Igor by Tyler, the Creator
I didn’t think I’d be a Tyler fan. When he emerged a decade ago as leader of the crew Odd Future, he was a tiresome breed of bad boy. But Tyler grew up. On Igor, he delivers loopy neo-soul that’s complex, emotionally raw and at times (shhh!) just beautiful.
The New Pornographers, live at Danforth Music Hall in Toronto, Aug. 17
It’s nice to have artists you can depend on. And this Gen X power-pop mob – with their dense and punny lyrics, seventies-AM-radio choruses and virtuoso harmonies – are now an institution. Live, they were louder and better than ever.
New Mineral Collective, Pleasure Prospects at the Toronto Biennial of Art
This year’s Toronto Biennial was a quiet triumph, bringing sidewise artists’ perspectives into various public spaces. This installation in Mississauga’s Small Arms Inspection Building presented a critique of resource extraction through entrancing sculptural objects. It dug deep.
Vija Celmins, Art Gallery of Ontario
This beautifully curated retrospective sheds light on Celmins’s career: decades of relentless, often inscrutable labour. Her shimmering black paintings of the night sky are deeply enigmatic and, yet, some of the most moving art I saw this year.
The Scream performed by Anand Rajaram
It was 45 minutes long with a single actor. But Anand Rajaram’s performance of Rohinton Mistry’s short story turned into the most chilling, poignant theatre performance of the year. Rajaram plays an unnamed elderly Indian man alone in his room, obsessed with noises from outside and delivering wry observations he keeps in his head. He’s an insomniac in a living nightmare, but he’s all of us, baffled and frightened by the tumult of the world around us. An utterly unique show, the production depended heavily on the spoken words meshing with the disconcertingly macabre set and lighting. An unforgettable show, and deserved winner of SummerWorks’ outstanding production award.
The Laundry List performed by Vintage Taps
An old-school and genius idea, The Laundry List is a tap-dance musical set during Prohibition featuring gangsters, showgirls, a jazz singer and a whole lot of movement. The non-stop dancing and singing is breathtaking to watch. The story: Some gals at Frankie’s Laundromat wash clothes by day and want to be dancing, singing stars at night. The laundromat is a bootleg operation, but no matter. What happens is not so much story as dynamism, and the choreography by Amy Lintunen and Trina Josdal is rip-roaring fun. In a time of much melodramatic earnestness in theatre and dance, what Vintage Taos does is intoxicatingly cheerful for the audience and formidably hard to accomplish by the performers. You want to blow kisses at all involved in the Toronto Fringe production.
Dirty Mansions by Corin Raymond
It’s a book and a CD of new songs, Raymond’s first in four years. The book, a substantial work, is part memoirs, part liner notes, part history-of-a-recording and in total a vivid, perceptive slice of life for a troubadour. The term “dirty mansions” is something Raymond coined in a Globe interview – a big house originally built for one family divided up into multiple apartments where musicians live. The songs and stories are gorgeous, melancholy love songs, and bittersweet tributes to family and to old flames. An intense, heart-warming experience, the whole package of memoirs and songs inspired by memory is glorious, savoury storytelling.
Kopernikus by Against The Grain Theatre
Canadian Claude Vivier’s 1980 opera is much performed in Europe, but rarely done here. Why? It’s about death and it’s challenging, and Against the Grain rose to the challenge in what was an intense, moving production. Disorienting at times, the production soared to a cathartic tranquility. More a series of scenes and vignettes, Kopernikus is about Agni, recently died and now in a dimension between living and death. She wanders, meeting Merlin, Mozart Tristan and Isolde and others. She is being tutored on existing in the afterlife. Danielle MacMillan was an astounding Agni, all delicate fear and regret. But the production is about countless characters, and the entire theatre was used to immerse the audience in the exquisite wistfulness that’s at the heart of the work. A deserving Dora Award winner for Outstanding Performance of an Ensemble.
Canada’s Post’s Leonard Cohen stamps
It’s not the first time Canada Post has honoured our music heroes, but the stamps to commemorate Cohen are startlingly beautiful and apt. The three stamps designed by the Montreal graphic firm Paprika are simple, but emphatic portraits of the writer and songwriter in various stages of his life. There is optimism, intensity and energy-in-old-age in these portraits. In face, they are so eye-catching and out of the ordinary that you don’t want to use them as intended. But there are times when we all need to send a letter or card in the old-fashioned mail and to send these singular reminders of Cohen with them is to make a statement about Canada and what defines us.
