Our favourite things
From Basquiat to Better Call Saul, Lana Del Rey to Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Maggie Nelson to Mad Max: 2015 offered a wide-ranging and often excitedly weird 12 months of culture. The Globe's Arts team reflect on their favourite moments in and out of the zeitgeist
Charles Lloyd Quartet, at the Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto, June 26
Tenorist Charles Lloyd turned 77 in March and, as he demonstrated in this uplifting, well-received gig of unadulterated jazz, he's never sounded better. At once pushing and pushed by a stellar combo of relative youngsters – props here, in particular, to pianist Gerald Clayton, 31 – Lloyd blew a gospel horn, creating a summa theologica of sonic soulfulness. At evening's end – there was no intermission – we were all believers.
Apocalypsis, at the Sony Centre, Toronto, June 28
Luminato went for broke – literally – with this expensive restaging of R. Murray Schafer's epic oratorio, last seen in all its raggedy-shaggedy biblical glory 35 years ago at its premiere in London, Ont. Slow, confounding, hokey, its cast of a thousand sometimes cramped on the Sony stage, it was at the same time an entrancing, magnifical tour into the mystic. Tip o' the chapeau to Luminato artistic honcho Jorn Weisbrodt and director Lemi Ponifasio for showing an ambition bordering on folly.
Straight Flush, at the Bay Adelaide Centre, Toronto
Yes, this rare foray by U.S. light wizard James Turrell into the realm of commercial commissions has been playing in downtown Toronto 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the past six years. But as with a lot of public art, it has to be actually visited on foot (rather than passed by in a car) to be appreciated – something I finally did one evening this summer. It was retinal rhapsody, five tall rectangles of gorgeous colour incrementally shifting like an animated Rothko canvas.
The Knick, Season 1
Made available to purchase in August, this TV series is a heart-arresting, vividly realized evocation of life, death and corruption in a downtown hospital in 1900 New York, The Knick is history at its gutsiest, bloody and marvelous. While blessed with a superb cast (led by a sociopathic Clive Owen), seething cinematography and pitch-perfect art direction, it's The Knick's unblinking depiction of fin-de-siècle racism, sexism, class struggle and inequality that hurts more than the sawing of bones.
Patti Smith, at Hotel Le Germain, Toronto, Oct. 13
I've seen Patti Smith perform once, played her recordings a lot, read the lyrics and the poems, pored over her Polaroids and the many arresting photos taken of her. Interviewed her as well – three wonderful times in the past 12 or 13 years. But I'd never had a one-on-one in-person conversation until this blustery fall afternoon. The meeting was occasioned by the publication of her latest memoir/meditation, M Train, a very loose sequel of sorts to the award-winning Just Kids from 2010. I was a touch nervous. Forty years after the release of Horses, I kinda thought of her as a pal. But would that hold up in 3-D? About an hour later I had my answer and the answer was, "Yeah."
The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson, best known until now for an elegant, reflective collection of prose poems called Bluets, wrote what I and many, many others seem to agree is the book of the year. And I mean that not just in the sense of it being the best book released in 2015, but the one best suited to our present moment. On the surface, it's a memoir about Nelson's relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, who identifies as gender fluid, but it's also a book of literary theory, a radical parenting guide of sorts and, at its core, an almost unbearably beautiful meditation on love itself. Nothing I read all year affected me nearly as much.
The best hour of my year-in-art was Grimes's perfect 60-minute set at the Danforth Music Hall in November, at which she played highlights from her bizarre, profound and terrifying new record, Art Angels, alongside enhanced new arrangements of some of the best tracks on her previous record, Visions. No Canadian artist made more interesting, unexpected, wildly original work this year; no artist, period, offered a more gorgeous and startling exploration of violence.
