Hey everyone, it’s 2016 and we haven’t yet succumbed to the ravages of climate change! Well, some people have, but if you’re reading this and you aren’t a ghost, we made it! Yay!
Throughout 2015, for kicks, I kept a running list of all the entertainment I took in. The categories included live theatre (including dance), films, books, TV shows, games (tabletop and electronic), and live music. By the end of December, I had a nice snapshot of the year’s diversions to look back on. And man, I saw and read some really great stuff this year. Being that this is the Age of Opinions, I thought it might be fun to share with you my favourites from each of the categories– the works that have continued to resonate, whether that was because they packed a powerful punch, were inspiring/motivating, or were just extremely entertaining. Maybe you’ll find something you dig in them.
Note that this list doesn’t necessarily contain things made in 2015, but rather is just the stuff that I chose to read/watch/play last year. I’m including things I rewatched or reread in my counts, but they’re excluded from the top choices.
Let’s begin with the smallest category:
This category had a piddling 4 events noted. This doesn’t count live background music in bars or events; this means concerts. This year I admitted to myself that I really just don’t seek out live music that often– usually because my money is spent on movies and plays. (And food, but that’s beside the point.) So, I’ll list them all in the spirit of fairness, because they were all great in different ways.
Pentatonix at Sound Academy
Pentatonix are dynamite live: tight tight harmonies and thoroughly affable stage presence. Didn’t even care that I raised the average age of the crowd, which otherwise hovered in the mid teens.
Cecilia String Quartet Xenia Concert Series: Classical Dance Party
Okay, so admittedly I was a part of a later concert, performing animal-themed puppetry… but the Cecilia String Quartet have a gorgeous sound and great sense of humour, and the crowd of kids on the ASD spectrum and their families loved the music and engaging interludes.
Reimagining the Music of Molly Drake at the Tranzac
An intimate offering of arrangements of Molly Drake tunes, featuring Angela Turone, Mike McCormick, Morgan Gardner, Marc J. Blouin, and Evan Lamberton. My first introduction to Molly Drake’s music, and a lovely simple ensemble with arrangements both sweet and abstract.
Janelle Monáe at Nathan Phillips Square for Panamania
Firmly cemented my enormous crush on Janelle Monáe. Not only was the energetic funky performance damn near flawless, she proudly showed her social justice stripes by invoking the Black Lives Matter movement before launching into Cold War. Mad respect for an utterly unique and powerful musician.
I played about 20 different games this year, on computers, televisions, and tabletops. (I say about because I’m not counting card games after a couple of ciders.) Of those twenty, three in particular (all for Playstation) grabbed my fascination.
In this game by Crispy’s, set in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo where all the humans are gone, you play as different animals trying to survive food scarcity, pollution, and other animals for as many generations as possible. Different animals have different strengths/speeds/etc and create different challenges. And it only gets harder to survive. Maybe you made it seven generations, but now you’re suddenly surrounded by crocodiles. It happens. The feedback loop of survival is very addictive. It logs into my animal brain and inputs, “Run run run away hide hide eat plants eat plants eat eat eat hide run ruuuuun make more of me runnnn!!”, or for the carnivores, “Kill thing and eat it kill this thing to assert dominance run run from the big thing make more of me to kill more things!!” Who doesn’t like staying alive? Especially when you’re a pack of Pomeranians trying to kill a zebra.
The Wolf Among Us
When I choose games, I’m not a big fan of shooters, racing games, or pretty much any game where you have to build controller skills (I’m a button-masher). I like brainy, puzzle-y, story-driven games with enough movement to keep things exciting. Based on Bill Willingham’s Fables comic series, your decisions as Sheriff Bigby Wolf always move the plot ahead, but are often so morally knotted. As someone who agonizes over decisions in daily life, these games put me through the ringer… but I love it. Even more, I love guilting my partner for his choices as he plays. “You killed him and all he wanted was a dog!” Very excited to play Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones next.
So what I was just saying about games requiring controller skillz… yeeeaaahhh, this is my exception. This ludicrous game by Psyonix slipped into at the last minutes on New Year’s Eve and many hours have been clocked since. Sure, I get frustrated by my consistently crappy aim and inability to track the ball while my car into something that isn’t a wall… but the ball explodes when I score a point with my rocket car. How can I not love that.
