Thursday, January 15, 2015

Best Shows of 2014

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

Best of 2014

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

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

8. Doctor Who (BBC)

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

7. Community (NBC)

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

6. The Legend of Korra (Nick)

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

5. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (FOX)

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

4. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

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

3. Game of Thrones (HBO)

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

2. True Detective (HBO)

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

1. Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)

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

Delayed Entry

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

Prime Suspect (BBC)

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

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Best Albums of 2014

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

Best of 2014

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

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

6. The Antlers - Familiars

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

5. TV on the Radio - Seeds

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

4. St. Vincent

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

3. Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 2

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

2. Sun Kil Moon - Benji

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

1. Spoon - They Want My Soul

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

Delayed Entry

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

Wilco - Summerteeth

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

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Best Movies of 2014

I know this was a really good year for movies because there's several I know I need to see that I haven't yet, and a flawed but very interesting Christopher Nolan film still didn't make the cut. It was a good year for both huge blockbusters and smaller auteur movies, and when both of those happen there's a lot to enjoy.

Best of 2014

10. Godzilla

People complain that the human characters in this movie are boring, and that there's not enough action. To the first complaint, I'd say that I enjoyed watching a big disaster movie where the people actually acted like people, working together with what little information they had to take on an unfathomable threat, and that it's perfectly in keeping with Kaiju tradition for the people to be less interesting than the monsters. To the second, I'd only ask if YOU SAW THAT FUCKING SCENE AT THE END? HOLY SHIT.

9. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

After Tim Burton's remake seemed like it buried the Apes franchise, it was a surprise when Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be a good, well-considered new take on the concept. That meant the poorly-titled Dawn came with more expectations, but I thought it met them pretty solidly. The human characters are a bit eh, which is a bummer when the whole movie is about how both sides of a war have their good and bad points. But the ape scenes in this movie are so good that they made up for it. Andy Serkis and the rest of his mo-cap friends do a tremendous job bringing the developing ape society to life, and Matt Reeves did great work balancing the quieter moments with some tense action. Actually looking forward to the third movie in a reboot of a decades-old campy sci-fi series.

8. Locke

Locke features Tom Hardy driving a car down the highway in England at night and talking with people on the phone. And almost nothing else. It's a premise that sounds like they're using a highly limited scope to cleverly disguise a dramatic life-or-death story, and the events of the movie do have a profound effect on Ivan Locke's life, but really he's just talking to family members and coworkers as he's trying to explain why he will be missing for the next day or so. It sounds mundane, but the smart script and Hardy's tremendous performance (showing off a great new Tom Hardy voice) make it completely gripping from start to finish. It doesn't sound like it will work, but it absolutely does.

7. The Raid 2

While the first Raid movie was a very tight and narrowly focused beat-'em-up, The Raid 2 is something different. It's half balls-to-the-wall hardcore martial arts action like the original, and half epic Asian crime film. It doesn't completely work, because it's just not the most intriguing or original crime movie. It's still great though, because my god does this crew know how to make an action movie. The fights are as brutal as the first time, and probably a step or two beyond that. They sort of step up in intensity and quality over the course of the story, constantly topping what came before when you thought they couldn't. There's just no one else who makes martial arts movies this good. Any fan of this kind of movie has to get on the Raid bandwagon.

6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I'm addicted to comic books. I have a whole shelf full of Marvel trades, and I want a whole lot more. What got me hooked is Captain America, specifically Ed Brubaker's run that began with the Winter Soldier arc, so seeing it get adapted to film so successfully was a total joy. The conspiracy thriller storyline they came up wasn't quite as compelling as they wanted it to be, but I was okay with it, because it was peppered with the best action scenes a super hero movie has ever had. Nick Fury's resourcefulness, Black Widow's grace and skill, Cap's surprising speed, power, and fierceness, they're all captured perfectly in battles that help define who they are and push the story forward. It's sort of an Avengers 1.5, and helps with what Marvel is building toward with cinema's most exciting "shared universe". It also gets some credit for kicking off a big change in Agents of SHIELD that turned it into a mostly entertaining show in the back half of its first season.

5. Gone Girl

I have some problems with this movie. Because even if the story and the creators themselves aren't misogynist, it's very easy for certain kinds of people to take the wrong message from its story. I can't truly hold that against the movie though, which just wants to be a totally bonkers and surprising thriller and succeeds at that completely. The cast is terrific, especially Rosamund Pike and Tyler Perry, and if David Fincher (director), Jeff Cronenwerth (DOP), Kirk Baxter (editor), Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross (composers) want to make movies together for the rest of their lives, I won't complain. I also really love it when a movie can make you unsure of it as it begins and then turn that around into a positive element successfully. This one stuck with me.

