Globe Arts: Our favourite
moments of 2017
From Atwood to Ansari, La Boheme to Lady Bird, and Gord Downie to Rick and Morty: 2017 offered a wide-ranging and excitedly weird 12 months of culture, both high, low and everywhere in between. The Globe and Mail's Arts team reflects on their favourite moments in and out of the zeitgeist
Kent Monkman: Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, University of Toronto Art Centre
Monkman, a singular artist, turned the conventions of European history painting on Canada's past, to devastating effect. The exhibition combined a heartbreaking array of archival objects with Monkman's narratively rich, nuanced and blackly funny canvases. A necessary corrective to the year's sesquicentennial jingoism and a lot more interesting.
Paul Auster, Toronto Reference Library
The American novelist brought a new novel to town and, like most of his books, 4 3 2 1 lies right on the fraught border between fiction and personal history; his reading and anecdotes showed an artist and a person staring down the last act of his life with a childlike wonder that he, or indeed any of us, has gotten this far.
Herzog & de Meuron, Switch House addition at Tate Modern
On a summer visit to London, I paid a belated visit to the art museum's 2016 addition. Its Swiss architects have created a place that is tough in texture – its irregular brick skin is both familiar and spiky – and full of spatial surprises. The journey from the converted oil tanks in the basement to the white-box galleries above is full of peeks, twists, screens and spirals, a labyrinth lined with very caressable concrete. Unique, hospitable to all sorts of art and unmistakably public in character, it's as weird and beautiful as a place for culture ought to be.
Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, Koerner Hall
Twenty years on, this band of old friends is still working together with an intensity that verges on the familial, ranging from subtle harmonic interplay to total abandon. The drummer and bandleader Brian Blade held the set together with his incomparable touch and the occasional room-shaking rimshot; saxophonists Myron Walden and Melvin Butler almost took off the roof of staid Koerner Hall with a wailing, joyous duet.
Frontier City: Toronto On the Verge of Greatness by Shawn Micallef
I spent the first half of 2017 with my thoughts stuck in Toronto, exploring the history of its architecture and planning while writing a guidebook. Micallef took me back into the contemporary metropolis with all its variety, diversity and dysfunction; packed with insights, passionate and learned, it helped me see Canada's most unpredictable and un-pin-down-able city with fresh eyes.
La Boheme, Against the Grain Theatre
Puccini's classic was given joyous, delightful new life by Against the Grain through Joel Ivany's groundbreaking English "transladaptation," situating the story right there in a bar in a Toronto neighbourhood. Ivany directed and Topher Mokrzewski music-directed with characteristic sparkle. Done cabaret style, the opera suddenly became dazzling; a beery, raucous experience that kept the core intact. Everyone left every performance beaming.
Midsummer (a play with songs), Tarragon Theatre
A synopsis of Midsummer – a lilting, romantic comedy, slightly cynical and very aware it's a romcom – cannot do it justice. Such self-awareness is tricky to stage with delicacy but director Tamara Bernier Evans pulled it off. The play brings together two lonely people in Edinburgh, Scotland. The woman is heavy-drinking, falling-apart lawyer Helena (Carly Street) and the guy is professional failure Bob (Brandon McGibbon) who runs errands for criminals. They meet and, at first implausibly, connect. Then they sober up. Addressing the audience often, the characters inch their way into your heart.
The Marriage of Figaro, Opera Atelier
How Opera Atelier managed to connect Figaro to the #MeToo groundswell was pure mercurial magic. The married Count (Stephen Hegedus) pursues young Susanna (Mireille Asselin), maid to his wife, and engaged to Figaro (Douglas Williams). That's the gist and the subtle emphasis on a theme of predatory behaviour did not distract an iota from the glorious music and nimble comedy. A remarkably sly but substantial rejigging of Mozart's abidingly popular comedy.
Alex Pangman's Hot Three
Pangman, rightly known as Canada's Sweetheart of Swing, went to New Orleans and with a local combo there recorded an EP of songs cut live to a 78-rpm disc. The result on CD has a beguiling kind of spumante pop, with a lovely rough feel. It is, actually, like a short, blissful drinking session. There's Sweethearts on Parade, that snappy, rougeish Guy Lombardo chestnut from 1928 and a wondrous version of the standard It's the Talk of the Town that becomes an epic of regret and qualms.
Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan
Nowlan famously wrote that he wanted to leave behind "one poem, one story / that will tell what it was like / to be alive." This gorgeous edition, published 24 years after his death, is over 600 pages of his work and on almost every page there is a reminder of the laconic poet's gift for defining small beauties of, and rueful observations about, the vast chaotic canvas of our reality. Some poems are guileless in their hardy, plain simplicty while others have such tangled emotions they remind you how great poets observe.
