Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Critics as Readers: The Best Critics at Large Pieces of 2013

This is the time of year when critics love to make lists of their favourite things from the year that's just passed. Even though Ten Best Lists often draw attention to work that might otherwise have been overlooked and undervalued, they still tend to categorize the work rather than bring out the qualities that made it so special. So Amanda Shubert and Kevin Courrier have decided to create a Ten Best List that focuses on reviews by some of the writers at Critics at Large this past year. These are pieces that we feel brought out the love of engagement a critic can have with their subject, and in writing about them we sought to express our own love of engaging with the work our colleagues produce.

But since there are more than ten writers working at
Critics at Large, we couldn't use everyone. That is not a reflection on the work of those who are missing. (Additionally, although founding editor David Churchill left us a couple of good pieces before his tragic and untimely death last April, we decided not to include him in our list because the site had already honoured him with an omnibus of our favourite pieces.) We simply wanted to focus on certain reviews that excited us, and to describe how they made us feel. These pieces are in no way listed in any particular order of preference, and are to be enjoyed with the same zeal as the critics themselves felt in writing them.

Steve Vineberg: Shakespeare Behind Bars: Caesar Must Die (February 25/13)

Ever since Steve Vineberg joined Critics at Large as our theatre critic back in the summer of 2011, he's not only brought his keen and perceptive eye to international productions from London to New York; he has also brought the reader further inside the experience of understanding what makes good stage work from the bad. But his highly tuned insights into drama are not just confined to the stage – they also extend into film. In his review of The Taviani Brothers' little seen Caesar Must Die, Vineberg brings together his passion for both art forms. "The Tavianis apply their trademark expressionism: we hear the thoughts of the prisoners as they lie on their cots, sometimes in that overlapping concatenation we associate with the brothers’ masterpieces, Padre Padrone and The Night of the Shooting Stars, and Simone Zampagni has lit the film, which is mostly in black and white, expressionistically." - kc.

Deirdre Kelly: A Thing of Wonder: National Ballet of Canada Mixed Program (June 25/13)

The amazingly versatile repertoire of the National Ballet of Canada’s Mixed Program at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts last spring brought the best out of our accomplished dance critic Deirdre Kelly. What I admire in Kelly’s writing are her powers of observation and vivid, almost kinetic descriptions, and those qualities were truly on display in her review. In a Balanchine piece, a dancer rides Tchaikovsky’s score like “a surfer who trusts that his technique will not fail him even as he risks jumping headlong into the cresting energy driving him forward”; in Guillaume Côté’s No. 24 “the dancers doodle with their arms. They crane their necks upwards and pretzel around each other when their slinky, constantly moving bodies draw close.” - as.

Mark Clamen: Veronica Mars and the Promise of Life After Television (March 21/13)

What makes Mark Clamen such an interesting TV critic is that he doesn't follow what's popular; he looks instead for interesting material that should be popular. That aspect of his work was best reflected earlier this year when talking about the fate of television shows that get cancelled too quickly, before audiences have had a chance to discover them. “The reason why it's fun to talk up the shows that never make it out of their second seasons (or even sometimes their first) is that they were cancelled at the top of their game,” he wrote. “They had no time to stumble or even hint at their weak spots.” - kc.

Justin Cummings: Keeping Afloat: The Unique Triumph of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (December 28/13)

Justin Cummings, our newest writer at Critics at Large, doesn’t seek out popular culture for easy, quick escape, or to flaunt the pedigree of his superior taste – he wants to be bowled over. And he writes winningly about that desire for genuine amazement: he gets inside of how video games as art, entertainment and technology can succeed or fail to provide their players with the pleasure of total immersion. In his review of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Cummings shows how the commitment of a developer can transform a lagging and increasingly uninspired series into something new and wonderful. “This is escapism at its most intoxicating,” he writes. - as.

Shlomo Schwartzberg: Rubbing Our Faces in it: Claire Denis's Bastards (October 12/13)

When David Churchill, Shlomo Schwartzberg and I founded Critics at Large back in January 2010, we wanted writers to have the critical freedom to express themselves in ways that broke from the pack mentality of the consumer writing that was dominating the mainstream press in which we'd been working. Well, as a critic, Schwartzberg has never run with the pack. Always his own man and true to his own instincts, he has the capacity to get under your skin with his sharp wit, good sense, and finely tuned bullshit detectors. You don't always have to agree with him, but you shouldn't ignore him. His review of Claire Denis's Bastards, a film he hated from a director he loves, shows you how love isn't always a promiscuous thing. - kc.