Young Thug, the riveting and incomprehensible rapper from Atlanta, released an enormous amount of material this year: a record, Barter 6, that's more fun than anything else I heard in 2015, and two rambling and addictive mixtapes, Slime Season and Slime Season 2. Describing Thug's appeal is difficult – sort of one of those have to hear it to understand it situations – but, for me, his collected 2015 output was the year's most generous, bizarre buffet.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Sure, it's loud and the action is incredible and the explicitly feminist messaging is welcome and resonant and there's that cool guy on top of the big stereo on the truck who plays the guitar that spews fire. But the long-awaited reboot of George Miller's postapocalyptic series is somehow vastly more than the sum of its parts: It's a meditative, immersive work of art with a genuinely contemplative spirit. It contains an entire world, and doesn't bother to explain it to you. Instead, it has the confidence to just present the unexpected and assume it's been designed with enough integrity to come to life.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now's The Time, at the Art Gallery of Ontario
I saw the show a handful of times, but the first one was truly special. It was about a week before it opened, and much of the work wasn't yet hung. At one point, as workers drilled into the walls and various museum employees buzzed around, I turned a corner and came face to face with a crooked frame containing Jean-Michel Basquiat's haunting 1983 painting Self Portrait (Plaid), in which the artist's face appears as a black silhouette with blazing, empty white eyes. The AGO show did a brilliant job of placing Basquiat's work in the Black Lives Matter urgency of our present moment. But that one painting, more than any of the exhibit's more explicit attempts at political relevance, built a desperate and lonely bridge between the brutality of Basquiat's era and the unending violence of our own. The show was simply astounding. It haunts me still.
This is the era of landscape architecture. Dead zones of industry or infrastructure are finding new uses, including Toronto's Under Gardiner, which landscape architects Public Work are imagining as a pathway and vibrant public space. Toronto's mayor is ready to squander vast sums rebuilding one part of the Gardiner Expressway, but nearby, a smarter version of the future is coming together on the ground. Two steps back, but one step forward.
Micah Lexier's Instagram
The decorated multimedia artist is a magpie, finding beauty in old pattern books or gathering cardboard packaging into joyfully obsessive arrangements. His talents are perfect for Instagram; his feed brightened almost every day of my 2015.
The Forgettable Truth, by Michael Feuerstack
The Montreal singer-songwriter captured my ears with his first record, under the name Snailhouse, in 1994. Two decades later he is, unlike most of us, still getting better. The title of his latest album captures his sensibility well: His songs are wry, tend to the downbeat, and they twist plain language and simple motifs into surprising – and frequently gorgeous – shapes.
The Cartel, by Don Winslow
Forget Franzen: This novel brought the news about the United States like no other this year. Don Winslow, a former reporter and private investigator, draws a broad portrait of the drug wars in Mexico and the United States, evoking Balzac as much as Francis Ford Coppola. Fictionalizing the real events of 2004 to 2012, Winslow moves from the making of an 11-year-old hit man, to a cartel leader's Christmas party in jail, to the grim sight of a journalist's idealism being blasted and burned away. It's a hard-boiled, deeply reported and absolutely brutal account: It reveals rivers of suffering fed by the United States's – and no doubt Canada's – addictions and pleasures.
As jazz's leading young pianist, Vijay Iyer has worked with poets and string quartets. But on this year's Break Stuff, and in concert in New York this summer, he worked purely with his trio – and that familiar vehicle smoothly and fearlessly went places I'd never been.
Death & Desire, at the Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery, Toronto
A mild evening in June in a tiny art gallery. A man strode to the piano and began playing Schubert. Two singers wandered through the audience. What ensued was dazzling, a rapturous evocation of naive, unbridled desire meeting neurotic, unfocussed longing. The naive desire was male, Stephen Hegedus singing Schubert's delicate, inflamed Die Schone Mullerin (The Miller's Lovely Daughter); and the manic longing was in Krisztina Szabo performing Olivier Messiaen's starkly distraught Harawi: Chant d'amour et de mort (Song of Love and Death). This was Against the Grain's Death & Desire, a fabulously inspired mash-up. Simply done, it was the most unforgettable night of the year and made, as a poet said, one little room an everywhere.
