Thursday, January 16, 2014

Best Shows of 2013

The list of shows I watch has slowly dwindled in size as many series have been ending while I've been slower to add new ones. Combine that with a few previously excellent series taking dips in quality, and 2013 wasn't the best year for TV in a while. Still, everything on this list kept me thoroughly entertained and engrossed.

Best of 2013

8. Treme (HBO)

There were multiple shows that ended in 2013 in ways that drove home their themes and big ideas gracefully, like 30 Rock and Spartacus, and Treme was one of the better ones. The show has never gotten a fair chance from a lot of people because it wasn't and never could be as propulsive as The Wire, but it's still a completely effective drama that shows how a city stuck in a horrible situation worked to pull itself together, and that there's still a lot of work to be done. There's only five episodes to this fourth and final season, but they're among the best five in the show's whole run.

7. The Venture Bros. (Adult Swim)

Even including last Halloween's special episode, the fifth season of The Venture Bros. was only around for five hours. Still, Doc and Jackson once again proved they're making the best animated series on television. I just know there will be enough of it. Every new direction they go in reveals even more history and interesting new characters, and there just isn't enough time in the world for two guys to get every last drop of fun they could out of it. All this while it's amazing how much they usually manage to cram into about 22 minutes of air time. The hour-long premiere essentially feels wasteful for not getting its story across in half that time. I like The Venture Bros., is what I'm saying.

6. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

It might be because I don't watch enough new shows, but I think Parks is still the best comedy on TV right now. The entire cast is full to the brim with talent and clearly enjoys working with each other, as they constantly find new spins on old relationships and hidden details that delight when discovered. "Leslie works in the council" might not be quite as compelling a throughline as "Leslie runs for council", but they still find a lot of ways to poke fun at modern politics and get some solid bits of comedy and real meaning out of the concept. I'm still not sure when the show's ending, and I have the feeling it might be soon. If that's true, I'm glad to keep watching it while it lasts.

5. Mad Men (AMC)

It's only through association with the dazzling fifth season that the sixth seems a little disappointing in comparison. But while I'm glad the show is finding out where it wants to go and extremely perturbed by the decision to chop its final season into two halves, I'm still really enjoying it while it's on. Great writing, great acting, great humor, and plenty of surprises still left with unexpected plot shifts and an unending supply of new layers to discover in the characters.

4. Justified (FX)

I like how each season of Justified is able to develop its own unique little personality while still fitting into the grander ideas at work in developing one of the most fascinating depictions of crime and law in modern television. Justified was more subdued in 2013 than it was in 2012, slowly building a D. B. Cooper-esque mystery while a web of danger and suspicion wraps tighter and tighter around those in the center. It's the kind of season you can only get after a few years of buildup, as all the pain in these characters pasts comes back even stronger for some of the show's very finest moments. It might be the show's best, when all is said and done.

3. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

While Nucky is still Boardwalk's closest thing to a central figure, season 4 was definitely all about the supporting cast. Chalky White, Richard Harrow, and the entire Chicago subplot got a lot of focus this time around, and it was generally to tremendous effect. The Al Capone scenes have always had a certain weight behind them because he's probably the show's best known real-life figure, and there was a lot of strong moments as his life as one of America's most infamous criminals began to really get going. It looks like we won't be seeing a lot of that though, because HBO's announced that the fifth season later this year will be the show's last. It's surprising, because the show is still so good and there's a lot from the period they haven't gotten bored with. And a lot of what happened this year was among the most gripping and tragic stuff I've seen in crime television. They've still got it, and they want to end things when they're still riding high.

