Thursday, January 19, 2017

Best Shows of 2016

Of the ten shows on my list last year, eight had their final season or just took 2016 off. Eight! That left me scrambling to come up with a list, especially since I didn't jump on many new shows to compensate. So there's a few shows here I feel strongly about, and several more than I like and haven't written about before.

Best of 2016

10. Daredevil (Netflix)


Daredevil is a messy show. It's more violent than it needs to be, and the supporting cast can often feel wasted, and the plotting is fairly inconsistent. But as Luke Cage (sorry) showed us, there are definitely worse alternatives. Daredevil has been Marvel's most consistently good comic over the last fifteen years, and the show doesn't reach that standard, but it's a fun adaptation of the darker depictions the character has had, and it has some of the best action scenes of any regular TV series I've seen. The second season added the Punisher and Elektra as foils to Matt Murdock, and while both stories had their ups and downs, their coexistence kept the show's energy high and its tone varied. Not every show needs to be great to be worth watching.

9. Todd Margaret (IFC)


Todd Margaret is sort of a hybrid of American and British comedic sensibilities that works really well. After the apocalyptic ending of the second season I wasn't expecting a third, but it shakes up the formula in a really clever way and gets a lot of comedy out of its half-rebooted premise. David Cross says this was definitely the last season, but I think he's there's another series coming with a similar concept (Cross + England = comedy gold), so I'm looking forward to that.

8. Agent Carter (ABC)


I watch and enjoy Agents of SHIELD, but I don't think it really benefits from having 22 episode seasons. Even the 13 episode Netflix seasons might be a bit long based on the amount of story they come up. Agent Carter is in the sweet spot with 8-10 episodes. Or it was, because it got canceled. I can understand why the show never built a big audience, but the fact that it was an enjoyable, charming, 1940s sci-fi spy action series starring a woman (who was great) was incredible, and I wish there were more series that idiosyncratic.

7. Broad City (Comedy Central)


I've seen Broad City described as something like the female equivalent of Workaholics, but the fact is it's actually better. Abbi and Ilana are a great classic odd couple, with their clashing personalities making their friendship richer and the show's solid emotional core. They're also hilarious, and I would watch them try to work their way through any awkward situation they care to imagine. The third season wasn't the show's best, but it was still very good.

6. Bob's Burgers (FOX)


For my money, Bob's Burgers is easily television's best current traditional family sitcom. The three kids are generally the standout characters, but the parents are great too, avoiding the cliches of moron husband and shrewish wife. The voice cast is wonderful, including the great names they get for guest voices, even for roles that might easily be forgotten without the right character quirks and performance behind them. The show seems like it should be getting long in the tooth at this point, but I still enjoy it every week it's on.

5. Decker Unclassified (Adult Swim)


Decker Unclassified is televised continuation of Decker, a webseries which was a spin-off of On Cinema at the Cinema, another webseries which was itself based on On Cinema, a podcast satirizing bad movie podcasts. So there's a weird lineage here, a lineage that helps explain what Decker Unclassified is. It's a spy show starring fictionalized versions of Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington playing special agents Decker and Kington, with intentionally-unintentionally terrible writing, acting, and production value. It's great and terrible and great because it's terrible. If that sounds interesting, check it out.

4. Stranger Things (Netflix)


I think Stranger Things has some problems. It's eight episodes long but doesn't have much more story than the average two hour 80s movie it's paying homage to, so things feel stretched. Characters often willfully withhold information for no real reason, or fail to change much over time and feel like they're stuck in place. But the core of what it does is so fun that I enjoyed it a lot anyway. The kids are generally great. The horror and sci-fi elements are well done without being too alienating. The period style isn't totally accurate, but works as a pastiche for what's obviously an homage coming from a good place. And the theme music is great. It's got flaws that I hope they improve in season two, but I kind of love it anyway.

3. Game of Thrones (HBO)


So they finally did it. The sixth season of Game of Thrones surpassed the books it's based on in the story, and it makes no apologies about that. Characters die, stories continue, battles are fought, events transpire that readers did not already have knowledge of. It was a new experience, and an interesting one. Part of me wishes I had gotten to read some of these things first, that I had more detail in my mind for what was happening on screen. But part of me also enjoyed being surprised by the show consistently. The show has the same strengths and weaknesses it always had - it's great at big moments, and not quite there on connecting those moments with quieter scenes and meaningful character work. There are two seasons left, and I'm eager to see what happens next.

