Thursday, January 14, 2016

Best Shows of 2015

Man, the competition was CUTTHROAT this year. While pretty much anything I liked made it onto the other lists, there's so much good TV from 2015 that didn't make it to the top 10. The Jinx, Show Me a Hero, Broad City, Daredevil, Inside Amy Schumer, the ends of Key & Peele, Parks and Recreation, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force... by limiting this list to ten, there's a ton of great stuff I don't get to talk about. Which tells you how much I liked what did make the list.

Best of 2015

10. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (Netflix)

As I mentioned in the movie post, there were a lot of sequels after long gaps last year, though Wet Hot American Summer may be the only one that moved from film to television. Well, not television exactly, since it was on Netflix... which you can watch on your television... what is television anymore? Anyway First Day of Camp tackles multiple things that are really hard to pull off. Comedy sequels are tough, and so are prequels in general, and so is waiting this long to return to a simple idea. But having pretty much the entire cast back works great, all the new faces mesh in perfectly, and the way the show plays with expectations, works in the prequel format, and develops its own running jokes while returning to existing ones all works much better than could be expected.

9. Jessica Jones (Netflix)

Of the four shows set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe last year, Jessica Jones had the most going for it. The cast is really good, particularly Krysten Ritter as the troubled but resourceful title character and David Tennant as Kilgrave, who is perfectly horrible and menacing even when he's giving you serious Doctor Who vibes. I've heard people describe Jessica Jones as barely or reluctantly a super hero show, which is a bit odd when it's much more open about its various super powered characters actually having powers when Daredevil kind of danced around it. My point is that there's a lot of variation possible within the story space of having super powered characters, and Jessica Jones finds an interesting angle, with Jessica finding that she's better at snooping on people than helping the downtrodden. There were a few moments that didn't work for me, but the cat and mouse game between the hero and the villain provides for several huge twists and thrills, and create one of the most bingeable shows this year.

8. Review (Comedy Central)

Review is plenty funny, but the comedy isn't exactly why it makes this list. Despite the premise (Andy Daly's Forrest MacNeil tries various viewer-submitted life activities and rates them on a five-star scale) sounding every bit like it would result in one of the most episodic shows imaginable, it's actually the long-term storytelling that causes it to really shine. The first season ended with Forrest divorced and depressed, punching his boss and going into hiding. The second season begins with him back in the fold, but it isn't long before the crazy things his audience asks him to try out cause his life to once again spiral out of control and deeply affect his relationships with loved ones. It's really a show where you have to see every episode, because mistakes in the past always find ways to come back and bite him again, and the darkly funny miseries he gets put through work best when you understand exactly how he gets to where he is. I'm not sure if there will be a third season, but I hope so, as much as I wonder how Forrest could possibly handle it.

7. The Knick (Cinemax)

The second season of The Knick isn't quite as great as the first, but it's still one of the most compelling dramas that aired last year. This is another one where I'm not sure if it will come back, but if it does I'll be sure to watch it. It stars Clive Owen as a cocaine-addicted genius surgeon at the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City at the turn of the century, and explores the struggles of the personal lives of he and several others at the hospital as they try to advance medicine in various ways, some of which we know will work, and some of which we know are disastrously wrong. Historical hindsight is a real bastard on this show. Every episode is directed by Steven Soderbergh, so it's one of the most cinematic shows on TV, and the great writing and cast make sure the quality of the show goes beyond the visuals. If you don't mind something that basically jumps between horrible people being horrible and horrible things happening to the couple decent folks around, or the amazingly gruesome surgery scenes, it's definitely worth watching.

6. Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)

Being a returning show rather than a new one, it was a little easier to see where Rick and Morty relied too heavily on returning to the same dramatic constructs it keeps using or excessive violence for easy laughs, and the experience of watching it wasn't quite as magical as it was before. Still, there were six or seven episodes that were as perfect as anything else I watched in 2015, and there are bits in even the weaker ones that will stick with me for a long time. Being a great comedy and great science fiction at the same time is tough, but Rick and Morty pulls it off.

