Saturday, 22 December 2012

Aural Ecstacy: The Best Albums of 2012

Unlike last year, for 2012 we have decided to publish our list of our favourite albums of 2012 on time and (hopefully) while it is still relevant. The key change (haha) this year seems to have been the movement away from the traditional indie/rock band with only one or two choices in this vein making the cut. We decided not to rank our albums from 10 to 1. After all, we might change our minds next week.

An Awesome Wave, Alt-J

There have been a plethora of comment pieces this year lamenting the death of guitar music, but the Mercury Music Prize still went to an album that was played predominantly on guitars. However, this was no run of the mill indie album, incorporating influences from hip-hop and electronic music. Think of the guitar albums that have made a cultural impact this year. The list runs about as far as Alt-J and The XX, both artists operating outside of the indie norm. Guitar music as we know it IS dead on its arse.
But who cares when records like this and the others on this list are being made? What made Alt-J’s album unusual was also what made it excellent; Joe Newman’s hushed voice (at turns creepy and beautiful), Thom Green’s complex drumming, the baroque interludes, and the sporadic sampling.
Cambridge based having met at Leeds University, the band have spent nearly five years working on this record, and it shows. Every aspect is completely and utterly honed. Music aside, the cryptic but comprehensive lyrics and the brilliantly subversive video for Breezeblocks display the complete package.
Having spent so long working on their debut, and with the weight of expectation now upon them, it will be interesting to see whether Alt-J take the same route as The XX; a refinement of their debut, or something new entirely?
George Bate

Channel Orange, Frank Ocean

This man might as well have been designed as the anti-Chris Brown. In place of the tedious machismo and vacuous chart-clogging dreck, Ocean gifted us with vulnerability and genuine personality. When he opens up (if somewhat obliquely) on 'Bad Religion' about his own awakening bisexuality, a topic far more controversial in African-American music than it ought to be, it's like a blast of purifying air through a genre that has often stunk more of masculine braggadocio than a boys' locker room. 
  Channel Orange is initially loveable for its guileless eccentricity, opening for no apparent reason with the sound of somebody firing up a Playstation, and daring to explore a parallel between modern-day strippers and Egyptian queens in what is surely the most tenuous yet unexpectedly effective metaphor-as-song of the year, 'Pyramids'.  
  It's finally memorable for its wonderful songwriting, with highlights like 'Super Rich Kids' and 'Lost' suggesting that any Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye comparisons might not have been entirely premature. These are tunes made for the bedroom and the beach party. By transforming growing pains and adult anxieties into the soundtrack for life at its most purely joyous, Ocean has crafted a triumphant debut LP.
Nick Pierce

Devotion, Jessie Ware

The collaborative effort between Jessie Ware and Katy B, released quietly onto the web last week, came as no surprise; in 2011 Katy B bought pop to UK bass music, now Jessie Ware brings UK bass music to pop.
Having abandoned a promising journalism post with the Jewish chronicle, Ware began her music career on tracks by electro-bass merchants like SBTRKT before taking a step toward pop stardom with this, her long playing debut. The soulful pop route is a path well trodden, to great success in recent years by Adele et al, but Ware kept things original by collaborating with house producer Julio Bashmore and some of the writing team behind Florence Welch, all the while retaining her bass-heavy influences.
Whilst the writing and production were impeccable, the real ace in the deck here was Ware’s voice, which she manages to showcase without ever resorting to overblown histrionics. Ware has shown modesty and class with this restraint, and this serves to increase the impact when she does allow her voice to soar.
Ware displays modesty when interviewed too, “I’m just having fun trying to pretend I’m a pop star”, she says. Quite.
George Bate

Diver, Lemonade

I can’t decide whether Lemonade’s Diver is the trendiest album this year or the most unfashionable. An album of house-infused synthpop from three Brooklynites, Diver goes equally for the head and the heart, and is equally at home on the dancefloor or your headphones.
Driven throughout by four-to-the-floor kick drum and ecstatic synths, the influence of MDMA and other uppers is clearly in force here; it is apt that one of the band’s previous releases was called “Big Weekend”. That’s not to say that the whole theme here is hedonism however, Callan Clendenin’s lyrics often display a tender touch, as on 'Softkiss' where he sings “When it’s cold do you still wear my coat?” It’s the kind of bittersweet detail that really grabs you.
The album carries with it a feeling of yearning, which is at once gorgeous and sad. It has a sugary sweetness, far from cheesy, that will have the listener coming back for one more hit again and again.
George Bate

