Culture: My Best of 2014

That’s it; as 2015 approaches fast and all sorts of lists of things we have enjoyed are bustling on your social feeds: movies, albums, news and much more. I decided to compile an exhaustive list of films, albums, books and TV shows proposing to look in the least objective manner at what marked – my – 2014. Although in my opinion lists are stupid, because they vulgarise information as well as narrow down endless possibilities, I succumbed to the trend. Also, it takes a lot of brashness and self-importance feelings to declare ‘this was better than that’. I do not pretend in any way to hold the absolute truth. Amongst the following, I have not had the chances to see, read and watch all that could be seen, read and watched because my dear reader, as unexpected and shocking as it sounds I am not an encyclopaedia. Anyways, here is what grabbed my interest in 2014.

  • Films

Jake Gyllenhaal reporting on a crime scene in Nightcrawler.
  1. Nightcrawler by Dan Gilroy
    This is the story of a lunatic, immoral jobless thief who decides to start a career in freelance journalism. It is a life-time performance and by far the best Jake Gyllenhaal has ever pulled off. Cynical, hilarious and dark, Nightcrawler is a satire of a world in which human life is worth no more than images.
  2. Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch
    Following the commercial success of Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries I reckon I was quite scared when Down By Law‘s director announced he was writing a story about vampires. What a pleasant surprise! I feel ashamed and I know better than not to have had faith in Jim Jarmusch. The Akron-born filmmaker’s latest work is a success in terms of photography, acting (hats off to Tilda Swindon and Tom Hiddleston) and sound. Although the action in Only Lovers Left Alive unfolds slowly and its scenario is quite simplistic, it manages to tell a humanistic story where vampires are only here to make us realise the perfection of our mortal condition.
  3. The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson
    I always thought Wes Anderson‘s cinema was lacking something. Although The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom had the potential to soar up to the status of masterpiece, they probably won’t be considered as such in a decade. Let’s be honest though, Anderson – as was Dario Argento with his Giallo – enjoys creating colourful, lively universes where aesthetic prevails upon scenario. With the Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson takes us to the fictional Republic of Zubrowska. Verdict: what was lacking has been found. The film is well balanced between humour and terror – thanks to the pragmatic and witty Mr. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and the terrifying Jopling (Willem Dafoe) – whilst maintaining the dandy of cinema’s childish narrative. His best work so far.
  • Albums

Caribou Our Love
Caribou – Our Love
  1. Caribou – Our Love
    Dan Snaith, A.K.A Manitoba, Daphni or more recently Caribou is the same man. A simple, nostalgic and versatile Canadian musician born by the banks of Lake Ontario. Snaith opened the doors to electronica in 2010 with ‘Swim‘ and took a dramatic turn towards house with the release, under the name Daphni, of ‘Jiao‘ back in 2012. ‘Our Love‘ is Caribou‘s masterpiece: An introspective album exploring the future, the probable and the desirable.
  2. Tom Vek – Luck
    Maybe ‘Luck‘ is not as consistent as ‘Leisure Seizure‘. Whilst the latter was more some sort of self-proclaimed manifesto of what indie music ought to be, the latter explores the possibilities of experimentation, resulting in an heterogenous batch of songs – The oriental ‘Broke‘, the robotic ‘How Am I Meant To Know‘ or the energetic ‘You’ll Stay‘ – that luckily work out for the best. Tom Vek is definitely a genius.
  3. Kasabian – 48:13
    A lot was expected from The Leicester-based band since it now features alongside big stars of English rock music such as Oasis, Blur or The Stone Roses. Some said when experimental track ‘Eez-eh‘ was unveiled, it is an utter pile of crap. Others glorified Kasabian‘s ability to re-invente themselves with every album… there does not seem to be a middle ground. And indeed, how to resist the string arrangements in ‘Stevie, the house-music-styled solo in ‘Treat‘ or the brashness of ‘Eez-eh‘? You know Sergio worked it like a treat!
  • Books

Although you will quickly notice that these books weren’t written in 2014, I have chosen to share the ones I have discovered this year and have spent sleepless nights literally devouring. I wish I could have fit more than three in this list, unfortunately I had to omit a lot.

