Posts tagged yearly_report

Twenty-seventeen media diet: movies & series

I watched fourty-seven movies released in Portugal throughout 2017, and this time I even took the time to make a ranked list over at Letterboxd, which you shouldn’t take very seriously — ranking apples alongside oranges is hard! Still, these are the films I would very much like to highlight and recommend, in no particular order:

The Nothing Factory

A Fábrica de Nada (The Nothing Factory) by Pedro Pinho. There is a story in there about a group of workers stopping their factory owners from removing equipment and relocating, and then proceeding to turn the factory into a co-op. But the movie is so much, much more as a powerful case-study on those left behind by the turbo-capitalist zeitgeist; and it is served well by being more interested in raising questions about what can be done in the 21st century (there is an exemplary scene where a few artist-burgeois discuss politics without actually getting anywhere) than providing 20th century answers. Stylistically, The Nothing Factory also blends the documentary with the lyrical (there’s even a musical sequence), making the film akin to a long episode in Miguel Gomes’ opus Arabian Nights. Were that the case, it would have been one of the very best.

The Square

The Square by Ruben Östlund. Do you ever wonder what it would be like if someone made a movie in which a character much like Mad Men’s Don Draper was the curator of a large museum, and terribly sucked at his job? Well, look no further! And the sad thing is, The Square does feel like a pretty accurate observation of how the institutional art world is run. The Square is perfect companion piece to Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, should you still believe in contemporary art.

Paterson

Should you despair too much at what ‘art’ became, I heartly recommend Paterson by the great Jim Jarmusch: a sober movie about how artmaking belongs anywhere and to everyone; and how making trumps showing.

20th Century Women

20th Century Women by Mike Mills and Song to Song by Terrence Malick are two movies that couldn’t perhaps be more different, but I consider them both sides to a coin: Mills’ shows growth and the strengthening of human relationships, while Malick’s chronicles their destruction. An yet, both are movies about longing, both are charming and hypnotizing, and both are balsam for a heart’s wounds.

Thor: Ragnarok

I would also highlight a few more movies that could just as easily be listed as my favourite should have I left my bed through the other side this morning: Aquarius, a great Brazilian movie about, for the lack of better words, resistance to the gentrification mafia; The Age of Shadows, an amazing Korean spy thriller set in World War II, echoing of J.-P. Melville’s French resistance classic Army of Shadows; Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, half an amazingly charming portrait of the Chilean poet, half a great political thriller about his escape from persecution; character studies in loneliness Moonlight; and also Lucky, played by the late great Harry Dean Stanton; James Gray’s venture into the unknown with The Lost City of Z; and finally, Thor: Ragnarok, which commanded the best laughs I gave at a theatre last year, and I praise Marvel and Taika Waititi for the change of tone and embrancing all the sillyness and psychedelia of superhero comics in a very crisp comedy. I am also firmly on the camp of those who really liked The Last Jedi — to paraphrase a friend, I was expecting Star Wars but got a good movie instead, and commend Rian Johnson for the way the movie made short work of turning expectations around.

A few words for movies I didn’t like at all. I admit I wasn’t expecting much from T2 Trainspotting, but I felt it consisted of little more than reminders of how the original felt cool in 1996, and was in the end as welcome as a tour from a second-rate britpop band. In the same vein, I felt whitewashed Ghost in the Shell was as mediocre as expected, but at least a little redeemed by casting Beat Takeshi with the weirdest haircut. Luc Besson’s promised return to The Fifth Element form was a big failure, but at least I think I won’t change channel should I ever come across Valerian on television, on aesthetic grounds alone (and the movie did have a great title sequence). I won’t have a reason to watch Blade Runner 2049 ever again, however. Jamie Zawinski’s analysis of 2049’s failures is pretty spot-on. As I said before of Arrival, Denis Villeneuve must have the best press agents working in Hollywood. Even Ridley Scott, surely a culprit in that he claims to have pitched ideas for 2049, felt bored watching it. As with movies such as Interstellar, where did this trend of equating movies about Serious Questions About Man’s Place in the Universe with logically unsound plots, stiff acting, lots of slow wide shots of landscapes, and Loud! Hans Zimmer scores come from?


Twin Peaks: The Return

Granting David Lynch’s wish that Twin Peaks: The Return been seen as a long movie, I would surely place it among my favourite of 2017, else it was one of my favourite series, even for all its Dougie-ing (I’m sure that’s a word now). It’s surely the ultimate showcase of David Lynch’s craft — he’s very good at creating characters, he’s very good at creating mood, he’s very good at world building, he’s very good at slapstick comedy, and situation comedy as well, he’s very good at horror (both gore and stupid), he’s very good at action!, and he’s very good at that which he’s best known for, creating painterly nightmares — of which Episode 8 is the ultimate example. David Lynch is very good.