Instrumental Mixtape 2, Clams Casino

Whilst nominally a mixtape, this second collection showcasing the production work of Clams Casino (real name Michael Volpe) in fact manages so much more. It is telling that many reviews of the rap albums which utilised these beats often praise the rappers where the backed off and stayed silent, allowing the beat to “breathe”. But these tracks were much more than high quality rap beats. They actually functioned as songs in their own right and combined to make an album consistent, but not repetitive, album proper.
Clam’s secret in turning his beats into songs is his method of vocal sampling; he manipulates samples in such a way that syllables remain intact, but so that words become unintelligible. In this way they remain unobtrusive as rap beats but still retain the level of feeling of more conventional vocals and a cohesive (almost verse-chorus-verse) structure.
The production is murky, but never sloppy, and they create a feeling poignant and yearning but non-specific. This has been a rarity in rap music until recently, where any display of emotion was taken as a sign of weakness. One of Clam’s main customers, A$AP Rocky alluded to this when he described Clam’s beats as “ambient” but “hard”.
Clams could quite easily have become a professional producers and make stacks of money on the strength of what is here. Instead he has committed to continuing his training as a physical therapist. Let’s hope the working life doesn’t stop him from making beats.
George Bate

Lonerism, Tame Impala

Tame Impala are one of those bands who effectively allow you to imagine that you're living through that sepia-hued utopia of late 60s, early 70s psychedelia that you secretly envy your father having experienced enough of at first-hand to flagrantly embellish.
  What you want is exactly what you get: extended, blissful jams and glam-rock stompers about how nobody understands and who gives a damn anyway, delivered with the sort of 21st century studio expertise that makes it all sound better than the originals ever could, except in your dreams. Heavenly. If you're gonna buy it, you'll want it on vinyl. 
Nick Pierce

The Money Store, Death Grips

If punk is dead, then Death Grips mark its return as a leering zombie. Lobotomized, perhaps, but still possessed of enough antic energy to munch on flesh. Their noise actually sounds as if it is decomposing, samples and hooks regularly falling away to expose the bare bones underneath: Zach Hill's pounding drums and Stefan Burnett, resident vocalist and nutter, berating and howling like a poltergeist locked in the closet. Each track carries the reek of horrible death and dirty sex, and so it exerts an irresistible allure.
But these punk rockers aren't content to lurk down some dark alley; they want to get in the club. On such almost dancefloor-friendly bangers as 'I've Seen Footage' and 'Hacker', they manage it. And lord help the bouncer who tries to chuck them out.
Nick Pierce

The Seer, Swans

Chief shaman of post-rock pioneers Swans, Michael Gira, has described the outfit's double-album opus as a record thirty years in the making. But when you listen to it, far from merely evoking several decades of innovations in rock music, it sounds like aeons of prehistoric time have been condensed into 120 minutes of unstoppable, immoveable sound.
Every track is a standout. The monolithic intensity of 'Mother of the World' and 'Apostate', with their spectral electronics and berserk guitars, put Phil Spector's own wall of sound to shame. 'A Piece Of The Sky' shifts tectonically from crackling fires to ghostly choir to propulsive rock'n'roll to tender ballad.
Taken altogether, The Seer's scope and uncompromising vision is simply breathtaking. It's a 2001 Space Odyssey or Altered States for your speakers: ascending from the quotidian struggles that usually preoccupy popular music, beyond good and evil, to the edge of sanity and the brink of epiphany. And by god does it rock.
Nick Pierce

Until The Quiet Comes, Flying Lotus

Music producer du jour Steven Ellison's follow-up to his much-acclaimed Cosmogramma LP might not be as compulsive, accessible or immediate, but it's damn near as beautiful. Indeed, this time out Ellison is less interested in sailing to new sonic horizons than he is in luxuriating in those exotic waters he's already discovered. Until The Quiet Comes is the same heady blend of free jazz, electronica and soul, only even more effervescent and nebulous than before. It's a cocktail for the ears and liable to get you just as light-headed.
Nick Pierce

