Review of the Year 2009: Our culture critics' top-fives

Violence, vampires and vignettes


The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow's intense drama of bomb-disposal "techs" in Baghdad considers the Iraq conflict at ground level, and almost every scene crackles with tension and foreboding.

Let the Right One In

You could barely move for vampires in the cinema this year, but this Swedish nocturne was an elegantly bloody cut above. Lina Leandersson and Kare Hedebrant were unnerving – and oddly moving – as the principals of a love duet that teeters on the edge of violence.

The Hangover

No film was funnier than this giddily inventive romp about three groomsmen waking up in a trashed Vegas hotel suite, unable to remember their bachelor party the night before. The scene where they book into Caesar's Palace for their stay is magnificent.


Nothing especially remarkable about the plot of this coming-of-age story – the joy lies in Jesse Eisenberg's lead, the hilarious bit-parts, the sidelong observation, the terrific score, the wistful farewell to being young and in love.

The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke's sombre investigation of mischief in a Protestant German town on the eve of the First World War chips away at surface propriety to glimpse a hell of sexual repression and savage authoritarianism – and perhaps a signpost to a nation's calamitous future. His greatest film.

Anthony Quinn


Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, £18.99

In a year of meaty novels of the past, the Man Booker judges called well. Mantel's reinvention of arriviste Thomas Cromwell and the Tudor court really does strip all the cobwebs from period fiction.

The Junior Officers' Reading Club

Patrick Hennessey

Allen Lane, £16.99

This electrifying soldier's memoir commands attention. With as much Hunter S Thompson as Robert Graves in the mix, Hennessey's reports on waiting, fighting and grieving thrill, provoke and terrify.

Changing My Mind

Zadie Smith

Hamish Hamilton, £20

Funny, wise, touching, both cerebral and emotional, Smith's exemplary essays on books and films, travel and family, "race" and community, develop into an erudite but charming portrait of the writer as thinker and seeker.


Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos H Papadimitriou

Bloomsbury, £16.99

It sounds like ludicrous folly: the life and ideas of Bertrand Russell and his peers and heirs in maths and logic done as a graphic novel. Against all the odds, Logicomix triumphs. Its visual and verbal wit proves that no field is off-limits for comic books these days.

Complete Letters

Vincent van Gogh (edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luitjen and Nienke Bakker)

Thames & Hudson, £325

A gorgeous showcase for all the book-making arts, this sumptuous six-volume collection of letters by the only truly great artist to excel as a writer also hints at things to come. Worth every penny of its steep cost in print, online it's entirely free:

Boyd Tonkin

Classic & Opera

English National Opera

Britten: Peter Grimes

The company who first performed Britten's masterpiece took ownership of it once more. Astonishingly accomplished work from ENO's Chorus and Orchestra was testament once more to the leadership of the company's brilliant young music director, Edward Gardner.

Royal Opera

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

An uncomfortably austere but unforgettable staging from Christof Loy which dared to probe the psychology of the piece in ways one might not have thought possible. The Isolde of one's dreams from Nina Stemme.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Dvorak: Rusalka

One of the best-conducted opera performances of this or any other year. Jiri Belohlavek has cherished this great work from childhood – and it showed. Ana Maria Martinez – heartbreaking in the title role – confirmed her international status as the fastest-developing lyric soprano.

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Chailly: Bach's St Matthew Passion (Barbican) & Mahler's 10th Symphony (BBC Proms)

Riccardo Chailly is still the most underrated conductor in the world. His revitalisation of one of the world's oldest orchestras has both embraced tradition and consolidated the future.

Leonidas Kavakos

Gautier Capuçon/Nikolai Lugansky: Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A minor (Southbank: An Artist in Focus)

Quite simply one of those rare performances that make you forget you are there to write an objective appraisal. Stonking.

Edward Seckerson


Mark Morris Dance Group

One of the world's great contemporary companies, dancing at full stretch. These dancers were irresistible in the dreamy Schubert number "Bedtime", and elemental in the astounding Grand Duo. Morris's choreography shows new force after a recent lull.

Michael Clark

He made a triumphant return to his roots with Come, Been and Gone. With music he's loved since his teens – David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed – Clark made taut, driving dances with a punk/glam energy.


The highlight of this year's Sadler's Wells Flamenco Festival was a gala showing dance stars from three generations. The knockout was Rocio Molina, who seems to draw her dancing up from the depths: velvety but fierce.

Sergei Polunin

Just turned 20, Polunin is already a star of The Royal Ballet. In the past year, he's been princely in The Sleeping Beauty, spontaneous in Dances at a Gathering and spectacular in a range of virtuoso solo roles.

Akram Khan

His Svapnagata festival included his own solo recital, with a remarkable preview of the forthcoming Gnosis. He's an extraordinary dancer, fluid and exact; in this solo, he plunges and shimmers like a flame.