Runner-Up: Adventure Time Munchkin, mostly for the note that BMO “ignores all gender issues”.
Though technically more hours were spent consuming seasons or single episodes of different shows, the number of series titles this year came to 13. I’m going to choose my three standouts.
In constant rotation as breakfast viewing, we got through two seasons (4 and 5) of Adventure Time last year. So weird and subversive and delicious. We’re fooling ourselves at this point if we think it’s made with kids in mind… but kids should watch it anyway. More weird darkness for children, always.
I count webseries as TV shows, and this one was a real treat. I saw it in feature film format at the Royal, but I highly recommend checking it out episodically. Great sci-fi by Postopian Pictures with big imagination on a low budget.
RuPaul’s Drag Race + Untucked
I don’t do reality TV… except this. I watched seasons 4 to 6 this year, plus the Untucked episodes. Some of the humour and elements of the show are problematic (cough “She-mail” cough), but I dig the creative elements the show brings together– costume, makeup, hair, persona, performance, writing. The contestants cannot coast through on one strength. And the Untucked episodes, despite the coating of catfights and weeping, actually have some pretty inspiring stuff about self-confidence, support, being yourself, and artistic survival. … Okay, and yes, I like the witty reads.
Runner-Up: X-Files, even though I’m only four episodes in, so I don’t think I can comment much, but this feels like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I think this list helped me get more reading done in 2015 than I have in ages. I read 25 books this year, which includes novels, biographies, non-fiction, and plays. Here’s my top five.
Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson)
I love sci-fi and speculative fiction, and I’ve dabbled loosely in cyberpunk, and Stephenson hit all the notes I love– witty, quick, not too mired in technical explanation but rich with world-creation. An ultra-branded future America with the threat of a semi-religious virus being spread through the population, and a villain with a harpoon and a nuke? Yuss.
Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton)
Better than the movie. And that’s saying something. THERE I SAID IT MOVING ON
Room (Emma Donoghue)
To prepare for watching the new movie about a 5-year-old boy, Jack, born and raised in his kidnapped mother’s one-room prison, and their decision to escape. I mean, the description alone is gripping. Such creative and evocative writing (it’s all told from Jack’s skewed perspective), and so so tense. I finished the book in three days and it haunted me for a week after.
One More Time (Carol Burnett)
What started as a letter from Burnett to her children became this book about growing up sharing a tiny Hollywood apartment with a hypchondriac grandmother, ambitious but alcoholic mother, and loving but absent alcoholic father. It’s heartwrenching, but Burnett doesn’t go for melodrama or pity– she just tells the truth of how it was for her young self, and the early struggles of the biz. The book ends as her success takes off, which I love.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Marie Kondo)
A book that, at many points, made me say aloud, “This lady is nuts.” Well, this lady, who talks to inanimate objects and cries over bathroom sludge, also makes a living helping people tidy their apartments and has an extensive waitlist, so she must know what she’s talking about. Despite having never fully completed my tidying (a key element apparently is completing the tidy in one go, and I never have the time), my former hoarder self has an easier time parting with excess stuff. If something wants to stay, it has to bring me joy. If it doesn’t, I thank it (because okay, I fret over the feelings of inanimate objects too, but I’m a puppeteer, so I have an excuse okay) and let it go. It’s a good first step.
Runners-Up: The Big Thaw (Ed Struzik) about climate change’s numerous effects on the Canadian north; The Gargoyle (Andrew Davidson) about obsession and creativity and love; Burning Daylight (Christine Fellows) poems with northern inspiration that you can feel.
My advice to anyone who wants to see a lot of theatre is, write a Fringe show. That way, at Fringes, you can see many many many shows thanks to password systems and performer comps! In 2015 I didn’t quite do as well as in 2014 (I saw 90+ shows from June to September alone). But also, go see live theatre. It’s an active experience that needs your love and can’t be matched anywhere else. This year, since I somehow saw 62 things, I’m going to choose my top 10.
