The problem with December is that it falls too close to the end of the year.
The happiness inherent in the holiday hoopla finally fades and we are left to reassess the past 12 months ... and, honestly, after a week where the leader of the free world tweeted out Gilbert O’Sullivan lyrics, who wants to wallow in that wasteland?
Still, there were highlights. At least, from where I sat, there were moments that made 2018 a tad less dreadful — and thus, in this traditional time of best-of-the-year lists, I share a few of mine.
Now, there were plenty of quality cultural moments that I admit to have missed. There are only so many hours in a day (even on Bajor), and so I suspect that your own fond memories of the past 12 months would differ substantially from my own.
But in a year that was best forgotten on oh so many levels, there were reasons to be grateful. So, instead of a “best” list, consider this a compilation of experiences for which these eyes and ears were thankful.
So many shows. So many companies. Cast your lot in any direction and you were likely to find a memorable couple of hours. The show that keeps drawing me back, however, was “Once” at Oregon Cabaret Theatre.
We want an immersive experience from a live show, and nothing I saw this year embodied that sense of inclusion better than the musical that begins before the musical begins. As a top-notch cast performs number after number as theatergoers take their seats, the usual anticipatory anxiety slips away.
When the show starts and the actual storyline kicks into gear, you’re already falling slowly with the characters — which makes the highs and lows about to unfold hit the audience all the more deeply.
The story itself aspires to, and celebrates, experiencing the blush and rush of love rather than a mechanical march toward a happily-ever-after resolution. And that itself makes it a stronger, truer bond — between the star-crossed lovers, and between the stage and the audience.
It was a production that reminded us why we go to the theater. And you could get Dick Hay Pie.
As this spring, summer and autumn of smoke wiped away so many outdoor performances across the Rogue Valley, a glimmer of hope could be found in Central Oregon as the Sisters Folk Festival roared back to life.
Canceled by nearby wildfires of its own in 2017, the festival forged ahead this past September — reminding music lovers of the communal joy of shared experience and letting those of us who made the trek from Southern Oregon know that it was indeed possible to bounce back from the disinterested whims of nature.
In a weekend filled with spiritual rejuvenation, it was a vocal duo known as Freddie and Francine that spoke closest to the truth — even if, as we discovered, their names aren’t really Freddie and Francine.
Performing under the stars and a vine-draped pergola, the stylistically varied California couple warmed a chilly Saturday night with just the right tonic of offering and empathy.
May we have such moments here in 2019.
Week after week
So much of what happened on television this past year was ill-considered and poorly executed.
The dreadful trend of dredging up well-loved titles from decades past produced middling, at best, results. Some series based on strong premises showed themselves quickly to become best told over one season. There were 495 scripted series presented to our wandering eyes and remote-clicking fingers — so much product that it seems amazing that anything of quality could muster a loyal following.
Which makes “Killing Eve” a small miracle.
On its surface, the BBC America procedural about a psychopathic assassin chased across Europe by a neurotic special agent would seem to be run-of-the-mill television. But it’s not the narrative that matters here ... it’s the (pardon the pun) execution of the chase.
None of the characters — starting with pursued Villanelle and pursuer Eve — is who they seem to be on the surface. Everyone is damaged and off-kilter in their own ways. Only a couple of the deaths matter; the rest are so darkly comic that it’s hard to muster sympathy.
The season comes to a denouement that is at once satisfying and frustrating ... as our voyeuristic pleasure from spying on this chase leaves us worried that there’s nothing Season 2 can do to match what we’d just seen.
A little night reading
Poring over the pages of a good book before turning out the lights is a dangerous proposition. Get too deeply involved in what you’ve just read, and it’s likely to haunt your subconscious during the hours of surrender to the dark.
It was not a full year of reading for these eyes, and it was a slim novel that I turned to over the past month that left its mark. That said, it’s questionable whether “Spy of the First Person” is a novel at all.
The final fictional work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard, the story that unfolds over fewer than 100 pages has the feel of autobiography filtered through the lens of self-reflection.
An unnamed dying man of a certain age (Shepard himself died in 2017 at age 71) watches from across the way the attention paid to another man who is spending his own days on a sun-screened porch. Or does he? Is there a second man at all?
The narrative perspective shifts about and the reader becomes lost in a maze of truth and fiction, past and present, first- and third-person ... all to the effect of creating the same uncertainty that is running through the mind of the narrator.
As always, Shepard’s prose is spare and direct. The sentences, paragraphs and chapters vary in length and purpose. Given his background, “Spy of the First Person” would make a telling staged reading.
As it is, it’s a “novel” that leaves you considering the ceiling (and lies beyond it) far too long before sleep comes.
The best for last
It was released in movie theaters in January. It involves an unjust justice system, the attempted ostracizing of an outsider, a daring prison escape, a hunt for a mysterious treasure and the most unlikely “hair product” seen on screen since “There’s Something About Mary.”
And, of course, it stars a talking bear.
“Paddington 2” is simply the artistic achievement of 2018 that I’m most likely to keep closest to my heart for the longest time.
Call it a movie for children and prepare to put up your dukes. Children aren’t likely to quote Sean Connery from “The Untouchables” — or to relish the references to the silent film derring-do madness perpetrated by the likes of Harold Lloyd (tall buildings), Buster Keaton (trains) and Charlie Chaplin (the gears of a clock).
Children will care deeply about the misfortunes that befall the red-hatted title character, but it’s the adults who will cherish the performance of Hugh Grant — who not only pulls out all the stops as a villainous washed-up actor, but gets not only his comeuppance but his reward as well in a musical number that is part Busby Berkeley, part Mel Brooks.
And yet, for all the fun, the film is filled with honest heart and genuine thrills. Yes, there’s a bear at the center of the goings-on; but he exhibits more humanity than most of the superhero tropes or rom-com nitwits filling our screens. And when that front door opens at the end ... well, let’s just say it’ll get a wee bit misty where you’re watching “Paddington 2.”
It’s the best thing I saw in 2018.
Mail Tribune columnist Robert Galvin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, unless he’s busy doing something else.