Arts·Year in Review

Our very personal picks for the best movies, music, theatre and art of 2018

Some things moved us. Others made us think. The rest gave us nightmares for the last six months straight.

Some things moved us. Others made us think. The rest gave us nightmares for the last 6 months straight

Childish Gambino's "This is America." (YouTube)

Whatever the last 12 months have meant to you, the year was packed with cultural moments that wound up defining 2018: Black Panther, Time's Up at the Golden Globes, Crazy Rich Asians. (We could go on — and we have already.) As for what 2018 meant to the team here at CBC Arts, there have been so many instances of movies and music and theatre and art that reached us on an emotional level. That's what you'll find on this list: things that moved us and made us think, long after we had the good fortune of experiencing them. Take a look.

The rise of Ariana Grande

2018 was the year that Ariana Grande became the most important pop star in the world. It's a bold statement — but it's one she's spent the last 12 months proving. There was Sweetener, her third number one album. There was "thank u, next," the single that shattered streaming records and instantly felt like the song of the year, despite being released in November. There was, of course, the endless whirlwind of drama and gossip fodder that kept her name in the tabloid headlines (often in ways that were deeply insensitive and unfair to her). But there was so much more than that, too.

In the picture perfect world of pop music, when do we ever get to see anyone be so real with us? Grande took the curtain that usually divides celebrity and audience and set it on fire. She shared herself with us so candidly that we felt like we knew her personally. She talked like we do, documented the minutiae of her life on social media like we do, got exhausted like we do. She was open about her struggles with anxiety and PTSD and even released a single about panic attacks. The message at the heart of "thank u, next" — thinking of your exes with gratefulness rather than bitterness — has already shifted the cultural conversation. When she won Billboard's Woman of the Year Award, instead of a polished and practiced speech, she shared a heartfelt confession about the paradox of it being the best year of her career but the worst year of her life (and, in a slightly heartbreaking moment, forced herself to hold back tears — a reminder of the way her emotions have been policed by the public at large). She embraced softness but also stood her ground against irrelevant men who accused her of exploiting her sexuality and "milking" the tragedy of her ex's death. (Seriously, guys: do better.) She showed us herself as a whole person, with an authenticity no PR firm could ever sell.

It was a long, difficult year that felt like it would never end. And as we were all struggling, there was a strange comfort in knowing one of the most successful women in the world was struggling, too — and doing it openly and without shame. In a year that felt defined by tension, conflict, and divisiveness, Ariana Grande gave us something all too rare in the world of celebrity: grace. —Eleanor Knowles, digital associate producer

Childish Gambino, "This is America"

I remember when Childish Gambino's music video for "This is America" first hit the internet. It was like a wildfire. Even my mom called me to watch it (it's usually the other way around), and from that moment I knew it was something powerful. And it sure was. It was a beautiful nightmare. It's the most thought-provoking piece of work I've ever seen to date. It's both controversial and impactful. And like many people, I had to watch it on repeat. Each time, I observed something new that I didn't before, or saw something from a new perspective: the symbolism and the messages and how it tied into politics, race and the overall social climate in the U.S. It definitely caught my attention. In my opinion, I think it's the song — or perhaps movement — that has defined 2018. —Kiah Welsh, associate producer


The first time I tried to explain the plot of Hereditary, I made it sound like one of those bleak, indie family dramas that I never get around to watching on Netflix. That's what happens when you try to talk about it without all the "Hail Paimon" spoilers, but turns out I was spot on. For all the hype about it being scarier than The Exorcist, writer/director Ari Aster has shied from calling it a horror movie. This despite the fact that yes, there's definitely a satanic panic conspiracy underpinning the story, and yes, it is definitely scarier than The Exorcist. Aster's label of choice is actually "family melodrama." But then, what has more potential for horror than a story like that? It's why I'm still thinking about Hereditary now, five months after I stopped having nightmares about accidentally summoning a Mesopotamian demon, and why watching it is worth the lifetime of therapy it might trigger.