Matthew Macfadyen in Succession, HBO
It is difficult to single out just one of the reasons why HBO’s Murdochs-but-not-really drama Succession has been so deliciously brilliant in its second season. I could take up a lot of your time talking about how Nicholas Braun has perfected the art of befuddlement. I could go on about J. Smith-Cameron and Kieran Culkin’s crass dance of wits, the two actors circling each other like horny sharks who have just learned how to mate. If this were a different type of publication, I could fire off a missive composed entirely of the many vulgarities bellowed by Brian Cox. But instead I’ll just praise the talent of Matthew Macfadyen, the British actor who has delivered, in his performance as cuckolded business executive Tom Wambsgans, a perfect vessel for pitch-black comedy. For those who have yet to fall under the spell of Succession – which does seem like it exists in a bit of a media-industry bubble – I promise you: Macfadyen’s scene-savouring, as opposed to scene-chewing, method is well worth whatever time you can spare.
A good deal of November was taken up by Beck headlines. Not related to the new album, but more so detailing the musician’s split with Scientology. Or questioning whether there was even a link to begin with. It’s all a little confusing. What’s not so bewildering, however, is the strength of Hyperspace, Beck’s most enjoyably weird album in years. An engaging blend of synth-pop and steel-sharp hooks, Hyperspace is the sort of hungry and inquisitive work you expect from someone early in their career, figuring out and playing around with their style, not an artist with the background of a 14-album-deep catalogue. Part of the album’s strength may be owing to co-producer Pharrell Williams. Part no doubt owing to the always curious nature of Beck himself. At the very least, we can definitively rule out Xenu’s involvement.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Economical, propulsive and heartbreaking, Normal People is the type of book you start late in the evening after putting it off for weeks, and then promptly decide to prioritize over sleep. There is not much to write about Rooney that hasn’t already been gushed by every other arm of the international press: She’s funny, she’s precise, she’s devastating. Believe the hype and buy into her world. It will be the seven best hours that you didn’t spend sleeping all year.
When news broke in 2017 that HBO was developing a Watchmen series with Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers), it was hard to feel much of anything. So another big-studio entity would try its hand at exploiting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s world, so what? Let them have at it. But as the series premiere drew closer, and as HBO began to release increasingly intriguing trailers, there was a nagging feeling that this new Watchmen might be ... something. Trouble? Insulting? Good? Shockingly, this new Watchmen is not only good, it is absolutely necessary. Although Moore has long ago disavowed any adaptations of his work – you won’t find his name on Zack Snyder’s movie, nor anywhere in the HBO production’s credits – were he to deign to ever watch what Lindelof and his team have accomplished, there’s strong reason to believe he’d let loose just a tiny little wry smile. The series also confirms that, in the age of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video and Disney+, HBO is the only brand capable of producing consistently excellent prestige television.
Forget Baby Yoda: The true pint-sized hero of 2019 was Momo, a horrifyingly bananas encapsulation of everything that went wrong this year. The bug-eyed, bird-bodied monster created by a Japanese special-effects company was supposedly the supernatural source of a Ringu-like curse that was out for our children and eager to implicate our parental neglect for good measure. Of course the entire panic over the “Momo Challenge” – depending on which urban legend you subscribe to, kids were either being enticed to kill themselves or driven mad by the creature – was a hoax that swallowed a few too many news cycles. Of course we all now feel incredibly stupid for even dignifying the wildfire meme with a second of our attention. And of course the sheer lunacy of Momo is so head-shakingly indicative of what a broken-down dumpster our online world has become – where facts are lies and lies are facts, and there’s no way to shout above the din of who is right and who is wrong – that to forget about her/him/it is to forget what a waking fever dream the past year actually was. Momo is dead! Long live Momo!
Fleabag season 2, Amazon Prime Video
Binge-watching is overrated. When the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s tiny, perfect tragicomic jewel finally arrived in Canada in the spring, it came preloaded with a dose of melancholy: We knew there would be no more. And so, after each of the six exquisite episodes – beginning with a perfectly calibrated chamber piece that erupts into glorious, violent chaos; and concluding with a rollercoaster of love and heartbreak and spiritual salve – I would linger for days, sometimes weeks, on the sharply observed moments before moving on to the next. The end brought a mess of tears and a kind of knowing, cleansing exaltation. “It’ll pass,” the hot priest said. No, it won’t.
