There is to be a General Election in the UK in 5 weeks’ time, and it could be the most complicated vote and aftermath in a long time, something that makes my misplaced optimism of 2010 look even more naïve.

It seems likely that no one party will command a majority of seats, just like in 2010. But since 2010 there have been two significant shifts in the electoral landscape, namely the (in my mind, more-than-slightly depressing) rise of UKIP and the astonishing surge away from Labour towards the SNP in Scotland. Add those to the grim slow-death of the Liberal Democrats since their unholy deal with David Cameron’s minority Conservative Government, and you have a mess, where even broadly ideological coalitions will struggle to govern.

UK election 2015 power share forecasts

See? Simples..!

No points for second place…

I’ve railed before about how my vote has failed to count in 5 out of 6 previous General Elections. In fact, if I’m being all Russell Brand about this, it probably didn’t really matter in the other one either, as the winning party won a massive majority anyway.

When I’ve voted for a ‘losing’ candidate, he (and it has always been a man) has always gained between 29% – 36% of the votes. That’s certainly a long way from winning, but it’s not insignificant. In all of these constituencies and elections, the winning party has barely won an overall majority, and at least a quarter of the electorate (usually more than 1/3) didn’t vote.

The Electoral Reform Group have long campaigned against this system, where so-called safe seats make up almost 60% of the entire House of Commons. But asking MPs and parties who rely on this for most of their power and influence is like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Really… Brian May?

And so, in the midst of this confusion and godawful 24/7 reporting that I won’t even go into (remember: just 5 more weeks…), I may have found a most unlikely new political beacon.

Dr Brian May, astronomer, badger-lover, and one of my musical heroes since I was about 8 years old, has launched a new political website and grass-roots campaign. In all honesty, it’s a bit of a mish-mash of his different concerns, but he’s speaking from the heart, and putting some of his money where his mouth is.

I like quite a bit of it, I recognise and connect with its optimism and desire for something better.  I admire its activism. Most of all, he’s (nearly) convinced me that there is a potential to shake the ‘safe seat’ system, even just a little bit.

In all of the safe seats where I’ve voted over the past 28 years, at least 28% of the electorate didn’t vote, which was (usually considerably) more than the entrenched majority at the polls. It’s often the case that people don’t vote because, like me, they’re depressed / annoyed / apathetic at the whole process; either because they knew it wouldn’t affect the result (either as a winner or loser). Well, I Reckon that the more people think and act like that, the more it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My Cotswolds constituency has elected a Conservative (or equivalent) candidate since its creation in 1918. At the last election the sitting MP won a majority of around 20,000 votes. But more than 24,000 people didn’t turn out. Now I don’t think for a moment that those people would all vote the same way, but I’d wager they could make things a bit closer.

Make it count. Make them count you.

I shall be voting for Paul Hodgkinson on 7th May. I’m no fan of the path taken by his party since the last election, but I’m even less of a fan of the Conservatives, and the Labour Party have seen fit to abdicate responsibility for our constituency by selecting a candidate who has never lived in the constituency (and it seems has barely visited it until recently). It’s as if they can’t be bothered, and seems either complacent or patronising at best. I hope and trust that the Labour candidate is a good man, but why should I vote for him on purely party-political lines?

I Reckon we should all vote. Vote tactically if you want to, spoil your ballot if you want to. But the only sure way to ensure your vote even begins to matter, even starts to count just a little bit, is to actually make your vote be counted, by turning up on 7th May and making some kind of mark. It might not change the result – in fact, it probably won’t. But I Reckon our inactivity breeds complacency and apathy among our politicians, and we deserve better.

If this is a mid-life crisis, I’m quite enjoying it.

I took part in my first Obstacle Course Race (OCR) in 2013, as a group of colleagues ran the Tough Mudder event. I surprised myself by how much I liked it, so did it again last year, but a combination of TM’s openly-relentless commercialism and injuring my foot just 3 miles into the 12 mile run left me somewhat deflated.

