Thursday, December 31, 2009

Decade reviewed (7): 10 songs I liked

Franz Ferdinand, Take Me Out (2003). Reissued in 2004, there was a time this song was literally everywhere.

I remember hopping to now defunct Benji's on my lunch break, late 2003, and even there they were playing it. Kapranos & co may have already outstayed the music 'journos' attention span, but for a while they brought some songs, style and witty lyrics to a grey UK 'indie' scene.

Morrissey, First Of The Gang To Die (2004). I wasn't overly keen on his much trumpeted 'comeback' album You Are The Quarry. With this extremely hummable track, however, El Mozzo managed to pull one more rabbit out of his hat.

Richard Hawley, Hotel Room (2005). Not because it's his best (picking 'one' best song from Hawley's back catalogue is impossible) but because this is the song that made me fall in love with his world- making him one of the most cherished musical 'encounters' of my life, and the first one since my late teens. By a mile, the most underrated British artist alive.

Tindersticks, My Oblivion (2003). This theatrical, melancholy and stripped down song is an example of the landscapes Nottingham's best band are able to draw. Another spectacularly underrated band.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008). An incredibly rare example of a prolific artist improving with age and turning wittier and more mental. I could have picked any of the stuff he released this decade, but this distorted/dysfunctional/fascinating track is the one that stands out the most.

Depeche Mode, Wrong (2009). Another band that is showing no intention of running out of steam, Depeche Mode released three very strong albums this decade. Wrong, the disturbing first single from their latest one, can sit comfortably amongst the very best of their career. The video is also worth checking.

Pulp, Bad Cover Version (2001). From my least favourite Pulp album (We Love Life), this quirky song deserves some belated credit - if only for its hilarious pisstake of the BandAid video. And, incidentally, it's also a very good track.

MIA, Paper Planes (2008). Cannily based around a sample from The Clash's legendary Straight to Hell, London-born MIA confirms she is one of the most articulate, political and interesting singers of her generation.

Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, Bhindi Bhagee (2001). His premature death in 2002 meant his solo career didn't have time to take off. After a 15-year-long silence, the Clash legend returned with a quirky mashup of genres that reprised the work of his old band's Sandinista. A touching and clever antidote to these days' oppressive anti-immigration discourse, Bhindi Bargee stands out as Strummer's own celebration of multi-ethnicity. "Welcome stranger, there's no danger, welcome to this humble neighbourhood", he sang.

Gwen Stefani, What You Waiting For (2004). I can't believe it myself now, but at the time I got almost addicted to Gwen's annoying debut album, spanning every style from indie to hip hop, electro, or pop - the epitome of a decade where nothing musical was invented and everything recycled.

Also rans: Scissor Sisters, Filthy/Gorgeous (2004), George Michael, Round Here (2004), Kaiser Chiefs, I Predict A Riot (2004), Bloc Party, Blue Light, (2005), Sophie Ellis Bextor, Murder On the Dancefloor (2003), Jarvis, Black Magic (2006), Glasvegas, Geraldine (2008).

And here's 10 extremely irritating songs
that marked the decade: Good Charlotte, Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous (2002); Wheatus, Teenage Dirtbag (2000); Axel F, Crazy Frog (2005); Avril Lavigne, Sk8er Boy (2002); Hard-Fi, Hard to Beat (2005); DJ Pied Piper, Do You Really Like It Is it is it Wicked (2001); Babyshambles, Kilimangiro (2004); Paris Hilton, Stars Are Blind (2006), Gnarls Barkley, Crazy (2006); Katy Perry, I Kissed A Girl (2008) .

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Daily Mail cheers death penalty in China

In a world ruled by the Daily Mail they'd run out of hangmen in no time at all.

Leo McKinstry, normally busy penning armchair warrior articles for the Express or anti gay ramblings in the Sun, is today arguing in the Daily Mail ('Sorry not to join the liberal wailing: heroin traffickers deserve to die') that China's execution by lethal injection of British citizen Akmal Shaikh is a welcome thing.

The background is that Mr Shaikh was guilty of smuggling 4kgs of heroine into Urumqi, north-west China in 2007. The man was reportedly mentally-ill. His daughter said that "drug smugglers in Poland convinced him they would make him a pop star in China" and Gordon Brown tried in vain to talk the Chinese Prime Minister into a last minute reprieve.

It's the first time since the 1950s that a European citizen is executed in China.

According to the Daily Mail article, however, people who opposed China's decision are "the trendy metropolitan elite, for whom drug use is a fashionable habit rather than serious criminal offence". McKinstry slams it as an "orchestrated wailing" from the "human rights brigade and celebrity loudmouths".

His sophisticated analysis includes this gem: "Unlike China with its firing squads, the only 'shooting galleries' we have in Britain are state-run needle exchanges for junkies". For good measure, the article also sports a photo of Kate Moss with the caption "a country that revers such junkies as Kate Moss has no right to lecture China on its drug policy".

Now, the Daily Mail has recently expressed extreme disdain for a wide range of categories: childless women, asylum seekers, immigrants, bankers, benefit recipients, BBC staff, social workers, NHS managers, teachers, politicians, liberals, Muslims, homosexuals, dogs, fat people, anorexic people, council tenants etc...But this is the first time they're openly calling for firing squads to show 'junkies' how it's done.

"The drug-fuelled, crime-ridden, welfare-dependent, fear-filled inner city housing estate in modern Britain is far more savage than any place of execution in China for a trafficker of human misery", adds McKinstry.

Of course it would be too easy to argue that perhaps McKinstry and his like should just fuck off to China and have more than one child in an urban area and see what happens, especially if they also happen to carry around a Bible, a free-Tibet poster, a copy of Zoo, or simply check the internet, Wikipedia or Facebook.

But we won't. Let's just say instead, that a world that is ruled by Daily Mail standards would possibly have a handful of people left within years. With everyone else exterminated (much to the chagrin of the "human rights brigade", of course), they would run out of hangmen in no time at all.

See this for a comprehensive analysis of capital punishment in the UK.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Decade reviewed (6): Culture A-Z

Ali G. He may be a bit passe' already, but in the years 99-01 words like booyakasha were everywhere, based on the genius pisstake of faux American hip hop dialect and wannabe middle class 'ghetto' (glottal stop included) types. From "voice of da yoof" on The 11 O'Clock Show to watered down Hollywood blockbusters, Sasha Baron Cohen later found new fame with spin-off characters Borat and Bruno.