Jojo Rabbit, TIFF
With all due respect to my dedicated, tireless Arts colleagues, sometimes it’s best to not read anything about a film before seeing it. When TIFF rolled around, I had somehow missed all of the advance chatter around this spirited adaptation of a 2008 novel about a Viennese member of the Hitler Youth who discovers – and I’m sorry for this spoiler! – that his mother is hiding a teenage Jewish girl in their home. Writer-director Taika Waititi pulls triple duty, playing the Fuhrer as a passive-aggressive figment of the young boy’s febrile imagination. It’s high comedy, sure, but it’s also a bracing reminder of how an entire society can be turned against a perceived enemy. (Which may or may not be worth remembering right now. No spoiler alert necessary, alas.)
Birds of a Kind, Stratford Festival
Any new work by Wajdi Mouawad is a major event, but how much more so when it marks his return to Canada? The erstwhile Quebecois playwright, whose Scorched was adapted by Denis Villeneuve into the Genie- and Jutra-winning 2010 film tragedy Incendies, lays out his plots like minefields. In this piece, almost a decade in development, he brings a tri-continental, centuries-straddling tragedy that traces a Jewish family’s tangled history all the way back to the creation of the modern state of Israel. The Stratford cast, tasked with performing in a seamless blend of English, German, Hebrew and Arabic (with swift surtitles) pulled off the evening like a devastating magic trick.
Girl from the North Country, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto
A musical that shrugs off one of the primary rules of the musical form – that songs must propel the plot forward and reveal something of the character who is singing – and unlocks a revelation in the process. Playwright Conor McPherson gives us a schematic drama about a rundown rooming house in 1934 Duluth, Minn., and then weaves in two dozen Bob Dylan tunes, mainly lesser-known ones, for something alchemical and – in the hands of the West End-based cast that had popped into Toronto for a brief run – extraordinary.
Damon Lindelof’s loose adaptation of the classic eighties graphic novel about freelance costumed vigilantes is a head-spinning remix of the source material and the messed up politics of modern America. Thick with cultural references, the only thing certain about the series is that it is perfect for our internet age, where we can parse each episode together in something like an unruly ad-hoc online graduate seminar. Thank the programmers at Crave/HBO for knowing that, in this era of binge-watching, there is great value in forcing us all to wait for the next chapter.
Christian Marclay’s The Clock, Vancouver’s Polygon Gallery
When I first learned of this monumental work – a 24-hour cinematic compilation of thousands of shots of clocks and other time-telling devices, corresponding to the actual time of viewing – I was impressed by the labour obviously involved in such an endeavour. This is a film made of scenes stitched together from countless other films, all of which reference the time. But The Clock is so much more than a feat of research and editing. It is a mesmerizing meditation on time and how we use it, and an exploration of imagination: It’s amazing how these disparate clips formed a series of narratives in my brain as I watched. I loved how, actual clock shots aside, the scenes were time-appropriate. The raising of the curtain at the theatre or opera at 8 p.m., for instance, or people awaking lazily mid-morning (or early afternoon), having overslept. There was also the active pleasure of recognizing the films; the joy of the obvious – Harold Lloyd hanging off that clock in Safety Last! – and the thrill of the unexpected – Crocodile Dundee, Pulp Fiction. Also the realization of the ubiquity of the clock device; sometimes, in that context, it made us laugh. I went again and again, enchanted every time. Bonus: In figuring out what time I had to leave the gallery to catch the SeaBus back to Vancouver, I never had to check my watch.
During a text-message discussion with a friend this spring about the definitely not marvellous The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (ugh, that show; don’t get me started), he asked me if I had seen Fleabag. At that point, somehow, I had not even heard of it. Luckily, my then 10 year old had unbeknownst to me signed us up for Amazon Prime, and season two had just been released. Well, cancel all my plans. This show, my God, this show. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, its creator and star, is Fleabag, a smart, single, very funny and charming London woman whose life is a bit of a mess. Season one was an absolute delight. But season two somehow miraculously surpassed it. That family dinner in the first episode? The hot priest? (“Kneel!”) The even more meta breaking of the fourth wall as the priest develops an awareness of Fleabag’s asides to the audience? Her final goodbye and wave to us? Devastating and beautiful; perfection. I laughed, I cried, I was in love. And not with the priest. (Well, him too.)