2. The Venture Bros. (Adult Swim)


Six seasons in and the show is as good as ever. After the Gargantua-2 special wrapped up a lot of long-term storylines, the season proper is a bit of a refresh, as the family moves to a new headquarters in New York and quickly begins piling up new problems and distractions for them to tackle. The series has always been a hodge-podge of genre influences, but super heroes take more prominence here, as the Ventures have trouble with the neighborhood Avengers/Justice League hybrid, and The Monarch starts dressing as a Green Hornet knock-off to go after his enemies in the Guild. It's the same mix of zany plotting and humor it's always been, and I'll continue waiting however long it takes for the creators to return to the wonderful world they've been creating for the last decade-plus.

1. Better Call Saul (AMC)


In its second season, the Breaking Bad spin-off continued to wring more great material out of the backstories of two supporting characters than I thought anyone would be capable of. Jimmy realizes being part of a large law firm might not be his thing while his relationship with his brother gets more complicated and heartbreaking, while Mike finds himself slowly getting pulled further and further into New Mexico's criminal underworld. Obviously Bryan Cranston's work as Walter White was fantastic, but this show proves that it was just part of the entire team's ability to put together a show that is consistently original, beautiful, and enjoyable.

Delayed Entry

This is the best show that didn't air in 2016 but I didn't watch until then.

Friday Night Lights (NBC)

I don't usually go in for shows about sports or family and relationship drama, but there were enough voices saying Friday Night Lights rises above that I gave it a shot. It has its ups and downs, with the latter being exemplified by a pretty weak second season that ignores the show's core charms in favor of easier sensation. On balance though, it's a great drama about being true to yourself and giving everything you have to what you're passionate about. The cast is wonderful, especially Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as the central married couple, and Taylor Kitsch as the burnout running back you can't help but love. I finally understand why he's been given so many chances in major movies. It has as much heart as any show I've ever seen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Best Albums of 2016

So it was mid-December and I realized I hadn't really listened to any new albums in 2016. Music has always taken a backseat to some of my other hobbies, but this was ridiculous. So I subscribed to Amazon Prime's music service, grabbed a bunch of albums I was interested in or that were getting end-of-year award buzz, and listened to them a couple times. That's right, I'm letting go of CDs. For the most part. To be honest nothing here truly grabbed me and refused to let go, but I enjoyed all of it a lot. Only featuring four artists I've ever really listened to before!

Best of 2016

10. Bon Iver - 22, A Million


Bon Iver's Justin Vernon is known for his folk leanings, but he's also interested in electronic elements, which is abundantly clear listening to this. There's a track or two that's just his autotuned voice with no accompaniment, and for every time he busts out his acoustic guitar, there's another where he's all about glitchy computer noises. He's exploring a lot of different directions he can go with his sound, which I like.

9. Angel Olsen - My Woman


My Woman sounds like it could have been recorded at almost any time since the 1960s, and I mean that in a good way. The songs range from punchy, immediate garage rock to a much dreamier and slower style, and Olsen's unique voice ties all of it together.

8. Kendrick Lamar - Untitled Unmastered


Even Kendrick's B-sides are better than a lot of peoples' singles. The songs here were recorded while he was working on To Pimp a Butterfly, and he performed a couple on television at the time. I'm glad he decided to release them like this, because even his experiments are really good. These songs are generally pretty chill in comparison to where he can go sometimes, and I enjoy all of his jazz influences.

7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree


The recording of this album was influenced by the death of Nick Cave's son during its production, and I honestly can't tell how much that shows because I'm not very familiar with the band's work. It seems like a big part of things though, as the album sounds at times haunting and even apocalyptic, and Cave's unusual vocal delivery gives it a weight I really liked.

6. Solange - A Seat at the Table


Beyonce's younger sister is an accomplished musician in her own right. Solange has a nice voice, and a unique ear for R&B melodies that sound new and exciting. She's also not afraid to be political, with thoughts about blackness and how that matters in today's world clearly permeating the entire thing. It was a pretty common theme in the music of 2016.

5. Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book


What's the difference between an album and a mixtape? With production this high in quality, does it even matter? I wasn't familiar with Chance before this year, but I really like what he's doing. He has a unique style of rapping where he is sort of singing half the time, and it's hard to pin down where one begins and the other ends. He also has no problem talking about his faith in God in one moment and his desire to smoke weed the next, which makes him an interesting character. It's certainly the most joyful hip hop on this list.

4. David Bowie - Blackstar


David Bowie knew he was dying while he was making this, and it's obvious he decided not to go down quietly. I've only started to really get into his music, but he's a rock legend, and it's remarkable how much this album kind of kicks ass at times. It's also amazing how clearly he's singing about the end he saw coming, especially on great songs like "Lazarus" and the closing track. Every artist should hope to have a final statement as good as Blackstar.

3. Kanye West - The Life of Pablo


The Life of Pablo feels like a bit of a hybrid of Kanye's previous two albums - it has some of the eclecticism and vitality of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but also some of the abrasiveness of Yeezus. He calls it a gospel album, but he also raps about fucking models and making Taylor Swift famous. Everyone has a strong opinion on Kanye, and it seems like if anything he encourages it with what he's doing here. And damn if he isn't still the best producer in the business.

2. A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service


I haven't listened to A Tribe Called Quest before, but I definitely need to check out their back catalog. It's amazing to me that they came together for their first album in nearly two decades, only months before Phife Dawg's unfortunate passing, and it's this good. Great rapping, great beats, and a great lineup of guests, probably mostly artists who they influenced with their earlier work. Good from start to finish.

1. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 3


This was scheduled to come out in early 2017, but it was released online early as a surprise Christmas present. Run the Jewels 3 kicks just as much ass as their last album, if not more. You can just feel the rage behind every verse and every beat. Other albums will give you more variety or nuanced songwriting, but nothing is as propulsive and focused and ballsy as this.

Delayed Entry

This is the best album that wasn't released in 2016 but I didn't hear until then.

The Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers

I easily could have put The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars here, but I already talked about Bowie and I might as well talking about The Rolling Stones too. In the last few years I've been opening myself up to classic rock more, and Sticky Fingers is one of the best albums from the era I've found. The band is just banging on all cylinders, with really great songwriting backing up a solid mix of rock with blues and other elements that created the genre in the first place.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Best Movies of 2016

My theater-going was as pathetic as it's ever been in 2016. I can only think of one movie I saw that wasn't a comic book adaptation or Star War. Luckily though, a lot of great looking movies were available for rental or streaming before I had to put this together. There's still plenty of stuff that released late in the year I need to see, but this is a darn good selection of movies.

Best of 2016

10. Rogue One

Gareth Edwards seems to be a divisive director; opinions were split on Godzilla, and they're similarly all over the place on the first Star Wars spin-off. I liked it quite a bit though. Beyond the frequent unnecessary callbacks and cameos of characters and bits from earlier movies and obvious seams from what seems like quite a lot of rewriting and reshooting, it's a well-made sci-fi war movie that takes the series in a different direction. It's designed to fit into a small gap in the story, to answer a question that didn't really need answering. There's so many things that could have been handled differently, and it's easy to question if the movie should even exist. But hell if I didn't like the characters and feel for their plight. It's interesting and daring and goes places you would never expect a billion dollar franchise to go. I felt strongly about it in a way that I didn't about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was slickly entertaining but just missing a little something.

9. Hail, Caesar!


It seems like this will come to be known as a minor film in the Coen brothers canon, but for the most part even their mild successes are really good movies. It's easy to watch it and come away wondering whether it really had a point, but I think what the plot lacks in aim it makes up for in how it gets to the conclusion. It's the Coens' homage to and satire of golden age Hollywood, and it's packed with great performances by an amazing cast of both Coen veterans and newcomers, with several hilarious scenes that belong in any discussion of the brothers' comic brilliance. It also has an interesting central question about the value of doing what you love balanced against the value of getting paid fairly for your work. Also, the new Han Solo is in it.

