This fortnight – your recommendations in response to my ‘Best of 2023’ newsletter from December. Thank you very much for your generosity in sharing these suggestions – so much here that I’d now like to watch or read – and I’m sure you will feel the same when you’ve read this…
YOUR 2023 HIGHLIGHTS / RECOMMENDATIONS
‘A book I’ve just finished and loved so much was Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies. I’m sure you’ve read it but it was really wonderful.’
‘Books: Nettleback by Nat Reeve – The first novel I’ve read by a non-binary author and an absolutely delicious (and totally bonkers) tale set around the concept of an all-female unofficial police force in the Victorian era. Brilliant characters and great deconstruction of ideas about gender and sexuality. One of those rare books that was genuinely different to everything else I read this year!
(Incidentally I found out about this book via one of Caboodle’s list of book recommendations which is a great source for more unusual books/stories across a range of categories https://caboodle.nationalbooktokens.com/caboodlers-corner/book-recommendations, they also have the BEST Christmas quiz!)
The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin – Started last year but finished it this. An incredible epic playing with form and narrative to spin a truly exciting tale that is also beautifully written. An also wonderful reclaiming of the historically white, cishet, male-dominated fantasy/SF genre with truly diverse characters in a way which feels not only organic but essential to the world of the story.
1979 & 1989 by Val McDermid – I love crime stories so this is maybe a more personal penchant but I also loved how these books gave a strong sense of the eras they were set in, they felt like a mix of detective story and social history (a bit like Blue Lights, actually).
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver – I think this is one of best examples of how story can explore history/issues better than non-fiction. I’d read lots of bits and bobs about the opioid crisis in the US but didn’t really understand it – the extent of the corruption and enabling by drug reps, the huge repercussions – until I read this. It’s also a beautiful book across a young person’s life and it reminded me that Dickens’ work is, at its heart, social commentary and criticism of systems that allow poverty to endure, just as this is.
TV wise I similarly loved Blue Lights, There She Goes, Happy Valley (of course). One of my stand out comedies of the year was ‘Extraordinary’ which was genuinely funny and I really enjoyed the less flashy, more rough and ready nature of how it was made! And ‘Colin from Accounts’ which I watched twice it was so great (although I find Ep 5 almost painful and not sure it quite works how awfully everyone behaves, I almost lost sympathy for everyone!). ‘Sixth Commandment’ was drama stand out but also really enjoyed ‘Magpie Murders’ (crime again!).’
‘I’d like to nominate ‘Only Murders in the Building’. It has remained consistently brilliant and one of the few shows that is genuinely loved and watched together by 3 generations of my family.
Not a drama but 24 Hours in Police Custody is a must see for anyone wanting to write drama, whether it be for behind the scenes police procedural information or for character. Watching a person evolve as they try to wrangle out of suspicion is absolutely fascinating. As you have said, real life is material gold!
A great example of this was The Sixth Commandment which was sensitively told and phenomenally acted.’
‘Films I liked Scrappers, All The Beauty And The Bloodshed…I saw Poor Things last week and I liked that a lot.
Theatre…have had a recent good run. Loved Infinite Life and Lyonesse. Dear England too.’
‘I get most of my books from the library and you know it’s a favourite when you buy a copy after reading to have forever! I also absolutely loved Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. Too many TV highlights but the very recent Such Brave Girls was perfect! Film-wise, I loved Rye Lane too – other highlights for me were Women Talking, How To Have Sex and Bottoms. A real highlight has been discovering the Garden Cinema in Holborn. A staff member introduces the film in person and they only show trailers, no adverts. Plus it’s good value, comfy and gorgeous! Feels like a little gem.’
Film Recommendations 2023
– My film of the year was Femme starring the brilliantly talented George MacKay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (who won a BIFA for Best Joint Lead Performance), a cat-and-mouse sexually charged revenge thriller that explores sexuality, class and masculinity. What made this story so great for me were two really strong characters whose outer motivations conflicted with their inner motivations, twisting together in a strange dance of power, desire and deception that created layers of emotional complexity and left me on the edge of my seat.
– Monster by the director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Winner of the Cannes Best Screenplay Award) was a highlight, a character-driven slow burner that twists and turns in a clever way, examining a pivotal event from three different perspectives. I’ve never seen a film structured this way before and it worked. Typical of Japanese culture, it’s a film that’s more about what’s not said than what’s said. I found myself thinking about it for days afterwards.
– Past Lives, a spellbinding, grounded modern romance about lost loves and the immigrant story. Sooo many people urged me to watch this film and when I did I could see why. It’s a gorgeous and quietly confident film that fills your heart with longing.
– All Of Us Strangers started slow but by the end became transcendent and sublime in its exploration of love, grief and delusion. Anyone who’s lost someone close to them will relate to that desperate desire to reconnect – I could hear people tearing up next to me in the cinema. Needless to say, Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott’s acting was beautiful.
– How To Have Sex caught me by surprise – a fantastic film that at first I dismissed as just another coming-of-age story totally got under my skin…I came home and cried and still think about it.
– May December was suffocating, elegant and quietly vicious. A study about the lies we tell ourselves and the different characters we play every day to get by. You have to be in the right mood to watch it, but it’s worth the watch.
– A few more mentions…Loved the pink feminist fable that was Barbie. At 3.5hrs long, Killers of the Flower Moon was a bladder-bursting epic that was at once a western, a romance, a domestic drama, a whodunit…and a much needed story about America’s collective confrontation with racialised murder, deftly directed by Scorsese. Air was entertaining, with a stand-out performance from Viola Davis whose powerful on-screen presence continually amazes me, even in her relatively small role in the film as Michael Jordan’s mother. Oh yeah, and Chicken Run 2: Dawn of the Nugget. I’m not ashamed to say that I took my adult self to the cinema, watched it and was rooting for Molly the chicken all the way.
– Not films but some strong documentaries this year that touched me: If The Streets Were On Fire (Winner of Best Feature Documentary at BIFA), Get Gotti, High and Low – John Galliano and Is There Anybody Out There?
– A moment that stood out for me in 2023 was sitting in the audience at the Q&A after the BAFTA screening of Raging Grace, the first British-Filipino film produced in the UK that won Best Film and Best Debut at SXSW. Producer Chi Thai spoke candidly about the intense and desperate need for more British Asian stories, and how heartbreakingly cold the UK industry’s reaction was to the film compared to its enthusiastic reception in the US. She cited a study which showed that in a 10 year period, only 0.8% of 1077 British films that were released theatrically were helmed by directors with British East and Southeast Asian heritage – that’s 9 films in 10 years. It was a brave call-to-action that was met with enthusiastic applause and cheering.
‘My book highlights of the last few months have been Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuc and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – which I felt I’d been building up to for years and did not disappoint.’
The next newsletter will be on Friday February 9th,
January 26th 2024