The envelope please … From the cultural landscape via Crikey Weekender, we present the best from the big and small screens, stages, bookshelves, computers and music collections in 2012.
Best film of 2012: The Grey
There were stunning films from across the globe: Iran’s achingly powerful A Separation, Turkey’s brooding murder mystery Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and South Korea’s direct-to-DVD doozie The Front Line among the pedigree titles. Top-shelf American cinema was lined by features as varied as James Bobin’s smile-stretching The Muppets and Australian director Andrew Dominik’s blood-stained commentary on the US economy, Killing Them Softly.
But the best of the year came from an unexpected place: the hands of a studio director whose previous feature, The A Team, was little more than a cash-grab about bathtub figurines writ large. Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is a hair-raising two-hander. It can be read as a man-versus-wild action thriller chocked to the gills with B-movie tropes, but under the bonnet the film works on far deeper levels. Based in remote Alaskan wilderness, it charts the psychological and geographic journey of John Ottway (Liam Neeson) and a bunch of men stranded in icy no-man’s land, who are picked off one after the other by bloodthirsty wolves.
The Grey leaps into explorations of mental illness and suicidal tendencies as fearlessly as the “by my cold dead hands” look in Neeson’s stony eyes. Carnahan frames his narrative as the ultimate men’s group: a cathartic film that grapples with the age-old question of what it means to be a man. It’s at once angry and explorative, sensitive and poignant, a mixture of knuckle-busting action and beautiful emotional beats that coil softly around the film’s dialogue-heavy screenplay. This is a blockbuster-sized parable littered with dramatic complexities that belie the stark, wintry simplicity of its setting. The title is not a description of the Alaskan landscape or the colour of the wolves.
Girls was honest. Girls was funny. Girls was fresh. Girls was divisive.
Girls is important for both the content of the show itself, as well as the discussion that surrounded it. It filled a void that existed on television by speaking to a generation of viewers (both male and female) in a way few other series have. How To Make It In America, another recent HBO effort, made a similar connection but resonated significantly less with viewers. Girls is one of the few shows on television in which the viewer believes Instagram, Etsy and Skrillex may also exist. And the fact that protagonist Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) is such a terrible person only adds to the relatability of the show. Nobody wants to be Hannah Horvath, but she does represent our universal awfulness as people.
And then there’s the conversation. We talked about the authenticity of the world of the characters considering there are so few African-American characters, the nepotism in casting, even the legitimacy of one of the girl’s mastabatory techniques. Love it or hate it, any show that encourages audiences to discuss race, gender, s-xuality and other weighty issues should be celebrated. TV should never be dull — Girls hasn’t come close.
Video games grew up a little in 2012. Declining sales for conservative, mega-budget franchisesand growing visibility and critical success for independently made, creative wonders means, for many, things are getting more serious. But the games most commonly championed by critics this year still work within or against tropes, or are of the “so dumb they’re probably quite smart” variety.
Dys4ia, by Anna Anthropy, stands almost completely alone as being worthwhile on its own terms. It’s a deeply personal story — autobiographic, even — of its creator’s ongoing experiences with hormone replacement therapy. It is moving and genuinely emotional (while not being manipulative), and possesses an economy and pace that should shame the producers of the next 50-hour role-playing game about nothing. The fact it’s a free browser game, playable in five minutes, reminds us those conservative corporations who have held the keys to video game culture for so long have done so little.
For the first time in a very long time, Dys4ia comes close to fulfilling that hoary old promise of gaming: that they might tell us a little about each other by allowing us to spend a moment in another’s shoes. But this is not why it is my game of the year: instead, I have chosen Dys4ia because it is unique, because it is personal, because it is daring and, ultimately, because it stands on its own merits.
It’s difficult to narrow down to just one the eclectic mix of favourites from my year of reading. Laurent Binet’s HHhH and Zadie Smith’s NW were two very different works, with initially baffling titles, that left an impression on me. There were local releases I loved, particularly Josephine Rowe’s Tarcutta Wake, not only for the elegance of her writing but for championing the microfiction genre, and Anna Krien’s Quarterly Essay “Us and Them“, for her revealing examination of our treatment of animals in her beautifully fraught prose.