8. The Nice Guys


It seems crazy to me that this is only the third movie Shane Black has had the opportunity to direct. He wrote several action movies in the late 80s and early 90s that helped revitalize the buddy cop genre, and since then has only made two excellent crime/action movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and this. Luckily he has a few more projects on the horizon. The Nice Guys is the ultimate homage to L.A. crime fiction, taking place in the smog-and-porn fueled 1970s and pitting its two main characters in a wonderfully mundane life-or-death struggle against the auto industry and federal bureaucracy. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are both outstanding, the script is tight, clever, and funny, and the action is smartly low-key and punchy. They really don't make them like this anymore.

7. Sing Street


I didn't see this until the day before I'm posting this, and I'm glad I did, because it's nice to have something so happy breaking up the general misery of this list. Sing Street is about a teenage boy in 1980s Dublin who goes to a new Catholic school and starts a band to impress a girl. Some of the characters seemed kind of thinly drawn, but the primary relationships between the boy and the girl and between him and his older brother are handled extremely well and drive the whole story. It's funny and sweet while not ignoring some of the hardships that come with being a teenager, and not being sure who you are, and not being able to fix the things that the grownups around you have broken. Also, the original songs are generally really good and the editing and direction of the musical sequences is really clever.

6. Swiss Army Man


Paul Dano, having been trapped on a desert island for weeks, is about to hang himself. Daniel Radcliffe washes up on the beach. Thrilled by the chance for human contact, Dano rushes over and examines him, but he appears to be dead. The corpse farts. It continues farting, with increasing intensity. It won't stop. With a stroke of inspiration, Dano pushes Radcliffe's body into the water and mounts him. The farting propels them forward in the water, and Dano smiles with joy as he rides Radcliffe like a jet ski off into the sea as triumphant music swells. So begins one of the most charming and unusual movies I've ever seen. Its tangible weirdness and humor help sell a story that at its core questions why we don't speak honestly about the simple, stupid things that make us all the same.

5. The Invitation


The Invitation is a classic sort of thriller that maintains a high level of tension throughout, though we don't know if anything's really going on until the final act. It's largely about grief and how people find different ways to deal with it. The main character goes to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new husband, a wife he lost after their son's death pulled them apart. Going back to the house they shared and seeing her, and not understanding how she is able to process her grief in a way that seems foreign to him, helps sell his suspicions, and keeps the ambiguity going until it finally breaks and you see what it's really all about. I was already enjoying the movie a lot, but the final scene elevates it even higher. I don't want to oversell it, but I think it's honestly one of the best endings to a movie of all time.

4. The Witch


It seems crazy that this is anyone's first film. A bit less crazy when Robert Eggers worked in theater before making this, but still he has such a command of images and sound and how they work together. It's like he was born to do it. The Witch is a colonial horror story about a family that moves to an isolated spot in New England after a disagreement with their church (how hardcore do you have to be to be kicked out by the Puritans?) and finds themselves terrorized by supernatural forces living in the woods. The movie is extremely dedicated to its period setting, with natural lighting, severe accents, and archaic dialogue straight out of primary sources. Fans of more explosive horror movies might not find it to their liking, but it does an incredible job of building dread and terror out of small gestures and quiet moments that just aren't quite right. And the movie doesn't shy away from the real shit; if you're afraid that it's just psychological horror where nothing really happens, rest assured: the title isn't lying.

3. Captain America: Civil War


Yeah, guess what, I liked a Marvel movie. What can I say though? The studio knows how to do big budget crowd-pleasers better than anyone else. If you're interested in story, I think it has a lot to say about the importance of accountability versus the value of being able to get things done in a complex modern society. The fact that I was witness to or participated in several real world conversations where people disagreed vehemently on that central topic tells me they did a good job. And they justify having characters who've known each other for years become divided enough to come to blows without the whole thing falling apart. On a more surface level, Marvel's casting continues to be excellent, the movie's funny when it wants to be, and the action is top notch. I'm impressed with how the Russo brothers can balance the violence with the other stuff, and how they can have so much variety within the fights themselves. The tense apartment/stairwell scuffle where Cap's desperate to prevent Bucky and a squad of riot police from killing each other is very different from the airport brawl, which is the most direct expression of comic books at their indulgent and entertaining best ever committed to screen. I'm confident the next Avengers movie is in good hands.

