Thursday, January 31, 2019

Best Shows of 2018

I'm not gonna lie, Marvel is taking up too much of my TV watching time. At some point I decided to watch everything that's part of the Cinematic Universe, and that's resulted in a lot of hours spent on shows that aren't that good. Hopefully the recent Netflix purge helps with that. For now, I stand by the shows on this list, but I wish I had spent more time watching series that other people seem really into.

Best of 2018

8. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX)


One of the things I appreciate about Sunny is that even in its old age it's always trying new stuff. Some of the stuff they tried this season definitely didn't work, but a lot of it did. The most notable was Ripped Mac, which both recalled Fat Mac from back in season 7, but also played into the finale, which I won't spoil but which you might already know about because it was the most talked-about Sunny episode in years. As long as this show exists I'll keep watching it just to see the next weird thing they try.

7. Legion (FX)


Legion's second season was not as good as the first. The weirdness felt like it was for its own sake more often than before, and it was a little more difficult to track whatever main plot there was. Still, I like the show a lot. Interesting characters and performances, the weird scenes are still fascinating even when they ARE weird for its own sake, and I'm really curious where things are going.

6. The Last Man on Earth (FOX)


Unfortunately, this was the final season of the show, and it was canceled before we got to see where it was going. The gang's trip to Mexico provided plenty of the expected laughs and pathos, as well as a great suspense element as flashbacks showed the possibility of a danger they had no way of knowing about. You can definitely say there was a formula at this point, but it was a unique formula that almost always worked. I'll miss these goofballs and their hopes of making a new world in the devastation of the old one.

5. The Deuce (HBO)


The Deuce's second season made a big jump forward in time, to a period when the porn industry was really getting into full swing and New York's government was trying a lot harder to crack down on the city's seedy underground. As expected from a David Simon show, there's a ton of characters and story threads that are constantly being balanced like spinning plates, and they rarely if ever fall to the ground. Sometimes I like a show with a bit more focus, but there's rarely a moment with this show that I don't enjoy on some level.

4. The Venture Bros. (Adult Swim)


I'm absolutely shocked that there was a new season of The Venture Bros. and that I liked it a lot. Due to some weird behind the scenes stuff (the writers had less time last season than they thought, so the beginning of this one is essentially wrap-up for what was supposed to happen a couple years ago) they don't really have time to develop a clear through line, so it's less about the grand overarching story and more just developing the characters some more. That stuff is always great though, so it's hard to complain. It remains the densest animated series I've seen, and assuming another season is coming, I'm ready for the long wait to see what happens next.

3. The Little Drummer Girl (AMC)


I can't really say I'm surprised that one of my favorite directors (Park Chan-wook) made an adaptation of an acclaimed novel by one of my favorite authors (John le Carré) and that it turned out well. There's nothing too unique about this spy thriller (to be brief, Israeli spies hire a British actress to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell), it's just exceptionally well put-together. The story is a bit unpredictable, the acting (especially Michael Shannon and Florence Pugh) is fantastic, and Park's directing is up to par for his career.

2. The Good Place (NBC)


The Good Place's second season is one of the most daring and exciting I've seen a sitcom produce. After the twist at the end of the previous season, it was easy to see how they could repeat the formula with a few little twists. Instead, the show constantly invents new status quos and throws them out as soon as it has another cool idea. The writers realize that stagnation is the death of comedy, and when you have a whole afterlife to play with, there's no reason to drain every concept you have until its lifeless. The ensemble cast remains great as their chemistry grows and they get deeper into their characters. I guess it's worth mentioning that as I'm writing this, the third season has already concluded. But that happened in 2019, and I'm writing about TV that had its season finish in 2018. Sometimes this stuff gets weird.

1. Better Call Saul (AMC)


I'm not sure what else I can say about the team behind Breaking Bad and now Better Call Saul. They're masters of this stuff, and they knocked it of the park again. Mike's story continues to do more work establishing how the things that were already in place when Walter White arrived came to be, and it has at least one surprising turn that makes it memorable. Jimmy's story continues to be a bit more vibrant though, exploring territory that isn't quite as familiar. What I'm really curious about is how close we're going to get to Breaking Bad's beginning before the show concludes. At least one more season is coming!

Delayed Entry

This is the best show that didn't air in 2018 but I didn't watch until then.