Trudeau and Lévesque, at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto
This chapter in The History of the Village of the Small Huts, Michael Hollingsworth's madly inspired dramatization of our history, was delicious. Sad to see the series depart from the Cameron House, but it has a splendid home at the Young Centre. In this segment – an uproarious exploration of the political relationships of Pierre Trudeau and René Lévesque – there was mischief and wisdom. A black-box setting; a rapid cinematic pace, with 120 scenes in two hours; a breathtaking evening.
Rotten Perfect Mouth, by Eva H.D.
There is no greater verbal-sensual rush than discovering a great poet, and the mysterious Eva H.D. is that. Her poem 38 Michigans, an achingly bittersweet lament, won the Montreal International Poetry Prize this year, with the sole judge, Irish poet Eavan Boland, saying of it, "The whimsy itself suggests that grief has found a voice and is making its own reality with a devil-take-the-hindmost defiance." And the collection Rotten Perfect Mouth is a miraculous calling forth of melancholy, but drenched with dry wit, very Toronto and deeply musical. Poetry find of the year, easily.
Lauren Lee Smith as Maggie in CBC's This Life
In a series that took time to find its footing, Lauren Lee Smith was magical from the get-go as Maggie, sister to the main, cancer-plagued character played by Torri Higginson. Maggie is meant to be a free spirit and more alive in mischief than any other mode. Smith embodied everything about the character with aplomb – cunning but guileless in her childish devotion to hedonism. Her handling of early scenes, in a very tricky situation with a guy and his girlfriend, was scrumptious.
Told a Lie to My Heart, by Harrow Fair
There are only a few videos so far, but an album is coming early in 2016 – this new duo of fiddler Miranda Mulholland (whose main gig is with Great Lake Swimmers) and Andrew Penner (of Sunparlour Players) is a heavenly excursion into soulful country. Their impassioned, touching interpretation of Hank Williams's Told a Lie to My Heart is just bewitching.
Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant's huge paintings of languid harems and dusty souks popularized a racy, racist view of the East that harmonized neatly with 19th-century France's colonial ambitions. The MMFA's masterly show presented the man, his peers and their culture in all their splendour and bigotry.
Alice Rohrwacher's feature film about a German family's attempts to root itself in the Italian countryside had so much to say about assumed identities and the fictions that people live by. Its closing parody of a game show about authenticity was one of the few scenes in this dense shaggy film that couldn't be mistaken for documentary.
Better Call Saul, Season 1
The crooked, wise-cracking lawyer from Breaking Bad (played by Bob Odenkirk) returned in the prequel-sequel as a put-upon regular guy whose efforts to live on the square get him nowhere. The whole first season was a slow, satisfying exploration of character, and a sometimes comic elegy for busted hopes.
Being and Nothingness, National Ballet of Canada, Toronto
I don't quite know what Guillaume Côté's five linked scenes had to do with Jean-Paul Sartre's epic send-up of German philosophy, but the dancer-choreographer's inventive moves and skillful kinetic storytelling enthralled me from beginning to end. More, please.
Honeymoon, by Lana Del Rey
"We both know that it's not fashionable to love me," Lana Del Rey sings at the start of her fullest expression yet of the rot lurking inside the American dream. The pop world's favourite whipping girl of 2012 is as fully fabricated as ever, and each studied inflection on her languid beautiful album is true.
I know it's not high art, and I recognize that the film is flawed even in its simple blockbuster execution. But dammit if the thing didn't make me sob like a little baby toward the end, when our car-jacking cast is forced to bid farewell to Paul Walker's lunk-head hero. Oh, and that scene in which a car crashes through not one, but two Abu Dhabi skyscrapers will live on as my favourite moment in cinema, forever.
Killing and Dying, by Adrian Tomine
Alternately heartbreaking and hilarious, Adrian Tomine's collection of graphic-novel short stories stuck with me longer than anything I've read in recent memory. This is the work of an artist at the top of his game.
Rick and Morty, Season 2
What started off as a mere Back to the Future riff in its first season has evolved into a brilliantly demented, carefully constructed and shockingly emotional work of genre madness. In the words of Rick, the series' drunk and demented mad genius: Wubba lubba dub-dub!