2. Green Room


Between this and Blue Ruin, which I also saw last year and loved, I think Jeremy Saulnier knows how to use violence for shock and impact without diluting its value or meaning better than almost anyone. Green Room is about a punk rock band that gets trapped in the green room of a neo-Nazi club after accidentally witnessing a crime, and that sounds like it could be really cheesy, but it's fucking brutal. It works because of the great economy and attention to detail on display. Every character has a purpose, every knife or bullet or cell phone is important, every death hurts or is a triumph. At times it's hard to watch, but it's also hard to look away in case you miss something. There are several great recognizable actors in the cast, but thankfully their fully on board with what the movie is and just do their jobs instead of being distractions. It's one of the decade's great horror films.

1. Hell or High Water


David Mackenzie has made several movies in the past, but I haven't seen any and don't know much about him. That just made it more fun when I watched this and loved just about every minute of it. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are a pair of mismatched bank robbers, targeting a specific chain in rural Texas and working towards some specific goal. Jeff Bridges is the Texas Ranger in charge of the investigation and who is, of course, very close to retirement. The three performances are great, Bridges' in particular, and the movie's a blast to watch, frequently laugh-out-loud funny and featuring several solid, tense robbery/chase scenes. At the same time, the movie has a lot on its mind, particularly the slow wasting away of small town America as the country becomes more corporatized and wealth is redistributed from the many to the few. It's never very blatant about it, but this is the backbone that makes the whole story work and makes every enjoyable movie moment seem more real and important. This is a problem we'll be dealing with for a long time, probably for the rest of my life. I expect there's only going to be more movies like this.

Delayed Entry

This is the best movie that wasn't released in 2016 but I didn't see until then.

Close-Up

I had a bunch of really good candidates for this, so I decided to highlight the one that it's least likely anyone reading has seen. Close-Up is from Iran, and is a very strange production that combines authentic footage of a real fraud trial with narrative scenes recreating the story, starring the actual people involved with the case. The result is a hybrid of documentary and traditional film, and the layers get even deeper with the fraud involving a man impersonating a well-known Iranian filmmaker. Pulling apart the truths from the lies is fascinating, and it's always interesting to look at movies made in parts of the world you're less familiar with, and see how they're often very different from and very similar to your own at the same time.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Best Games of 2016

Normally I write these up starting the second Monday of the year. I took an extra week this year, and I think all the lists will be better as a result. In the world of video games in 2016 there were a couple trends, with possibly the most notable being the high number of good shooters. Battlefield, Gears of War, and Call of Duty all put out new games with fun campaigns, Superhot was a lot of fun, and Overwatch was a breakout multiplayer hit. More than half the games on my list take place from a first-person perspective. Not that there wasn't good stuff in other genres - if it was a standalone game instead of an expansion, The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine probably would have made my top ten, and the creepy puzzle-platformer Inside just missed the cut.

Best of 2016

10. Hitman (Multi)


I enjoyed Hitman: Absolution as a more traditional stealth game, but there's no denying that it failed to uphold the Hitman legacy. IO Interactive went back to the drawing board and gave fans what they wanted: another Hitman game that's all about exploring interesting foreign locations, figuring out how the targets, civilians, guards, security systems, and environment work together, and using that knowledge to pull off clever assassinations. The game was released episodically, which gave players an opportunity to really scour the different areas and get more out of them than you would if it was all put out at the same time. Personally, I played this first "season" after it was all out, and I don't enjoy screwing around and trying around as much as many others seem to, but every mission was satisfying to figure out and accomplish, and I'd like to go back and try some of the opportunities I ignored the first time. Also, some stealth games are known for their funny incidental NPC dialogue, but few have ever done it as well as it is here.

9. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (Multi)


Mankind Divided is the first Deus Ex game to star a returning protagonist. I kind of wonder why the developers are so attached to Adam Jensen, who has one of gaming's most ridiculous gravelly voices and not much of a personality. However, Eidos Montreal still knows how to craft a smart stealth-focused cyberpunk action RPG, and the continuing near-future conspiracy storyline is still fairly intriguing, even if Adam isn't. The game has a cool structure where you're primarily based in Prague, and you visit a few other locations but spent most of your time in the same few city blocks, juggling multiple responsibilities and helping unfortunate victims of the class divide that human augmentation causes. It's an open world in miniature, where the area is small but feels alive in believable because of the narrow focus. A few things hold it back, but for the most part it's a really solid game.

