For sheer entertainment, for perfection in what it is, it’s gotta be Mamma Mia!(Dilettante’s Diary:
July 26/08). We know that some people preferred the stage version but so what? If you can leave your high-brow artistic
standards at home, you can’t resist this glorious package of fun.
Next up, for entertainment value, would have to be Slumdog Millionaire (DD: Dec 4). Some aspects of
it struck me as implausible, but it’s a very well-constructed, slick movie.
For some discerning viewers The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Jan 30) was one of the outstanding movies
of the year. While admiring the seriousness of the intent and the skill of the execution, I found it rather uncomfortable
to watch. And yet, on re-reading my review, it turns out that the movie has left reverberations in my mind, enough
so to make me want to watch it again.
Among smaller movies, one that unexpectedly made a strong impression on me was Lars and the Real Girl (Feb 13).
The premise is weird but makes good points about the strange business of being human. Another little gem was And When
Did You Last See Your Father? (June 23). In a beautifully under-stated way, it expresses some of the enigma of the
father-son relationship. Boy A (Sept 5) presented a poignant portrait of a young man trying to adjust to
the outside world after years in prison because of his involvement a childhood crime.
It seems we’re developing a fondness for goofball comedies here at Dilettante’s Diary. You might think
some of them beneath our notice but, artistic pretensions be damned, we need a few laughs these days, don’t we? The
following examples may not have earned our highest ratings but each of them offered special treats in the way of script, character
and/or acting: Role Models (Nov 16), Step Brothers (Sept 5), You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (June
4) and Forgetting Sarah Marshall (May 4).
In a category all its own was Kenny (March 26). An out-and-out hoax, it fooled me completely but the
egg on my face doesn’t stop me from congratulating everybody involved on a job well done.
The most over-rated movie for me was There Will Be Blood (Jan 30). I couldn’t stand the striving
for epic "This-Is-America" resonance. Not to mention the egregious over-acting that (not surprisingly) garnered an Academy
My most exasperating time spent in a movie theatre this year came thanks to My Winnipeg (July 5). One tries
to be open to artistic experimentation but for me this nonsensical, self-indulgent weirdness was excruciating.
In case you're wondering, we didn’t see everything this past year. (Nobody’s paying us to waste hours
of our life in dark movie theatres, you know.) A couple of missed movies now on my list for DVD viewing are Tropic of
Thunder and Tell No One.
The novel that rocked me this year was Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives
(June 4): wild, diffuse, unable to be restrained within the covers of a book, but just like life – hilarious,
sad, imaginative, confusing, high-spirited and beautiful.
Another read that rates highly: What Is the What? by Dave Eggers (Oct 27). The genre is a bit ambiguous
because it’s a novelized version of the supposed autobiography of a real person, written not by that person but by someone
else. Never mind. It’s an important story of a young boy’s walk from war-torn Sudan to refugee camps in Ethoipia,
The non-fiction book that I enjoyed the most was unquestionably The Judgement of Paris by Ross King (Jan
30). An account of the decade that gave the world Impressionism, it’s a model of what this kind of book should be:
a brilliantly clear and engaging explanation of how the artistic developments of the time inter-acted with political developments.
Brad Warner’s books Harcore Zen (Feb 26) and Sit Down and Shut Up (yet to be reviewed)
need to be mentioned because they’re the ones that have most influenced my thinking this year. Mr. Warner has started me
on a serious contemplation of Buddhism. So serious, in fact, that I’m still pondering the contents of the second volume,
the long-promised review of which will appear on Dilettante’s Diary soon, I hope.
A non-fiction book that deserves mention because the reading of it belied its unprepossessing aspect is My Lobotomy
by Howard Dully (June 23). With no self-pity, Mr. Dully tells the sad story of what happened to him as a boy. It makes
you wonder about medical practice and parenting issues even in our own day.
In the "Who-ever-thought-they-could-make-a-book-about-this?" category, an award goes to Charlie Wilkins for In the
Land of Long Fingernails (Nov 16). A memoir of the author’s summer as a teen working in a graveyard, it has
much of the bittersweet charm of a coming-of-age novel.
Given that humour is the bread of life around here, we have to single out a few works in that category. It’s hard
to choose which of David Sedaris’ books we liked best, but I’ll opt for Barrel Fever, his collection
of short stories (May 18). Published in 1994, these pieces may not have the polish of some of his more recent work,
but they’re unforgettable for the youthful, indiscreet expression of a defiantly outrageous gay sensibility.
Another book of humour that cannot be passed over without mention is I Am America (And So Can You!) authored
by Stephen Colbert and various cohorts (July 21). Although it’s more a compendium of short riffs than a continuous
read, the acrobatic display of so many types of humour, mostly notably the wicked satire, is amazing.
On the other hand, the book that I found most annoying – in fact so much so that I had to give up on it – was
Being Shelley by Ann Wroe (June 23). This attempt to explore the poet’s life from "inside" produced
nothing but an incoherent jumble for me, although I have to allow the worthiness of the artistic goal.
Armistead Maupin’s Michael Tolliver Lives (Sept 5) stands out as an example of what happens
when a very successful author tries to spin out yet another take on his well-worn subject: an empty, superficial self-congratulatory
ramble purporting to be a novel.
Another book that might be mentioned on the debit side is Graham Swift’s novel Tomorrow (March 26).
