2004 in review: Books

As good as 2004 was for me and films, so was it a bad year for me and books. Excluding textbooks and reference works, I clocked a mere 21 over the course of the year, and almost none of them have been of any significance. To be fair, I have gone through a larger than average number of computing/design/usability textbooks this year, but I haven’t chalked most of these up for a quick review because I don’t tend to read them linearly cover-to-cover, or even completely.

However, three of these textbooks stand out as particularly good examples:

Paper Prototyping - Carolyn SnyderBuilding Accessible Websites - Joe ClarkVisual Explanations - Edward R. Tufte

  • Paper Prototyping by Carolyn Snyder is an excellent book on the subject for beginners and experienced designers alike. Solid advice, intersperesed with amusing anecdotes makes this an interesting as well as a highly informative read.
  • Building Accessible Websites by Joe Clark is simply the best reference available on making the web accessible to people with disabilities. If you’re serious about HTML, you need to read this book. Don’t let the cover put you off. (And if you’re wondering why the cover might be off-putting, cherish your ignorance.)
  • Finally, Visual Explanations by Edward R. Tufte is just fabulous. Even if the content were less interesting, the visual presentation of the book, and the attention and craft lavished on its production would make it worth having.

Of the other books I’ve read, only two stick in my mind as being genuinely noteworthy:

The Small Boat Of Great Sorrows - Dan FespermanDown Under - Bill Bryson

  • The Small Boat Of Great Sorrows by Dan Fesperman combines a detective story, a spy thriller, and an emotional novel about the ravages of war into a single book. Powerful, sensitive, and thrilling, it’s the only novel I read in 2004 that I can recommend without any hesitation.
  • Down Under by Bill Bryson is a wonderfully funny piece of travel writing that will make you want to take your next summer holiday in Oz. Intelligent, witty, and refreshing, it’s a book that is guaranteed to leave you with a smile on your face.

(Okay, so the The Small Boat Of Great Sorrows is the only one of these that was actually published in 2004, but if I was going to restrict my reading choices to books that came out last year, the list would have been damn small. For a variety of practical reasons, I haven’t had much time this last year to devote to serious reading. Note to self for 2005: must do better.)

2004 in review: Films

2004 was a good year for me and films. A subscription to the ScreenSelect DVD rental service helped me see 100 new films. (New to me, that is–not just films released in 2004.) Spread out over a whole year, 100 films isn’t all that much, but I didn’t set myself that target until the middle of September. I had watched about 60 films by that point, and I figured that with a good push, I could easily get in the last 40.

Well, I made it, but there were weeks where it felt like a real slog. I have to watch another film tonight? Gah. Can’t I just play some Halo 2 instead? For me, setting targets is a great way of turning activities that are normally a great pleasure into boring chores. I think it’s entirely possible that I’ll make it up to 100 films again in 2005, but this time, I’m not going to make it a goal.

Having said that, I do feel a great sense of achievement at having reached 100. It’s nothing compared to what your average film critic will watch in a year, and I’m still not even close to having seen all the recent important new releases. However, it’s a big deal to me because I feel like I’m not losing ground on the films I want to see. (Or, at least not losing ground quite so quickly.) I’ve watched a large proportion of the new releases that have interested me in 2004, and I’ve caught up on a bunch of films I missed in previous years.

Another good thing is that I now have a respectable chunk of data to play with and turn into charts and graphs:

Chart of my film ratings for 2004

With the exception of the anomaly at 2 stars, the chart runs pretty well the way you’d expect: a roughly bell-shaped curve, with its peak skewed to the favourable end. The skew comes from observational bias: I tend to watch films that I think I’ll like, so it’s hardly surprising that my average rating comes out to 3.23 stars, half-way between “solid and enjoyable” and “pretty good”.

For the purposes of rating films, I find it helpful to keep my text labels for each star value in mind:

Star rating Explanation
5 stars All-time great
4.5 stars Highly recommended/award-level film
4 stars Recommended
3.5 stars Pretty good
3 stars Solid and enjoyable
2.5 stars Almost okay, but too flawed to make the grade
2 stars Disappointing
1.5 stars More than just disappointing: actively bad
1 stars Don’t waste your time
0.5 stars Drivel
0 stars Give me those hours of my life back, you fucker!

“Recommended” only kicks in at 4 stars and above. 36 out of the hundred films I saw made that grade. Last year, 15 out of the 38 films (39%) I watched hit that mark, so it looks like I’m maintaining a certain level of consistency. However, both last year and this year I felt that only four films rated a full five stars, which may mean that I’ve been rating more critically this year. I’m a bit concerned about the blip at two stars. That tells me that I’m having some difficulty judging films I don’t like. I guess I just need to watch more rubbish, so I can fine-tune my distinctions.

So what were my favourite films of the year? Well, including films that IMDB says were released in 2003, but that only made it over to this side of the pond in 2004, here’s my top 10:

  1. The Incredibles
    (5 stars)
  2. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (5 stars)

  3. Dodgeball
    (4.5 stars)

  4. Collateral
    (4.5 stars)
  5. Shaun Of The Dead (4.5 stars)
  6. Kill Bill, Vol 2 (4.5 stars)
  7. Lost In Translation (4.5 stars)
  8. Kinsey (4 stars)
  9. Danny Deckchair (4 stars)

  10. Zatoichi
    (4 stars)

Extraordinary films from previous years that I saw for the first time in 2004 include
Wilbur (Wants To Kill Himself)
Touching The Void
Peter Pan (2003)
The Pledge
, and
. Upon reflection (and seeing it a second time), Spider-Man 2, which I had previously rated 4.5 stars, I don’t think quite so highly of any more. Still 4 stars, but not a top 10 film.

And the worst ones? Here are the bottom feeders:

  1. National Treasure (0.5 stars)
  2. Johnny English (1 stars)
  3. Spy Kids 3D (1.5 stars)
  4. Good Boy (1.5 stars)
  5. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (1.5 stars)
  6. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1.5 stars)
  7. Once Upon A Time In Mexico (1.5 stars)
  8. Bad Boys II (1.5 stars)

The two performances that will stick with me most from 2004 are Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead, and Ben Stiller in Dodgeball. Both are displays of sheer comic genius. David Carradine’s portrayal of Bill in Kill Bill, Vol 2, was also very well done, especially in the way he underplayed Bill’s depths, and his fundamental tragedy.

Curiously, there isn’t much in 2005 that I’m explicitly looking forward to. I definitely want to catch Ocean’s 12, Ray, and Million Dollar Baby when they open over here, and I suppose I’ll end up seeing the new Star Wars thing, too, but there’s nothing big that’s really got me by the balls right now. With 155 films still backed up in my ScreenSelect queue, though, I don’t think I’ll be running out of viewing material any time soon.