Halt and Catch Fire

I didn’t watch that much series, but I’d highlight the final season of Halt and Catch Fire, and how a series that started as Difficult Man in the 80s Tech Industry grown over time, as it gave the lead to Donna and Cam (sorry, Joe!) to one of the best portraits of human relationships bound by the creative process. Computers not being the thing, but being “the thing that gets us to the thing” is a line that I’ll carry as the perfect description of why I like the Internet so much, even in a year I often felt the Internet should just close and begone. I will also highlight the great second season of Master of None, and a good return of Mr. Robot, less concerned with serving Fight Club-level twists and more focused at being a very good cypherpunk thriller.

A survey of my favourite reads of 2017 is coming soon!

Twenty-seventeen media diet: books & articles

I haven’t read as many books as I would have liked throughout 2017, and most of the times ended up entertaining myself with some sci-fi escapism (or not, given how I tend to go for the bleak stuff). Still, I would like to highlight a few books that left an impression:

Laurent Binet’s HHhH would be a very thrilling account of Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of high-ranking nazi Reinhard Heydrich by a czechoslovak commando during World War II. Even though it would be wrong to describe reading this book as a joy, given the book’s description of the rise of nazism and of nazi atrocities, it is true that I found HHhH unputdownable, mostly because of the book’s narration from the point of view of its author, researching the book as it is written — eg. finding a crucial detail in a museum in Prague while on holiday there, commenting on how an old film adaptation of the events gets a few things wrong, being constaly unsure of the color of the car Heydrich was in during the assassination, etc.

I really liked the worldbuilding on Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota books, of which I’m halfway through The Will to Battle, the third in what is expected to be a tetralogy. I’m still a little bit unsure about the premise (There’s going to be a war! Why? Because there’s going to be a war!), and the structure of the books tends to be a bit boring sometimes, specially in the second volume (a dialogue scene, then another dialogue scene, and another, and another), the utopian future world Palmer describes is very consistent and really stays with me, a marvel I would like to see like no other in earthly sci-fi. I see some hints in The Will to Battle that Ada Palmer may be improving at writing action, and if so I can’t hardly wait for the final chapter. And given the worldbuilding, the number of interesting characters, the operatic style, the blood and the constant menace, I hope HBO comes calling. That I would watch.

I’ve also given much thought to Cixin Liu’s bleak Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. While parts still feel very unsophisticated (such as the very weak writing of female characters), it’s very interesting to read hard sci-fi with a chinese point-of-view. And most of all (a spoiler for the second volume, The Dark Forest, follows), Liu offers one very interesting and extremely unsettling theory about why we haven’t yet found any other signs of life in the universe: every advanced civilization is hiding, as demonstrations of intelligent life are swifly met with extermination before they can grow to be a threat. Add the SETI project to our list of existential threats.

I haven’t watched the series, but did feel inclined to read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Despite being written in the 1980s, I agree that it is a dystopia that captures many anxieties of 2017, and for all the ways it may strike us implausible that something as Gilead may be implemented in the West, we should never forget it has happened multiple times before (eg. just look at how Afeghanistan devolved from an emerging developing country to Taliban rule in less than two decades). Therein lies the power of distopia. We may never agree on the utopia we want — Ada Palmer’s books shows how her multiple choice utopia breaks (and that one is only made possible because of free energy and a highly unplausible transport technology). However, we may agree on what we don’t. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum!


I’ve also read quite a few online articles, of which I recommend the following:

There is no alternative?


Sciences & philosophy


The decline of academia


When technology backfires


Art and media


Funny stuff

Twenty sixteen views

Pity film critics that dislike most movies they see, for I enjoyed most pictures I watched throughout 2016. Of course, watching movies in a theatre is one of the things I like best in life, and I have the benefit of choosing what I am likely to like, an attitude that may be criticized as unadventurous, or as choosing to inhabit a cinematic echo chamber, but well — life is too short and Cinema too big for my time to be spent on movies I’m not much sure I’d like. I won’t rank these few movies I particularly liked in 2016, for I think comparing works of art is often like comparing eagles to motorcycles — absurd.

Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! proved that the Texan director is American cinema’s master humanist. Whereas teenage movies often requires the protagonist to be an underdog and sports jocks to be one-dimensional antagonists, in this movie Linklater revels in an earnest admiration of jock-ness and the constant insecurities and competition that come with it. Of course, Adam McKay’s The Big Short, then, seems to throw jocks and underdogs together long after they graduated, presenting Big Finance’s excesses and Finance-jocks comeuppance as entertainment for the proles, but McKay’s film based in Michael Lewis’ investigation succeeds in explaining the 2008 Financial Crisis very very well, even if aided by blunt cinematic devices, which is no ordinary feat. That it didn’t have a political impact is shocking but unfortunately was quite expected.