So how about that recap: Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne play the parents of a couple of high school kids, Charlie and Peter (Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff), and the action opens with a funeral. Grandma's died, and even though they all lived under the same roof, she and daughter Annie (Colette) had been estranged for ages. Nobody's much good at talking about their feelings in this house, and extreme tension is dominant mood from the get-go. But then, tragedy strikes again. Charlie dies in a car accident with her brother at the wheel — a brutal scene, and probably the most horrific thing that happens up to that point. But when the news reaches home — well, I get the cold sweats just thinking about that scene. Colette's earned deserved raves since the movie arrived at Sundance, and just the sound of her voice in that moment — not just a wail of grief, but something uglier, more raw, more animal. Hear that sound and you know these people are never going to be OK. Even if grandma's cult is out to get them, and there are evil spirits waiting to wear their bodies like meat suits, this family has bigger problems that will destroy them first.

And that's what's scary about Hereditary: it's a hell that anyone could experience. Set inside a home drowning in grief and emotional trauma, we're stuck watching people unable to talk and help each other through it. It's the kind of hopeless situation where some people might turn to faith. Maybe grandma used to — but her deity of choice has clearly exacerbated the situation. (It's hard not to read that as some kind of message about the troubles of "hereditary religion.") And that's where the horror lies. It's right in the title: what's hereditary is inherited, not chosen. We don't choose our families — who they are, or our roles within them. We don't choose the behaviours they teach us, whether that means hiding emotions or practicing a religion. That's some grounds for some real, every day, keep-you-awake at night horror that will probably keep troubling me through 2019, too. —Leah Collins, senior writer


When senior writer Leah Collins told me that I had to see Annihilation because it was a "Lise movie," I thought maybe she meant there was a unicorn in it (no spoilers). So I didn't watch any trailers and decided to go, and at first I was like, "Oh, this is a movie about women in a forest and I'm in for that," but then it got more like, "I do not know what this movie is," and then there was a giant alligator, and oh god that bear, and then I did not know how this movie would end. So then there was the lighthouse, and suddenly I was having the full existential panic attack I've probably always wanted to have, and this muffled and warbling blown-out horn score was playing (which I loved). I thought maybe the theatre would implode or explode or that I was legit losing my mind for about four minutes and then I was OK. Later I ate some chicken wings with my friends and went home and torrented it 87 times. Thanks, Leah.

(The film's bonkers, beautiful aesthetic is impossible to ignore — you should see it on the big screen, if you can, and at full volume. There are no unicorns, though.) —Lise Hosein, producer

Insurgence/Resurgence at the Winnipeg Art Gallery

I was lucky to visit Winnipeg with CBC Arts: Exhibitionists for the first time this year, and I was there to film an episode about the Insurgence/Resurgence show at the WAG. (Watch it above.) The exhibition featured the work of 29 contemporary Indigenous artists including Ursula Johnson, Kent Monkman, Caroline Monnet, Casey Koyczan and many more. There were so many thought-provoking works of art in one show that spanned mediums from painting to tufting to photography and tattooing. One of my favourite moments was stepping into Scott Benesiinaabandan's sound installation of a woman reading poems in the Anishinaabe language. The exhibition ended in April, but my fingers are crossed that it tours in 2019. —Mercedes Grundy, producer

Jordan Tannahill's amazing year

Jordan Tannahill is an award-winning, playwright, author and theatre director from Ottawa. (Alejandro Santiago)

Last week I attempted to summarize all of the things I loved about 2018's LGBTQ arts and culture by going through the alphabet and listing one of said loved things for each letter. A few worthy folks were left out, so I wanted to take this opportunity to fête one in particular. Jordan Tannahill — who unfortunately had to compete against Janelle Monae and Troye Sivan with his respective initials — was definitely responsible for a few of my favourite art things in 2018, LGBTQ or otherwise. This past year, he collaborated with British dancer and choreographer Akram Khan on the new production Xenos. He also released what he calls "a sort of informal trilogy" of work in response to his mother's cancer diagnosis: the play Declarations, the novel Liminal and the NFB-produced VR experience Draw Me Close. Collectively a stunning contribution to multiple mediums, the work made it all the more clear that Tannahill is one of Canada's most extraordinary artists. The Governor General's Awards agreed, making Tannahill — who turned 30 this past May — the youngest person to win two of them when they gave him his second prize in November for his 2017 play, Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom. At this rate, he'll have two more before he turns 40. —Peter Knegt, producer

Jonathan Kawchuk in Banff

(CBC Arts)

My favourite art experience this year was a bit of a cheat. It lasted only a couple of minutes; it was merely one step in an artist's process, not the final work; and none of you can experience it. Sorry! But it was, truly, blissful. The artist in question is Toronto composer Jonathan Kawchuk, and some of the CBC Arts: Exhibitionists team caught up with him while we were shooting at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

Kawchuk was hard at work on his second album, the follow-up to this year's NorthHe'd already recorded and spliced together a series of wordless vocals back in Toronto. In Banff, he was working on the next step of the process: playing those recordings on a series of carefully positioned speakers in the middle of the forest, and then recording the natural reverberations that the forest gave back. The result was sublime, as Kawchuk's sounds suffused the stillness of the woods with a haunting aural glow.

