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Book – The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht – Daisy Johnson
When I picked up The Tiger’s Wife for some holiday reading, I was quite ready for it to fail. But the disappointing title hides what is by far my book of the year. The Tiger’s Wife has links both to the Great American road novel and the tradition of European fairy tales. Set in the former Yugoslavia, it is Tea Obreht’s first novel.
As Natalia, a doctor, travels from her home and across the border to an orphanage she expertly weaves us stories; those she remembers of her grandfather, the stories that he passed down to her, and stories of her own life. Though the book is both eloquent and beautifully written, it is also hugely universal and insightful. Obreht has done what many other modern authors have failed to do; she has created a work of magical realism which is both realistic and magical. Almost aural in its story telling mode this novel has the power to transport. There’s no wonder that it won the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction.
Obreht is a new type of writer, one whose home lies in no single country and whose work breaches borders with simplicity and ease. This is an author to look out for.
Film – Super 8 – Andrew Eccles
I struggled a little when asked to choose the best film of 2011, but in the end I couldn’t look much further than JJ Abrams’ heartfelt science fiction thriller. Of all the films I have had the pleasure of viewing so far this year it is this that still brings out a smile. Super 8 isn’t exactly in the Oscar race, but it does have something that was lacking in the rest of this year’s movie offerings: genuine cinematic magic. It was funny, it was tragic and it was genuinely scary.
Super 8 was, of course, something of a love story to E.T. and I don’t think many people would argue with me if I suggested that Abrams has a crush on Spielberg. What Abrams did beautifully though was bring a sense of adventure back onto the screen; this film wasn’t about special effects, 3D glasses or complex computerised worlds. It was about telling a good story. It was about a little boy trying to save the girl he loved; it was about fatherhood and family.
Who cares if Super 8 isn’t an Academy Award contender? What it is is a film with soul; the sort of film that lasts.
Album – St Vincent, Strange Mercy – Joe Henthorn
On the surface, Strange Mercy’s songs are pretty easy to grasp. They never entirely dispose with pop conventions; the catchy chorus, the bridge, and the big singalong outros are all here. But it’s the strange stuff St Vincent does inside these conventions that marks her out as such an incredible talent, and it’s why Strange Mercy is 2011’s best rock album. There’s so much to praise here; the incredible contrast between the syrup-sweet vocals and the almost offensively dirty guitars, the darkly surreal lyrical yarns, the way her music can make you feel so incredibly uneasy at one moment and then send you sprawling into an giddy mosh the next…
She also stands out as a brilliant antithesis to a year dominated by pre-recorded samples and auto-tune – boy does she know how to play! The intricate riffery of Surgeon, the beautifully precise runs of Neutered Fruit… and you can imagine the mind-boggling solo on Northern Lights tearing holes in space-time if it was played loud enough.
St Vincent’s living proof that you can make accessible pop that’s also fiercely intelligent and full of intricacies, where you can find something new on every repeat listen. It’s what 2011 needed, and in the form of Strange Mercy, it’s what 2011 got.
TV – Game of Thrones – Matthew Negus
The high fantasy genre is something most people associate with balding, slightly overweight men who need to get out more, rather than dynamic, popular television. However, A Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, is exactly the latter. Never before has a television fantasy drama achieved such wide critical and commercial acclaim – the audience response has been so great that a second series was confirmed just two days after the première of the first episode.
The series faithfully unfolds the narrative of the novel, where several ‘great houses’ in the medieval land of Westeros battle for supremacy amongst a backdrop of older, darker forces. Thankfully for viewers with a phobia of silly names or wizards the plot is surprisingly well grounded in the everyday human affairs of family, political intrigue and power – think The Lord of the Rings crossed with The Soprano’s.
The casting is superb highlighted by Sean Bean as the brooding, morally conflicted father figure, or Peter Dinklage as the unforgettably comic Tyrion. It all takes place amongst incredibly vivid environments and special effects that really push the limits of a television budget.
Game of Thrones has its imperfections, but it’s a refreshing rarity to see a show with the ambition to reinvent a stigmatised genre to a whole new demographic. In comparison to the multitude of re-releases and safe-bet shows that swamp are television sets today that really is something.
Game – Portal 2 – Ryan Bembridge
The sequel to the 2007 classic Portal succeeds by fleshing out the brief yet creative original. Previous antagonist GlaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) makes a nostalgic return and is soon sneering at you sadistically again – just like the good old days. However, it’s Valve’s new characters who almost steal the show. Perhaps the most memorable is Stephen Merchant’s (of The Office and Extras fame) portrayal of the flawed robot Wheatley, who is an appealingly warm companion in the dilapidated science facility. The founder of Aperture Science, Cave Johnson, is also introduced via pre-recorded messages. These give the plot depth, as he bitterly rants of how very irritating moral guidelines are by stifling scientific progress, explaining the nature of his company’s testing.
The elegant mechanic of portal teleportation is refreshed with the use of light bridges, lasers and gels, serving to sustain the full-length sequel. The puzzles are satisfying rather than difficult, especially as sparse portal panels can result in solutions being found by accident. However, even more sophisticated puzzling is contained in the co-op campaign, so recruit an intelligent, patient friend!
Portal 2 succeeds by fusing charm, humour and intelligence, while also featuring one of the best endings in gaming. So if you haven’t already, play through what SCAN are calling the game of the year.
Online – Vlogbrothers – Joe Henthorn
It’s always going to be impossible to sift out the best bits from a year’s worth of the internet’s output. Even if we had an infinite number monkeys at an infinite number of computers they still wouldn’t be able to get through everything the internet produces in a year, because said monkeys would inevitably be tweeting, vlogging and uploading an infinite number of hilarious pictures of themselves at the same time.
So it’s encouraging that a pair as brilliant as the vlogbrothers could find fame in this world of infinite monkey tweets. John is a best-selling novelist (Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska), and Hank is a prominent technology and environment blogger. They started recording videos in 2007 for their Brotherhood 2.0 project – a year of textless communication – that mutated and evolved into a sprawling online community that became known by its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants as ‘Nerdfighteria’. But 2011 has seen their videos become even more hilarious and thought provoking than ever before. The key to their success is undoubtedly their eccentricity. Videos about lofty topics – like the French Revolution, The Great Gatsby and the Arab Spring – sit comfortably alongside videos about giraffe sex, the difference between ‘dandelions’ and ‘dandy lions’ and quizzes that require the viewer to spot subtle differences between the two greatest tyrants of our time – Colonel Gadaffi and Charlie Sheen.
‘The truth resists simplicity’ – that’s been the over-arching philosophical theme of their recent videos. But we can make one exception to that rule; for it’s wonderfully simple truth that John and Hank Green are just about the two funniest, smartest and most interesting people on the internet in 2011.