In past years I always forgot about doing a look back at the year that was until my friend and co-blogger Mege did his own retrospective – and by that time it was too late. This year I come prepared and bearing not just one or two but eight awards. Enjoy!
The “No Real
ScotsmanFan” Award 2018 goes to…
… Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Think what you want about the film – even if I think there are flaws (coughCasinoPlanetcough), I enjoyed it a lot – but it was definitely the thing that revealed how toxic fandom can be to all the people who didn’t have GamerGate on their radar in 2014. You thought that people felt betrayed with the Prequel Trilogy? Think again. The conversations surrounding Rian Johnson’s take on Star Wars were a sad reflection of so many conversations in the last two years. Keep your politics out of my Star Wars? It’s politics all the way down, mate, and you’re no exception.
The “The Way to a Man’s Heart…” Award 2018 goes to…
There’s something deeply toxic about the romantic relationship that Phantom Thread depicts – figuratively as well as literally. The power games between dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his lover/muse/whipping girl Alma (Vicky Krieps) are pretty far from what we usually look at as healthy, whether in the movies or in real life. Yet Paul Thomas Anderson’s love story ends up being surprisingly sweet – Reynolds and Alma find a way that makes it work, through the twin wonders of gastronomy and toxicology. The result is what may be both Anderson’s funniest film and his most romantic.
The “And you thought the bear in The Revenant was scary” Award 2018 goes to…
… Alex Garland’s film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. While The Last Jedi managed to make Star Wars both familiar and surprising, Annihilation was something very different – though not without precedent, as there’s definitely some Tarkovsky refracted in the Zone behind the Shimmer. Most of all, I’m surprised by how haunting Annihilation is: even the visceral horror of the skullbearbeast stays with me less as one of the most effective movie monsters in recent years than as the echoes of a person who was there but who no longer is. “Help me…” indeed.
The “Those aren’t tears, I got some dust in my eyes” Award 2018 goes to…
… those final few minutes in Avengers: Infinity War. Yes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a huge money-making machine. Yes, there are too many superhero movies. Yes, it’s blatantly obvious that we haven’t seen the last of the dearly, dustily departed, with Spider-Man: Far From Home coming out a few months after Avengers: Endgame. Nonetheless, beneath the big capes-and-CGI behemoth that the franchise is, there’s a surprising amount of personality and heart. Here’s hoping that they won’t lose the small, odd, intimate moments in what is likely to be the finale for several of the heroes we’ve been watching a decade now.
The “Laughing? I’m #@%!ing furious!” Award 2018 goes to…
… BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s latest and one of his greatest joints (which we briefly discussed in our September podcast). The film’s very enjoyable and funny – but that laughter doesn’t distract from the righteous anger that drives it. The Colorado Police didn’t solve the problem of virulent, violent racism thanks to the help of an African American and a Jew, even if it ridiculed the Ku Klux Klan – and as ridiculous as white supremacists may be, they’re too damn successful at what they do for laughter to be enough of a weapon, especially these days.
The “From the outside I may look silly, but in VR I am a rhythm Jedi” Award 2018 goes to…
2018 was a solid year for VR – well, not in the sense that the tech actually sold well, but in terms of the games and other experiences coming out. However, it was also the year where one of the best VR games yet was released: Beat Saber by the Czech indie studio Beat Games. On paper, Beat Saber looks like simple, standard rhythm game fare: you’re holding two glowing – but not quite copyright-infringing – sabre-type thing and use them to hit colour-coded blocks that fly towards you in time with the song that’s playing. Sometimes the game changes things up: you might have to avoid big, deadly blocks by stepping aside or ducking (remember, this is VR, so you’re really taking that step or ducking down, making you remember that you’ve got knees and are no longer in your teens), and sometimes the coloured blocks are switched so you may have to hit a block on the right with your left-hand sabre and vice versa. However, in VR you’re entirely immersed in this Tron-meets-Star Wars-meets-rave space, and your body and the rhythm become one. You feel the whoosh! as you slash at blocks with your sabres, you’re the Obi-Wan of the Beat.
From the outside, you look like a massive goof with a silly headset. You look like the Star Wars Kid, just less graceful. In VR, though? You’re a Rhythm God. It’s not often a game makes you feel like that.
The “Ethical/Artistic Dissonance” Award 2018 goes to…
This one’s an easy one. Red Dead Redemption 2 by Rockstar Games is an immense achievement in video games. The world it creates is dense, it feels real and it is unbelievably gorgeous to look at and inhabit. I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption 2 for weeks now, and I’m barely at the half-way point – but I already feel sad that I will have to leave this world at some point, at least if I ever want to play anything else again. It also avoids the usual glib Rockstar nihilism pretending to be critique (that I’m surprisingly immune to, but it has been getting rather old). Its writing is good, its characters, world and plot work well together, and there’s more than a little self-criticism in the story the game tells.
At the same time, it is impossible to ignore that this achievement was created in a work environment that treats its employees like crap. Crunch culture isn’t just inefficient (even if it may look like the best choice in the short run), it is deleterious, to physical and mental health, to relationships, to everyone involved. The implicit (and sometimes pretty explicit) pressure to conform to crunch culture is an insidious form of bullying. There is no good reason for a video game to destroy people and families – doubly so in an industry where there’s little in the way of employee protections.
At the same time, these employees have created a stunning work, in terms of craftsmanship and indeed in artistic terms. That does not justify the way the game – and many big-budget games – was made… but if they went through all of this, they should at least get recognition for what they’ve achieved. Perhaps boycotting such games helps the industry in the long run. Perhaps that’s what is needed to teach companies a lesson. (I’m not convinced, but there’s probably a degree of self-justification in this). But in the short run it’s a lesson that may end up screwing the people at Rockstar over a second time. How can you both call out the company and honour the artistry best? I haven’t found a good answer to that one yet.
The “I don’t know about you, Miss Kitty, but I feel so much… yummier” Award 2018 goes to…
I started the blog in… let’s see… 2007.
I feel old now.
Anyway, over the years I asked others to contribute, and over time my friend Mege became not only a regular contributor but the second face of the blog. When we decided to up the ante, change the name of the blog to its current title and put our actual, acoustic voices out there as well with the A Damn Fine Cup of Culture podcast, it was scary but exciting and more than a little reinvigorating.
And with the Christmas Special podcast episode, we’ve taken the next step. The idea of bringing in Julie as the third co-podcaster made me more than a little anxious – not because of Julie, but because, well, Mege and me, we’ve been talking movies, TV, books etc. for over 20 years. I’d had discussions with Julie for almost as long, but it’s always been via internet forums and Facebook. It’s always been text. I hadn’t actually ever seen her face or heard her voice until we had a first Skype chat to talk about the podcast, a little over two months ago. I liked her tastes, opinions and, most importantly, her writing, but I didn’t know what it’d be like to add a third person to a conversation between two people that, in one way or another, had been having that conversation for a long, long time.
Well, my anxiety was unwarranted. Julie’s a great addition to the podcast: she complements Mege and me wonderfully but she also keeps us on our toes. It’s just what’s needed to keep things fresh and the coffee hot.
2019 will see more additions. Julie won’t just be a voice on the podcast, she’ll also join the blogging… and she may not be the only one. A Damn Fine Cup of Culture has long been one of my favourite pastimes. And with the changes ahead, it’ll stay exciting, fresh, surprising and endlessly enjoyable. I hope that you’ve also enjoyed the journey so far and that you’re looking forward to what’s ahead.
Wishing all of you a very happy 2019!