2. Game of Thrones (HBO)

I mentioned before that this season would be adapting (a large part of) my favorite book in the series, and I was excited to see them depicted on screen. And good lord did they ever pull it off. One scene in particular made history with the impact it had on unfamiliar viewers, especially on social media, and besides it being one of my favorite moments in the pop meta-culture of the year, it was just a damn good scene, getting everything right it needed to to match the feeling of reading it for the first time. And while it's great that they're nailing the big plot points that every fan of the books knows, it's also great that the show totally works on its own too, looking at the continuing warm reception from almost everyone who sees it. Not everything was great - the Theon scenes kind of went nowhere a lot, and the very end of the season finale was dull after the exciting cliffhangers in the first two seasons. But it was still one of my favorite things to watch last year.

1. Breaking Bad (AMC)

Well of course this was going to be at the top of my list. How could it not be? It's the final fucking season of Breaking fucking Bad. Possibly the best final season of a great show ever made. The writers wrote! The directors directed! The actors acted! The cinematographers cinematographied! I actually wouldn't have minded an ending that was a bit more daring and unexpected, but once in a great while, what a story needs and what the audience wants to see actually kind of line up, and it works out for everyone. I'll always remember Breaking Bad for its dark humor, its electric cast, its razor-sharp tension, and the utterly human drama at the heart of it all. One of the all-time greats.

Delayed Entry

This is the best show that didn't air in 2013 but I didn't watch until then.

The Thick of It (BBC)

The Thick of It is probably the most realistic depiction of modern politics ever seen on television while being devastatingly funny the entire time. The casts rotates a bit but is generally pretty solid, and they play a group of people who hate each other, hate the government opposition, hate the citizens of Britain, and basically hate everything else while they're at it. Almost every episode is about some stupid crisis about nothing that shouldn't be happening snowballing into even worse scandal as their sorry attempts to cover it up or apologize get ruined by even stupider mistakes. It's like a symphony of human garbage. I watched it because one of the regulars, Peter Capaldi, is the new star of Doctor Who. I think it's brilliant casting - just replace the caustic Scottish foulmouthed wit with caustic Scottish sci-fi gibbering and you're pretty much there.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Best Albums of 2013

Once again I listened to less new music in 2013 than I really wanted to. I really liked these a lot, though!

Best of 2013

8. Autre Ne Veut - Anxiety

Anxiety mixes modern pop and experimental sensibilities to create something completely catchy that is way too weird to ever show up on top 40 radio. Even the lead single has these great falsetto vocals and infectious chorus that clashes against some dissonant horns and other odd choices. It makes the album sound original when it could have been something I'd otherwise totally ignore.

7. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

After years of disco and funk being obvious influences on Daft Punk's electronic sound, they pretty much just made a disco and funk album. There's still plenty of modern synth and computerized vocals on there, but it's definitely more old fashioned sounding than their previous work. It's also absolutely loaded with talent contributing up and down the entire tracklist, and there are very few moments along the way that don't work.

6. The National - Trouble Will Find Me

This is now the fourth National album I've listened to, and none of the four truly distinguish themselves from each other. It's good then that the album they keep making is such a good one. It doesn't have any songs quite as good as the very best in their catalog, but the thirteen ones here are all solid, enjoyable rock. The National is a bunch of professional musicians making professional music.

5. Sigur Rós - Kveikur

Kveikur is an interesting release for this band, having as it does both completely obvious radio songs like you've heard from them before, and complete changes in direction like the bombastic and shockingly dark sounding opener. It sits somewhere in the range of accessibility between ( ) and Takk..., which is a pretty good place to sit.

4. The Flaming Lips - The Terror

I've discussed "Watching the Planets", the final track from The Flaming Lips' previous album Embryonic, as sounding like the world is ending, so it seems fitting to describe all of The Terror as sounding like the end of the world. Everything is dead, and only dust remains. It's a bleak, ambient album, which experiments in tones and will latch onto one small hook and work with it for minutes on end. It won't be a fun album for a lot of people, but I love that this band is still experimenting like this.

3. Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe

Lauren Mayberry sounds like a little girl, but she also sounds like one of the most badass singers in modern music. The band plays around with different styles of synth music, from radio-friendly pop to dirtier and more aggressive stuff, but her voice is usually the constant that keeps it all together. Just good song after good song.

