The only movie that earned our top rating of A ("Absolutely fabulous") was Kenneth Branagh’s version of Mozart’s
The Magic Flute (Mar 24). Since it belongs to a rather rarefied category of film, however, we looked through
our list for a more mainstream item that could be awarded the "Best" title.
The list turned up a surprising number of very good movies. Some of them were: A Serious Man (reviewed in
Dilettante’s Diary, on the page dated Oct 22), Che, Parts I and II (Dilettante’s Diary
March 1), The Pool (May 10), The Soloist (Dec 31), Two Lovers (May 10) and The
Wrestler (Jan 10). Anvil (Apr 14) deserves special mention as an amazing study of a Canadian who refuses
to give up no matter how consistently life knocks him down. And Humpday (July 31), with its improvised
style, gave a creditable and entertaining account of an escapade you wouldn’t have thought possible.
The Hurt Locker (July 17) would be a contender for best movie except that, because the hand-held camera was
making us sick, we didn’t see the ending. We were also tempted to give top honours to The Class (Jan 26),
for its searingly honest look at education today.
But we’ve decided the crown must go to Hunger (April 14). A first film from director Steve McQueen,
it presented a new voice, a new way of making movies and a new way of looking at chronic political problems.
In the less-than-satisfying department, Bruno (July 17), although it had its good points, turned out to be
quite a come-down after Sacha Baron Cohen’s clever Borat of a few years ago (review on page dated
Nov 8/06). The Limits of Control (June 6) stretched our ability to control our exasperation to the limit, and
the fun and games in Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Dec 31) depressed us so badly that we had to bail after an hour.
While the competition was stiff, we have to give the "worst movie" award to Antichrist (Nov 24). It got a slightly
higher rating than Paul Blart but, in retrospect, the execrable results of the artsy pretensions of the former prove
rather more intolerable than the inept farting around in the latter.
No question about the stand-out book: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (reviewed on a page of its own,
just below the page dated Nov 11). This novel gives you that very rare combination of a special voice, a unique way of looking
at life, lots to think about, marvellous characters, beautifully restrained writing and a haunting echo that lasts seemingly
forever. So what if we’re thirty years late getting to it? It’s still the knock-out of our reading year.
But we know you want to hear about some more recent novels. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (May 10),
The Order of Good Cheer by Bill Gaston (Aug 23), and Soul Thief by Charles Baxter (Sept 18) all
proved well worthwhile.
A couple of older novles that we checked out didn’t live up to their reputations. J. G. Ballard’s Empire
of the Sun (July 17), with its over-written, stagey melodrama was un-finishable. We found Mark Haddon’s international
phenomenon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Mar 1), initially promising but ultimately tiresome.
In the autobiography/memoir department (we’re including travel because there’s nowhere else for it to go),
we had stuff about war and imprisonment from Arkady Babchenko (July 31) and William Sampson (Oct 22). Canadian
writers Rudy Wiebe (Nov 24) and Mark Frutkin (also Nov 24) took us back to their days as, respectively,
a child on the prairies and a young man in the Quebec woods. Another childhood memoir came from Australian writer David
Malouf (June 28). As for celebrities, we got the path to stardom from Steve Martin (Mar 1) and from Robert Hughes
(Sept 18) the story of his climb to the pinnacle of the world of art criticism. John Grogan (July 17) gave us his background
as the author of Marley & Me. Bruce Chatwin (Aug 23) traipsed around Patagonia and Douglas Fetherling
(June 28) took us around the world on a tramp freighter.
All of these had their charms and virtues but our favourite would be Rudy Wiebe’s Of This Earth, because
it’s so beautifully evocative, poetic, sensitive and finely written.
We didn’t read many Science books this year but the one that satisfied us the most was Frans de Waal’s Primates
and Philosophers (July 31), a fascinating study of how human morality may have its roots among non-human primates.
In the Religion/Spirituality/Theology category, we most enjoyed What Paul Meant by Garry Wills (Nov 11).