La Loi du Marché

Of course, jocks’ community does approach meritocracy (that guy did manage to slice the baseball with an axe while others watched), but away from sports that meritocracy is but a practical joke the privileged under neoliberalism inflicted upon the proles. The sick consequences were eloquently presented in Cannes winner I, Daniel Blake, but I found Ken Loach’s film a little bit too straight and tidy. In the same vein I’d favor the messier La Loi du Marché / The Measure of a Man by Stéphane Brizé, which replaces Loach’s tale of martyrdom by a scarier tale of conformity, in which the protagonist ends up accepting a job as guard labor rather than keep on fighting for his rights to the bitter end. Which is worse? Both movies are masterpieces about neoliberal awfulness.

Hell or High Water

People sometimes push back though, by all means including violence, and David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is probably among the finest examples of what might be a justified return of the Western, as the 21st century is shaping to be like the 19th. All the ingredients were there: ghost towns, bank robberies, concealed guns, moral ambiguity — people taking the side of the robbers rather than the banks’, confounding Jeff Bridges excellent sheriff character; only the horses were replaced by automobiles.

Knight of Cups

There was an oscillation between bleakness and levity in the movies I chose to watch in 2016. The Coens’ Hail, Caesar! was, along with Everybody Wants Some!! perhaps the most fun I had in a theatre all year, even if it relies too heavily in its viewers’ knowledge and fondness for 1950s film. But Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship was also a joy to watch, by the relentless pace and wit of his Jane Austen adaptation. Some movies did marry the bleakness and the levity, though — Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups was both grim and pleasurable, one of the most L.A. movies I remember watching, as if Malick took the entire Bojack Horseman series and made a two-hour movie. And nobody films like Terrence Malick.

Things to Come

A note also about Isabelle Huppert, who shined through 2016, not only starring and making Mia Hansen Love’s Things to Come, but also making Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a probable masterpiece which I’m still deeply perplexed about.

The Last Picture Show

There was also a number of movies I now consider masterpieces I didn’t get to watch until 2016. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show is an incredible picaresque set in an isolated town, whereas another picaresque, Whit Stillman’s Barcelona has that quality I admire so much about Stillman’s early work, which is that it feels like watching Peanuts comics with an adult cast. Then I also watched Orson Welles’ F for Fake for the first time, and can’t really believe how long it took. It’s the perfect movie for 2016, a year in which nothing was real, all was fraud, fakery, deceit, and rooms full of mirrors.

(That last one is from Lady from Shangai, actually.)


Bojack Horseman

I would also like to write a few lines about television: I’d say Bojack Horseman was the Best Show on Television (or at least on Netflix), an animated treatise on existentialism unmatched by much of what passes for Serious Cinema.

Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire has also been one of my very favorite shows after its second season put an end to its early Mad Men, but in the computer industry intentions and allowed it to become its own show — an incredible study of creativity and its conflicts. Mr. Robot, which had a peerless first season in 2015, may had had a very slow start to its second season, marred by the troubles of writing to audiences that, since watching Fight Club, know and expect too! damn! much!, but once the last few episodes get going, delivers what will be one of the greatest twists in television — one that once again sets the bar even higher for Mr. Robot’s next season. In the meantime, Louis C.K. made a break from his great namesake show to sell us his and Steve Buscemi’s Horace and Pete, well worth the price of admission, in what I hope is a new trend of high-quality indie television.

Black Mirror — San Junipero

And then there was Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. I can’t really say I was that fond of its third season, finding most episodes revisiting ideas better explored in earlier seasons. But there was Episode #4, San Junipero: with an unrelentless positive vibe, it presented a twist on Black Mirror itself, and it presented a twist on 2016. Overall, perhaps, my favorite moving image piece of the entire year.

Twenty sixteen readings

I didn’t read much in proper book form during 2016. I would highlight Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s examination of the Western canon All Things Shining, J. A. Baker’s beautifully thorough observation of (of all things) hawks The Peregrine (so I guess I’m a member of the Werner Herzog Book Club now), and, as my hard sci-fi fix, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. I’ve only recently started Richard Fariña’s picaresque Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me but, oboy, ain’t it a cool read.

Mostly, though, I’ve been carrying my Kobo Aura (an ereader which I do recommend) around and reading articles saved for later online. Here’s a list of those worth a mention:

On our anarcho-capitalist society:

On art, film and media:

On design and technology:

Useful:

In retrospect, quite a large proportion of articles are too 2016, weltschmerz and outrage inducing texts. Not that they aren’t thoughtful — or, should you disagree, representative of my particular filter bubble — but perhaps I should stop reading so disproportionally much about politics and economics. No good sleep lies that way.