Big Brother. Since its triumphant debut in 2000, Big Brother was followed by ten successive editions of the same. On the trail of its success, dozens of other hybrid 'reality' TV shows followed. A whole industry of magazines feeding off z-list celebrities' antics multiplied and gained prominence as it took the notion of 'gossip' to new bulimic levels - all clumsily justified by the pretence that "it reflects society". We also learnt that all those who're not keen on BB and spin-offs are 'snobs', of course.

Credit cards. Clueless kids aged 18, people on the dole, casuals or part-timers earning £200 a month or less, people with a hair-raising credit history, desperate people with zero chances of paying back, and in the case of RBS, even dogs. The noughties saw a destructive, stupid, irresponsible, exponential increase in binge-lending. The Blairites saw it as the epitome of a dynamic Anglo-Saxon model. We know what happened after.

Daily Mail. If they carry on at this rate, soon the Mail's own pseudo-journos won't have anyone else left to snipe at. They may even start insulting each other or their own readers. In a couple of years' time you may as well expect a piece that goes "You! Yes, you, reading this piece right now. You're a useless bag of shit. A study from University of Colorado just recently confirmed it. Fuck off. Now".

Ebay. With internet domination came also online auction. A place to bypass Cash Converters, it is said to help the sale of millions of items everyday. When I did try a few years ago though, luck wasn't on my side. I tried to flog my entire Smiths 7" collection and all I got in return was a rickety email requiring extra info. With hindsight I'm glad I didn't part with them.

Facebook. Launched by a US student in 2004, it hit worldwide fame around 2006, quickly outdoing MySpace as the 'social network' that everyone, from your nan to the uncoolest politician, had to be a member of. For most of us, Facebook has become as routine-like as having breakfast, watching telly or taking a dump. Kickstarting everything from weddings to court cases to instant dismissals, it's undoubtedly one of the biggest cultural phenomena of the decade.

Girls Aloud. Someone in the Guardian called it an "intelligent and postmodern" phenomenon- the fact that pop of the "Smash Hits variety [is] no longer something to be ashamed of, if you're old enough to cut up your food unaided ". Sacred cows Girls Aloud have done wonders to sharpen the tabloids' investigative inclination. From Sarah Harding's capability to eat scotch eggs to Nadine checking into a hotel, this decade we've probably learnt how much arse paper the 'fab girls' use each time they wipe their petal-lined arse.

Harry Potter. JK Rowling's series about an orphan who discovers he's a wizard has beaten all records. With the fastest-selling books in history also spawning successful film adaptations, Pottermania turned the author into a millionaire and claimed one of the cultural icons of the decade.

Influenza. Hypochondria has been a constant feature of the decade of fear. From Sars, to anthrax contaminations and from Avian Flu to the latest H1N1 hysteria and its mutants (and let's not forget the 'millennium bug'), the noughties have been a rollercoaster of panic, anxiety and scepticism. From the swine flu alone, pharmaceutical giants generated $30bn.

Jan Moir. Right when the noughties were about to go down in history as the most sexually tolerant decade ever, homophobia struck with its (one can hope) swansong. Her appalling Daily Mail piece in the wake of Stephen Gately's death prompted a record 22000 complaints to PCC. It was in line, however, with the growing bullying culture that, hidden between cheeky chappies a-la Chris Moyles and finger-pointing crap a-la Heat magazine, tabloids and Z-rate "blogs", is at risk of becoming the normal backdrop to our lives.

Kate Moss. Another example of the neurotic ways of British media, the model has gone from hero to villain and back about twenty-four times this decade. Her short-lived romance with Pete Doherty in 2006 got more media coverage than the Iraq war.

Low Fare Airlines. Whether the start of new travelling opportunities for the non-wealthy or the McDonaldisation of air-travel, it's a fact that low-fare companies brought an end to the days of saving up a whole year for a flight and having to book it through an agency. However, the rise in hidden fares, luggage charges and payment ones (not to mention that recently Ryanair's CEO Michael O'Leary suggested a £1 toll to use the loo on board), is making some wonder whether passengers are being squeezed til the last drop of piss, quite literally.

MySpace. Facebook may now be the ultimate 'social network', but mid-decade clunky MySpace was widely considered the dogs' bollocks, as it also spawned a major music act or two (i.e. Lily Allen). And you may even remember Faceparty, Friendster and others. Until Facebook "did a Tesco" and wiped out the competition.

Nine Eleven. The biggest, vilest, terrorist attack in history became the focus of each and every one of our fears in the modern world. With a domino effect at all levels, from international relations to community cohesion and from TV series to travel, 9/11 was the most tragic where-were-you moment of the decade.

the Office. First aired in 2001, this Slough-based mockumentary propelled Ricky Gervais to worldwide stardom. Cringeworthy, embarrassing and shockingly realistic, the Office offered empathy to the tens of millions who are forced to work under delusional and/or egotistical bosses. Gervais' second cringe-based gem, Extras, followed in 2005.

Posh'n'Becks. Bridging the gap between Princess Diana and the arrival of Cheryl Cole, Paris Hilton & C, there was a time David and Victoria Beckham enjoyed the tabloid attention of ten royal families put together. Times five. Square. From their mega-wedding in 1999 until the News of the World scandal in 2004, it was literally impossible to find a Becks-free page in any daily or mag in the country.

Queen Mother. The reactions to the old bat's death in 2002 epitomised the dichotomy between 'real world' and 'ivory tower'. The collective shrug of indifference that took place was nowhere to be seen on the BBC, reporting (non) events as if the whole country was grief-stricken.

Red tops. The tabloids had never been particularly good at socially responsible behaviour. This decade, however, they have reached unprecedented poisonous levels. While kicking and screaming against nanny states and all-round surveillance, they actively promoted the most paranoid society known to man- one example is the 'paedo' obsession that now reigns supreme. With the rise of celebrity-mania also came new levels of bullying, and with multiethnicity came the biggest anti-immigration bombardment to be found on any mainstream press in the Western world. A toxic joke.

Smoking ban. If you ever worked as a barman you may be familiar with that stolid stench of fags that sticks to both hair and clothes. That went, in one single swoop, in 2007. Truth is not many expected a total smoking ban to be ever implemented, not even when the Irish and other EU countries did it. The days former Health Secretary John Read would publicly call it "one of the very few pleasures in life" feel like a million years ago.

TV series. The Sopranos, House, Lost, Desperate Housewives, Invasion, Jericho, 24, Flash Forward, Ugly Betty, Alias, you name them. From pure entertainment to reflections of the decade's end-of-the-world obsession, the noughties reacquainted the wider public with never-ending US TV series, often with mixed results (see here and here).