5. Justified (FX)

This might be the show I'm saddest about ending last year, because its combination of gritty crime drama with highly amusing, wonderfully-styled dialogue seems hard to replace. Being the final season, it had to stop dancing around and tie off its ongoing plot threads, and that means bringing the story of Raylan and Boyd to a close. It doesn't go quite where you expect, because it's written in the style of Elmore Leonard and there's a bunch of other interests at play so of course it doesn't, but it still works out in a way that is dramatically satisfying and fun to watch. Sam Elliott is a strong presence as the driving force behind the season's main elements, and Jonathan Tucker is remarkable as the one last hot shot villain that Raylan has to contend with. I'm glad that the last season cements Justified as one of the great modern crime dramas on TV.

4. Game of Thrones (HBO)

There was some understandable controversy over the way Game of Thrones continued to use sex, particularly sexual violence, for dramatic effect in its fifth season. At some point your audience understands that being a woman in this world is no picnic, and it stops having a purpose being shock value. It ultimately seemed small to me though, in a season that had so many good things going for it, from big fantasy action on a scale that TV basically never has, to great success at moving the story forward in important ways, and for the first time, massive surprises for people who had read the books already. Since the next one won't be out before season six airs, book fans and TV-only fans are on the same level, and it feels exciting, not know what's going to happen and waiting to see how the cast of dozens handles what comes at them with seemingly anything being possible.

3. Better Call Saul (AMC)

I wasn't even sure if I was going to watch this, with my general distaste for spin-offs, but I gave it a shot since Vince Gilligan was involved. It was much better than I expected, telling the surprisingly earnest story of Jimmy McGill, a man who tries his hardest to put aside his dishonest past and find his way as a real lawyer, but is stymied repeatedly by circumstances beyond his control. Eventually he reaches a decision, which is not unavoidable but certainly understandable, and puts himself on a path that will lead to him becoming Saul Goodman. We haven't seen that transformation yet, but it's coming, and I'm definitely excited to see how it happens. It should also be mentioned that coming from a lot of the same people as Breaking Bad, Saul maintains that show's incredible cinematography and sense of style while shifting to a notably more mundane central plot.

2. The Leftovers (HBO)

I watched the first season of The Leftovers last year and enjoyed it, but I guess it didn't really stick with me. That changed with its brilliant second season, which I loved enough to question whether I had paid enough attention the last time it was on. They shifted location from New York to Texas but kept the core cast and general tone of the show intact, which explores grief and loss through the prism of a mysterious event that caused about 2% of the people on Earth to disappear at once. A few years have passed since that happened, but things are still far from normal, and the show's exploration of its characters' reactions and inner lives delivers poignancy and "oh shit" moments at an incredible pace. It's not easy to explain why it works so well, but if you watch it knowing that the point of the show is not to answer its own mysteries but examine how they affect people, it's powerful and mesmerizing with every single episode.

1. Mad Men (AMC)

Mad Men's final season aired in two chunks over the last two years, bringing its cast out of the 60s and into 1970, as their efforts to keep Sterling Cooper as its own entity finally run their course and their lives begin to permanently alter irrevocably. Since the plot is basically driven by the decisions and personalities of the main characters rather than something more direct like an inevitable violent confrontation, it's not as easy to know what the conclusion will be or to reach it in a fulfilling way, but Matthew Weiner and his team of writers understand these people and the world they live in, and managed to find a perfect ending for pretty much everyone. There are multiple ways to interpret the final scene, but they all have the same general dramatic meaning, and its one that works as a way of summing up the whole series. I look forward to revisiting the show somewhere down the road, and I expect that to be as worthwhile as watching it all for the first time.

Delayed Entry

This is the best show that didn't air in 2015 but I didn't watch until then.

The Simpsons (FOX)

While I'm not actually done watching the show, I plan to stop well before I catch up to the current season - I just finished the 11th, and I'm really feeling the decline everyone who kept up with it experienced years ago. If you can ignore the fact that The Simpsons has been bad for longer than it was good, you can find a show that holds up as one of the best and most influential series ever made, casting a shadow over the 90s just as big as Seinfeld or anything else. The fact that it couldn't keep up after it reached double digits in years shouldn't count too much against it, since almost nothing else even gets a chance to. There's a period there, probably the 3rd through 8th seasons, where it's just unbelievable, where every joke is laugh out loud funny or at least undeniably well constructed, and where it's coining words or phrases constantly that still get used today. I'm glad I finally took the time to see why people love this show so much.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Best Albums of 2015

Or another way of putting it, the albums from last year I listened to, ordered by how much I enjoyed them.

