Thursday, January 17, 2013

Best Shows of 2012

Since I only consider shows that complete a season in a given year, and Breaking Bad only aired the first half of its final run, this will be the first year since it started that it won't be on my list. What show will take its three years running top slot?

Best of 2012

10. Homeland (Showtime)

People sure can turn on a show quickly. I wasn't as disappointed by the quicker pace and bigger action of Homeland's second season as some others, but I did find it to be a step down in quality. Still, the acting is great, the dramatic scenes are played with a lot of effective tension, and those guys still know how to spin an exciting yarn of terrorism and the people who counter it.

9. Luck (HBO)

Based on the fact that they were reportedly already filming the second season, I believe that Luck really was canceled because of the unfortunate death of horses they were using, and that wasn't just a cover-up of the fact that the show hadn't succeeded financially yet. It's a shame, because David Milch created a really interesting environment for a much longer series. The intricate dialogue was handled with skill by a great cast led by Dustin Hoffman, and the scenes of the actual races were absolutely breathtaking. I'll always wonder what could have been.

8. Sons of Anarchy (FX)

There are lots of dramas, and even crime dramas about bad guys specifically, that are more graceful, classier, subtler, more emotionally meaningful, and a lot of other words you can think of than Sons of Anarchy. Few of them though ever approach this show's ability to put together a plot. Characters are always hiding things, discovering secrets, getting into and out of trouble, and the shit just seems to never stop piling up against them. Yet it never totally breaks. I was highly disappointed by the finale of the last season, but not only did they manage to earn back my trust this year, they actually made those seemingly bad decisions look like good ones. I don't know how much more there'll be, but I'm on board.

7. Louie (FX)

This season was definitely less consistent than the second, with a few episodes that weren't particularly funny, which would usually be fine with this show, but in this case failed to have significant merits elsewhere at the same time. When the show's like that, it's still good enough to watch, but you know Louis C.K. can do better. Luckily , some of the season was really, really good, notably the appearances by Parker Posey and Chloƫ Sevigny as brilliant takes on the problems with a typical "manic pixie dream girl" character (I kind of hated typing that) and an arc where Louie tries to win Letterman's hosting job with the help of a strange mentor played by David Lynch. The show won't be back until next year, and I'm going to miss it.

6. Justified (FX)

It's probably a good idea that Justified didn't try to top the pure, unnerving menace of Margo Martindale's Mags Bennett from season two, instead aiming for a bit more color with its new characters who end up trading threats with Raylan Givens. It might be taking the easy way out, but the show is already more colorful than others of the same type, which is part of what makes it stand above the rest. Justified's version of Harlan county and the surrounding areas is becoming as well developed and entertaining as any fictional place I can think of, and it's one of the few shows where I don't care if what's happening ties into a larger story or not. It's fun to watch regardless.

5. Community (NBC)

Season three of Community was not without its share of problems. Some of the supporting characters continued to be used to less than their potential, larger story elements lurched at times, and it could not quite be counted on to be brilliant every single week. But I simply cannot pretend that a show that made episodes like "Remedial Chaos Theory", "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux", "Regional Holiday Music", "Pillows and Blankets", "Basic Lupine Urology", and "Introduction to Finality" is not one of my favorites.

4. Game of Thrones (HBO)

Game of Thrones' second season took a lot more risks than the first, intentionally changing the story from the books more often and attempting things like showing a large siege battle that most shows wouldn't even think doing. It mostly paid off, and continued to be a bloody, sexy cable show that managed to have a good story and good acting anyway. The third book in the series has some of the story's most infamous scenes, and I can't wait for the show to get to them.

3. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

You always wonder what will happen to a show when one of its central characters is no longer around (Game of Thrones fits this too), and it's a bit surprising how much better Boardwalk Empire seemed with Michael Pitt gone. The other characters got to have their own stories a bit more, and they ended up with the best buildup and climax to an arc yet, one that focused on the war between Nucky and a competitor for his illegal goods played by Bobby Cannavale. The 1920s setting is still pretty fascinating, and it's interesting to watch how Terence Winter weaves his gangster tale with the truths of history.

2. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Some things are growers. They can be albums, foods, people, and in this case, a TV show. Was Parks and Recreation markedly, demonstrably better in 2012 than it was before? Probably not. But the more I see it, the more I just like spending time watching it, and seeing what will happen to the characters, who I can't help but feel attached to, whether things are going fine for them or they're struggling. I hope it stays on the air for years to come.

1. Mad Men (AMC)

Like Parks and Recreation, Mad Men has been a grower for me. I can't rightly say that there's an objective reason that it was my favorite show of 2012 and not one of my top 10 in 2007, I just know that it was, and it would take a second watch of the whole series to dig deeper into the question. It does seem less focused on social commentary and reliving the 60s, and more focused on the character relationships and memorable scenes, which are things I tend to prefer. There was a period of time when the show was just absolutely on fire in season five, every episode absolutely stuffed with brilliant writing, directing, and acting, and even though there's no ticking time bombs or unexpected gun fights, it was the show I anticipated most from week to week.

Delayed Entry

This is the best show that didn't air in 2012 but I didn't watch until then.

Veronica Mars (UPN/CW)

I'm surprised I didn't notice the parallels between this and Buffy the Vampire Slayer a bit sooner. A show on UPN about a plucky and beautiful but dangerous and talented blond girl (Kristen Bell instead of Sarah Michelle Gellar) in high school, that plays with genre conventions (mystery instead of supernatural horror), and gets a bit worse when she moves on to high school? It's kind of scary, actually. The first two seasons of Veronica Mars have her solving both basic but inventive cases week to week and bigger, season-spanning conspiracies in the long term, and the way they balance humor, drama, and intrigue is remarkable. The third season is disjointed and lighter in tone, which definitely hurts it, but it's still worth seeing. It's a show that's easy to gorge on, and it's too bad that there aren't more than 64 episodes to enjoy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Best Albums of 2012

I wasn't really thinking about it much, but this year can be characterized by a lack of new albums by bands I already listen to. Or maybe that's just my rationale for not listening to much. Anyway, this is all stuff I really liked.

Best of 2012

7. Burial - Kindred

It almost seems rude to call this dubstep, when it's so different from what people have been taught to expect through hearing that word in loud, obnoxious remixes in clubs and TV commercials. What Burial makes is more ethereal, mysterious, and simply interesting. It's not as easy to dance to, but the three songs on Kindred are some of his best work and the best that the genre has to offer.

6. Twin Shadow - Confess

I don't know if I should be embarrassed by my increasing affection for things from the 80s, which extends to things that only pretend they are. Either way, I really liked this album, which sounds like it could fit right into the new wave movement, thanks to its synth-heavy pop sound and sincere vocals. There are a couple songs on here that grabbed a hold of something inside me and just haven't let go.

5. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

I really had no concept of what Fiona Apple sounded like before I listened to this album, and it's still kind of hard to describe for someone of my limited means. There's a lot of piano, and not a lot of traditional rock instruments, but you might still describe it as a kind of alternative rock, with a lot of different sounds, from Fiona's raw-sounding vocals to feet scraping on the ground. I found it a lot more entertaining than you might think just listening to a random ten second snippet from anywhere on the album, and while I'd hesitate to recommend it to a lot of people, I still liked it a lot.

4. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange

Another album of a type I previously haven't really listened to, and another that I enjoyed a lot. There's not much to justify though when the merits are so obvious - Frank has a beautiful voice, and he sings a lot of very catchy hooks over unique, effective beats. The various guests are used tastefully, without intruding on the sound he carefully develops over the course of the album. Some songs definitely rise above others as more repeatably listenable, but the whole thing is definitely worth experiencing.

3. Beach House - Bloom

There's not much that really separates this from Beach House's last album. You could pretty much shuffle the two track lists together and create a single, unified sounding work. I did find myself just a little bit more attached to this one, though. It's dream pop at its finest, with the husky vocals and etheral synths blending together to produce a mesmerizing effect. Solid from start to finish.

2. Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, m.A.A.d City

I don't have many examples to go to, but this is probably the best rap concept album I've ever heard. Over beats that aren't flashy but totally work for the tone of the lyrics, Kendrick raps about life in Compton, crime, alcohol abuse, peer pressure, religion, and many other topics, tying them together to paint a sometimes dark but ultimately hopeful picture. It almost has a perfect arc to it too, except for a final track featuring Dr. Dre that's plenty good on its own, but happens to seem out of place after the unconventional and suitably emotionally climactic two songs that come before it. Absolutely worth listening to.

1. Grizzly Bear - Shields

Shields does not have a song on it like "Two Weeks", the great single from Grizzly Bear's previous album that bled out into larger pop culture. I mean, "Yet Again" is really damn good, but it's not "Two Weeks". Still, I found Shields to be their best album yet from start to finish - they have always had moments of greatness in the past punctuated by dull spots, and those dull spots seem to be completely absent here. I could throw around words like "textural" without really know what I mean, but I'll just say it's the most well-formed and accomplished album from 2012 that I listened to.

Delayed Entry

This is the best album that wasn't released in 2012 but I didn't hear until then.

Sufjan Stevens - Illinois

It's incredible how many outstanding songs Stevens was able to put on one album. I just wish he included a few less not outstanding ones. The highs on Illinois are so high that it comes close to being one of the most perfect albums recorded. If it just had some fat trimmed out, especially near the end... but I digress. It's hard to get worked up about an album having too much music. So much of what's here works extremely well, I kind of have to wonder if that excess is actually required for the whole thing to exist. He's done other stuff that's more compact, but it's not as deeply enjoyable to listen to.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Best Movies of 2012

I didn't manage to see a few movies I know I really should have, most notably Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty. Still, I managed to do a better job of getting out of the house and seeing good stuff than I usually do. Here was the best.

Best of 2012

8. The Dark Knight Rises

It was always unlikely that people were going to love this as much as they did The Dark Knight, and when the movie finally came out it seemed practically predestined to have a mixed reaction. I liked it a lot though; Tom Hardy's Bane is a wonderfully scary villain, Anne Hathaway is a pitch-perfect Catwoman, and it's just fun watching the elaborate schemes and action scenes Christopher Nolan puts together, even if it's easy to poke holes in their logic later. I kind of wish it was a bit more grounded, but it still manages to be the third part of the first ever superhero film trilogy that's good the whole way through.

7. The Cabin in the Woods

Usually when a movie sits on the shelf for a couple years like this, you expect bad things. But based on the people behind it and the seemingly reasonable explanation for its delay, I was pretty sure I'd like The Cabin in the Woods, and I turned out to be right. It's a horror movie that basically applies the reasons people like horror movies to the story itself, and what results is a movie that is at times genuinely frightening, but more often hilarious in the way it plays with and subverts expectations. I imagine you might get more out of it if you spend a lot of time with the genre, but even if you don't there's a lot of great moments and surprises.

6. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I was okay with Peter Jackson and company splitting The Hobbit into two parts for their film adaptation, since I knew they were adding material from the countless additional notes and writings of Tolkien, and it's not uncommon for studios to do that these days. Three parts seemed like a stretch, though. Still, I couldn't help but find myself again wrapped up in the world of Middle Earth, and enjoyed all of the time the movie took developing its new characters and really telling the story of the book without many gaps. Who knows if I'll get tired of it before the end, but I thought the first Hobbit movie was very well cast, as faithful to the book as you could hope, and just a pleasant thing to watch.

5. The Raid: Redemption

You hear a lot of people tell you how much an action movie kicks ass. It's hard to tell just from a description how much it actually kicks ass. You kind of have to take it on faith that it kicks ass. Believe me when I tell you that The Raid stands above most other movies when it comes to whether it kicks ass. No one's in it that you've heard of, and they use an Indonesian fighting style with less of a history than kung fu, but the movie still kicks ass. There's not much else to say about The Raid, which takes place entirely within a single apartment complex and doesn't have much of a story, but it doesn't need anything else because it really, really kicks ass.