2. Kanye West - Yeezus

I don't know that there's another mainstream hip hop artist brave enough to release a record like this. Yeezus is bare bones at times, stark, without a lot of comfortable beats to get sucked into. It's really daring stuff, and while I don't think West is rap's best lyricist or technical vocalist, I think he deserves a lot of credit for ignoring the easy route of releasing another My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and instead pushing his sound in a completely different direction.

1. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

You know you love a band when you actually want a double album to be longer. I actually wasn't wild about Reflektor at first, but I turned around pretty quick. It was probably about time for a little reinvention, and here Arcade Fire got over their Bruce Springsteen kick and turned towards more island-influenced sounds and a surprising amount of synth. Pretty much every song has something to recommend for it. My only regret is that Régine never has a chance to sing lead, since when she does it often turns into an album highlight. Not that they needed help finding those this time.

Delayed Entry

This is the best album that wasn't released in 2013 but I didn't hear until then.

Talking Heads - Remain in Light

Nothing I heard in the last year really blew my mind, but my first real Talking Heads experience was quite a good one. I've always had mixed feelings about "Once in a Lifetime", possibly their most popular song, but I think it really works well in the context of the whole album. It's a nice mix of funk and contemporary (at the time) sounds, letting them find interesting riffs and play with them for as long as their sustainable. I know it's a vague sentiment, but it doesn't really feel like an album that's over thirty years old. What worked about it then still works now.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Best Movies of 2013

What usually happens is I end up seeing a lot of above average mainstream movies during the year, and I don't really get caught up with the more prestigious films until after I've already made this list. While that's still somewhat true, as I managed to see things like Star Trek Into Darkness and Elysium while missing new work by acclaimed directors such as the Coen brothers, Steve McQueen, and Spike Jonze, I do think I did a slightly better job this year of seeing some smaller, really good movies. Mostly a fun year, even if the summer was a bit disappointing.

Best of 2013

10. Mud

Matthew McConaughey has always had a charismatic presence on screen, but he spent a lot of the last decade acting in movies no one cared about, playing regular charming guys and not pushing himself. That's changed in the last few years with roles like in Killer Joe and Magic Mike, and continues with Mud, and seeing him emerge as one of film's most captivating actors has been a real treat. I've noticed a trend recently of well made, independent movies set in rural America going around, and Mud fits right in there with the story of two boys in Arkansas who befriend a strange man living on an island who they slowly realize is a fugitive. The story is simple, but the performances are strong and it's a well-put-together coming-of-age tale worth checking out.

9. Spring Breakers

I guess Spring Break culture is still a thing? I remember MTV pushing it really hard about fifteen years ago. Spring Breakers is a fairly fascinating movie that completely revels in that culture while simultaneously mocking it and subverting it, and the effect is pretty remarkable. It's hard to know what to take from it at certain points, but at the very least, James Franco gives an unusual and memorable performance, there's some truly well crafted shots and moments, and it's a solid crime movie from start to finish. The girls, especially Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson, are fearless in their roles, and despite the rampant sexualization of every woman on screen it somehow comes out feeling like a feminist work on the other end. You kind of need to see it to know where you stand on it.

8. Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach isn't as well known as his occasional writing partner Wes Anderson, but Frances Ha shows how much more human his work can be. He and star Greta Gerwig co-wrote this movie about a young woman struggling to live in New York, and like most good movies of this works well as a story about a young person struggling to do anything. She strives to be more than an assistant at a dance company, she has fights with her best friend, she misses opportunities that could have turned into something important. But the movie is far from depressing, with Gerwig's great, eye-catching performance, the pervasive little moments and snatches of humor, and the way that in the end it shows that, while it can be tough finding how you can live your life and be happy, it's always possible.

