From Errol Morris to Stephen King, Elena Ferrante to Meghan Markle, Yayoi Kusama to … Gritty?
The past year offered a wide-ranging and excitedly varied 12 months of culture, high, low and everywhere in between. The Globe and Mail’s Arts team reflects on favourite moments off their beats – and in and out of the zeitgeist.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
At the start of this year’s Giller Prize-winning novel, the protagonist “Wash” is enslaved in 1830 Barbados; the future, and the novel, promise brutality. But Wash soon makes his way into the plantation’s main house and then unimaginably far beyond it. Likewise, Edugyan’s tale, driven by those old novelistic forces of empathy and imagination, transcends history and the bounds of the historical novel.
Anthropocene, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
By now, the magic of Ed Burtynsky’s art is familiar: His large-format photographs depict in precise detail the wounds that humans are inflicting upon the Earth. But, as ever, I couldn’t look away. The films and “photographic murals” by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier amplify and extend Burtynsky’s message, which is more explicit than ever: We have work to do.
Michael Feuerstack, Natural Weather
Feuerstack’s career, over the past 20 years, has been a quest for simplicity. The gifted singer-songwriter has been winding toward the deep heart of the folk tradition, but can’t help making the odd harmonic swerve and wry crack. “Grace doesn’t sound/like we want it to.” But here it is.
Jason Moran, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
With an afternoon to kill in Boston, I stumbled upon a gift: The first museum show by this brilliantly unpredictable jazz artist and composer. Two fine, room-sized installations evoked the intimate New York spaces where the music once grew; a live performance by a local trio served as a keening, skronking reminder that it’s still alive.
Olivetti Showroom, Venice
On a half-touristy trip to Venice, I fought through the chaos of pigeons and Fendi bags that is St. Mark’s Square in summer. It was worth it to reach a little masterwork, the showroom that Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa designed for Olivetti in 1958. A delicate ensemble of local marble, Venetian plaster and vivid mosaics, it’s delicate, utterly personal and could exist only in one place.
Jerusalem, Crow’s Nest Theatre, Toronto
An unforgettable night of overpowering theatre as Kim Coates returned to the stage in a potent, lacerating staging of Jez Butterworth’s state-of-England play. State-of-the-world, really, with its emphasis on the tribe and the local, and the parish as the place of universal meaning. Amidst the teeming characters, all scheming, lost, stoned, grieving or angry, stands the Falstaffian figure of Rooster, and Coates made Rooster real, magical and true. Rooster’s savage indignation at change, and his ferocious link with tradition and place, left the audience drenched in awe, and in submission.
Orphée+, Fleck Dance Theatre, Toronto
Indie opera company Against the Grain (now a little less indie with five Dora Awards for this stunning production) invited audiences to “an electronic, baroque-burlesque, descent into hell.” It was no hell. It was a visually sumptuous and musically exquisite interpretation of the Gluck/Berlioz masterpiece, the opera Orphée et Eurydice. What spectacle it was, with boundary-crossing costume design (by Zane Pihlstrom) suggesting lust and desire and adding dazzle to the already hypnotizing melodies. Mireille Asselin, got-up in the most delicate of fragile clothing, was Eurydice in the Underworld, lost and substantial only in her extraordinary voice. Simon Chung, the countertenor, rose magnificently to the dark troubles of Orfeo. It was opera from another, more expressive and flamboyant planet.
Compagnie Marie Chouinard at Fall for Dance North, Sony Centre, Toronto
Fall for Dance North is a magnificent, eclectic festival these days. One night’s performances had Marie Chouinard’s long-established company performing along with the Indigenous group Red Sky Performance, the Cuban troupe Los Hijos del Director and the Soweto Skeleton Movers. But it was Chouinard’s group doing Radical Vitality, Solos and Duets that the audience took home. A series of short, linked vignettes was all about bodies fiercely alive, sometimes physically daunted, and the humour in the pieces gave way to an acute poignancy. It was heart-rending in the depiction of frailty. And for all its humour, formidably humane.