Twenty sixteen ramblings

It took me forever just to write this short sentence about 2016, such a year it was. Surely it wasn’t the worst year in human history, as many hyperbolic posts on social media would have me believe, but it wasn’t just a fine year in which, by coincidence, too many esteemed celebrities died. For 2016 was a year of horrible politics, the kind of hair-raising, chilling politics one thought was in the fringe; remote ideas unable to overcome a common sense shared by a large majority. Brexit and the election of Donald trumped whatever confidence one could have that our neighbors in Western Civilization (if such a thing ever existed) wouldn’t send the Gestapo on us just because.

One can try to frame those bad things that happened in 2016 as dark jokes, as Charlie Brooker does so eloquently in his 2016 Wipe end of year rant, but there is no entertainment to be had.

2016 shattered the belief, even in a faraway corner such as Portugal, that the nicest people one knew wouldn’t become racist, classist, sexist trolls once they opened Twitter or Facebook or a newspaper’s website. I really started to question the benefits of hyper-connectedness, much before I even heard a friend, hooked on confirmation bias, state that vigilance against ‘fake news’ is all about censoring the 'real news’ fake news sites provide. To which I say, it’s all real for all I care, because real or fake, local or international, it’s all horrible. The comments do feel real and make me wonder: should I drop dead because I’m from Southern Europe in a country where they have a Socialist government? Should I drop dead because I’m in academia? Am I an insect, a leech, because I was for a couple of months on benefits before being a public servant with a meager paycheck and a temporary contract? 

In 2016 it often felt as if harassment was being legitimized, then vindicated by politics. And as a cis-hetero white male, what to do? Speaking out with the best intentions is often framed as illegitimate _splaining, a ridiculous way to frame things in a year in which we found out arguments don’t matter, much less the writer. I’ll just leave this here:

Judging people whose lives and actions you don’t know anything about is wrong.

(Except in traffic. Tailgating assholes deserve judgement.)

In Portugal in 2011 we had a very nasty election in which the prevailing right-wing turned old against new, public workers against private workers, rich against poor. Our current government is, against all odds, managing to heal these divides bit by bit, against all the fanaticism of a media thirsty for some kind of war. However in 2016 all those rifts exploded everywhere, across every single line that could become contentious — race, nationality, gender, sex, religion. That Dark Enlightenment which openly articulates a desire to go back to absolutism, as recently as a couple of years ago was just a lunatic twinkle in some solipsists’ eye (long live King Thiel I). Then comes 2016 and it seems to have become public policy from the United States to Brazil, from Hungary to Russia, from Turkey to the Philippines. Can we trust each other? It’s as if while our societies were made deeply afraid of the Islamic State, our own next door neighbors became as radicalized, only about things other than religion, and mercifully still only wielding tweets and votes rather than explosives.

Is this social media’s endgame? Filter bubbles and confirmation biases so heavy they implode into black holes of hatred?

Is that why we haven’t found alien civilizations? They go extinct because they invented nuclear weapons, poison their climates, and then invent Facebook? That which extra-dimensional archaeologists call the Technological Sandwich of Doom? 

Then fuck social media.

Fuck it. Fill social networks with bots and IFTTT recipes, feed Facebook and Twitter back to themselves until they too implode in a blackhole of bullshit that vacuums all the fake news, along with a few media conglomerates just for safety.

Ahem.

Progress?

Hence the despair, often feigned, but often real, at the deaths of beloved celebrities like David Bowie, Prince, or Carrie Fisher. Those were artists and performers of The Future, therefore a literally dying Future, crashing our old but reassuring collective belief in a Whig sense of Progress. Without Bowie or Prince, who or what stands for A Better Future?

Vaporwave? C'mon.


So it was bit weird to be living in Portugal while 2016 happened. Internal politics were the opposite of whatever happened in international news: in 2016 we had a Socialist government supported by Communists and Trotskiites in parliament and by a hyperactive right-wing President (and former TV personality!) who has so far been doing the utmost to be decent and respectful of differences. Such good karma visited Portugal that its football national team even won the Euro, in the bestest! imaginable victory (winning < against France < in France < without Ronaldo < with a goal scored by Éder, who has the footballing ability of Ronaldo’s right kidney).

Not that everything was rosy. Job precarity remains the norm, salaries remain miserable for the bottom 90%, and the government’s left-wing peers are still focused on employment rather than what comes next. Porto is being Disneyfied and Disrupted beyond recognition by an unholy alliance of AirBnB, speculators local and foreign, and, again, a local citizenry more than happy in screwing over their neighbors whenever the time comes to renew a lease, or to price the food in their artisanal gourmet tapas bar restaurant bistro. But hey, at least we’ve got a brand new city centre which the tourists and the petty bourgeois can enjoy mostly free of locals, as the city lost 10% of its inhabitants in just these last four vigorous years. That an untold number of businesses in the periphery had to close is something almost nobody notices. 