7. Pacific Rim

It's sort of funny how Guillermo del Toro left The Hobbit because it was taking too long to get into production, and then the first movie came out before the next thing he actually directed. It was worth it though, since Pacific Rim is one of the most jubilant and exciting original summer blockbusters to come out in years. It seems kind of odd to describe an apocalyptic action movie as jubilant, but I think it fits. The story here could have been stretched out into a trilogy, but they skipped all of the boring parts and went straight to giant robots fighting giant monsters, and express humanity's can-do attitude as the few people left capable of mounting a resistance against the Kaiju fight valiantly to do so. There's only three real fight scenes, and they're all darkly lit, and only the second one is truly of consequence and grandeur. But holy hell, is that ever an action sequence. The cast of mostly TV actors do a fine job of pushing the story forward, and it's a really fun world to inhabit for a couple hours. Again, despite the whole apocalypse thing.

6. Stoker

Park Chan-wook is at the forefront of the Korean cinematic movement that's going on right now, and his first English-language film is a big relief - it's his best movie since Oldboy, and it shows that he can keep his trademark style while working in a completely different system. It's kind of impressive how well that style translates - the actors are white and speaking English, but it really does seem to have an Asian sensibility to it. A fairly innocuous-seeming story slowly reveals its layers of darkness in more and more horrifying ways. It's not really a horror film - it's just horrific. It's unique as far as American movies go, and only gets better as it goes on.

5. Iron Man 3

After The Avengers, I was maybe a bit concerned that Marvel's Cinematic Universe would lose steam and lose whatever special extra kick they had that made them different from the other handful of super hero movies that get released every year now. That wasn't really a problem, though. Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. reunited to create one of the best movies of this whole crazy Marvel enterprise, and the best action movie of the year. It's a movie that proves to people that Tony Stark is Iron Man, not the suit he wears, and does so by having him not actually wear that suit for a great deal of the running time. Along with some other diversions from what you'd expect based on the trailers, Iron Man 3 is the type of movie that could upset people who are maybe a little stuck in their ways. But I think it's exactly what Marvel needed, and has me excited to keep watching these things every time they come out.

4. Upstream Color

Shane Carruth's first film, Primer, was the essence of pure science fiction. It had a grounded take on time travel that it took very seriously, and was the basis and driving force for the entire story. Upstream Color also has an intriguing science fiction mechanism that kicks off the story, but it goes in a different direction, one that is completely human in a way I really didn't expect. Terence Malick definitely influenced Carruth, as there's a lot of dreamy, wistful sequences that resemble his work closely. But I'm not sure if I've seen Malick's style match the subject matter of his work as well as Upstream Color's does. It's at times terrifying, beautiful, haunting, mournful, and hopeful, and it has an inescapable grip that pulls you through a journey whether you want to go or not. It's kind of incredible.

3. The World's End

To me, The World's End is the best movie in the "three flavours" trilogy. Big fans of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz might disagree, because The World's End is not quite the pure genre exercise that those movies are (and excel at being). The World's End is secretly a character piece that uses genre (in this case, alien invasion) to explore its concepts of adulthood, addiction, friendship, and other important things, and it does a lot of it under the surface. It's also extremely funny, has Simon Pegg's best performance yet, and proves again that Edgar Wright is secretly one of the best directors of action working today. It's a god damned good movie and an excellent way to put a cap on the themes they started exploring nearly a decade ago.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

After I saw this movie, it was sort of baffling to see that there were people who didn't get that it doesn't actually like or approve of the people or actions it depicts. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DeCaprio know they shouldn't have to rub our noses in it. Jordan Belfort and his cronies are inherently scum. They do tons of drugs, they will have sex with anyone willing, and they smugly give not a single shit while robbing people of their fortunes. The movie doesn't punish them because these people don't get punished in real life. That's the point. For crying out loud, Belfort's best buddy is married to his first cousin and starts masturbating in the middle of a party while high on Quaaludes. I'm getting away from what I wanted to say though, which is that Wolf is a great movie, and it's unfortunate that Scorsese is still having people react in exactly the wrong way after all these years. It has great acting from everyone, a great sense of humor, great pacing (three hours that feel like maybe a little over two), and... it's great. Retweets are not endorsements.