Ugg boots. Fashion has always existed and so have people following trends without shame. But never, ever before, have I seen such a ridiculous number of people wearing exactly the same item at the same time. If alien landed on UK soil expecting to find a massive recession they'd be puzzled at the sight of half the female population wearing Uggs- prices ranging between £100 and £150 a pop.

Venues named after a sponsor. 'Carling Academy', 'LG Arena', 'HMV Hammersmith Apollo'. Following the football template of 'Coca-Cola Leagues' and 'Worthington Cups', music venues too are now named after corporate words. If the trend continues, expect to have a drink at the 'Nokia Fox & Goose' or the 'Barclaycard Prince of Wales' in the near future .

Weatherspoons. The jury is still out. The last bastion of real ale, big screen-free, sort-of traditional pub where you can sip your drink without your ear-drums throbbing, or a corporate symbol of clonetown that stifles choice and lines the pockets of the big brewers? While you make your mind up, take a look at the amount of Weatherspoons that have been mushrooming up in your town.

X-Factor. Starting off as Pop Idol in 2001, Simon Cowell's circus is the epitome of noughties popular culture. Based on the usual recipe of humiliation, celeb culture, mass marketing and populism, the whole thing is about having a load of desperate young people begging the Emperor of Trash Music for a chance in the spotlight. By being steamrolled into every living room in the country, the X Factor brainwashed a whole new generation into thinking that Cowellism is the be all and end all of music.

Zara. Alphabetical constraints prevented us from picking H&M, Primark or TopShop instead, but the point is that for, the first time ever, you can travel from the UK to Sweden, France, or Germany and spot people wearing exactly the same clothes as you. From clonetown to cloneworld, perhaps fastfashion clothing is making us look better but it's also posing a whole range of questions.

[Apology for the lack of "Y" entries. Couldn't think of anything or anyone except Paula Yates. Any suggestions are welcome. UPDATE- Excellent suggestion from James D: YouTube!].

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Decade reviewed (5): UK politics

From predictable and apathetic to volatile and polarised- how British politics changed in the last ten years.

Much has been written about the Nineties as the 'consensus decade', the 'end of history' and no major divide within Western politics, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Indeed the Noughties began with one opinion column after another celebrating Middle England, New Labour's 'third way' and the alleged end of class division. More, many questioned whether the Tories' would ever stand a chance of winning again.

The decade started with New Labour displaying their democratic credentials by kicking Ken Livingstone out of the party in the run-up to London's first ever mayoral elections. But Livingstone stuck to his guns, stood as an independent, and secured Tony Blair's first significant humiliation of his career.

The lowest turnout in history at the 2001 general elections was evidence of galloping apathy and disillusion. With barely over half the country bothering to cast a ballot, Tony Blair celebrated his second landslide in a row and, when William Hague stepped down as Tory leader, not many seemed to care. in the leadership race that followed, Michael Portillo missed his chance of a lifetime and lost to lesser-known Iain Duncan Smith.

In the meantime, with the far right showing its ugly rear in the Oldham and Bradford race riots of summer 2001, the country's community relations took the first tangible battering of the decade.

The 9/11 attacks were the undisputed watershed. Affecting everything, from the way we look at national security, through the way we travel, to the notion of multiculturalism, it truly messed up the following few years. Still blown away by the attack, very few questioned Tony Blair's unadulterated support for George W Bush's foreign policy and the ensuing Afghanistan war enjoyed widespread support in both the US and Britain.

Things however, took a different turn in the run-up to the Iraq war. From Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech to the heated debate with France and Germany over the second UN resolution, many will remember the countdown on Hans Blix and his team of weapons inspector amongst claims that Saddam Hussein was '45 minutes' away from doing us over with WMDs.

Amongst the most memorable moments, the 1-million strong anti-war march on 15 February 2003, the biggest demonstration ever in British history. People from all sections of society, regardless of political allegiances, defied the freezing weather to voice their scepticism. Most remarkably, the issue stirred some serious passion amongst people who'd never before expressed an interest in politics.
And yet it was obvious that Tony Blair had obviously made his mind up. A month later, a nail-biting parliamentary vote saw the anti-war MPs narrowly defeated in spite of 112 Labour backbenchers rebelling. Robin Cook's resignation speech was the first ever to receive a standing ovation in the history of the House.

Starting a few days later, the Iraq war marked the beginning of Tony Blair's undoing. The government's handling of the (very) strange death of weapons inspector Dr David Kelly and the emerging truth that were no WMDs in Iraq tarnished Blair's reputation forever.

The firefighters' 2-year-long pay dispute (2002-04) came to an end with the adoption of the New Fire and Rescue Services Act, resulting in all ties severed between the Fire Brigade Union and the Labour Party.

In 2004, "Teflon Tony" survived another backbench revolt as he led his party through a spectacular u-turn on tuition fees. A push, a shove and a last-minute whip in the jaffas (i.e. minister Nick Brown defecting back into the government), pushed the price of a single year at one of the country's Universities up to £3,000 (plus booze).

In the meantime, Thatcher's ugliest legacy, the uber homophobic Section 28, was finally scrapped. Like with the repeal in Scotland a few years before, the Conservatives voted compact in favour of upholding discrimination but were resoundingly beaten.

In June the anti-Europe UKIP came third in the European elections. Former TV presenter Robert Kilroy Silk helped raise UKIP's profile but fell out with the leadership within months and branded the party "a joke".

In September, the pro-fox hunting Countryside Alliance clashed with the police on Parliament Square. Some protesters stormed into the House of Commons but failed to stop the government from passing (after years of wrangling) a watered-down Hunting Act.

In the meantime, the Tories elected yet another new leader. With Iain Duncan Smith oozing the charisma of a turnip, the Conservatives showed political acumen by handpicking draculesque Michael Howard, a cabinet member under both Thatcher and Major, a man with "something of the night about him", as their 'new' and 'fresh' leader.

And yet the 2005 general elections turned into another Tory failure. The biggest success came instead from the Liberal Democrats. Thanks to the leadership of Charles Kennedy and their opposition to both the Iraq gamble and tuition fees, they won their biggest share of MPs since 1929. Not enough, however, to stop New Labour from winning a record third election. Tony Blair celebrated by promising to serve a "full term".

The London bombings in July, the biggest terrorist attack in UK history, threatened to be another nail in the coffin for community relations, also reminding the country that, far from increasing security, the Iraq war actually brought terrorism home.
In August, former Foreign Sectretary and Iraq war critic Robin Cook died. The year ended with the Tories appointing -amazingly- their fourth leader of the decade, this time at least opting for a younger option: 39-year-old David Cameron. Also, the first same-sex civil partnership in the UK was celebrated in Belfast: one of New Labour's proudest achievements.