A surprisingly exciting read, it revealed the old coot and his ideas in a new light. Meanwhile, Brad Warner’s books
– Sit Down and Shut Up (April 14) and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate (on a page
of its own, just above the June 28 page in the navigation bar) – continue to have the most profound effect of any books
on our thinking. Under their influence, we’re now looking into some other Zen books, reviews of which should appear
As for mysteries, Belfast Confidential (Oct 6) made us glad that we didn’t give up on author Colin
Bateman’s off-the-wall approach. Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Aug 23), if a
bit over-written, proved to be worth all the hype. A new voice – Steve Hamilton’s – pleased me in Blood
Is the Sky (on the Myriad Mysteries 2009 page, just above May 10 in the navigation bar). I also admired the gripping
story-telling in The Two Minute Rule (Myriad Mysteries page) by Robert Crais. The Interrogation by
Thomas H. Cook (Myriad Mysteries page) deserves its status as a contemporary classic. As with most of Michael Connelly’s
books, Echo Park (Aug 23) gets high ranking but I’d have to give priority to his exceptional The
Lincoln Lawyer (Nov 11). Undoubtedly, the best thriller of the year, though, was Lee Child’s Persuader
(Myriad Mysteries page). Mr. Child’s hero, Jack Reacher, has a trenchant, fast-moving way with a story that’s
Lately, mysteries disappoint me more often than not but a couple did so spectacularly this year. Rennie Airth’s River
of Darkness (Myriad Mysteries page) seemed like the kind of prolix, exaggerated story-telling that might have enchanted
me when I was twelve years old. A sadder case, though, was Lawrence Block’s All the Flowers Are Dying
(Myriad Mysteries page). Mr. Block’s Matt Scudder used to be one of my favourite detectives but this outing makes both
author and character look worn out beyond repair.
THEATRE (Disclosure: I know some of the people involved with these productions)
Our play-going was somewhat curtailed this year – for reasons we won’t go into – but we did catch some
very good shows, ranging from the mega-hit The Sound of Music (on the page dated Jan 10) at the Princess of
Wales theatre in downtown Toronto, to new works by winning writers in Theatre Aurora’s annual playwriting contest (Mar
24). Among the latter, Lynda Martens’ Just for You (Mar 24), a clever one-act piece for
two senior actors, worked like a charm. Mourning Dove (April 14) by Emil Sher made a strong impression in a
quiet, understated way. We don’t often see kids’ theatre but we totally loved the witty, touching (and Dora-nominated)
The Incredible Speediness of Jamie Cavanagh by Chris Craddock (Mar 1). At the Fringe, The Red Machine:
Part One impressed us with its way of trying to say and do something different with theatre (on the page
titled "Toronto Fringe 2009" just under the "Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009" page in the navigation bar).
The two productions vying for best-of-the-year, in our opinion, would be The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
by Stephen Aldy Giurgis (April 14) and Necessary Angel’s Hamlet (Nov 24). Both being elaborate, in-your-face
productions, they served up lots of shock factor. Re-visiting our reviews of them, however, we remember that we had more problems
with Judas Iscariot, so the top honour would go to Hamlet. Apparently, most critics took offence at the production’s
imaginative, daring, innovative treatment of the sacred work. Don’t know why. We at Dilettante’s Diary
are all for shaking things up.
Inevitably, we saw some duds in the theatrical department this past year. Since they were amateur productions, however,
we don’t think it’s fair to lambaste them in this overview of what were, for the most part, professional shows.
As mentioned above, Kenneth Branagh’s film of The Magic Flute (Mar 24) was the only movie that got
our top rating last year. Since that was a movie, though, we feel free to give the "best" rating to some live musical event.
Or, sort of live – as in the case of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD transmission of Donizetti’s
La Sonnambula (Mar 21). Again, it was a case of the critics’ getting their knickers in a twist about a
radical revision that we totally loved.
ART EXHIBITIONS (I know some of these artists)
At the end of the year, I like to think back and see if there were any paintings that really wow’d me. If there were,
they should be sitting there in my memory, ready for easy recall. The only ones that had any such effect on me this past year
were some entries in the Treasures 2009 show of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour (Oct 22). Tony
Batten’s gorgeous painting of the Scuola Grande di St. Rocco remains vividly in my mind as one of
the best depictions of Venice that I’ll ever see. Jane Hunter’s "Remembrance" and "Up a Jungle River #1" were
both stunning. Brent Laycock’s landscapes thrill me with their loose way of capturing the prairie atmosphere and Mary
Anne Ludlam’s more carefully-designed works are always engaging.
It could be because I had several hours sitting with that show that the paintings made such an impression on me. In the
case of many other shows, one’s opportunity for viewing is often so limited that there isn’t time for the images
to sink into the mind in a lasting way. Looking over the artists’ cards from several shows, however, I’m fondly
reminded of some favourites.