Yay for growth!

May the tourists never cease touring the brand new hotels standing on the ruins of our heritage. Nobody can make a living here, but those TripAdvisor rankings are unmatched.

The films of 2015

Since I started writing these film flashbacks, I never had any trouble picking my three favourite films of the year, ranked. Not for 2015, however: a year that had strong movies and a few strong disappointments, but overall felt like an average year as most movies basked in the afterglow of last year’s award season contenders (it must be noted that many of the movies on other 2015 best-of lists will only arrive in Portuguese theatres in a month or so). So, sorted chronologically rather than by rank, here are five of my favourite films of 2015:


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Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre. No other filmmaker that I know of has Nanni Moretti’s ability to walk such a fine line, making a film in which the protagonist (a filmmaker herself, because Moretti — he writes what he knows) must deal with her mother’s fading health as finds herself with already a lot in her plate (a terrible shoot, a separation, jealousy of her brother, etc) without either giving in to melodrama or to ‘dramatic comedy’. The film doesn’t demand the audience’s tears, but doesn’t give any kind of relief or 'silver lining’. There are no lessons here, only what happens. Mia Madre feels real in a way that very few films do.


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Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights vol. 1, the Restless One (and only volume 1). Gomes’ six hour opus may be the very definition of cinematic ambition: to weave documentary, drama and both literary and popular myth in a movie that is about the impact of this Long Depression in Portugal. Released in three parts, I believe the first part does justice to the whole enterprise. Pity then, that some macro-editing issues show in volume 2, and totally undermine volume 3. Perhaps a truly masterpiece exists in there, as a two-part, 4.5 hour movie.


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George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. When I went to watch The Force Awakens, I spent most of the time enjoying the movie, perhaps with a big grin on my 3D-bespectacled face, while at the same time taking note of all the obvious paralelisms with A New Hope; getting angrier and angrier at said paralelisms after leaving the theatre, realizing I’d been had. When I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road, I spent most of the time enjoying the movie, perhaps with a big grin on my 3D-bespectacled face, while at the same time taking note all the things I hadn’t yet seen in such a straight simple action movie before; noticing more and more things as I replayed the movie in my head while leaving the theatre, growing more fond of the movie and realizing I had seen a classic.


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J. C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. Proof that if you film it like The Godfather, even a story about some guy who needs to raise money to finish the purchase of a lot for his trucking company can be truly compelling. There’s a lot to be learned about cinema here.


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Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep. Chekhov in Cappadocia makes for a just recipient of the 2014 Palme d'Or.

There were disappointments, of course: I had high hopes for Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, for instance, but it ended far below Baumbach’s previous works (which is still good, but still…). I also felt promising portuguese filmmaker João Salaviza’s first feature Montanha was a dud, a kind of anti-Moretti (shoot about and over-aesthetize what you don’t know). In the pop side of things, Spectre brought back Mediocre Bond (and worse Blofeld), while The Force Awakens was, as I mentioned, the strangest of objects: a film that doesn’t disappoint while you’re watching it for the first time, but infuriates a couple of moments after the credits roll (and apparently I’m not the only one feeling this way — or the opposite).

I watched many other notable films in 2015. Alejandro González Iñarrittú’s Birdman and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash deserved their take during the last award season. Paul Thomas Anderson gave us perhaps the best Thomas Pynchon adaptation film as a medium will ever allow in Inherent Vice — but I still felt such a project was doomed to be slightly unsatisfying from the very start. Each episode of Damián Szifrón’s Relatos Salvajes / Wild Tales is perhaps destined to become a conversation classic (“that film in which the explosives engineer blew up the impound lot”, “that film in which the two guys killed each other in a road rage incident” & etc.), as well as Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (“that film in which a 17th century swedish king entered a present-day pub on horseback”). Alex Garland’s Ex Machina was perhaps the most interesting science fiction film I’ve seen last year, a kind of dark and claustrophobic counterpart to 2014’s Her. Ridley Scott’s The Martian was also a very solid piece of sci-fi and a welcome reminder that Scott can be a great filmmaker when working to preserve a script’s verissimilitude. I found Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation a great action film (from what I’ve seen in 2015, second only to Mad Max), the best M.I. at its fifth instalment, handily beating Spectre at its own game (and am I the only one to notice how weirdly similar — down to locations — both films’ plots are?). Finally, both Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria and Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth made the uninteresting — eg. the inner lives of affluent and undecisive expatriates in Switzerland — compelling and engaging. Sorrentino’s more of a baroque (for which some critics won’t ever forgive), of course, but masterful still.

Twenty fourteen: twenty thirteen part II

Like 2013, I think last year was a “year without qualities”. It was not a good year, not even an interesting year. At the very least, things didn’t turn out as bad personally, and whatever my problems, complains and sorrows were, they were the problems, complains and sorrows of someone privileged to be safe and healthy: I even made good on 2004’s (sic) New Year resolution of starting to exercise.