Best of 2015

6/7. Beach House - Depression Cherry/Thank Your Lucky Stars

It's sort of the nature of dream pop that it puts you in a trance-like state and doesn't do a lot to differentiate itself from song to song, so when Beach House put out two albums without a couple months of each other, forgive me for saying that you could play a random track from one or the other and I might struggle to tell you which it came from. That's not to say they're exactly the same, or that I didn't enjoy both of them. It's just that I can't make a strong case to myself that one really stands out from the other.

5. Modest Mouse - Strangers to Ourselves

Hey, I listened to an album with electric guitars this year! Modest Mouse returns from a long hiatus from the studio with another solid album, one which doesn't reach the heights of their earlier work but has a few great songs and a few more pretty good ones. There aren't any big surprises here, but there can be value in a band knowing what people expect of them of delivering exactly that.

4. Chvrches - Every Open Eye

There was a bit of experimentation on Chvrches' first album, experimentation which is absent here. They figured out what people like about them, catchy electro pop, and really drilled in on that. I'm fine with that, although there aren't quite as many stand-out tracks as I would have liked. None of it is bad though, and a couple songs, especially the opener, are fantastic.

3. Panda Bear - Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

I'm not sure, but I think I might like Panda Bear's solo work more than Animal Collective. There's a bit less variation, but there's also a confidence that he knows what his strengths are and how to play to them. Sometimes it's a little weirder and more psychedelic than the typical radio-friendly indie stuff, but he also finds some hooks that dig deeper than others can usually manage. It's good.

2. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

I like when Sufjan gets into the really big chamber pop stuff, but Carrie & Lowell is much smaller and folkier, and I think it's among his best work. It's pretty much just him with a guitar and double tracked vocals, as he sings very personal songs about his relationship with his mother and stepfather. I tend to ignore lyrics with a lot of music, but they're important here, lending emotional weight to his beautiful playing and breathy singing.

1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly

There are so many things Kendrick Lamar can do. He can put out a hit single that will play in clubs for months as well as anyone, but he has a lot of other sides to him. He raps with a lot of different emotions and tones, from pure bravado, to voice-breaking sorrow, to vicious anger. He likes experimenting with different styles of music, from jazz to guitars to more traditional hip hop sounds. And he has the audacity to do something like end an album with a constructed conversation between him and archival audio of Tupac. I can't wait to see where he takes his career from here.

Delayed Entry

This is the best album that wasn't released in 2015 but I didn't hear until then.

Sufjan Stevens - Michigan

Sufjan's predecessor to Illinois in his short-lived "50 states" project isn't as good, but it's hard to make something as good as one of the best albums ever made. Michigan is still a solid, eclectic album full of his strong pop folk sensibilities.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Best Movies of 2015

Stop me if this sounds familiar: there were a lot of movies released last year that I wanted to see and didn't get a chance to yet, but I still think these ones I did see were pretty good!

Best of 2015

9. Ant-Man

You can make a case that the smaller of Marvel Studios' two movies this year was the better one, focusing on a single story and letting the characters breathe and get to know each other naturally. Ant-Man is one of the funniest super hero movies ever made, with a lot of the talent involved having a strong comedy background. It also has some very clever action scenes built around the title character's ability to shrink and return to his original size at will. I'm very confident in the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, knowing that they can take pretty much any property and turn it into a solid movie that makes good money pretty much at will.

8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

For me, The Force Awakens stuck a little too closely to the original films with its visuals and plot, and it kind of rushed from place to place without letting anything new develop. Still, it looks really nice, the cast is amazing, I like all the new characters, and they put together a strong foundation for the series going forward. I just wish it felt less like a stepping stone for Disney and more like a great movie on its own terms. I love Star Wars, and I can't blame the creators for wanting to win back my trust after the prequels.

7. Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy tells two different stories about Brian Wilson at very different times in his life, starring two different actors. It's an interesting experiment that works well. I preferred the scenes in the 60s that told the tale of Wilson's efforts to create what many consider the best album ever made, but the parts in the 80s, that show a more difficult time in his life when he was struggling against a controlling therapist, are also interesting. The movie uses sound very creatively to depict the odd way Wilson's mind works, and it's a well constructed film about a great artist without being a hagiography.

