Year in Review

The Best Oregon-Made Books, Films, Music, Theater, and Art of 2022

From a Decemberist’s spine-chilling ghost story to a joyful album from an old Portland master, 2022 was the year the arts roared back to life.

By Conner Reed December 14, 2022 Published in the December 2022 issue of Portland Monthly

In a year that finally saw the arts gasp back to life, our state treated audiences to a deep, cleansing breath. Among the finest achievements? A spine-chilling ghost story for brave young readers, a joyful new album from an old Portland master, a brain-breaking TV comedy, and more.  


Image: HarperCollins

BOOKS: The Stars Did Wander Darkling by Colin Meloy

It bears repeating: more horror stories should take place on the Oregon coast. Decemberists front man Colin Meloy knows that, and in his latest book for young readers he harnesses all the misty foreboding and barely tamed wildness of Beaver State beaches for a surprisingly potent chiller about bike-riding kids who face down an evil, body-snatching force. Any echoes of Stranger Things are certainly intentional, but The Stars Did Wander Darkling is more impressive for the way it deviates from traditional adolescent entertainments than the way it mimics them. This is marketed as a middle-grade read for tweens 8–12, but there’s no compromise in its brutality, vocabulary, or intelligence. With the rare page-turner that truly transcends age groups, Meloy has constructed a book kids will stay up reading with a flashlight while their parents shudder a few rooms over.  

Image: Netflix

FILM: Wendell & Wild

Every year is a big year for stop-motion animation in Portland, but 2022 was special: Laika announced its in-progress Wildwood adaptation, ShadowMachine brought Guillermo del Toro’s long-gestating Pinocchio to life, and Henry Selick, one of the medium’s early masters, returned to the Rose City for his first stint in a director’s chair since Coraline. The result is an imagination-drenched Halloween hyperloop dreamt up by Selick, Jordan Peele, and Peele’s former comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key that concerns demon brothers tricking a teenager to give them physical form. If it’s a little overstuffed, no matter: who could complain about this much visual invention, or Selick’s continued refusal to sugarcoat his darkness in the name of marketability? 


Image: Bella Union


MUSIC: Dancing Dimensions by Ural Thomas and the Pain

Remember fun? Ural Thomas does. The octogenarian soul legend, a Jefferson High School grad and Apollo Theater fixture throughout the ’50s and ’60s, put out one of the summer’s breeziest party-starters back in June: a 14-song kaleidoscope of cosmic soul that would make Eeyore crack a smile. To hear him glide through the title track’s Stevie Wonder–indebted space pop or click into the easy swing of summer jam “Gimme Some Ice Cream,” is to marvel at the indefatigable spirit of an undisputed Oregon gem, still determined to get down well into what other people would consider their early-to-bed years.


Image: HBO

TV: The Rehearsal

Portland has played home to lots of well-watched TV over the past decade-plus, but not Leverage nor Shrill nor even Portlandia reached the cultural saturation point of The Rehearsal, Nathan Fielder’s bananas plunge into deep Charlie Kaufman territory that aired on HBO over the summer. In it, the Canadian comedian plays a heightened version of himself first introduced on Comedy Central’s much-loved Nathan for You: a clueless, dry-as-dust misfit who approaches most interactions like an alien who’s 85 percent prepared to mimic human consciousness. The basic premise of The Rehearsal sees Fielder helping real people practice big life events before they happen, but—no spoilers—it quickly spirals into something much weirder, sadder, and altogether unnamable, the ethics of which set Twitter on fire for several weeks. The last two-thirds of the show find Fielder interrogating hubris and digital isolation in rural Oregon, and every hand-over-eyes gasp (of which there are plenty) is cut with the bracing spectacle of a truly unique mind allowed, improbably, to run free on HBO’s dollar.


Image: Owen Cary

THEATER: The Cherry Orchard at Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble

Transported from its original Russian countryside setting to the Arctic, mid-climate collapse, this deliciously physical PETE production halved Chekhov’s final text and worked from a translation that made the dialogue sound like it could have been written yesterday. Director Alice Reagan pumped up the comedy, coaxing out arresting physical performances from her entire ensemble, and as the willfully oblivious Ranyevskaya, Amber Whitehall was unforgettable: a gossamer woman ready to break at any moment, gripping all the experience she can before her world crumbles forever. Chekhov’s questions about locating peace in the face of catastrophe and learning to face the light even if it burns were expertly modernized without approaching heavy-handedness, and the result was a surprise summer treat whose bite lingered long into the winter. 


VISUAL ARTS: Seeking Discomfort at Parallax Art Center 

Some of the year’s most resonant art, in any medium, licked—or at least acknowledged—the wounds of the past two years while turning us toward the writing on the wall that might have helped us see them coming. This sprawling group show from curator Christie Mitchell at the Pearl District’s Parallax Art Center exemplified that twin approach, cataloguing our current discontents while highlighting the forces that caused them. Political art, including signatures of former presidents forged in blood, bumped against surreal photographs of domestic instability and cheeky, internet-indebted documents that bridged the digital and the tactile. Wandering through Parallax’s slightly misshapen space provided the same relief that comes when you finally acknowledge the depth of a problem: you left as sure as ever that the world is broken, and suddenly hopeful you might be able to do something about it. 

Top image from Wendell & Wild courtesy Netflix

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