My highlight of the year was the album L’Amore by Italian singer-songwriter Francesca Calearo, who performs under the alias Madame. Her debut album only came out in 2021, but she’s already evolved into something completely unique. Her poetic lyrics put her in the singer-songwriter tradition of cantautori like Fabrizio De André or Franco Battiato, but the production is completely contemporary. All of the songs on the album are about love, but they don’t resort to the usual formula of: “We met, you left me, and now I’m crying”. Madame sings about sex, about perversions, in a language that is sometimes more raw and disturbing than you would find in trap artists, without being deliberately offensive. Her opinions on gender, freedom and equality make Madame a mirror of gen Z, without willing to be its spokesperson.
Andrea Laffranchi, music critic for Corriere della Sera newspaper
For decades, the life and death of activist Pierre Goldman has cast a shadow over the French left. He was a campaigner against antisemitism, a defender of the causes of France’s African-Caribbean minorities, a brilliant writer, a revolutionary fighter. He was also accused of killing two pharmacists during a hold-up in Paris in 1969, a crime he always denied. He died in 1979 after being shot by a far-right group in uncertain circumstances. The Goldman Case is the tale of his trials – combining the two times he went to court being accused of these murders in the 1970s.
Couldn’t be more contemporary … Arieh Worthalter as Pierre Goldman in The Goldman Case. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy
Director Cédric Kahn manages to turn his film into a clinical dissection of France’s judiciary system. The debates in front of the court – the words of the prosecutor, the policemen, the witnesses – are infused with the antisemitism and racism that are deeply rooted in French history. One of the main characters is Goldman’s lawyer, Georges Kiejman, a Shoah survivor and a leading voice in French society until his death in 2023. The Goldman Case is also his story, the awakening of a man torn between his identity, history and his faith in a (very French) universalist idea of justice. The action is situated in the 1970s, but the movie echoes with the debates and scars of France today. It couldn’t be more contemporary.
Clément Ghys, culture editor of M, weekly supplement of Le Monde newspaper
Sidsel, a woman living on benefits in a suburb of Oslo, collides with a delivery van. After the incident she quietly, almost imperceptibly loses her footing in life. In terms of plot, not much else happens in Maria Navarro Skaranger’s tender, sharply written novel Whistling in the Dark Wind, but as the narrator emerges and breaks through in the story, astonishing things unfold. Skaranger was born in 1994, but her distinctive, inventive authorship is already widely recognised in Norway. She writes about class and poverty, about fathers and boyfriends disappearing, about precarious, lonely lives in the suburbs. But there’s more: while reading, it’s as if the reader realises – on a deep, emotional level – that Sidsel’s fragile, complex existence on the edge of the world is significant. It’s fabulously done and endlessly moving.
Astrid Hygen Meyer, literary editor at Klassekampen newspaper
Depictions of war rarely surprise me these days as they have become horribly routine, but I was touched by Katya Buchatska’s 14-hour multi-channel installation Izyum To Liverpool, at Liverpool Cathedral. Her exhibition shows the gaze of people who escaped the war: the landscape of Ukrainian cities, appearing and disappearing in the window of the train evacuating people out of the country, is shown on 12 video screens. The sun rises over the horizon and sets behind the houses near the railway, but the landscape is refracted through the glass and the protective tape used to secure the windows in case of a blast wave. Buchatska’s work beautifully harmonises with the For You installation by Tracey Emin under the west window of the Cathedral. It is as if the artwork came alive.
Kateryna Iakovlenko, culture editor at Suspilne broadcaster
The gaze of people escaping the war … Katya Buchatska’s Izyum to Liverpool installation at Liverpool Cathedral. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA
It was thrilling to see veteran Portuguese film director João Canijo being elevated into the top league of European cinema at the Berlinale film festival in February this year, where he won the jury prize. I hope that the world is ready for Mal Viver/Viver Mal, his diptych about a hotel and a family, about motherly love and cruelty, inspired by Ingmar Bergman and Strindberg. With luxurious cinematography by Leonor Teles, it manages to both hide and reveal the story of the family that runs a hotel on Portugal’s northern shore, as well as those of the clients that check in and out.
Vasco Câmara, film critic for Público newspaper
It was with great pleasure that I read Andrea Sedláčková’s Toyen: The First Lady of Surrealism, about the female Czech surrealist painter Marie Čermínová AKA Toyen. Sedláčková, herself a film-maker and script writer, uses her extensive knowledge of Paris, where she and the free-spirited Toyen spent half their lives. This innovative 573-page monograph is not just a rigorous piece of scholarship, but a novelistic detective story about the author’s uncovering of previously untold love affairs and friendships. It’s a thrilling piece of writing with a bohemian flavour, suitable for both general public and students of art history.