The Toronto Art Expo ‘09 (on a page of its own, just above Mar 1):
The bold, splashy abstracts of Natasha Barnes and James Lane always please me. In a similar vein, there are Bill Philipovich’s
abstracts. For a completely different effect, there are the cool, muted abstracts of Eunah Cho and Sabine Liva Berzina. Wendell
Chen’s abstracts, on the other hand, convey dark, brooding moods. Gisèle Boulianne
and Marzena Kotapska capture the speed and thrill of city life, while Ron Eady focuses on looming skeletal structures against
ominous skies. I love the way Don Weir simplifies landscape almost to the point of abstraction. Robert P. Roy’s sketchbooks
also demonstrate a pleasing way of paring down the elements of natural scenery. Anne Renouf uses tree shapes to striking effect
in her minimalist landscapes, while Dara Aram’s landscapes include intriguingly blurry shapes of humans. Peter A. Barelkowski
also has his quirky way with little humanoid figures. Mark Gleberzon’s pop art approach to landscapes and cities commands
attention. Some of the most imaginative pieces in the show, works by Paul Gilory, included strange messages in weird contexts.
And how could anyone ever forget Viktor Mitic’s "The Blast Supper" – in which the faces and bodies of Jesus and
his guys are outlined by holes from 22-calibre bullets, their casings lying on the floor under the painting?
The Artist Project 2009 (Mar 1)
Works by some of my favourite artists loom large in my recollections of this show: David Brown’s inventive encaustic
paintings, Julia Gilmore’s splashy still lives, Micheal Zarowsky’s dazzling watercolours and Gordon Leverton’s
geometrical take on urban houses. I also liked Michael Brown’s winsome drawings of city corners. In a more demonstrative approach
to urban themes, there are Debra Archibald’s soaring studies of buildings under construction and Rob Croxford’s
comic-book inspired renditions of the colour and light of city life. Whether in an urban or rural context it’s hard
to say, but Ilyana Martinez does oddly interesting things with little groupings of buildings. Also in an odd way, Peter Mitchell’s
goofy, cartoon-like drawings can be thought-provoking. You don’t often see abstract watercolours, but Warren Hoyano’s
muted way with the medium has a uniquely appealing effect. On the other hand, Bogdan Luca’s boldly-coloured abstracts
offer a different kind of pleasure. In portraiture, I was impressed by the strong, daring work of both Uros Jelic and Gabriel
Mejia. Carrie Chisholm’s groupings of people, done with paint markers on plexiglass, fascinate in an eery way.
Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009 (On a page of its own, just below the page dated July 17 in the navigation bar)
In addition to some of the favourites mentioned above, this show included work by the fabulous Virginia May, whose cityscapes
and florals epitomize the special beauty watercolours. I was also very happy to see again the dynamic oils and pastels of
Simon Andrew. Some cityscapes of note, in the more hectic mode, were those of Shannon Dickie and Marjolyn van der hart. Nobody
could ever forget the vivid colours of James Olley’s buildings. Jerry Campbell’s more subdued cityscapes and landscapes
make for very pleasing compositions, as do Marc Brzustowski’s. Brian Harvey’s paintings should probably be called
still lives but I’m including them among the cityscapes because he focuses on little-noticed aspects of the urban scene
– such as gas meters. Paul Robert Turner’s larger-than-life portraits always stop me in my tracks. Celeste Keller’s
striking depictions of people in subway trains also have a very dramatic effect. For classical watercolour scenes –
light and airy – you couldn’t do better than Yaohua Yan’s. Moving into quite different artistic terrain,
there were Jesse Lown’s mischievous drawings of devils. Todd Tremeer’s somewhat surrealistic drawings, often reflecting
on military themes in an ambiguous way, invariably give one pause. Brian Rideout’s playful take on religious and domestic
scenes raised a smile. Paul Cox’s loose drawings with watercolour washes of interiors including birds showed great skill
and imagination. For some reason, I’m still thinking of Steven Beckly’s photos of people’s legs: bare or
clad in long johns.
Salon des Refusées (Same page as Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009)
A group of artists rejected by the TOAE cheekily mounted their own show. In addition to artists in that show whom I’ve
previously mentioned in this year-end roundup, I was happy to see the fine pencil drawings of Thomas Hendry and the powerful
portraits of Esther Simmonds-MacAdam.