8. Titanfall 2 (Multi)


The original Titanfall was a fun multiplayer shooter, sort of a better-feeling Call of Duty with mechs. For the sequel, people were expecting a bit more, and Respawn delivered. based on their experience with the aforementioned Call of Duty series, I expected a short but forgettable campaign centered around a bunch of big firefights. What we got was indeed pretty short, but actually one of the more memorable shooter single-player modes in a while. The game is built around soldier Jack Cooper and his relationship with BT, the Titan he gets rushed into piloting in dire circumstances. They go on a journey together to reunite with the military force their part of, and along the way they develop a bond with some actual humor and emotional weight that was a delightful surprise. And a couple of those levels are real standouts, including one where you have to navigate an assembly line that's building these prefabricated structures around you and another that has you traveling between two different points in time. Other games on this list do some of this stuff better, but Titanfall 2 is still worth your time.

7. The Witness (Multi)


The Witness has a pretty classic adventure game setup. You wake up on a strange island, and the only way to get closer to understanding the situation is to solve a bunch of abstract puzzles. It's a bit different than other games in some very obvious ways though. The truths you uncover tend to be more of an all-encompassing philosophical kind, rather than simple explanations of who you are and why you're here, and more importantly, every single puzzle comes down to tracing a line from one end of a shape to another. You wouldn't expect this to stay interesting for a full game, but it's remarkable how many permutations on logic and intuition Jonathan Blow and his team were able to wring out of the simple concept. And with multiple layers of completion, you can reach a satisfactory conclusion to the game even if there's a certain type or two of puzzle that you just can't figure out. It's a deep game that can be explored for thirty minutes if you don't have much time, or hours and hours if you really get invested.

6. Firewatch (Multi)


Camp Santo is made up of sort of an indie game dream team - designers and writers from great games like The Walking Dead and Mark of the Ninja, the composer of Gone Home, wonderful artists from Double Fine and some great pieces you've probably seen online, whether they were properly attributed or ripped off. Their first game, Firewatch, is about a man who decides to become a fire lookout at a national park for a summer, who spends his time attending to his normal duties and chatting on the radio with his supervisor at the next lookout tower over. Those conversations are really the meat of the game, as you figure out what sort of relationship you have with her, and try to find a connection to help make sense of what you're feeling. There are some simple interactions involving navigating and maintaining your section of the park, and a story that dips its toes into some unexpected territory. If you can get into the right mindset for the game, it's a very pretty and relaxing experience, with the emotional depth you might expect from the pedigree.

5. Dishonored 2 (Multi)


Everything Dishonored did well, Dishonored 2 matches. It has a unique, interesting setting that is built effectively through art design and background information you can find. It has solid core stealth and action mechanics that are augmented through a clever magical power system where you pick and choose the abilities that complement the play style you're going after. It has wonderful level design, where you find yourself navigating intricate city blocks and private estates, with different sections patrolled by different factions who will react to you in specific ways, and a great sense of freedom despite the generally linear progression, thanks to multiple paths and beneficial optional objectives. Unfortunately, the original's biggest weakness - a fairly dull plot that's not helped by pointless celebrity voice acting that generally comes off as bored - was not corrected. Still, there's a lot to be said for games that do anything as well as what Dishonored 2 gets right, and its levels are more consistently brilliant that the first time.

4. The Last Guardian (PS4)


I'm a big fan of designer Fumito Ueda's two PS2 games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. So when they announced a new game by the same team for the PS3, I waited happily for its release. And waited. And waited. Over the years, the game stopped showing up at events, and seemed like it might die without ever coming out. It finally reemerged on the PS4, and last year, it actually came out. When you play it, you can see why it took so long - the technology behind an AI-driven, very large and detailed animal that climbs around environments while you can climb over it at the same time seems extraordinarily complex, and the frame rate is pretty bad in intense moments despite the hardware upgrade and long development cycle. The achievement itself was worth it, though. Trico, the strange bird/cat/dog creature you spend the whole game interacting with, is an incredible success on both a technical and artistic level. Many players experienced a lot of frustration getting it to do what they want, which is too bad. But if the relationship works, like it did for me, it's enough to overcome a whole lot of niggles about the way it controls and other details that could have been handled better. It's possibly the most flawed game on the list, but also the most magical.