Visions, Grimes

On the face of it Visions should not be a good record. Created in the space of three weeks by a Canadian pixie-goth whose interviews could quite easily read as those of a narcissistic concept artist (on video she comes across much nicer), and who once attempted a journey down the Mississippi river on a house boat, on a self imposed mixture of amphetamines, fasting and isolation, Visions should have been heavier on pretence than substance.
Fortunately what we got is an astonishing record which straddles the emotional and conceptual with poise, and perfectly encapsulates the state of music in the “post-internet” (a term coined by Grimes herself) age. Drawing from a wide range of influences, made accessible by the vast archive of the web, Visions displays a clear lineage from many areas of popular (and not so popular) music, whilst managing to be an entirely original creation. Amongst the sounds that could e heard on this most post-modern of records were the shuffling techno of Autechre, the ethereal magic of Cocteau Twins, and the sheer joy of earl Witney.
Following such a sidestep in her musical style (Grimes’ previous two albums were bizarro efforts in spooky minimalism, with a sonic palette drawn mainly from Eastern and African music) it will be interesting to see where Claire Boucher goes next, having claimed to have moved on entirely from the kind of music she was making with Visions.
George Bate

Thursday, 20 December 2012

A Fine Year: Film in 2012

Another year draws to a close, and so we find ourselves looking back on the past twelve months of cinema and the highlights therein. Unlike last year’s list, we find ourselves more divided in our choices, with Nick favouring a number of European pieces in lieu of Tom’s giddiness over genre works.

Nick’s choices

10. Faust Dir. Alexander Sokurov

Alexander Sokurov is a tricky one to get to grips with. Mother and Son is sublime and one of the greatest films ever made, but Russian Ark is the very definition of self-indulgent tedium. Faust, his eccentric retelling of the age-old myth as filtered through Mann and Goethe, doesn't particularly resemble either, and falls somewhere in the middle of those two poles of quality. Nevertheless, it's an often enchanting Germanic fantasia, and its freewheeling structure interweaved with moments of grimy magic is reminiscent of vintage Terry Gilliam. 

9. The Kid With A Bike Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Depending on how charitable one is feeling, the Dardenne brothers' Kid With A Bike is either a companion piece to their earlier unflinching studies of lonely, clumsy souls, The Kid and The Son, or the re-treading of old ground. Whilst they might have tilled this creative soil to the brink of exhaustion, it's still capable of yielding subtle riches.
As always in their films, the camera treats its subject like a specimen under a microscope, rarely shifting from their perspective, keeping them always in the centre of the frame as they cannonball through life causing pain to others and themselves. This time around, twelve-year-old Cyril is the eye of the storm. Abandoned by his irresponsible father, he is eventually taken in by a compassionate hairdresser willing to offer the boy a love that he comes to resent. The Kid With A Bike is like a rose in the desert: so tiny and delicate it might blow away in an instant, yet beautiful and imbued with a great deal of life.

8. Martha Marcy May Marlene Dir. Sean Durkin

This year was bookended by two compelling dissections of the American cult from PT Anderson and newcomer Sean Durkin. The more conventional Martha Marcy May Marlene was still a supremely impressive debut for the writer-director. Elizabeth Olsen was revelatory as the headstrong yet impressionable Martha, struggling to cope with the trauma of her time as a member of a sinister backwoods community when she is reunited with her unsympathetic family. In its willingness to plumb a bruised underbelly of Stateside life, and offer few concessions to audience comfort, it evoked the glory days of New Hollywood without becoming derivative.

