Culturedarm’s Best of Culture 2015

Culturedarm Best of 2015 3

Best Film

While it came out in the middle of November in the USA, Birdman only received a wide release in the UK at the start of January, extending across Europe over the next couple of months. Despite all the acclaim the film went on to receive – culminating in its Best Picture triumph at the 87th Academy Awards – the movie is carried by the real life parallel afforded by Michael Keaton’s casting, by the audience’s fondness for Keaton the man, and by the cramped yet tactile cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. Alejandro G. Iñárritu might have won the Oscar for Best Director, but his remains a patchy career – Javier Bardem was captivating in Biutiful, but Babel before that was an atrocious drag – and there is little in Birdman in the way of characterisation or humour, while the narrative arc is laboured and encodes only facile critiques of fame, the roles and responsibilities of art criticism, and our insatiable desire for the intrusion of the real into fictive modes. Our sense of Michael Keaton, already in flight as we settle down in our seats, is left to supply the psychological depth.

Birdman is still a good film, and one of the best I saw in 2015 – but then I didn’t see that many. Charlize Theron is an acting powerhouse, capable of imbuing her roles with real intrigue and a combustible presence, and in Mad Max: Fury Road her Furiosa possesses dignity and strength, with a backstory that makes you want to know more. Furiosa’s escape alongside the Wives feels vital, empowering, and fun, but the villains of the piece are commonplace and the chase and fight sequences somehow locked in, gesturing towards a rhythmic, punkish anarchy but proving visually repetitive, and with little at stake.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part Two was a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the saga of Katniss Everdeen, which managed to provide epic and meaningful fight sequences while staying true to the damper patterns, the lulls and quiet moments of life. While the series has received criticism for splitting up Suzanne Collins’ last book, it is easy to imagine the twist at the end of Mockingjay – Part Two falling flat without the time spent on Julianne Moore’s Alma Coyne in the earlier picture. And even stretched over four films, The Hunger Games still feels concise compared to other sci-fi and fantasy blockbuster series.

But the best film of the year was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, a picaresque based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, with Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello a part-time private investigator in a hazy, drug-fuelled, paranoid Los Angeles County beach town. The film was released at the end of January in the UK. Joaquin Phoenix takes the lead role, at the head of a brilliant ensemble cast which includes Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, and Joanna Newsom. And while evocative milieus, wrought through a broad palette of cinema history, are typical of the director’s work, in this intimate depiction of California in 1970 more than ever Anderson has conjured a time and a place for us to breathe in: Inherent Vice is a magical experience, wonderfully alive, and full of slapstick and obscure romance.

Of the numerous films released over the course of the year that I haven’t got round to seeing yet, I’m especially curious with regards to Carol, starring Cate Blanchett, and marking Todd Haynes’ first time directing another person’s script; Arabian Nights, based on the One Thousand and One Nights, and directed by Miguel Gomes in a collage over three parts and six hours; The Assassin, a martial arts film which won Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien the award for Best Director at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival; and Tangerine, the drama-comedy of a transgender sex worker, which was shot solely on the iPhone 5s.

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Best Television

Following the multi-part story arcs and twin romances of season four, season five of Louie was more freewheeling and more surreal than ever before. Pamela is still central, a spectre even after her increasingly sordid and damaging relationship with Louie is quickly called off, Louie gets into new scrapes with his brother, and our hero ended the series suffering the strains of tour. Louie remains blisteringly and scabrously funny, and full of wide-eyed pathos. At this point it utterly transcends conventional notions of television comedy, a difficult, daring, and thoroughgoing work of art.

Portlandia continues to the best light comedy on television, in the finest sense of the term, with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein finding new perspectives and depicting subtle changes in their now familiar cast of characters. In the mould of ‘Brunch Village’ at the end of season two, season five found the pair eschewing the sketch format with episode-long narratives, beginning with ‘The Story of Toni and Candace’.

In the realm of crime, everything Scandinavian that I watched in 2015 came through. After five seasons spread across eighteen years, this was Mikael Persbrandt’s final run in the role of Gunvald Larsson in Beck – although that wouldn’t become clear until the season had already wrapped, with Persbrandt determined to make a success of his fledgling film career. Gunvald has always been as central to the story as Beck himself, almost unique as a character who captures the affection and admiration of the audience both through and in spite of his stern, uncompromising, physical, but principled manner, his wealthy background, his trim appearance, and his sardonic wit. He will be hard to replace. Much of season five of Beck excelled in the comedy of manners between Gunvald, his younger colleague Oskar, who still sought to prove himself while struggling with a young family, and the new police chief Klas, preening but difficult to pin down.