Like I said, I'm cheating here. Kawchuk's album isn't out yet, and even when it's released, you won't be able to have quite the experience I was lucky to have. But stay tuned in the new year for a CBC Arts video that will give you a taste.—Andrew D'Cruz, executive producer

My Dead Dad's Porno Tapes

Recently shortlisted for an Oscar nomination, Charlie Tyrell's autobiographical short film is the story of his relationship with his late father. As a kid, Tyrell felt like his dad was reserved and distant. He couldn't wait to grow up. As narrator David Wain explains: "He knew that was when the strange distance between them would finally close." But when the filmmaker was 20, his dad suddenly passed away. The opportunity to get to know each other had faded, and Tyrell expressed his grief through sheer confusion, trying to find meaning and answers in his dad's possessions — including his old porno tapes. As a filmmaker with a dead dad, this is a film I wish I had made. Kudos to director Charlie Tyrell for this honest and non-glorified portrayal of his late father — and for making me tear up, as the film hit far too close to home. —March Mercanti, video producer



"Asian August" offered a lot to talk about this year, with the success of Crazy Rich Asians, To All The Boys I've Loved Before and Searching. All released this summer, they showed that Asian stories can be popular on the big and small screen. But for me, the big jump forward regarding Asian representation was thanks to Asian-Canadian director Domee Shi and her Pixar short film Bao. It's huge for many reasons. It played in the coveted spot before The Incredibles 2. Shi is the first female to direct a Pixar short, and she fought for the gig in an American Idol-esque pitching backstory that could be its own film. Plus, it was just shortlisted for an Academy Award. Not bad for a Sheridan grad.

But the biggest thing about this short film is its beating heart. It is a tender, surreal and humorous story of the love a mother has for her son while she tries to fill the void of an empty nest. For most children of immigrant parents, including me, this is as relatable as it gets. A lot of our mothers communicate their affections through unspoken actions. For the mother in Bao, like my own, she expresses her love with food. In its lean seven-minute running time, this short provides more of an emotional meal than most feature films or 10-part TV series do. And in a year where there were more Asians represented on screens than in any other, it is in this animated film — with its stylized design, its minimal dialogue and its simple storytelling — that I finally and truly saw myself in the mainstream. Pixar made Bao free to watch online for the week of Dec. 17; see it and eat your emotions. —Romeo Candido, senior producer

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery's official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama stand with their portraits during the unveiling ceremony. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

It's hard to pick just one favourite thing this year, because as a life-long comic book nerd, 2018 will always be the year of the Panther. Wakanda Forever. But looking beyond fictional heroes, I remembered another unexpected breakthrough for artists of colour this year: the Obama portraits. Painted by two of my favourite artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, they were unveiled February 12 before going on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Barack's portrait by Wiley, and Michelle's portrait by Sherald, could not be more different. Wiley's intricate floral backdrop dominates his composition while situating Barack in a fairly casual state — no tie, sitting in the garden with arms gently folded. It's a dignified pose that somehow feels regal yet accessible, hopeful yet tired, privileged yet not without pain.  

Meanwhile, Sherald positions Michelle Obama in what is arguably the more powerful pose of the two. Her long dress flowing beneath her like a Queen's throne as she stares unapologetically at the viewer. Even Melania might look at it and say, "I'll have what she's having."

Before Sherald and Wiley, the National Portrait Gallery was filled with images of white presidents painted by white artists. The power of their portraits is as much a political statement about the subjects as it is for the artists themselves.  They underscore the systemic racism that has historically barred people of colour in these institutional arenas of politics and art. And they've also galvanized people to visit a gallery that was literally never on their radar. On March 24 alone, 35,968 people visited the National Portrait Gallery — and the only thing more beautiful than that moment was this one. —Lucius Dechausay, video producer