Critical mass: The Independent's cultural picks of the year

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We've seen 12 months of famous returns, fabulous new works, and once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions. Relive the best here...

THEATRE

By Paul Taylor

The Tempest

Barbican, London

Declan Donnellan directed his brilliant company of Moscow actors in a production that infused Shakespeare with the wild comic spirit of Gogol. The wettest Tempest on record and the most astringently political, it referenced Russian 20th-century history in bitingly pertinent and exuberantly inventive ways.

 

Foxfinder

Finborough, London

A spell-binding dystopian parable by Dawn King set in an alternative near-future in which everything from crop failure to the manipulation of people's dreams is blamed on the "red beast". Tom Byam Shaw has been truly astonishing as the eponymous, ascetic and brainwashed young zealot in Blanche McIntyre's pitch-perfect staging.

 

I Am the Wind

Young Vic, London

On a stage that hydraulically metamorphosed into a raft which tilted and heaved under gushing water, Patrice Chéreau directed this hypnotic and haunting meditation by Jon Fosse on suicidal depression, the conflicted self, and human interdependence, Tom Brooke and Jack Laskey beyond praise.

 

The Ladykillers

Gielgud, London

Graham Linehan (of Father Ted and The IT Crowd fame) has defied augury by converting this beloved and perfect Ealing film comedy into a riotously funny and charming send-up of loony, slapstick stage farce (with Marcia Warren and Peter Capaldi). It sticks to the story and spirit of the original, while taking glorious liberties in the script.

 

Rattigan's Nijinsky

Chichester Festival Theatre

Terence Rattigan completed a screenplay about the love affair between Nijinsky and Diaghilev, the only time this inveterately oblique dramatist dealt with an openly gay relationship. He then prevented it being filmed. Nicholas Wright's superbly perceptive drama speculated about why, interweaving the film-script as the play-within-the-play.

TV

By Tom Sutcliffe

 

The Killing

Sara Lund's unvarying wardrobe and unwavering gravity of purpose made this 20-part Danish drama the chattering-classes television must-watch of the year.

 

The Hotel

Channel 4 has bet big on fixed-camera documentaries this year. For the human comedy at its most captivating this was the best.

 

Fresh Meat

Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong's campus comedy had a brilliant monster in Jack Whitehall's arrogant geology student.

 

Top Boy

Ronan Bennett's inner-city drugs drama (with Ashley Walters) inevitably drew comparisons with The Wire, but survived them.

 

Frozen Planet

The Natural History unit proved again that there's always something new under the sun. Beautiful and breathtaking.

FILM

By Anthony Quinn

The Artist

Michel Hazanavicius's black-and-white comedy is a film for the ages, the story of a 1920s Hollywood star who's suddenly eclipsed by the arrival of the talkies. Its cute coup de cinéma is that it's a silent movie – but, more than that, it's beautifully played, swooningly romantic and already has the look of a classic.

 

A Separation

The subtlest drama of the year came from Iran, a brooding tale of a married couple whose sundering sets off a train of unintended consequences. A legal case involving class resentments and religious taboos – a proper eye-opener – becomes even more tense as it strays into a minefield of personal conscience.

 

The Messenger

The best American film about the Iraq war never sets foot outside the suburbs of New Jersey. It's about two officers entrusted with "casualty notification", the heartbreaking job of informing families that their loved one has been killed on active duty. First-time director Oren Moverman, bringing the shock of bereavement right to the front door, gets outstanding performances from Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as the unlucky emissaries.

 

Las Acacias

Argentine Pablo Giorgelli's debut feature is barely more than an anecdote about a gruff lorry driver transporting a young woman and her baby from Paraguay to Buenos Aires. But it's wonderful. While long scenes play only to the remorseless rumble of traffic, in their sidelong glances and remarks the two adults (German de Silva and Hebe Duarte) play an unspoken duet of loss and mutual sympathy.

 

Snowtown

Harrowing and horrifying, this Australian drama of moral corruption sneaks up on you like a mugger with a garrotte. It's based on the true story of the country's most notorious killer, John Bunting (brilliantly played by Daniel Henshall), and his grooming of a dead-end kid.