The second season of Arne Dahl saw the A Unit reunited and reconfigured, with Jenny Hultin retired and replaced as the head of the group by Kerstin Holm, Paul Hjelm switched to Internal Affairs, and a new recruit in the deceptively homely young blonde Ida Jankowicz. Arne Dahl is all about internal strife, whether it is intrigue between the different branches of the Swedish security and intelligence services, or inter-office sex, but despite the sensationalism, a shaky opening episode, and our sympathies residing almost solely with Paul, season two was increasingly captivating as the season progressed. Likewise with season three of The Bridge, where a faintly ridiculous and overly convoluted murder case wasn’t enough to detract from the engrossing idiosyncrasies of Saga Norén, now joined from Copenhagen by the equally tortured Henrik Sabroe. River in the United Kingdom, with Stellan Skarsgård in the title role, tried to elaborate on the success of the Scandinavians, but it was absurdly overwrought, a real mess of a show.

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Top 25 Songs

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Best Dressed

Emma Stone and Lupita Nyong’o always present themselves impeccably on the red carpet, and Rihanna, Grimes, and FKA twigs continue to mix things up with fantastic effects, but the best dressed woman of 2015 was still Marion Cotillard, who has maintained her association with Dior since 2008, and over the past year interspersed items from the fashion house’s couture collection with a white Bottega Veneta gown with pleats and sequins, an Ulyana Sergeenko jumpsuit, and a Jean Paul Gaultier Couture gown in green.

It is more difficult to talk about the men, because at least as far as the red carpet is concerned, there is little consistency. Sometimes suits appear perfectly cut, but on other occasions on the same individual trousers will hang long, shoulders will be overly padded, and misjudged buttoning points leave figures that look misshapen. Few celebrities seem to pay much attention to things like cuffed trousers or complementary textures.

English actors routinely receive unwarranted praise. Eddie Redmayne’s suits tend to fit well, though they are cut very slim, but whether it is logo emblazoned slippers or black tie in the wrong shade of blue, he falters on the details, and also has an unfortunate penchant for posing clutching at his cufflinks, which makes him appear strangely enfeebled. There is nothing special whatsoever about the attire worn by Benedict Cumberbatch. On the red carpet, Chiwetel Ejiofor is typically well dressed, while Ryan Gosling – who has received criticism from those who accuse him of caring ever less about his appearance – at the French premiere of Lost River provided a wonderful instance of comfortable, workmanlike fashion, with an understated harmony between the tweed suit, striped shirt, and battered black leather boots. Like Cotillard, A$AP Rocky frequently dresses in Dior, and always looks gorgeous.

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Best Sneakers

I was a fan of everything Yeezy in 2015: the Yeezy 750 Boost high-top in its original grey suede, the Yeezy 350 Boost in black-and-white and then all black adidas Primeknit, and the Yeezy 950 Boost duck boot in the moonrock colourway. I also liked the Reebok x Kendrick Lamar Ventilator in reciprocating blue and red, the return in May of Nike’s iconic Air Jordan 1 ‘Chicago’, and the Ronnie Fieg x Puma R698 ‘Sakura’, launched exclusively with United Arrows & Sons, with its gradated burgundy to pink toe modelled after the Tokyo cherry blossom.

I admired the aesthetic of the Hender Scheme ‘2015’ and the United Arrows & Sons x adidas Originals ZX Flux Slip On, without necessarily wishing to purchase either. Otherwise the vegan company Keep is hit and miss, but I especially like the high-top Guerra Primary, while ETQ Amsterdam boasts a fantastic collection of minimal, mostly monotone sneakers, including the Low 3 ‘Dawn’.

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Best Perfume

The only perfume I bought in 2015 which was released sometime approximating the year was Kerbside Violet, from Lush’s Gorilla Perfumes Volume 3 (the collection was launched in late 2014, but Kerbside Violet appears to have been given a wide release from February). Gorilla Perfumes are created by Lush founder Mark Constantine and his son Simon.

With violet leaf set against a background of rosewood, jasmine, and ylang ylang, Kerbside Violet bursts through French doors into a dramatic, windswept English late autumn: while violet is present, the opening is dominated by an immediate and almost overwhelming explosion of green and woody notes, cold, damp, and earthy. After half an hour or so the scent settles and dries down, the woodiness dispelled, as the sweet violet buttressed by jasmine and ylang ylang comes through. But this is still a cold fragrance, slightly haughty, impressively long lasting, and one of the few truly compelling violets.

Kerbside Violet Lush

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Best Art Exhibition

Just prior to our turning into 2015, I thoroughly enjoyed Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s A Draft of Shadows at the Bildmuseet in Umeå, a collection of interactive installations whose highlight was Pulse Room, where a symmetry of light bulbs blinked in time with each visitor’s heartbeat. A Draft of Shadows ran until the end of April. In photography I liked Eddo Hartmann’s Setting the Stage: Pyongyang, North Korea, at the Huis Marseille in Amsterdam between March and June. And Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal at the Bowes Museum in County Durham was a delight, and surprisingly comprehensive, eventually being extended from July through until early November. But my favourite art exhibition of the year was The Oasis of Matisse, which ran at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam between 27 March and 16 August, as the largest ever exhibition in the Netherlands of Matisse’s work.

