In a year when everything about everything seemed to be incendiary, all news confusing, all social media angrily polarised, it was certainly more comforting to recluse in the parallel universe of fiction and cinema and reflect on the complexities of human relationships.
The world has become a George Orwell novel. Fascism, xenophobia and hate pass for The New Normal such that the horrors of the recent past would seem like a warm period of societal cohesion by comparison. There is just too much going on – Trump and the Impeachment, North Korea and the missile launch, Ukraine and the scandal, Brexit and the elections, Iran and Syria, Kenya and the BBI, the under-reported crisis in Cameroon, Sudan after Bashir, Modi’s India, protests in Hong Kong, Turkey and power-posturing of the New Middle East, and of course Russia and China. Most times, I feel I don’t have enough storage space or perspective to make sense of anything. So I watch Mr Robot.
Perhaps, like me, this past year, you also did not have the bandwidth for perspective or got too fatigued to process the shock tremors. Maybe you too looked for quiet moments to drown out the noise, stop the news from breaking up things and lost yourself in the great sounds of the yesteryear to make life great again – which for me, were those great compositions that made 70s Rock the masterpieces that they are. In the dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair…
This year’s music was all about the entangled web of human relationships, political protest and disaffection. This year’s films were about marriage and divorce, frenemies, lovers lost at sea, lovers lost and found, family gatherings, and death. The books spread us out across the spectrum of human emotion – gangsters crossing the Mediterranean, black womanhood, tortured black manhood, abused childhood, murdering lovers, and the things we do-and lose-for love.
Relationships are complex and enormously difficult. It is a miracle that so many seem to work (at least we think they do). Whether it’s between lovers, or friends, or siblings, or between a parent and a child, we carry with us conscious and unconscious hope for emotional fulfilment. The need to be understood, the magical gratification we seek in another person, followed by the drawing of reality, the sense of loss and resignation. Relationships seems to have been the theme of 2019’s works of art.
It was the year that books told us it was ok for men to feel, and films affirmed that it was all right for women to want more. The year Leonard Cohen came back from the dead to give us another offering, Joaquin Phoenix was a hauntingly fantastic Joker and Renée Zellweger an Oscar-worthy Judy Garland, somewhere at the end of her tortured rainbow. This was the year we looked forward to, and were disappointed by, the last season of Game of Thrones and binged one long weekend through Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. The year Booker Prize judges couldn’t decide on a clear winner so gave us a shortlist of a shortlist instead.
Bernadine Evaristo’s co-winning novel, Girl, Woman, Other (my winner) is a portrait of black women in modern Britain whose lives intersect in the shared aspects of their identities. The book is almost about everything – politics, parenthood, sexuality, racism, immigration, domestic violence, infidelity, friendship, love – all the ways we misunderstand each other and the way life surprises us with its unfolding. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous on the other hand is a letter by the narrator (Little Dog) to his illiterate Vietnamese mother. He knows she is likely not going to read his confessional missive because she is illiterate, so it is more about processing and articulating his difficult memories, as he is “trying to break free”. It is a fractured narrative of a fractured family, torn by the harrowing experiences of war, domestic abuse, mental illness, and the tragedy of first love.
Marriage Story is a poignant and heartbreaking film of a marriage falling apart. Noah Baumbach’s directing is brilliant. Through the film, you are presented with neither Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) nor Charlie (Adam Driver) as the wronged or wronging party but find yourself loving both and getting irritated by both. It is a relatable portrait of modern uncoupling, the un-jigsawing of a puzzle, and the cumbersome remains of a love story that hasn’t quite finished.
Atlantics is a haunting tale of lost love, of the desperation that forces so many Africans to risk their lives across dangerous seas, of the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, of the fetishisation of virginity, and marriage. It is a beautiful piece of African cinema capturing the various layers of life in Dakar, the westernmost point on the African continent – a city not too far from Île de Gorée, the island where slaves were once sent off across that ocean that gives the film its name. How many spirits will still have to come back from the sea to claim justice?
