has the best final battle sequence out of any of them.

It’s just so lively, cute, and joyous, it is difficult not to be charmed by it. It might be my current favorite superhero movie? I really hope we get more animated super hero movies like this (and despite my fondness of the genre, I was not expecting myself to request MORE superhero franchises, but here we are). I don’t know if it’s possible license-wise, but somehow, they should make a Young Avengers and/or a Clint Barton – Kate Bishop Hawkeye buddy cop movie, thanks.

ALSO PLEASE STAY FOR THE POST-CREDITS SCENE IT IS SHORT BUT IT IS ABSOLUTELY A MUST-WATCH.

Can you tell this is the movie that is freshest in my mind? I mean, I only talked about it two or three times as much compared to the others.

And with that, we come to the end of this post. Which of these movies have you seen? And if you could pick a marvel comic/superhero for Sony Animated’s next movie, which one would you choose? And, because quite a few movies were complete surprises to me in terms of how much I ended up liking them – what was the movie you saw this year that you loved way more than you expected?

Five Favorite Songs I Saw Live This Year

Throughout December and January, I want to look back at some of the things I loved in 2018. Today, I want to pay attention to some of my favorite music.

I love music (who doesn’t?) and I especially love going to concerts. As a small tribute to the awesome concerts I went to this year, an excuse to talk about music (again), and a way to recommend some songs, I’m going to talk about one song of each artist I saw live this year.

 2 All-time favorite songs that I got to see live:

Ben Folds – Fred Jones, Pt. 2

Seeing Ben Folds (with just a piano as his main accompaniment) live was a delight, since the man is both a very good musician and an excellent entertainer, who is almost as fun to listen to between the songs as during them. Fred Jones Pt. 2 was a highlight of the set for me, because it has been one of my favorite songs of his and in general ever since I listened to it. The reason is probably in the lyrics: I love how much true-to-life sadness the song wrings out of a very small moment. It follows a man who has just lost the job that he’s worked at for years, and who is just being let go without any appreciation or ceremony to show for it. “He’s forgotten but not yet gone“– ouch. Want an indication of his live performances? Here, have a Tiny Desk Concert where he forgets his own lyrics at one point. Something I’m pretty sure he also did at the concert, though with a different song.

Fantastic Negrito – Lost in a Crowd

 A man presumably born with music in his veins, Xavier Dephrepaulezz has  beaten some near-impossible odds by making a name for himself as Fantastic Negrito. If I am honest, I didn’t always connect to his stage persona as much as with some of the other artists mentioned here (particularly the next and the last singer mentioned). His sometimes crass comments were a bit hit-or-miss for me (despite his good intentions and admirable goals becoming clear in interviews like this one). It did not stop me from enjoying the (amazing) performance, but I can imagine it being too off-putting for some people so I thought I’d just give a heads-up.

It also does not stop me from believing he is one of the most talented artists currently making music. His songs are is such a unique mix of psychedelic rock, blues, soul, funk and punk. Of course the recordings sound really good, but the raw energy of the songs make them something that is simply meant to be played/seen/heard live. Lost in a Crowd is a song that captured me from the moment I heard the very first few notes (seriously) from the NPR Tiny Desk concert Fantastic Negrito did a while back (which is also how I found his music in the first place). As expected, actually seeing it performed live was even better than that.

A song that became an all-time favorite the moment I saw it played live

 John Grant – Glacier

Glacier is a song that I listened to a lot this year, ever since I read about it in Martin Aston’s Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache (… a book which I should really, really finish). Grant, a gay man who grew up surrounded by religion-based prejudice, uses this song to speak to his younger self and to all who might find themselves in similar situations. There is such a beautiful expression of solidarity and kindness in this, a contrast to many of Grant’s more cynical, witty (but in their own way, still emotional) songs. It was already close to becoming an all-time favorite of mine, and seeing John Grant live (in what might be my favorite live show I saw this year – and I saw some really, really good ones) was what finally cemented it as such. Listening to it on my phone or laptop is one thing, but hearing it played live, with an incredibly talented band supporting Grant,just made it even more powerful. Needless to say, I was pretty much just one giant goosebump for the entire duration of the song (and it’s a pretty long song).

The most fun song I saw live

Kero Kero Bonito – Flamingo

Kero Kero Bonito were not a band I was super-familiar with, compared to the other artists listed here. Still, I really enjoyed the slightly more rock-ish leanings of their incredibly energetic live show. I also appreciate the unbridled optimism and cheerfulness of their music. Flamingo, is a very silly, yet endearing song (and one of the few I already knew quite well). Despite the crowd being a unexpectedly intense (a little too much so, I’m glad we moved to the balcony after a while!) it is kind of magical to see an entire group of people jump and shout-sing along to lyrics like: “How many shrimps do you have to eat, before you make your skin turn pink?”  If you ever feel like you need a musical pick-me-up after a bad day, listen to some KKB.

A song I was lucky enough to see live TWICE:

Aurora– Queendom

Well, OK, an artist I was lucky enough to see twice, but I wanted to stay loyal to the theme of this post – even though It was difficult to pick one highlight out of two excellent shows. Getting to know Aurora’s new material this way (once as a preview, once after the release of the album) was such a treat. Aurora has such a quirky and adorable live personality that always come across as very genuine. If you like her music even a little bit, you should give her live shows a chance. Maybe you can start by watching this gorgeous Christmas concert. Queendom is the album’s lead single, and a very deserving one at that. It is at least in part an ode to women, but it is also very much a continuation of a larger, recurring theme in Aurora’s work – that off including all those who have ever felt excluded: “The underdogs are my lions / The silent ones are my choir”. It is such a lovely, positive and poetic anthem, and one of my very favorite new songs from this year.

Still from the Queendom video. From this interview

Did you get to see any live shows this year? And if not, what’s an artist or band you really want to see in concert?

– Julia