Less than two months later, LibDem leader Charles Kennedy confessed to having an alcohol problem and resigned -its party hasn't fully recovered yet. Also, anti-war MP George Galloway squandered his political capital by appearing on the 2006 edition of Celebrity Big Brother, while a swirl of speculations mounted over Gordon Brown's alleged "coup" to oust Tony Blair and the disgraceful cash-for-honours scandal which resulted in the arrest of Labour's chief fundraiser Lord Levy.

In the meantime, outrage over the Iraq war didn't relent. 2007 turned into the bloodiest year since the invasion and not many shed a tear when Tony Blair, fresh from signing the Trident renewal agreement, finally resigned in June after years of speculation.

Following the initial honeymoon period, new PM Gordon Brown hit a bum note when he dithered over an early election in October 2007. Nick Clegg became the third LibDem leader in two years and the bail out of Northern Rock heralded the worst economic crisis since WWII.

In May 2008 Boris Johnson replaced Ken Livingstone after eight years as London Mayor, confirming suspicions that the pendulum may be swinging towards the Conservatives for the first time in fifteen years.

Nosediving in the opinion polls, Labour found little consolation in the fact that a devastating MPs' expenses scandal hit all political parties. Moats, duck houses, fridge magnets and porn videos were all found amongst the list of stuff subsidised by the oblivious taxpayer. A series of high profile resignations hit the Brown government in June 2009, adding to the biting recession and relentless rise in unemployment.

The 2009 European vote signalled more bad news for Brown. Much was written about the far-right BNP securing two MEPs for the first time in history, a combination of incredibly low turnout and the vicious anti-immigration line adopted by a number of red tops.

Fears of a far-right revival increased in summer, when race riots took place in both Luton and Birmingham during demonstrations organised by a new group called the English Defence League.

In October, a heated debate surrounded the invitation of BNP leader Nick Griffin on BBC Question Time. However, his botched attempts at introducing fascist policies to a wider audience ended up into a major media own goal. In the meantime, the postal strike in Autumn drew comparisons with the 1984 miners' dispute.

The picture at the end of the decade is that of a much more polarised and volatile British politics. On one side, the economy is looking much worse than ten years ago, with unemployment over twice as bad, rampant family debt, businesses going bust and a rising wealth gap. Though the public remains widely suspicious of free market policies and the Conservatives, 13 years in power have obviously taken the sheen off New Labour.

Sceptical though they may be, most Conservative voters seem set to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt, while millions of traditional Labour supporters appear put off by a party that, through their tenure in power, outToried the Tories on too many occasions. The lack of a major option for the progressive vote may ultimately pave the way for the Tories' return to power.

It's interesting that the economic crisis appeared initially to be the perfect scenario for an overhaul of the brand of 'turbocapitalism' that ruled for three decades. However, with leftist parties widely failing to make hay of it, right-wing populism looks like the most likely beneficiary.

The forthcoming general elections will reveal whether the immigration debate that monopolised the second half of the decade will result in significant gains for the far-right and if Labour's haemorrhaging votes will benefit either the LibDems or the Green Party (the latter on course to secure their first MP in history).

Above all, 2010 will soon reveal whether Britain will be under Conservative rule again for the first time since the days of John Major.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Pope knocked to the floor

Mass at the Vatican kicked off 10 minutes late. Expect the internet to take some stick.

Christmas Eve Mass at St. Peter's basilica in Vatican City was given unexpected excitement as a woman jumped the barriers and knocked down Pope Benedict VI.

The woman was arrested immediately and taken away by Vatican police. Reporters say the Pope, 82, was unharmed. He got back on his feet straightway and managed to begin the ceremony as expected. However, Cardinal Etchegaray, who was by his side, was hospitalised.

Though the motives behind the incident are as yet unknown, expect "remote controlled" leftist hatred and web-based glorified violence to take the blame. Just wait and see.

Decade reviewed (4): techno dictatorship

With more technological gizmos churned out this decade than at any point in human history, the impact on the way we live and interact has been immense.

When I was a kid, back in the days when only the lucky few owned a Commodore 64, the year 2000 was universally seen as the epitome of everything "futuristic".

From flying saucers, to aerodynamic-looking cars, to people routinely zipping over to the moon for an afternoon powdered drink, the fact itself that a year could start with the number '2' conjured up images of a super advanced and technological world.

And ok, our car doors may not open like the motors in Back to the Future II and hoverboard racing is yet to be invented, but overall predictions weren't wide of the mark.

The noughties have been defined by technology more than any other decade in history. By far. And certainly so at the most routiny, ordinary, individual level. Micro chip-driven objects have become integral part of our most menial actions and we don't even notice anymore.

Even back in the mythical year 2000 few would have envisaged a world were masses carry sophisticated mini computers (complete with instant internet access) in their pockets, hop in cars that speak to them and tell them exactly where to go, update their 'facebook' status and check for 'feedback' and thumbs up, spend hours glued to superfast internet while they chat to virtual (or not) friends, book their cheap flight online, stick 'mp3s' on their 'USB', print off bits from their wireless printer only to then head home to watch a movie downloaded on torrent while also yakking away on a handfree set.

Technology has become run-of-the-mill. Whereas, say, vinyls ruled for generation or the old walkman for at least twenty years, we have now kids that change gizmos more often than their underwear. In ten years we went from what we thought were "ultra-mega-new" minidiscs to the mp3 and then the iPod, the mp4, and the mp5.

Televisions magically lost more weight than a Mr Motivator devotee could ever dream of. They also became digital, with the channels multiplying and often turning multilingual, with films that you can watch 'HD' on Sky and pause if you need a quick slash and then burn on a hardrive and a DVD or BlueRay Disc as well.

Then there's the digital camera. Compare the simplest one available now with the most sophisticated one around ten years ago, it wouldn't stand a chance in the most battered of bargain bins. Or take computers, with your average hard drive at least ten times more generous than in 2000 and laptops now dished out like club night flyers outside Camden tube station.

The noughties were the decade where mystical words like "interface" were heard day in day out - while a lot of people, myself included, didn't (and still don't) have the faintest clue what the actual meaning might be.

Also, I only recently discovered that the so-called Playstation is already Jurassic material. In ten years there's been almost more consoles than Tory leaders: from Dreamcast through Playstation 2 all the way to Xbox360, Wii and PSP3.

And forgive me if I'm being inaccurate and disco vicar-like but, I'll be absolutely honest: with new stuff being churned out more often than crap from an IBS sufferer's bum, I've literally lost track.