Veronika Bednářová, deputy editor of Reflex magazine
Defying artistic classification … De Staat perform in Milan. Photograph: Francesco Prandoni/Getty Images
For fifteen years, Dutch rock band De Staat has been making music that defies artistic classifications. During their Machinery album tour in 2011, a gigantic audio art machine dominated the stage. For the song Witch Doctor (2013), they created a CGI video featuring a menacing group of men running around frontman Torre Florim. In 2023, De Staat outdid themselves by simultaneously releasing three albums, called Red, Yellow, and Blue. The Red album feels aggressive, the Yellow danceable, and the Blue melancholic. For an introduction, I recommend starting with the vibrant Who’s Gonna Be the Goat, from Yellow, or the captivating Running Backwards Into the Future, from Blue.
Ernst-Jan Pfauth, co-founder De Correspondent news website
What happens when two regimes – one nigh-totalitarian, the other rightwing and nationalistic – meet at the same border? This is the subject of Agnieszka Holland’s film The Green Border. Vehemently criticised by Polish far-right officials upon its release, it shows what has been happening for the last two years on the dividing line between Poland and Belarus, where people have become political pawns.
Holland’s masterpiece is also a film about Europe, about the authoritarian instincts of the far right, the cult of the military and the dislike of non-European migrants. And it is also a film that urges a liberal, privileged class of Europeans to change in order to counteract these tendencies. It’s a message we urgently need in Poland as a more liberal government is about to take over.
Krzysztof Katkowski, freelance arts writer
Political pawns … The Green Border. Photograph: Agata Kubis
Börje – The Journey of a Legend is a six-part biopic of Börje Salming, the Swedish ice hockey player who grew up in the small town of Kiruna and became a legend at Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL. Salming’s style of play involved never backing down, which earned him more than 250 stitches in his face. Together with screenwriter Martin Bengtsson, a former Inter Milan football player, director Amir Chamdin tells the story with an unusual mix of blockbuster and art-house elements. It is not the usual cliche about rags to riches. The series, which was released on streaming platform Viaplay, is probably the best sports biopic since Borg vs McEnroe. Salming was diagnosed with ALS in 2022 and died later that year, but got the chance to give the series his blessing.
Patrik Lundberg, columnist for Dagens Nyheter newspaper
Yuri Shevchuk is one of the biggest rock stars in Russia, our own Bono (in fact, the two performed Knocking on Heaven’s Door together when U2 came to Moscow in 2010). He’s also a committed pacifist, who has spoken out about Russia’s wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya and the annexation of Crimea. After the start of the war with Ukraine, most pacifist artists went into exile, knowing that they risked being sent to jail if their work was found to “discredit Russian troops”. Shevchuk stayed in his St Petersburg home, and this summer recorded the album Wolves at the Shooting Gallery with the musician Dmitriy Emelianov. It was released via iTunes, which is still available in Russia. It’s located somewhere between mainstream and alternative rock, but above all it is an album of pacifist songs, the most prominent anti-war statement in music since the start of the war. The gigs of Shevchuk’s band have been cancelled, and he’s currently recovering from a heart attack. He’s the last man standing.
Mikhail Kozyrev, culture critic at independent TV channel Dozhd
Global capitalism in its Romanian manifestation is the central theme in the ever-diversifying Romanian New Wave school of cinema, most recently with Radu Jude’s Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World. Jude’s film follows a worn-out production assistant Angela (Ilinca Manolache) as she drives across Bucharest to find people disabled by workplace accidents to be cast in a multinational corporation’s safety video – which lays all the blame on them rather than their employers. One of Angela’s few joys is using a filter to impersonate Andrew Tate in crude TikTok videos. Her story is interrupted by manipulated archive footage from the proto-feminist 1981 film “Angela Moves On” and documentary photos of crosses marking the deaths of the hundreds who died on a dangerous stretch of Romanian road. An experimental film of ideas, Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World continues the radical cinematic approach Jude took in his Bear winning Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021).
Paula Erizanu, freelance arts writer
Feels like a manifesto … Culk. Photograph: Sophie Löw
Viennese post-punk band Culk’s Generation Maximum is one of the best German-language albums of the year, a collection of songs that feels like a manifesto. When singer Sophie Löw raises her voice, she manages to embody several things at the same time. On the one hand, she sounds like a sensitive young intellectual, trying to make sense of the chaos of our times. On the other that seeming vulnerability masks an almost militant attitude. At Culk concerts, there is harshness amid the shimmering beauty. What makes Generation Maximum truly special is the irresistible urge for hedonistic pop amid the darkness. Culk could easily write predictable chart hits, they just don’t want to. This mix of restraint and ostentatiousness, of political reflection and wanting to let go, feels like it nails more than just the gen Z zeitgeist.
Christian Fuchs, host at FM4 radio station
Twenty-seven-year-old Dana Vowinckel’s remarkable debut novel Gewässer im Ziplock (The World in a Ziplock Bag) is a book about being Jewish and German, and all the awkwardness that entails. In the summer of her 16th birthday, protagonist Margarita travels to her father’s birthplace in Israel with the mother who left her when she was a toddler. Things quickly go pear-shaped. In Vowinckel’s book there are detailed accounts of Jewish congregational life in Berlin, as well as stunning descriptions of the awkwardness and lust that go along with living inside a female teenage body.
