By BRUCE DENNILL
The below music, literature, film and theatre may not have been created or originally released during 2014, but it was only at some point during this year that I was able to see it, hear it or read it.
In all cases, I count myself lucky to have been in the venue, opened the book or slipped the DVD into the player. Herewith then, the really good stuff from the past year.
Best Song: Indiscriminate Act Of Kindness by Foy Vance
A likely winner in any year, this incredible tune by a journeyman Irish singer-songwriter has, thanks to similar themes of pain and redemption, the emotional heft of Les Miserables packed into six minutes. You’ll cry, you’ll cry some more, you’ll wonder at the pathos in Vance’s voice, you’ll understand the power of truly great, undiluted songwriting and you’ll finish believing that there’s some good in everyone. Not a bad way to spend the time it takes to sit through a television ad break.
* Honourable mention: Wolves by Big Wreck
Expect this experienced Canadian outfit to make waves in South Africa in 2015, now that their albums are available here via iTunes, thanks to ASP Records. Frontman Ian Thornley may also pop in to give a few guitar workshops. It’s Thornley’s stellar voice that’s at the centre of Wolves, a pop tune given rock power and played with classical chops.
Best Album: The Civil Wars by The Civil Wars
People use the word “tragedy” too easily, and Joy Williams and John Paul White parting musical ways is hardly the equal of a family member being diagnosed with cancer. But nevertheless, it’s sad that the Civil Wars will not make more music beyond this collection. The album includes the Grammy-winning From This Valley, but is not dominated by any single track, being rather a solid block of top-quality writing and performance.
* Honourable mention: Joy Of Nothing by Foy Vance
That man again – this is his latest collection. Another beginning-to-end exercise in quality, with intelligent production adding muscle to the acoustic core at the heart of his compositions. Try the title track, You & I and Paper Prince if you’re short on time. Then go back later for everything else.
Best Live Music: Andra at St Aidan’s Grahamstown
Humility and talent are always an appealing mix, and Andra Cilliers has both in spades. The simple combination of her surprising (no matter how many times you hear it) vocal range and tone – from Joan Baez to Janis Joplin and back, often in the space of a single song – with her folk and blues guitar-playing prowess always impresses. Add to that the pristine acoustics of a decommissioned cathedral and the extra will to impress that comes with making a debut at the National Arts Festival, and you have a performance Andra will do well to ever better. This YouTube feature sees the singer with a band – in Grahamstown she was solo – but it’ll give you some idea.
* Honourable mention: The Lumineers at the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens
Roots rock stompers The Lumineers impressed first and foremost with their sincerity – how unfashionable is that? – before knocking their audience flat with chops so perfectly developed that the band doesn’t need to think about what they do in terms of playing their instruments and so are able to focus on connecting with their fans, something they do particularly well.
Best Film: Saving Mr Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock
A beautifully crafted look at the machinations necessary in order to bring PL Travers’ classic Mary Poppins books to the big screen. Emma Thompson plays Travers with, ironically, restrained bluster – a performance that should have won her an Oscar. She’s just about matched by Oscar regular Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, a man unused to being turned down, who is forced to cajole, negotiate and beg for the opportunity to fulfill his dream – making a movie as loved now as it was the day it was released. Brilliant writing, fantastic performances and a superb addition to a legend that was already mightily impressive.
* Honourable mention: The Fault In Our Stars, directed by Josh Boone
More schmaltzy young adult romances? No thanks. Except when said romance stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort and is cleverly, sensitively written around themes of loss – of health, of potential, of love. Cynics and softies alike: expect a lump in the throat.
Best Book: Imperfect Solo by Steven Boykey Sidley
Wordiness, intelligence and bitterness being strained through a filter of dark humour: not a lot happens in this book, which is nothing more than the taking apart and putting back together of a short period in a middle-aged man’s life. But it happens with such elegance, craft and wit that, whatever your take on protagonist Joshua Meyer, you’ll be sad when the end of the book obscures him from your sight.
* Honourable mention: The Novel Cure – An A-Z Of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin
A book about books that distils the love of books into 450 very happy pages.
Best Theatre: Three Little Pigs, directed by Tara Louise Notcutt
There comes a moment in any theatre performance when a critic – or just a cynic – begins, no matter how much they are enjoying the show, to keep a sharp eye out for something wrong. Any chink in the armour will do, not because of any will to rip the thing apart for rippings’ sake, but because balance is what makes any review worthwhile. That wasn’t possible with Three Little Pigs at the Wits Theatre – there was not chink, so there could be no balance. As close to perfect as a piece of art could be.
* Honourable mention: Constellations, directed by Alan Swerdlow
Relationships are hard work under any circumstances. They are incrementally more difficult when both partners need to make each decision along the way repeatedly in minutely different ways that begin emotional chain reactions. Janna Ramos-Violante and Ashley Dowds did a masterful job of being almost the same characters many times over, guaranteeing an experience as pleasing for the intellect as it was for the heart.