Culture had some serious competition this year. For theatrical spectacle, narrative grip and satirical invention, nothing was going to be able to touch the American election. It had the year's best comic character in Sarah Palin – a moose-shootin' plain talker with the geopolitical sophistication of Bullwinkle. It had the most stirring soundtrack – in will.i.am's potent YouTube mash-up of music and political rhetoric. Even the graphics were good – with Obama's "Yes We Can" portrait being immediately appropriated for everything from Camden Town T-shirts to Sarkozy election posters. Most significantly, it had the best and simplest theme – the sense, however naive it may come to seem, that a nation was turning a corner, and the rest of us with it. Against that grand architecture, the world of the arts appeared a little suburban – business as usual, with high spots and low but no revolutions.
High spots are nothing to be sniffy about, though, and in cinema it did initially look as if this might be a year of wonders. The first two months saw the release of three films unequivocally for grown-ups: Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. The last two films pretty much split the top Oscars between them, but all three were Hollywood at its very best, gravely serious entertainments which recognised that gunfire can't be separated from morality.
Unfortunately, those early peaks soon gave way to flatlands – an expanse of the ordinary and less than ordinary interrupted only by event movies such as Sex and the City and Mamma Mia! (both of which rewrote box-office demographics by attracting wildly enthusiastic female celebrants) and The Dark Knight, in which Heath Ledger justified at least some of the pre-release hype. In Bruges was good, too, but it was only towards the end of the year that the sense of really large ambitions returned – in Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone's excursion into the Neapolitan underworld, and in Steve McQueen's Hunger, about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands – a film that negotiated the hazards of its subject matter without evasions or false steps. No film this year trusted its audience to the same degree – or showed more nerve in letting a sequence run. If you don't believe that a five-minute, fixed-camera shot of a man mopping up urine in a dingy corridor can compel your attention, this is the film to change your mind.
British theatre didn't throw up anything quite as vital or bold, though there were intriguing experiments here, too. In Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat, Mark Ravenhill offered 16 short plays at four different venues, in a sort of single-author festival. Some of them worked brilliantly, some didn't, but the sense of a writer kicking at the crate in which much theatre is still confined was exhilarating. The National Theatre, one venue at which Ravenhill's work was performed, should get the credit for other bold commissions, too, with works that blurred the boundaries between dance and theatre (Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche's in-i and DV8's To Be Straight With You) and two big productions that used verse – Tony Harrison's Fram and Michael Frayn's Afterlife.
For consistency in excellence you had to look to the Donmar Warehouse, both at its original Covent Garden home and at Wyndham's Theatre. Performance of the year would probably have to go to Kenneth Branagh in Ivanov, an account of melancholy despair that was, at one point, distilled into a large and splashy tear. There was competition – from Eddie Redmayne, who played a Democratic candidate's son in Christopher Shinn's lively political drama Now or Later, at the Royal Court, and from Harriet Walter, who was utterly compelling in one of Ravenhill's vignettes. But Branagh edged it.
The Booker Prize went to Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, a seething confessional from a member of India's underclass who has, by virtue of ruthless "entrepreneurialism" scrabbled his way into the middle class. It was a fine novel but overshadowed, in my view, by others and by one that has a claim to greatness – Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which achieved something I would not have thought possible by making me interested in cricket as an expression of national character.
Best upmarket entertainment of the year was Adam Lively's The Standing Pool, a bit of modern gothic that should disturb the sleep of French holidaymakers next year. If you prefer not to be spooked, Zoe Heller's The Believers was sharp, funny and perceptive. I also thought Tim Winton's Breath was a puzzling omission from the Booker long list – a book about riding the narrow edge between life and death. In non-fiction, three titles stood out: Margaret Atwood's Debt, a perfectly timed meditation on the hazards of living in the red; Kate Clanchy's What Is She Doing Here?, about an Albanian asylum-seeker who provided the writer with friendship, subject matter and cleaning services; and Julian Barnes's Nothing To Be Frightened Of..., a witty, candid account of his fear of death which was given a sharp poignancy by the sudden death later in the year of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh.
Death – and grief – were also the subjects of the year's most moving television documentary, Morgan Matthews's The Fallen, an attempt to commemorate the deaths of all British soldiers in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But all the TV headlines were commandeered by the reality shows – with John Sergeant's withdrawal from Strictly Come Dancing inducing a kind of mass psychosis in the British media. Many viewers went mad for Mad Men, but – outside of the grind of daily reviewing – my year was dominated by The Wire, television's finest answer to the 19th-century novel, and Summer Heights High, which introduced British audiences to the monstrous Mr G, multi-talented drama teacher and author of Tsunamarama, a musical about Boxing Day 2004 set to the music of Bananarama. Easily the best comedy of the year was Outnumbered, a sitcom that should – but probably won't – make another series of My Family quite unthinkable.
In visual arts, gallery-goers found some good jokes in Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia at Tate Modern, and the Royal Academy's portfolio of the artists of the Galerie Maeght – Behind the Mirror – was unexpectedly uplifting, with Alexander Calder's mobiles helping to counter the washed-out summer.
But a gallery visit could induce mortal thoughts: Tate Modern's Rothko show was attended in a spirit of almost religious solemnity, and the big Francis Bacon retrospective at Tate Britain was a reminder that all flesh is meat.
A visit to the Folkestone Triennial turned out to be a kind of rambling treasure hunt – wandering around town and finding artworks tucked away everywhere, including Tracey Emin's evocative stealth sculptures, apparently lost and discarded baby-clothes that turned out to be bronze casts.
The most satisfying conventional exhibition, though, was the latest of the British Museum's imperial blockbusters – Hadrian, a show studded with extraordinary objects and teasing implications. It told the story of a fresh- faced politician who took power at a time of recession and imperial doubt, spent heavily on infrastructure and brought the troops back from a costly and bloody deployment in what is now modern-day Iraq. Even on a visit to 120AD it was hard to get away from the story of the year...
The year's best...
My theory that low expectations are the very best condiment for cultural experience was borne out by Heiner Goebbels' Stifter's Dinge. It consisted of a giant machine featuring five grand pianos, a mist-covered lagoon and spectral lighting effects. For an hour it plinged and plonged as it advanced and receded on a set of rails and it was – simultaneously – completely ridiculous and oddly magical. I set off to see it like a man going in for root canal work and came away elated. Also exceeding expectations was Man on Wire – a documentary about the French funambulist Philippe Petit, who in 1974 tightrope-walked between the Twin Towers.
...and its worst
This year, Hole in the Wall was mystifyingly bad – worse even than M Night Shyamalan's The Happening. The BBC game show featured nano-celebrities in lurex – captained by Strictly Come Dancing hoofer Anton du Beke and cricketer Darren Gough, right – being pushed into a tank of water by a Styrofoam wall. It was only explicable as a prime-time version of Andre Gide's surrealist acte gratuit – a loaded revolver discharged at random into a crowd. Unsurprisingly the crowd dispersed rapidly.
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