1. Gravity

Scientific accuracy is a funny thing. The closer you get to it, the more the deviations that remain feel like they could completely snap you out of the experience. Some people struggled with this in Gravity, even if they had to look up what the inaccuracies actually were afterward. But I appreciate that Gravity hewed as close to reality as possible, fudging the truth only when it was needed to make the story work. Gravity is one of the most tightly constructed and effective thrillers that has ever been made. Every big sequence is absolutely breathtaking, and the periods in between make for solid drama in bridging the gaps. The visual effects and long takes are exceptional, and at times I wondered how the hell they were doing certain things. The dialogue is a bit clunky at times, and there were a couple of places where the science probably could have been better without hurting the story. But they're very minor quibbles when you're looking at pure filmmaking that is this well done. I don't have any qualms with calling this my favorite movie of 2013.

Delayed Entry

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

The Man From Nowhere

I'm not sure exactly why I love The Man From Nowhere so much. Well, that's kind of a lie. A big part of it is the fight scene at the end. It's seriously one of the ten best things I've ever seen in a movie. It's worth a lot. The rest of the movie is good too, though. While modern Korean cinema doesn't have the breadth of experience as Japanese movies did in their heyday, I'm still reminded of that movement when I see all of these movies by different directors with little previous experience and they all seem so good. This might be my favorite. It's sort of just a revenge movie, but a well crafted revenge movie can be a wonderful thing, and it's really a great example of what you can do with straight up genre filmmaking. Like a lot of my personal favorites, some people might not understand where I'm coming from. But what can I say. It's a great movie.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Best Games of 2013

With both the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One releasing last November, 2013 sort of marked the end of an era, although you wouldn't notice from the quality of the games. There was a nice mix of excellent triple AAA titles and innovative independent releases that made the year a fun and exciting experience the whole way through. I know it was a great year because there were so many really good games in great franchises that didn't even make the list.

Best of 2013

10. The Stanley Parable (PC)

The Stanley Parable was originally a free Source engine mod, but in its conversation to full product it was completely overhauled and remade into what it is now. What it is now is a bit harder to describe. You play as (or are) Stanley, an office worker who one day finds himself alone in the building. A narrator describes your actions before you do them, and you can follow all of his directions to quickly reach an easy yet unsatisfying conclusion. But the real meat of the game is in not doing what you're told. There are tons of ways to disobey the narrator hounding your every move, and they usually result in something interesting, be it a new place you can go, a new insight into game design, or just a funny rant. The game's mix of playing with and subverting expectations while commenting on the nature of choice and interactivity in games is never boring, and the sense of humor keeps it light. You'll definitely understand what the game is doing better if you have a greater than average understanding of gaming history and culture, but anyone can pick it up and at least get a few laughs.

9. Saints Row IV (Multi)

Saints Row: The Third is the artistic pinnacle of the Saints Row series, as weird as it is to use the word "artistic" in that context. In comparison, IV sort of feels like a bloated expansion pack or downloadable add-on, taking place in the same city and completely screwing with the series' framework of open world crime game by turning you into a super hero. In case you don't know, the game's basic premise involves (1) the gang's boss becoming President of the United States in the opening sequence, followed by (2) aliens invading Earth, which results in your capture and insertion into (3) a computer simulation of the city, which you are able to hack in order to essentially (4) gain a variety of super powers. It's nuts, in a series which is known for redefining what nuts actually means in video games. It's also incredibly fun to play, which is the key. I like the other Saints games I've played, but for the most part what you're actually doing is driving and shooting. In Saints Row IV you're running at hyper speed, leaping many stories at once, and basically breaking the world for your own amusement. It's just about as pure as enjoyment can be in the medium. As a bonus, they still have a great handle on the characters, and they're still a lot of fun to hang out with.

