2006 in review: Films

My favourite film of the year: The PrestigeI only saw 58 films in 2006. This is not a particularly good count, especially considering I have a subscription to LoveFilm which provides more back catalogue than any human can reasonably handle. (As a mater of fact, of the 58 films, only 19 were LoveFilm rentals. And I’m paying £9.95 a month for this service. Although I love the idea of having 40,000 films on tap, this isn’t exactly giving me enormous value for money. I think it’s time to re-assess my subscription package.) I also haven’t been keeping up-to-date with my quick reviews, although I have made sure at least to rate everything I’ve seen.

This leaves me feeling remarkably unqualified to comment on the “best” of 2006, because I’ve missed so many films that I know would have been totally awesome. So I’ll just point out a few really good ones:

  • The Prestige
    Suspenseful story of obsession, revenge, and deception between a pair of magicians in 19th century London. If you’re put off by the apparent historical setting (period pieces are not normally to my taste), don’t be afraid of this one, because you can actually see it as science fiction. The performances are nothing short of magnificent.
  • Harsh Times
    Another amazing performance by Christian Bale. I found his transformation from Home Counties to Homeboy somewhat disconcerting for the first few minutes of the film, but after that he totally owned the screen, giving a tightly contained portrayal of an Iraq War veteran failing to come to terms with life as a civilian.
  • Holly
    I saw this at the Edinburgh Film Festival with Richard of Filmstalker (your first stop for quality movie news), and was blown away. It’s a harrowing tale of ex-pat antiquities dealer Patrick (Ron Livingston) who meets a child prostitute and becomes obsessed with the idea of saving her. You’ll be hard-pressed to actually find this film anywhere, but it’s definitely worth making the effort to catch it if you can. Read Richard’s review.
  • Zathura
    Not an exceptionally original story, just a perfectly paced family adventure film.
  • Mission: Impossible III
    Again, not especially original, just a perfectly executed action blockbuster. Great set pieces, and edge-of-the-seat tension. Loved it.
  • Syriana
    Complex political drama that crawls all over the corruption that surrounds middle-east politics and the oil trade. Difficult to watch, but important to have done so.

Remarkably, I didn’t rate any films lower than 2 stars (“disappointing”) this year. Normally there are at least a couple of outright stinkers. The greatest disappointment was Superman Returns, which I felt was dull and emotionally aimless. I have higher expectations of superhero films, and especially of Bryan Singer.

The worst film I saw all year was probably Tenacious D: The Pick Of Destiny, but I didn’t have terribly high hopes for it in the first place. Which means that rating it as “disappointing” weighs disproportionately strongly.

My favourite movie people of the year are Christian Bale (for Harsh Times and The Prestige) and George Clooney (for Syriana and Good Night, And Good Luck). Christopher Nolan also gets awesomeness points for putting out yet another film that is going to hit my all-time favourites list.

I haven’t really been keeping up with my movie news, but there are a few films that I am excited about for 2007:

So, is there anything I’ve missed?

2006 in review: Radio Sunpig

Keeping up my young but enthusiastic tradition of an annual compilation of what I’ve been listening to over the last year, I hereby present Radio Sunpig 2006. As usual, not all of the tracks were released this year, but 2006 was when I heard them first.

My main goal in putting together the compilation was to create a CD-sized mix that would sound great in a particular order, so the tracks here aren’t necessarily my favourite songs from any given album. There are even some artists that don’t feature at all because I couldn’t find the right space for them. I’ll try to make sure they’re represented when I do my favourite albums of the year in the next day or two. (Update: now available at 2006 in review: music.)

(Also, I’m not nearly as happy with the CD cover I made this year. What you see below is the third iteration, after I decided to fall back on some design elements that have worked out well enough on the site already.)