6. Avengers: Age of Ultron

I think a lot of people were disappointed in Age of Ultron because they didn't feel giddy leaving the theater like they did after the first Avengers movie. Age of Ultron is more complicated, trying to explore the downsides to a bunch of super heroes running around doing what they want and the problems that occur when only they can deal with the messes they create themselves. It's almost too big a story to handle in a single movie, and you can see the cracks where they shoved things in too tightly to fit. But I really liked the themes of responsibility and self-doubt it went into, and I also liked watching a bunch of strong guys and girls beating up robots.

5. Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman is like if you took a typical James Bond movie and stripped away all the bullshit and euphemisms it uses to hide how ugly those stories can really be. White colonialism disguised as progress for impoverished nations? Let's have a plot about rich people literally trying to kill every poor person on Earth. Sex as a final reward for saving the day in the end? Let's depict that way past the point where it's still comfortable. Matthew Vaughn's films are often smarter than they get credit for, and that trend continues here. It also has some exceptionally well filmed action scenes and a great cast all putting in good work.

4. Ex Machina

Ex Machina holds its cards close to its chest for a long time, which makes it all the more memorable and satisfying when it finally pulls the trigger on where its plot is going. A sense of menace pervades the whole film, but it's coming from one direction until near the end, and when the switch finally happens, it creates an odd mix of emotions that you're not sure how to deal with. It's a great story about artificial intelligence, a concept which has generally gotten a bit stale, and just a darn good science fiction film in general. The small cast is quite good, with two The Force Awakens actors appearing in very different roles.

3. Tangerine

"Shot on an iPhone" is a phrase that might not inspire a ton of confidence, but honestly, if I didn't know that going in, I would have had no idea. It's just a nice looking movie that captures a side of Los Angeles you don't usually see. Tangerine is about two transgender prostitutes (played by actual transgender actresses!) spending a Christmas Eve together as one looks for her cheating boyfriend and the other tries to keep her from getting out of control. The movie is funny, sweet, and touching, not trying to be about Big Issues but just showing that humanity is everywhere, even with the kinds of people you might not spend much time with.

2. The Hateful Eight

In an interview earlier this year, Quentin Tarantino said he wants to make one more western so that he can be considered a "western director". I'm not sure why that interested me so much. I guess it's just unusual that he would want to be known for working in a genre that has all but disappeared since he's been alive. In any case, he knows that world of cinema inside and out, and as much as I'd like to see another contemporary movie from him, I won't mind if he keeps it up with the period pieces for as long as he wants. The Hateful Eight is not the crowd pleaser his last couple movies have been. Despite the much-talked about 70 mm presentation, it takes place mostly in a single room. And he didn't pick "hateful" to describe its central characters just because it rhymes with "eight". This is a mean-ass movie about mean-ass people doing mean-ass things. And it doesn't end well for them. Before the end though, it has everything Tarantino is known for. Great acting, delicious dialogue, sudden and extreme violence, and jumping around in time. It's probably too ponderous for some, but I loved this movie.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is a miracle. Of the many sequels in 2015 that came many years after the last entry in the series, Fury Road is the only one directed by a guy who worked on the originals. George Miller is 70 years old, and hasn't made an action movie since the last Mad Max, 30 years earlier. I also never particularly connected with the original movies, thinking they were fine but not much more. So it's kind of amazing that this 70 year old man, who hadn't done this kind of thing for much longer than he had been doing it in the first place, came back and kicked everyone else's asses. Fury Road is pure action filmmaking, telling a story and thrilling the audience with little more than tightly crafted, well-edited visuals, the occasional word of memorable dialogue, and a pure expression of excitement and wonder. It's been described as one long action scene, but there are enough breaks that allow the characters moments of reflection and variations in the different segments of the chase that it never gets monotonous or uninteresting. The action expertly combines practical stunts and vehicles with computer generated effects to create some absolutely stunning images, scenes that I will remember for years after I've forgotten all the bland, unmotivated explosions that pepper so many other films.

Delayed Entry

This is the best movie that wasn't released in 2015 but I didn't see until then.