The good

Cheaper everything, easily accessed music, better and slimmer PCs, faster internet, newspapers and infinite resources online, TVs that are easier to carry if you move, digital cameras.

The bad
People monging out and developing red-eye syndrome, attention spans nosediving, the near death of online privacy, entire social evenings centred around iPhones, music physically turning into disposable rubbish.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Decade reviewed (3): world events

Some of the international events that marked the noughties.

10) Jacko's death, June 2009
After a whole decade of speculation and media obsession over his life (see ITV's 2003 documentary and the court case that followed), Michael Jackson's sudden heart attack became the perfect tabloid godsend, giving the Sun & co something else to write about, including ghost appearances and coroners mysteriously holding onto Jacko's brain.

9) Big Brother
Like it or not, the arrival of 'reality TV' changed mass culture for at least a generation, influencing a whole range of TV programmes and giving a new meaning to the notion of 'celebrity culture'. Popular all over the western world (certainly in Britain), it literally monopolised entertainment throughout the decade.

8) Tsunami, December 2004
With a massive human toll, like Hurrican Katrina in the US a few months later, it reminded the world that something's not quite right with the environment.

7) Climate change
Scientists report temperature rose by nearly 0.3 degrees during the 00s, with the 10 warmest years on record since 1997. Still people at the Daily Mail and the Express maintain it's been a very cold week and it's all a loonie leftie fabrication.

6) Beslan, 1-3 September 2004
One of the creepiest and cruellest terrorist attacks in history, it was textbook in the way it alienated international sympathy towards a cause - in this specific case Chechnya's independence. In 2002, a Chechen "suicide squad" had held almost 900 hostages in a Moscow theatre for four days. This time, the same group took more than 1,100 people (including 777 children) at a school in North Caucasus, Russia.

5) George W Bush in the White House, Nov 2000
One of those political watersheds that make history. When Bush (just about?) beat Al Gore, power was handed to the most reactionary and warmongering lobby in American history, including chaps like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney. Their disastrous handling of the economy, most confrontational foreign policy since 1961 and bible belters-inspired social policies had only one merit: that of later on handing the White House to the most progressive US President as the pendulum swang again in 2008.

4) The London bombings, 7 July 2005
As much as both 9/11 and the 2004 Madrid attacks prepared the country for a terrorist attack on home soil, this appalling atrocity still proved a massive shock. It claimed the lives of 52 innocent people on the London underground as well as a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square. Its impact on both community relations and national security has been literally devastating. Also shocking was the glaze-eyed way in which Tony Blair denied any connection with the Iraq war.

3) The Iraq War, 20 Mar 2003
George W Bush and Tony Blair's gamble quickly turned into the biggest political and military blunder since VietNam. The way the pro-war lobby went about it destroyed trust in politicians for a generation. The war unleashed massive international tension, triggered a terrifying humanitarian crisis (one example: there are 5 million orphans in Iraq as of Dec 2007) and killed hundreds of thousands of people, including almost 4,500 US troops and 176 British ones. It also cost the UK £4.5 billion.

2) Lehman Brothers bank collapse, 16 Sep 2008
When the fourth-largest investment bank in the United States filed for bankruptcy, the expression 'credit crunch' gave way to the worst economic crisis in 60 years. For evidence of casualties, look at all your mates or family who have been made redundant or take a walk down your high street where Woolworths, Zavvi, Borders and Threshers are all still lying desolately empty.

1) 11 Sep 2001
Unfortunately, 9/11 is already in the history books. Not only for the sheer scale of the most atrocious and calculating terrorist attack ever, but also for how it altered our perception of security forever. Also, it messed up international relations for god knows how long, paving the way for two wars and religious tension last seen worldwide decades ago. Unintended or not, number 3 and 4 on this list were both a consequence of 9/11.

To follow: culture in the Noughties.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Brittany Murphy dies, 32

Unconfirmed news circulating online suggests that US actress Brittany Murphy died today of a heart attack.

The Hollywood star, who turned 32 in November, had been rushed to hospital this morning (US time) following a reported cardiac arrest at her home in Los Angeles.

Brittany Murphy was famous for appearing in films such as 8 Mile, Just Married and Sin City, but it's her stunning performance alongside Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted that I remember the most.

Rage Against the Machine win Xmas chart battle

Up your high-waisted arse, Simon Cowell!

After weeks of speculation Rage Against the Machine's Killing In The Name has finally been announced as this year's Christmas number one.

This has been the first time when, thanks to a campaign launched on Facebook, some life was put back into the charts after half a decade of X-Factor death lock. A spontaneous group called 'Rage Against the Machine for Christmas No.1' was set up "as a protest to the X-Factor monotony" and "Simon Cowell's latest karaoke act being Christmas No.1", urging people to buy the band's 1992 song Killing In the Name.

Multi-millionaire media mogul Simon Cowell had lashed out at the campaign calling it "stupid", "cynical" and "dismissive". Conversely, stars such as Shirley Bassey and Sting recently criticised the enormous impact programmes such as the X-Factor are having on music, not least the fact that the contestants are not allowed to sing their own songs and are "aping pre-existing stereotypes of what singers should do".

Rage Against the Machine announced they planned to donate some of the proceedings to charity. In the last few days guitarist Tom Morello had expressed satisfaction at the campaign saying "There are a lot of people who don't feel represented by [the X-Factor] and this Christmas in the UK they're having their say" and that "[the X-Factor] puts forward a particular type of music which represents a particular kind of listener".

Their victory represents a vindication for the millions of Brits who are fed up with being told that they're 'cynical' and 'boring' for resenting a programme that is allegedly "just a bit of harmless fun".

It's five years now since the X-Factor was steamrolled into the country's living rooms and maintained remarkable ubiquity on both TV and radio as well as in the press.

Far from simply expressing 'what the public wants', Simon Cowell's media circus has bullied the country's music tastes into submission by ramming the safest and most pre-packed brand of schmaltzy pop ever known to man down everybody's throat. The scale of the X-Factor cannot be compared to anything that happened before to British music.

Not to mention the noxious effect on a whole new generation brainwashed into thinking that the X-Factor's corporate might is the be all and end all of music.

Tonight news however indicate that the tide, at last, may be turning.

Class war? How about this one...!

We are desensitised to the idea of being ruled by Eton and Oxbridge elites. But would it be the same if Britain was like this instead?

There's been some debate recently over the fact that the Mayor of London, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister all went to Bournville School, Birmingham and that almost the entire Cabinet did their university studies in Birmingham too.