Actéon and Pygmalion, Elgin Theatre, Toronto
Two short operas, one from 1683 and the other from 1748. That’s what Opera Atelier did, and both were scrumptious, gorgeously delivered, with dance, a chorus and the period-instrument Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Each piece is about love, in an old-school way, and thus, less about desire than about attraction, beauty and restraint. Tenor Colin Ainsworth was the major male figure attraction in both operas, his fine, cultured lyric voice landing with great oomph. It was a transporting evening, the delighted audience enthralled by the sparkling music and dance of another, vanished age. The two pieces bracketed Inception, the first fragment of a piece commissioned by Atelier, with Edwin Huizinga, the composer, playing violin with Tyler Gledhill as the solo dancer. It was a glistening, heart-stopping tribute to the male form in anguish.
Corin Raymond, the Cameron House, Toronto
There are cold November nights when you wonder if anyone else will turn up to feel the music and the song. On this night, the venue was packed tight, a testament to Corin Raymond’s body of work as a troubadour, a composer and singer of powerful ballads of passionate melancholy. Everyone knew the words to all his songs and called out for more, more. Raymond writes what should be considered classic Canadian ballads. The streets of Toronto and desolate small towns come vividly alive in them, the people he writes about are the vulnerable, the lonely and lovely, and celebrated as that. Raymond’s set list is a magnificent treasure trove and while the intense crowd wanted one more to finish the night, instead, he launched into a rapturous recitation of Bob Dylan’s long poem Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, and it was breathtaking, and impeccably appropriate.
Great News, Netflix and NBC
This past summer, NBC shot itself in the foot. As mainstream networks struggle to survive in a premium-cable and streaming world, the peacock cancelled its one great sitcom not named The Good Place: Great News. Created by Tracey Wigfield, the series chronicled the goings-on at a New York news station. But the setting was just an excuse for Wigfield and her sharp cast (Briga Heelan, Andrea Martin, John Michael Higgins and Wigfield herself) to deliver hyper-speed punchlines and engage in all manner of 30 Rock-esque absurdism. Which makes sense, given that Wigfield cut her teeth on 30 Rock, and Tina Fey both executive-produced and guest-starred on Great News. Fortunately, the show’s two seasons are available to stream on Netflix. Unfortunately, there are only two seasons.
U.S. Girls, In a Poem Unlimited
The title of this alt-pop band is a bit misleading, given that it has just one member, Meghan Remy, and she’s Toronto-based (though Illinois-born). Nationalities aside, Remy’s In a Poem Unlimited is addictive, twisty, deep and defiant. Alternately ear-wormy and outraged, Remy’s work crawls inside your mind and refuses to leave. The lyrics leapfrog from surreal (Pearly Gates) to startling (opening track Velvet 4 Sale). The nine tracks, plus two short sketches that manage to not annoy, will take you months to puzzle out fully. In the meantime, you can simply sink into Remy’s sonic genius.
The Outsider by Stephen King
The 217th novel by Stephen King (give or take) was hailed this past summer as a return to form for the horror master. I’m not so sure about that – King has been more reliable than Greenwich Mean Time – but The Outsider is a classic page-turner, all killer and no filler. The King hallmarks remain: a small town (though in Oklahoma, not Maine, this time), a series of brutal murders, a mysterious force that no one can explain. With an added layer of police procedural on top, though, King slightly twists his style to tremendous effect. It seems trite when employing my own words, but rest assured that King tackles the “maybe the real monster is us?” question with ferocity and wit.
Sharp Objects, HBO
While there may be more television series than ever before, the biggest challenge of the day is for just one of them to demand our undivided attention. There are countless shows that are seemingly designed as wallpaper, with enough lulls to allow for a Twitter scroll or a few laundry loads. But HBO’s Sharp Objects must be watched with rapt attention – every single second. Thanks to Marti Noxon’s writing (adapting Gillian Flynn’s novel) and especially Jean-Marc Vallée’s time-bending direction, Sharp Objects is the new definition of must-see TV. The eight-part tale of a troubled journalist (Amy Adams) reporting on a series of murders in her Missouri hometown made for the most hypnotic, addictive and justifiably demanding watch of the year.