Her is not only the best old movie I saw last year, but one of the best movies I've ever seen. It's one of the best science fiction movies, and one of the best love stories. It also combines those two elements brilliantly, with both feeding into each other and being necessary for the other to work. Joaquin Phoenix has become one of my favorite actors lately, and he makes his character, a man who falls in love with his computer, believable and likable. Scarlett Johansson also does amazing work with just her voice, bringing life to the AI and making you believe a guy could come to love her. The movie explores love and loneliness honestly, and just grabbed me harder than most movies ever manage.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Best Games of 2015

There's some big games that came out last fall that I wanted to play and didn't get a chance to. Still, there's a lot of great stuff on this list, including things you don't need to be a hardcore gamer to get into.

Best of 2015

10. Broken Age (Multi)

After all the controversy over its development (for the record, I think Tim Schafer probably mismanaged the scope of the project after the Kickstarter greatly exceeded its initial funding goal, but it would have been worse if he kept it the same and pocketed the extra money), Broken Age ended up being what was promised: a traditional point and click adventure game. The puzzles in the first half were maybe a bit too simple, and the ones in the second half probably skewed too far the other way, but what people really remember about these games are the characters and the world they inhabit, and I think the game succeeded there. It's funny and sweet, and I think I got what we paid for.

9. Her Story (Multi)

Her Story is both very different from other video games and very much a video game. In the game, you have access to a database of videos taken from a series of interviews of one woman from a murder investigation in 1994, split into chunks of anywhere from 2 seconds to a couple minutes, and viewable by searching for words spoken in the clips, with only the first five chronologically available at one time. Ignoring that the system only makes sense as a way to obscure important information, the game effectively gives you the experience of investigating the murder yourself, watching the videos, picking up on key phrases, and finding a way to get to the meaty truths hidden in the final interview. The actual plot can be interpreted multiple ways, all of which are wackier than you might initially suspect, but the feeling of piecing things together is unique and rewarding. I played it by myself, but I can see it being fun with a group as well.

8. The Beginner's Guide (PC)

This works very well as a companion to Davey Wreden's first game, The Stanley Parable. While that was about playing games, Guide is about making them, although it's broad enough to apply to any kind of creative endeavor. It lacks the humor and playfulness of Parable, taking a more introspective approach, but it still keeps you intrigued for its duration as it plays with your expectations and dives into the insecurities and worries that a lot of people deal with. If you hate games where you do nothing but walk around, you'll want to avoid it, but I think a lot of people who don't play many games could enjoy it more than they'd expect.

7. Lara Croft Go (Multi)

Last year Square Enix put out Hitman Go, a clever phone game that translated the core concepts of the Hitman series into a turn-based game on a grid. Lara Croft Go does the same thing with Tomb Raider, but to much greater effect. The puzzles (until the bonus levels after the normal ending) are in the perfect range between tough enough to make you feel smart and easy enough that you never get stumped for too long. The visual style is neat, and the hidden objects you can find to unlock new costumes are a nice extra brain tickler to keep you focused. I played it enough to where I was seeing the game all around me when I wasn't playing it, which always annoys me, but it's hard to get mad at the game for that.

6. Axiom Verge (Multi)

I played Super Metroid last year, finally learning why it's always brought up in best-game-of-all-time discussions and seeing how it influenced so many exploration-focused action platformers over the years. Axiom Verge is very obviously heavily influenced by that game, but luckily avoids copying it too heavily, coming up with its own ideas for weapons and tools so the gameplay at least always feels distinct. The retro-styled visuals and music compliment each other nicely, and while I didn't get a whole lot out of the sci-fi story, it did a decent job of tying the whole experience together into a cohesive whole. DEMON, ATHETOS SAY, KILL

5. Rise of the Tomb Raider (XBO)

I haven't actually finished this game yet, but I feel confident in placing it here. As a follow-up to the reboot from a couple years ago, it expands on what people really liked, the exploration and survival aspects, and pulls back a bit on the combat, which I actually enjoyed, but I always welcome the shift in focus. The story works well enough to pull you into its world and justify why Lara puts herself into another dangerous situation, and the structure of the game lets you play it at your own place. I'm really enjoying finding and clearing the optional tombs, upgrading my gear, and finding all the little bits of history scattered around. Also the game is extremely gorgeous, which is always nice.