7. The Dark Knight Rises Dir. Christopher Nolan

To paraphrase The Clown Prince of Crime, Christopher Nolan has changed things...forever, and we all know there's no going back. If any more proof were needed of the Brit dynamo's game-changing impact on blockbuster entertainment, then look at this year's Skyfall: The broken hero struggling to live up to his legend, the narrative deconstruction of an icon, the mirror-image villain - all lovingly ripped off from Nolan's superior Batman movies. And whilst The Dark Knight Rises doesn't quite equal its near-perfect predecessor, it silences the naysayers who doubted its director's talents. His genius is to make the spectacle and the action set-pieces integral to the plot, and to offer punters ideas nestled unobtrusively amongst the explosions. Although this might sound more like common sense than genius, it's been out of fashion for so long in Hollywood (since The Matrix, to be exact) that they might as well be the same thing.

6. Amour Dir. Michael Haneke

I'm not entirely convinced that Amour is on a par with Michael Haneke's two previous masterworks, Hidden and The White Ribbon, but it's difficult to find fault with a drama that can hold its own in their lofty company. Looked at in the context of Haneke's career, it's difficult to argue that he's not the greatest living European director.
  It's certainly a timely story, the much-applauded Austrian auteur pointing his unflinching camera at elderly couple, Georges and Annes, as they cope with the sudden onslaught of debilitating illness, at a time when the world is faced with the crisis of an ageing population. Unsurprisingly, death itself is effectively the third character in this chamber piece, its majesty and horror evoked with a moving but unsentimental power comparable to that of Bergman's Cries and Whispers.
  The story is confined almost exclusively to the retired music teachers' Parisian apartment, its shelves lined with literature and classical music. Although the apartment begins as a home, it becomes a cavernous and inhospitable warzone, and finally a fortress in which Georges inters himself, its collection of art all but forgotten. Haneke appears to be raising the question of culture's ultimate significance in our lives and that of our world, when death and destruction wreak utter ruin.

5. The Turin Horse Dir. Béla Tarr

Seemingly determined to establish his position as the Beckett of film ( as distinct from the Beckett of Film...which would be Beckett) beyond all reasonable doubt, Béla Tarr gave us what is ostensibly his swan-song: The Turin Horse. Its relentless documentation of a father and daughter undergoing the daily drudgery and hardship of life in an increasingly apocalyptic European wasteland is a lot like Endgame, but without the laffs: a depiction of the unavoidable entropy and meaninglessness of existence that is genuinely disturbing yet highly thrilling in a way that few straight horror movies can match.  On a purely visceral level, this is the most memorable (or scarring) film of the year. It's also really beautifully shot and demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible. But perhaps only once...

4. Sightseers Dir. Ben Wheatley

Easily the best British film I've seen in a somewhat lacklustre year for homegrown talent, Ben Wheatley's third feature Sightseers was often sharp and funny, but also much sadder than the misleading advertising campaign might have led one to expect. The plot might be a re-run of Badlands transplanted to the English countryside, but this is no embarrassing Anglo attempt at emulating American cool. Instead, the creators poke fun at England's relationship to its own heritage, painting modern-day Brits as clueless children confounded by their nation's past and mystical landscape, but affecting a pompous reverence of it. In the character of Tina, the horror-comedy sub-genre has also found a genuinely strong female icon, who's at least as ballsy, ruthless and bonkers as the boys.

3. Holy Motors Dir. Leos Carax

If you only see one nutso art-house oddity released this year, make it Holy Motors. Errant hell-raiser Leos Carax's return to feature filmmaking after more than a decade's absence was certainly the most original prospect this year. It's an episodic look at a day in the life of the mysterious Mr Oscar, played with irrepressible dynamism by Denis Lavant, as he is ferried around in a white limo to impersonate a rogue's gallery of characters in scenarios that appear to exist somewhere between reality and fiction.
  Carax has stated that the idea was to depict life in the post-internet age and the film succeeds better than any more literal-minded attempts: just as in the virtual world, there might not be anything immediately at stake for Oscar's body, but we feel that the soul of this everyman, like ours, is caught in a profound and as yet uncharted transformation. And in the lead role, the inimitable Lavant once again shows himself to be a one-man circus: alternately clown, acrobat, lion and chimpanzee.   

