There is never a bad time to make lists, but the end of the year seems an especially auspicious occasion. I enjoy making lists of favourite this-and-thats of the year, and why shouldn’t I?
I have never been an avid film watcher, and that did not change in 2007. Nevertheless, I did see a handful of films, and some of them deserve praise. The German documentary Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence) was far and away the best thing I saw this year. The filmmaker Philip Gröning spent a year living in the Carthusian abbey of Grande Chartreuse, and captured not just the rhythm and texture of monastic life, but also something of its inner spirit. There is little dialogue, no voice-over commentary, and no sound or music has been added in the studio. The result is austere and contemplative. We simply observe the monks going about their daily business: praying, chopping wood, preparing food, celebrating Mass. The film itself is to unobtrusive, so committed to leaving the viewer alone with the monks, that the experience passes from that of observation to participation. It is an extraordinary achievement.
I was also impressed this year by another German film, The Lives of Others. The story, about a group of artists in East Berlin trying to find a place for their art, and a place for the truth, under totalitarianism, is told quietly and even studiously, and it feels honest. The ending is excellent.
Everything else I saw this year falls far beneath these two, but a few things were not without merit. I enjoyed the animated film Ratatouille: even when the plot became too silly, one could still marvel at the incredible animation. With my family I saw John Cusack in 1408, and we had a wonderful time discussing possible interpretations of the film’s events. It was one of those films for which the remembrance is better than the viewing. I was also pleasantly surprised by Casino Royale: never before had I sat through an entire James Bond film, much less enjoyed it. The opening chase sequence was perhaps the best I have seen in any film.
At year’s end an avalanche of films were released that captured my interest, but I have yet to find time to see any of them. Beowulf has eluded me, mostly on account of the poor reviews it received. I would also like to see Michael Clayton, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Juno, No Country for Old Men, I’m Not There, and Sweeney Todd. For months I have been anticipating P.T. Anderson’s new film There Will be Blood, and perhaps I’ll have the chance to see it soon.
I can think of only three popular music discs that I acquired this year: the Innocence Mission’s We Walked in Song, the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, and Bruce Springsteen’s Magic. Of these, only the first earns my unqualified endorsement. We Walked in Song continues their long search for intimate acoustic beauty, and Karen Peris’ songwriting is as strong as ever. I was delighted to see that the Arcade Fire’s sophomore album met with as much critical praise as it did. I remember attending their shows in Montreal when they were still being held in private homes, and I remember visiting their studio, bearing ice cream, when they were recording their first album, and I remember the apprehension with which they awaited its critical reception. Clearly, everything has gone right for them in the past few years, and I hope it continues. I just wish I myself enjoyed the music more. The opening tracks on Neon Bible sound better to me than anything else they have done, but much of it leaves me scratching my head. Well, I don’t have to like everything, right? As for Springsteen, Magic strikes me as an on again (“Radio Nowhere”, “Terry’s Song”), off again (“Gypsy Biker”, “I’ll Work for Your Love”) effort. Nothing here can touch Tom Joad.
I continued to scale back my classical music purchases this year, in part from a sense of fiscal responsibility, in part from lack of access to a good second-hand shop, and in part because I simply can’t absorb all the music I have. This downscaling has been all for the best, though it has been somewhat countered by my acquisition of one of those devices, and my having purchased a monthly subscription to eMusic. Now I can buy CDs without buying CDs! It is not entirely clear to me that I am reasoning soundly.
For sheer colossal power, I must mention Gunter Wand’s recording of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR (Profil). This is music to haunt your deepest dreams, and it receives an absolutely splendid performance. I also returned repeatedly to Raphael Wallfisch’s recordings of Shostakovich’s complete works for cello, including the two concerti and sonatae (Nimbus). It is tough, invigorating music, and the performances and sound are excellent.
For choral music, there are a few discs that stand out. The Hilliard Ensemble has finally begun to issue a series of live recordings, previously available only by special order, on a label with wide distribution (Coro). Of these, I heard the volume dedicated to Antoine Brumel, and it is magnificent. Nobody sings like the Hilliards, and Brumel must be grinning ear to ear. Late in the year, the Huelgas Ensemble issued a disc called La Quinta Essentia. The disc illustrates the different compositional styles of Italy, the Low Countries, and England by presenting three Renaissance Masses in the regional styles. The Masses are by Palestrina, Lassus, and the super-obscure Thomas Ashewell, respectively. It’s educational, but, much more than that, it is inspired music-making from one of the best choirs in the world.
Faithful readers of this web log will have a reasonably good idea of what I read this year, for I have continued my discipline of writing some thoughts about each book as I complete it. I read a half-dozen of Evelyn Waugh’s novels over the course of the year, including another look at Brideshead Revisited, and it stands out, again, as a favourite. I would also name Kenneth Grahame’s children’s fantasy The Wind in the Willows as one of this year’s central reading delights. Honourable mention to Tolkien’s posthumous The Children of Húrin.
On the non-fiction side, first honours go to John Gerard’s Jesuit thriller Autobiography of an Elizabethan, a completely fascinating historical record of covert missionary work in Tudor England. In a similar vein, I was deeply impressed by The Diary of Anne Frank, especially as I read it in conjunction with a visit to her home in Amsterdam. I think Eamon Duffy’s beautiful study Marking the Hours also deserves special praise. During Lent I reread Augustine’s Confessions, and it was as good as ever.
I read many books this year: about 70, according to my records. This may sound like a considerable total, but those same records indicate that I acquired a whopping 135 volumes, so I am losing the battle. It seems there can never be enough time to read everything that captures one’s interest, and this may be one of life’s hard truths. In any case, given the changes that 2008 will bring to my life, it is likely that I shall never again read quite as much, for quite as long, as I did this year. As such, I hope you will forgive me if I indulge in a bit of nostalgic self-congratulation:
Happy New Year!