When we turned the question to the public, we registered overwhelming resentment. The idea of being ruled by an unrepresentative lot, both geographically, socially and culturally doesn't seem to be perceived as either popular or fair.

"It's absurd that all our leading figures went to the same school and had exactly the same background. They're all from the same Birmingham school. And how bad is it that we have an actual Mayor of London who grew up in a Birmingham council estate? It doesn't make sense!", told us Ariel Painin-Diaz from South Kensington.

Another southerner, Barry Tone, a butcher from Pevensey Bay, East Sussex said: "It's disgusting. It shouldn't be this way. What's wrong with a bit of balance? It means that all people in a position of power can't see things from a perspective that isn't from the West Midlands".

Carrie Oakey from Notting Hill Gate agreed: "How can they possibly empathise with a central Londoner? How can they grasp how it feels to be from a different background? They all speak with that Birmingham accent and inevitably promote a pro-Birmingham agenda. Outrageous, that's what it is".

"I think it's unacceptable that all those chaps from Bournville were allowed to claw their way through power just like that", remarked Nicholas O'Teene from Altrincham in Greater Manchester.

But it's not just that the country's power elites may have discussed their future policies during detention while at Bournville School. We also learnt that all those government ministers who went to University did so at either UCE or Aston - both, again, located in Birmingham.

The list includes the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, the Justice Secretary, the lady in charge of Work and Pensions, the Chairman of Policy Review, the Culture Minister and many many others: you can't go wrong. They either studied at University of Central England or Aston.

The much touted free-chocolate scheme as laid out by the government during Prime Minister's Questions last week has been slammed by critics as a "typically pro-West Midlands policy dreamed up down the road from Cadbury World".

Also very controversial proved the Cabinet's decision to allow former members of West Midlands legends Black Sabbath to advice the government on youth culture and drugs. "The Birmingham clique strikes again", said a sceptical MP speaking on conditions of anonimity.

"Neither the Prime Minister, nor the Chancellor, let alone our Brummie Mayor of London come from extremely privileged backgrounds. Along with all Cabinet ministers, their parents were either on the dole or just ordinary workers from low and middle income families. This can't be right, as there's not a chance in hell they are able to grasp the daily issues faced by extremely wealthy people and the needs of top bankers, traders and entrepreneurs".

The recent supertax on "second boats" was recently slammed as "petty and spiteful" as well as "the action of a Brummie government that is blind to the plight of the most affluent members of society".

In the meantime, the Opposition Leader made it clear that he believes the narrow upbringing of Birmingham-educated senior Government figures is a fair subject for attack.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Old Daily Express article discovered in Titanic wreckage

The paper's approach to the sinking of the Titanic 98 years ago was strikingly similar to their views on climate change today.

From the ruins of the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic, archeologists have just retrieved an article written by one of the Daily Express reporters aboard the passenger liner.

It emerged that the article, written by one John Ingham, had been intended to warn readers back home about the futility of all the warnings that, hours before the journey ended, signalled large icebergs on the path ahead.

"Health & safety nut Edward J Smith will spoil our voyage. The captain's just signed a death warrant the size of a 46K ton ocean liner by paying attention to those politically correct killjoys from nearby steamer Amerika warning that large icebergs lie in the Titanic's path and that lifeboats should be deployed.

This is unbelievable. About ten minutes ago one brushed the hull and a few loonie lefties started screaming that we're going to go down. They were howling that a number of compartments is being flooded, but those desperate people are ignoring the continuing debate as to whether said iceberg is to blame.

Plenty of compartments are totally dry, I'm sitting in one now and it's as dry as the Sahara desert, which clearly goes to show the flooded sections are not a result of iceberg action.

Ignoring the massive financial impact of spoiling the voyage of our 329 first class passengers, the Captain is now calling for lifeboats to be launched. And yet the Titanic is showing no outward signs of being in imminent danger, which is why many passengers are reluctant to leave the safety of the ship to board small lifeboats.

As a result most of those lifeboats are going to be launched half empty, a massive waste of taxpayers' money. According to Mr Sinclair, a representative for the (Edwardian) TaxPayers' Alliance on board, achieving the captain's target of launching all lifeboats is simply going to spoil the voyage and cost a lot of money.

Mr Sinclair said: 'It is absolutely incredible that Captain Smith is still pledging ever more extreme and expensive actions on the passengers' behalf. He seems hell bent on ruining our comfy journey just so that after he can boast he 'saved the passengers''.

The captain's action is going to signal a death warrant for partying aboard the Titanic, where people have been enjoying a jolly good time, spending money, dining, singing and dancing. The deployment of all those lifeboats will signify a 25 per cent cut in onboard entertainment, and 42 per cent less posh dinners for all.

Daily Express readers onboard showed their distrust of the captain. 98% of those interviewed by yours truly agreed they are being conned over sinking rumours".

Friday, December 18, 2009

Morrissey on the 'X-Factor era'

Good old Morrissey nails it right on the head. This is what he said in a statement to True to You:

"As we all now know, the world of music is purely market-driven – not even youth-driven anymore. Talent or merit or songs do not enter the equation for a split second; the campaign is the thing, the campaign is what is discussed amongst the public, the campaign is what impresses the press, and the songs are never a factor."

In the meantime, following a Facebook-based campaign, it looks like Rage Against the Machine's Killing In The Name may be in with a chance for the first non-X Factor related christmas no.1 since 2004.

Also on the subject: - Is Simon Cowell Killing music?; - Cowell dollar, plastic breasts and old fogeys; - Jan Moir loves the X-Factor.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The handbag-full-of-manure theory

How can a society so heavily based on mass consumerism manage the long haul if, at the same time, reasonable wages are denied to so many people?

The decade that was ripped apart by one of the most biting crises since WWII is finally coming to an end.

What's more striking, however, is the fact that lessons are obviously not being learnt. In fact, quite the opposite. The last twelve months have been lined by one convenient red herring after the other, from MPs' expenses to bank bonuses (both no doubt outrageous, especially the latter), while the true roots of the recession seem all but forgotten.

What was kickstarted by the subprime scandal in the US, where hordes of desperados were fed the most toxic financial fodder, was symptomatic of the widespread economic management of the Western world, one based on a fast growing wealth gap on a scale not seen since Victorian times.

Like last week's knee-jerk reactions to Alistair Darling's pre-budget report demonstrated, even the feeblest and most useless attempts at redistribution are greeted by hysterical shouts of "envy", "class war" and "hatred for the wealth creators".

It's the same irrational fury that met the minimum wage, calls in favour of basic rights for agency workers, or any attempt at righting the wrongs of the most ruthless, unbalanced and ununionised labour market since the days of Charles Dickens.