So I pledged to renew my enthusiasm and entered a ‘smaller’ event (there are tons to choose from all over the UK), which had received excellent reviews, and looked quite a lot like Tough Mudder, but without quite so much running, and lots more obstacles. I tried to corral a team of colleagues, but through a toxic combination of inertia, personal circumstances, illness and plain laziness I arrived at the RockSolid Race just outside Exeter last weekend, running solo…

RockSolidRace Exeter 2015

That’s what I’m going for…

Nobody does #rocksolidrace alone…

I was more than a bit nervous beforehand, as I struggle on obstacles like Monkey Bars and the 8-foot walls. But the RSR team have a great social media style which is a million miles away from the testosterone-fuelled corporate behemoth of Tough Mudder (more of which later). This event is friendly, it seems organised for its runners.

RockSolidRace Exeter 2015 Twitter

And of course they’re right. Around the course people help each other (like in TM) over things and through things. At every 6/8-foot wall around the course, the volunteer marshals were brilliant, all chipping in to give people a boost up. The final wall came about 3/4 of the way through, so everyone is knackered when they reach it, but the lady manning the obstacle (surely no more than 5’3″ herself) cried

No one walks around my wall…!

…and insisted on giving a boost to anyone and everyone who needed it, no matter what their size.

The clue’s in the name…

If I wanted to run 12 miles around a muddy wood, I could do that quite easily close to home. But I don’t, I want obstacles, and the 10km RSR course included 38 obstacles, which I Reckon is a great ratio. I was running on the 2nd day of the event, meaning there’s a lot more mud. 1,200 people have churned up the tracks already, so what was simply a steep hill on Saturday becomes a treacherous slide on Sunday. And I love it that way. The RSR obstacles are a brilliant mix of natural terrain, ‘created’ terrain and man-made monsters.

RockSolidRace Exeter 2015 Course Map

OK, so this is really small. What it should label is MUD, HILLS, COLD WATER, and STUFF TO CLIMB OVER or THROUGH

There were huge piles of hay bales, tyres or logs, walls and A-Frames, tunnels, cargo nets, logs to carry, and a cruelly-twisted uphill sack race, cunning in its simplicity but agony on the legs.


Best of all, there was a lot of mud and a lot of water. Our first taste (literally) of the former came early in the race (#6 on the map above, innocuously titled “River Run”). I’d assume this meant splashing through a stream, or something. When I reached the bank there was carnage. To reach the stream we had to cross a small ‘pool’, maybe 4m wide, but the ‘pool’ was in fact a sticky swamp, full of waist-deep, thick, sucking mud. How my trainers stayed on I’m not sure. This is probably the closest to drowning in quicksand I hope to experience. I ended slithering across the surface like a worm, until I got hauled out by someone standing on firmer ground. Later we crawled through muddy pools where the water was thick with mud and weeds, and it did not smell pretty.

It’s March and I’m running knee-deep up a river, but at least the water is clean…!

Did I mention how cold the water is in March? Blimey. I was grateful for the chance to run between obstacles to get my circulation going. The course had most of the mud in the first half, and most of the ‘cleaner’ water later, but there was a lot of this too. Crossing a lake via huge unstable ‘stepping stones’, wading through chest-deep water, a skip full of ice-chips, more (clean) streams to run and crawl through, a fantastic slide into another lake, followed instantly by a 12-foot leap into the other side of the same lake. It was relentless but brilliant.