Still, looking outward, 2014 was a garbage year full of bad omens. That has been extensively covered, and both you and I would gain nothing if I were to relist all the tragedies, most still unfolding. If you must, Charlie Brooker, a clever and funny man, tries his best at a humourous recap and fails; there was little fun in 2014. Still, I may add that that something like the ‘Dark Enlightment' is even an idea proves the kind of thinking that produced ISIS is not the exclusive of any particular religion or country; I came to realize that the political Right is, for all its pretenses, a black hole: there is no point at which conservatives would be satisfied and say “society is as we want it”, for there would always exist a Right, pointing toward anarchy and despotic barbarism — the post-apocalyptic fantasies of gun-fiend survivalists, every man for himself against hordes of zombies, or perhaps immigrants, seeming more like a political programme than a genuine fear. 

How have things in Portugal been? Interesting, in a bad way. Late last year our former Prime Minister, José Sócrates, was arrested on vague charges, and is still in prison in order to be investigated for… some kind of corruption, or whatever. Such a situation presents us with two possibilities: A. Sócrates is a crook whom, like Al Capone, was finally caught because of something smaller like tax evasion and is now undergoing thorough investigation; B. Sócrates is a political prisioner, arrested at the airport upon entering the country, reporters of our local Fox News clone already at the scene, spinning stories for the naïve involving suitcases full of money. I truly prefer option A., even though one suspects B., and one will never ever know. Whatever the outcome in the courts, Sócrates will remain Schrödinger’s PM, such is the nature of our politics. At the same time, one of Portugal’s biggest banks failed and was bailed out by the government, its coffers were apparently robbed blind by the bankster family that ran it to the ground, and while nobody is arrested people are still told that socialism ends when the money ends and other assorted Thatcherite catchphrases, apparentely because people live in a paralel universe to that of finance.

There are multiple such universes though, and the media makes sure one never knows in which universe one currently resides. Charlie Brooker’s report I linked above includes a segment by Adam Curtis on how media is used to obfuscate, confuse and leave citizens in a state of anxious acceptance. But while right, I think Curtis is late to the premediation party: it’s not just Putin, it’s not just the British government learning some KGB-fu. It’s everyone, everywhere: societies became societies of actors and societies of artifice, reality has been vanquished. In 2014 we even found out that Facebook Inc. tampers with the information you are presented (as they were obviously going to do), so you can’t even trust the mediated representations of your ‘friends’. Take it away, Reza Farazmand:

Reality check

Reality has also been vanquished in my city of Porto, Best European Disneyland of the Year for a number of travel magazines, its votes rigged or its journalists handsomely treated by the local hostel industry. Disneyland Porto does seem like a nice place to live, but in this universe all I see are lots of new and somewhat pricier coffee shops, gourmet burger joints and gin & tonic bars that seem like good places to hang out with my friends, hadn’t most of them, even those with kids, been forced to look for a job abroad (a great way for a government to lower unemployment, by the way). But hey, the city’s rebranding apparently makes being a 35 year old living in a shared apartment all worthwhile.


Still, I can’t really complain much about 2014 on a personal level. My 2013 complaints about miscommunication (and miscommunity) in the connected age remain, so do my complaints about precariousness in work and in love. I had a health scare that fortunately turned out to be nothing, but made me aware of the realities of ageing, while hardly feeling like an adult yet. But still, I had a full year, in which I traveled, made an effort in getting to know people and engaging with different kinds of activities — from videography, both on the street and with a theatre company, to both visiting and selling at flea markets, from working up some of the required “benevolent anger” in thinking about software and citizenship to teaching at the college; all while neglecting my PhD, casting that dark shadow of guilt I’ll have to learn how to manage in to 2015.

One can’t but to look forward to a new year, it always feels like a fresh page. So, considering how long it took for me to start going to a gym, I think that one resolution — of balancing my PhD’s work and guilt throughout the year — will be enough.

The films of 2014

Phew! What a lousy year it was, 2014. After a great 2013 film-wise, either I chose my movie outings poorly, or 2014 had indeed a rather bad crop. I only went to a movie theatre about thirty times, and quite often I just looked at the listings, thought everything was so meh!, and went to do something else instead. There were however, amongst the superhero episodes (which at least create mythologies) and the forgettable dramedies, some good works of art and entertainment in the theatres in 2014. Unlike this critic’s, my picks for 2014 might even be very slightly better than my favourite movies of 2013.