The North End Revisited by John Paskievich
This is a much-expanded edition of Paskievich's 2007 collection of his several decades of street photography in North Winnipeg. Paskievich has an eye for the infinite strands of civic vitality in his turbulent home neighbourhood, and a magical ability to pluck the perfect moment from the vanishing collisions of time and place. There's tremendous depth in these photos, and a humour that never fades.
Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982 – 1992
John Ridley's documentary covers a fateful decade in L.A.'s history, and a steadily ratcheting level of racial tension that exploded in riots. Ridley tells the whole story through eyewitnesses, including those whose relatives died in gang feuds or police takedowns, and LAPD officers who gave beatings or disobeyed orders to do the right thing. A devastating film, and a master class in dramatic editing.
Reconciliation Manifesto by Arthur Manuel (with Grand Chief Ronald Derrickson)
The late Secwepemc Nation activist's blazing final book offers an eloquent analysis of how Canada was built on a racist understanding of property and human rights. Manuel lays it all out; there's nowhere to hide. He also makes it plain that there's no reconciliation until we replace the stinking, unstable mythologies that still support the Canadian state with something more noble and true.
Dialogues des Carmelites, Opéra de Montréal
Francis Poulenc's 1957 opera about several nuns guillotined during the French Revolution is a dramatic meditation on faith and sacrifice that you don't have to be Christian to understand. It's the most profound opera of the 20th century, and it hits me harder every time I see it. Opéra de Montréal's simple, well-considered production got all the essential things beautifully right.
Lucrèce Borgia, Victor Hugo
L'Academie française came to Montreal with a sparse yet riveting production of Hugo's historical melodrama from 1833. Every syllable spoken by the terrific cast testified to the long-held traditions of the world's oldest theatre company. Best of all, I finally got the full robust flavour of 19th-century tragic melodrama, of which Verdi's operas provide only a crude distillation.
Wolf Parade's Cry Cry Cry
Finally, the album I've been waiting seven long years for: Cry Cry Cry, Wolf Parade's follow-up to what seemed like the band's sweat-soaked grand finale, Expo 86. The fact that Cry Cry Cry exists at all is something of a small miracle – Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug had enough side projects between them to keep them occupied – but even more astounding is the record's pure sonic force.
The Force by Don Winslow
Five months later and I'm still trying to wash off the dirt and grime of Don Winslow's corrupt-cops novel – and I mean that as a compliment. This propulsive thrill ride through the guts of New York City's criminal underbelly is so fabulously filthy and wantonly immoral that you cannot help but revel in its pure, absolute sleaze. Although Winslow's work here doesn't rival the frightening heights of his 2015 masterpiece The Cartel, The Force is an addictive, seductive page-turner.
It seems like 2017 was James Franco's redemption year. He would have gotten a pass for all his past misdeeds ( Why Him? indeed) if he had only directed and starred in the excellent The Disaster Artist. Yet Franco went above and beyond by expertly playing the twin brothers at the heart of HBO's The Deuce, one of the year's best TV shows. James Franco, all is forgiven – though I'd be lying if I didn't say I was worried about your five (!) directorial projects scheduled for 2018. Slow down, James. Slow down.
Harvey Weinstein's Army of Spies' by Ronan Farrow
It is unfair to single out this New Yorker feature from the flood of investigative journalism focusing on Harvey Weinstein and his ilk. The work by such journalists as Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, Melena Ryzik, Cara Buckley, Kim Masters and so many others should be forever applauded and encouraged. Yet Ronan Farrow's Nov. 6 expose – which detailed a surreal side to the Weinstein scandal, involving private investigators and ex-spies – was a work of astounding tenacity and bravery.
Rick and Morty vs. McDonald's
Perhaps no cultural incident best summed up the lunacy of 2017 than when a fast-food giant ran afoul of cartoon fans. A quick history: The season-three premiere of Cartoon Network's brilliant series Rick and Morty featured its title characters indulging in McDonald's discontinued "Szechuan" dipping sauce. To gain credibility with the young folk, McD's brought the condiment back for a one-time-only promotion. Yet the chain didn't produce nearly enough packets, leaving Rick and Morty fans to lose their minds to anyone who'd listen (mostly, Twitter and underpaid McDonald's employees). The juxtaposition of a corporation running up against the passions of cartoon fanboys was a disturbing window into how much nostalgia, privilege, social media and brand loyalty have become intertwined with daily Western existence.
This seven-episode serialized podcast (from the masters of the form at Serial and This American Life) begins as a true crime story in the Southern Gothic tradition about a murder in the tiny town of Woodstock, Ala., and then slips through a rabbit hole into something even more mysterious: A profound exploration of the obsessions and self-suppressions of a genius. Rich and sorrowful and gently intelligent, producer Brian Reed's storytelling glistens with empathy.