Rocksolidrace Exeter 2015

Bruised but not broken at the finish…

By muddy runners for muddy runners…

I Reckon RockSolidRace is a far better event than Tough Mudder. It has more, and more varied obstacles. It doesn’t have some kind of overweaning adolescent need to promote its Toughness or Bigness or Whatever three times a day. It feels closer and smaller (because it is), but best of all, is the feeling while you’re there, at the event, that the race is organised by runners for the people taking part. A few comparisons…

  • I booked this 3 months in advance, paying £46. To enter the TM August event today would cost me £95 + £7 booking fee.
  • RSR charges £5 for carparking, while TM charges £10 (or even more in 2015)
  • The car park at RSR is a couple of minutes from the event, unlike my 2 experiences at TM where we were at least 15 minutes away
  • Bag drop is just £1 with staff on hand to supervise and secure your belongings, carkeys etc. TM cost £3 and felt much more like a free-for-all
  • Spectators can see RSR for free and many seemed to bring their own picnics. This year at TM spectators have to pay £10 each (+ booking fee), or £20 if you turn up on the day, and last year were actively discouraged from bringing their own food
  • RSR offers free hot showers and decent changing facilities. This is a complete God-send…
  • One of RSR’s sponsors, Tideford Organics, gave out delicious free soup for all the runners afterwards. Other food was available for less than £7…
  • The bar stocked ale, lager and cider (unlike TM which was restricted to sponsors’ brands) and cost £2-3.50 , not £5 for an alcoholic ginger beer.
  • I like the finishing token better…
RockSolidRace dogtags

Better than an orange headband…

TM seems to have examined every opportunity, every moment to charge money/generate revenue, and gone ahead. I’m sure this makes them very successful, but I Reckon it doesn’t make for a great experience. Last time left me with a slightly sour taste in my mouth, and not just from the mud.

I loved my first RockSolid Race, and I really hope to be back next year. If you’re thinking of giving Obstacle Course racing a go, definitely consider this one. In fact, if you only want to try one event, definitely go Rock Solid.

Apparently it’s a rite of passage to realise that your parents aren’t immortal. Apparently my generation are the first to be likely to have to care for both children and parents. Apparently, such is the parlous state of Western Societies’ health, that my daughters’ generation may be the first to have a lower life expectancy than their parents, or at least to spend many years living in ill-health.

The last few weeks have brought home a few hard realities for me, all centred around the health of three people.

In January my Father had his cancerous bladder removed, and it has been a long and tortuous recovery so far. We were told in advance that it would be so, but the details of this, the complications that are actually fairly common, and the debilitating indignities have taken us all by surprise. It’s been more than a little frightening and humbling to experience how we’ve all had to realign expectations and what constitutes a good day.

Nevertheless, he is recovering and has remained remarkably and resiliently positive, despite the daily steps forward and back, the 15lbs weight-loss that doesn’t want to go back on, the painfully slow healing process. And the recent news that the cancer may have already escaped beyond the bladder.

Dad has had heart bypass surgery around 20 years ago, not to mention a pacemaker fitted only last year, yet until the operation he was still swimming 4-5 days a week. Mum has had breast cancer but been in remission for many years, so we’re no strangers to this sort of thing. But maybe because I’m older now, with children; wiser and more attentive, more aware of others, it has mattered more. But it has brought us closer.

Around the same time a younger work colleague of mine has been off sick, with a still-largely-undiagnosed problem which causes him to vomit, often and repeatedly, at almost any time of day or night. He too has lost weight, been unable to work and has had little or no resolution thus far. For a young guy in his 20s these must be grim times, and he’s such a social, inspiring and outgoing character that his ongoing isolation must be tough. He’s sorely missed in the office, and we all wish him well.

Then last week, a dear friend in her early 40s was diagnosed with breast cancer, and faces 5 months of chemotherapy starting any day soon. We enjoyed a victorious night at a Quiz Night only a few weeks ago.

What the bollocks is going on? Have I been shielded from this up to now, have I been lucky? Or was I simply in denial when Mum & Dad were ill before?

This won’t be the most coherent post on this blog, because I’m not done processing it all. But I Reckon I can say this much; be healthy, eat healthily, exercise. Do what you can to reduce risks and improve your chances. Love your friends and family. Don’t put off saying what you should be saying to them, or making time to spend time with them. Your people are the most important things in your life. Make sure they know it.