Zoe Anderson


Michael McIntyre

This was the year that Michael McIntyre (below) went irresistibly stratospheric. He's the comic you can take your mum to and after seeing him she would probably want to take him home.

Daniel Kitson

This cult hero continues to bewitch a fraction of McIntyre's stadium following with a depth of insight best shared in more intimate rooms.

Louis CK

The American comedian came to London in November and delivered a sublime set, both cutting and tender at the same time.

Tom Wrigglesworth

With his Edinburgh Fringe show, the northern comic married comedy with a message and championed a victim of injustice at the hands of Virgin Trains.

Dylan Moran

The 38-year old Irishman's sprawling What It Is tour has seen him on fine form, casting dandyish and swingeing swipes at the politics of both the immediate family and the family of nations.

Julian Hall

Visual arts

Mark Wallinger: The Russian Linesman

Hayward Gallery, London; Leeds Art Gallery; Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea

An artist-curated show, with an extraordinarily creative miscellany of items, ancient, modern, art, non-art; the theme was lines, outlines, borders, connections, doublings, invisibilities, split seconds, tightropes, with work from Dürer to Duchamp, and starring Renato Bertelli's sculpture Continuous Profile ~of Mussolini.

Thomas Bewick: Tale-Pieces

Ikon, Birmingham; Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne

This 18th-century wood engraver invented a unique episode in British art: the vignette. Tiny, fading at their edges, floating on the page, these images show landscapes packed with incidents and morals: children's games, hanged men, haunted woods. One of them carves the artist's fingerprint.

Garden & Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur

British Museum, London

A revelation: previously unseen, even in India, the art of the Marwar-Jodhpur Court from the 18th and 19th centuries mixed hedonism and metaphysics. There were Krishna's gardens, tingling with pleasure buds; there were absolutely blank images, representing the beginning of the universe.

Ed Ruscha: 50 Years of Painting

Hayward Gallery, London

The veteran West Coast painter is an urban conceptualist visionary. He depicts The Beyond – the faraway, the out-of-reach, ungraspable meanings, impenetrable sights. Enormous enigmatic slogans float over mountain views. There are silhouettes blurred almost beyond recognition. Advertisements for the unknown.

The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700

National Gallery, London

Hyperrealism, devotion, rivers of blood: these religious paintings and sculptures from counter-Reformation Spain have a shocking presence. The sculptures are a chamber of horrors, with lovingly detailed gore. But Zurbaran's painting of St Serapion is an exercise in pure mercy.

Tom Lubbock


Wilco: Wilco (The Album)

Wilco continued to push the cutting edge of American rock with this dazzling amalgam of styles and sounds, wrapping Jeff Tweedy's emotional autopsies in arrangements ranging from intimate country laments and burly rockers to pulsing electronics and expressionist avant-garde guitar barrages.

Keith Jarrett: Paris/London: Testament

Last December's solo concert by Keith Jarrett was an extraordinary demonstration of the improviser's art, an acoustic evening crackling with atmospheric electricity which the pianist himself acknowledged as "a throbbing, never-to-be-repeated, pulsing rock band of a concert". It's accompanied here by a French performance from the same period.

David Lang: The Little Match Girl Passion

Bang on a Can director David Lang's brilliant a cappella oratorio used traditional Passion Play techniques to depict the martyrdom of the tragic fairy-tale heroine, with the overlapping voices and repeated phrases creating hypnotic internal rhythms, such as the breath of life slowly fading from the Match Girl's body.

The Duckworth Lewis Method: The Duckworth Lewis Method

Neil Hannon and Thomas Walsh displayed more diverse pop smarts on their witty and affectionate tribute to the beguiling eccentricities of cricket than most bands can summon up in an entire career, blending 1940s comic parlour balladry, 1960s psychedelic pop, 1970s glam rock and 1990s jazz-sample grooves into an endlessly enjoyable revue.

Teitur: The Singer

Teitur Lassen is a unique talent whose songs straddle the divide between heartbreaking pathos and dark gallows humour, one's responses to their unexpected emotional colours further complicated by his unusual arrangements of marimba, prepared piano, percussion, horns and reeds. As distinctive and unbounded as Björk.

Andy Gill



by Jez Butterworth at the Royal Court, London

An English hippie idyll, with Mark Rylance whooping it up as a Falstaffian bad boy deep in Wiltshire. A right royal raspberry to both creeping suburbanism and metropolitan radicalism.


by Lucy Prebble at the Minerva, Chichester and Royal Court, London

A thrilling tragedy for our times, superbly staged by Rupert Goold – especially at Chichester, where the play breathed more openly and sang of our common woes in the financial meltdown.

Roman Tragedies

at the Barbican, London

A stunning conflation of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, staged in a conference centre with fights and crowd scenes as reportage, politics and heartbreak on the sofas. Made the RSC look so "yesterday", and was brilliantly acted.