The Cardinals (Stan’s Cafe)
I love love love the programming at World Stage– some of my favourite theatre in the city for innovation and challenge. The Cardinals was a bizarre piece about a group of cardinals (the Catholic kind) putting on a Biblical puppet show with the aid of a young female Muslim stage manager. They struggle mightily in the process– alluding to the exhausting work of maintaining gospel’s relevance. Symbolic, frantic, and hilarious.
The Object Lesson (Geoff Sobelle)
It’s rare to walk into a theatre space that isn’t Cirque du Soleil and immediately feel immersed in another world. Another World Stage offering, The Object Lesson transformed the entire Harbourfront Centre Theatre space into a packrat’s dream of boxes that you were free to dig through and explore pre-show, complete with a card catalogue. I found all sorts of little surprises. Then you sat on boxes as Geoff Sobelle meandered around pawing through the assorted objects, and shared stories, pulled the audience into vignettes, and– especially with the increasingly unsettling finale– had me really questioning the mountains of stuff we amass. (Thank goodness for Marie Kondo, amirite?)
Beau and Aero (A Little Bit Off)
Wacky aviator clowns who battle and grudgingly cooperate and engage the audience and perform feats of strength and interpretive dance. Beyond the creativity and uniqueness, Beau and Aero are so darn loveable and open and generous with each other and with their audience– you totally want to play along. And, they’re completely family friendly.
Grade 8 (Dwayne Morgan)
Dwayne‘s one-man spoken-word show (which he first performed in 2008) revolves around his daughter’s impending entry to the eighth grade. His words deftly flow from remembrance of his late wife, to fears for his daughter, to reflections on his own impact (and that of other men) on his daughters’ life. His writing is like that of a slam poet, but gentler. It’s a vulnerable and moving show with some solid chuckles to boot.
Spell to Bring Lost Creatures Homes (Shary Boyle and Christine Fellows)
Part of the Luminato Festival, this show about “shared history and common humanity” paired poetry and songs with some stunning overhead projections, done using two separate projectors. Painted images, windows, water, shadows all made appearances. Sweet and dreamy, in that sort of sad way that also feels happy.
pool (no water) (Cue6 Productions)
The sort of script that seems pulled from a pulp novel: the successful one of a group of artist friends is injured in a horrible accident, and they all help out. And by doing so, they help themselves. The searing script drips with bitterness and hypocrisy, but what I loved most of all was the way Cue6’s great cast handled the unusual script (“a text for performers” with no assigned lines or characters) and manifested it as a very cool piece of physical theatre.
The Inventor of All Things (Jem Rolls)
Jem Rolls is Fringe royalty, known for his blustery and eloquent spoken word and poetry performances. His most recent show was a bit of a departure, a semi-biography, semi-ode to Leo Szilard, the little-known Hungarian nuclear physicist who played a key role in the Manhattan Project, cured his own bladder cancer, and had a long-distance marriage. Told in Jem’s own inimitable fashion, with high energy and tasty wordplay, it’s a decidedly weird and wonderful show.
LEO (Y2D Productions, presented by Théâtre français de Toronto)
A textless show based on a simple premise: a projected camera shows a right-side up image of a room built onstage on its side, in which a man clowns– on his side. It played off remarkably well. Anti-gravity gags, dance sequences, and some very clever animated bits overlaying the on-camera, as well as some interesting looped images. Fun, inventive, and great for all ages.
Seance (Nicholas Wallace)
I don’t like being scared. But I liked reading about scary things like ghosts and poltergeists when I was a kid. So I thought this would be fun to do as a spooky Halloween treat. And in retrospect, it was a grand old time. But for the three or four days afterwards where I was afraid of everything and slept with extra lights on, I was super mad at myself because– guess what?– I actually am a huge chicken who really really really doesn’t like being scared. But I couldn’t be mad at Nick Wallace, because through his spooky magic tricks, build of suspense, downright terrifying moments, and somehow choosing the most frightened person in the room (me) for the freakiest audience participation bit, he fully delivered on a wonderfully scary live theatre experience. Which is what I paid for. Like an idiot.