But the book of the year for me was an international blockbuster release: Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie’s memoir detailing his life following the publication of The Satanic Verses and the resulting decade he spent in hiding. Joseph Anton is a manifesto, a defence, and an explanation of the novel that exploded around him, the reverberations of which are still being felt to this day. But it is also a revealing, almost voyeuristic, insight into the literary world of the not-too-distant past — the parties and celebrities, friends and foes, insults, bad reviews and prizes not won.
Yes, it is a weighty, “worthy” tome, some 700 pages long. But it is also the most compelling, gripping and enjoyably readable book I’ve spent time with all year.
Best theatre production of 2012: Fool’s Island (Sydney) / The Wild Duck (Melbourne)
Noting very creditable and captivating entries — Bell Shakespeare’s The School For Wives, Belvoir St’s Medea and Private Lives, Ensemble’s A Picasso, Opera Australia’s Salome, Sydney Theatre’s Water, Seymour’s The Merger, Griffin’s The Sea Project, New Theatre’s Here Lies Henry — doesn’t make my task any easier. But I’m plumping for Sydney Theatre Company’s Fool’s Island. Apart from Darren Gilshenan’s Chaplinesque level of comical performance, it exemplifies one of the best of all possible theatrical outcomes: discovered and produced by influential indie outfit Tamarama Rock Surfers and, subsequently, by STC’s apparently eagle-eyed artistic directors, resulting in a season at “headquarters” in Wharf 2. In support, I can cite one of Australia’s most revered reviewers (well, me):
“Darren Gilshenan is inestimably, consummately surpassing, in the degree of a Roberto Benigni, Chaplin, Lloyd, or, domestically, a Mo (Roy Rene, not half of the iconic ad duo). His capacity for note-perfect physical comedy is, literally, boundless. But even the degree of Gilshenan’s brilliance would be as nothing if not for a script that harnesses his talents and, though (entertainingly) meandering, goes somewhere. It goes a long way past the island, back to the biblical garden.”
Theatre of biblical proportions. Just right for this time of year.
Lovers of the musical were glad they lived in Melbourne for Geoffrey Rush’s masterful turn in Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum(it’s still playing; you’d be mad not to go) and two brilliant revivals of A Chorus Line and South Pacific. The Melbourne Theatre Company, in transition ahead of Brett Sheehy’s artistic tenure, hit the mark more often than not, particularly with Top Girls, Tribes and Red. And Marion Potts delivered some startling theatre at the Malthouse, including a visceral production of Blood Wedding and Declan Greene’s shockingly inventive Pompeii, LA.
But the two best pieces of theatre in Melbourne, for mine, came from a Sydney company: Belvoir St’s revival of Australian classic Summer Of The 17th Doll (courtesy of MTC) and reimagining of Henrick Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (on Malthouse’s stage). That Neil Armfield’s Doll could be so faithful to the 1955 original, and an excellent cast deliver performances of such power in 2012, is simply testament to Ray Lawler’s genuinely groundbreaking script. It deserves regular celebration. As for Simon Stone, who tore up Ibsen and pieced it back together with such dazzling economy and clarity, there’s nobody better working on the Australian stage. Stone trapped Duck in a sterile glass box — it was theatrical lightening in a bottle.
It was the year the album really started to fragment as a concept. The arrival of music streaming services such as Spotify and Rdio in Australia made individually curated playlists king. Albums had to be cohesive and consistently excellent, not patchy, to truly cut through.
Perth’s Tame Impala beguiled the UK music press with its second album of psychedelic rock-pop, Lonerism. NME declared “the scene in Oz right now — spearheaded by Tame Impala — is easily the most exciting in the world”. Elsewhere, Frank Ocean tuned many on to his street-infused R&B opus Channel ORANGE. And Leonard Cohen proved Old Ideas are often the best ideas.
But it was Jack White’s first solo album after the dissolution of The White Stripes, Blunderbuss, which made its understated yet strong case for album of the year. White plunged into his blues-inspired ragbag of guitar riffs again to deliver some devastatingly direct tracks. Sixteen Saltines and Freedom at 21 were early standouts. Slower tempo, piano-adorned numbers like Hypocritical Kiss and Weep Themselves To Sleep took longer to resonate but soon seeped their way into repeat play territory.
In a year when the music industry embraced its digital future, White’s Third Man Records studio and label, with its record store and live music venue, showed there was still some life left in the industry’s analogue past. Far from being scattershot, Jack White’s aim is true with Blunderbuss.