Best Webcomic – Girl Mountain/ Megg and Mogg, Simon Hanselmann
Hanselmann writes quietly affecting stoner comics in soft tones and sketchy lines. His watercolours are really lovely, especially in gray-scale. Megg’s a deeply likeable autobiographical insertion protagonist and 20s-something witch. It’s sometimes a little precious and sometimes a little grim and it’s one of my favourite things of the year
Best Film (Fiction) – Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, 2012)
I started Museum Hours pretty unengaged and finished it crying without really understanding how I can moved from point A to B. For a conventional narrative film, it has some pretty strange, associative editing. There was a scene at one of those underground boat rides through a cave that you get in Europe, which always plays the same trite ‘magical fairy grotto’ twinkly music, then the film cut to a woman’s life support being turned off, with the twee fairy grotto muzak still on the soundtrack, then it cut to a montage of Egyptian artefacts in the museum, connected to Anubis and the afterlife. Maybe it was just childhood memories of those cave rides, but that sequence just destroyed me. Authentically awkward performances by Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer, which slowly win you over just through decency alone, rather than any particular magnetism or charm. You get to see the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum intimately, from different viewpoints and are privileged to experience a very engaging lecture on Brueghel. I found it life-infused and infusing.
Best Film (Non-Fiction) – The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and Anonymous, 2012)
The most wrenching experience I have ever had in the cinema and likely will ever have again. I was deeply appreciative for the Q&A session afterwards, which gave the audience a chance to work through the ethical issues the film raised. Ostensibly a documentary about the massacre/ genocide of suspected Communists in Indonesia in the 1960s (the only weakness of the film is the lack of blame apportioned to the C.I.A. possibly reflecting a slight American bias) that interviews the perpetrators of the atrocity. To elicit testimony, the film-makers enable these ex-milita men to recreate scenes of torture and brutality in the film genres and styles of their choosing. It turns out, many of these men were ticket scalps and big fans of Scarface, modelling their clothes, style and attitude on American gangster films. This makes for a churningly surreal portrait of cognitive dissonance at its most extreme – with men happily portraying themselves as hard-boiled-noir police interrogators, while exposing the depths of their heinous behaviour. It’s only upon rewatching this footage that a few of the men start to realise that perhaps they don’t come across as heroically as they had imagined. Some have criticised the film for perceived racism (and I think there is a fair argument to by made asking whether it was the right of Americans to make this film) but I certainly didn’t see the Indonesian milita as a unique case – a similar film could have been made about Stalinists in 1950s Russia or the British and Belgian in the Congo in the late 19th century, had either been possible. Rather, the film shows how evil is perpetrated through cognitive dissonance (enabled by governmental and overseas support) by people who often consider themselves good, or who don’t even stop for self-reflection. Very disturbing, sometimes to the degree that it stimulates queasy, unbelieving laughter. I don’t know if I recommend it, but now I’ve seen it, it will be stuck in my brain until I die (and maybe after).
Best Game (Text) – Their Angelic Understanding (Porpentine, 2013)
The first game of which I will honestly say – knees on floors – that it deserves a better calibre of human than me to play it. I haven’t played a piece of IF that I experienced so intimately since Adam Cadre’s Photopia. As much as I love Porpentine’s usual Burroughs spacefuckery glitchcore chaos stuff, which gives me a lot of joy, I think this is a game that could genuinely heal hearts. I’m finding it hard not to sound trite writing about it, but basically, it did a lot for me. Definitely best played with headphones in a darkened room. Also, the content could be *triggering* on quite a visceral level, but the game is also highly allegorical… I find the ability to write abstractly with a concrete emotional punch very impressive and it’s something that I’ve always struggled to achieve myself. It becomes less fragmentary and more cohesive, the more reflection you give it. Tonally, allegorically and aesthetically, it’s a very complete piece and is deeply worthy of your time. A small (but no less essential for being so) masterpiece, quite frankly.
Best Game (Graphical) – Papers, Please (Lucas Pope, 2013)
I found the Fullbright Company’s wonderful Gone Home more emotionally resonant, but clearly conversations with my friend Hamish have had a long-term effect, since I couldn’t help but thinking that it relied too much on the epistolary mode, with very little gameplay. Still, it allowed me to discover the secrets of a house and – at its best – told its stories through objects, rather than words. In lieu of getting to do this around a real house, Gone Home pleasantly suffices. However, the most conceptually and intellectually impressive game of the year has to be Papers, Please, in which you play a border guard stamping passports to allow people into the fictional 1980s Soviet state Arstotzka. It’s a relentless, stressful experience, that mirrors my own experience of working in a call centre. However, it’s also grotesquely compelling. The rules of the game never feel inappropriately arbitrary (i.e. Who left these health packs in the corridor? Why has this super secret key been hidden in plain-view?) since they are introduced by an arbitrary and petty bureaucracy. Since I spend a lot of my time studying Eastern-European Communism, I also found the game grimly funny, in a similar way to Terry Gilliam’s dystopian comedy Brazil. Balancing the demands of the state against the increasingly coercive requests of a shady terrorist group is challenging and the game provides a decent array of alternative endings. Everything is of-a-piece, especially the functional, austere and uninspiring graphics. It’s also probably a lot more about contemporary America than Lucas Pope lets on. ho ho ho.
