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What's been your cultural highlight this year?

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Stuart Denman | 13:56 UK time, Friday, 19 December 2008

From Newsnight Review's producer, Liz Gibbons:

What was your cultural highlight of 2008? You can click here to find out which work we've chosen to discuss. Tell us whether you think we've made the right choices. And you can find out what Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Paxman, Ian Hislop, Kate Mosse and a host of other people's highlights and lowlights were by watching the clips below, or by clicking here.

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The Review team is lucky enough to get to see and to read and to listen to a lot of new work in the course of the year. So they'll be revealing some of their highlights in posts below, to get the debate flowing.

I've decided to pick just a few otherwise I'll be here all night. Actually, I'm going to be here all night anyway...

No Country for Old Men was, for me, the stand-out film of the year, and Javier Bardem's performance in it was astonishing. I still shiver when I recall the scene in the gas station where the toss of a coin is seemingly enough for him to decide whether the hapless pump attendant should live or die.

Talking of shivering a little, Pierce Brosnan's singing in Mamma Mia was a little frightening too. But that was the most surprisingly good thing I saw. I was slightly dreading going to see it after seeing the promotional clips, but I ended up laughing, crying and singing along.

David Tennant's Hamlet was fantastic. I did wonder beforehand whether he could bring anything new to a text that's so well worn. But, in the end, it felt like I was hearing it all for the first ever time.

And Daniel Barenboim's performance of the last Beethoven piano sonata at the Royal Festival Hall was another highlight. He admitted in a Newsnight interview a few days earlier that he is prone to a little improvisation if he loses his way. And this wasn't a note perfect performance. But that didn't matter in the end, because it felt like he reached a musical sphere where hitting all the right notes didn't even matter!

Oh, and I'm still not sure whether Strictly or the X Factor won the talent TV battle this year. But I was addicted to both.

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Click here to see Ian Hislop, Nicole Kidman, Boris Johnson and others discuss their cultural highlights of the year.


  • Comment number 1.

    I loved both Wayne McGregor's new dance pieces - Entity with Random Dance and Infra for the Royal Ballet. Entity was thoughtprovoking as well as just stupendous physically and then Infra had this really unexpected moment of sadness towards the end which was especially moving if you have to live in a big city.

    Grayson Perry's Unpopular Culture at Bexhill was a fabulous mix of everyday beauty and ugliness. My favourite books of the year were The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz and Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, both of which we'll be talking about on the programme. If you're stuck for a Christmas present buy one of these two - I can't imagine anyone not enjoying them.

    I'm struggling to cope with the end of The Wire but thank you, thank you Joss Whedon for carrying on Buffy in comic form - I'm loving Season 8 …and I feel really privileged to have been one of the very few people who will ever see Gone with the Wind the Musical - so awful that it's bound to become the stuff of cultural legends.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    Juno was a delight, really warm, well-rounded characters and witty, realistic dialogue. A comedy about teenage pregnancy what was neither crass nor over-sentimental - hooray.

    In Bruges was also brilliant - examining modern day morals and redemption. The posters and the premise, 'hit men lying low comedy', filled me with doom, but it was great, and the city of Bruges shone too.

    In TV I thought White Girl, part of BBC Two's White Season, was great. Interesting and thought-provoking. A stunning performance from newcomer Holly Kenny too.

    Finally, I'm hooked on Strictly - wonderful dancing, comedy judges and fabulous frocks - what's not to like?


  • Comment number 4.


    For those who also follow the history of popular culture and things environmental, today is a date for the calender.

    Six years ago today at 4.13pm on 19th December 2002, the original risk assessment that:

    "climate change is a greater threat than terrorism", was published.

    A submission to a United Nations report commissioned by the UK Government, now taken off the DEFRA site but here for reference. (email changed)

    How many knew about climate change before the Government gave it global publicity just over a year later?

    This was used to try and justify a change in UK foreign policy, away from a war on Iraq, with the recommendation that climate change and Africa be two areas of focus instead. (maybe one reason it was delayed until after the invasion?)

    Climate change and Africa also becoming the agenda of the 2005 Gleneagles G8.

    Live 8, G8, An Inconvenient Truth, The Day After Tomorrow, The 'Climate Change' Industry, the cliche for politicians, media et al etc etc, all followed.

    Or as the lawyers qualification is. If the document wasn't the original source, it is even more extraordinary that it managed to 'predict' these events.

    Celtic Lion

  • Comment number 5.

    (Producer, Newsnight Review)

    I saw Ethiopiques at the Barbican who were brilliant. I loved Glasvegas' album And it felt like a kiss and Estelle's American Boy.