Oz (HBO)

I partly watched Oz because it was the last show from Alan Sepinwall's book The Revolution Was Televised (a good overview of the most important TV dramas from the late 90s through the 00s) that I hadn't seen. Oz was interesting both as a cultural artifact as well as a show by itself. The cast is full of actors who have gone on to more prominent roles since, and the ways it diverges from the writing structure pretty much every other serialized drama uses are fascinating. It has recognizable character arcs and storylines that run through seasons, but rather than giving each one a few minutes of attention every episode, it's more willing to focus on specific stories for long stretches and ignore others until its time to revisit them. The show occasionally strains credibility - if any real experimental prison unit had anywhere close to the murder rate of Em City's, there's no way it wouldn't be shut down - but it was nonetheless intriguing throughout.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Best Albums of 2018

This is always the hardest list to write. In the past it's because I've barely listened to enough new music to construct a list, but more recently it's because I listen to too much to clearly remember it all. I'm not certain these are the albums I absolutely enjoyed the most last year, but they're definitely all very good. Eight of ten albums on this list are the first I've heard by the artist.

Best of 2018

10. Earl Sweatshirt - Some Rap Songs


I've never heard a rap album that sounds quite like this one. Abstract and experimental are both good descriptors for it. Earl creates his own soundscape and it's fun to exist in for 24 minutes.

9. Robyn - Honey


I've been listening to more straight up pop music in the last couple years, and Robyn is one of the better artists I've heard in the genre. She makes intimate party songs, if that makes any sense. They use synths well without going overboard and she knows how to write a good hook.

8. Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour


This is the album that convinced me that the country genre might be able to produce something of value. Most popular country I end up hearing is always about the dumbest shit, but Kacey writes songs with actual meaning, and she can also write a catchy chorus.

7. Saba - Care for Me


If you like Kendrick Lamar and other rappers who make songs about pain and loss, then you'll probably like Saba. His songs are personal and emotional, and also he can do the whole rapping thing pretty darn well.

6. Of Montreal - White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood


I haven't heard anyone talk about Of Montreal in a while, but this album surprised me with how much I dug it. The mix of their unique sensibilities with an 80's style is a whole lot of fun.

5. Vince Staples - FM!


Vince doesn't need more than 22 minutes to craft a tight, entertaining audio experience, and I don't need more than one sentence to highly recommend it.

4. Mitski - Be the Cowboy


Mitski has some wonderful, emotional, poignant songs on this album. She also has some tracks that just kind of kick a lot of ass. Enjoyable from top to bottom.

3. U.S. Girls - In a Poem Unlimited


Normal pop is good, but I also like my pop weird, and U.S. Girls is some weird-ass pop. But not unlistenably weird, just weird enough that you feel like you haven't heard it before.

2. Low - Double Negative


I've listened to some slowcore/drone/glitch music before, but it rarely gets this dirty. Double Negative is a dirty-ass album and I'm into it.

1. Car Seat Headrest - Twin Fantasy

Is it weird that my favorite album from 2018 is a rerecording of an album from 2011? I don't really care. In a year of albums I really liked, Twin Fantasy is one I loved. It's a bunch of sad guitar boy songs. Check it out.

Delayed Entry

This is the best album that wasn't released in 2018 but I didn't hear until then.

Roxy Music - For Your Pleasure

I had never heard of Roxy Music before, but they were a glam rock band who for a time featured Brian Eno on synths. This album fucking rules.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Best Movies of 2018

There are almost too many interesting movies I still haven't seen from 2018 to count. And yet, I think this is one of the most solid lists of movies I've ever had in a post. A great year for movies.

Best of 2018

10. First Reformed


My familiarity with Paul Schrader prior to this is kind of weird. He wrote several great Martin Scorsese-directed movies from the 70's to 90's, and more recently he's made a couple of smaller movies I didn't really like at all. But First Reformed feels like the work of someone who's been at the top of their game their whole career. Ethan Hawke is quasi-secretly one of the best actors of his generation, and he is great once again as a reverend of a small but extremely old church who deals with a drinking problem, declining health, and a spiritual crisis in the face of climate change as he's expected to handle his duties at an important moment. For the most part it's very straightforward, which makes the few moments that depart in an unreal way hit a lot harder. One of the most interesting movies about religion that I have seen.

