To celebrate the end of a great year for culture, both in the UK and abroad, we’ve decided to share some of our personal highlights. We’ll print them over the next three days, starting today with our choices of TV, film and music.
Ironically for a year in the UK that will forever be defined by the Brexit vote, 2016 was the moment when multi-channel, multi-lingual TV finally came of age in the UK.
The launch of Channel 4’s online demand service Walter Presents saw the world of non-English language drama finally burst out of its BBC4 ghetto. Its lead show, Germany’s ‘Deutschland ‘83’ proved to be a big hit back on the parent channel, offering an engaging Cold War domestic and espionage drama that made up for what it lacked in believably at times with bags of charm and energy.
Nordic noir also continued to perform strongly over the last 12 months, providing wonderful examples of how to make compelling genre shows that deal with big political contemporary issues. ‘Follow the Money’ gave us corporate malpractice and government corruption, ‘Occupied’ looked to impending energy security worries and a newly belligerent Russia, while ‘Blue eyes’ gave us Swedish far right terrorists before anyone had heard of the phrase ‘alt-right’. But the pick of the bunch was ‘Trapped’ on BBC4, with a towering performance from Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as a troubled, great big bear of a police chief struggling to solve a murder against the suspicion of the locals, the condescension of his superiors in Reykjavik, and the sublime chill of an Icelandic winter.
2016 was also a year that on-demand TV continued to grow in its popularity; most notably Netflix with huge commercial successes in its original productions, ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘Narcos’. Personal highlights from the platform were Aziz Ansari’s ‘Master of None’ and Baz Luhrmann’s return to the small screen with ‘The Get Down’. The latter set in late-70s New York and exploring the emergence of hip-hop and how it responded to the socio-political context, delivered great energy with a slightly disconcerting contemporary relevance.
But perhaps the most vital and affecting TV of the year was the BBC’s ‘Exodus’, a three part series that documented the true stories of refugees’ perilous journeys to our shores, as told by the refugees themselves in remarkable, often heartrending video footage and personal testimony. It was the perfect counterfoil to the dreadful portrayal of refugees in the tabloid press – here were articulate, at times funny, individuals given a voice and their dignity and humanity shone through.
Illustrative of this was Ken Loach’s return to the screen, with ‘I, Daniel Blake’. Known for his bleak depiction of the British political system, this tale of a middle-aged Geordie man’s fight with the bureaucratic welfare system provides a brutal insight into our age of austerity and regional disparity. We were struck by its radical plainness and simplicity. Already a Palme d’Or winner, the emotive truths resonates long after you leave the cinema.
A second nod goes to the spiritual sequel to screenwriter and director Richard Linklater’s 2014 coming-of-age film Boyhood, with ‘Everybody Wants Some!!’ - picking up where the earlier film left off, with a young man, freshly arrived at university, sampling his first taste of independence, and eager to see what the future has in store. Like its protagonist savouring the last few days before the start of classes, the film perfectly captures the openness, excitement, and laziness of this liminal period.
Finally, a film that caught us with its charm was ’Hunt for the Wilderpeople’; a quirky story about Ricky, a young trouble maker who gets packed off by social care to be fostered by an old couple in the middle of nowhere. Trouble soon strikes and he decides the best course of action is to run away into the wilderness with new best friend, dog Tupac. All manner of hilarious and heart-warming moments ensue after his foster father is accused of kidnapping him. A subtle critique of inflexible social care services and the importance for young people to feel cared for and treated with respect, this film proved both charming and entertaining.
Two notable returns for us this year were Massive Attack’s EP, ‘Ritual Spirit’, with a typically brooding elegiac sound; and during a year of strife for racial identity, Michael Kiwanuka’s long awaited second album, ‘Love and Hate’. Kiwanuka’s leading single, ‘Black Man in a White World’ set a potent political mark for the subsequent tracks.
New sounds and artists as ever came from far and wide this year. Personal highlights included: ‘Space Echo’, a wonderful compilation illustrating the fascinating story of how the island of Cabo Verde developed a ‘cosmic’, cutting edge sound in the 1970s; ‘Rats on Rafts & De Kift’, horn-fuelled contemporary Dutch language take on post punk; Canada’s electropop outfit Junior Boys, ‘M&P’ who took us all back to the heady days of Chicago House; and closer to home, Riton’s ‘Rinse and Repeat’ for providing the perfect summer anthem.
Hanging over this year in pop music was, of course, the death of three of its greatest exponents - David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen. All producing incredible music to the end, the passing of David Bowie in January was in particular marked by an extraordinary final album, ‘Blackstar’. Here, Bowie effectively turned his death into an expressive work of art in an astonishing feat of mental and physical fortitude.