COMEDY

By Julian Hall

Jerry Seinfeld

O2, London

He came, he saw, he gave us a lesson in comedy. This giant of US stand-up and sitcom may not have the most emotional relationship with his audience but his technique is awesome and he conquered all he surveyed on his London visit.

 

Doug Stanhope

Hammersmith Apollo, London

The UK's favourite cult comedy import from the US took his Hammersmith Apollo audience on a rollercoaster ride of spleen and self-loathing which they lapped up. Stanhope will be back in the UK again in the spring with an eagerly-awaited new tour.

 

Tim Key: Masterslut

Pleasance, Edinburgh

The gentle-but-sly stylings of the comedy poet came of age with this show that featured a bath on stage. The aqueous addition did not distract from the fresh and clever verse, and there was even an opportunity to towel down if things became too exciting.

 

Humphrey Ker – Humphrey Ker Is Dymock Watson: Nazi Smasher!

Pleasance, Edinburgh

Ronnie Corbett was among those who enjoyed this Blackadder-esque romp about a hapless naval officer on a heroic Second World War mission behind enemy lines. Among others who enjoyed the show were the judges of Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Awards who bestowed the Best Newcomer gong on Ker.

 

Pajama Men in The Middle of No One

Soho Theatre, London

This duo from New Mexico now have an enviable and dreamy back-catalogue of comedy theatre shows bursting with energetic physical comedy, slick wordplay and killer timing. This latest one mixed aliens and sex-crazed animals to hilarious effect, and will enjoy another run next year.

VISUAL ARTS

By Adrian Hamilton

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.

National Gallery, London

Quite simply the best show we're ever likely to see of this genius of the Renaissance. A total of nine of his 15 known works featured – not the Mona Lisa but nearly everything else, including both versions of The Virgin of the Rocks and the perfect Lady with an Ermine.

 

Egon Schiele: Women

Richard Nagy, London

Up close and personal with the young Austrian master of the nude there was no disguising the libido in a showing of wonderfully erotic watercolours and drawings which launched a new London private gallery. What an artist, and what a deprivation that he is so badly represented in British collections.

 

Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters

Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

The supreme American modern painter, who died during the exhibition's run, could have received no finer testimony. Placed beside the French master whom he idolised, the juxtaposition asked the question of how figurative could abstract become, and the other way round, and gave surprising answers.

 

Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge'.

Courtauld Gallery, London

A small show that revealed just how humane an artist of performance Lautrec was in his paintings, posters and studies of Jane Avril, his favourite dancer and friend, focusing not only on the energy and life of the dance but also the preparation and the person behind it.

 

Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces Before 1500

National Gallery, London

Everything a free exhibition of a gallery's reserve collection should be. A show of Italian altarpieces, many masterpieces in their own right, displayed to illuminate how and why they were made and the task of conserving them. Instructive and pleasurable in equal measure.

BOOKS

By Boyd Tonkin

Wish You Were Here

Graham Swift

"Deep England" has no wiser or subtler chronicler than Swift. Here, a soldier's death in Iraq prompts his brother to reappraise a Devon farming family's fate. It joins a Hardy-like vision of titanic passions shaking ordinary lives to topical scrutiny of the emotional fall-out from history.

 

The Bees

Carol Ann Duffy

Stretching from elegies for her mother to war requiems and lyrical warnings of ecological doom, Duffy's verse stages an endlessly fruitful dialogue between private and public.

 

Charles Dickens: A Life

Claire Tomalin

Tomalin rises to the bicentenary challenge with a biography that brings to a heroic but much-misunderstood career all the drama, flair and panache of her subject's fiction. She can be tough, but it brims with insight, compassion and suspense.

 

Arguably

Christopher Hitchens

Now, sadly, a memorial to its late author, this bumper package of essays by the great contrarian shows off every high note of the voice we have lost. Though many polemics trace the firebrand's political odyssey, his passionate engagement with writer-heroes reveal Hitch as celebrant as well as combatant.