 I Reckon the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is a bona fide National Treasure, and something we in the UK should treasure. It’s one of the foremost theatre companies in the world, with some of the most fantastic performers, and indeed world-class expertise in every technical department.

Rachel and I have a long history with the RSC from our time living in Cheltenham in our DINKY years, with dual incomes and proximity to enable us to got several times a year. We saw Toby Stephens in a bloody Coriolanus, Nigel Hawthorne in his final stage role as King Lear,  and (perhaps best of all) a stunning Othello starring a 25-year-old Ray Fearon and Richard McCabe as a quite brilliant Iago. For this last show we were in the front of the stalls (see what I mean about dual incomes!) and the tension was unbelieveable…

Our daughters have already had some experience of The Bard, seeing a number of open-air summertime productions (usually comedies), as well as a couple of cinematic adaptations, where they recognised a few of the Harry Potter casts… but last month we took them to Stratford to see their first theatrical production (Much Ado about Nothing).

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre has been completely revamped in the last few years, to provide a more immersive audience experience, as the stage is surrounded on three sides by the stalls, with the circle and balcony looking down on the stage from much closer quarters than before.

We’ve been put off seeing shows in London in recent times, as the tickets (especially at weekends or in school holidays when we can actually attend) are prohibitively expensive; usually close to £200 for the four of us, excluding the costs of travel, snacks, programmes, meals etc.  But here we took a chance and booked seats in the stalls that were billed as ‘restricted view’. Children only pay half price (a fantastic policy, bravo RSC!), and so the full cost of our four seats came to just £45.

RSC Stalls Seats Restricted View 2015

So, not a VERY restricted view…

The production was terrific, set in December 1918, with the young men of the play mainly just returned from war and the women mainly nurses in a convalescent hospital. The sets and production design were terrific, and there were several musical interludes that were beautifully performed. We all loved it.

Earlier in the same day Eleanor (our younger daughter, aged 9) attended a workshop for schoolchildren. Called “A Play in a Day”, it claimed to enable the children (a group of around 20, all aged 8-10) to tackle a Shakespeare play between 10am-4pm, culminating in a short performance to which all the parents were invited.

We knew in advance they were going to look at The Merchant of Venice. I had studied this for ‘O’ Level at school (30 years ago!), but we were more than a bit apprehensive about how they would approach the 17th Century’s anti-Semitism…

…and it transpired that they addressed it head-on. Rather than performing the whole play, they looked at excerpts from three scenes, all fundamental to the ‘pound of flesh‘ storyline.

First, they portrayed the Venetian marketplace, the Rialto, with half the group acting as Shylock while the others crowd around him, calling him names, spitting and abusing him.

Next, we saw the animosity on both sides as Shylock set the cruel terms of his loan, while Antonio and the Christians continued to scorn Shylock.
Then we saw the Trial, where Portia pleads for mercy. Shylock refuses and demands his terms, only to be denied any of that gentle rain from heaven by the Christians, as he is humiliated, stripped of his wealth and forced to renounce his religion.

This was all really well done, with the children reading lines very clearly, and based on Eleanor’s enthusiastic feedback they’d obviously discussed the complexities of bullying and racism. This was a full-day workshop and yet only cost £20 (cheaper than any child-minding service I can think of!). Fabulous.

Of course the RSC isn’t all about The Bard. We first saw the outstanding (and award-winning) Matilda! at The Other Place theatre in December 2010, since when it has transferred to London, Broadway and Australia.

I look forward to the next time I step inside the RST, possibly weighed down with the hassles and stresses of modern life, and I shall try to remember the song of Balthasar from Much Ado About Nothing…

Then sigh not so, but let them go and be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe into Hey, nonny nonny.