4. The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson sure has changed a lot over the course of his career. You can definitely trace a line from movie to movie, but while movies like Boogie Nights were certainly different, it was still essentially understandable and often very entertaining. The Master is one of the most challenging movies that I've ever seen. I know basically what it was going for, and I know the three central performances were great, and I can remember specific scenes that were as entrancing and gripping as any that have been filmed. But I still find it difficult to love, and I don't get the feeling the movie really wants to be loved. It wants to be considered, and it deserves to be examined for a long time. It's an important movie, but you should only see it if you know what you're in for.

3. Lincoln

I'm not sure what else there is to say about Daniel Day-Lewis. He's probably going to win his third Oscar as a lead actor soon. He doesn't just say his lines well in this movie, he essentially reinvented the way I'm going to picture Lincoln looking, sounding, and acting for the rest of my life. He leads a truly outstanding cast in a movie that avoids overly lionizing the man, the war, or the time period, as it instead focuses on all of the political dealings and double-dealings that led to the passage of the 13th Amendment. Steven Spielberg doesn't try to do too much, he just lets the actors handle the great script and just seems to know where the camera should be. It's one of the best films in his long and profoundly good career.

2. Looper

Looper is one of those movies that comes along once in a while that you wouldn't expect to get made in the current Hollywood system. It's an R-rated science fiction movie with a budget large enough that it doesn't look cheap. It's also a really, really good one. Joseph Gordon Levitt (this is his third movie on the list, by the way) is more convincing as a young Bruce Willis than you'd guess based on the slightly distracting makeup, and he does a great job of making you care about this honestly pretty unbelievable world, where the mob gets rid of annoyances by sending them back in time to be executed. The story takes turns you don't expect, and in the end it's really not the action movie it looks like it's trying to be. It might be better than that though, with characters you get attached to and a story that can make you think about a lot of different things. Just make sure to take Bruce's advice when it comes to time travel logic.

1. The Avengers

It's not the edgiest or most sophisticated choice, but darn it if this isn't the best time I had in a theater in 2012. Pulling together the heroes from four different movies and making them argue, bounce off each other, and finally come together to achieve a common goal seems like an almost impossible task, but they nailed it as well as I could hope. And it's even more satisfying because it was done by Joss Whedon, someone who went from a beloved but relatively unknown creator of cult television shows to the director of one of the biggest movies ever. The cast is great, the dialogue is smart and funny, and the story is solid enough to hold up a bunch of sci-fi silliness and exciting action scenes. I'm really looking forward to what else they can do with this suddenly gigantic franchise.

Delayed Entry

This is the best movie that wasn't released in 2012 but I didn't see until then.


Rian Johnson directed Looper, one of my favorite movies in 2012, but I actually liked his first movie more, the low budget thriller called Brick. Joseph Gordon Levitt stars as a hard boiled 40s detective stuck in a modern teenager's body, holding together a film that inserts Film Noir elements into a high school setting much more effectively than you'd think possible. It's really one of the best neo-Noir films ever made, and I'd even hold it up to the real classics of the genre. The story hits every note perfectly, and it's incredible how Johnson manages to match the cadence and rhythm of Noir dialogue to phrases and topics high schoolers would discuss. Inventive filmmaking from start to finish.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Best Games of 2012

A lot of people will tell you 2012 was a disappointing year for boxed games, and I’d agree with them on a few counts, at least compared to the last couple years. On the other hand, it was a great year for alternative, downloadable games, and there were plenty of new experiences to make the increasingly long wait for new consoles easy to forget.

Best of 2012

9. Mark of the Ninja (Multi)

Mark of the Ninja was one of several games this year to rely on stealth for the meat and potatoes of its gameplay, and while it wasn’t my favorite, it was certainly interesting in its approach. Most stealth games tend to anger their players at some point or another when they get caught and don’t know why, but that’s never a problem with Ninja, where thanks to clever interface and game design, it’s perfectly clear at any moment why you can or cannot be detected by enemies. Add in the beautiful 2D art and animation, extremely fluid controls, and useful variety of weapons and gadgets, and there’s a lot to like here.