So here below are my lists, the music, books and films that (to quote my very nice friend) ‘made the cut’……
- Kiwanuka MICHAEL KIWANUKA
- Father of the Bride VAMPIRE WEEKEND
- Everyday Life COLDPLAY
- Western Stars BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
- Thanks for the Dance LEONARD COHEN
- Memories MAROON 5
- Someone You Loved LEWIS CAPALDI
- Hero MICHEAL KIWANUKA
- Highwomen THE HIGHWOMEN
- This Life VAMPIRE WEEKEND
- Not in Kansas THE NATIONAL
- I Don’t Care ED SHEERAN & JUSTIN BIEBER
- Old Town Road LIL NAS X
- A Different Kind of Love ADIA VICTORIA
- If I Killed Someone ALEC BALDWIN
- Girl, Woman, Other BERNADINE EVARISTO
- On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous OCEAN VUONG
- The Testaments MARGARET ATWOOD
- The Nickel Boys COLSON WHITEHEAD
- 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World ELIF SHAFAK
- My Sister the Serial Killer OYINKAN BRAITHWAITE
- An Orchestra of Minorities CHIGOZIE OBIOMA
- The Man Who Saw Everything DEBORAH LEVY
- Night Boat to Tangier KEVIN BARRY
- Quichotte SALMAN RUSHDIE
- Marriage Story
- The Best of Enemies
- Atlantics (Senegal)
- The Report
- Pain and Glory (Spain)
- The Irishman
- The Farewell (US/China)
- Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
- Knives Out
- Parasite (South Korea)
The madness of the world now makes every day seem like going through that Queen 70s rock epic, Bohemian Rhapsody. The morning begins as a ballad (Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?) before going into an opera section by lunchtime because of all the people one has to meet (Galileo, Figaro). By the afternoon it’s now a hard rock anthem (so you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?) and by the evening it ends in a reflective coda (nothing really matters, anyone can see). Most of the time, being unable to digest all the things that are thrown at us, and without any energy left for perspective, we carry on, carry on…
How has this year been? Like that 1973 Elton John song (I’ve finally decided my future lies beyond the Yellow Brick Road). Like that 1977 Fleetwood Mac album (Thunder only happens when it’s raining). Like The Eagles’ Hotel California (you can check out any time you like). And only writers, those great prophets of our time, can explain how I actually feel about the insanity of the world. But may it never stop being this interesting.
“It was the Age of Anything-Can-Happen, he reminded himself. He had heard many people say that on TV and on the outré video clips floating in cyberspace, which added a further, new-technology depth to his addiction. There were no rules any more. And in the Age of Anything-Can-Happen, well, anything could happen. Old friends could become new enemies and traditional enemies could be your new besties or even lovers. It was no longer possible to predict the weather, or the likelihood of war, or the outcome of elections. A woman might fall in love with a piglet, or a man start living with an owl. A beauty might fall asleep and, when kissed, wake up speaking a different language and in that new language reveal a completely altered character. A flood might drown your city. A tornado might carry your house to a faraway land where, upon landing, it would squash a witch. Criminals could become kings and kings be unmasked as criminals. A man might discover that the woman he lived with was his father’s illegitimate child. A whole nation might jump off a cliff like swarming lemmings. Men who played presidents on TV could become presidents. The water might run out. A woman might bear a baby who was found to be a revenant god. Words could lose their meanings and acquire new ones. The world might end, as at least one prominent scientist- entrepreneur had begun repeatedly to predict. An evil scent would hang over the ending….to be a lawyer in a lawless time was like being a clown among the humourless: which was to say, either completely redundant or absolutely essential.” Quichotte, Salman Rushdie, 2019
Which pretty much sums up how confusing it can be being a civil rights lawyer in a world that has turned its back on truth; When society finds justice no longer fashionable, and the arts the only space left to remind ourselves how far we’ve come since slavery, colonialism and the Holocaust, and how fast we’re regressing to inequality, indifference, and self-destruction.
One is left with one’s own conscience. Like the Tienanmen Square Tank Man.
“You’ve got to be a warrior,” her father told her. “There are certain things you might have to do, for the sake of all black people. And no matter what you do as an individual, you’re reflecting your group and your family. So make sure you’re correct.” – Best of Enemies (2019)