During more than a decade with The Globe, Omar El Akkad brought his humanistic reporter's touch to the Arab Spring, Guantanamo and the sad circus of U.S. politics – all of which provided him with a deep appreciation for the ways in which individuals are moulded by, and react to, the systems they inhabit. His thrilling debut novel imagines an America riven by climate change, war and plague. It may be set in the late 21st century, but nowadays it seems terrifyingly close to reality.
The Handmaid's Tale
A beautifully bitchy TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood's Reagan-era dystopian novel. Elisabeth Moss is sublime as the subversive handmaid whose healthy womb damns her to a life of sexual servitude. (Meanwhile, Yvonne Strahovski and Joseph Fiennes make us feel for her masters.) The show was in development long before the current alleged sexual assaulter ascended to the White House, but the timing couldn't be more unfortunately apt. " Nolite te bastardes carborundorum," indeed.
Note-perfect, and perfectly timed for the moment, Greta Gerwig's solo directorial debut is a tiny gem that can barely contain its lovely, wistful beating heart. In a different era, perhaps, this comedy-drama about the tensions pulling apart a mother (Laurie Metcalf) and daughter (Saoirse Ronan) might have been written off as a mere chick flick (ugly, demeaning phrase), but surely we've evolved to the point that we can all appreciate the universal appeal of such stories. Take your daughters, take your sons, take your parents. Take some tissues.
The Big Rubber Duck
What's more Canadian than a fowl flap – yeah, I said it – over a celebration of ourselves? In the run-up to the summertime arrival of the six-storey-tall buoyant birdie on the shores of half a dozen Southern Ontario localities to mark Canada 150, spoilsports filled op-ed pages with clucking about costs. But then, suddenly, there she was: Our own canary Kardashian, offering herself up for the selfie set and transforming our waterfronts into sites of unexpected whimsy.
Howie Tsui: Retainers of Anarchy
I discovered this mesmerizing, magnificent video installation late in its life at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and paid multiple visits; I couldn't get enough. Tsui – born in Hong Kong and based in Vancouver – has created an epic, 25-metre scroll-like animation inspired by martial arts, history and politics. Set in Hong Kong's notorious Kowloon Walled City (destroyed in the 1990s), the work was spectacular to look at, elegant in its execution and provocative, sparking endless contemplation.
Long Time Running
I first saw this brutal, beautiful film before Gord Downie died and watched it again afterward. The documentary, by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, reveals the will and determination of a man who, facing a terminal diagnosis, chose to gift Canada – and his second family, his band – with a final tour, even though, going into the first rehearsal just a few weeks before the first show, he couldn't remember a single line of the poetic lyrics he had written.
Children of God
While as a work of art, this residential school musical by Corey Payette was not perfect, the ending was so powerful, it pierced the soul in a way live theatre should, and in a way the subject matter demands. We wept, together. The work will be mounted next year in Edmonton and Kamloops, but tragically without one of its stars, Cathy Elliott, who died in October after being hit by a car.
I wanted to call this pick something like female-made/centric – Better Things, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid's Tale and the surprisingly good final season of Girls – but that felt like cheating. (Then again, I just listed them anyway, so there.) This is the second year Better Things made my top five, but I couldn't help myself; the show is so smart, sharp, nuanced, hilarious and real. Co-creator Pamela Adlon (yes, with Louis C.K.) writes, directs and stars – playing single mom Sam, the mother/friend/partner/person we all want to be – or have.
There is significant wow factor in New Liskeard, Ont.-born, Whitehorse-based artist Suzanne Paleczny's tree-people sculptures, which I saw at the Yukon Arts Centre in November. But they're also deeply meaningful. Her exhibition – sculptures, paintings and soundscape – is a love letter to the planet and a testament to the interconnectedness of humans and the environment.
J. KELLY NESTRUCK
The veteran American actress astonished me twice in 2017. First in her Tony-winning turn in A Doll's House, Part 2 on Broadway. She played a Nora who comes back to knock on the door she walked out of years ago – and delivers a twitchy TED Talk justifying that decision to her ex-husband and daughter. Fiercely intelligent, funny as heck, hands down the most spellbinding stage performance I saw all year. Then came Lady Bird: Magnificent!
Big Little Lies
My favourite thing director Jean-Marc Vallée has done since his breakout 2005 film, C.R.A.Z.Y., HBO's Big Little Lies was that perfect mix of prestige and pulp that I crave from TV these days. Set up as a gossipy murder mystery involving moms in Monterey, Calif., the miniseries ended up being a providentially programmed exploration of sexual trauma and domestic abuse.
Master of None
Season two of Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang's joyfully low-key, effortlessly inclusive comedy was once again charming as all get-out – with the sweet Emmy-winning episode, Thanksgiving, co-written and starring Lena Waithe, the standout episode. But it's easy to forget the season's overall arc was about Ansari's alter-ego Dev's relationship with a reality-TV chef who turns out to be a serial sexual harasser. His conflict foreshadowed dictionary.com's word of the year: complicit.