My favourite viewing experience during this year's Toronto International Film Festival wasn't in a crowded theatre, but in my living room, at 1 a.m., watching a screener of this gripping and terrifying film from director Jeremy Saulnier. If I'd died of a heart attack, it would have been worth it.
Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Like most people in the world, the chance that I'll get to actually watch Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway juggernaut in-person is slim. But I can listen to its ear-wormy soundtrack over and over, until I can reproduce the historical musical in my own head. And I will.
The Diary of Anne Frank, at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.
Theatre is ritual, but rarely more explicitly than in Jillian Keiley's revelatory production of this sometimes musty play given a Sistine Chapel-like facelift, which begins with the cast gathering on the lip of the stage to introduce themselves and share personal anecdotes from their childhood before throwing themselves – and us – into the tale.
887, at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, Toronto
A mesmerizing one-man work about individual and national memory, Robert Lepage's most autobiographical piece to date is a surprisingly emotional journey through his childhood and Quebec's Quiet Revolution. Lepage remains a pre-eminent stage wizard, using his gifts this time to toggle as effortlessly between places and times as between nostalgia, whimsy, wonder and white-hot anger.
Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Was there a brainier work of pop culture this year? Some scalpers' tickets to Lin-Manuel Miranda's unlikely Broadway triumph – a sung-through hip-hop/R&B/ pop musical about the "$10 founding father without a father" who helped lead the American Revolution and then dreamed up the U.S. central bank – can run more than $1,000, which may be what helped propel this album to the top of the streaming charts. Do yourself a favour and buy it.
Emma Donoghue's adaptation of her Booker Prize-winner may not reach the breathtaking metaphorical highs of the novel, but she and director Lenny Abrahamson have crafted a walloping work – anchored by Brie Larson and the intuitive Jacob Tremblay – about childhood, parenting and loss. You will be crushed and brought back to exhilarated life.
Most movies are shadow plays – we project ourselves onto the protagonist and watch as they act out a narrative we'd never dare in real life – but few as explicitly so as Pixar's brilliant work of emotional anthropomorphism in which we cheer and cry in equal measure over our own personal Bing Bong, the imaginary friend consigned to the dustbin of our fading childhood memories.
Clouds Over Sidra
In March, I was transported from the cushy TED Conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre to a crowded, muddy refugee camp in Jordan, where I was surrounded by displaced Syrians – including 12-year-old Sidra. I was watching (a verb that doesn't quite cover it) Chris Milk's powerful virtual-reality documentary short Clouds Over Sidra. So immersive was the experience that I even reached out to the children in the refugee camp who appeared to be surrounding me, even though my rational mind knew they were not there. This eight-minute, 360-degree experience, which had me in tears, opened my eyes in a profound way to the refugee experience – and to the potential of this platform.
U2's iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour, at the Rogers Arena, Vancouver
The Edge fell off the stage, Bono's voice faltered at times, but opening night of U2's iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour was mostly magnificent – with the band showing us how it's done with a string of hits. Highlights included an acoustic version of Sunday Bloody Sunday and, unsurprisingly, Pride (In the Name of Love) . Bono strutting along a catwalk as massive projections on the screens surrounding it made it appear as though he was walking down his childhood street or through his childhood home – it was a mind-blowing party trick that served as a clever reintroduction to Songs of Innocence – tainted by that free release onto Apple products everywhere.
This Is Happy, by Camilla Gibb
I have always enjoyed the work of the novelist Camilla Gibb, but this memoir, her first work of non-fiction, blew me away. This Is Happy kept me reading through the night on a hot summer weekend, so reluctant was I to put this sorrowful page-turner down – and then I forced myself to slow down, so reluctant was I to finish it. Gibb recounts life-shaping experiences with sparse clarity. She finds her calling as a novelist and finds love with a good woman. Or so she thinks. Pregnant, Gibb is nearly destroyed when her wife announces she wants out. But there is a baby to prepare for, so Gibb must carry on. She fights through her heartbreak to create a new kind of family. Despite the title, this is not exactly a happy story, but it is beautifully told.
