Summary Judgment

High on Culture

The critical buzz on the year’s best art and theater.

The critics have spoken—and spoken. This week, “Summary Judgment” looks at year-end top-10 lists.

Art. Several traveling museum shows made multiple critics’ lists this year, including the massive “Dada” exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Centre Pompidou in France. The show “offered the inverse of a ‘great man’ theory of Dada,” muses Artforum. Critics also singled out Robert Rauschenberg’s show “Combines,” which hit the Metropolitan Museum and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. The show “detailed an exhilarating watershed which is still with us, the beginning of the large-scale incorporation of mass media into art,” according to Artnet. But museum art wasn’t the only kind highlighted by critics. The reopening of the National Portrait Gallery was also one of the year’s high points, and the Washington Post points to the gallery’s incorporation of contemporary art as “one of the most welcome policy changes” of the year.

Stage. Critics can’t seem to bestow enough raves upon Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy, the first installment of which landed on several best-of-year lists. Ben Brantley calls the three-hour play “brisk and engrossing,” and notes he would have gladly stayed for Parts 2 and 3 on the same night. Alan Bennett’s stage production of History Boys also continues to be a favorite; the Los Angeles Times remarks that the show was “as theatrically intoxicating as it was thematically rich.” The theatrical adaptation of the Maysles brothers’ deliciously creepy documentary Grey Gardens has also been singled out for recognition: In New York magazine, Jeremy McCarter calls Christine Ebersole’s turn as Little Edie “a performance as close to perfect as anybody has a right to expect.”

Letters From Iwo Jima
Letters From Iwo Jima

Film. With so many critics selecting Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima as one of their favorites of the year, it’s hard not to think Oscar. The film cements Eastwood’s reputation “as one of the greatest directors working today, and one of the few for whom filmmaking is a moral imperative,” asserts the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis. Another widely released film that, perhaps surprisingly, makes several end-of-year lists is Paul Greengrass’United 93—an “amazing, hair-trigger 9/11 vérité thriller,” says Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman. Critics have reserved the obligatory spots on their top-10 lists for smaller indies as well; they continue to rave about Jean-Pierre Melville’s * 1969 French Resistance thriller, Army of Shadows, which saw a limited re-release this year. In Salon, Stephanie Zacharek maintains that Shadows“isn’t just one of the great films of the ‘60s; it’s one of the great films, period.” Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver also makes several appearances, in no small part because of what the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan calls Penelope Cruz’s “best performance to date.”

Gears of War

Video Games. In a year when the lack of PlayStation 3s and the wristband woes of Nintendo Wii dominated the fall’s headlines, critics still found time to select some of the best games of the year. Showing up on many reviewers’ lists is the Wii’s new version of ‘80s classic Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess, which New York magazine’s Logan Hill writes, “applies a sweet-natured, old-fashioned touch to a vast interactive world.” The much-hyped Xbox 360 game Gears of War gets the critical nod, and the Arizona Daily Star reflects that “no games of its like can follow without being influenced.” Another revival, the New Super Mario Bros. for the portable Nintendo DS, has also met with approval across the board. The San Francisco Chronicle notes that the game is “a blast for those of us who loved the original ‘SMB,’ and a real challenge for just about any player.”

The Wire.
Jermaine Crawford, Maestro Harrell, Tristan Wilds, and Julito McCullum in The Wire

TV. This year, no television show captured critics’ hearts quite like the fourth season of HBO’s The Wire. “Beneath taut dialogue and sleek, bleak cinematography lies a plot as intricate and convoluted as a Dickens novel,” muses the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley in her year-end list. Also making multiple lists are the new shows 30 Rock and Heroes, which Entertainment Weekly’s Gillian Flynn calls “American mythology at its purest,” and returnees Battlestar Galactica, 24, and The Office. The end of the year is also an opportunity for critics to snipe about the low points of the year on the small screen, and the Newark Star-Ledger skewers Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: “All of his references to what’s wrong with television are five years out of date.”

Star Wars trilogy.

DVDs. Cinema aficionados laud some of this year’s classic releases, including George Lucas’ decision to bring out the original versions of the Star Wars trilogy. But the Criterion Collection lands at the top of the heap for its DVD-releasing prowess. The New York Times’ Dave Kehr singles out Criterion’s release of French New Wave director Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, celebrating the company’s “commitment to the highest standards in visual quality, value-added supplements, and scholarship.” (The online pop culture review site PopMatters even goes so far as to compile a list of the top 10 Criterion releases of the year.) And in terms of new films, critics applaud the release of the extras-heavy Chronicles of Narnia, which comes in two- and four-disc versions.

TV on the Radio Return to Cookie Mountain.

Music. Hard-to-categorize Brooklyn quintet TV on the Radio’s major-label debut, Return to Cookie Mountain, popped up on lists as disparate as Pitchfork (“This could be the only record this year I never tired of,” a critic at the Web site notes); the New York TimesJon Pareles, Sia Michel (“the most mysteriously beautiful —and breathtakingly original—art-rock in years”), and jazz writer Nate Chinen; and even the Palm Beach Post. Other albums showing up on multiple lists this year include Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds (deemed No. 1 by Slate’s Jody Rosen), R&B duo Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury (various Boston Phoenix writers and No. 2 on the New York Daily News list), and indie-folk songstress Joanna Newsom’s Ys (which made an appearance on the top-10 list of the Decemberists’ lead singer Colin Meloy).

Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children

Books. Certain books have found a place on many end-of-year lists (both in the United States and across the pond), including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. But beyond those stalwarts, there’s little consensus. The New York Times Book Review top-10 list also includes the relatively controversial choice of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics and the relatively obscure choice of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. The Village Voice lists its top 25 books of the year alphabetically, and among the McCarthy and Messud are a few surprises, including Brandon Stousy’s chronicle of the New York downtown art scene, Up Is Up but So Is Down. Meanwhile, the Washington Post burrows into foreign literature and ancient civilizations, giving the nod to both a new translation of Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings and The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, by Robin Lane Fox.

Correction, Jan. 3, 2007: An earlier version of “Summary Judgment” mistakenly referred to the director of Army of Shadows as Jean-Paul Melville. His name is Jean-Pierre Melville. (Return to the corrected sentence.)