    I was very spoilt and taken to Graham Vick's Eugene Onegin at Glyndebourne which was an incredibly sumptuous and moving production and to Garsington's The Rake's Progress. The Rake was a cocaine-snorting Hooray Henry and his sinister bowler-hatted assistants were the chorus - so it had a very different feel to Glyndebourne but both were wonderful.

    Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight was fabulously chilling but my favourite film of the year was No Country for Old Men. It really got to the heart of Texas's vast expanse of space and the need for brutality in order to survive there.

    My theatrical highlight was Chris Goode's radical interpretation of Chekov's Sisters at The Gate. I loved the way the audience were kept guessing all the way through.

    Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whither had a lovely pace to it and it was interesting to learn about the early days of detectives. I always like Will Self's writing and enjoyed The Butt. Lawrence Freedman's America Confronts the Middle East was very interesting and definitely worth reading if you are an expert or just want some background on America's involvement in the Middle East.

    I found Tate Britain's Peter Doig exhibition very thought provoking and whilst being firmly rooted in America it had an intriguingly anonymous feel to it.

    I shouldn’t admit this but…ITV's The Palace was one of the few things I rushed home for - brilliantly bad. I LOVED IT!

    Oh, and the unexpected treat for me came during the Beijing Olympics. I found China's Liu Chunhong completely enthralling - she lifted 158kg - more than double her own weight!

  • Comment number 6.

    My two favourite films this year have been There Will Be Blood - "I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!" - and Waltz With Bashir which were as good as my turkey of the year - Happy-Go-Lucky - was bad. Surely Poppy is the most irritating character in the history of cinema??

    I loved Zoe Heller's new book The Believers and the Cildo Meireles exhibition which is still running at Tate Modern is well worth a visit.

    There have been some brilliant male performances on the stage this year - David Tennant's Hamlet was unforgettable - I really wouldn't want to be in Jude Law's shoes stepping into the next high profile production. Kenneth Branagh's Ivanov was fantastic and Ralph Fiennes' scream in Oedipus was truly chilling. But the thing I enjoyed most this year was Brief Encounter at the Cinema on the Haymarket which was stuffed full of amazingly talented Kneehigh company actors.

    Caroline - Researcher, Newsnight Review

  • Comment number 7.

    No Caroline, you can't commend the Lewis for the hideous overacting nonsense. Awful awful awful. Luckily Paul Dano there to breathe some sense into the whole thing but even he couldn't quite rescue. And Poppy matched by Daniel Craig who went from quite good in Casino Royale to offensively bad in Quantum of Ar*e.
    The wondrous In Bruges / Hunger / Waltz With Bashir just about made up for a very poor movie year generally.
    Meanwhile, the joy of Strictly matched by camp quality that was Lost in Austen and The Devil's Whore; Gemma Arterton made a lovely Tess (never mind the sniffy purists) while evenings not the same since The Wire finished, even if 5 was a disappointment.

  • Comment number 8.

    I spent a large part of 2008 out of the UK so my highlights reflect the countries I visited.

    Henrietta Foster - freelance Newsnight producer

    Theatre/ Opera - I was truly amazed by Robert Wilson's production of die dreigroschenoper at the Berliner Ensemble. Incredibly exciting performance especially for a man from Waco. In New York I was a bit disappointed in the staging of Dr Atomic by John Adams at the Met but was thrilled by the music and amused by Peter Seller's libretto. Catch it at the ENO in London where the staging promises to be less confused. I also loved Robert Lepage's production of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust - really a visual tour de force. In London I did think that the ENO baby operas at the Young Vic were brave new departures. The scary Lost Highway and the even scarier Punch and Judy. I wish that I had been more moved by the stage production of The Year of Magical Thinking at the National Theatre. I am such a huge fan of Joan Didion but this was a pale imitation of the book and her incisive honesty was not apparent enough in Vanessa Redgrave's rather bland performance.