Best Comedy – Limmy’s Show (Brian Limmond, 2010-present)
Gawd bless Limmy for producing a Christmas special, allowing me to include his show in this year’s round-up (especially as I watched most of it for the first time this year). He’s a sophisticated dumb troll with a heart of black gold, that Limmy! A lot of his sketches are remarkably petty, but then he’ll show some deep compassion for one of his tawdry characters completely out-of-the-blue and you forgive him. It has some very daft throw-away sketches and some wonderfully written character comedy. It’s also very proudly Scottish – probably the best Scottish comedy since Absolutely. It’s a very pleasing show that remains consistently inventive, while so many contemporary sketch shows are tired and lazy. My favourite skits involve Falconhoof, presenter of an exploitative phone-in show half-way between an Infocom text-game and virtual reality gameshow Knightmare. Falconhoof is a decent sort trying to do an honest day’s work, but it’s not easy when the game people are phoning up to play is about as fair as a ‘Fighting Fantasy’ game-book. Probably the only thing on TV to include pitch-perfect reference to Zork 2, delightfully. Limmy’s Vine videos are also little pieces of perfect dementedness in their own right.
Best Album – The Electric Lady (Janelle Monáe, 2013)
A fun, difficult, ambitious album, that tracks the entire RnB spectrum. Sometimes immediately gratifying and sometimes elusive. Monáe’s voice has grown richer and more interesting, as has her music. To say something utterly pretentious, The Electric Lady is Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ put into glorious practice! It deserves all the respect and all the listeners.
Best Book (Academic) – Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century (Derek Sayer, 2013)
Sometimes this strays a little far from Prague for my liking, but it’s an essential, mammoth tome on the city nonetheless, in all its complexity. Sayer is a vivid storyteller, who does his research. The book is filled with fascinating characters – not least Oskar Kokoschka, who commissioned a puppet-maker to produce a doll of his ex-wife, which ended up beheaded, prompting a police investigation. Pathologies and magic abound.
Best Book (Fiction) – The Flame Alphabet (Ben Marcus, 2012)
A book about the viscerally nauseating power of language. It’s plot is very simple – language becomes infected, starting with the speech of children. Parents heave and vomit and suffer symptoms equivalent to radiation poisoning when exposed to the voice of their child. Slowly the virus spreads to encompass all meaning. Attempts are made to develop language without meaning – to forge new forms of communication. It’s also a pulp thriller with deeply weird ruminations on anti-Semitism that sometimes start to feel a bit offensive… I haven’t seen the film Pi, but I imagine it’s a bit like that. Nasty, lingering book, but sometimes warm and charming. Possibly best kept under a sack in the garden and not let into the house.
Best Book (Non-fiction) – Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (D.T. Max, 2012)
D. T. Max mostly sticks to the facts, ma’am, with little of the complex cognitive excursions or fancy-speaking that characterised Wallace’s own work. However, this clear portrait is to the work’s benefit. It provides an external portrait of Wallace, while his work was so often neurotically internal. Also, Max clearly loves the work, but isn’t in thrall to any mythologising. Wallace wasn’t a very good person and could treat lovers and friends cruelly (the most damning accounts include attempting to push a lover from a moving vehicle and attempting to hire a hit-man to murder her husband)… however, it is to Max’s credit, that you still end up caring about Wallace as a human being, even as you don’t necessarily like him. His genius isn’t diminished, even as he disappoints you (it might seem weird to be disappointed by or even to morally judge an author you never knew in person, but I think that’s a function of Wallace’s own writing and the relationship he managed to conjure with his reader). Learn from the writing and the mistakes. His suicide was still a tragedy though… despite it being very hard to imagine Wallace happy and healthy (though clearly, Max shows, there were periods when he was both).
Best Visual Novel – White Box (Ebi-hime, 2013)
Ebi-hime has been very prolific this year and White Box was the culmination of all her work. It’s a very nuanced and balanced portrait of a very young hospitalised teenage girl falling in love with her doctor and the inappropriateness of that relationship, which simultaneously provides the girl with the small amount of hope that she needs in her situation. The relationship never quite teeters into the exploitative (i.e. things become romantic but not sexual) and remains convincing, while dealing with a potentially melodramatic and very controversial topic. Personally, I ended the game feeling sorry for both characters (though it would be interesting to see how other people react)… but it provoked a lot of thought and many tears and is very well characterised indeed. I’d also heartily recommend schoolgirl x squid which is about the chaste but emotionally intimate relationship between a schoolgirl and her pet squid and is a lot more moving that you might expect, while also remaining educational! It’s cute!
And, of course, Rachael is my favourite person of the year – being an absolute peach plum pear of a person and a veritable delight! I’ll embarrass her if I compliment her too much though so I’ll leave it at that!