 

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Steven Pinker

In a time of pessimism comes this epic and exhilarating survey of human life as a slow progress from darkness into light. Shockingly hopeful, Pinker blends wide-screen history with evolutionary psychology to argue that violence and cruelty have massively diminished.

DANCE

By Zoe Anderson

DESH – Akram Khan Company

Curve, Leicester, and Sadler's Wells, London

Inspired by his homeland of Bangladesh, Khan's solo show evoked a host of characters trying to make sense of their lives, struggling to communicate across distance and generations. For the first time, Khan's philosophising matched his superb dancing.

 

Cuando las Piedras Vuelen – Rocio Molina

Sadler's Wells, London

In her mid-20s, Molina is already a fully-fledged flamenco diva, a mesmerising dancer with fierce charisma and luscious technique. This show had far too much arty footage of owls, but if you move like that, you can have as many owls as you want.

 

Balanchine/Robbins Programme – Mariinsky Ballet

Royal Opera House, London

American choreography brought out the best in the company from St Petersburg , from the complex, adult romance of Robbins's In the Night to Balanchine's Scotch Symphony's idealised view of Scotland, and the sheer grandeur of his Ballet Imperial.

BIPED – Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Barbican Theatre, London

Following the death of the great modern dance pioneer, his company made a farewell tour before closing. The last UK performance was this, a dance of shimmering digital design and gleaming invention.

 

Some Like It Hip Hop – ZooNation

Peacock Theatre, London, and Birmingham Hippodrome

Kate Prince's joyful exploration of sexual politics and street dance was the year's happiest hit, with bright new music, lovely characterisation and sensational dancing.

RADIO

By Jane Thynne

 

Life and Fate

Radio 4

The eight hour adaptation of Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, starring Ken Branagh, brought a masterpiece triumphantly to life.

 

Jeremy Vine

Radio 2

The Sony Gold Speech Broadcaster of the Year always knows what's happening at the water-cooler. Unflappable and amusing, Vine tackles current affairs in a way that Radio 4 often misses.

 

Nigel Pargetter's scream on The Archers

Radio 4

A highlight to some, lowlight to others, Nigel's long goodbye as he plunged from Lower Loxley's roof, on The Archers' 60th-anniversary edition, heralded a year of misery in Ambridge.

 

Betty Driver on Desert Island Discs

Radio 4

The 90-year-old Coronation Street star told her astonishing life story with grace and dignity. Betty emerged as a generous spirit with a sharp sense of humour.

 

Ronnie Wood

Absolute Radio

A star was reborn when Ronnie won the Sony Radio Personality of the Year for his Saturday-night rock show. 

ALBUMS

By Andy Gill

The Harrow and the Harvest

Gillian Welch

Welch and David Rawlings's familiar blending of traditional sounds with modern sensibilities is applied here to material of typically mordant fatalism. Welch's blissfully enervated croon and heartbreaking melodies lend a haunting beauty to the album, while Rawlings's exquisite guitar lines lace gentle tendrils around one's heart.

 

Bon Iver

Bon Iver

Despite lyrics of perplexing opacity, and Justin Vernon's thin, falsetto, delivery, there's something addictive about Bon Iver's unfathomably beautiful flow of sounds and images, in which hypnotic guitar and piano figures rest on string and organ drones, while threads of reeds, steel guitar, dulcimer and vibes flutter in the breeze. It's like a half-remembered dream to which you long to find the key.

 

Bad as Me

Tom Waits

Themes of migration, dissatisfaction and desperation drive Waits's best album since Rain Dogs, a typically diverse set of honking R'n'B swagger, haunted walking blues, Tex-Mex garage-rockabilly and louche bar-room drawl, each track blooming in its own way like a collection of strange desert succulents.

 

50 Words for Snow

Kate Bush

Bush's first album of new material since Aerial is a lush, immersive work on which the oozing, piano-led arrangements, more classical- and jazz-influenced than pop, coalesce gently, like snow gathering in drifts. The wintry theme is extended through the fantastical, mythic narratives of time-travellers, yetis and sentient snowmen that take shape under cover of its snowy blanket.

