A list of cultural highlights for 2021, from the glowing giants to The Last of Us

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As connective tissue between humans you can hardly do better than the arts.

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Whether it’s an outdoor concert, a deep-diving book or a streaming TV show you and all your friends pick apart with love, these distractions are also reflections that bring inspiration and absolute wonder into our minds.

As we cruise out of 2021, here’s a multi-media love letter acknowledging some of the creative endeavours, local to global (and sometimes both via HBO), that had me mesmerized, laughing my brains out or simply standing there in awe at the weird beauty of it all.

I’d love to hear what did the same for you.

Most affecting temporary public art: Amanda Parer’s Fantastic Planet

In mid-March, the heavy-lifting Downtown Spark program brought in a luminous gang of titanic inflatable “humanoids” to the core, including at Grant MacEwan University and City Hall. On the last scheduled day of Parer’s thoughtful exploration of our puny human scale, an April snowstorm hit, and I popped some creepy ambient music into my ears and, all alone in Churchill Square, any other stimulant was unnecessary: it felt like I had seriously left Earth.

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Best local cultural event, period: Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer The Musical

In my review of this theatrical triumph, now on an extended run through Jan. 30, I didn’t give quite enough praise to the actual songs — Simon Abbott and Byron Martin’s utter earworms, which hit their peak in Deena Hinshaw’s (Abby Vandenberghe) chipper song about diseases. Satire this good was last seen in Mad Magazine in the ’60s — fight for any chance you get to see this play — tickets at grindstonetheatre.ca .

Donovan Workun and Abby Vandenburghe in Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer: The Musical.
Donovan Workun and Abby Vandenburghe in Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer: The Musical. Photo by Fish Griwkowsky /Fish Griwkowsky

Smartest/most crucial book: Omar Mouallem’s Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas

Trapped inside the limitations of tidal lockdowns, reading this travelogue taking us from Mecca to the icy Canadian north was a pleasure simply because of its range. But the masterful collision of anthropological history and the local author’s personal questions about Islam are what makes it easily my top book of the year, opening up empathy and understanding.

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Best documentary: Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’ brave, no-holds-barred look at how the Kaiani First Nation is fighting the opioid crisis using harm-reduction strategies is one of the saddest yet most hopeful pieces of art I’ve seen in years. Check this National Film Board of Canada doc at  nfb.ca and the film’s Facebook page for screeners, and updates.

Most imaginative Marvel talent collision: Loki

As much as Hawkeye rules, the sheer imagination of Disney+’s frequently bizarre story of a variant Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from 2012 escaping to a retro-futurism purgatory is a perfect cocktail. Owen Wilson’s patient Mobius, Natalie Holt’s jarring soundtrack, and the rule-breaking final episode (no spoliers) lay the foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe for years to come, the only hiccup being Hiddleston’s Loki really should have fallen in love with … Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.

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Most intriguing art show: aAron Munson’s sit still take notice

Always daring as an artist, Munson sat in low light in the centre of a ring of 3D printers making Buddha heads every day for a month, meditating with anyone who cared to join. I showed up for the final hour of this endurance performance and when it was over, he calmly got up, hugged his partner and noted that his takeaway after sitting with himself for hundreds of hours in the dark was, “be kind.” I love him.

aAron Munson and his pile of 3d-printed Buddha heads in sit still take notice.
aAron Munson and his pile of 3d-printed Buddha heads in sit still take notice. Photo by Fish Griwkowsky /Postmedia

Best narrative film: Bergman Island

In the hands of many, French director Mia Hansen-Løve’s story of two filmmakers heading to an isolated residency would turn into either a psychological thriller or some tear-stained story of loss and betrayal. Starring Vicky Kreps and Tim Roth as her older husband, what instead happens is an intriguing, believable look at the creative process as the lines between reality and the fiction being made start to melt together. It’s a quiet, lovely film, and like Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog shows it’s the weird ones that rose to the top this year, which oddly enough includes Spider-Man: No Way Home.

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Best new public art: The Mr. Chi Pig Mural

Because it’s just that meaningful, I’ve written frequently about Layla Folkmann and Lacey Jan Wilburn’s enormous, three-era depiction of SNFU frontman Ken Chinn, a.k.a. Chi Pig. If you haven’t seen it yet, head to 10439 82 Ave. and see art about art, made in the name of love of this creative wild man, who died last year.

Biggest sigh of relief: Tawatinâ footbridge

Speaking of connective tissue, one of the best fusions of public art and infrastructure coming together is finally yours to explore as we can now cross the river again at Tawatinâ footbridge. Years back, I wrote about David Garneau’s 500 artworks now sitting on the ceiling over the pedestrian span, and how it makes you stop and wonder is one of the great additions to the city.

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Coolest tourists: The Last of Us cast and crew

The jokes about this post-apocalyptic show coming to town and making our streets look like the world had ended came easy, but it was fantastic to watch the legislature, 104 Street and Rice Howard Way fill up with wrecked cars, cratered cement (Styrofoam, it turns out) and tumbleweeds. That Bella Ramsay got into a van in front of me at Rosewood, then I practically bumped into Pedro Pascal, were added bonuses. But it was the pre-production that was the most amazing to watch unfold.

HBO’s The Last of Us, which shot downtown in October.
HBO’s The Last of Us, which shot downtown in October. Photo by Fish Griwkowsky /jpg

Most emotional concert: F&M

Picture this: last day of both July and Taste of Edmonton, and the hot sun is melting every ice cream cone. Into this heat walk the wonderfully gothic duo of Rebecca and Ryan Anderson, F&M, playing their first public show in more than a year of pandemic suffocation. The crowd is there for the food, but me and the shirtless kid eating a hotdog are truly mesmerized, as more and more people walk up. ‘This plague is going to be nothing but a bad memory one day,’ I think for the first time — and, yeah, I cried, so thankful for the music that never stops.

fgriwkowsky@postmedia.com

@fisheyefoto

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