8. Super Mario 3D World (Wii U)

Along with a couple other releases, Super Mario 3D World justifies owning a Wii U, even if the system's future for anything resembling competent third party support looks bleak. It expands on the core gameplay of Super Mario 3D Land, which mixed elements of both 2D and 3D Mario games into a slick and satisfying experience, adds 4 play support and HD graphics, and basically taps the basic mechanics for as much action as they can handle. It's not the greatest Mario game ever - having to support multiple players of varying skill inherently limits the potential of the game design. But it's still really fun to play, even alone, though with friends or family is certainly preferable. It's amazing how this series manages to still be exciting so many years later with the same core ideas.

7. Tomb Raider (Multi)

The cycle of innovation and imitation in games can be a pretty funny thing. When Uncharted: Drake's Fortune came out, featuring gunplay, climbing through exotic environments, and solving puzzles in ancient tombs, it was hard to miss the influence from the Tomb Raider series. And now with this new Tomb Raider featuring a more down-to-earth take on its protagonist, cover-based shooting, and a focus on quick traversal over thoughtful rumination on your surroundings, it's hard to miss the influence coming from the other direction. But Tomb Raider's isn't quite an Uncharted clone, having as it does a greater focus on survival, backtracking, and an essential desperation that goes a long way to define it. I wouldn't say either approach is really better, and I'm glad we're getting multiple takes on a central concept that is just so darn appealing. The new Tomb Raider still feels like Tomb Raider while managing to stay modern, and I find it hard to say it's not the most approachable and well-executed game in the series.

6. Grand Theft Auto V (Multi)

Grand Theft Auto V is the most fun I've had with the series in nine years. In many ways, the game has problems, from its questionable ethics to some weird design snags that other open world games have already solved to a plot that goes a lot of places that it probably doesn't need to. It's kind of a mess, really. But San Andreas is one of the most fully realized worlds I've ever seen in a video game, from its picturesque winding mountain roads to its gaudy downtown storefronts. It really feels like a huge place. And it's honestly a fun place to hang around in. The main gameplay focuses on driving to different places to shoot different people from behind cover, and in that way it's not much different from the last game. But there's a lot more big moments this time around that you remember for months afterward, and it all handles a little better, and the game's tone matches its content with less confusion. And the heists... well, the heists are awesome. I only wish there were more.

5. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Multi)

People like to make fun of the story in games a lot. And a lot of times they're right. But there are certain things that games can do with storytelling that just aren't possible in film, novels, or any other medium. Brothers is a prime example of that. In it, you control two brothers at once, each hand controlling one or the other. It may sound like that gets confusing or frustrating, and it does from time to time. But for the most part it's manageable. At least enough to get you through the few hours it takes to complete the story. During that time it's a solid puzzle game, with clever and intuitive solutions and some satisfying temporary mechanics. The game's real strength though is the story, which is touching, unforgettable, and much, much more effective because it's a video game. Play it and you'll see why.

4. Bioshock Infinite (Multi)

I was honestly surprised by the tons of criticism this game received starting immediately after and lasting for a long time following its release. The reactions are strong and generally understandable, but I have a hard time agreeing with them. I think people wanted things from Infinite that it wasn't prepared to give them. It has a lot of subjects it touches on without fully exploring, from racism to totalitarianism and all kinds of things that would be hard to do justice to while trying to be an action game and tell a crazy sci-fi story. And ultimately, Bioshock Infinite wants to be an action game that tells a crazy sci-fi story. The shooting at its best provided some of gaming's best thrills this year, the world of Columbia and its inhabitants are well-conceived and fun to look at, and the main characters are excellently conceived and portrayed by the writers and voice actors, anchoring a plot that at times is over the top but ultimately serves its primary goals well. Infinite is messy, but I think it's a pretty wonderful mess.