    Art - was blown away by the Paul Klee exhibition at the Beaux Arts in Brussels. One of those exhibitions that was a history lesson, a visual delight and an example of great curatorship. The Alexander Calder exhibition at the Witney in New York made me look at his work in a completely different way and I saw how humuorous he was as an artist. I also loved the Five Decades of Collecting - Philippe de Montebello at the Met exhibition also in New York. Great show highlighting how taste has changed in the museum world from the 1960s to the present day. I also enjoyed the Candida Hofer show in Weimar - if I am honest I fell more in love with the town and the museum than the photographs. In London I really enjoyed the beautiful simplicity of the current Renaissance Faces Exhibition at the National Gallery as well as their Siena exhibition. The Francis Bacon exhibition at the Tate was heartstopping despite the stupid captions and F*!king Hell by the Chapman brothers was some kind of genius. Vilhelm Hammerschoi's pictures of his apartment over thirty years were incredibly touching and who could not fail to be impressed by the great Russian exhibition at the Royal Academy. I loved the Amazing Rare Things exhibition at the Queen's Gallery in London - curated by David Attenborough. Not a huge fan of the insect world I was captivated by the work of painters of bugs, flowers and birds from Leonardo to the glorious Wenceslaus Hollar and for me, the unknown Maria Sibylla Merian. I enjoyed another Leonardo show at the Legion of Honour museum in San Francisco.

    Books - read and laughed at a lot of Paul Auster this year and was very moved by his wife, Siri Hustveydt's book The Sorrows of an American. Hopeless love in late middle age has never been so well depicted. Cannot really begin to describe how overwhelmed I was by the brilliant A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz and by his discussion of the book at Columbia this autumn. La vie est belge by Jan Bucquoy worried me about the state of life in Belgium but what else is new? . As a Bergman fan I greatly enjoyed The Director by Alexander Ahndoril - a novel based on Ingmar Bergman's inner turmoil whilst filming Winter Light.

    Film - I think my highlight was Sandrine Bonnaire's film about her disabled sister Elle s'appelle Sabine. It was so full of love and compassion as well as frustration against the system that let Sabine get into such a terrible state. I Served The King of England directed by Jiri Menzel was the kind of East European film they don't make anymore and made me laugh out loud. There were horrific elements to Rachel Getting Married by Jonathan Demme - all that Neil Young and sharing the love thing but they faded into insignificance when you consider the brilliance of Debra Winger's performance as the completely selfish, cold mother. Laughed till I cried at Bienvenue Chez les Chitis - never has the Pas de Calais looked so beautiful. Conte de Noel features the best performance from Catherine Deneuve in a long time. My absolute favourite re-issues were The Ladies of Wilko by Andrezj Wajda and the complete Scenes From A Marriage by Inmar Bergman. Both were just beautiful and terribly sad.

    Television - not a great year for me. Respected Wallander even if Kenneth Branagh seemed to be crying all the time. Loved Studio 60 on The Sunset Strip but I suppose that was last year. My highlights were all MSNBC - the Rachel Maddow Show and The Keith Olbermann Show. Unbelievably fresh ways of reporting the news from across the Atlantic. Truly inspired presenters and neither of them are afraid to underline the emotional side of the news.

  • Comment number 9.

    I thought that Juno was way too sassy for a 16 year old!

    I've really liked watching animation films this year: Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir were striking. And I loved Wall-E - it looked great and I thought they managed to create a believeable lonely robot without being too cheesy.

    And I also I enjoyed Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whitcher - it was one of those books that is easy to read from the first page.

    Damages was gripping and I was surprised I how much I liked Andrea Riseborough in The Devil's Whore. Plus the X factor was core Saturday night watching. Cheryl Cole has grown on me.

    My other highlight would be going to see electronic act Justice @ Matter in the 02. Watching people DJ can be really boring but they do a brilliant and surprising live performance.

    Kemi Majekodunmi- Researcher - Newsnight Review

  • Comment number 10.

    The cultural low point may well be Kirsty Wark signing off with the phrase, "Happy Holidays".

    I'm trying to think who needs to be protected from hearing the word "Christmas". Richard Dawkins?

  • Comment number 11.

    Why did Kirsty Walk sign off the review tonight with the crass season greeting "Happy Holidays"?

  • Comment number 12.

    The year's tragedy must be the collapse of BBC comedy into nothing more than a snarling swearing wolf pit of spite.

    Given comedy and tragedy have their origin in Hellenic thought the remedy maybe for those who wish to practice the art of comedy to understand what is meant by it. Pierre Grimes gives a useful talk on the art of comedy and tragedy.

    The greatest drama [no box set necessary] must be the financial collapse of western civilisation. A gripping story that has more seasons to run? Paul Mason has been doing increasingly good financial 'art'.

    The greatest cultural event is still youtube whose self loaded content is at the cutting edge of creativity and innovation. Yes lots of noise but out of which will come, from natural selection, channels with fresh and original content.

    The 'hug' has become a NR memorable moment along with Hardeep's orange suit.

    an improved version of the poem can be found here

  • Comment number 13.

