The Year in Review: Culture

The best of the best our critics' choices
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The Independent Culture


By Tom Lubbock

British Vision, Museum of Fine Art, Ghent

Not in Britain, but the most important show of British art for a long time; a revisionist history, demoting romantic landscape, emphasising the documentary and the visionary. A short trip, on until mid-January.

Citizens and Kings, Royal Academy, London

There were no solo Old Master shows worth mentioning, but this survey of of European portraiture from 1760 to 1830 was packed with masterpieces by Goya, David and Ingres.

The Painting of Modern Life, Hayward Gallery, London

An intellectually adventurous group-show of contemporary painting an anthology based not on a subject-matter theme but on a technical procedure: the close imitation of photographs. Peter Doig blazed out.

Carol Rhodes, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Mysterious, witty, tense, these small and beautifully calculated fictional landscapes, set somewhere in the middle of nowhere are an object lesson in painting without formula.

Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth, Tate Modern, London

The cartoon crack, plus other much-publicised contemporary art spectacles Hirst's diamant skull, Gormley's statues on London buildings should be remembered, too, in any review.


By Boyd Tonkin

Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach

This compact tragicomedy of sexual dread and social embarrassment in a pre-permissive moment proved that, in such quietly expert hands, less can be more.

Daniel Kehlmann, Measuring the World

An improbable triumph: the parallel careers of two titans of the Enlightenment (Humboldt and Gauss) became a smart and touching comedy of ideas and illusions.

Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places

Highlight of a golden year for nature writing, a literary and ecological journey through Britain found the healing wilderness in city streets and mountain crags alike.

Rose Tremain, The Road Home

With its rich mix of satire and sympathy, this timely novel of an Eastern European migrant's progress through divided Britain gave a classic shape to headline themes.

Charles Nicholl, The Lodger

Ingeniously researched, grippingly written, this study of one phase in Shakespeare's life managed to break new biographical ground.

Classical & opera

By Edward Seckerson

Donizetti, La Fille du Regiment, Royal Opera

That rare thing a night at the opera that wasn't cute but rip-roaringly funny. Natalie Dessay triumphed as opera's answer to Calamity Jane; Juan Diego Florez, her pint-sized amour, nailed the top Cs and her.

Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Royal Opera

Fewer laughs though more than you might think in the first complete cycle of Keith Warner's intelligent staging. Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera Orchestra covered themselves in glory.

Britten, Death in Venice, English National Opera

An auspicious debut for the new music director Edward Gardner in Deborah Warner's diaphanous, dreamlike staging of Britten's valedictory masterpiece.

Verdi, Macbeth, Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Richard Jones's ironic staging took its cues from the mad merriment of Verdi's score and Vladimir Jurowski's lethal conducting. The witches parked their caravans on the blasted heath; Lady Macbeth's washer-dryer worked overtime; and there were smiley faces all round as the body-count rose.

Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra at the Proms

Venezuelan street kids turned master musicians under their inspirational conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Awesome Shostakovich; riotous Americana from South of the Border. Humbling.


By Zoë Anderson

Darcey Bussell

Most retiring ballerinas avoid technical hurdles. In her last season with the Royal Ballet, Darcey Bussell took on demanding roles, including a radiant Theme and Variations. She left with a heartfelt performance of MacMillan's Song of the Earth.

The Bolshoi Ballet

The Moscow company's London season brought exuberant dancing in a mixed bag of repertoire. The highlights were a delirious Don Quixote, and company director Alexei Ratmansky's irresistible comedy, The Bright Stream.

Birmingham Royal Ballet's Stravinsky! A Celebration

This programme of Balanchine ballets was lovingly coached and danced with conviction. Symphony in Three Movements had such blazing energy that I couldn't sit still in my seat while watching it.

Steven McRae

This rising star danced his first Romeo for the Royal Ballet this year. Given McRae's virtuoso technique, that there were fireworks were no surprise but I hadn't expected such lyricism.

Transports Exceptionnels

Compagnie Beau Geste's marvellous, strangely touching duet for a man and a big mechanical digger.

By Films

Anthony Quinn

The Lives of Others

A moral fable of force and intricacy, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's astonishing debut investigates the pinched republic of fear and loathing that was the GDR of the 1980s. Sebastian Koch and the late Ulrich Mhe were superb as the compromised playwright and the Stasi agent charged with his surveillance.


The heartbreaking story of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, recast by the director Anton Corbijn as a beautiful monochrome throwback to the kitchen-sink school of British film-making. As the romantically troubled and epileptic Curtis, 26-year-old Sam Riley gives the performance of a lifetime.

The Singer

Grard Depardieu is magnificently melancholic yet playful as an ageing dance-hall singer who falls for a restless estate agent, Ccile de France. Depardieu's swansong, "Quand j'tais chanteur", was one of the great musical sequences of the year.