2. The Master Dir. PT Anderson

The Master is appointed saviour of American cinema Paul Thomas Anderson's first film in five years. His response to the ridiculous weight of expectation cinephiles the world over have loaded onto his shoulders? To shrug it off with an unexpected and brilliant sidestep. His typically distinctive vision of drifter Freddie Quell's brief and bizarre encounter with a snake-oil California spiritualist was several galaxies removed from the filmmaker's early, Altman-esque marvels and streets ahead of his peers. It resembled something that amateur brewer Quell might've concocted in his booze shed if he'd mixed equal parts Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood: a psychotic love story locked in a haunted monument of 20th century American history. There is greatness here: startling, mesmerising, frustrating, funny, and more, it defies categorisation or easy opinions.

1. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

If there's one picture this year I feel confident in calling an outright masterpiece, it's Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. Turkish photographer-turned-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has long been a darling of the festival circuit with bold and intentionally 'difficult' explorations of the human condition like Distant and Climates, but his latest - and longest - effort ascends to a different class of filmmaking altogether.
  It is ostensibly the real-time tracking of 24 hours in a murder investigation, as a group of policemen, prosecutors, doctors, and suspects search the Anatolian hills for the body of the victim. It's actually a forensic examination of how men interact when alone, and there are echoes of (a mellower) Tarantino in the way that Ceylan allows the plot to drift into the background to focus on his characters as they bicker, bond and break down. Strikingly, the narrative shifts from one member of the party to another, never permitting our sympathies and our prejudices to settle, so that the protagonist effectively becomes Man himself.
  If all this sounds a little portentous, it's not. The tone is leavened, like all of Ceylan's work, with moments of bone-dry humour, such as when Prosecutor Nusret scolds the police chief for roughing up one of their suspects because he thinks it will affect his country's standing in the eyes of the European union.
1. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
2. The Master
3. Holy Motors
4. Sightseers
5. The Turin Horse
6. Amour
7. The Dark Knight Rises
8. Martha Marcy May Marlene
9. The Kid With A Bike
10. Faust

Honourable mentions: Shame, Berberian Sound Studio, Killing Them Softly, The Raid, Nostalgia for the Light, Warhorse, Skyfall, Looper

Tom’s choices

10. Rampart dir. Oren Moverman

Whilst James Ellroy may have cut his chops playing with (to great success) the genre conventions of classic noir storytelling, Rampart sees the writer’s LA of the 1940s morph and decay into a sticky, sun-drenched apocalypse that at once evokes and condemns that now similarly iconic City of (Fallen) Angels circa 1994. Using the infamous Rampart scandal as its jumping off point, Ellroy and Moverman’s critique of the LAPD focuses upon the suicidal swagger of Office Dave Brown. A would-be rockstar and successful bigot, Brown is played with aplomb by Woody Harrelson, a man too busy sleeping, snorting and beating up the excess of the 90s to really care about the political honey trap he finds himself in after being filmed thrashing someone to near death in broad daylight. Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube feature as the figures bearing down upon Brown’s insanity, but this is really a one man show – we’re all just along for the ride.

9. Beyond the Black Rainbow dir. Panos Cosmatos

Arguably the most stylish of this year’s releases, Cosmatos’ debut release constantly threatens to throw itself beyond pastiche into the territory of self-parody. Incredibly earnest and totally humourless, Beyond the Black Rainbow – to my mind – successfully manages to stay on the right side of the line throughout its duration, offering up a slice of psychotropic sci-fi nitro-injected with the paranoia of 80s genre cinema. Whilst not the only film to pay homage to the days of late night cinema and VHS obscurities this year (see below), Beyond the Black Rainbow is certainly the most stirring – acting more as a mood piece than a straight narrative. Cosmatos’ love of cross-fades and saturated colours lends the film a quality almost as hypnotic as the supposed joys of the ‘Arboria Institute’ in which much of the action takes place. And Michael Rogers surely wins the award for showing just how many variations on a sour face one man can evoke.