4. The Lego Movie

I was unsure of The Lego Movie early on, but it slowly earned my trust until I was completely in love with it for the entire second half or so. Not only is it a very funny and thrilling family adventure movie, it also has tons to say about everything from the importance of being yourself to why we tell stories in the first place. It's a bit odd for a movie based on a building toy that comes with specific instructions to have a message about why you shouldn't conform to everything that's expected of you, but as a wise man once told me, you shouldn't get caught up in relativism. I'm not convinced that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are capable of making something that isn't awesome.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson's latest precious art project is one that actually justifies his specific style by putting it up against some real darkness, in this case a sort of fictionalized account of the period leading up to World War II. It felt like he had a lot more to say this time than he usually does, and it all comes across while still being as charming and interesting on the surface level as he always is. It's worth pointing out how good Ralph Fiennes is, because good lord is he a tremendous actor and is this the point when I truly started to realize it. There's tons of his favorite actors all through the movie doing great work, but Fiennes definitely steals the show. You usually don't say that about the lead, but it fits here.

2. Under the Skin

If you collected a random audience and had them watch all of the movies on this list, I'm more than confident this would be the most hated. It's strange, it never explains itself, it doesn't really conform to any expectations of what movies should be. But I was enthralled the entire time. Without explaining too much, it's about a woman who's not what she appears, and lures men to her apartment for unknown purposes. I can't explain much more than that because I honestly don't know much more than that. But it's unique, it's beautifully shot, it's disturbing and occasionally terrifying, and I couldn't take my eyes off it. And it's not affected; all of the obfuscation and strangeness ties directly into the nature of the main character directly. It's small filmmaking at its best.

1. Guardians of the Galaxy

The finest Marvel Studios movie to date features characters most people have never heard of, flying around, making shady deals, and getting in laser gun battles on the other side of the universe. And people say all super hero movies are the same. There's a couple minor characters people may remember from an earlier film, but Guardians is mostly content to stick to new faces and concepts, as its central and titular gang of misfits crack jokes, have growing pains, and eventually work together to try to bring a little good to a galaxy that hasn't given them much in return. The set designs, makeup, and visual effects create a believable and exciting setting, the cast does a great job bringing their unusual characters to life, and the script is stuffed with great laughs and the occasional genuinely touching moment. I'm gushing a bit, but I think Guardians is one of the best summer popcorn movies in years, and the best space opera since the original Star Wars movies. Two of the best new movie characters this year were a talking raccoon and tree. Come on.

Delayed Entry

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

Inside Llewyn Davis

I wrote last year that I regretted not seeing this, and I wasn't surprised when I did end up loving it. It's not the Coen brothers at their funniest, but it has its share of amusements, and also a great story about a man still struggling to figure out his life after certain events have left him grasping for something to hold on to. Oscar Isaac is wonderful as Llewyn, and the script and direction show the Coens still at the top of their game of creating uniquely wonderful films.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Best Games of 2014

I own all three current generation video game consoles, and the one that had the best slate of games in 2014 was... the Wii U. Most people probably didn't expect that, but that's how things turned out. The PC was also a great place to play games, but if the only thing you have is a PS4 or an Xbox One, I honestly feel bad for you. Most of the games on this list were not exclusive to one platform, though, so everyone had plenty to play.

Best of 2014

10. Sunset Overdrive (XBO)

It's great to have the old Insomniac back. By my reckoning, this is their first good full length game with a real sense of fun since 2009. Overdrive's punk rock attitude doesn't always work, with some of the humor falling flat and feeling a bit out of date. On the other hand, we got a AAA game that involved such plot points as forging a magic sword in a nuclear reactor and throwing a concert to make some sick kids happy, so there's something to be said for just trying weird ideas out. The combat and weapon system doesn't work as well as the great Ratchet and Clank games, but the game looks and plays great, especially when you're usually the extremely fun traversal mechanics to make the whole city your playground. I liked this game a lot, and if they get to make a sequel, it could be truly great.

9. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (Wii U)

This spin-off of Super Mario 3D World takes the look and basic building blocks from last year's game and turns them from a party platformer into an adorable, often genius little puzzle game. Captain Toad can't jump or throw fireballs, but he uses his wits, some throwable items, and the ability to look at the world from any angle to solve dozens of small, inventive levels. I pursued the extra items more than I usually do in Nintendo games, because the fun of it is truly in exploring every nook and cranny to see what the designers managed to cook up. It's a bit light compared to some of the meatier experiences this year, but almost every moment is a pleasure.

8. Jazzpunk (PC)

If you played and enjoyed Blendo Games' oddball retro espionage adventures like Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, you have an idea of whether you might like Jazzpunk. It doesn't have the narrative deftness of those games, but it does expand on the general idea while also stuffing every corner of every level with some truly bizarre and usually hilarious bit of comedy. Some of it's clever, some of it's referential, all of it is stranger than what you're used to seeing in video games. It's no surprise that this was published by Adult Swim. It doesn't have deep, satisfying gameplay, but the few hours it lasts are a comedic blast.