A Song Of Ice And Fire
A Song Of Ice And Fire’s first instalment: A Game Of Thrones, published in 1996
  1. A Song of Ice and Fire (1996 – 2011) by George Martin
    When George Martin started writing ‘A Game of Thrones‘ in 1991, I doubt he had any idea how many people he would shock and please; firstly by killing off everyone’s favourite characters; secondly by depicting sexual scenes of extreme violence with such ease (incest, rape…) and thirdly by his creativity and the way he achieved to put together pieces of a world in which readers are sucked into from the first pages. Westeros is a ruthless universe and its crudeness is – and some of you might beg to differ here –  expressed way better with words than by David Benioff and Dan Weiss‘ cameras. Every fan of the TV show should read it, provided they can cope with Martin’s extremely slow writing pace before the release of the next instalment ‘The Winds of Winter‘. Surely, it will be worth the wait in the end.
  2. Shogun (1975) by James Clavell
    James Clavell joined the Royal Artillery at nineteen years old in 1940. He was sent to Malaysia during the Second World War and was captured by the Japanese, who made him a war prisoner. When freed, Clavell set out to write the Asian Saga, a collection of stories counting the adventures of British citizens in Asia over a wide period of time (1600 – 1979). Shogun tells the story of captain Blackthorne (Anjin-san) and his encounter with a world he knows absolutely nothing about: feudal Japan. He is made prisoner and quickly gains importance as a prize that can influence the outcome of the raging war between two feudal lords: Toranaga and Ishido. Shogun not only has an historical value (although names have been changed and plots twisted), but it teaches more about Japanese culture than any other book could. Wakarimasu ka!
  3. La Peste (1947) by Albert Camus
    Alright, it was a close one. If it had not been for the events that occurred when I was reading ‘La Peste‘, I probably would have put ‘1984′ that was much more likely to feature on this list. Unfortunately for Orwell, as I was reading Camus‘ underestimated piece – that he himself regarded as a disastrous piece of work – ISIS was being thrown on media outlets’ front pages, setting out to contaminate countries with bubonic plague. Meanwhile in West Africa, Ebola was killing people by thousands, price of an unstoppable outbreak as is the plague in Camus‘ novel. Clear, concise and highlighting the issues our society is dealing with when facing alarming outbreaks, this book is a timeless must-read.
  • TV Shows

Mad Men 2014
Mad Men’s cast for series 7 (Pt. I)
  1. Mad Men
    The power of Mad Men lies it its ability to tell nothing and at the same time everything, in particular in the way characters adapt and fit their behaviour to the changing environment that surrounds them: the deaths of JFK, his brother and Martin Luther King, Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, a post war atmosphere of repression followed by the freedom of the sixties. All along Mad Men, we follow Don Draper, go to the office with him, get drunk with him, cheat and lie with him and eventually go down with him. We also grow up with Draper’s kids Sally and Bobby. Mad Men is a success in that it has the ability to make us empathise with ruthless, ungrateful people we would despise if it weren’t for the show, because after all, they were only victims of their time.
  2. Fargo
    Based on the universe the Coen Brothers had created in the namesake 1996 movie, Fargo follows the fearful Lester Nygaard. His world is going to be shaken up by the arrival in town of an enigmatic killer Lorne Malvo. Hilarious, dark, eerie, uncanny and mysterious, Fargo will please TV series lovers and Joel & Ethan‘s fans.
  3. The Missing
    Last year, it was David Tennant and Olivia Colman‘s investigation following the death of a young boy that shook Britain in Broadchurch, this year it was The Missing. In 2006, in the fictional town of Chalons-du-Bois in the North of France, the Hugh family: Tony, Emily and Oliver (James Nesbitt, Frances O’Connor and Oliver Hunt) is going on holiday when their car breaks down. They decide to take a room in a hotel nearby and stay overnight, planing to leave when everything is fixed. Unfortunately, Tony and Emily’s son, Olly, goes missing. Eight years later, a divorced Tony has still not accepted his son disappearance and is desperate to reopen the case whereas Emily seems to have chosen to forget. With the help of former detective Julien Baptiste (The fatherly Tchéky Karyo), they will try to unveil the horrible truth. The Missing offers an interesting reflection around pedophilia, forgiveness, vengeance, love and the fragility of relationships.