8. Dredd dir. Pete Travis

However, king of the genre features this year is without a doubt Dredd. Whilst Looper may have offered a smart, neo-noir sci-fi in its first half, the film most definitely lagged later on, its dense pack of ideas spiralling out and fizzing away to almost nothing by the final scene. In contrast, Pete Travis and Alex Garland’s attempt to bring the law of Mega City One to the big screen kisses exposition goodbye, whilst still offering something infinitely more intelligent and true to its origins than the atrocious Stallone vehicle of old. Opting to present only enough details of its world to allow its 80 minute apartment block raid (ahem) to kick off in earnest, this is a filthy, hyper-violent little monster with a wickedly dry sense of humour to boot. Urban’s Dredd is the grunting fascist the character was always meant to be, but it’s Olivia Thirby’s take on PSI Division’s Judge Anderson that stands out. And, despite what those awful trailers might suggest, the ‘Slow-Mo’ scenes are a sensual feast.

7.21 Jump Street dirs. Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Far too often, comedy movies are left at the bottom of the pile in End of Year lists, despite the apparent love critics slather them with upon release. To wilfully ignore the hilarity and snarky intelligence of 21 Jump Street however, would be a crime – this is easily the funniest film released all year. Poking fun at both the current trend for unnecessary franchise reboots, and the stupidity of many recent teen movies, Lord and Miller’s comedy is arguably the first successful buddy cop movie of the post-Apatow generation, with the dynamic between Hill and Tatum (who woulda thunk it?) being a joy to behold. Too bad Michael Bacall’s other script this year (Project X) was the most cynical, audience-reviling shit of 2012. Swings and roundabouts!

6. Martha Marcy May Marlene dir. Sean Durkin

If cinema is any sort of indicator of geo-social truths, then the American South is still the lawless land of devils and self-interested free agents that it was so often painted as in the Bad Old West. The mystery and unease conjured by its landscape continues to capture the imaginations of up-and-coming American directors, and Durkin’s debut is no exception. John Hawkes’ is electric as the leader of a cult hidden away in the Catskill Mountains, the grotesqueness of his small, sinewy frame darkly at odds to the wells of charisma and violence that swim inside. Elizabeth Olsen, meanwhile, makes sure that her entrance onto the silver screen stands as far apart from the values of her sisters’ media empire as possible, throwing herself into a role that calls for tragic confusion and a frustrated sense of utter isolation – regardless of the community she finds herself in.

5. Ruby Sparks dirs. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

It’s unfortunate that Zoe Kazan’s highly perceptive study of idealisation and control in relationships was so aggressively marketed as the quirky successor to its directors’ previous effort, Little Miss Sunshine. For there is little that is particularly twee in Ruby Sparks, despite the quaint premise upon which the story is built. Paul Dano stars as a struggling young novelist who is still living off the phenomenal success of his debut work. When his latest fictional muse, Ruby, suddenly appears in his house, it’s all Pygmalion and wish-fulfilment – until facets of Ruby’s character unaccounted for by the circumscribed nature of Dano’s fiction begin to come forth. Kazan’s script is surprisingly poignant, at times heart-breaking, exploring the needs for certainty and control we all fall into when in love, and how difficult it is to accept the fundamental disconnect with those we want to feel closest to.

4. Holy Motors dir. Leos Carax

Denis Lavant is whatever you want him to be, whether he has any real say in the matter or not. Carax’s latest feature is a troubled ode to the means and history of cinema, featuring as many nods to Carax’s work and beyond as it does roles for Lavant’s Mr. Oscar to utterly lose himself in. In the world of Holy Motors, acting isn’t so much a role as a societal function, as cinema and reality seem to awkwardly exist side by side, with the rules of the universe shifting as the unseen director best requires. The result forces us to consider the ease with which audiences are manipulated and ensnared by what they are shown on screen, the ultimate insincerity of film, and the increasingly dilutive effect post-modernism has on our appreciation of media.

3. Shame dir. Steve McQueen

McQueen’s latest team-up with Michael Fassbender presented a nihilistic New York that didn’t allow for positivity or healthy emotional relationships – only for conscious acts of hurt to one another, be it through sexual or emotional violence. Whilst the film ostensibly focuses on Fassbender’s Sullivan and his sexual addiction, beyond this lies a bleak portrait of modern life. As Sullivan passes through immaculate hotels, bars and restaurants, the need to consume is apparent throughout. With a camera that dispassionately captures sex at its most reductive, Shame is an emotional endurance test that will leave you numb.

