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 post them over the next three days, starting today with our choices of TV, film and music.
In 2017, BBC2’s Exodus: Our Journey Continues returned to our screens. Picking up from last year’s groundbreaking first series, the series followed up with migrants who have crossed to Europe, as well as letting others tell their stories. For both groups, the context has dramatically changed for the worst, with the US and Europe now having effectively closed their borders to refugees and migrants, as nativist politics has taken root and public attitudes have hardened in many countries. There are occasional heart-warming and uplifting moments, but for the most part, it is a brutally honest picture of people’s lives being put on hold as they get stuck in camps along the way (or worse), forced into poverty to pay smugglers, families being divided across and between continents, and perhaps worst of all, the betrayal of hope for a better, safer life. Chastening and essential viewing.
Spanish drama Se Quien Eres offered something quite different from Nordic noir – a previous big hit for us. It started in classic thriller territory by combining two story archetypes – an accused returnee with amnesia and the disappeared girl. But what really drew us in, and came fully to the fore in series two, was the delirious family melodrama that was spun out of the initial events. The repeated sensational plot twists were held together by the unswerving commitment of a great cast, and in particular the two amazing 50 something leads - Francesc Garrido and Blanca Portillo - playing duelling husband and wife.
In a year where the representation and treatment of woman in the entertainment sector made headlines across the world, we had the incredible Handmaid’s Tale. Focusing on women, directed by women, adapted from a woman novelist at the top of her game and featuring not only the sublime Elizabeth Moss but a panoply of great roles for women of all ages - it was a showcase of what is possible when the limelight is shared.
Another TV highlight was Grace and Frankie. Now heading into its fourth series, it was excellent to see the lives of two women in their seventies carrying a show at a time when everyone talks about issues of invisibility and increasing alienation for older adults. Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda are brilliantly funny, and, although the content is not particularly heavyweight, it remains very enjoyable.
From our colleagues in Shanghai, we have the TV drama, In the Name of People (人民的名义). A story of intricate struggles against corruption in China, it reveals very realistic motivation, desire, conflict and anxiety - within city and provincial level government, civil servants’ association with rich business people, and corrupt government officials’ fights with the anti-corruption bureau.. A very sensitive topic 10 years before, but perhaps not so now.
In a year where Brexit continues to dominate headlines and minds, we had the welcome relief of Paddington 2. For its celebration of the richness of city life, the positive force of (im)migration and the joy of London, the bright coloured, neighbourly world of the furry felt-hatted hero is full of kindness, marmalade and slapstick misadventure. The villains are soul-sapping anxieties about money, status and fearsome foreigners, but they are eventually overcome by the optimism of the orphan Peruvian bear and the networks of family, friends and prison inmates who unite around him.
Next, we have the critically acclaimed The Florida Project. Brilliantly representing the life of a group of deprived kids and their families living in a budget motel in Florida in the shadow of Walt Disney World, the cast and the complex narratives create an incredibly naturalistic performance that made us think about disillusion, welfare state and social equality.
Finally, Mad World. The depressing tale of a young man recovering from bipolar disorder, Mad World offers a panorama of family conflicts, social ills and even God’s silence. A rare humanist drama from a Hong Kong film industry that is increasingly genre-oriented, the low-budget feature debut by director Wong Chun and screenwriter Florence Chan Chor-hang won two prizes at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards and is set to add to its accolades at Hong Kong Film Awards, for which it has received eight nominations.
2017 saw a torrent of quality music across every conceivable genre; a feat unsurpassed for at least a decade.
We had the return of the heavy hitting and reliable artists (LCD Soundsystem, The National), some indie favourites (St Vincent, Public Service Broadcasting), hip hop masters (Run the Jewels, Kendrick Lamar), and big dance/electronica acts (Four Tet, Bonobo), among others.
While there was loads to enjoy with these returns, with the exception of Lorde’s ‘Melodrama’, arguably none of their 2017 releases stands comparison with these artists’ best work. What was really amazing about 2017 was the profusion of great music from new and/or less well-known acts.
Indie highlights from distant shores included the wonderful Go-betweens-esque Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever; Chelsea Wolfe’s heavy gothic ethereal drone pop; Man Forever’s beautiful, strange, percussive and uncategorizable ‘Play what they Want’; Protomartyr’s wordy, allusive angst; and Oxbow’s sporadically brilliant symphonic chamber pop take on Faith No More.
At home, a new wave of disparate independent acts has sprung up that nevertheless shares an adventurous, fun DIY aesthetic that has been dubbed by some ‘UK weird’. Lone Taxidermist just about manage to tread the right side of kinky, oddball pop versus band that The Mighty Boosh would invent. Snapped Ankles whip up an electro krautrock-meets-Animal Collective frenzy on their ‘Come Play the Trees’ album, while the bonkers Moonlandingz are the sharpest of the lot, seemingly arrived fully formed as a joyous rummage through the best bits of psychedelic pop, glam, synthpop and pyschobilly.
While ‘trap’ went overground in 2017, and trap artists like 2 Chainz made some great singles, more consistent and lyrically inventive music lay elsewhere in the hip hop firmament, produced by a diverse host of leftfield acts like Milo, Deem Spencer, Shabazz Palaces, Princess Nokia, Vince Staples’ hip hop/techno mash-up, and on Loyle Carner’s laidback homegrown debut, ‘Yesterday’s Gone’.
Grime4corbyn proved the cynics wrong with artists like Stormzy at the top of their game and contributing to the surprise General Election result. Other artists were more explicit in incorporating political subjects in their work. These included PJ Harvey, indie stalwarts Maximo Park, folk’s Eliza Carthy’s astonishing collaboration with Dizraeli (‘Aleppo in the Sun as It Was’), and Nadine Shah’s soulful post-punk, who dealt variously with the Syrian conflict, refugee crises and migration, rightwing media, and gentrification.
The latest album from Americana’s most socially conscious musician, Jason Isbell, achieved something kind of remarkable – an existential country album, where Isbell navigates what it means to be a socially aware white man from the South in the America of 2017.
And the most full-on, successful and vital fusion of politics and pop originated from the US. ‘The Underside of Power’, the second long player by Atlanta-based band Algiers is huge in scope and ambition and stunning in execution, and easily wins album of the year (despite the heavyweight competition). Musically and lyrically dense, it takes on the burning injustices of our times - as one end of the Year poll put it, “They confront the horrors of 2017 America head-on with an intensity that can be uncomfortable at times”.