 

El Camino

The Black Keys

There's an infectious 1970s flavour to many tracks of this hook-laden, all-killer-no-filler set from the American duo, with echoes of T Rex, the Glitter Band, and Led Zeppelin contributing to the sense of momentum barreling El Camino along at a furious pace. It's the most compelling rock album of the year.

GIGS

By Andy Gill

The Burns Unit

Jazz Cafe, London

The Scots folk-rock supergroup – featuring such diverse talents as King Creosote, Karine Polwart, former Delgado Emma Pollock and MC Soom T – struggled to fit onto the Jazz Cafe's tiny stage, but their various strands of folk, indie-rock and hip-hop braided beautifully as they switched instruments.

 

Janelle Monae

Roundhouse, London

A glorious spectacle in the P-Funk tradition, stuffed with all kinds of madcap activity from dancing rabbis through hooded monks, balloons and back-projections, to onstage painting, accompanying a fantastic range of music including prog-metal fusion, folk-rock, pomp-rock pop and psychedelic-soul extravaganza. Amazing stuff.

Sufjan Stevens

Royal Festival Hall, London

Stevens donned giant angel wings, fluorescent catsuit, tinfoil pyramid headdress and mirrorball robe for this evening of songs about "love, death and the apocalypse", which included a 10-minute illustrated lecture about outsider artist Royal Robertson.

 

Rain Dogs Revisited

Barbican, London

The peculiar junkyard sensibility of Tom Waits's eclectic mid-1980s masterpiece Rain Dogs was brilliantly realised in this ensemble show, which featured a string of guest vocalists bringing Waits's New York vignettes to vivid life against a backdrop of R&B/pop/jazz settings.

 

Jerry Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra

Barbican, London

The former Specials leader's 24-piece Spatial AKA Orchestra gave a giddily involving evening of dub-jazz genius at the Barbican, with tributes to Sun Ra, Duke Ellington and Captain Beefheart among a feast of outer-space lounge music, majestic dub skanks and European library-music, a glorious cacophony that fully exemplified Sun Ra's ideal of a "joyful noise".

CLASSICAL & OPERA

By Edward Seckerson

Two Boys

English National Opera, London

Enhanced by a gripping production from Bartlett Sher, Nico Muhly's remarkably accomplished first opera confounded all expectations by invoking the digital age in entirely acoustic terms. The extraordinary choral polyphonies will linger long in the memory.

 

The Return of Ulysses

ENO/Young Vic, London

Between them, director Benedict Andrews and music director Jonathan Cohen laid bare Monteverdi's masterwork in the most visceral terms. This was a startling piece of work forensically examined through the prying eyes of newsreel steadycams and CCTV surveillance. Rarely can the words "gulf war syndrome" have resonated so uncomfortably on our consciences.

 

Mendelssohn's Elijah – Gabrieli Consort and Players/McCreesh

BBC Proms, London

I doubt even the Victorians would have enjoyed Mendelssohn's crowd-pleaser in a performance of such fabulous excess. A truly amazing ad-hoc choir stole everyone's thunder – everyone's except Elijah's, that is, transported to Albert Hall heaven in his fiery chariot.

Il trittico

Royal Opera House, London

We'd already warmed to Richard Jones's slightly grubby 1950s take on Gianni Schicchi and we knew he'd do a decent job on the rather heavy-handed Il tabarro, but nothing could have prepared me for his revelatory staging of the seemingly unstageable Suor Angelica. That he rendered it so believably and movingly elevates it to the highlight of my operatic year.

 

Beethoven Complete Symphonies – Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/ Riccardo Chailly

Barbican, London

The venerable and venerated Leipzig orchestra gave the first complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies during the composer's lifetime, and it was that extraordinary legacy coupled with Riccardo Chailly's determination to rekindle the shock of their newness, that successfully turned this much-anticipated London residency into such a startling and dramatic odyssey.

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