Because beyond the howls that even a mini-tax relief for the low-paid is apparently tantamount to Lenin and Karl Marx doing a Lazarus, the cheerleaders for "filthy rich", "wealth creators", "bank bonuses" and "keeping the talent" are simply incapable of focusing on the broader picture.

During the Blair years, for instance, it was often said that exceptional wealth at the top would inevitably trickle down to the bottom of the pyramid.

The reality is that the only thing that trickled down was a shower of credit cards, insane mortgages and ridiculously irresponsible loans dished up to the desperate. But it was only a matter of time before the policy of further ripping off the most financially vulnerable was going to end up bursting like a swollen, pus-filled spot. The trite old saying that chickens come home to roost proved wiser than a hundred top economists lined up together.

Whether in catering, call centres, factories or shops, you can only have a mass of underpaid, unprotected workers at the bottom for so long.

How can efficiency, smiles, loyalty and professionalism be expected if the most casualised labour framework invites the exact opposite?

More to the point, how can a society heavily based on mass consumerism manage the long haul if, at the same time, reasonable wages are denied to, literally, masses of people? Sure, they can stick it on plastic, buy goods on HP, or get a 110% mortgage with a car thrown in for good measure too. And no doubt they'll feel parts of the vibrant professional classes for a while. Fantasy island, basically.

Yet it's the equivalent of stuffing a ton of manure into a handbag. For a while you may kid yourself that it's manageable, or even believe that a bigger shovel's gonna make the job easier, and yet in no time the handbag is going to be full to the brim, bursting at the seams, with nowhere for the dung to go except all over your hands, face and clothes.

We may keep ignoring all that, but at whose peril?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Decade reviewed (2): comedy films

A look at the films that made us laugh in the noughties (*).

10) Shallow Hal (2001)
I'm not Jack Black's biggest fan but this one by the Farrelly brothers really got me in stitches. Based on the undeniable truth that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" or, if you prefer, that "a man's meat is another man's poison", it subverts the idea that "thin is beautiful" while producing a number of hilarious gags.

9) Death at a Funeral (2007)
British black humour at its most effective, this underrated comedy unravels through one single day. It's someone's father's funeral but a string of weird characters and gripping subplots turns it into a cringeworthy mess. Apparently the Americans, uncapable of simply importing a foreign film and enjoying it for what it is, are currently working on a remake.

8) The Heartbreak Kid (2007)
How do you deal with a "wife from hell" after rushing into marriage? Another Farrelly brothers' release, it contains a memorable series of frenzied Carry On-style situations as well as slapstick and farce aplenty.

7) Freddie Got Fingered (2001)
This is not the most accessible of comedies, but if you're into crude, bizarre and demented humour you'll just fall for it. Two examples: "the Backwards man" moment or the restaurant phone call. Directed and interpreted by Tom Green, it's a got to be one of the top ten quotable movies of all time.

6) American Pie Wedding (2003)
Like it or not, the original American Pie trilogy marked the first half of the decade (avoid the spin-offs that followed like the plague). If straightforward slapstick does it for you, then instalments 2 and 3 and their mockery of testosterone-fuelled antics will make your sides split. Stifler chewing on dog shit must be one of the iconic images of the decade.

5) Roadtrip (2000)
Based in part on the American Pie template (and also featuring a recycled Stifler- this time called E.L.), its strength lies in the endearing qualities of each character. When Josh posts by mistake a sex video to his long-term girlfriend, he decides that the only way to sort it out is to drive across the US and pip the postman at the post (pun unintended).

4) The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
In world where everything is sexualised to the extreme, how will a 40-year-old superhero model collector cope? Featuring a fantastic Steve Carrell and a series of subplots centred around his inept work colleagues, this is one of the best comedies to come out of the US ever.

3) Mama's Boy (2007)
The underrated story of a twentynine-year-old uber-geek who's still tied to his mother's apron. When she announces she's getting married his sabotaging attempts will make you laugh heartily.

2) Superbad (2008)
The soft heart of gross-out teenage comedies, we said on release. Beneath all the teenage bravado, the tale of friendship between Seth and Evan makes for one of the most poignant reconstructions of teenage life ever portrayed. Watch out for the excellent McLovin' nerd.

1) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Simon Peggs' gem is a genius parody of a) the zombified times we live in with rat race and all the rest b) social ineptitude c) trite zombie-based horrors. It's absolutely unique in the way it portrays everyone's annoying traits and twitches. The characters' depth and a series of details ensure that you can watch it once a week without even getting tired of it. Possibly one of the best British comedies ever made.

(*)Note: with the following I'm just expressing my own personal taste. If you disagree, remember that this is exactly why the saying
'each to their own' was created.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Repossessions: the untold crisis

The guidelines put in place by the government to help families from being kicked out of their homes are often been ignored.

This blog already pointed out that mass repossessions in Britain are the "quiet national emergency", that is to say the -criminally- untold story of the economic crisis.

To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, this is how things have changed in the last three years.

In 2007, 27,100 families were chucked out of their homes for piling up mortgage arrears. In 2008 the number went up to 40,000, while the total for 2009 is expected to reach 65,000.

Remember the figures refer to the word 'families', meaning obviously that the number of 'individuals' affected is at the very least three times as large.

A few months ago the government brough in some rules to try and ease the situation. The "pre-action protocol" was designed to delay repossessions and present the struggling homeowner and the lenders with a number of alternatives.

Today a joint report by the Citizens' Advice Bureau, Advice UK and Shelter revealed that in too many cases lenders are ignoring the "protocol". It found in a third of recorded cases the lender had failed to comply with new rules and that "job loss and other loss of income were the most common reasons given for mortgage arrears, and low income households were the most likely to lose their homes".

Citizens' Advice Chief Executive David Harker said: "the safeguards already in place to protect people from avoidable homelessness need to be strengthened if they are to succeed in stemming the rising tide of repossessions".

Italy begins crackdown on freedom of speech

They say that agents' individual actions don't matter against power structures, but look in succession at what the assault on Berlusconi has done.

Millions worldwide have cheered the individual action of Massimo Tartaglia, the man who last Sunday whacked Berlusconi in the teeth. A divisive, dodgy, inflammatory right-wing Prime Minister got what he deserved, many commented online.

However, two days later, it's important to make a cool-headed assessment as to what the blow landed on Berlusconi's gob really means in the short to medium terms.

Until Sunday, Berlusconi's coalition were showing their biggest cracks since their landslide election victory in April 2008. His hacking at the Italian constitution caused a series of unexpected rifts within his own coalition. By last week, one of his most senior and influential allies, Gianfranco Fini, was all but considered no longer part of Berlusconi's coalition.