Ragnar Kjartansson: The Visitors at ICA Boston
I knew absolutely zero about this work when I walked into the dark gallery where it was installed, other than the urging of the helpful person at the front desk that I save some time for it during my visit. Good call. I walked in and never wanted to leave. This 64-minute, nine-channel sound and video installation captures a performance staged by a group of Icelandic musicians at a rambling old mansion in upstate New York. Each screen features a different musician or grouping of musicians playing or singing. On one screen, Kjartansson, an Icelandic multidisciplinary artist, plays the guitar in a bathtub. On another, a group sings together on the large veranda. There’s a cellist on another screen; a pianist with a glass of scotch, presumably, in another. The music surrounds you. The title of the work comes from ABBA’s final album – Kjartansson was marking the end of his marriage and, in some ways, his youth when he conceived of the piece. It’s about friendship, harmony, discord and going your separate ways, but continuing the collaboration.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
I have been recommending this novel to pretty much every eager reader I have come across since I read it. What’s it about, they might ask. Oh, it’s about a woman, an outcast at her rural Ireland high school, and a guy, a popular jock. They come from different social classes, but their worlds collide; his mother cleans her mother’s grand home. Then they wind up at the same university in Dublin. They become a couple. Then they’re not, then they are, then they’re not. But no, this does not begin to capture the novel. The plot points are not the gift of Rooney’s book. It’s the sharp observation and emotional intensity with which these characters are drawn. Never have I rooted so hard for a couple. It was a book that I literally could not put down, even as I hoped to make the experience last. Months after I read it, I still think often about Marianne and Connell. They were that real to me.
Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish at Stage 42 in New York
My parents spoke Yiddish and the first movie they ever took me to was Fiddler on the Roof. So it’s probably not a huge surprise that I wept my way through this magnificent off-Broadway production, sung and acted in Yiddish (with surtitles, which I needed, because I do not speak the language). From the first scene – which begins with a lone fiddler on stage then bursts into a raucous Yiddish version of Tradition (Traditsye), this production, directed by Joel Grey, was rich with authenticity and so much heart. Watching this early 1900s story set in a world that no longer exists – the Russian shtetl – in a language that was nearly wiped out because of the Holocaust, and knowing what is going to happen to most of these impoverished Jewish characters is affecting to begin with. But Fidler Afn Dakh – its Yiddish title – was also beautifully executed and very, very special. It was impossible not be verklempt. There on a freezing November New York night, I felt like I was home.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Netflix
Martin Scorsese’s sly, semi-fake doc on Dylan’s all-star 1970s revue adopted the carnival-medicine show spirit of the original enterprise, with bogus characters and fanciful anecdotes – many delivered by a po-faced Dylan himself. The real tour footage, however, was priceless. I don’t know if my favourite scene was poet Allen Ginsberg reciting Kaddish to a bingo hall full of old ladies, or Joni Mitchell playing the entrancing Coyote in Gordon Lightfoot’s living room.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? by Billie Eilish
Amid the emoting Arianas and Selenas of the current pop-music universe, Billie Eilish came sneaking up this year like a mischievous tomboy kid sister saying, “Boo!” The blue-haired wunderkind’s single Bad Guy was so deliciously WTF, it even booted Old Town Road off the top of the charts. It got me hooked on her debut album, in which she proves to be a playfully macabre teen chanteuse, like the goth, Gen Z answer to Lana Del Rey.
In the Age of Rembrandt, Royal Ontario Museum
When you think of the ROM, you usually think of old fossils, not Old Masters, but the museum belied our expectations with this illuminating survey of 17th-century Dutch painting. Visiting from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibition included some superb early Rembrandt portraits, but I was especially drawn to the lesser-known winter landscapes – such as Aert van der Neer’s grey, blustery depiction of a snowstorm that had me shivering in the middle of summer.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
Fresh off a reread of Ulysses, I plunged into Lucy Ellmann’s Man Booker nominee, in which the author (daughter of James Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann) turns on the Joycean stream-of-consciousness tap for a breathless 988 pages. Ellmann’s Molly Bloom is an Ohio housewife raising kids and chickens, but hers is no erotic reverie – rather, it’s a furious pulse-taking of our insane times from the heart of pie-baking, gun-toting Trumpian America.