9. Roma

Alfonso Cuaron is one of my favorite directors, and in Roma he revisits his own childhood as he tells the story of a maid and nanny to a fairly well off family living in Mexico City in the 70's. I believe this is Cuaron's first movie that he actually shot himself (it's also the first he wrote by himself), and he's clearly learned a lot from cinematographers he's worked with in the past, because Roma looks absolutely stunning. The black and white photography is beautiful and he continues to be the modern master of the long take. In the past it sometimes seems like showing off, but in Roma it's more understated and always for a clear purpose. I wish I had connected with the characters a bit more, but Roma is still an impressive movie.

8. Black Panther


I hope that the huge success of Black Panther means we can see more movies with huge budgets that can have unique perspectives and settings that aren't just the same old thing as always. Black Panther is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it's also an afrofuturist science fiction movie, and that departure and focus was maybe my favorite part of it. The cast was also very good, especially Michael B. Jordan as perhaps the MCU's best, and certainly its most sympathetic villain. The action was a bit underwhelming at times, but I'd still love to see Ryan Coogler make a sequel with these characters and this world.

7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The reliable Coen brothers gave Netflix what is essentially a collection of six short Western films, and all of them have something to recommend. They range in tone from delightful to depressing, but each explores the theme of death and its sometimes arbitrary nature. I could say something about each of them, but I think it suffices to say that Buster Scruggs gives you a little bit of all the different things the brothers like to do, and the parts you like or don't like probably won't surprise you if you have any history with them.

6. Hereditary


First-time director Ari Aster is surprisingly assured in this film that is part family drama, part satanic horror. By the end the former fully gives way to the latter, but both elements work, and work together very well. Tony Collette plays a woman grieving the loss of her mother along with her family, and the things that happen from there are unexpected and develop into an intriguing mystery before they start spiraling completely out of control. Her performance could be over the top, but I think it works for where things eventually go. And I love where they go, because it's pretty damn wild.

5. Eighth Grade


First-time director Bo Burnham is surprisingly assured in this coming of age film. Most movies of this type focus on high schoolers, but Eighth Grade (obviously) goes a bit younger, telling the story of Kayla, a girl who struggles to make friends in a world of ubiquitous internet use and self promotion, but constantly strives to improve her situation. I could easily see this moving being sadder and harder to watch, but I found myself rooting for Kayla rather than feeling sorry for her, feeling bad about her setbacks but elated for her moments of progress and clarity. Elsie Fisher gives a remarkable performance, and Burnham's depiction of young adulthood is spot on.

4. Sorry to Bother You

First-time director Boots Riley is surprisingly assured in this bizarre satire of modern labor politics. There are basically two parts to this movie. There's the part where the main character, Cash Green, starts working for a telemarketing company at the same that some of its employees decide to start organizing and eventually strike, clashing with the police at the picket line. There's also the part where Cash learns to use a "white voice" to get ahead in the company and eventually becomes involved with the corporation that essentially found a loophole in modern anti-slavery laws and is dominating the global market. One of these aspects is very serious, the other is very silly, but they work together to the film's overall message, that companies and government will do anything they can in the name of profit and workers have to stick together and protect each other. It's a very funny and surreal movie with a real point.

3. Annihilation


People need to keep giving Alex Garland money to make science fiction and horror movies. Annihilation, based on a popular novel I have not read, does a great job mixing both. Natalie Portman plays a scientist who joins an expedition into a strange alien phenomenon that is constantly growing, and into which several previous expeditions have gone and not returned. Inside they find strange plant and animal mutations, some of which are beautiful, and some of which are terrifying. They begin to lose their grip on reality, and it's hard to say what exactly is real and what is not. There's enough ambiguity to keep an otherwise straightforward story mysterious, and the climax is exactly what it needs to be. Even if you don't get it, the movie is a lot of fun to look at.