For just over a year I’ve been a volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Friends campaign, which seeks to change attitudes, perceptions and behaviours in society towards the 850,000 people currently living with dementia in the UK. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Last week I was immensely privileged and proud to attend a screening of the film Still Alice at 10 Downing Street along with 40-odd other volunteers and Alzheimer’s Society staff, where we also met the star of the film, Julianne Moore. I Reckon Still Alice is one of the most important films of recent times, and her performance perhaps the most authentic performance I’ve seen on-screen.

Still Alice is based on a novel by Lisa Genova and tells the story of a 50-year-old linguistics professor. She’s healthy, wealthy and wise. She has a close and loving family. She is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.

SPOILER ALERT: much as I want you to read on, I’d much prefer you to watch the film spoiler-free. If you’re thinking of seeing the film, please do that first… thanks.

Still Alice movie Julianne Moore Alec Baldwin

It’s not just forgetting where you left your keys…

Julianne Moore spoke to us in Downing Street and has spoken subsequently in interviews about how all her behaviours and events portrayed in the film came directly from the stories told to her by families living with dementia, and it certainly feels that way.

The indignities and horrors that Alice has to face escalate by degrees from lapsing on a word during a lecture to feeling lost while running through the campus where she teaches, from forgetting the bread pudding recipe she makes every Christmas to being unable to find the bathroom in her family’s holiday beach house.

At first she’s at least partly conscious of what’s happening to her, even if she can’t understand it. But what we knew as Alice gradually retreats and shrinks, mostly imperceptibly and over time, but in a way that strikes us like a hammer in a tremendous and upsetting scene towards the end of the film.

Premature Grief

I’ve heard dementia described as a prolonged and ‘premature’ grieving experience, both for the person living with the disease, but also and especially for their carers and family. Just as the symptoms and progress of dementia are unique to each individual, it affects those carers and family members differently. Everybody loses something.

Alice’s husband (brilliantly played by Alec Baldwin) wants to support and help her, but is both caught up in his own career as well as feeling helpless to actually make a difference. Her elder daughter seems almost offended by it, as if it obstructs her own aspirations for their family. It’s the younger daughter, Lydia, who comes to the fore and deals with the loss most humanely.

Lydia is played wonderfully by Kristen Stewart. Her relationship with her mother Alice is utterly believable, from early arguments over her choice of career to the way she takes later responsibility for caring for Alice when her Father and older siblings seem unable or unwilling. She suffers some of the greatest shocks but bears them with admirable calm and sensitivity. Alice unwittingly reads Lydia’s diary and ‘innocently’ lets it slip later, but it’s clear that she doesn’t understand this betrayal, and Lydia has to stifle her upset in silence, realising that chastising Alice would help no-one. Months later, Lydia takes a leading role in a Chekhov play, but her triumph is deflated in a heartbreaking instant as her mother fails to recognise her after the performance.

It’s in the eyes…

I can’t praise Julianne Moore’s performance enough: it’s astonishing. Over 90 minutes of film she demonstrates the savage diminishing of her mind through mostly silent expressions, flickering glances and subtle gestures. At the start she is a highly functioning, very conscious and intelligent woman. When Alice first tells her husband she is filled with rage, screaming at the world in pain and frustration. Then she keeps careful track of her symptoms, playing memory games in the kitchen and recording important questions into her phone (what is the month of your birthday, what is your eldest daughter’s name). She hatches a deeply upsetting plan, recording a message to herself for when she can no longer answer these questions, that she should go to her bedroom drawers and take a bottle of pills…

this is very important… do not tell anyone what you are doing

Late in the film she accidentally stumbles upon the message, and it’s only then that we fully realise how far Alice has ‘gone’ from the start of the film. Her face, speech, movements are all fundamentally changed, diminished, and it’s a staggering feat of performance that we barely noticed the full scope of that before.