Flowers for Kazuo Ohno (and Leonard Cohen), Luminato
A Colombian dance company paying simultaneous homage to Japan’s Butoh dance legend and Canada’s favourite melancholic troubadour? The idea worked wonderfully in this surprising Luminato show, performed with zest by La Compania del Cuerpo de Indias to an array of Cohen recordings and covers (including Anohni’s transcendent If It Be Your Will). Creator and co-choreographer Alvaro Restrepo also played the charming host, giving a memorable account of his meeting with a 102-year-old Ohno, which became the inspiration for the show.
The Liberal Party election platform
Let’s take them at their word. The most momentous commitment on the cultural scene in 2019 was the Liberals’ pledge to finally address the inequities plaguing Canada’s content industries. The party promised measures in its first year to ensure “all content providers – including internet giants – offer meaningful levels of Canadian content in their catalogues, contribute to the creation of Canadian content in both official languages, and promote this content and make it easily accessible on their platforms.” Newly appointed Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault has his work cut out for him in 2020.
The Two Popes, Netflix
You may have thought you didn’t give a God damn who runs the Catholic Church, but wait until you see Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce play duelling pontiffs in The Two Popes. With these crafty veterans overseen by director Fernando Meirelles, a look inside Vatican politics becomes a gripping two-hander as the dogmatic traditionalist Benedict (Hopkins) and the humble reformer Francis (Pryce) overcome their differences to save the church they love.
Bruce Cockburn at Koerner Hall
Perhaps the beloved Canadian singer-songwriter was wise to stick with the hits and offer only a small taste of his new instrumental-only album, Crowing Ignites, at his Koerner Hall concert in Toronto in October. But that taste – the elegiac April in Memphis, written on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2019 – was enough to remind listeners that the musician’s haunting melodies are as inventive as his twisting lyrics.
Heimat is a Space in Time, TIFF
The most intense viewing experience of the year, Heimat is a Space in Time is a German family memoir from the 1930s to the present – sort of. Director Thomas Heise’s text is taken from letters and diaries, which he reads, but his imagery of contemporary streets and train stations is only indirectly related. Puzzling out the links calls for three-plus hours of mental and visual focus to produce a dawning recognition that the meaning of the past is necessarily elusive.
One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, Venice Biennale
The European culturati flitting about the Venice Biennale may not have understood why the Inuit film collective Isuma was representing Canada at a visual arts fair, but for those who’ve followed director Zacharias Kunuk this latest film marks a powerful new direction. Mixing his mythical fictions with Isuma’s smaller-scale documentary work, the core of One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is a real-time dialogue in cultural miscommunication as a government agent tries to coax a semi-nomadic Inuit hunter into a settlement.
Soundtrack usage of Lawrence Gowan’s Moonlight Desires
In Nicole Dorsey’s excellent Newfoundland-set indie film Black Conflux, a moody loner finds new ways to be creepy and awkward at every turn. Except when he hits the dance floor in a swirling scene set to Lawrence Gowan’s hypotonic 1987 song about nocturnal inclinations. For a few minutes, a troubled soul is free – a testament to the power of a pop song.
Joe Pesci in The Irishman
Emerging from retirement, the actor is a master of minimalism, a departure from the more volatile characters of his past. A sigh or a shrug from him is a heavy gesture; Pesci’s presence alone makes Martin Scorsese’s Netflix epic worth watching on a big screen.
Bruce McCulloch’s monologue on Gord Downie
At a concert in benefit of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, the comedian Bruce McCulloch spoke about his friendship with Gord Downie, revealing a wry-humoured side to the late musician. The disclosure of e-mailed correspondence was not the betrayal of a confidence. Rather it was a poignant, upbeat insight into a man still missed by his fans.
With his comedy special Mark Forward Wins All the Awards, the gifted comedian and actor excellently skewers the earnest “seriousness” currently in vogue among stand-ups. Add to that his offbeat social-media serials, which make my Twitter subscription well worth the cost, and Forward deserves any awards and rewards that come his way.
Back to Life
The new BBC series Back to Life stars co-writer Daisy Haggard as Miri, an unflappable 40-something woman who returns to a sleepy coastal town after serving an 18-year prison sentence for something dastardly. The townspeople hate her. Miri deals with their blatant scorn with aplomb and a bad haircut. The humour is dry and black: When an effigy of Miri is hung from a tree, her mother points out, “This is exactly what she wears, but ironed.” The Brits do this kind of thing better than the rest.
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