3. Dark Souls III (Multi)


It definitely feels like there's some Souls fatigue going around for many. These are long, stressful games, and this is the third of its type in three years, and fifth in eight. For my own part, I had a great time with it. The Weapon Arts bring a new dimension to combat, the game looks wonderful (as wonderful as demon-infested medieval ruins can look, anyway), and they've ironed out most of the kinks that make the series less inviting for new players. It's still tough - if you've never played one of these before, there's a boss ten minutes in who will probably kick your ass. I'd still rate it as a pretty good jumping on point. The level design is excellent, and consistent in a way From Software hasn't pulled off before - there isn't a single area or boss I'd dread revisiting on a second time through. Fans of the first Dark Souls will continue to lament that they haven't recaptured the idea of a fully interconnected world since, and it felt like there were a couple of easy opportunities for those kinds of connections that they missed or just ignored. But the individual levels are still masterfully put together, with plenty of links and secrets to find, and they're populated by enemies that are always fun to square off against. As someone who never deviates far from a typical melee weapon build, I had very little to complain about.

2. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (PS4)


It seems like Naughty Dog is held to a different standard than other developers. They need more of a reason to revisit a concept, more justification to make a sequel. A fourth Uncharted game? After they switched things up with The Last of Us, it better be worth it. Luckily, they took a lot of what they learned from my favorite game of 2013 and used it to revive Uncharted in really interesting ways. This is probably the last game starring Nathan Drake, but it's a hell of a send off. It begins by introducing Nate's brother Sam, an idea which seems kind of schlocky. But they take the time to justify his previously unmentioned existence, and use it to create a story about Nate being torn between the obligation he feels towards his brother, who he had left for dead, and his responsibility to his wife, who he promised to give up his dangerous lifestyle for. This seems really heavy for an action game about climbing on cliffs and shooting bad guys, and it is, but they really take the time to pace it out and make it work. You feel invested in the characters in a way you probably weren't before, and everything feels weightier and more meaningful. It's probably pretty easily the least violent game in the series, and it doesn't feel like anything is missing. Plus, the action is still great and the graphics are incredible. People have doubts about a sequel to The Last of Us as well, but I'm totally on board for whatever they do.

1. Doom (Multi)


I've never played a Doom game before, and I really wasn't that interested in the new one. And when I first tried it, I had a good time, but I wasn't blown away. Once I sat down and really played it through myself, I totally understood why people were raving, and started considering whether I should try playing the original. It's just incredibly fun from start to finish. The graphics are nice and functional, the music is terrific (I can hardly fathom that they originally intended to have no guitars), and the story keeps you moving and laughing at the protagonist's disdain for everything happening around him. But it's the simple act of playing it that makes it the game of the year. You move through scientific facilities on the surface of Mars and dark corners of Hell, exploring to find hidden upgrades and blasting demons. Your arsenal of weapons and abilities and the variety of monsters that you deal with slowly expand as you come to understand how they all work. By the end, you're leaping around arenas, managing your ammo, brutally ripping enemies in half to refill your health, carefully timing the use of a chainsaw or a powerup to turn the tide of a battle, and making mincemeat of any freak that would dare to try to stop you. Not every game should be like Doom, but Doom is everything a game should be.

Delayed Entry

This is the best game that wasn't released in 2016 but I didn't play until then.

Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D (3DS)

I'm not going to lie, I didn't play a lot of older games last year. The selection for this was pretty thin. DKCR is a very good platformer, though. The 3DS version gives the player extra health to make up for the somewhat troublesome controls (the analog slider is really no good) and shuffles some of the postgame, but it's otherwise the same as the Wii version. It has a nice art style, it's challenging but gives you plenty of opportunities to avoid having to start entire levels over, and it has some pretty clever boss fights. It's the definition of a solid game.

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.