Dana Schutz, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
This American artist became the subject of a major controversy this year due to her painting of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial. But on a trip to Boston this summer, I stumbled upon an exhibition of Schutz's other work – wry, surreal paintings that compress time in impossible ways – and was smitten. The woman in one canvas called Swimming, Smoking, Crying (2009) now breast-strokes through my mind in moments of stress.
Lorde, Osheaga Festival in Montreal
I took my wife to see the Kiwi pop star on the day she headlined – and we walked out two fans instead of one. Lorde's dedicated performance impressed me – madly dancing her way through her new album, Melodrama, despite a drenching rain storm. Then, she paid tribute to local songwriter Martha Wainwright. Perhaps this is odd to say, given I can't print the title of the song, but I thought it was a classy move.
Babak Golkar's The Fox, The Nut and The Banker's Hand, 2016-2116
It was a serious year in culture with two questions weighing heavily. In the midst of the Canada 150 hoopla, would the reconciliation project gain traction? As the Harvey Weinstein scandal raged, would media industries reform themselves? The art that stood out was more disturbing than delighting. The mischievous figure of a fox on his hind legs, presenting a silver salver like some deceptively obedient servant, has stayed with me ever since I saw it at the Aga Khan Museum. The fox somehow contains a time capsule that will reveal itself in 100 years. Who knows what tricks the future holds?
Florence McConini's Moose Heel Boots
This spooky pair of boots made from moose hooves in the 1970s could almost form a companion piece to the fox, evoking an unstable world where animal and human might be interchanged and white man can no longer be certain of his dominion. They are part of the National Gallery of Canada's moving reinstallation of its Canadian collection to include Indigenous art throughout.
Castor Castoreum by Frank Shebageget
Weird and witty in its sideways glance at colonialism, this work – showcased at the Royal Ontario Museum – features delicate perfume bottles in coloured glass shaped like the wrinkly sac of musk-like castoreum located in a beaver's nether regions. The smelly substance is used in perfume; the artist's mother used to collect the sacs and sell them to the Hudson's Bay Company for a few dollars.
Transit by Rachel Cusk
Of all the books I read in 2017, the one that stayed with me the longest was Rachel Cusk's Giller-nominated Transit. What is remarkable about this novel is how its first-person narrator, a woman who has recently moved to London after a divorce, effaces herself behind her observations of others also in pain or in movement. A memorable set piece, about a wet evening at an outdoor literary festival filled with male egos, felt particularly topical.
En avant, marche!, Luminato Festival
This clowning, chaotic and poignant piece created by two Belgian performance troupes suggests that without art there is no life. Backed in Toronto by the Weston Silver Band, the show featured a stricken trombonist (Wim Opbrouck) reduced by some terminal condition to playing the cymbals in a desperate performance that raged against the dying of the light. It's do-or-die time, 2018!
Jim & Andy
Andy Kaufman blurred the line between reality and performance, so it's no surprise that Jim Carrey went full method actor in his portrayal of Kaufman in the 1999 biopic Man in the Moon. In a Netflix documentary that uses backstage clips from that film, we see Carrey doubling down on the weird and deep into Kaufman and Tony Clifton character. A strange, bold meditation on the creative process.
Arcade Fire's Infinite Content Tour
Although critics were lukewarm to Arcade Fire's latest (underrated) album Everything Now, the Montreal band's touring show to support the LP were undeniably overpowering. Performing in the round,Win Butler, Régine Chassagne and the others won with innovation, relentless force and disco-balling dazzle. In an age when rock shows need reinvention, Arcade Fire's performances were among the year's best eureka moments.
The Strombo Show: Steve Earle
We lost some of the best in 2017: Gord Downie, Chuck Berry, Tom Petty, and too many others. Steve Earle keeps going, though there was a time when obituary writers had their pens ready for him. At a living-room radio performance, Earle closed a solo show with a ragged salute to the late Gregg Allman. "The road goes on forever," but it doesn't.
True Crime, Crow's Theatre
True-crime podcasts are all the rage, but the indie musician Torquil Campbell lit up the genre on stage with a dazzling multi-character one-hander he co-wrote and starred in for Toronto's Crow's Theatre. Playing himself and an imprisoned German con man, Campbell's complicated narrative could have easily tripped him up. But he triumphed in a show about narcissism and fake facts that rang relevant and charismatically true.
The Weather Station
The latest album from the Toronto singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman (a.k.a. The Weather Station) is self-produced and self-titled. It's her best yet, not that her preceding works weren't solid efforts. But the 2017 disc has an emancipative, coming-of-age quality that places it above the others. Lindeman has arrived as one of the country's best song makers. Some of us saw it coming.