I had always been a little dismissive of Matisse the painter, much preferring his later cutouts, his line drawings, and his costume designs and stained glass. The Oasis of Matisse reaffirmed the splendour of this later work: from the cutout panels of Oceania and Polynesia to the climactic collage – so important for Matisse because it brought nature within the walls of his home as he recovered following surgery in Nice – of The Parakeet and the Mermaid; through his cutout designs for the journal Verve and the illustrated book Jazz; to the stained glass, furniture, and chasubles he designed for his Vence Chapel, which he regarded as his masterpiece. Yet the exhibit also gave a compelling account of his painting and sculpture, offering contrasts with pieces from the Stedelijk’s permanent collection, and portraying his development as the product of diverse but clearly defined tastes and influences.

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Best Books

There were new books from some of the major figures in world literature across 2015: Margaret Atwood’s wildly comic, poverty-stricken American dystopia The Heart Goes Last; Salman Rushdie’s fragmented, One Thousand and One Nights-inspired fantasy Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights; Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, about family secrets and internet surveillance; and translations of three Nobel Prize winners in Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Discreet Hero (by Edith Grossman), Mo Yan’s Frog (by Howard Goldblatt), and Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind. I liked Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, the author’s first novel for ten years, an elegant unravelling of memory and identity set in a mythical English past.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

'You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths of craggy hills or bleak moorland. Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land. The people who lived nearby - one wonders what desperation led them to settle in such gloomy spots - might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist. But such monsters were not cause for astonishment.'

Elsewhere some of the most critically acclaimed fiction of the year included Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which was shortlisted for both the National Book Award for Fiction and the Booker Prize; eventual Booker winner A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James; Prix Goncourt victor Boussole, by Mathias Énard; and Lucia Berlin’s short story collection A Manual for Cleaning Women. The Complete Works of Primo Levi also arrived in a three-volume box set, edited by Ann Goldstein, with translation by Stuart Woolf, Ann Goldstein, Jenny McPhee, and more.

Folio Columns 2003-2014 by Luca Turin

'Some forms of beauty are destined forever to remain minority interests: for example, stand among the crowd in front of the outdoor copy of Michelangelo's David and marvel at the veins on his large, idle white hands. Then turn 90 degrees right and look at Cellini's Perseus, ignored, remote, aloof from the messy job just done (taking out Medusa). Now ask yourself: if, as is likely, David wears Eau Sauvage, what rare, somber fluid sits on Perseus's bathroom shelf?'

Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History was published in 2014, but I only got round to reading it in a paperback edition during the first months of the new year – before it went on to win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Kolbert compares across periods and habitats to suggest that we are in the midst of a man-made mass extinction, and while the analysis is stark, the intimate style, the diversity of subject matter, and the brief assorted chapters make for a lively read that is easy to wander.

The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson

'The fastest way to understand the Nordic region's food culture is to eat an open sandwich topped with butter and hard cheese. Such a sandwich is usually made from fresh ingredients that have been preserved for long-term storage, such as bread, leavened, seasoned butter and dry, hard cheese that has ideally been matured for one or two years. Many northerners eat this sandwich every day; its origins can be traced back for more than a millennium and it exists in hundred of variants.'

Otherwise in non-fiction, the fourth book of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume autobiography My Struggle – often referred to as the longest and most involved autobiographical narrative since Proust – was translated into English by Don Bartlett, under the heading Dancing in the Dark. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ sharp meditation on race in America, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. And I particularly enjoyed Luca Turin’s Folio Columns 2003-2014, a collection of perfume reviews and offhand comparisons which he wrote for the Swiss magazine NZZ Folio.

'Matisse and the Lure of Decoration' by Maurice Rummens

'Right through to his death, his aim would always be to evoke a carefree mood of brightness and joy through the use of minimal means of expression. Matisse sought the solution in the most perfect possible union between form and color: the armchair, oasis, or paradise, expressed in a style composed of curving lines and areas of flat color. The arabesque, sinuous ornaments consisting of purely mathematical combinations of lines or figurative (frequently vegetal) forms and used traditionally in Islamic art, and later in Renaissance Europe, and the decorative were key to his thinking.'

The best food book I perused during 2015 was The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson, the head chef of Fäviken, who weaves together recipes with perspectives on Nordic food culture, from pizza to charcuterie, alcohol to the preferred pairing of grilled lampreys with Jaffa orange soda. And my favourite art book of the year was again probably The Oasis of Matisse, the colourful catalogue produced for the Stedelijk exhibition, with a foreword by Beatrix Ruf, an introduction by Bart Rutten and Geurt Imanse, and an essay on Matisse and decoration by Maurice Rummens.

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