Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Review of 2016

2016 was a tumultuous year which saw the election of Donald Trump in America, while in the UK a slight majority voted to leave the European Union. It was also a bad time to be famous as David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher, Kenny Baker, Gene Wilder, Andrew Sachs, Richard Adams, Harper Lee and John Glenn all passed away.

David Bowie's unexpected death followed very hard on the heels of his final studio album, Blackstar (*****), a cryptic, jazz-tinged opus which sits among his best work. Norwegian experimental band Ulver's latest album ATGCLVLSSCAP (*****) was a dense and largely instrumental release which fuses many different elements of their 23-year career. John Cale's harrowing 1982 album Music for a New Society (*****) was given a long overdue re-release, accompanied by M:FANS (***), an unnecessary but occasionally interesting set of contemporary reinterpretations of the original songs. Japanese band Mono pushed their instrumental rock to new extremes with Requiem for Hell (****), while Radiohead delivered their strongest set in quite some time with A Moon Shaped Pool (****). Further impressive instrumental albums came from Dextro in the shape of In the Crossing (****) and Russian Circles in Guidance (****).

Some interesting soundtrack work came from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein with their two-part synth score for Netflix's Stranger Things (****), and Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Mogwai and Gustavo Santaolalla teamed up to score Leonardo DiCaprio's documentary Before the Flood (****). Leonard Cohen exited the stage with a short, stark set of songs on You Want it Darker (****), and Nine Inch Nails brought the year to an agreeably noisy end with new E.P. Not the Actual Events (****).

I didn't manage to make it to many concerts this year, but ambient Texans Stars of the Lid (****) put on an effective show at the Sage in Gateshead, while the Northern Electric Festival (***) at the Ouseburn showed some promise, with sets by Nathalie Stern and Ochre.

Robert Eggers' debut The Witch (****) was a thought-provoking and haunting tale set in superstitious 17th Century New England. Tom McCarthy's Spotlight (****) chronicled The Boston Globe's shocking exposé of systematic child abuse by Roman Catholic priests, while László Nemes' debut Son of Saul (****) artfully used cinematic techniques to portray the horrors of life and death in an Auschwitz Sonderkommando.

The gloriously escapist Star Wars series gained its first anthology film, Rogue One (****), which deserves as much praise for its storytelling and characters as it does for its technical wizardry. In a year of powerful cinematic debuts, Brady Corbet's The Childhood of a Leader (****) was another strong contender, with a suitably aggressive orchestral score from Scott Walker. Quentin Tarantino returned to form with the slow-building western The Hateful Eight (****), and Jeremy Saulnier portrayed contemporary American neo-Nazism in Green Room (****), which features an alarming performance from Patrick Stewart.

Ciro Guerra's Heart of Darkness-esque Embrace of the Serpent (***) explored man's relationship with nature, which was also a large element of Alejandro G. Iñárritu's revenge epic The Revenant (***). Meanwhile, Louis Theroux drew attention to some of the more ludicrous aspects of Scientology in My Scientology Movie (***).

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen joined forces once again to perform in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (****) at the Theatre Royal. The Cluny 2 hosted a night of short plays by new writers, Playing Up 3 (***), which featured the excellent 'Smile!' and 'No Response Required'.

'80s nostalgia infused Netflix's new show Stranger Things (*****), which borrows from Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, David Lynch and many others, combining the elements in a compelling manner. The Night Of (****) was an effective exploration of the legal system in contemporary America, featuring strong performances from Riz Ahmed and John Turturro, while the BBC succeeded with its big-budget production of War and Peace (****).

Season 6 of Game of Thrones (****) was a return to form, the multiple storylines developing with a refreshingly fast pace, and plotlines old and new collided dramatically in the third series of Line of Duty (****). Tension was equally high in John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager (****), while the very real dangers of climate change were explored in National Geographic's Before the Flood (****).

Further documentary work came from Louis Theroux in the form of 'Drinking to Oblivion', 'A Different Brain' and 'Savile' (****), while ITV chose to explore the dark side of celebrity in new drama National Treasure (***) starring Robbie Coltrane.

I entered the year reading Frank Herbert's Dune (*****), a monumental achievement in the science fiction/fantasy genre. Truman Capote's challenging 'non-fiction novel' In Cold Blood (*****) was a fascinating read, perhaps as much for its questionable veracity as for the author's painstaking research. Gitta Sereny's Into that Darkness (****) provided a unique glimpse into the motivations of Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl, despite its occasional journeys off-topic.

I re-read Albert Camus' unfinished final novel The First Man (****), which offers a fascinating glimpse into the creative process of one of my favourite 20th Century novelists. The short stories in Daphne du Maurier's The Birds (****) are of a consistently high quality, as are the interconnected webs of the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights (****).

Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder (****), which was adapted into a film this year, offered insights into the nature of memory. Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (****) conjured up an impressive host of narrators, while his novel Wild Sheep Chase (****) explored allegorical themes via a slightly more conventional narrative structure. Meanwhile, Tom Wolfe mercilessly satirised the 1980s in The Bonfire of the Vanities (****), and the inspirations behind Christopher Isherwood's Berlin stories were documented in the revealing Christopher and His Kind (****).

I am currently reading the new 2016 edition of The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg: an up-to-date copy of the most thorough guide to a musician's (and actor)'s work I have ever read. Finally, in a year blighted by fake news reports, 'Political Correctness: How the Right Invented a Phantom Enemy' by Moira Weigel from The Guardian was an impressive piece of research.

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