This year has been a strong year across the arts in the performing and visual arts. Our critics below pick the best of what they have seen (and no, they haven’t seen everything!). Even so, their choices reveal how adventurous our companies and galleries, both big and small are becoming as the old divide between what’s mainstream and what’s “fringe” or “independent” continues to collapse. We also give our best picks of the year in screen. As is often noted if Shakespeare were alive today he’d be working in American television which is enjoying its golden period. It was also a strong year for film – though box office for Australian films was down this year – unless you consider The Great Gatsby an Australian film.
Best visual arts of 2013 – Heide
And the best art of 2013 is … not a show but a site, a birthplace of Australian modern art: Heide.
This year Heide Museum of Modern Art in the Melbourne suburb of Bulleen hosted a modest 13 shows, but that included four major installations. This is a spectacular score rate for the museum and its director, Jason Smith.
1) Louise Bourgeois: Late Works – wildly impressive, and I bet it’ll become influential.
2) Fiona Hall’s Big Game Hunting – a tour de force of invention and ambition. Hall is our Woman in Venice at the 2015 Biennale – I feel like booking my ticket now.
3) The Sometimes Chaotic World of Mike Brown – a revelatory showcase of why he mattered.
4) And ceramicist Stephen Benwell’s retrospective – as UK potter-artist Grayson Perry said, ‘I’ve always had a slightly sort of tense sort of relationship with critics.’ Benwell’s nude ceramic men (also at Melbourne Now at the NGV) are great.
PLUS: The best non-contemporary art I’ve seen this year is now on at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University – 70 to 80 year old painted barks, the oldest Aboriginal works made for non-indigenous viewers. I’ll write a piece for Daily Review in January but check it out now. And look very hard at the bottom left of the four photographs hanging by the stairs as you go in – it’s an important key! – W H Chong
Best movie of 2013 – Django Unchained
2013 was a strong year for cinema. Audiences were treated to high quality Australian films (notably The Turning and The Rocket), strange and dazzling international productions (Rust and Bone, Blancanieves, Berberian Sound Studio, Filth) and tent pole American releases that accomplished new feats of visual bravado (Life of Pi, Gravity). There were some surprises, including the weirdest film yet from veteran Ridley Scott (The Counselor) and a sassy take down of the American dream from Hollywood’s most overbearing director (Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain).
But the biggest lesson in cinematic style came from a familiar teacher. Punters once again enrolled in the school of Quentin Tarantino, whose neo-western Django Unchained sourced inspiration from the sun-scorched arena of spagbol shoot ‘em ups. With QT’s trademark one-two of flashy action and long and audacious monologues, the standout film of 2013 hinges on a simple premise: what if the hero of a western were an African American?
Django (played with hot-eyed stoicism by Jamie Foxx) is a Deep South slave set free by wandering German bounty hunter Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and taught the wicked ways of the wild west as he charts a path to rescue his wife from the hands of rich slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Tarantino could have pumped out an action packed homage to pistols at dawn pics in his sleep, but he set his sights on a more ambitious target. Underscored with an adoringly violent retro-grunge, the genre-crossing auteur uses flashy ’n’ trashy entertainment as draping for a scolding allegory about entrenched racism in America. It comes together as a searing, angry and magnificent burn to the senses. – Luke Buckmaster
Best TV series of 2013 – Breaking Bad
It’s difficult to pick a clear winner out of twelve long months of television programming. Well, normally it would be. This year it was clearly the final season of Breaking Bad; anyone who disagrees either hasn’t seen it or works for HBO.
Despite the excellence of the newcomers including House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Masters of Sex and Broadchurch, the excellent Top of the Lake, a second impressive season of The Newsroom, stand-out seasons of Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Homeland and the brief death of Brian from Family Guy, the final flourish of one of the all time greats stands alone. Even the presence of a resurgent The Walking Dead, which seems determined to grow its audience until there are unborn children that will be angry if Daryl dies, cannot overshadow the swan song of Walter White.
The reason How I met Your Mother has been putting off its final season for so long is that it’s a difficult thing to do well, but Breaking Bad managed to find balance between introducing enough new plot to keep the final eight episodes dynamic and interesting and elegantly concluding stories and character arcs that have spanned the show in its entirety. It was a fitting end to a series that has always stood in a new era of TV excellence. – Peter Green
Best play of 2013 (Melbourne) – Constellations
Melbourne’s independent theatre scene came in from the cold this year, taking over the Melbourne Theatre Company with a thrilling series of Neon shows and attracting wide acclaim at smaller spaces around the city. Much of it happened at TheatreWorks in St Kilda, where creative producer Daniel Clarke cultivated the best local companies to present a string of hits. The powerfully evocative M+M, a Melbourne Festival-presented show from the crazy-talented Daniel Schlusser Ensemble, was the best of them I saw. Daniel Schlusser himself starred in the best Malthouse Theatre offering, Persona, another thrilling offering from a local company in Fraught Outfit.