The novel Room by Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue was harrowing and beautiful and transcended its difficult subject matter. The film Room (with a screenplay adapted by Donoghue) is equally so. The story concerns Ma and Jack, who live in "room." Ma was abducted as a teenager and five-year-old Jack is the product of weekly visits by her kidnapper. They are prisoners in a tiny space, but Ma creates a world so complete for her son that he doesn't know it. Director Lenny Abrahamson has crafted a film that is gentle in its presentation of these horrors, and edge-of-your-seat suspensful at times. He gets a tremendous performance out of young Vancouverite Jacob Tremblay. Brie Larson as Ma is also terrific. Watch for Oscar nominations. And bring Kleenex.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 1
It may seem strange to include Room and Kimmy Schmidt on the same list, but this Netflix series is so dense with comedy genius, I binge-watched it twice. The premise: four women are kidnapped by a deranged doomsday cult leader and imprisoned in a bunker for 15 years, believing that outside, the apocalypse has taken place. (Is it sounding like a comedy yet?) After they are rescued, charming abductee Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) starts a new life in New York. She finds a roommate: an out-of-work actor (Tituss Burgess) with a flair for the dramatic who helps guide her through big-city life in contemporary times. Much hilarity ensues.
The Affair, Season 2
When it comes to the current crop of cable dramas, and the sheer number of recaps, articles, tweets and think pieces devoted to their ilk, it feels as though none receive as little attention as Showtime's much-misunderstood portrait of two marriages gone sour. The second season continues the story of an ambitious novelist (Dominic West) and a heavy-hearted waitress (Ruth Wilson) who leave their spouses for each other, while adding the perspectives of the jilted spouses (Maura Tierney's Helen and the excellent Joshua Jackson's Cole) to the Rashomon-like narrative. Sensual, smart, and, yes, sometimes silly, The Affair is one of the best shows on TV.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Enough has been said about (70-year-old!) director George Miller's ballet of mayhem, and how it subverts, reinvents and re-energizes the modern action movie, but it deserves every single accolade it has received. I imagine this is what it feels like to be hit by lightning.
Mr. Robot, Season 1
I first heard of Sam Esmail's techno-thriller from a friend, who pitched it as Fight Club meets The Matrix. It's a show that explores topics ranging from income inequality to mental illness, and one that feels as if it gets the current digital age, despite sometimes thinking it's smarter than it really is. Lovely cinematography and a breakout performance from the bug-eyed Rami Malek helped make it my favourite new show of the year.
He's far from the most gifted rapper, or singer, but any time one of the one-eyed New Jerseyan's exuberant yeeeeeah babys came bursting through my headphones, I couldn't help but smile. Okay, fine, several of his songs sound basically the same, but if you have the world's best recipe for chocolate-chip cookies, why try and make an apple pie?
Star Wars: The Force Awakens – The Trailer
May 16, 2002. The movie theatre in Masonville Place, in London, Ont. Opening night of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The film, just like The Phantom Menace, is a disappointing mess, except for near the end, when Yoda hobbles into the room, whips out his lightsaber, and duels Count Dooku like the tiny green boss that he is. I stood up, mid-scene, and broke into applause, tears streaming down my face. (In my defence, I wasn't the only one to give the scene a standing ovation.) The same thing happened when I watched the trailer for The Force Awakens and heard Han Solo announce "Chewie, we're home." I may never be that happy again.
J. KELLY NESTRUCK
Tartuffe, at the Festival TransAmériques, Montreal
During my most stressful week of 2015, I travelled to Montreal for one night to see the Schaubuhne Berlin's production of Tartuffe. Entirely worth it. On a set that spun like a side-loading laundry machine, director Michael Thalheimer turned Molière's classic comedy upside down – transforming the title character into a rock-star prophet and the only character not a hypocrite. Genius.