2. Avengers: Infinity War


Yes, I am a Marvel fan. This is a damn good Marvel movie. Despite having dozens of characters the central story has room to breathe and develop, and pretty much everyone gets a moment to shine. The visuals are great and the action scenes are inventive and exciting. Thanos is a genuinely menacing villain, and while reports of his plan's viability have been exaggerated, I felt like I still understood his motivation in a way that his goals were clear and helped drive the story. And I appreciate any movie with this much money behind it going with that ending. We all know that what happens in comic books might not matter in the long term, but what does matter is what it means to the characters in the moment. And based on the showing I went to, this movie worked on people.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


On the one hand, Into the Spider-Verse is a stunningly gorgeous animated film that combines the strengths of computer generated and traditional cel animation along with the history of comic book art to create something unlike anything I've seen before. On the other hand, it tells a beautiful, heart felt story about how anyone given the opportunity can be a hero. And on the third hand, it's a comic book movie filled with so much love for these characters and their histories that as a Spider-Man fan it was just absolute delight to watch from start to finish. So you can see how difficult it is for me to find a single way to recommend this movie. I loved it. Oh, also it's laugh out loud hilarious the entire time. And the villains were all interesting and great! And the cast!

Delayed Entry

This is the best movie that wasn't released in 2018 but I didn't see until then.

Spotlight

Is it cool to like any movie that wins Best Picture? There are definitely things you can criticize about the Oscars, but their last few big winners haven't been bad choices. Spotlight tells the story of the newspaper that helped break the story of the Catholic Church molestation scandal, and while you can see how a movie about Serious Journalists Reporting Important Stories is easy award bait, it's really just an extremely well made film, with an exceptional screenplay and a cast that delivers from top to bottom. It balances the tension of a political thriller with the heartbreaking trauma of the subject matter. It's kind of amazing that Tom McCarthy made this and The Cobbler back to back.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Best Games of 2018

I'm back. I didn't play a ton of new games in 2018, partly because some of the ones I did play were pretty long. These are the ones I liked the most.

Best of 2018

8. Donut County (Multi)


In Donut County, you control a hole in the ground that can move around and grows whenever an object falls into it. Your goal is to get every object, plant, animal, and even building in the level to fall into the hole. Then you go to the next location and do it again. Sometimes there are some simple puzzles involving using something that falls into the hole to cause something else to happen in the level. It's simple stuff, but it works because its story that moves from a raccoon dropping stuff down a hole because he feels like it to an anti-capitalist mission statement is a lot of fun, and there's a simple pleasure to be gained from watching a bunch of stuff fall down an ever expanding hole.

7. Red Dead Redemption II (Multi)


Rockstar started the trend of open world games many years ago, and it's interesting to see how they ignore the conventions that have grown into place since then as they continue to pursue their own vision of what games can be. Red Dead II is both incredibly vast in it scale and amazing impressive in its minute details. Its story rarely draws outside the lines of what you've seen in Westerns before, but it also is an effective tale about the decline of the natural world and the futility of vengeance. I just wish I had a bit more fun playing it. The gunplay in functional but rarely exciting, and there are tons of complex systems and minigames to engage in but little apparent reason to do so. If the game was shorter I would be more favorable toward it, but after dozens of missions entailing little more than riding a horse somewhere to shoot some guys, it was over long after I was ready for it to be. It's easier to admire Red Dead II than to enjoy it.

6. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Switch)


Ultimate is the most I've played a Smash Bros. game since the Gamecube iteration, due to both the smart decision to bring back every playable character the series has ever seen along with a fun collection of newcomers, and the entertaining (and quite long) story mode. It involves hundreds of little battles against characters from all across Nintendo's history, with each one having its rules tweaked to invoke what those characters are known for. Winning a battle unlocks a "spirit" of that character, which you can equip to boost your stats or give you an extra ability or item in the next battle. The multiplayer also has a lot of fun options to keep it fresh, and the core fighting gameplay is rock solid. This really is the ultimate Smash game, at least until the next one.

5. Hitman 2 (Multi)


Hitman 2 keeps what worked about 2016's series refresh and expands on it. It wasn't episodic, but they kept the same structure, with each map being playable in any order and accessible for multiple different missions. You can even play the last game's levels if you have them as long as you are on the same platform. The main draws of course are the five new maps (really six, but the first is an underdeveloped tutorial), which are as huge, complex, and multi-faceted as anything they've ever done before. Each one is a small sandbox packed with entertaining, challenging, and occasionally surprising stealth gameplay. I hope the intended additional maps are just as good.