Radio Sunpig 2006: the cover

  1. Black Star – 8th Light (Astronomy)

    Black Star was a collaboration between Mos Def and Talib Kweli on the mic, and DJ Hi-Tek. Just like with Ash’s “Orpheus” last year, I knew this was going to be the first track of Radio Sunpig this year. The cool beats and smooth grooves set the tone for a compilation that is (relatively) laid back.
  2. Gomez – See The World
    A gorgeous song about seizing the day, and loving life. It never (well, rarely) fails to lift me out of a grumpy mood.
  3. The New Pornographers – These Are The Fables
    I tend to fall in love with the voice of one female vocalist each year, and this time round it’s Neko Case. This is perhaps not my favourite song of hers, but it’s a deliciously intriguing track nevertheless.
  4. Barenaked Ladies – Take It Back
    The Barenaked Ladies were back on top form this year with their album Barenaked Ladies Are Me. This track shows them blending politics with a sweet sing-along melody. Think of all the lives saved by plastic knives, indeed.
  5. L.E.O – Ya Had Me Goin’
    L.E.O. is a project by Bleu, and is a kind of tribute to the musical influences of Jeff Lynne and E.L.O. The rest of the album (Alpacas Orgling) is so-so, but this track is right up there with the best Jeff Lynne ever made.
  6. Belle And Sebastian – For The Price of a Cup Of Tea
    For me, this song will forever be associated with cleaning our bathroom. Don’t ask.
  7. Boysetsfire – Requiem
    This is Alex’s favourite song right now. He loves the superb rock drum opening. So do I. This is one of the more mainstream tracks from the album The Misery Index: Notes From The Plague Years, and although I love their more hard-core offerings, this is probably going to see more long-term play in the years to come.
  8. Jay-Z and Linkin Park – Encore/Numb
    Heard this for the first time on the soundtrack of Miami Vice, and loved it straight away. They’ve taken the best bits of both original tracks and mashed them together with a subtle and slightly menacing keyboard line.
  9. The White Stripes – As Ugly As I Seem
    Guitar. Bongos. Jack White’s vocals. Don’t understand what the song is about, but it’s great to listen to anyway.
  10. Frou Frou – Hear Me Out
    Frou Frou was a collaboration between Imogen Heap and producer Guy Sigsworth. This is a fine example of the sweet electronic pop they made together.
  11. Tragically Hip – Nautical Disaster
    Alan dosed me up on the Hip this year, but not soon enough for me to catch them on their UK tour. Bastard.
  12. Supergrass – Coffee In the Pot
  13. The Flaming Lips – The W.A.N.D
    I love it when the Flaming Lips go totally over the top with a track, but still manage to keep it all together: tumbling drum loops, burning guitars, vocal distortions and nonsensical mystic-rock lyrics. Awesome.
  14. Ghostface Killah (feat. Ne-Yo) – Back Like That
    I’m highly ambivalent about this track. One the one hand, it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard this year, with stunningly vivid, evocative, and emotional lyrics. On the other hand, those lyrics are written from the perspective of Ghostface’s gangsta persona, and are profoundly violent and misogynistic. I have a hard time loving the song while disapproving of its actual content.
  15. Muse – Map Of The Problematique
    I like it when Muse rock hard. This is one of the overlooked tracks on their album Black Holes and Revelations, but one of my favourites.
  16. Fischerspooner – Get Confused
    I almost overlooked this one because it’s from one of the first albums I listened to this year. Still love it, though.
  17. The New Pornographers – Use It
    I came by the New Pornographers relatively late in the year–just a week before putting together this compilation, in fact–and the fact that this is the second song of theirs on here says volumes about how much I love their album Twin Cinemas. However, after further listening, there are several other tracks that I now prefer to this one. Still, it’s a terrific power-pop stomping tune, though, and I’m not disappointed at all with its place in the mix here.
  18. Barenaked Ladies – Another Spin
    I don’t normally like Kevin Hearn‘s vocals on BNL songs, but they are much stronger than normal here–to the point where this has become one of my favourite tracks of the album. (It’s only on the “deluxe” extended edition though.)

Virtual worlds

Play MoneyI started reading Julian Dibbell’s “Play Money” blog back in 2003, probably as a result of a pointer from Edge magazine. It was a chronicle of his attempt to make real money from his trading activities in a virtual world–primarily the on-line role-playing game Ultima Online. He had originally set himself the challenge of making more money from trading than from his work as a writer, but he adjusted his goals downwards as the year progressed. He concluded his experiment in April 2004, and in his final month of trading managed to clear just under $4,000 in profit. That’s 4,000 real-world dollars.

In fact, this kind of money isn’t even unusual these days: Second Life now boasts its first millionaire (with a few caveats). The more interesting matter is how it is possible to make money in a virtual world at all. If you’re not plugged into the buzz surrounding them, it’s easy to see Second Life as an overgrown chat room, and World of Warcraft and its ilk as mere hack-and-slash fantasy games. Sure, the people who run the worlds can make money by charging monthly subscriptions, but how do the participants do it?

In simple terms, people are willing to pay to acquire goods they don’t have enough time (or skills) to build themselves. It’s just that in the case of virtual worlds, the goods have no physical substance. But that doesn’t make them any less real to the people who use them day in, day out in these electronic communities.

With his Play Money book, Julian Dibbell provides the background behind the blog. It’s uncomfortable reading in places. His game time and trading become an obsession, and although he says that they weren’t the cause of it, they certainly weren’t helping out when his marriage started to break up. But as well as the personal aspects, he also digs deeper into the economics of virtual worlds, and the sometimes cut-throat businesses that are growing up to service the demands of their inhabitants.

I have to admit to being endlessly fascinated by this, and the issues that flow from it. For example, there are figures that suggest that the average inhabitant of Second Life consumes roughly much power as a Brazilian. These numbers are heavily debated, but the fact is that a virtual person has a carbon footprint–a measurable effect–in the real world. And of course, as soon as real money starts to flow, the tax man is not far behind.

Beyond these immediate implications, there are also some enormous long-term issues to consider. Some of these worlds have millions of inhabitants. The people there are building houses, forming communities, participating in great deeds, and creating distinct cultures. What happens when the next big thing comes along, and people start to jump ship? What happens to the remnants of these civilizations? Is it important from a cultural and anthropological perspective to preserve what we can of these worlds?

World of WarcraftThe biggest online worlds may seem well-developed compared to their predecessors, but they are in still in their infancy with regard to user interaction and freedom of action. Despite being larger than any MMORPG before it, it is likely that World of Warcraft will have its number one spot taken from it by something bigger and better. But it’s possible that it, or one of the many others out there will stay ahead of the fickle curve of consumer demand, and will grow and evolve over the course of years and even decades.

And this is really interesting. Virtual worlds aren’t going away, and they are only going to get bigger and more populous. Business are opening offices in Second Life. If you catch the right world, and make the right investments (my guess would be virtual real estate), you may find yourself owning a tremendously valuable piece of some future metropolis.

I have created an avatar in Second Life, but I haven’t done much with him. I have a copy of WoW sitting on my desk, but I haven’t signed up for an account yet. Self-knowledge tells me that I could quite easily spend an unhealthy amount of time in these worlds, and right now I’m finding little enough time in my life for sleep as it is. But I also know that I immensely enjoy the total immersion of a good RPG, and despite the poor experience I had with Everquest a few years ago, I can see myself dipping my toes in the water again fairly soon. The possibilities are just too intriguing to ignore.