8. Journey (PS3)

I wasn’t as in love with Journey as some other people, as I kind of felt like we already got some of what ThatGameCompany was going for with their previous game, Flower. Even if you aren’t grabbed by the game’s simple play of jumping around and sliding down hills and wordless, vague story though, it might be worth discovering on just a technical level. The graphics are gorgeous – I don’t think anyone’s ever made a desert look this attractive before. And the unique multiplayer creates an experience that’s possibly worth the purchase price by itself. It’s amazing how easy it is to prevent people on the Internet from being jerks just by taking away their ability to talk. It’s a game that for some is a transcendent pleasure, and for others a boring experiment that doesn’t work. I found myself closer to the former on the spectrum.

7. Sleeping Dogs (Multi)

I never played a game in the True Crime series, so I was uninterested when they announced a new one set in Hong Kong, even after it stopped being a True Crime game and got the title Sleeping Dogs. I kept hearing about it after it came out though, and finally gave it a shot, which turned out to be worth it. Sleeping Dogs is the best modern open world crime game since Grand Theft Auto IV, and you can make a strong case that’s it’s actually better. Like plenty of games since the GTA series became popular, it offers a few innovations on the formula that will only make the genre more accessible, but it’s also worth checking out just for the game itself, which is just the right length and level of maturity. Inspired by Hong Kong action movies, it tells a totally competent undercover cop story with some great voice acting, has a variety of things you can do to pass time, and most important, the core missions are actually a lot of fun, with decent car and foot chases, acceptable gunplay, and best of all, a robust melee combat system that takes obvious inspiration from both kung fu cinema and the great hand-to-hand battles in Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel. It has its shortcomings, but I’d recommend it to anyone who needed a fix while waiting for the next GTA.

6. Darksiders II (Multi)

I know a lot of people were really disappointed with Darksiders II. And I don’t really get it. It combines fast-paced, stylish character action in the vein of Devil May Cry with puzzle-focused dungeon exploration in the vein of The Legend of Zelda just like the original Darksiders, and also adds fluid traversal/platforming in the vein of Prince of Persia. I realize that that’s a lot of “in the vein”, but that’s what the series is. Where the game definitely falters is in the addition of an RPG-style randomized loot system, which makes some sense when you think about the lure of always finding better gear to keep up with the increasingly tough enemies, but which takes away the definite thrill of discovering things in this kind of game. It’s certainly odd to go through the trouble of solving a uniquely designed, one-time puzzle and get rewarded with a randomly generated item that may or may not be better than what you already have. It’s also sort of dull from a story perspective, sticking to mundane fantasy worlds where Darksiders mixed that up with a destroyed modern earth in interesting ways, and not being allowed to advance the plot by virtue of taking place at the same time as the first game. Still, it’s full of well-made dungeons and is just a lot of fun to play, so I have a hard time taking much issue with it. Not what it could have been, but still good.

5. Far Cry 3 (Multi)

Far Cry 2 was a brilliant game, but a lot of people didn’t see it that way, and I don’t blame Ubisoft for a lot of decisions they made with the sequel. In fact, I think some of them were for the better. Far Cry 3 combines the setting and basic premise of the first game (regular guy trapped on a tropical island) with the basic gameplay and structure of the second (you wander around an open environment in first person, fending off attackers from all sides), and adds a bunch of systems and poorly-thought through plot elements. You can now take over outposts to prevent enemies from ever appearing in the same area again, and you can gain experience points to unlock new abilities, and you can hunt and skin animals to craft items that let you hold more supplies and boost your stats. It makes it overall a friendlier world to be in, which is good for accessibility, but undeniably damages the unique feeling of lonely desperation you got out of the last game. Still, it’s a blast to screw around, whether you’re burning a patch of jungle to the ground, silently knifing every thug in the immediate area, or getting into a hectic car chase that will end in a painful explosion and lots of gunfire. Just make sure to turn off some of the more intrusive interface elements and ignore the poor attempts at story and character.