A View from the Bridge, at the Lyceum Theatre, New York
I was wholly entranced by this holy production of Arthur Miller's 1955 tragedy about old taboos in the new world – the Broadway debut of the brilliant Belgian director Ivo van Hove. As the lights came up, I only had one stunned note on my pad: "Feet." Stripped to its skin by van Hove with an almost unbearably honest ensemble, Miller's play became terrifying in its truth.
While We're Young
Comedy is the hardest, because everyone laughs in different ways at different things. Director Noah Baumbach's wry but warm-hearted film – about the Gen-X/Millennial divide, technostalgia and aging with indignation – felt directly aimed at my funny-bone from its opening Ibsen quotation. Naomi Watts's flummoxed facial expressions had me guffawing from the get-go.
Betroffenheit, at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, Toronto
Toronto playwright and actor Jonathan Young's collaboration with choreographer Crystal Pite took us deep into a post-traumatic mind – and devastated. His recursive text made you feel we were discovering a new Beckett, while her ingeniously demonic physicality took it all beyond where words could go. A masterpiece, pure and simple.
Unsound Toronto, at Luminato, Toronto
Artistic director Jorn Weisbrodt's great legacy at Luminato will be reclaiming the Hearn Generating Station for Torontonians. Drinking and dancing to ear-punishing electronica amid sculptural smoke in this industrial ruin that could fit the Statue of Liberty (horizonally or vertically!) was the kind of nightmare I thought I'd have to wait until after the apocalypse to experience.
The moral integrity of Son of Saul
It is difficult to make a Holocaust movie that does not exploit the situation of its characters for the emotional benefit of its audience, but this remarkable Hungarian film succeeds by narrowing its focus to the perspective of a prisoner who works in the gas chamber at Auschwitz.
The voice of Brent Carver, heard at an Art of Time Ensemble concert at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre
Whether he is singing Kander and Ebb or the Beatles, Brent Carver brings an actor's emotional acuity to every poignancy-drenched number.
The narrative voice of Anakana Schofield in her Giller-nominated novel, Martin John
Written in the third person yet mimicking the internal monologue of the title character and his stressed-out mother, the novel exposes the mind of a sexual deviant.
The insight into human behaviour in (Dis)Honesty: The Truth about Lies
There are no bells and whistles in this American documentary, just heads talking about one fascinating topic: why and how we lie.
The cross-generational energy of Marat/Sade, performed by Soulpepper, at Toronto's Young Centre
Veteran Soulpepper company members and newer recruits joined joyously together to bring this sixties relic, about overthrowing the old regime, into the 21st century.
Hawksley Workman, at the Avening Community Hall
On the night of the year's first snowfall, just outside the village of Creemore, Ont., the extroverted singer-songwriter performed to the effervescent. He sang about musical community, making soup and being safe and sound with him. The audience beamed. Hawksley Workman called it a "weird gig in the middle of nowhere," but it sure felt like somewhere to me.
Al Purdy Was Here
"Would you believe I write poems?" Al Purdy, a self-proclaimed sensitive man, is studied idiosyncratically and marvellously by long-time Maclean's film critic Brian D. Johnson, who with his uncompromising documentary celebrates a lanky tower of prose and Canadiana. Purdy was always here; now he's that much more indelible.
A Man Walks Into a Bar, at the Fringe Festival, Toronto
A two-hander Fringe Festival hit from the actress-playwright Rachel Blair was a punchline to the gut, a sharp meta-commentary on the gender politics of ordering a drink, and a rare occasion when a joke is better for being explained.
Blackstar, by David Bowie
A freaky-brilliant new song (the multipart lead single from a forthcoming album of the same name) dropped from outer space – a 10-minute opus of weird, chilly grandeur seemingly in orbit since the man's mid-seventies Station to Station days. "I'm a blackstar, way up," Bowie croons, "oh honey, I've got game." Yes, you do.
Sunnyside, Season 1
Watching this smart and zippy CITY-TV sketch show will help us every day and it will brighten all the way – there's really no reason not to keep on the "sunnyside" of television comedy life. But seriously, cast members Pat Thornton, Kathleen Phillips and others are refreshing beams of funny, week after week.