Most significantly, on Friday, Mr Casini, a former centrist partner of Berlusconi's government, called for the formation of a broad 'Republican front' to finally defeat the billionaire Prime Minister.

Also, a number of recent mass demonstrations added to the voices of discontent over Berlusconi's social and economic management of the crisis. In the meantime, galvanised by all of the above, the battered Italian centre-left managed a few weeks without jumping at each other's throats on important matters such as which colour the party leader's tie should be.

And if you also take into account the spectacular sexual scandals that marred the Prime Minister throughout the summer, for the first time in years Silvio Berlusconi looked all but rock steady.

By Sunday evening, however, everything had changed.

They say that agents' individual actions don't matter when seen against power structures but look in succession at what Massimo Tartaglia's smack has done.

Practically every single reluctant ally rejoined the ranks and stood in line at the hospital to bow down before the martyr. The same with opposition MPs. Anxious to make it clear that they don't condone any violence, they're all sitting at Berlusconi's bedside mumbling their concerns.

Their hope, presumably, is to escape the fire of accusations directed at opposition politicians and journalists. "They have been remote-controlling the violence", wrote Il Giornale, a right-wing daily owned by Berlusconi's family. The same concept is now the staple at the table of every single government minister. "The opposition turned Berlusconi into an enemy to tear down at all costs", was the united voice from the government's ranks.

Which is the background against which Berlusconi's own Freedom Party announced yesterday they're beginning legal proceedings for "incitement to crime" against the Prime Minister's most outspoken critic, opposition MP Antonio Di Pietro.

Most importantly, however, Home Secretary Roberto Maroni from the far-right Northern League announced this morning that the government is about to table emergency measures to ban all Italian websites and online groups that have been openly cheering Sunday's incident.

"We're looking at the technicalities", Mr Maroni said "in order to take down all websites that are echoing what is tantamount to incitement to crime".

On similar lines, this morning Italy's biggest daily Corriere della Sera, sported an editorial called 'The dark side of the web', blasting "online hatred" and calling for the prosecution of those guilty of "incitement to hatred" and "glorifying crime".

In short, two broken teeth and a looming crackdown on freedom of speech. This is what Tartaglia's action has achieved.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Decade reviewed (1): drama films

Our review of the noughties begins today. To start with, our favourite drama films(*).

10) American Beauty (2000), US
After Hollywood's most shallow decade, Sam Mendes' critically acclaimed film signalled a changing undercurrent. As well as confirming Kevin Spacey's status as one of the best actors of his generation, American Beauty was rare in its sombre, almost minimalistic portrayal of middle-class neuroses and prejudices. With a loser/hero as main character, a good succession of put downs as well as a subtle blend of humourous and tragic, American Beauty is almost British in the way it narrates absurdity and emptiness.

9) Mon Meilleur Ami (2006), France
When Francois (Daniel Auteuil), a forty-something middle-class Parisian, is told by his colleagues that he's a billy-no-mate, he takes them up on a bet: within ten days he'll have to introduce them to a "best friend". Yet the odds are against him. When Francois contacts his acquaintances one by one, he's met with nothing but rejection. Until, that is, he bumps into a fairly odd and gobby taxi driver (Dany Boon). A succession of embarassing, sad and comical situations follows- contemporary French cinema at his best.

8) This Is England (2006), UK
The touching story of a group of young skinheads who see their unique bond hijacked and shattered by Combo, an extremely paranoid far-right psycho. The 80s references, as well as its charming, endearing narrative, grip you right from the start. Along with his previous work Dead Man's Shoes (2004), This Is England sanctioned Shane Meadows as the torch-bearer of British kitchen-sink once both Mike Leigh and Ken Loach hit retirement.

7) All or Nothing (2002), UK
Right at the peak of Love Actually and Bridget Jones, the British public was presented with this excellent alternative. A gentle, moving depiction of life on a south London estate, it confirms Mike Leigh's mastery at using loose ends and subplots to describe humanity through its most ordinary and intimate details.

6) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2009), US
Slammed as "Forrest Gump backwards", The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a modern fairy tale but with added poetic power and a series of touching questions about mortality. Extra marks also for not ticking the now obligatory blockbuster boxes of gimmickry and speed. Its gentle pace (as well as Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's performances, of course) is one of its most endearing qualities.

5) It's A Free World (2007), UK
The rightwing likes to call it a "taboo subject", yet immigration has become this country's obsession. But while many are subconsciously soaking up the tabloids' myths and hatred, the real story goes often untold. Ken Loach's social realism and brave depiction of the world of temporary and agency work (often based on "wealth creators" taking advantage of desperate migrants) deserved an Oscar.

4) Castaway (2000), US
The gripping story of Chuck (Tom Hanks), a FedEx employee who ends up stranded on an island after crashing into the ocean. A precursor to Lost, except that there's only one character, who has to battle total isolation and obvious practical adversities for over four years. If that wasn't touching enough (especially the heart-breaking bit when he loses his only friend, a Wilson volleyball from one of the FedEx packages), when Chuck is finally rescued he discovers he'd been presumed dead all along.

3) Downfall- Der Untergang (2004), Germany
Even if you're not interested in history and Nazi Germany, this incredibly realistic portrayal of Hitler's final hours is extremely compelling. The acting is supreme, even though to viewers who cannot speak German it would come across as natural and authentic anyway. Placed against the dozens of films about Nazi Germany, Downfall is unique for centering its plot around the Nazis, with added claustrophobic effect rendered by the bunker. Also, extra kudos for the internet virals that it spawned.

2) Little Miss Sunshine (2006), US
Possibly the one I enjoyed the most in the last few years. Absolutely hilarious in the way it sketches today's obsession with victory at all costs, it even received a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. The actors are so expressive, intriguing and quirky that they'd probably all be able to pull off an individual film centred around each of them, especially the porn-obsessed grandad, suicidal uncle Frank and uber emo teenage wreck Dwayne.

1) Brokeback Mountain (2005), US
The fact alone that on release it pissed off American bible-belters, the Chinese regime and Muslim fundamentalists (Israel was the only country in the Middle East that showed it uncensored) makes it a film worth watching.

Through Ledger and Gyllenhaal's memorable interpretations, Brokeback Mountain tells the touching story of a closeted homosexual relationship in America's Deep West. Every single bigoted bully and religious zealot should be strapped to a seat and forced to watch it.

(*)Note: with the following I'm just expressing my own personal taste. If you disagree, remember that this is exactly why the saying 'each to their own' was created.