Boyhood

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. I’m not one to jump on bandwagons and I’m usually suspicious of anything that has the degree of universal acclaim Linklater’s masterpiece achieved. Still, I am hard pressed to find any fault whatsoever with this film (well, maybe except for the use of Coldplay in the soundtrack at the beginning of the film), the result of an incredibly risky project that feels perfectly natural in the body of work of the guy who directed Slacker. In Boyhood, character transformation happens because it just does as time passes, not as a result of plot. Small episodes might have consequences, or might have not. People come into the life of Mason and his family and seem important, and than they’re gone elsewhere. Boyhood almost challenges what is meant by ‘fiction' because even though those are made-up characters played by professional actors acting made-up situations, there's no disbelief in the movie requiring suspension. It's a truthful fiction, showing the extraordinary (as it must be, as we watch it in a movie theatre and find it compelling) in the ordinary.

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. Without leaving Earth for mythological heights inhabited by aliens and superheroes, Nightcrawler is on the far opposite end of the placid Boyhood. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is a rabid hungry coyote, perhaps more wolfish than di Caprio’s, perhaps more of a psycho than Bale’s. He is the endgame of anarcho-capitalism, only holding a camera rather than trading financial derivatives.

Nebraska

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, and back to placid-er plains. Wheareas plot is probably the least important element of my other two picks, Nebraska, while not exactly a tightly-plotted film (leave that to something like Gone Girl), had the most satisfying story I’ve seen in a film all year. It’s veritable literature, coupled with Payne’s humourous deadpan Americana.


Some films of 2014 were genuine disappointments — I would say Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is as vast and as empty as space, while I found Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, which I had eagerly awaited since watching the first trailer, more interested with the bodily noises of J.M.W. Turner rather than his art. Still, besides the 2014 Top Three, I really enjoyed Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, which, like Nightcrawler, I found a great observation of turbo-capitalism, this time as a farce. I also liked Spike Jonze’s Her as a thought experiment about emerging AI; as I wrote previously, even though I found its resolution quite flawed, it’s a film sure to occupy philosophers (and UX designers) in years to come. Another glorious but flawed film I really liked was Ari Folman’s The Congress, which I thought even trippier than Stanislaw Lem’s novel. Considering Boyhood, Steven Knight’s Locke is perhaps the most opposite kind of project one could imagine (just a guy driving his car for ninety minutes), but Tom Hardy does give the defnitive performance of Bluetooth-connected acting. And finally, David Fincher’s Gone Girl, which I enjoyed as perhaps the definitive film of a long-missed subgenre, the Michael Douglas thriller (not starring Mr. Douglas).

I should also highlight David O’Russell American Hustle (a giant in the pantheon of cinematic hairdos), Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (no film ever made me want to visit Rome as much), Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (which I actually found manneiristic and lesser Wes, but still, Anderson), Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man (its closing scenes becoming more shocking and poignant as marking the premature end of Philip Seymour Hoffman), João Botelho’s Os Maias (a very lively — and even fun — rendition of the novel dreaded by so many portuguese highschoolers) and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (a refreshingly humourous superhero flick to gorge on popcorn and coke).


Still, there are some interesting movies on the horizon for 2015 that are not Star Wars. And indeed, is there a better way to spend the New Year’s Day hangover than at the movies?

Last year's film (& etc.)

Even though a wee bit late as we enter the second day of the new year, I must collect some additional thoughts on 2013. I am not one to choose media over spending time with people, but books and film remain prime consolations. I even took up record colecting for a while, but lacking a proper living room environment (I have got the stereo hooked up at my office) made me slow down. The PhD put quite a dent on my reading for fun, even as I kept adding books to my anti-library, as Nassim Taleb, the harsh lebanese epistemiologist, would put it. And while I didn’t go to the movies as much as I would have liked, I saw some good movies in 2013.


Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha was my favourite film of the year. As I wrote about it at the time, the greatest joy of Frances Ha is in how it manages to be a fully self-contained, soulful film about being a young adult nowadays. You get to know this carefree, hipster-ish young artist (as one reviewer I can’t recall put it, "the kind of person you want to hate"), and slowly you get to see the sacrifices, the heartbreaks and the immense dignity there are in actually trying to live one’s own life, and how what frequently passes for ‘responsibility’ is actually just an easy way out. Greta Gerwig’s great performance reminded me of more than one person I know. And I am happy she did.


Spring Breakers

I think Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is a very sharp satire that perfectly captures the endgame of anarcho-capitalism, how a critical masses of want, greed, lust and desire collapse into pure sociopathic behaviour.


Gravity

The jawdropping technical gorgeousness of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is enough for me to consider it one of the best movies of the year. I must say I didn’t find it as Great a movie as Cuarón’s previous Children of Men (perhaps last decade’s only worthwhile entry into sci-fi canon), but I did go watch it in 3D three times. In a row. Even despite, in a film that works hard towards accuracy, the basic scientific errors that are like dark stains in a clean sheet. I’d still watch it again.