Not that it’s a terrible book exactly, but it’s disappointing to see such an accomplished writer producing something
so contrived, gimmicky and unsatisfying.
Seasons on Harris by David Yeadon (May 18) sticks in my mind for the odd fact that, although the writing
bugged me enormously, I loved the material. In fact, my memory keeps re-visiting scenes that he described in this account
of a year in the outer Hebrides.
We didn’t, alas, get to many plays this year. The stand-out was definitely the clever, funny and well-crafted The
Faith Show! written by and starring Madeleine Donohue and Ben Clost, an entry in the Toronto Fringe Festival
Since, however, we have a close familial connection to that one, we’ll have to choose something else as the most
impressive piece of theatre, so I’m going with another Toronto Fringe Show – Hockey: The Musical!
by Rick Wilson and Justin DeMarco (July 5). Some people may have found the story a bit corny – the outing of
a gay hockey star – but I found the energy and polish of the production, especially the testosterone-fuelled
Since we have a soft spot for actors, and since we know people involved in many of the shows we saw, we won’t mention
any disappointments or duds in that department this year.
We enjoyed several of the Met Live HD broadcasts in movie theatres, but the one that pleased us the most was Gaetano Donizetti’s
La Fille du Régiment starring Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez (April
16). Ms. Dessay’s singing is very good but her flippant, in-your-face comic acting is something you rarely get from
a coloratura soprano. The singing of Senor Florez is phenomenal. On top of that, the ebullient spirit of the production and
the witty up-dating to an early 20th century setting made for a great afternoon.
In a completely different vein, the Met’s HD Live Broadcast of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (March
26) marks the first time that I sat through a Wagner opera, with the somewhat unexpected result that I could begin to
feel the fascination with the genre.
The musical event that came as a pleasant surprise this year was That Choir Remembers, a concert conducted
by Craig Pike (Oct 27). "That Choir" consists of a bunch of actors who get together on Sunday nights to sing just for
the fun of it, but they produce amazingly beautiful music. (Full disclosure: Again, we have a family connection!)
In a way, this category is the easiest one in which to chose the year’s stand-outs. You may have been looking at
an artist’s work for some five or ten minutes and yet, here you are several months later, with a vivid impression of
it in your mind. Several artists I discovered this year had such an impact on me.
But first, some favourites from previous years that we were happy to see again. At the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition (Toronto
Outdoor Art Exhibition 2008) it was good to re-visit the marvellous encaustic abstracts of David Brown.
As examples of the fine art of watercolour, Micheal Zarowsky’s dazzling landscapes are always a feast
for the eyes. Tim Daniels’ pastels and oils never disappoint: with solid composition and expert technique
in his landscapes and still lives, he achieves extraordinary beauty without falling into cloying sentimentality. And the exuberant
creativity in the paintings of Thrush Holmes, some of them incorporating neon lights, always lifts my spirits.
I was excited to find in the TOAE the work of two artists in particular who were new to me. Scott Pattinson paints
abstracts that manage to express tumultuous explosions of colour and shape without sacrificing an underlying sense of organic
coherence. In the landscapes and city scenes by Cam Forbes, you get an endearing sense of the fleeting immediacy
of the scene, a quality that’s often lacking in more studied, pretentious works these days.
Several artists also made a lasting impression on me in two competing shows, Toronto Art Expo and The
Artist Project ("Head to Head" a page of its own). I always enjoy the bold, flamboyant still lives of
Julia Gilmore. The minimalist black and white compositions of Burigude Zhang provide a moment
of respite in the sometimes overwhelming visual stimulation of these shows. James Lane’s abstracts, although
swirling with energy, have an elegant line that, to me, suggests an oriental influence. Natasha Barnes, produces
abstracts that combine dynamism and control to great effect. Up close, Paul Ygartua’s huge paintings look
like abstract jumbles but, from a distance, you discern objects bursting with life. I could spend hours delving into the brooding
atmosphere of Dan Ryan’s murky landscapes. The meticulously-detailed cityscapes of David
Holden have an erie effect of emptiness and bleakness. And I’m still haunted by the large, ominous portraits
by Paul Robert Turner.
As usual, "Open Water", the annual show of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour included many
magnificent works (Nov 16). I drooled over many of them but the one that drove me wild with envy was "Journey
Home VI" by Keiko Tanabe. A view from the platform of a railway station, it combined,
in a way unique to watercolour, dramatic structure and lighting, with airy distant effects, to convey a vision of the
city in a style that I've been trying to achieve for years!
A follow-up to our note about Canadian Sheryl Luxenburg’s winning of the gold medal in the American
Watercolour Society’s show (April 16): Apparently the painting stirred up considerable controversy around issues
of originality and legitimacy of the medium. According to a note posted on the AWS website in September, the painting has
been withdrawn from the Society’s travelling show and from the website until the questions about it can be resolved.
TV, RADIO and MISCELLANEOUS
The big – indeed, cataclysmic – event in this department was the CBC’s drastic cutting back of classical
music on Radio Two in September and the launching of the face-lifted "New Two". This transmogrification of Radio Two radically
affected the lives of many of us. I have been giving the new regime a few months to settle in before committing thoughts about
it to Dilettante’s Diary. Watch for a review of the "New Two" soon.