Thank God for Gritty. In a year held hostage by outsized, outrageous and undeserving personalities, there was one bright, furry, orange, delightfully freakish NHL mascot to show us the light. When the Philadelphia Flyers introduced this force of nature, this poetic and eternal beast, into the zeitgeist in September, the world was quick to mock the effort. What a hideous monstrosity! How dare it deface the good name of hockey! But quickly, Gritty proved to be pop culture’s most lovable, undefinable, irrepressible, meme-able thingamajigger. Stay weird, you sexy beast.
J.S. McLean Centre for Canadian and Indigenous Art, Art Gallery of Ontario
One year after Canada 150, the Art Gallery of Ontario unveiled its own view of a new Nation-to-Nation relationship between Canada and its Indigenous people, with a quietly revelatory renovation and rehanging of this renamed second-floor space, where the title cards are now in English, French and Anishinaabemowin or Inuktitut. The dialogues between artists – including the Saulteaux First Nations artist Robert Houle’s Kanien’kéhaka / Oka triptych The Pines and Lawren Harris’s Autumn Forest with Glaciated Bedrock, Georgian Bay – feel deliberate and generous, and properly challenging.
Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, Netflix
In this cannily constructed, emotionally devastating stand-up comedy special that caught us all by surprise when it appeared on Netflix in the spring, Gadsby reels us in with self-deprecating humour and then slowly undercuts the very premise of her act. In the weeks after the special blew up, people you never knew were experts in comedy pronounced themselves outraged at the idea that Gadsby might be trying to do more than make us laugh. How dare she?
Coriolanus, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.
An eye-popping, brain-teasing delight from the multimedia genius Robert Lepage and the tech wizards at his Quebec company Ex Machina, this years-in-the-making production – staged like a live film – enthralled from the opening credits to the final curtain. But it also soared on the wings of its leads, including Tom McCamus, Stephen Ouimette, Lucy Peacock and André Sills as Shakespeare’s titular tragic hero. One for the ages.
One of the, er, casualties of Peak TV is that shows need to be high-concept – dystopias! dragons! dystopias with dragons! – to attract enough viewers to keep it on the air. But there was a searching, refreshingly earnest spirit to this intimately scaled comedy-drama about a late-thirtysomething, recently divorced woman (Michaela Watkins), her self-centred brother (Tommy Dewey) and her troubled teenage daughter. When the end came this year after four brief seasons, it may have left you in quiet ruins, but you were grateful for the time spent.
American Dharma, Toronto International Film Festival
Days before the masterful documentarian Errol Morris (The Fog of War) brought his new film about Stephen Bannon to TIFF, an angry argument erupted over whether the former Trump whisperer should be allowed to speak: The New Yorker Festival cancelled his appearance; the Munk Debate invited him to Toronto for a November showdown with David Frum. But Bannon’s influence remains real, which won’t be affected by selective “de-platforming.” Far better to probe him and his beliefs, as Morris does in this strange and intriguing film (which so far does not have a distribution deal), and let Bannon reveal for himself the horrifying emptiness of his beliefs.
As You Like It, Bard on the Beach, Vancouver
My skepticism about setting Shakespeare to Beatles music evaporated in the first act, and I was swept away by Daryl Cloran’s clever and joyous adaptation, set in hippie-infused 1960s British Columbia. The show was so powerful that not only did I see it twice, but when I recently heard While My Guitar Gently Weeps, a song I’ve loved forever, my immediate visceral response was a memory of the Bard tent.
Bathtubs Over Broadway, Vancouver International Film Festival
Imagine corporate America being so flush with money – and believing so strongly in the power of musical theatre – that companies commissioned live Broadway-type musicals for conventions and other large employee gatherings. Late Night with David Letterman writer Steve Young stumbles upon this weird 20th-century phenomenon while out looking for strange records for a regular Letterman segment. He becomes enraptured with these industrial musicals, just as I was by Dava Whisenant’s utterly charming documentary.