In addition, there are a bunch of movies I definitely recommend, such as Michael Haneke’s Amour, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines and Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle. These are all worthy of a five star rating, and enough has been written about them. 

I will rather mention a few movies I think are a bit weaker (four star?), but have a degree of interestingness to them, such as Joseph Kosinsnky’s Oblivion, a Tom Cruise vehicle that feels a lost 1970s sci-fi classic. I found it a solid and enjoyable sci-fi flick, whereas I found Gilleremo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, despite the hype (giant monsters vs giant robots, had to be awesome), plain boring and even more lacking in soul than Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and its trully endless fighting scenes (endless to the point of becoming funny — I am sure there’s going to be a Family Guy parody between Peter Griffin and the giant chicken). I would also highlight Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, a film with hardly any dialogue, a creepy and very wrong storyline, but pitch-perfect craftsmanship in the way it generates and sustains excruciating tension for 90 minutes.

Finally, a word about Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine: Like Greta Gerwig’s precise opposite, Cate Blanchett’s great performance as Jasmine reminded me of more than one person I know. And I’m unhappy she did.

Twenty thirteen, a year without qualities

Pardon the hyperbole. There were, of course, qualities to the year 2013, and most gripes I am about to complain about can be safely filed and tucked away as First World Problems. I am well-fed, don’t have to walk for half an hour to fetch a jug of water, and have wi-fi at home. Still, there’s this inescapable feeling of loss, of an unrealized — and one is afraid to suspect, unrealizeable — future.

A whole generation is losing love and friendship to whichever social and moral ills arise from financial insecurity — emigration, misunderstanding & strife, anxiety, shame. I had been naïve, expecting technology to help people become closer in a time people need each other most; instead, I have realized how swiftly social networking became the backbone of later anarcho-capitalism, reducing social interactions to the exchange of multimedia messages as specified by a bunch of appalling libertarian and sexist nerds living in affluent exhurbs of San Francisco, CA.

We are fully complicit in this, of course. A text message will never arise the kind of excitement one feels when receiving a postcard from a loved one. A Verdana asterisk will never feel like a kiss the way a hand-drawn star (or, if you are lucky, a smudge of lipstick) feels. Replying to a text, whichever the carrier (SMS, Facebook, Whatsapp, whatever), often feels like a chore and I too have to remind myself there’s a full human at the other end of such communication: that, no matter my guesses, motivations are unknown and neglecting a simple reply might be the thing to ruin that fellow human’s day. Needless to say, I’ve been often at the other end, feeling the full weight of the ways modern asynchronous communication turns one’s hellos into simple fragments of media to be lost in the stream like old newspaper pages or discarded brochures.

In an Austeritarian and increasingly unequal country like Portugal, the same complicity towards miscommunication also applies towards politics. I am not suggesting it is the same kind of complicity; I suggest it is exactly the same complicity. Crass obliviousness has people treating downtown Porto like a drinking Theme Park, wide-eyed at turbo-capitalist accomplishment while the BBC compares the greater city to illustrious destinations such as Havana or Detroit. Flea markets and antique shops multiplied in the last year, and while I am all for mature consumption in which things are resold and recycled or bought second-hand (sometimes I sell stuff at flea markets myself), there’s a definite feeling of chic despair in the air, as if the panzers are approaching and the new century’s midnight is nigh.

Class prejudices are key in miscommunication amongst people; Capitalism killed love, for how can anyone love someone who is looking for someone better, with a catalog at their fingertips (not specifying the metric, this was something someone once flat out told me)? Mass surveillance, as revealed by Ed Snowden, is not big news as we always, in a way, knew about it. What anarcho-capitalist tech makes us do to each other is worse: oppression became peer-to-peer, decentralized. It’s not the guys with the wiretaps, it’s us. Society’s ills, whichever one feels they are, are rebuilt every single morning when one wakes up and carries on not paying attention, not able to say hello, not able to send back an hi.


Twenty thirteen hasn’t been a good year personally. I have seen friends my age struggle with disease; and I permanentely lost someone to it. Single and almost thirty-five, it’s been hard meeting someone. I wonder if anyone else still wants to find someone to love, someone who makes one driven to full generosity. Working mostly by myself, it’s hard to get to know new people; even coffee dates are hard to arrange. Some people seem to be able to click their fingers and fix their loneliness. Not me. All that’s left is work and entertainment and (at best) something in the middle.

There have been some minor paradoxes. I’ve been doing some work as a freelance videographer, having done more in the last three months than in any moment in the last five years; all this when I had almost given up on videography. Interestingly, it all came about after my involvement with the RU+A project, a perfect example of the work-entertainment blend (at least for me), which took me to interesting places in the relationship between street artists and local politics. All this has been hard on my PhD, and working towards it must be top of my New Year resolutions.

I’m sure 2014 will be a better year. It has to.