2014: My pop culture memories

It’s the beginning of a new year and time to reflect on the pop culture year just ended. Critics did their top 10 lists of everything, but I’m going to do my list of 2014 favorites. Some of these are clearly eccentric choices–not necessarily “the best.”  I’ve written about most of them during the year – either here or at Gapers Block or Culture Vulture.

Professionally….

Critics at work in the Sunken Garden

Critics at work in the Sunken Garden

My favorite professional experience – my two weeks at the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. It was a fabulous and enriching two weeks, complete with inspiration from colleagues and visiting experts, lots of plays to review, and sleep deprivation.

The institute strengthened my ability to write theater criticism and I did a lot of it this year. I wrote about 60 reviews—mostly theater but also reviews of art exhibits—for gapersblock.com and about 20 for culturevulture.net, a national arts website.

For Nancy Bishop’s Journal, I wrote 46 essays, which drew 4500 visitors from 86 countries—mostly the US, UK and Brazil. The two essays that drew the most visitors were:

GalateaPowers— My review of Spike Jonze’s film Her, which I compared to Richard Powers’ novel Galatea 2.2.

— An article demanding freedom for Oscar Lopez Rivera, a political prisoner in the US for 33 years.

Theater

My favorite experiences as a theater critic and theatergoer aren’t necessarily the plays on other top 10 lists, but they are shows that I found thrilling.

The Hypocrites’ All Our Tragic. This play was a masterful combination of all 32 extant Greek plays by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, written by Sean Graney. The 12 hours flew by, with plenty of breaks for food and conversation.

Oracle’s The jungle was a searing theater experience; a big story in the smallest space imaginable. My review commented, “Your Chicago ancestors may have greeted the Pilgrims, arrived on the Mayflower or a slave ship, or come in through Ellis Island. Whatever their origin, they’re part of our history. You can relive it in this stirring drama.”

A fabulous visiting production of Arguendo, a dramatization of a Supreme Court First Amendment case, directly from the transcript, by the Elevator Repair Service, the inventive New York theater company. Scroll down in this long post to see my review of Arguendo. The choreography of the justices on office chairs was priceless. Here’s the trailer:

Elevator Repair Service presented Gatz, a word-for-word reading of The Great Gatsby, at the MCA theater in 2006. Here’s a video sample of Gatz.

Also among my 2014 favorites: Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England at Theater Wit; a fine production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Aston Rep; and Chicago Shakes’ King Lear highlighted by Larry Yando’s moving performance in the title role. My reviews of The Lieutenant and Lear.

Films

Picking my favorite films of 2014 was really difficult, but here’s my try:

NSB-Birdman_posterBirdman, because it’s wildly inventive, sadly realistic, and beautiful to behold—especially if you love the backstage areas of old New York theaters. I’ve seen it twice and loved it both times.

Boyhood, because Richard Linklater, who is obviously fascinated with the concept of time (re his “Before” film trilogy), took the time to see a boy and his family grow and change over 12 years.

The Imitation Game. I could nitpick at plot points but the story is fascinating and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is award-worthy.

The Grand Budapest Hotel. Yes, I know this is kind of sweet and quirky or “twee” as Greg Mitchell tweeted. I just saw it for the second time and still enjoyed Wes Anderson’s visual fun and games.

Favorite movie viewing experience: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with a live organ performance at the Symphony Center on Halloween night.

Plus two exceptional art documentaries:

National Gallery, a Frederick Wiseman documentary profile of London’s National Gallery, done in his fly-on-the-wall style with no narration or background music.

The Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, about which I wrote two different pieces—first when it was shown here briefly in June and then when the Gene Siskel Film Center showed it in the fall.

Television

truedetective— True Detective, the weird, creepy, gothic HBO series starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConnaughey. True Detective will come again this year with a different cast and story line, but I doubt it will compare to year 1.

— The 2013 MusiCares Tribute to Bruce Springsteen, which was finally televised by PBS this fall. Many great performers cover his songs, finding new ways to interpret them, while Springsteen sat in the audience and watched. But he finally got to the stage to give his acceptance speech and play a few of his own songs.

Sonic Highways, Dave Grohl’s tribute to American music, illustrated with the music and musicians of eight cities on HBO. The Chicago segment was episode 1. You can still view it on demand, if you subscribe to HBO.

Music

At Bridgestone Arena, waiting for The Boss. Photo by Brad Paulsen.

Bridgestone Arena, waiting for The Boss. Brad Paulsen photo.

— Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Nashville. No, he didn’t come to Chicago, so we took a road trip.

— The Bruce Springsteen 65th birthday bash at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn, organized by my friend, June Sawyers. In addition to the music, June and I read literary and not-so-literary commentary on Mr Springsteen.

Biggest musical disappointment: The October concert at the Symphony Center by Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer. The music and the performances were quiet, indistinguishable and without passion. I knew they weren’t going to rock out, but I did expect some enthusiasm.

Favorite album release: Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems. The opening track, “Almost Like the Blues,” is especially fine. As the Pitchfork reviewer said, his music “sounds slick, but slightly off-kilter.” Springsteen’s High Hopes was also released in 2014, and of course I’ve listened to it many times.

Visual art

My favorite art and museum exhibits:

MCA-DavidBowiesignage— David Bowie Is, which closes this weekend at the MCA. It’s an excellent exhibit and illuminates the genius of a musician who is ever conscious of his identity. My review.

Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, at the Art Institute. My comments.

— The new Ed Paschke Art Center in Jefferson Park opened this summer and I was there.

Mecca Flat Blues, an amazing exhibit of one of the many places where Chicago’s architecture and civic life collide, at the Chicago Cultural Center. This was my personal favorite article of the year. Chicago Magazine named it one of the must-reads of the week in April. I reprised it on my blog with added memories of Mies.

Books and authors

— Hilary Mantel’s short stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. I had only read Mantel’s first book about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Award. Her short stories are wildly different.

Tennessee Mech F2-23 May 14.indd— John Lahr’s biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. I reviewed it and his appearance onstage at Steppenwolf.

Stoner, the 1965 novel by John Edward Williams that was recently rediscovered. Julian Barnes declared it the must-read novel of 2013. Stoner was a farm boy who went to college to study agriculture and discovered the world of literature. One reason I loved its quiet prose about a life of disappointments is that it’s mostly set on the campus of the University of Missouri; it was lovely to read Williams’ descriptions of the place where I spent two years.

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