The Counterfeiters

This tale of survival during the Holocaust is based on the true story of a huge counterfeit operation concocted by the Nazis to bankrupt the Allies towards the end of the war. It has the tension of Schindler's List without the heroic intervention of a Schindler.

The Bourne Ultimatum

Best chase sequence of the year was between Matt Damon's rooftop pursuit in Tangiers and Rudy Youngblood's breathless escape from being kebabbed in Apocalypto. In total, Paul Greengrass's thriller beat Mad Mel's jungle epic hands down.


By Andy Gill

Monkey: Journey To The West, Palace Theatre, Manchester

Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's ambitious retelling of the classic Chinese folk tale was the most extraordinary show of the year, part-Chinese circus, part-pantomime, part-cartoon, part-opera, part-ballet, part-philosophical reflection, and part-fairy tale the kind of labour-intensive multimedia spectacle that makes most live performances seem trivial.

Arcade Fire, St John's, Smith Square, London

The massed ranks of Arcade Fire created a stunning barrage of sound from their armoury of guitar, organ, strings, accordions and hurdy-gurdies, the urgent waves of miasmic drone-riffs rolling around this deconsecrated church an apt tsunami carrying Win Butler's visions of apocalyptic disaster.

Brian Wilson, Royal Festival Hall, London

Bookended by the usual array of perfectly recreated Beach Boys hits, the world premiere of Wilson's and Van Dyke Parks' new song-cycle tribute to Los Angeles, "That Lucky Old Sun", reprised again their familiar yet enigmatic blend of melancholy and sun-kissed euphoria.

REM, Olympia Theatre, Dublin

REM offered fans the rare opportunity to hear works-in-progress from their next album literally in some cases, as the band did several "takes" of a song, to see which changes they should retain. The intimate surroundings made for a much more relaxed event than the "experiment in terror for ourselves" that Michael Stipe had anticipated.

The Rolling Stones, The 02, London

For once, Ronnie Wood was the sober anchor behind the Stones' success here, while Keith Richards seemed almost demob-happy as what may be the band's final tour drew to a close. Spiced with titbits from Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street and a great Jagger homage to James Brown's "I Go Crazy" it made for a more satisfying evening than usual, a fine memory on which to take their leave.


By Andy Gill

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand

An unexpectedly sublime collaboration, realised with subtlety by producer T-Bone Burnett. Plant's gentle presence is a surprise: there are echoes of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris in the way the pair caress sweet emotions from material such as Gene Clark's "Polly Come Home" and the Page/Plant song, "Please Read the Letter". Album of the Year.

Iron And Wine, The Shepherd's Dog

A quantum leap beyond Sam Beam's previous releases, The Shepherd's Dog presents his dense, allusive lyrics in sophisticated arrangements reflecting the influences of Tom Waits, Tinariwen, Brian Wilson and lush West Coast psychedelia. A feast of rich flavours and innovative instrumental combinations.

Tinariwen, Aman Iman

Hypnotic skeins of cyclical guitar figures entwine around songs that both illuminate the social and political conditions of the Touareg and bring the nomadic desert mindset to life. World music album of the year and blues album of the year, in one.

The Shins, Wincing The Night Away

Strange yet familiar, The Shins' songs seem to take the most unexpected twists without ever abandoning the immediacy and melodic charm of classic pop. Inventive and engaging, this restored some much-needed mystery to mainstream music.

Grinderman, Grinderman

Nick Cave's latest project may be his best yet, an extended reflection on sexual frustration, futility and boredom, delivered with the sheer viscerality of early rock'*'roll, R&B and soul not to mention garage psychedelia, Velvets drone and Krautrock groove. Furious and funny at the same time.


By Robert Hanks

The Crime of Our Lives, bbc Radio 4

This year's panic over young men and guns was the occasion for a couple of thoughtful, indignant features by Winifred Robinson on inner-city anomie. For this cooler but more biting four-part series, Mark Easton investigated crime in Britain since the 1940s, uncovering a lot of hysteria and few solutions.

40th Anniversary Celebrations, BBC Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4

Ordinary broadcasting was almost washed away by the tide of self-congratulation that engulfed BBC Radio this autumn. But in among the smugness were some fascinating clashes of old and new Tony Blackburn and Chris Moyles, for example and reminders that radio as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Laura Solon: Talking and Not Talking, bbc Radio 4

Radio 4 is rarely short of good old comedies, but the good new ones are thinner on the ground: Solon's series stood out for its self-assurance, its unforced oddness, and the way it revelled in the neglected truth that funny voices can really be funny.

Stoppard 70th Birthday Season, bbc Radios 3, 4 and 7

A weak production of Arcadia nearly spoiled this one (baffling: the BBC has a superb production with the original cast nestling in the archives). But otherwise, a handsome survey, from the early radio shorts through to Stoppard's latest, Rock'*'Roll; and a reminder along with March's production of Pinter's The Homecoming that radio drama is an art form that matters.

Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie, bbc Radio 2

Quite why Radio 2 had to combine the talents of these two is a bit of a mystery perhaps they thought it was healthier to get all their likeably sardonic Northerners over with in one go. But it's now firmly established as one of the most pleasant ways of passing mid-evenings when there's nowt on the telly.

World music

By Robin Denselow

Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara, Soul Science

One of the most exhilarating albums of the year comes from a British guitarist and a Gambian exponent of the ritti, the one-stringed fiddle. Adams plays with Robert Plant's band (when Plant isn't reviving Led Zeppelin) and produces for Tinariwen. Here, rock and Africa come together in a rousing, urgent fusion.

Mayra Andrade, Navega

Andrade is a young, confident singer from the Cape Verde Islands, and her debut album has much of the cool, sad charm that made her compatriot Cesaria Evora such a star. She uses rhythms from the islands, and influences from Brazil and Europe, matched against exquisite vocals and she's better live.

Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, Segu Blue

The latest instrumental superstar from Mali, Bassekou plays the ngoni, the small four-stringed West African lute. His mixture of rapid-fire improvisations and hypnotic riffs echoes anything from jazz to blues, and he's joined by three other ngoni players and his wife, Ami Sacko, in one of Africa's great new bands.

Orquestra Imperial, Carnaval So Ano Que Vem

Samba is back in fashion in Rio, and Orquestra Imperial are largely responsible. Started as a side-project by the experimental trio of singer/guitarist Moreno Veloso, multi-instrumentalist Alexandre Kassin, and percussionist Domenico Lancellotti, it has developed into a delightful and rousing big band.

Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective, Watina

Palacio is from Belize, and the best-known singer and spokesman of the Garifuna community, descended from escaped African slaves in the 17th century and now spread across Central America and the Caribbean. This thoughtful, soulful album is a stirring reminder of the culture of a forgotten community.


By Thomas Sutcliffe

Five Days, BBC1

Popular storytelling was in unusually vigorous form, with family treats such as Doctor Who, Jekyll and Cranford, but for adult entertainment, it had to be Five Days, a crime thriller that refreshed exhausted dreads. Serious drama wasn't quite as healthy, though Peter Kosminsky's Britz (C4) honourably showed that not everyone flinches from the difficult subjects.

Outnumbered, BBC1

The comedy series of the year was Outnumbered by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkins, a clever sitcom about family life that was unaccountably hidden away in a graveyard slot. Honourable mentions, too, for Gavin & Stacey (BBC1) and the deeply lovable Flight of the Conchords (BBC4).

Malcolm and Barbara, Love's Farewell, ITV1

Despite also being caught up in the "fakery" witchhunt, Paul Watson's film was a distinguished conclusion to a long-haul bit of film-making. Brilliant Young Minds (BBC2), about championship mathematicians, confirmed Morgan Matthews' ability to get inside the most arcane subcultures; and Mark Craig took the "Small but Perfectly Formed" trophy for Talk to Me (More4), a film compiled from old snapshots and answerphone messages.

Scandal of the Year

Jade Goody's bullying of Shilpa Shetty commandeered international headlines at the start of the year, but was edged out at the end of it by Queengate a row not over a documentary, but the press conference spin given to a forthcoming highlights reel and Kittygate, in which it was revealed that the Blue Peter cat had been given the wrong name. Not the BBC's finest hour less for the original sins than for the wild over-reaction that followed.

Loose Cannon of the Year

An easy win for John Sweeney, whose report on vodka adulteration in Russia was enlivened by his swigging down moonshine and then berating himself while dressed only in his underpants. The award was sealed by his meltdown while interviewing a Scientologist, described by Sweeney himself as "a good impression of an exploding tomato".


By Paul Taylor

Masque of the Red Death, Battersea Arts Centre, London

Punchdrunk, in collaboration with the architect Steve Tompkins, has radically transformed the BAC into a Gothic dreamscape for this stunning piece of theatre.

Water, The Lyric, Hammersmith

It's fascinating to see how methods pioneered by auteurs such as Robert Lepage are being adapted and enriched by young companies. Filter took all they had learnt to a new level of emotional complexity in this superb piece about climate change.

Macbeth, Chichester and West End

Directors often come a cropper with the Scottish play, but Rupert Goold conjured up a transfixing sense of evil in this Stalinism-meets-Peter Greenaway version starring a re-energised Patrick Stewart.

The Ugly One, Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court

The hero of Marius von Mayenburg's play has a facelift that launches a thousand facelifts. Staged as an encounter-group thought experiment by Ramin Gray, this satire on the compulsion to conform was an index of the restored vigour of new writing at the Royal Court.

The Brothers Size, Young Vic, London

This new play by the young African-American writer Tarell Alvin McCraney inhabits both the real world of white discrimination and black-on-black copycat racism, and a mythic circle that allows it to breathe a larger imaginative air.