3. Gone Home (PC)

Gone Home's designer and writer Steve Gaynor actually worked on the Bioshock series for a while, but he left it to do something smaller and more personal. I'm glad he did, because Gone Home is special. It's another game that tells a story in a way only a game can, having you uncover its details through examining an environment rather than actually seeing anything play out in front of you. People talk about it not being a "real game", whatever that means, and saying that the story would be better as a book or a movie. This is nonsense. A video game is the only thing Gone Home could possibly be. It shows that you can use the familiar mechanics of looking at and touching things to tell a story you don't see in mainstream games, and reveals how silly it is that you don't. There's no reason every game has to involve killing hundreds of people to get a point across, and yet there are still people out there insisting that there is. Gone Home gave me one of the best and most authentic emotional experiences I had in 2013, and I wish more people were open to seeing it the way I did.

2. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)

My friend mentioned that whenever a new Zelda game comes out, a lot of people crap on the previous one. This is mostly true. I don't think it will happen with A Link Between Worlds though, because it seems like almost everyone who has played it describes it "the best Zelda in X years", where X is the number of years since the last Zelda game they truly loved. In my case, A Link Between Worlds is my favorite Zelda game since Majora's Mask, and since that's my favorite video game ever... yeah, I like A Link Between Worlds a lot. It takes the basic framework and world design from A Link to the Past, a fan favorite, and modernizes it with the best controls the series has ever had (yes, ever (except for the 3DS' terrible form factor)) and many updates to the functionality. It's also the least restrictive Zelda game in a long time, letting you wander around the whole world after the relatively brief tutorial and letting you tackle most dungeons in whichever order you desire by letting you rent or buy whatever items you need to get through them whenever you want. The dungeon design is fantastic, the boss fights are a blast, and the ability to flatten and move along walls really opens up the possibilities for getting around. In short, it understands what people love about Zelda better than any game in over a decade, and just lets them have that. A bit pandering maybe, but it works.

1. The Last of Us (PS3)

There are two types of The Last of Us players: those who love the gameplay and story, and those who only love the story. I'm one of the former. I have a hunch that people who didn't like the gameplay were going about it the wrong way. I don't usually like using the "you're playing it wrong" argument, but with The Last of Us, it's easy to approach it from too much of an action or stealth direction, when your best bet is to blend the two. It's a game where you don't want to be mobbed by enemies, and the best way to do that is to both avoid being detected and actively take out any enemies you can without them noticing in order to thin out their numbers. You have a variety of tools at your disposal to get the job done, from improvised weapons you can use up close, to traps you can build and use from a distance, to guns in case you get desperate. Some people like it on easy, some people like it on hard, but if you can make the combat in The Last of Us work for you, it's among the most satisfying that you can experience. And as I mentioned, the story is awesome too. Assisted by fantastic graphics and sound design and great voice acting and mo-cap work by the cast, they take something as tired as yet another zombie apocalypse and wring it for all it's worth emotionally. It has all the weight and power of The Walking Dead while still having a robust action/adventure game behind it. It's just one of the best games to come out in years.

Delayed Entry

This is the best game that wasn't released in 2013 but I didn't play until then.

Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)

With all due respect to Super Mario 3D World, Super Mario Galaxy is the real deal. Despite being six years old when I played it, it was amazing how good it was. It takes what I loved about Super Mario 64, improves on its faults, and brings it way into the future with its take on how crazy a platforming game can act while still being comprehensible. While some areas resemble a typical Mario environment, it really shines when it takes the "galaxy" part literally and has you hopping between interstellar objects floating in space with their own gravity. It's incredibly disorienting when you first start running around on what appears to be the ceiling, but once your mind reorients, you'll find yourself doing all sorts of crazy things and not thinking twice about it. As a bonus, playing it after watching Gravity gave me multiple opportunities to freak myself out by nearly floating away into the endless void. The motion controls are merely competent and I wish I could have played it in something higher than 480p, but I can't blame the game for Nintendo's issues with hardware.