Betroffenheit presented by DanceHouse, Vancouver Playhouse and Canadian Stage in Toronto
I first saw this intense, harrowing production, co-created by Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, in 2016. Inspired by the aftermath of the death of Young’s daughter, it was no less stunning when I saw it a second time this year in Vancouver, or a third time a few weeks later in Toronto. I don’t think I have ever been so moved or thrilled by a performance; never so convinced of the tremendous power of art.
Curious Imaginings, Vancouver Biennale
Australian-based artist Patricia Piccinini’s grotesque, gorgeous sculptures would be thrilling even in a traditional museum setting. But the Vancouver Biennale’s idea to install them at the Patricia Hotel in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside was inspired, giving these already sentient-seeming sculptures new life. In the intimacy of these hotel rooms, some viewers might find the ape-like, pig-like, beaverish and hairy girl sculptures unsettling, even creepy. I fell in love with them.
My Brilliant Friend, HBO
One approaches a screen version of a favourite book with trepidation. But HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is so good, it acts almost as a complement to the novel, bringing the characters to life in a new way. I am thinking of the scene where Lila gets tossed out the window; even Elena’s acne. Director Saverio Costanzo is utterly faithful to Ferrante’s story. I love his confident condemnation of male violence and quiet celebration of female strength.
J. Kelly Nestruck
Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s celebrity profiles in The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine
One Sunday in February, I got turned onto Taffy when she somehow got me, no Parrothead, to read all 4,500 words of “Jimmy Buffett Does Not Live the Jimmy Buffett Lifestyle.” So, I was a fan well before she, similarly, investigated how a lifestyle brand and its guru (and herself) matched up in her viral magazine article about Gwyneth and Goop. Her best profiles (Jonathan Franzen; Bradley Cooper) were somehow both Twitter bait and an empathetic antidote to (anti-)social-media culture.
Low, Double Negative
Just as depression about the (failed) state of the world started to thump too loudly at my door this fall, Sub Pop’s sultans of slowcore came (back) with static and synths to help drown it out/in it. On the gorgeously spare Dancing and Fire, married Mormon vocalists Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker cut through clearly, harmonizing on an unnervingly unresolved chorus: “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope.” (The double negative comes later in the closing track, Disarray: “The truth is not something that you have not heard.”)
Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding on TV
It’s hard for this republican to explain why I got up early on a Saturday with mother and wife to watch an American actor I’ve never seen act get married into the House of Windsor. But I was moved by cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason; charmed by the unhurried address by Most Rev. Michael Curry; and loved the love in the eyes of Meghan and Harry (and the Queen). Like a happy, inclusive series finale to The Crown.
The Ferryman, Broadway
Even with the flight to New York, you’ll get your money’s worth with playwright Jez Butterworth’s latest, set in 1981 on a Northern Ireland farm: a love triangle, an IRA thriller, 21 carefully crafted characters (and a baby and a goose), a blast of Beckett, a soupçon of Steinbeck. Plus it’s, alas, hard to imagine a Canadian company having resources to mount this bigger-than-big, 3.5-hour British drama, ultimately just a feckin' good yarn.
The Plain Jane cone at Chaeban Ice Cream, Winnipeg
This summer, I found the place I bought chocolate-covered frozen bananas with two-dollar bills as a kid replaced by an upscale ice-cream joint. My dismay turned to delight, however, when tongue met Plain Jane – vanilla made with cottage cheese and honey. A mouth-feel masterpiece that then choked me up with its beautiful backstory: Joseph Chaeban opened shop to thank locals for helping 13 of his wife’s relatives escape the Syrian war to Winnipeg.
Paradise Lost, Stratford Festival
In her loose adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, playwright Erin Shields casts Adam and Eve as a pair of dopey lovebirds. In the world premiere directed by Jackie Maxwell at the Stratford Festival in August, the couple were cleverly costumed in flesh-coloured body suits – until they ate the apple, got kicked out of Paradise and suddenly appeared on stage really and truly naked. What a memorable theatrical metaphor for their new-found knowledge!
