Best and Worst of 2013

Best and Worst of 2013

On a personal level I couldn't wait for 2013 to end. I never suffered from triskaidekaphobia before (your first vocabulary word for 2014!), but the past year sucked–3 family deaths, friends who lost loved ones, messy divorces (not for me, thank goddess), and a bout with shingles. In all, 2013 flat out sucked! But there was joy and fortune as well. In that mixed spirit, I shift to the cultural level to select the best and worst of 2013.


Album of the Year:  Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, Fire & Fortune. It’s not often someone gets billed as the “next Sandy Denny” and lives up to it, but Ms. Clarke is a rare talent whose voice is as strong and clear as it is beautiful. Even if she flames out entirely, though, this record will stand on its own merits.

Heather Maloney’s self-titled album is a worthy runner-up.

Worst Album of the Year: Antonio Loureiros, Só. It’s not inept, just meandering and shapeless, as if the musician was unaware of anyone other than himself.

Best Concert(s) of the Year: 2013 was a terrific year for live shows. Shows by Ellis Paul, Alisdair Fraser, and Genticorum were stunning, but I’m going to cop out and declare a tie between Richard Thompson and Richard Shindell. Thompson’s solo acoustic show at the Calvin Theater in September was hard to beat. He’s classified as a folk-rocker, but the man rocks even when he sings a lullaby (which the dark RT never does, unless the tale ends badly). As a guitarist he’s nonpareil.

I saw Richard Shindell twice last year, once at the Iron Horse in February, and again at the Signature Sounds Parlor Room. I don’t know what occurred at the Horse, but when he showed up at the Parlor Room in September, he went on and on about how he preferred playing there.  At the Parlor Room he played with freeness and freshness I hadn’t heard in a while; he even cracked a few jokes, which is rare as a supermodel gobbling a grinder. What a show!

Worst Concert of the Year:  The Calvin Theater, November: Great Big Sea. Okay, GBS is enjoying a breakout in its 20th year. It has legions of adoring fans who’d listen to them fart. My standard is that if you can’t bother to enunciate, don’t do a sound check, adopt a rock persona but only strike the pose and not the notes, you get no love from me. A huge boo hiss! to the Calvin. Would someone please send venue owner Eric Suher the memo that there is no excuse for bad sound in the 21st century.


Best Novel of the Year: T’was a good year for novels, but the one I enjoyed most was from Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins. Set amidst the contrasting splendor and squalor of the Amalfi Coast in the early 60s, Walter explores the beauty and the sadness of all manner of ruins–buildings, careers, love affairs, and lives.

A not-so-distant runner-up is The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell, a tale of two teenaged Glasgow girls trying to hide their parents’ death so they can be together. It is, at once, heartbreaking and inspiring.

Worst Novel of the Year:  There’s lots of utter rubbish published each year, so my low bar is books that should have been contenders; that is, wasted material. I declare a tie between The Celestials by Karen Shepard and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. How do make a story of 19th century Chinese immigrants into a snowy New England mill town ordinary? Focus on an imagined Victorian romance with an exceedingly dull woman at the center.

Other writers adored Atkinson’s story of a girl who is born, dies, and is reborn onto a new life path. It has its moments, but it’s the most over-hyped novel of the year. The central hook is a contrivance and the won’t-stay-dead character at its center is passive and uninteresting in most of her reincarnations.

Best Academic Book of the Year: Kudos to Andrew Erdman for Queen of Vaudeville, the fascinating story of Eva Tanguay–perhaps the most famous star you’ve never heard of. It’s an engagingly written book that makes us feel the burning spotlights, smell the floorboard dust, and long to throttle the ones who abuse or waste talent.

Worst Academic Book of the Year: There’s no way to choose just one, so I won’t name names. The truth is that most academics could put readers to sleep whilst scrawling “This End Up” on a cardboard box. 


This is always a tough one. Those of us who don’t live in LA or New York don’t even get to see most of the films that will get Oscar nominations until the calendar flips. My list contains films actually viewed in the cinema, regardless of how Hollywood regards their release date.

Best American Film of the Year: Give Weir’s Oscar (Woscar?) to Nebraska, a film that does for this generation what The Last Picture Show did in the 1970s. Still believe in the American Dream? Take a trip to Hawthorne, NB and get back to me. Bruce Dern wrings more emotion from being quiet than a cascade of Hollywood contrived speeches.

Best Foreign Film of the Year:  The best thing I saw all year, by a wide margin, was the French film Amour. What would you do for love? It’s what you’d do in the final days that really count. Jean Louis Trintignat will break your heart with a performance in which small actions speak louder than words.

Worst American Film of the Year:  Again, there’s so much drivel that my vote goes to a film that seeks to do something important and does it badly. Lots of people loved Silver Linings Playbook, but the ridiculous football subthemes trivialized what should have been centered on how society makes it hard for people whose social disorders to fit in. Star Trek: Into Darkness was also a big disappointment. What? All that money and they couldn’t hire someone to write a script that wasn’t a remake of The Wrath of Khan?

Best Independent Film of the Year:    No God, No Master looks at the Red Scare of the 1920s from the point of view of an agent seeking to stymie the anarchist bombings, even though he hates some of their targets. David Strathairn stars in the movie that is what J Edgar should have been.

Worst Independent Film of the Year:  It pains me to say it as it was shot locally and has people I know in it, but Names on the Bridge by Elizabeth Foley is such a mess that it’s the worst film I saw in 2013–bar none.

Best Video Rental:  I missed Cloud Atlas in the theater, mostly because the novel underwhelmed me. The film is miles better­–an intelligent look at the interconnectedness of lives past, present, and future. It’s a head scratcher in places, but you’ll think about it long after it’s over.

The most surprising video was Robert Redford’s smart The Company You Keep, an unapologetic look at the lives of ‘60s revolutionaries 40 years out. This one is a neo-con’s nightmare, but it was a sweet dream for me.

Worst Video Rental: The 1969 James Mason film The Age of Consent weathers as well as a pair of papier-mâché tennis shoes.

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