2. The Master dir. PT Anderson

Passing by like a dream, at times feverish and distressed, at others euphoric, PT Anderson’s take on a-group-not-unlike-Scientology is so much more than just a case study of a cult’s origins – if indeed it is that at all. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman mesmerize as two men trapped within their own personal obsessions, drawn to the respective sense of freedom they sense within one another. Anderson offers no simple answers to the questions asked throughout, as Freddie Quell’s experiences with ‘The Cause’ impact / fail to impact upon his own character. Malaimare, Jr.’s cinematography is a delight, whilst Anderson leaves his indelible mark even as the film offers a far more languorous journey than that of his earlier works.

  1. The Dark Knight Rises dir. Christopher Nolan
 Every chapter of Nolan’s Batman trilogy has been its own beast; Batman Begins was the definitive Superhero origin feature, The Dark Knight was one of the best crime films of the past decade, and The Dark Knight Rises claims that title of Epic Blockbuster the much-overrated Inception first dallied with. Arguably the ‘truest’ Batman feature yet brought to the silver screen (despite the surprising absence of its titular character for much of the running time), Nolan’s finale is a sweeping ensemble drama that offers a damn fine action movie whilst satisfyingly concluding the more intelligent ideas that his prior entries had gently seeded in under the scenes of vigilante justice. If we go to the cinema to be transported, then The Dark Knight Rises was the greatest escape of 2012.

  1. The Dark Knight Rises
  2. The Master
  3. Shame
  4. Holy Motors
  5. Ruby Sparks
  6. Martha Marcy May Marlene
  7. 21 Jump Street
  8. Dredd
  9. Beyond the Black Rainbow
  10. Rampart

Honourable mentions: The Muppets, Cabin in the Woods, Looper, Shadow Dancer, The Artist

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The War on Britain's Roads: Some Rough Thoughts