Brett Sheehy’s first season programming at the MTC was the best we’ve seen in a number of years. While the argument holds that there wasn’t enough Australian work on the main stage, Sheehy certainly choose wisely in the best writing from overseas: productions of the Broadway-originated Other Desert Cities and The Other Place were terrific. But for mine, it was British writer Nick Payne’s Costellations that proved the finest play in Melbourne this year. This charming but challenging recitative two-hander starred Leon Ford and Alison Bell, who delivered a devastating performance (which she managed to surpass in Adelaide later in the year with an extraordinarily canny take on Hedda Gabler). Was there a bigger star on the Australian stage this year? – Jason Whittaker
Best play of 2013 (Sydney) – Tinderbox
I’m fresh (if that’s the word after such an exhaustive, but even more exhausting, process) from judging the Sydney Theatre Awards, a task that’s taught me that no matter how much commitment, sincerity, deliberation, debate and arbitration is brought to bear, it remains, to a lesser or greater (and probably greater) extent, a wildly arbitrary endeavour. With that in mind, I don’t propose, for a moment, that my selection of the best play of 2014 is anything more than one of numerous possible options. Not quite whatever I pulled out of the hat though. What I’ve tried to do is throw a spotlight on something that mightn’t otherwise have attracted the attention it deserves. As was discussed among my ‘judgmental’ colleagues, plays staged early in the year tend to suffer, for the very simple reason memories fade. This, because a dedicated reviewer will see literally hundreds of shows in a given year. So, no matter how ‘memorable’, a play seen long enough ago, with countless others in between, can start to fall between the synapses. One that almost fell through the mental cracks was Aussie playwright Alana Valentine’s Tinderbox, in its world premiere, at the old Darlinghust Theatre, in Greenknowe Avenue, Elizabeth Bay.
Tinderbox is quintessentially Australian and couldn’t have come at a better, or worse, time of year. As Darlinghurst Theatre, as in the production company, was all set to move to its new, just occupied home at the old Baptist Tabernacle (renamed Eternity Playhouse in honour of Arthur Stace, who used to worship there), it gave way to a season of indie theatre under the banner of Theatre 19, the street address. As the name implies, this was and is a play about bushfires, a phenomenon almost inseparable from summer down under. As it happened, the opening came on an evening on which it seemed the whole country was ablaze and after Sydney’s hottest day since well before WW2. Eerie. But it wasn’t only because of the circumstances that it proved a crackling play. First of all, we had Zoe Carides, as director. Carides, even if she doesn’t look the part, has become an elder of Sydney theatre, with gravitas as both a finely nuanced actor as well as judicious director (of film as well as theatre). The former, I’m sure, gives her insights non-acting directors can never really acquire, not to mention a propensity for enhanced respect from her cast.
Tinderbox was by no means a flawless piece of theatre (real-life firefighter Alan Lovell, for example, might’ve brought street cred, but was a little stilted), but proved but a tweak or two away from being something really substantial. Valentine’s script was poetic, Carides’ direction taut, the creatives’ contributions considerable and Lovell’s cast colleagues (Djalog, as an intellectually disabled, forgiving neighbour & Ben Ross as the arsonist) surefooted. This was new growth; fresh shoots, albeit overshadowed, critically and commercially, by admittedly excellent blockbusters like Ros & Guil, Godot and Angels in America, but also out-and-out travesties like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Maids. The moral? Leave no stone (no pun intended) uncovered in your quest for excellence in theatre.
So, there you have it: my selection for ‘best play’, for 2013. Take it. Or leave it. Commend. Or complain. – Lloyd Bradford Syke
Best musical of 2013 – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
This year saw what could be the start of a shift in musical theatre across Australia. The highlights didn’t come from the big players, but from smaller, innovative productions, and producers who are relatively new to the table. GFO’s Grease had incredible ticket sales (so much so that Brisbane added an extra performance each week to nine) but was a big disappointment artistically. New Theatricals’ The Addams Family failed to make an impression with audiences or critics and closed early. King Kong was truly spectacular, but mightn’t have captured the hearts of audiences quite as much as the producers would hope.
In Sydney, Squabbalogic impressed with their small-scale productions of Carrie and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. In Melbourne, the Production Company delivered the goods with Caroline O’Connor’s once-in-a-lifetime performance in Gypsy, and the Victorian Opera impressed with their production of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Returning favourites South Pacific and The Lion King are both doing well.
The musical of the year would have to be Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It only played Sydney for a limited period, and ticket sales were sluggish, to say the least. But the combination of a smart script, score, direction and performances meant the show was met with a rapturous reception. A big win for the first-time producers behind the show. – Ben Neutze
Stay tuned over the Christmas period, when we’ll have the best books, music and podcasts from the year. Luke Buckmaster will also have his top ten films and boxing day picks.