But it’s also a book about the question of where in the world Jewish people can feel safe. Three months after Gewässer im Ziplock came out in August, Vowinckel said in an interview that the events of 7 October and their aftermath had already rendered her book a historical novel, set in a world that no longer existed. I hope Vowinckel’s verdict on her extraordinary novel could be proven wrong.
Christine Käppeler, culture editor of Der Freitag newspaper
I went to the launch of Maija Sofia’s new album True Love in October, and was left in awe of her beautiful voice. I’ve had her song Weird Knight on repeat ever since. It’s a particularly Dublin song, and it reminds me of flat-shares, bad wine, and being miserably in love. Is there anything more unhappy than a heartbroken, twentysomething girl in the Dublin rain? Her lyrics bring me right back. It’s an influence on what I’m writing now. She’s enormously talented.
Nicole Flattery, novelist and critic
In awe … Maija Sofia performs in Dublin. Photograph: Kieran Frost/Redferns
A new chapter is being written in Slovene literature, and female voices are at its forefront. Poet and writer Katja Gorečan is one of those voices. Eleven years ago, she gained recognition with her poetry collection The Suffering of Young Hana, which lays bare all of the abject and outrageous thoughts most women feel they should keep to themselves. This is one of Gorečan’s greatest talents.
Her first novel, Materinska knjižica (Maternity Booklet), is still written in prose that often feels like verse. The author invites us into a deep dive into the aftermath of a spontaneous abortion, told from the perspective of the protagonist’s unborn child. The unnamed “mother”, who is simultaneously dealing with a partial loss of hearing, is desperately trying to consolidate her own raging emotions with society’s ideas of propriety. Who, she asks, gets to decide what’s appropriate in the slippery realm of grief and loss? The book is both heartbreaking and surprisingly funny, and the author’s voice deserves to be heard by all who feel as if they can’t quite fit the mould.
Hana Čeferin, editor of etc. magazine
For almost a decade and a half, a gap has been deepening in Hungary, a gap over which few people want to build a bridge. Instead, they take up shovels and dig deeper. Contemporary Hungarian art has been long overdue a work that does not thematise this toxic division in the usual way, by either demonising rightwing politics or glorifying leftwing thought. Gábor Reisz’s film Explanation for Everything, which won prizes at Venice and Chicago, was completed with zero Hungarian state funding: its director-screenwriter no longer bothers applying for funding after his previous projects were scrapped. His film is both an overview and a pathology of Hungary in 2023, where a minuscule misunderstanding turns into a national political scandal. The movie builds to a poignant climax when the protagonist’s rightwing father and his liberal history teacher try to talk to each other – to no avail. In Hungary, that is what the next few years will be about: can we listen to each other, or will the loudest mantra drown out the other side?
Tamás Jászay, editor-in-chief of Revizor reviews site
Builds to a poignant climax … Gábor Reisz’s award-winning Explanation for Everything
Vaguely inspired by the story of Flos Mariae, a band of seven sisters from Catalonia who enjoyed brief fame with their (very tacky and very viral) videos of religious songs, La Mesías (The Messiah) has been the sensation of 2023 on Spanish TV. Its creators, Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo, AKA Los Javis, have been wunderkinder of the industry since the success of series like Paquita Salas and Veneno. Their latest show combines kitchen sink drama and religious horror in a dark fairytale about two siblings abandoned by their spiritualist mother.
Full of queer subtexts (the misfits leading a lonely life, the toxic dependence on a monstrous mother) and sharp observations on the weight of Catholicism in Spain, La Mesías is a step towards creative maturity from its creators, who seem eager to enter a more sober and auteur-ish terrain, getting closer to the everyday terror of Carlos Vermut or the luminous naturalism of Carla Simón, to name two of our most acclaimed young film-makers. Pending its international premiere, HBO has already bought Latin American rights for a series that has evolved into a pop culture phenomenon: Stella Maris, the fictional band inspired by Flos Mariae, will play at Primavera Sound in June 2024.
Alex Vicente, European culture correspondent, El País
Greece may be one of the last places in Europe you’d turn to for a fresh fix of jazz in 2023. But as the “new British jazz explosion” has shown over the last few years, the genre is not an exclusive members club anymore. MOb, a new trio from Athens, shows how exciting jazz can still be. On their genre-bending debut album, released on Patras’ vibrant Veego Records, the sax is in direct dialogue with a healthy dose of krautrock drumming and frenetic post-punk basslines. James Lavelle is about to finish a remix, which will hopefully help this piece of art to find its place in the world after leaving a mark on the local scene.
Panagiotis Menegos, host at En Lefko 87.7 radio station