                There is a war happening on Britain’s roads. A war between cyclists and car drivers. So a documentary aired earlier this week by the BBC would have you think.
The documentary, commissioned off the back of the recent sporting success of Team GB cyclists and the subsequent boom of commuter and amateur riders, is quick to illustrate the conflict sometimes seen between different types of UK road users, but makes no attempts at finding solutions to any of the problems shown in the programme. Quick to point fingers in both directions, the documentary presents issues in a black and white “us or them” manner, attempting to lay blame squarely at the feet of one or other party on each particular issue and then quickly moving on. As such it was a cynical attempt at garnering higher viewing figures solely by courting controversy. The prevalence in the film of clips filmed in London was a clear indicator of this; conditions here are bound to be the most fraught of those anywhere in the UK. But of course, without conflict there would be no documentary, no narrative for the producers to form.
Clearly attempts were made by the documentary makers to appear partisan, though this was mere lip service; equal screen time was given to both cyclists and road users. Here is the thing, I genuinely don’t believe that this is an issue where being partisan is at all appropriate. To me the clear and logical choice is that the bicycle is the best mode of transport in our increasingly metropolitan world, and the responsible decision in every possible way. I don’t feel as if I should need to make the environmental or health cases for the bicycle here, as they are both completely self evident.
There are a number of things, however, that I feel non-cyclists would benefit from having explained to them. The most important among these is regarding “commanding the road”. Multiple times in the documentary we heard reference made to this practice, but what is it? Essentially, “commanding the road” involves riding further from the left hand gutter than a cyclist would usually be expected to. This is a tactic taught in cycling proficiency courses (which are available free in most areas by the way) and the benefits are two-fold. Firstly, it prevents other road users from attempting dangerous overtaking maneuvers by simply not giving them the room to do so. The highway code recommends a MINIMUM gap of 1.5m when overtaking a cyclist, but too often we are squeezed outwards with merely inches to spare. “Commanding the road” helps prevent this. Secondly, it ensures that any overtaking maneuvers that are attempted are more safe. The practice forces road users to take their vehicle in an arc around the cyclist, affording them more room. The key thing here is for other road users to consider cyclists as people – mothers, fathers, husbands, wives – not mere obstacles to be overtaken in the shortest possible time.
One of the longer sections of the documentary portrayed a conflict between a cabbie and a cyclist who had struck the driver’s cab with his fist as the vehicle had moved over towards him. In the course of the conflict the cyclist did, quite frankly, come over as a bit of a bell-end. He was, however, entirely in the right. When I am using the road on my bicycle safety is my primary concern. This is not a form of aggression – why would I display aggression for its own sake when I am clearly the more vulnerable road user? Any overt aggression shown in the documentary was on the part of those in motor vehicles.  The situation is this: if I feel as if you are putting me in danger with your vehicle or are not aware of your proximity to me I will strike your vehicle to warn you. I do not care if this vehicle is your property – it is my person that you are putting in danger. I would much rather do this and potentially face an angry motorist than run the risk of being mown down by your vehicle.
It is obvious that car drivers may not be very happy with this situation when it occurs – and there is actually a parallel situation operating in the opposite direction – one of the very few point I would like to make on behalf of those in motor vehicles. This is regarding horn use. Unfortunately horn use on UK roads has become a sign of aggression, rather than its intended purpose as a warning to other road users. Cyclists have a tendency to get uppity whenever a horn is used, and we need to get out of this practice. Anyone who has ever ridden on the continent will tell you that a short use of the horn is used to warn cyclists of their presence, for mutual benefit. UK cyclists need to understand this better, just as drivers need to understand that long angry blasts of horn on a Sunday morning are not liable to make us ride in single file. It’s a Sunday morning, why on earth are you in such a rush?
This brings me to another point. Cyclists do not cause traffic. Cyclists are traffic. We are held up by congestion just as much as other vehicle users, and more cyclists can fit safely in a given unit of road space than passengers in motor vehicles. By all means let us know if you are behind us, with the aforementioned brief horn use. Most cyclists are reasonable people, and will move into single file if they know you are there. Long angry blasts of the horn though? Expect me to flip le bird at you, I certainly don’t see you in a single seater sports car.
When the situation described above does occur and conflict arises, one of the first things we usually hear is “I pay my road tax mate.” I would like to make this clear: nobody pays road tax. What you pay is Vehicle Excise Duty, and this does not go directly toward paying for roads. Highway maintenance is paid for out of general taxation, and as such this means that everyone has an equal right to the road (not that this was ever in doubt anyway). Tax technicalities aside, more than 90% of cyclists are car users anyway, and so pay just as much “road tax” as you do.
This brings me neatly to the idea of registration so often touted by the anti-cyclist brigade. This idea is ludicrous. We want to be encouraging cycling, not placing a barrier to it. I is often claimed that as cyclists do not have to pass a test, they are lacking in the skills necessary to use the roads. This can be achieved in other ways – encouraging cycling proficiency tests in schools, creating a culture where cycling is the norm and everyone learns from a young age. Prohibition is not the solution.
A minor point that I would like to make regards the skipping of red lights. Whilst I do not condone this practice, as I believe that the bad feeling created outweighs any benefits, there are instances where skipping red lights is actually the safer option. It is often said that more women are killed per mile cycled than men, as a result of men riding more assertively by skipping queues and removing themselves from traffic. Skipping red lights can be seen to form part of this. Ultimately, it should be considered that when a cyclist skips a red light, it is themselves that they are (potentially, given what I have said previously) putting at risk – cyclists have far more to lose from a collision than car drivers. This is the reason why cyclists are “never nicked” (as pondered in the documentary); and danger they pose is almost entirely to themselves, and not other road users.
The fact is that the more of us there are, the safer we are. “Ghost bikes” and “critical mass” protests are other ways we can increase visibility, not just sentimentality and fun respectively. The more people who have friends or relatives as cyclists, the more consideration we are likely to receive. Hence any reduction in numbers is not only a sad thing, it is also a dangerous thing. Another criticism I have is that finishing with a segment about irresponsible riders organising races through cities can have done little to garner sympathy for us. This left a sour taste in the mouth
I can only hope that this documentary does not create a dent in the numbers of riders now seen on Britain’s roads, and the attempts made in advertising by companies such as Sky and Fiat to raise the profile of riders on our streets. A noticeable anecdotal increase in aggressive driving this previous weekend does not bode well. Ultimately the best thing about this documentary was the music (Boards of Canada, DJ Shadow and Explosions in the Sky for those interested).