Not suffering, but struggling…

I Reckon there’s only one false scene in the film, which comes when Alice gives a public speech about living with dementia. We’re aware of her previous existence as a lecturer, and how precarious and difficult this task has become. So she and we both enter the scene with apprehension, and then the directors ramp this up by having her speech fall to the floor, sheets scattering. But somehow they are all collected in the correct order, and she completes the speech (The Art of Losing) in triumph. This felt hollow to me; it felt like this was the film’s BIG MESSAGE SCENE, and this is SO IMPORTANT that it couldn’t be jeopardised. That’s fair enough, but then don’t taunt the audience with a cheap trick to heighten the tension if you’re then going to ignore the consequences.

It’s about love…

I Reckon this film is so important because it truly dramatizes and depicts a human journey of living with dementia. It’s not exploitative or sentimental, there’s no tragic ending or miracle cure. But it shows how the most important aspect of everything, of humanity, is love. Alice’s childhood photos come alive with the memories of her (long-since-dead) teenage sister, she takes comfort in familiar surroundings – her kitchen, the beach.

I dreamed we were there. The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air, and attained the outer rim, the ozone, which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening. But I saw something that only I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things: Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired. Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.

In the beautiful final scene, Lydia reads this speech from her newest play Angels in America, written in rich prose with deep and complex imagery, to which Alice smiles and responds, barely managing a murmur, “it’s about love”. And it is, and so is Still Alice.

I Reckon everyone should see this film, because the number of people living with dementia will double in the next generation, and it’s important to understand what families living with dementia really undergo and feel, and how it is possible to live well with love in the moment. There is no cure yet, but there is still a massive stigma around this (and other) mental illnesses. If Still Alice can help open our society’s eyes a little wider, reduce the stigma by just a little, and help people live with love and kindness a little more, it will truly be an important work, and one for which we should all give thanks.

During my Best Man’s speech at my brother’s wedding, I referred to a selfie he had taken as a teenager (always ahead of his time!), in which the album cover of Peter Gabriel’s ‘So’ is clearly visible, remarking that this was an almost compulsory purchase for any intellectual, white, middle-class teenage boy in the late 1980s. Of course I had a copy: I was there right from the start.

Peter Gabriel So Album

So is Peter Gabriel’s most commercial album, and propelled him from the arthouse audience he had enjoyed since leaving Genesis into the mainstream, driven by stunningly inventive videos and the heyday of MTV. As a white middle-class angsty teenager, it was very important to me in the late 1980s, and I still love it today.

I come to you, defences down, with the trust of a child…

For all its commercial gloss, slick songwriting and laser-sharp production from Daniel Lanois, So is an intensely intimate album. The opening track, Red Rain, recounts a vivid dream to the constant shimmering of cymbals and restless, always moving drumbeats. By the end of the song, the vocals collapse as if exhausted.

The insistent rhythms of percussion and bass are important throughout the album, driven by Manu Katché’s fabulous work, creating a tone that’s sometimes mystical (Mercy Street), sometimes unsettling (That Voice Again), sometimes soothing, like resting on a partner’s chest listening to their heartbeat (Don’t Give Up)…

This is the new stuff…

Sledgehammer is one of the most iconic songs of the 1980s. Its groundbreaking video featured fabulous stop-motion animation from the then-fledgling Aardman Studios and became the most-played video ever on MTV. It’s a massive departure from Gabriel’s earlier singles, a joyous, innuendo-laden homage to Otis Redding that opens with bamboo flutes but is dominated by an in-your-face horn section. This ends with a bang, not a whimper. Perhaps less successful, Big Time also takes an unapologetically straightforward approach to satirising Gabriel’s own success, although it feature terrific guitar work from Nile Rodgers.

We’re proud of who you are…

Don’t Give Up follows Sledgehammer on the album, and couldn’t be more different. From an assertion of sexual machismo, we’re brought down to earth in this limpid duet between Gabriel and Kate Bush. Apparently inspired by Dorothea Lange’s photos of a woman and her family during the Great Depression of the 1930s, this is less a traditional duet and more a conversation between a man and a woman. He’s been battered by unemployment and the recession of the 1980s, and clinging on by his fingernails.

Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother Don't Give Up Peter Gabriel

Kate Bush is simply perfect in this song, providing the counterpoint to Gabriels’ damaged masculinity. Just  a couple of years later she’d write and sing (for me) one of the greatest and most heart-wrenching songs about femininity, This Woman’s Work.

Wear your inside out…

Amongst the singles, there’s still the more artsy, eclectic songs, of which Mercy Street is clearly my favourite. Breathy vocals, a throbbing bass and ethereal Fairlight sampling make this a thing of great beauty. We do What We’re Told and This is the Picture are more experiments in tone than anything else. They always felt like a slightly weak end to the album to me, a judgement I’ve only slightly amended with time.

But whichever way I go, I come back to the place you are…

On the original (vinyl) album In Your Eyes was the first song on side 2, even though Gabriel wanted it to close the album. Apparently this was because its heavy bass rhythms could cause the needle to jump in the tighter grooves in the centre of a disc (historic trivia that you young kids won’t understand…!).

Perhaps that contributed to my underwhelming sensation as the album ended, because I Reckon that In Your Eyes is one of the best love songs ever written, and a brilliant end to any collection of songs. It’s a brilliant consolidation of everything I like about So: a terrifically catchy chorus, fabulous percussion and rhythms throughout, wonderful vocals from Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour, and lyrics that never fail to move me, despite how familiar they have become to me since I first heard them as an angsty teen in 1986.

Love, I get so lost sometimes.
Days pass, and this emptiness fills my heart.
When I want to run away, I drive off in my car
But whichever way I go I come back to the place you are…

Now I look back on 2014, it was a relatively quiet year for me and movies. Or at least, new movies. By my count there were fewer than 40 films I saw for the first time, perhaps the lowest total for a while. And without further ado, here are those I enjoyed most…


This is terrific fun – one of the few found-footage genre films that actually works. A student film team hunting for a bear poacher whom no-one wants to talk about stumble upon a Government conspiracy that becomes all too real. They discover a fabulously grizzled, unpleasant, anti-social troll hunter, brilliant played from start to finish, and the mythology of the trolls is fabulous. There are bridges to cross, Christians in trouble, goats left as bait, and big trouble around sunrise.


Amour movie Emanuelle Riva

An elderly couple face their last days together. Georges thinks of nothing and no-one but his ailing wife Anne as she succumbs to a series of shattering strokes. Michael Haneke makes films I hugely admire, even if I don’t often ‘enjoy’ them. Here he depicts (in often uncomfortable openness) the day-to-day behaviours and unconditional love that Georges continues to lavish upon Anne, in all her frailty. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva are simply astonishing in every scene, and her performance especially is heartbreaking as she recognises the savagery of her condition and the indignities it’s causing them both. This left me with a long-lasting and complex mixture of both sadness (the depressing end of life, suffering and private pain) and happiness (the memories of two lives shared completely).

The Lego Movie

It is awesome. Its omission from the Oscar nominations for Best Animated Film is as inexplicable as it is stupid.

Gravity / 12 Years a Slave

It makes almost no sense to group these two films together, except that I saw them in the same week, so wrote about them together. They’re both brilliant in their different ways, and they have a lot in common.

Singin’ in the Rain

Singin' in the rain Gene Kelly Donald O'Connor Debbie Reynolds Good Morning

I’m almost ashamed that it’s taken me this long to experience the wonderful 100 minutes of Singin’ in the Rain, which is such a joy throughout that I Reckon the famous title song is probably only the 4th best musical sequence in the film. Make ’em Laugh is a breathtaking triumph of physical comedy from Donald O’Connor, Good Morning is fabulous and the ‘Broadway Melody‘ is a riot of Technicolor, surely influenced by The Red Shoes just a few years before.