4. Into the Breach (Multi)


Into the Breach is a unique strategy game, one where you can't save and reload to test ideas, one where you can't lean on building up your units so they can always survive a dangerous situation. You control three mechs which are trying to protect buildings from gigantic invading insects. If buildings are damaged, the power grid weakens, and if it goes down you fail. Your mechs can't take a lot of punishment either, and if all three are destroyed, you fail. Failure means sending a single pilot (if one is alive) back in time to start the fight again from the beginning (though the missions and maps change each time). Your one advantage is that you know each enemy's move before they make it, giving you a chance to figure out the best way to counter it. Sometimes that means pushing an enemy so its attack does nothing instead of trying to kill it, or intentionally taking a hit on a mech to protect a more sensitive target. The better you play, the more you are rewarded, but starting over all the time means your best tools are your own knowledge of how the game works and how to respond to a given situation. I've only played enough to see the ending once, but I hope to play more and see more of what it has to offer.

3. Celeste (Multi)


Celeste is a very hard platformer about a young woman trying to climb a mountain that is both imposing in size and littered with interesting features, from an abandoned city to mysterious caves. Each level increases the challenge as it introduces its own unique features. You have to jump, dash, climb walls, avoid pits, spikes, and other hazards, and stretch your ability to juggle multiple concepts at once. The game is very fair with saving your progress, but demands high skill to finish. If you find it easy, there are unlockable levels that are even more challenging, and if you find it too hard, there are options to make it more manageable. It has slick pixel graphics, a great synth-heavy soundtrack, and a story that uses supernatural elements to explore depression, anxiety, and mental health in general. Opinions vary on how effective that part is, but I thought it mostly worked. Celeste can be tough, but getting to the end of a challenge is always satisfying.

2. Spider-Man (PS4)


Almost any superhero who's known for patrolling a neighborhood would work as a video game that copies the Batman: Arkham series' general structure, but Spider-Man is a particularly good fit, and also my favorite superhero, so it's not a surprise that I really liked this. Like the Arkham games, it depicts a Spider-Man several years into his career, who has already established his place in the city's culture, and has several friends willing to help him as well as several adversaries locked up in prison. I really liked the story, which does a good job of developing familiar characters in new but believable ways and balances multiple subplots and villainous encounters in the way a good long term arc in a comic book would. Swinging around Manhattan never gets old, and the combat is mostly exciting though a bit cluttered at times. The DLC chapters weren't great, but I'm looking forward to a full sequel as much as any game that's likely to come out in the future.

1. God of War (PS4)


I enjoyed the last couple God of War games more than a lot of people, but I definitely agreed that the series could use a shakeup. We got that and more with this quasi-reboot, which keeps Kratos' history but changes the setting and style of the gameplay dramatically. He has left mythological Greece for mythological Norse lands, raising a son named Atreus on his own after the boy's mother dies, as they go on a journey to scatter her ashes from a mountaintop. What seems simple quickly becomes complicated as they are attacked by strange monsters and pursued by gods native to the area. The early God of War games used a dead wife and daughter as easy character development, but the new game does more to earn the connection, with the story being about Kratos' difficult relationship with Atreus as much as anything. Bad parents are definitely a big theme in the game. The visuals are stunning, the music sets the mood well, and the game itself is as rock solid as anything released in years. Kratos' axe is both a well developed combat tool and puzzle solver, and the way the world slowly expands as you progress through the story and and pursue optional objectives is brilliantly done. On a fundamental level, this is the ideal of what a game studio can do with a huge budget.

Delayed Entry

This is the best game that wasn't released in 2018 but I didn't play until then.

Quadrilateral Cowboy (PC)

I really like Blendo's experimental first-person games, so seeing that style expanded into a full, satisfying experience is a treat. You go on heists with your trusty laptop, using it to control objects in the environment or your own gadgets to pull off scores without getting caught. You have to learn some simple coding to do it, but the experience is all the more satisfying because you have to do a little work. You often can't bring the laptop into certain areas, so you will have to think several steps ahead and time out commands to pull off some really clever tricks. For example, you have a sniper rifle that can push buttons from afar, and you can program it to shoot a button to let you through a door, wait until you reach the next one, then adjust its aim and shoot another button. I have rarely felt as cool playing a game as I did coming up with a plan and executing it in Quadrilateral Cowboy.