John Corcelli: Arc of a Song: On Broadway (July 9/13)

By day, John Corcelli works at the CBC’s music library. But Corcelli himself is sort of a one-man music library – he’s not just knowledgeable, but maybe more importantly, he’s endlessly curious and open-minded. He often writes about songs, albums and artists with an almost guileless sense of discovery, and I like that in his work; it has real heart. Just look at the way he traces the history of the Cynthia Weil/ Barry Mann number “On Broadway” through recordings by The Drifters (who sing about “tenacious ambition”), Neil Young & Crazy Horse (“this is a song without any glitter to be found, with the grime so deep you can trace your finger through it and it will come out black”), and the jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton (for whom the song “represents a unifying spirit that can literally carry you from place to place beyond the geographical confines of Manhattan”). - as.

Devin McKinney: All Those Years Ago – Mark Lewisohn's Tune In The Beatles: All These Years (Vol. 1) (December 3/13)

I first discovered Devin McKinney while I was concluding Artificial Paradise, my book about the utopian culture of The Beatles, and I stumbled upon a book called Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History. The title was intriguing and after reading about ten pages in the store I knew that I needed to get it – especially since his particular interest in The Beatles clearly intersected with mine. (I literally had to later shoe-horn various quotes from his book into mine because they proved to be such a valuable source of insight.) His latest book on Henry Fonda convinced me that we had to get him for Critics at Large – and I'm thrilled that he came aboard. While I could have pulled from a couple of earlier pieces, I think his most recent one on the first volume of Mark Lewisohn's biographical trilogy on The Beatles is McKinney at his best. The cadences in his writing reveal a critic who knows the sway and pull of a song and can get its seductive rhythm down in words. - kc.

Nick Coccoma: The Civil War on Page and Screen (December 18, 2013)

I thought Nick Coccoma’s review of Civil War narrative in literature and film, which doubles as a coming-of-age story, was nothing short of astonishing. Coccoma’s intellectual gifts are enviable and rare, and they are certainly on display here, but it’s not just his perceptive readings of works like Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust and Ken Burns’ The Civil War that I admire – it’s the way he gets inside of why he is drawn to this kind of work in the first place, the mixture of questing boyhood love and grown-up pursuit of meaning out of which his sensibility as a critic has evolved. When he writes about his affinity for Jeff Daniels in Gettysburg “because he doesn’t seem mummified under his moustache,” or Denzel Washington’s “tightly coiled rage” in Glory, or Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women as “a human hearth,” his insights touch you because they are felt experiences, intimate and proudly subjective. - as.

Phil Dyess-Nugent: Everybody's Talkin': We Steal Secrets (June 27/13)

Phil Dyess-Nugent is one of the few film critics who seems to write through the process of coming to terms with his views. That's not a bad thing. But it means that you need to let his voice take you places where even he is not sure of the arrival point. Phil is one of the few people I read who doesn't impose a structure in which to improvise (as I do), but someone for whom structure arrives through the process of digging around with a flashlight. In his review of Alex Gibney's documentary on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, he brings a few more tools to dig with. While I share his skepticism about Assange, it's how this post grows out beyond that skepticism that makes it so compelling. - kc.

Bob Douglas: Concentric Circles in Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski Novels (October 23/13)

Bob Douglas' bottomless appetite for reading and responding to books has brought a whole new dimension to Critics at Large this past year. When Douglas writes about Sara Paretsky's detective novels as a series of concentric circles that wrap the central mystery in layers of social and historical reality, he is also revealing his own method as a critic: he is attuned to the ways in which popular fiction can tap into the streams of social, political and historical experience that run through a culture. - as

– Amanda Shubert writes about film, books and the visual arts. A founding editor of Full Stop, the online magazine of literature and culture, she is also a contributor to the forthcoming anthology Talking About Pauline Kael (Scarecrow Press, 2014). Most recently, she interviewed the actress and folk singer Ronee Blakley for The Rumpus.

- Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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