Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The best days of cinema were ... 2008?

We've all heard it. The claim goes that, back in the day, they made movies like  North by Northwest, Some Like It Hot and Ben-Hur, and that was just one year! Now we get sequels to movies that sucked, which themselves suck and an endless stream of romcoms that don't even rise to the level of sucking.

But this isn't quite true. Sure, you have stand-out years like 1959, but if you look at IMDB's top 250 movies, you'll notice something interesting. The top-voted movies of all time are fairly evenly spread across the decades with a big bump toward the end. Why? Well, in part a move you've seen recently tends to be more impressive in your memory, so movies that pre-date IMDB aren't always very highly rated.

But that doesn't entirely explain the phenomenon. 2008 for example, has:

The Dark Knight, WALL·E, Gran Torino, Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, In Bruges, Let the Right One In, Changeling and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Now, I'll be the first to say that some of those represent short-term fascination or novelty. Still, I think Gran Torino, Slumdog Millionair, The Wrestler and Let the Right One In certainly do compare well to their historical analogs. Going back a year, you have films like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Meanwhile, in 1945, 1956, 1970 and 1971 there is only one movie that made the list each of those years. Why? Because movie-making has been inconsistent throughout history and that's both good and bad.

Certainly, if movie making followed any one formula, no matter how well crafted that formula, it would have precluded some of these films. Instead, it's a hectic and chaotic process that yields one or two great movies every year and a handful of very good films.

2008 had 9 movies last year in the top 250, beating out the next-best year by two movies (1957, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2007 all tied at 7 films). While this makes me wish I'd been alive in 1957 to sample the amazing creative output of that generation, it also makes me glad that I'm around now. So far 2010 has 4 movies on the list, and I think we'll see at least one of those (Inception, which immediately jumped to the #3 spot on opening weekend, not an easy feat) stay on the list for many, many years to come.

By year, here's the number of top-250 movies:

1921: 1
1925: 1
1926: 1
1927: 2
1930: 1
1931: 2
1933: 2
1934: 1
1936: 1
1938: 1
1939: 3
1940: 4
1941: 2
1942: 1
1943: 1
1944: 1
1945: 1
1946: 4
1948: 3
1949: 2
1950: 4
1951: 3
1952: 3
1953: 3
1954: 5
1955: 2
1956: 1
1957: 7
1958: 2
1959: 5
1960: 3
1961: 3
1962: 3
1963: 2
1964: 1
1965: 1
1966: 3
1967: 3
1968: 4
1969: 2
1970: 1
1971: 1
1972: 2
1973: 2
1974: 3
1975: 5
1976: 3
1977: 2
1978: 1
1979: 4
1980: 4
1981: 2
1982: 3
1983: 2
1984: 3
1985: 2
1986: 3
1987: 2
1988: 5
1989: 1
1990: 1
1991: 2
1992: 2
1993: 3
1994: 6
1995: 7
1996: 2
1997: 4
1998: 5
1999: 7
2000: 6
2001: 6
2002: 3
2003: 7
2004: 7
2005: 3
2006: 7
2007: 6
2008: 9
2009: 6
2010: 4

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Laundry series by Charles Stross

The Laundry series is an ongoing series of books by Charles Stross. It's a genre mashup which includes Lovecraftian horror, science fiction, comedy, spy thriller and computer industry elements. Put simply, it's the story of a computer geek turned Bondesque British spy, set against a backdrop of horrible, multi-dimensional creatures that would like nothing more than to eat his brains (or at least cohabit with them).

The setup is rather brilliant on its own, and it's no surprise that it was quickly turned into its own roleplaying game. Our hero was a budding computer scientist who discovered just a bit too much about the nature of his field. In fact, it turns out that under the surface of the well-ordered mathematics of computer science lies magic. "Spells" are just complex mathematical problems like those introduced by Alan Turing during World War II, and those who accidentally solve them are quickly scooped up by The Laundry, the magical equivalent of MI6, as a possible risk to national security.

The Laundry is therefore populated with very smart people whose only option is to work for a giant government bureaucracy for the rest of their lives. The only way to move on to anything remotely rewarding appears to be the path to field agent status and that's where we pick up in the first book, The Atrocity Archives, with our hero Bob Howard as he embarks on his very first field mission.

The combination of computer science, general geekdom, horror and spy elements gives the books a hilariously perverse tone. There are times that I've had to stop reading, just to catch my breath, and that doesn't happen very often for me.

The second book in the series has been out for about a year and is titled The Jennifer Morgue. It traces Bob's exploits in a subsequent adventure that is more directly styled on the works of Ian Fleming, most especially the Bond novels.

The next book in the series is about to be released, and is called The Fuller Memorandum. It should be out by July 6, according to Amazon.com. I highly recommend picking up the first book and working your way up to The Fuller Memorandum, but much like the Bond books or movies, I don't think you absolutely have to read them in order. Certainly The Jennifer Morgue is a good enough book to stand on its own, should you prefer to start there, and I have high hopes for this next book for similar reasons.