4. Hotline Miami (PC)

Hotline Miami. It’s sort of like if you made an entire game out of those brief scenes in Drive where Ryan Gosling killed goons with his bare hands. It’s an extremely fast action game. But it’s also a stealth game. And a puzzle game. Your goal on each level is to kill everyone you see before they can kill you. You can knock them over by bashing through a door they’re standing behind. You can shoot them or smash them with guns or various objects you find. If they’re lying on the ground but not dead yet, you can smash their heads into the floor, or snap their necks, or worse. Playing it can feel like a bad trip – the faux-80s dance soundtrack (there’s the Drive influence again) is always pounding, and the graphics are ugly pixelated garbage, and lights are flashing and the ground is kind of moving in a disorienting way. The story is nonsense, and it tricks you into thinking maybe there’s something deeper under all this violence, before it pulls out the rug and you finally learn it really is all about the violence. You will die hundreds of times, and you won’t care because you can start a level again instantly and it’s just so fun to play. Hotline Miami is unique and unforgettable.

3. Mass Effect 3 (Multi)

Mass Effect 3 caught a lot of heat for its (honestly underwhelming) ending, but everything before that lives up to the challenge of bringing an exceptional science fiction saga to a conclusion. It lacks the thrill of discovering a whole new galaxy from Mass Effect, and doesn’t have the huge, diverse core cast of Mass Effect 2. It does give you the sense of a whole galaxy struggling to survive, and brings back a lot of the series’ larger conflicts and resolves them in satisfying and often deeply affecting ways. It’s also the most fun the series has been to play, as long as you don’t mind doing a whole lot of shooting from behind cover. I wish the conclusion cared a little more about how I spent the previous 80 hours it took to get to that point in the series, but it’s still a game worth playing, and has payoffs a fan of the series would want to see.

2. Dishonored (Multi)

Dishonored deserves praise just for the fact that it exists. A big budget action stealth game with magic powers, a somewhat cartoony graphic style, and a setting that is hard to sum up more succinctly than “whale oil-punk”? I still wonder how it got made. But to only praise it for the miracle of its existence is to ignore that it’s actually a really good game. You are tasked with exacting vengeance on the people who have had you falsely accused of treason and thrown in prison (from which you promptly escape), and your options in doing so are vast and always interesting to discover. You have a variety of powers and equipment at your disposal, and it’s up to you whether you try to sneak by enemies without being seen or run around killing them like a madman. Your options are a bit limited if you want to avoid murder, and the story isn’t too interesting, and they don’t really make much use of the extremely famous voice cast. These are minor issues though when you take in the sheer depth and inventiveness of the game’s exception world design and the way it all fits together.

1. The Walking Dead (Multi)

The Walking Dead deserves so many superlatives, it’s hard to know where to start. To begin, it’s easily the best thing to come out of the increasingly popular zombie franchise. It’s also one of the best adventure games in years, and has one of the best stories in a video game ever. I know hitting emotional notes isn’t the only thing a story can do, but it’s one of the places where games in particular have had the biggest trouble, and the fact that I can honestly say this game made me cry by the end definitely speaks volumes about how well they end up developing the characters and their relationships. The story doesn’t branch as much as you might expect based on what the developers said about it, and if you aren’t into basically just clicking on things and listening to people talk, it might not be for you. But it’s certainly one of the best zombie stories ever told.

Delayed Entry

This is the best game that wasn't released in 2012 but I didn't play until then.

Saints Row: The Third (Multi)

Saints Row always seemed like another probably-mediocre clone of the Grand Theft Auto series but the third game in the series reaches almost genius levels of brilliance throughout. When you strip out all of the presentation elements, it’s an open world crime game, where almost every mission comes down to you driving somewhere and then shooting enemies from a third person perspective. Of course, stripping out the presentation elements robs you of what really makes the game work and be such an entertaining experience from start to finish. The writing, despite telling a very silly story, is remarkably intelligent, and it is handled by a voice cast that does a great job of keeping things always changing and always funny. Grand Theft Auto is always straddling the line between serious and satire, and it’s nice to have a game that is just a straight up comedy instead. Nice visual direction and a great use of licensed music also add to the sense of fun throughout. It’s not the most solid game ever created, but it’s easily good enough to be sustained by the other things that make this such a memorable way to blow a dozen hours or two.