OPINION

The best of the year: Sunshine, happiness and nerds

No movie had more heart than this tale of a bizarre family and a child beauty pageant

PAUL WELLS January 1 2007
OPINION

The best of the year: Sunshine, happiness and nerds

No movie had more heart than this tale of a bizarre family and a child beauty pageant

PAUL WELLS January 1 2007

The best of the year: Sunshine, happiness and nerds

OPINION

No movie had more heart than this tale of a bizarre family and a child beauty pageant

PAUL WELLS

Here’s The Cool List 2006, an annual attempt (born on my blog, now migrating to print) to acknowledge some of the year’s highlights. At first it was mostly a list of jazz CDs, with some other stuff thrown in. By now the whole thing has completely escaped considerations of genre or medium. It’s simply a nod to what remains of the year, or shoidd, presented in hopes you’ll check some of these things out if you missed them the first time around.

1. Little Miss Sunshine. No movie this year had more heart or richer comic characters than Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s tale of seven-year-old Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) and her bizarre family’s attempt to get her to a child-beauty pageant in California. The cast, led by Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin and Steve Carell, is flawless. Their characters, especially Kinnear’s failed motivational speaker and Arkin’s irascible old grandfather (“I can say what I want, I still got Nazi bullets in my ass”) are flawed but, in the end, oddly beautiful. Little Miss Sunshine is a quirky little joint but it’s positively bursting with love for its characters.

I couldn’t watch another movie for weeks after I saw it.

2. Boys and Girls in America. You take the spirit of rock and roll where you can find it. This year it was found, in its most potent form, in the third album from the Hold Steady, a Brooklyn bar band made up of Minneapolis refugees. Singer Craig Finn is a dumpy guy with glasses, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The band’s keyboardist looks like Super Mario from the old video game. Their songs are jubilantly tuneful odes to nightlife and angsty youth, the lyrics shot through with romance, substance abuse and betrayal: Lost in love and fog and faithless fear / I’ve had kisses that made Judas seem sincere.

3. Daniel Craig as James Bond. And they

thought blond hair was going to be a problem.

4. How Happy To Be. It is good to find more and more people catching up with Toronto arts journalist Katrina Onstad’s debut novel, which did not get nearly enough attention at the beginning of the year. Of course there’s autobiography in Onstad’s tale of a party-girl film critic who finally decides to grow up. But above all there’s Onstad’s voice, always present even in her reviews and bell-clear in her fiction: hip, wary, dignified, honest.

5. Nagano de Montréal. Toronto got a new opera house and the reviews were uni-

formly glowing. The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal got a new artistic director—and nobody’s quite sure what to make of him yet. Kent Nagano, the willowyJapanese-Californian, is still too young, and his new band too fresh from a rough half-decade, for anyone involved to rest on their laurels. So Nagano has turned his tenure in Montreal into an experiment. His first concert featured a “symphony” from an obscure Russian composer played by only four instruments, and a Ninth Symphony from Beethoven played at startlingly brisk tempos. He favours odd juxtapositions of tunes and composers, he is commissioning new music, he is a keen student of Quebec history. If his predecessor, Charles Dutoit, ran the OSM like a Cadillac, Nagano prefers to run a mad scientist’s lab. It’s exhilarating.

6. Brian Blade. Two exceedingly fine jazz albums this year had little in common except incendiary performances by this 3 6-year-old drummer, the Louisiana-born son of a Baptist preacher. On Democracy, by the pianist Kenny Werner, Blade plays something like

Tony Williams in the old Miles Davis quintet: choppy, aggressive, darting in and out of the tunes’ complex structures. On Beyond the Wall, by the alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, Blade is more like Elvin Jones in the classic John Coltrane quartet: rolling, thunderous, almost as inevitable as the tides. A lot of jazz got released this year that nobody needs to bother listening to. But on two of the year’s essential releases, Brian Blade is essential.

7. Revenge of the Nerds. Canadian politics in 2006 began in January with Stephen Harper defeating a former juggernaut and

ended in December with Stéphane Dion beating a field to which he once seemed a negligible addition. Their similarities are exaggerated. Harper is an electoral strategist first, Dion a student of public administration. Not all of their similarities are flattering. Each man needs to work on his temper. Both occasionally let healthy partisanship slide into something darker. But both are, on their best days, unusually decent men, comfortable stating their policies clearly, serene in the knowledge not everyone will agree with them.

With the rise of these two men—and the complicating presence of Jack Layton, Gilles Duceppe and the new Green leader, Elizabeth May—it’s possible to hope this country is going to get its politics back, that our national conversation might, for a while, be more about real things than it’s been.

Probably it’s too much to hope. But if you can’t permit yourself some hope at the end of the year, when can you? Merry Christmas. M

ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells