2020 was not a banner year for cultural production (gigs: I miss you). Some personal highlights from the wreckage.
The Mirror & the Light
The final in Hilary Mantel’s triumphant trilogy reconsidering the legacy of Thomas Cromwell and his time in the Tudor court of Henry VIII. Big and dense with luminous prose. I found myself constantly stopping to reread passages.
A kind of bio of Hillary Rodham (Clinton) that forks off from reality a third of the way in by imagining what might have happened if she didn’t marry Bill Clinton in the 1970s. The novel juggles political fantasy and feminist dilemnas and doesn’t take the easy road. Nice Donald Trump cameo.
The first half of this novel captures the indestructible optimism and joy of youth and is alive with music. The second – set thirty years later – the more complex reality of middle age and mortality. A beautifully-rendered friendship bridges the two.
+ Honourable Mentions: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell, Like a Mirror by Kirsten Krauth, A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry, Honeybee by Craig Silvey, The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean McKay, Summerwater by Sarah Moss.
Promising Young Woman
Emerald Fennell Trailer
Writer/director Emerald Fennell brings some of the sensibilities of her previous work on Killing Eve to this thought-provoking black comedy/thriller/revenge/#metoo genre mix. Carey Mulligan is great in the lead role.
True History of the Kelly Gang
Justin Kurzel Trailer
A stylised, lurid, punk rock adaptation of the Peter Carey novel. George MacKay’s Ned and Essie Davis’s Ellen Kelly stand out.
Streaming on Stan. (I saw this back in January at SWIFF, my favourite film festival in the whole wide world).
Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds
Werner Herzog Trailer
Herzog teams up again with seismologist Clive Oppenheimer – who featured in 2007’s Antarctica doco Encounters At The End Of The World and 2016’s volcanofest Into The Inferno – in this eccentric and cerebral take on meteorites and what they mean to our past, present and future. (Remember those zany dinosaurs?)
Streaming on Apple TV+.
+ Honourable Mentions: Emma by Autumn de Wilde, I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Charlie Kaufman, The Trip to Greece by Michael Winterbottom, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm but Sacha Baron Cohen.
Lenny Abrahamson & Hettie Macdonald
One of those rare book to screen adaptations (from the 2018 Sally Rooney novel) that adds to the original work without straying too far from the source material.
Streaming on Stan.
The Last Dance
I have zero interest in basketball and, before watching this, knew pratically nothing about Michael Jordan, but this documentary about the Chicago Bulls and their 1997 NBA season is gripping.
Streaming on Netflix.
+ Honourable Mentions: Des, Search Party, I Hate Suzie.
Cable Ties: Far Enough
Melbourne feminist punk rock with more light and shade – and seven minute songs – than you might expect. I really like opening track Hope.
Sunfruits: Certified Organic
Bubbly, groovy psychedelic 60s pop.
+ Honourable Mentions: Feral by RVG , Live at RRR by Pinch Points.
Meredith Supernatural Amphitheatre, March 7-9
From that innocent time before COVID engulfed us. I’ve heard tell that this is the best festival in Australia and now I see why: sponsor-free, carefully curated lineup, single stage, fantastic vibe, the boot . Pixies, Weyes Blood, Bananagun, Bill Callahan, Sleaford Mods, Sampa the Great.
Fund the Firies
Bellingen Golf Club, March 14
The Very Last Gig. The Nikkis, Rear Wheel Drive, High Lonesome, Dose Guys and Just the Tip. Fun times.
Articles of Interest
99% Invisible/Radiotopia Website
In a year with a little (cough) going on in American politics this weekly podcast/discussion – in its 15th year – has been essential listening. Hosts David Plotz, Emily Bazelon and John Dickerson are smart, funny and compassionate.
This Day in Esoteric Political History
Each short episode looks at a big or small event from (mostly US) political history and considers their relevance to what’s happening now. I’ve learnt, for example, how Woodrow Wilson getting the Spanish Flu might have affected the Treaty of Versailles, and how the New York Times flashed a searchlight from the top of its building to inform New Yorkers who’d won the 1904 election.
Write Between The Eyes
Bellingen Readers & Writers Festival Website
Born from the cancellation of the 2020 Bellingen Readers & Writers Festival affable host Adam Norris interviews authors including Bob Brown, Rhoda Roberts and John Marsden. Second season launching in 2021.
+ Honourable Mentions: Word Matters, Revisionist History: General Curtis LeMay.