Also worth mentioning The Walking Dead‘s lack of consistency, seemingly lacking inspiration, making us all grow tired of watching. It is kind of a weird feeling I have for this TV show – bipolar I would say – hating it one minute and loving it the next one. Also worth taking notice, the announcement of Twin Peaks and Agent Dale Cooper return for 2016.

Haruki Murakami – Blunt Feelings, Loneliness And Curiosity

 Of all the novels Haruki Murakami has ever published, I have read four. The first one was The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, followed by 1Q84, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage and finally Norwegian Wood.

What attracted me in Murakami’s novels were the uncanny, the dreamy touch and the simplicity with which he expresses complex feelings. It felt a bit like delving into a book that recreated the atmosphere that attracted me to David Lynch’s cinema, and that was all it took to hook me up.

Norwegian Wood: 

It is the book that pushed Murakami onto the international scene, making the numbers of his readership drastically surge from thousands to millions. Fifth novel of the Japanese writer, published in 1987, it is also the most personal. Although most situations are purely fictional, a lot of elements are borrowed from the author’s past.

The settings, to start with, make it seem much more personal than any other books he’d written before: Tokyo, in the end of the politically troubled 1960’s where main character, twenty-year-old Toru Watanabe, seems to share a lot with twenty-year-old Murakami. First of all, Toru is a simple adolescent, who sees life in a rather rational way. It appears quite natural for  Toru to look at the world and try to make sense of it, since his best friend Kizuki committed suicide when he was 17. He then develops complex feelings towards Naoko, Kizuki’s girlfriend. Friendship, attachment and eventually, what he thinks is love. Naoko, however, is torn apart between her feelings for him and the guilt she feels towards her dead boyfriend. Finally she decides to go to a mental institution where she will be cut off from the world. Meanwhile, Toru meets Midori, an eccentric girl in his class, who quickly becomes fond of him. The rest of the novel follows Toru, in a quest to discover who he really his and what he really wants.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage:

Latest novel to date in Murakami’s broad collection of 13 long stories, this book tells the adventures of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man who remembers his troubled past.

Oddly, Tsukuru got expelled from his group of friends during his second year at University. Of all these friends, he was the only one with a name that did not include a colour, and that is part of the reason why he felt that he never belonged to that group. He then meets Sara, an attractive women, by two years his senior, whom he becomes engrossed with. She feels that something in his past is holding him, not allowing him to fully share his feelings. She encourages him to contact his estranged old friends that have all gone their separate ways, to discuss the circumstances that led them to exclude him from their community. Tsukuru quickly realises that what he had thought happened is not quite what he recalls and the truth can put on different masks.

Murakamian themes:

Whereas the plots are somewhat different in the two novels, similarities can be drawn on themes and occurrences: for once, they both explore the past, where strong feelings and issues remain unresolved. Mental illness is an underpinning theme that is constantly present as is death.

What shocks the most is the absence of parental figures. Although they are often mentioned, they just appear as brief memories from the past, as if constantly thrown into the background or even completely ignored.

No wonder why both novels explore the past of the protagonist. Teenage years are those in which we defined ourselves. It is not uncommon for Murakami’s characters to find themselves in a dorm in the middle of Tokyo leading a sort of dull existence where Sundays is not hungover day but laundry day. A gloomy remembrance of “the good old days” that do not seem to have been so good for him, spent between reading Fitzgerald and his ironing board. He admits:

My own youth was far less dramatic, far more boring than that (Norwegian Wood). If I had simply written the literal truth of my own life, the novel would have been no more than 15 pages long.”

Memories, true or fantasised are central to Murakami’s universe. It can be seen at moments when dreams and reality mix, resulting in an uncanny and confusing experience for the protagonist. Parts with vividly described sex dreams, a recurring theme, often illustrate the main character’s confusion to distinguish what is real from what isn’t. But this is not relevant to Murakami. After all, what does it change to modify reality ? As Proust did it with his masterpiece  ‘À la recherche du temps perdu‘, the giant of Japanese literature is only writing to illustrate the importance of recollection. Once the past has eluded us, what is left but memories? Why not use these to make sense of the present?

 More about Haruki Murakami