Spring Awakening

at the Lyric, Hammersmith, London

Easily the best rock musical since Hair and Rent it brilliantly conveyed the inner anguish of Wedekind's drama in the music and lighting, and introduced some astonishing newcomers, including Aneurin Barnard (right).

Peer Gynt

at the Barbican, London

The National Theatre of Scotland's touring version of Ibsen's epic was relaunched as an instructive, raucous and hugely enjoyable fable of a heroic mountaineer morphing to mogul and media celebrity.

Michael Coveney


Generation Kill

Ross Kemp was deservedly mentioned in dispatches for front-line reports from Afghanistan but if you wanted to embed with Recon Marines in Iraq, David Simon's HBO series, pictured, was the best available choice – a drama that blurred the line between reconstruction and reportage.


This year's award for services to coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) goes to Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's black comedy featuring the hook-handed Mr Jelly (motto: "keeps kids quiet"). Beautifully filmed and horribly inventive.

Five Minutes of Heaven

Guy Hibbert's drama about reconciliation – and the lack of it – in Northern Ireland proved that difficult, serious drama can still find a place in prime time – and also provided terrific roles for Jimmy Nesbitt and Liam Neeson as haters in recovery.


Easy win for the most sturdily unflashy title of the year, but also a reminder that talented film-makers can find a great story in virtually any subject. A wonderful study of the collision between folk tradition and 21st-century management theory – with a generous sprinkling of eccentrics.

Free Agents

It was a strong year for returning comedies (The Thick of It, Flight of the Conchords, Peep Show etc) but if you were still mourning the loss of Pulling, Chris Niel's sitcom offered a role to Sharon Horgan and a brilliantly rebranded Anthony Head as a lecherous reprobate.

Tom Sutcliffe


Wilco at the London Forum

An amazing performance, at once intimate and extrovert, featuring tenderly emotional songs in challenging, large-scale arrangements blending country, rock and avant-garde textures. Experiencing this, it became blindingly clear that right now, Wilco are the Great American Band of their era, the States' very own Radiohead.

Tina Turner at Köln Lanxess Arena

A lesson in how superstars should tackle valedictory spectaculars, Tina Turner's show contained all the eye-catching effects, from cantilevering stages and flame-throwers to troupes of well-drilled hoofers, but the headliner's extraordinary energy and the effortless soul power of her voice were the most impressive aspects of the performance.

Mott the Hoople at Hammersmith Apollo

No reunion show I've seen in recent years, including those by Cream and Led Zeppelin, elicited the waves of joy which Mott drew from their audience at their debut comeback gig, a mix of swaggering glam-boogie hits and genuinely poignant reflections on the mythology of rock'n'roll.

Tinariwen at the Roundhouse

Political rock at its most hypnotically propulsive, Tinariwen's show provided an object lesson in the elasticity of cultural divisions, the thousands of miles separating the Tuareg desert-blues magicians from north London's cosmopolitan élite snapping together through a shared sense of rhythm and mood.

Steve Martin at the Royal Festival Hall

Bluegrass and comedy both demand perfect timing, and Steve Martin's banjo extravaganza wasn't just a display of dizzying bluegrass technique, but a rare opportunity to experience a lapsed stand-up genius command the stage with impeccable comic charm.

Andy Gill

Radio high points of 2009

Thank You for The Music

Radio 2

"You British are bonkers," remarked Benny Andersson, surveying the massed ranks of fans who attended this Abba-fest broadcast from Hyde Park in September. With a bill topped by Kylie singing Super Trouper, this was the kind of irrepressible karaoke that just couldn't fail. And it didn't.

A History of Private Life

Radio 4

Amanda Vickery's quirky, revealing serialisation gave a delicious glimpse into the bedrooms, boudoirs and bungalows of the past 400 years. The result of 20 years nosing into letters, diaries and household account books, it provided a daily dose of respite from modern life.

Composers of the Year

Radio 3

Ambitious programming paid off as major anniversaries for Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn provided the opportunity for a year-long celebration, telling their stories through the year and putting their music in context. Big concerts, evensongs, operas and a totally Baroque experience.

Our Mutual Friend

Radio 4

Doing Dickens well gets harder, if only because the bar is set so high. Mike Walker's 20 episode adaptation was a triumph. Imaginatively adapted, with excellent music, it wonderfully conveyed that air of murk, menace and mystery that is forever Christmas.

In Our Time

Radio 4

Still the most intelligent programme on radio and a podcast priority, the incomparable Melvyn Bragg is vice-chancellor of the airwaves. Where else can you sign on for 45 minutes of Pythagoras, Aquinas, Akhenaton and a little light Logical Positivism? This year's quality was higher than ever and missing out makes you feel intellectually impoverished.

Jane Thynne

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