Nirbhaya (Assembly, Riverside Studios and Poorna Jagannathan, presented by Nightwood Theatre and Amnesty International)
Inspired by the Delhi bus rape of 2012, and the performers’ true stories of gender-based violence, this is a devastating and important show. Never has a piece of theatre affected me so deeply (Magic Unicorn Island previously held that honour). I cried, and the thoughts and feelings the show brought up in me swirled through me for at least a week after. I saw it again, and cried harder. It is a heavy piece given more weight by its symbolic staging and I would really recommend bringing someone to hug afterward… but it should be seen by everyone.
Runners-Up: Marathon (Aharona Israel) for illuminating how culture affects art’s resonance; Northern Daughter (Donna Creighton), Hanger (Kildare Company) and Unholy (workshop, Nightwood Theatre) for being witty and deep-reaching pieces by female playwrights that I would love to see developed further; Underneath the Lintel (Pat O’Brien) for a thoughtfully magical tale.
Oh jeez guys this is the last category and I’ve been writing this freaking thing for five hours. I thought this would be a light romp down memory lane, but it’s been a dramatic war reenactment of sorts. Oh well, I promised you opinions, and if you made it this far, congratulations: you got to the most socially-relatable part. By incredible coincidence I also saw 62 films this year, and I’m also going to list my favourite ten of those. I’ll keep it short because you’ve probably seen them already. Thanks for sticking around; I hope you enjoyed the list.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
File under “How Had I Not Seen This Yet?”. Now tied with The Birdcage for my favourite Robin Williams movie– a great balance between rapid-fire comedy and weighty drama.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)
Don Hertzfeldt’s work makes me laugh, deeply disturbs me, and makes me love life in a sort of panicked way. He makes the kind of art I want to make. This movie is no exception. I watched it twice this year.
Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner and I have history. I always seemed to sit down to watch it either A) with a boy who is distracting, or B) when I am completely exhausted and fall asleep after an hour. It was my good fortune, then, that TIFF was screening at a reasonable hour. I still had a boy with me, but he did an excellent job of not being distracting. And, as I knew I would, I loved it.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
MOVIE OF THE YEEEEAAAAAARRRRRRR!!!
Seriously. I saw this on my birthday and I cannot say enough good things about it. The kind of movie where I weep a little during the credits because “I just love movies so much”.
Ex Machina (2015)
A creepy close-up look at the implications and ethical considerations of AI and the relationships built with a robot. A super-thinky sci-fi movie with great visuals that, if you took out the helicopter and idyllic mountain estate, one could imagine doing on a fairly small budget– an idea that gets me excited to create.
I Know That Voice (2013)
A great doc about working and playing in the voiceover industry, headed by John DiMaggio and featuring all the animation voiceover glitterati. As a lifelong maker of stupid voices, I too aspire to the voiceover playground, and this was a great no-nonsense (okay, ample-nonsense) look at the biz.
Go Away, Mr Tumor (2015)
“What do you want to go see at the movies?”
“How about this subtitled Chinese movie about a cartoonist with cancer, which I’ve never heard of before but for which the trailer looks ridiculous?”
A frenetic, optimistic, fantasy-filled romp. About a young woman with terminal cancer. So yeah, you’re gonna cry too.
Cooper’s Christmas (née Cooper’s Camera, 2008)
Made of “found footage” from the Cooper family’s Christmas gift of a video camera, this raunchy, hysterically funny movie features mannequin love, teenage Wookie angst, and Dave Foley’s penis. It deserves Christmas cult movie status. Go buy it on iTunes.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
So much to like that I still feel like I shouldn’t talk about, but easy ones are this: more diverse casting (FINALLY), the best-acted of the films, BB-8 is my new hero, an entirely appropriate tone, shipping potential (nerds, you know what I mean, yeeeaaaah).
Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)
Another one that snuck in at the end, as I watched it on the plane on New Year’s Eve morn. Wholly believable characters with genuine chemistry, and Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg’s performances are solid and so very likeable.
Runners-Up: Selma (2014) because Ava DuVernay is a powerhouse filmmaker; Akira (1988) because the creepy old-kids’ theme still pops up in my head; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) for stupid fun.
Wow, you actually made it to the end! Congrats. Now go see/read/play/create stuff, and tell me about your faves.