The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu
In The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, novelist Kim Fu follows five women from a traumatic girlhood accident at a summer camp into their varied adult lives, displaying a notable talent for charting emotional complexities. What is also refreshing about her novel is the way she subtly suggests her characters’ ancestry – Chinese in one instance, South Asian in another – without ever making theirs a story about ethnicity.
Infinity Net at Infinity Mirrors, Art Gallery of Ontario
Visitors to Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Art Gallery of Ontario who spent all their time in the mirrored rooms may have missed the provocative earlier works in the springtime show. These included the dotted Infinity Net paintings, such as one showstopper from 1960 that is a 10-metre strip less than a metre high – because it was cut off the bottom of a larger painting that wouldn’t fit in a New York gallery.
The Good Girls, Toronto International Film Festival
The Good Girls by Mexican director Alejandra Marquez Abella, which appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, is a subtle satire of Mexico’s upper class during the currency crisis of the 1980s. Ilse Salas plays Sofia, a pampered socialite who discovers her husband hasn’t paid the servants and finds her credit card refused. She is spoiled and snobby, flawed enough that Abella and Salas can turn her fate toward classic tragedy.
Obsession: Sir William Van Horne’s Japanese Ceramics, Gardiner Museum, Toronto
Eschewing the obviously decorative, Montreal railway baron Sir William Van Horne collected some of the simplest of Japanese ceramics. An impressive display at the Gardiner Museum in the fall included numerous little brown tea caddies, always made in the same basic cylindrical shape and the same muted colours – century after century. The earliest dated back to the 1500s. Sometimes it’s a lack of ostentation that really catches the eye.
Après le Déluge: The Buddy Cole Monologues, The Royal, Toronto
Kids in the Hall fans eagerly received a new book by Paul Myers on the beloved Canadian comedic troupe this year, but just as welcome was the reappearance of Buddy Cole, the ascot-loving, martini-gulping character created by the group’s Scott Thompson. I caught Thompson’s new Buddy Cole one-man stage show at Toronto’s Royal Theatre, where the comedy was audacious and scandalous, delivered by a fed-up gay man with talon-sharp things to say.
The Strombo Show presents: Joni 75, CBC Music
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s…” Nobody wants to finish that sentence. On Nov. 4, host George Stroumboulopoulos presented a four-hour audio extravaganza that honoured Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday. A radio audience heard exclusive covers, thoughtful recollections from musicians and an eclectic selection of the great troubadour’s own past performances. It felt like a national holiday.
The 2018 CBC Massey Lectures: All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward, CBC Radio
Tanya Talaga won’t dazzle anyone with her oratorical prowess, but the award-winning author of Seven Fallen Feathers travelled the country to deliver five lectures on the legacy of cultural genocide against Canadian Indigenous peoples. Her insistence was persuasive; her truths were undeniable; her humanity shown like a peacock’s tail. Initially carried on CBC Radio One’s Ideas, Talaga’s important notions are archived online.
The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, HBO
This was Judd Apatow’s eulogy to a friend and mentee comic, presented by HBO in two parts. Shandling, who died in 2016 at age 66, was a comedian of the self-depreciative kind. Through his personal journals and private letters, and with testimonials from those who knew him well, a fuller human portrait of the man was affectingly and artfully presented.
Artie Lange on Crashing, HBO
I’m less of a fan of Pete Holmes’s stand-up comedy than I am of his semi-autobiographical HBO series Crashing. (All of us are at our best when presented semi-autobiographically.) A soulful episode of Season 2 concerned the heroin habit of comedian Artie Lange. He’s portrayed candidly – dependable in his undependability. Jessica Lea Mayfield’s sobering cover of Elliott Smith’s A Fond Farewell was a pitch-perfect fadeout to an episode that exemplified Crashing’s honest themes of highs, lows and camaraderie.