This film has influenced everything that followed it, from Family Guy to The Muppets to, well, everything. It revels in the joy and excitement of movement, song and dance to such an extent I felt glad to be alive afterwards. An all-time classic.

Stop at Nothing: the Lance Armstrong Story

When I first read “It’s not about the bike” I was struck by how partial Lance Armstrong’s storytelling was. He kept a near psychopathic control over his own narrative, and Alex Holmes’ excellent film brings this to life with compelling clarity. It makes no apology for showing us how great and how driven Armstrong was as a neo-pro young rider. He was not ‘made’ by his cancer: he was already there, mostly fully formed. But his cancer both fuelled and enabled his resurrection and ascension to an exalted position where he was able to look the world in the eye and lie without any self-doubt, again and again. This is a strongly told tale that is definitely worth your time, even if you’re not a sports fan. Like SENNA, it’s a brilliant piece of human drama.


zombieland rules

I loved this. It’s just a bloody good time, in all sorts of ways. There’s gore and guts aplenty, two feisty female characters who give even better than they get, and two great co-leads in Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson.

I loved the Rules to survive a Zombie Apocalypse, and Harrelson’s quest for a Twinkie bar. Most of all, it features perhaps the best cameo performance ever seen on screen. I laughed out loud several times in just a few minutes…

Killer Joe

Killer Joe movie poster

Based on my last few months’ viewing alone, I should definitely watch True Detective. Matthew McConaughey  is transformed here from his open-shirted romcom days into Joe Cooper, a very, very bad man. This film has more than a few troubles, not least some extraordinarily uncomfortable scenes where Joe Cooper does Very, Very Bad Things, and the family he’s working for (against?) are often so despicable and stupid that I found myself rooting for him, as though he’s the hero. That’s how twisted this gets…


Look! It’s Woody Harrelson again, also playing a very, very bad cop. His performance is fearless in an often impressionistic and sparse screenplay, interspersed with sequences of almost grotesque nastiness that are often very uncomfortable. The cinematography is great – as LA becomes a really strong character, oppressively hot and bright (despite the murkiness of what’s happening in the streets), and there are lots of extreme close-ups that leave the characters no hiding place. Perhaps there’s nothing too much that’s new here, but it’s done really well, and Harrelson is terrific at bringing a combination of natural, easy charm and a threatening menace and barely-concealed violence to almost every scene.


I absolutely loved this, from Joseph Gordon Levitt’s disarming makeup to Bruce Willis’ refusal to discuss the ‘rules’ of time travel. This is a hard-boiled, gritty thriller that’s chock-full of references and genre tropes, but also stunningly original: the ‘torture’ scene (in which we see no actual torture, only its results) is as shocking as anything I saw all year (including Killer Joe!). The performances are all great, and the introduction of the young boy who may have a dark, dark future adds another twist to the tale. Watch and listen carefully, there are plenty of details and throwaway comments in the opening scenes that come back later…


Paddington Bear movie

Please look after this bear… (sniff)

I finished the year on a lighter note, with this gem of a very British family film. I loved the stories and 1970s TV animated version, and was more than a little apprehensive about expanding it to a full-length, live-action film. But almost from the first moments it had won me over. It’s full of charm, wit and slapstick, with a menacing villain (Nicole Kidman in best Cruella deVille mode) and lovely themes about accepting outsiders. Perfect for a wintry weekend in…


Honourable Mentions:

Mud: more great McConaughey, with strong writing and direction from Jeff Nicholls, and two terrific kids

Flight: Denzel. Say no more…

The Impossible: blimey. This is a one-timer; brutal, upsetting.

The Imposter: a great documentary that you truly couldn’t make up. Only a slight shame that the real end of the story isn’t quite as satisfying as a movie script might be…

Bullhead: unlike anything I’ve seen, a taut, brooding, menacing Belgian thriller set in the gritty, dirty world of cattle breeding, steroids and low-level gangsters.


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