4. Undertale (PC)

Undertale is an old-school RPG for the Tumblr crowd, and if that's a turn-off for you, I understand. I still thought it was one of the best narrative experiences in games last year. The gameplay is pretty basic, as you solve simple puzzles and engage in a combat system which never gets terribly deep but lets you talk with your foes and let them go instead of just whacking them to death. The game parts are functional enough to get you to the story, where Undertale shines. It's a genuinely funny game, and it uses humor to get you to like its characters. It then uses your affection for the characters to build to a couple conclusions which are much more emotionally effective than they would be otherwise. I recommend playing through without killing anyone, and then loading your save and getting the pacifist ending, as both conclusions have their own things to say, their own surprises, and their own memorable moments. If you want to go back for the genocide ending after that, that's on you.

3. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (Multi)

As a Metal Gear game in general, and specifically as Hideo Kojima's farewell to the series he created, The Phantom Pain is a big disappointment in several ways. Luckily, actually playing the game itself is an incredible experience. Metal Gear has long had a reputation for being idiosyncratic and obscure, but by putting you in an open world, pulling back on the familiar distractions, and honing everything to near-perfection, Kojima and his team managed to craft perhaps the finest-playing stealth game ever made. The way all the systems work together with your different abilities and the complex, smart-but-not-too-smart AI of the enemies creates an endless supply of unique, memorable moments, whether you pull off the perfect, unseen approach and infiltration of an enemy base, or screw up and have to Rambo your way through. The different buddy characters provide an added layer of strategy and possibility, and the plethora of side-ops and optional objectives mean there's as much game as you want there to be. I could talk more about my complaints, but I'd rather focus on the positive: playing The Phantom Pain is awesome.

2. Bloodborne (PS4)

Compared to the Souls games, Bloodborne clearly has a more narrow focus. Shields aren't really a viable option, and neither are projectiles or magic. Having such a specific aesthetic, there isn't exactly a ton of environmental variation. If you love the Souls games because of the variety of possible character builds and far-ranging level design, I can understand disappointment in Bloodborne. If you focus on what Bloodborne is rather than what it isn't though, you can see how brilliant it is. The art direction is great, creating an incredible atmosphere, and finding enough possibilities within the space of "horrific Victorian hellscape" that you can tell all the different areas and their purposes within the world apart. The combat is fantastic, with a fun variety of exotic weapons, tough enemies, and a fast pace that keeps you on your toes and your heart racing. The story is vague but intriguing, with plenty of images you'll remember even if you don't exactly understand what they mean. As a variation on the classic Souls experience as I understand it, I think it's complimentary in a way that only makes the franchise richer.

1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (Multi)

With The Witcher 3, I think CD Projekt Red's results finally met their ambitions. Taking place in a massive open world, there's more love and attention to detail per square mile than I think most games with similar scales even begin to approach. They've been building their setting and characters for three games, and the payoff seems pretty clear, as multiple storylines come to fruition and ultimately, satisfying conclusions. Much has been said about how good the side quests are, and I think that's extremely important. In a lot of games you can tell where the focus and attention went in the main story, and the rest of the game is just filler to make you think the experience was huge and meaty. But when every side job you find is at least fleshed out enough to fit your understanding of the world, and sometimes is as interesting as anything you'd see on the critical path in another game, you feel like the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. People have complaints about the combat, but I had enough fun with it to carry me through 90 of the most enjoyable hours I spent with games in 2015.

Delayed Entry

This is the best game that wasn't released in 2015 but I didn't play until then.

Dark Souls (Multi)

Months of prodding from a friend finally got me to buckle down and play Dark Souls, a game I was sure was great but that I would struggle to like. That turned out to not really be the case, as the solid-as-a-rock combat system, helpful online community, and wonderful, interconnected level design helped me get over the humps of significant difficulty, obscure systems, and the occasional loss of several thousand souls. There were a few many sub-par areas for me to praise it as truly one of the best games ever made, but I can certainly see why others feel that way. For me, being merely great ain't half bad.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Best Shows of 2014

Now that I only use this blog to post these lists instead of writing on it all the time, I find that the TV list comes more down to "shows I want to write about" than "shows I objectively think are the best". At least, this is what sticks out to me when I look back on the year of television. It's what I really remember watching.

Best of 2014

9. Tim & Eric's Bedtime Stories (Adult Swim)

Tim and Eric have always been halfway between bizarre sketch comedy and some sort of horrible David Lynchian nightmare, so it was fun to watch them embrace that second aspect of their work. Some episodes of Bedtime Stories don't even have jokes at all, focusing instead on dark (but still oddball enough to obliquely be considered comedy) story concepts in a Twilight Zone sort of way. Other episodes are just straight comedy, and it's best to think of it as them applying their style to slightly longer-form television and really seeing where their minds will take them. It's often not a very nice place.