    Newsnight Review hasn't covered the 40th Anniversary of one of the most important photographs ever taken, Christmas Eve/Day

    "In the beginning... God created the Heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep."

    Celtic Lion

  • Comment number 14.

    Saw 'August - Osage County' last night. Amazed the reviewers didn't mention how underpowered the actress playing the mother is in the Lyttleton Theatre - struggled to hear her and overheard someone in the lift afterwards saying 'couldn't understand a word the mother said'. A good play but not a great one - highly derivative. Can't believe nobody seems to have mentioned David Beaird's '900 Oneonta' which predates this by over 10 years and is funnier and on similar themes with very similar characters, including a drug addicted mother and black cleaner. Letts's 'Killer Joe' was brilliant but this failed to set light despite some fantastic ensemble playing. One newsnight reviewer said it was misogynistic, but no play with that many incredible female parts could be considered woman hating.

    My film of the year was 'No Country for Old Men'. Truely sublime. Astounded Julie Myerson said it wasn't 'about' anything. I ended the film sobbing because it seemed to me to be about the final impossibility of protecting my children from any and every harm - and indeed how I still yearn for the protection I imagined was there before my parents died. Perhaps you only really get it if your parents are dead.

    Book - 'Born Yesterday' by Gordon Burn, who is always so innovative and involving.

    Telly - prefer X Factor to Strictly. Who cares if celebrities become more famous and more employable because they can dance a bit?

    Turkey - 'There Will Be Blood' - couldn't wait for it to end. A brown film in all respects.

  • Comment number 15.

    Waltz with Bashir was the film that blew me away when I saw it in a London ODEON recently. The film definitely shows that animation can show a lot of the subtleties of war. The film doesn't necessarily comment on Middle Eastern politics, or anything trivial, it's really just a personal account of the director's 1 day in the Lebanon/Israeli confict and how truly insane war is.

    Excellent music, and many standout scenes like the "haunted ocean" and the "waltz with bashir" scene and the little boy with the RPG. Also, the rookie soldier hiding behind a rock from day to night, in fear of being detected by the Lebanese soldiers. Intense, powerful, and a very breakthrough film. And those last 5 seconds of the film brought me to a lot of tears, right in that cinema seat.

  • Comment number 16.

    interesting talk [with streaming video option] from Gresham College by Rt Rev Lord Harries of Pentregarth
    on the role of art in society.

    ...t was not until 1917 that the formal study of English was approved at Cambridge.....All this had the feel of a new religion and it is not surprising that Terry Eagleton sees the rise of English literature in our society as a response to the failure of religion. As a Professor of English at Oxford put it in his inaugural lecture early in the 20th century, the study of literature not only delights and instructs but above all it has "to save our souls and heal the state."...

    might make a good reviewer for NNR who ads something a little different to the mix ?

  • Comment number 17.

    "I was slightly dreading going to see it after seeing the promotional clips, but I ended up laughing, crying and singing along."

    Liz - You naughty girl !! I was just flipping through this website, and seeing Paxo's picture I thought these were HIS words !!!

    Nearly ruined my image of him for good...

    Cultural highlights ? Hard to overcome the images from 'Waltz with Bashir', although that may be influenced by having seen it recently.

    Daniel Day-Lewis was brilliant too.

    Best book - Dirk Bogarde's letters - absolutely stupendous. Rude, irascible, misanthropic, but absolutely hysterically amusing.

    And whilst unlikely to give Peter O'Toole the Oscar he has been denied, do go and see 'Dean Spanley' - just the sort of film for a Christmas holiday afternoon. And Sam Neill in the title role as well - what's not to like?

  • Comment number 18.

    Who cares what Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Paxman, Ian Hislop, Kate Mosse and a host of other people's highlights and lowlights were? They can barely suppress their opinions for the remainder of the year...

  • Comment number 19.

    onerob (#10) and behan68 (#11) "Why did Kirsty Walk sign off the review tonight with the crass season greeting "Happy Holidays"?"

    For the same basic reason that so many young people are reinforced for revering celebrities during their second critical period of narcissisim? The longer it's reinforced, the more this industry profits? Hence all the specious awards and hyperbolic reviews? Hence the phenomenal (and clearly catastrophic) feminisation and spin which now blights liberal-democracies?

  • Comment number 20.

    Thank you Jeremy Paxman for restoring some fairness to the way BBC reports on the Middle East. In your interviews this evening, the 7th of January you clearly demonstrated superb insight about the real issues behind Israel aggression and barbaric actions. A democratic country has no right what so ever to butcher defenseless civilians of occupied and supressed nation.


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