8. Doctor Who (BBC)

I was looking forward to seeing the first "old" Doctor of the new series, and I was not disappointed. It's Doctor Who, so of course there's some weak episodes, and I was a bit put off by the Doctor's new habit of insulting his companion Clara's appearance. But that character became a real strength for the show this year as her relationship to the Doctor changed significantly as a result of his regeneration, and her courtship with new character Danny Pink was also a huge asset. After they got on a roll, the show had a string of episodes as strong as anything I've seen the series do, and I liked the renewed focus on good individual stories over convoluted season-long plots that never end up anywhere good. I'm looking forward to more adventures through space and time.

7. Community (NBC)

I don't know if Community truly belongs up here, but just the fact that they took a show that was basically dead, brought back the original creator, lost two main cast members, and ended up with something that didn't suck, that was actually quite good, is pretty amazing. It's not up to the heights of the first three seasons at their best, but damn it, it was Community again. We'll see how the new season on Yahoo works out, but I'll always remember what they pulled off in their last year on NBC.

6. The Legend of Korra (Nick)

Despite weird manipulations and bumbling by Nickelodeon, the crew of one of the best animated action series in years managed to put out not one, but two seasons of their follow-up to Avatar: The Last Airbender in 2014. They were the better two seasons of the show, up there with the best in the whole franchise, and a great way to say goodbye to this setting, if that's what we end up doing. Korra's central characters are older than Avatar's, and that comes through in the story, which is ultimately a more mature tale about growing up and learning you have to face your own troubles before you are able to help others, and that kicking someone's ass isn't always the answer. Not that kicking ass doesn't work once in a while, as the action scenes in these two seasons are up there with anything you'll ever see on TV. It's also great to see a prominent same-sex romantic relationship come to pass in something kids might see.

5. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (FOX)

I'm afraid Neil deGrasse Tyson will become too big for his own good. He's a great ambassador for the value and wonder of science, but he doesn't know everything, and sometimes it seems like he thinks he does. His talents are perfect for Cosmos though, his homage and successor to his mentor Carl Sagan's old series about all the wonders of molecules, galaxies, and everything in between. A lot of what you'll learn in Cosmos is stuff all adults should probably know already, but the fact that Tyson and his crew are still bringing people that information in a smart and accessible way is great, and I love how they directly confront some of the bigger human obstacles in the way of progress. At its best, Cosmos captures the awe and wonder I feel at the real size and possibility of the universe and humanity's future in it, and I think it should be required viewing for anyone with the smallest curiosity about life as we know it.

4. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

The sense of history in Empire's final season is inescapable, as it closes in on some people, opens up possibilities for others, and brings ultimate closure to far too many. They only got eight episodes and had to skip past several years of juicy gangster dealings, but I feel like we ultimately got everything we needed. Empire isn't quite the epic of crime, family, and politics it wanted to be, but it did an admirable job of working with what it had and providing some great characters and unforgettable moments. A great deal of those moments involve people getting shot in the face, but a lot of times that's how these things went.

3. Game of Thrones (HBO)

A Storm of Swords is my favorite book in the series, and the fourth season of the show mostly adapted its second half, so of course I liked it a lot. However, they also showed a greater ability to change and shift characters and stories around where needed, which is great, because they're going to need it as they go forward into the more recent books. Not every change totally worked, especially one unfortunate sort-of-rape scene that came off worse than the original material, but on a more general level, they're doing a great job of turning a humongous epic into a manageable episodic story, without really making it feel any smaller. One of the most purely enjoyable shows to just watch from week to week.

2. True Detective (HBO)

Coming right in the middle of the McConaughey renaissance (the McConaissance), True Detective used his and Woody Harrelson's skills to their full extent to craft a great, haunting Gothic-noir-mystery-detective THING that defied easy definition and got at the heart of the struggle between good and evil. It covers years of an investigation into a series of strange killings in Louisiana that end up getting connected with a chain of Christian schools, references to an obscure forgotten city (which got me and many others to read The King in Yellow), and a whole lot of problems for the two leads. It will be hard for the unrelated second season to recapture the magic of the first, but we'll always have the lead performances, Cary Fukunaga's great direction, and the flat circle of time to think about.

1. Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)

Rick and Morty is a show about a brilliant old man with a drinking problem who brings his simple-minded but good-hearted grandson with him on trips to other dimensions for various ends which usually end up only serving him. That right there is enough for a good Adult Swim show, but Rick and Morty is definitely something more, already on the same level in my estimation as The Venture Bros. and possibly higher. There's a ton of imagination in every single episode. It will surprise you with story resolutions that are more disturbing than what they could easily get away with, and then follow that up by turning it into something that really profoundly affects the characters. It's sometimes a story about a failing marriage, and mines that for real emotion rather than simple laughs. It's also extremely funny every single week. I laughed out loud multiple times in every episode. That just doesn't happen, you know?

Delayed Entry

This is the best show that didn't air in 2014 but I didn't watch until then.

Prime Suspect (BBC)

The gritty British detective drama that I assume is the basis for the DNA of every British detective drama that followed. Over the course of over a decade, Helen Mirren played Detective Jane Tennison, one of the best realized characters in television. She's a brilliant detective, but also a flawed one; a good person, but also a flawed one. We see the arc of her career in a way you usually don't in a TV show, and along the way she investigates some truly unsettling and cleverly twisty crimes. The double length format is a bit of a slog at times, but if you watch Prime Suspect you watch the maturation of television as a medium. There aren't usually easy answers.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Best Albums of 2014

Brief thoughts on the year in a medium of entertainment I don't devote nearly enough time to.

Best of 2014

7. ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - IX

I don't love this band the way I used to, but they still can create a big rock song better than most that I've heard. They at least exceeded my expectations after I mostly enjoyed but got a little bored with their last couple albums. I can't think of a track on IX that I don't like.

6. The Antlers - Familiars

The Antlers seem to reinvent themselves with every album. That's definitely the case here, as they take on a less pop-focused, more kind of jammy or jazzy sound. It sounds like they're playing in a laid back bar with not a lot of people in it. A lot of the songs sound very similar, but if you can get into it it's a very pleasant and rewarding experience.

5. TV on the Radio - Seeds

The band comes back together after the unfortunate loss of their bassist to cancer, and prove they still know their way around their instruments. I've come to terms with the fact that they're not going to be the best band of all time, and that they're still pretty good anyway. I could have done with a bit more Kyp Malone singing, but it's overall a nicely balanced and enjoyable rock album.

4. St. Vincent

St. Vincent's fourth album sounds a lot like her third. Not like, the songs sound the same, because most of her songs don't really sound alike. But she's still doing the same thing, creating original noise/art/indie/pop/rock that's always unique and always interesting. It's always fun to hear a new song by her.

3. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2

I could have just quoted some lyrics and let that be it, but it's hard to pick what. There's just so much to choose from, and a lot of what works about it is in Killer Mike's and El-P's delivery. I've enjoyed both of these guys' work before, but I didn't even know they were working together until late last year, when I heard "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" and got hooked pretty quickly. The aggressive, clever vocals and El-P's memorable beats work together to create a great pure rap album which doesn't need to screw around with experiments or genres to succeed.

2. Sun Kil Moon - Benji

A lot of this album is one man singing about personal things (mostly death) and playing his guitar, and it's some of the most gripping music I heard all year. There's a real sense of purpose behind it, like it's something that he needed to get out of him and he cared more about being true to the emotions he was conveying than smoothing it over for broader consumption. I won't soon forget it.

1. Spoon - They Want My Soul

A longtime respect for Spoon finally manifested into true love as I listened to They Want My Soul. It's hard to explain why this album in particular worked so well for me. All I can say is that every single song on it fucking kicks ass in a way that most songs you hear just aren't able to kick ass. They all just jump out of the speakers and take over my mind. Maybe everyone has one Spoon album like that, and this one is mine.

Delayed Entry

This is the best album that wasn't released in 2014 but I didn't hear until then.

Wilco - Summerteeth

It took me quite some time to realize that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is actually a great album and not just a pretty good one, so it was nice to get another album by Wilco and realize that my mind wasn't playing tricks on me. They are a really good band who knows how to craft great songs that grow in your brain and hold up to repeated examinations in ways more basic stuff doesn't. They don't go for pure catchiness, they try to find something deeper and usually do.