7. The Fall (Multi)

I usually don't include unfinished games on these lists, but I made an exception for The Fall. This is partly just because I'm not sure that subsequent episodes won't be released as separate titles, but also because despite it ending on a cliffhanger, it feels like a complete experience. You play as an AI controlling a space suit with a disabled pilot inside, your goal to get him medical assistance before time runs out. It has some simple yet effective combat and puzzle mechanics, but what makes The Fall really work is its dark (but not humorless) atmosphere and its story, where you have to subvert expected AI behavior in order to meet your goals, leading to some great cerebral questions about your priorities and some well executed twists. It's a few hours that will be hard to forget.

6. Wolfenstein: The New Order (Multi)

The New Order begins poorly with a boring opening sequence, but once you get past the scripted part and start the real game, you start to realize how much there actually is here. Lots of situations let you take a stealthy or guns-blazin' approach, and both are a ton of fun. Sneaking past guards, throwing knives, taking out commanders before they can radio for reinforcements is a blast. So is pulling out two of almost any gun in the game, from assault rifles to shotguns to even sniper rifles, and destroying everything that passes in front of your eyeballs. The story is also surprisingly good, with a fun alternate history setting, lots of well-executed moments, and human relationships you can actually believe in. MachineGames was founded by former Starbreeze developers, and they seem to have maintained their ability to create engaging, unique first person shooters.

5. South Park: The Stick of Truth (Multi)

The Stick of Truth is the most I have enjoyed South Park since... let's say season 9, back in 2005. I still watch the show, but the video game captures its spirit perfectly, and provides more laughs, shocking moments, and flat-out charm than the show actually has in a long time. It expands on the show's idea of the town as an ersatz Middle-earth, and drops references to tons of great moments from the entire run of the series, without ever feeling like it's only dropping references to something you already like. It's also a light but mostly fun RPG, with an enjoyable battle system that holds up through the game's 15 hours, and tons of fun side missions and collectible items (which also always reference the show). The actual show this year didn't knock my socks off, but The Stick of Truth reminds me that Trey and Matt still have a ton of ideas left in them.

4. Shovel Knight (Multi)

As someone who doesn't actually have a lot of reverence for the action games of the 8-bit era (just a bit before my time), Shovel Knight had to earn my admiration by itself, but it did that handily. The closest analogue is definitely Mega Man, but the influences are obviously from all over the place in that period. You play as Shovel Knight, who must travel through dangerous lands, avoiding traps and monsters, in order to defeat the Enchantress, save the world, and get a ton of treasure in the meantime. The level design is smart and devious, the art and sound direction know when to shirk the strict limitations of the hardware they're paying homage to, and the many boss fights are always fun. I also have to mention that the story is surprisingly effective, conveying a grand sense of adventure and smaller human moments with some pretty basic text boxes and animations. The year's best new old game.

3. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Multi)

And this year's best adaptation of the work of J.R.R. Tolkien is not the latest (and probably last) big budget epic film by Peter Jackson, but an action game by a revitalized Monolith that combines what works from the recent Batman: Arkham and Assassin's Creed games and tosses out what doesn't. It takes place between the two Middle-earth stories we all know about, and has you playing a fallen ranger who is forcibly joined with an ancient elf spirit and let loose on the hordes of orcs roaming around Mordor. The story is pretty poor and best when ignored, but the game is pretty great. Sneaking around, group-based combat, and open world structure are all familiar, but also executed very well, and the nemesis system that everyone talks about is terrific. Any orc who manages to defeat you in battle is promoted into the command structure, which can be investigated, exploited, infiltrated, and ultimately defeated in your quest for revenge. It's a cool system that buoys an enjoyable game, and will hopefully be stolen and improved for years to come.

2. Valiant Hearts: The Great War (Multi)

What's amazing about Valiant Hearts is that it presents a cute adventure story and depicts the horrors of one of history's most devastating wars without either really contradicting each other. The animated art style looks tremendous, and provides the basis for the gameplay, where you navigate battlefields and occupied villages, solving entertaining puzzles and doing what it takes to stay alive and see your family again. The game is packed with historical details that make it educational as well as entertaining, and the game also knows how to handle the weight of its setting, especially when you get to its brilliantly handled ending. There's also a cute, helpful dog in most of the levels that you can pet.

1. Bayonetta 2 (Wii U)

I liked the first Bayonetta, but I didn't love it. It was tough to find a good balance of challenge and agency in the combat. Bayonetta 2 nailed this for me though, and the result is one of my favorite pure action games in years. The core fighting mechanics feel great, the weapons are diverse and well balanced, and there's enough variety to easily carry you through the whole game and leave you wishing there was more. When it tried to explain the convoluted story I got bored, but the more immediate moments in the plot are more enjoyable and provide some incredible set-pieces, and I actually found myself emotionally affected by a specific point near the end. It's fantastic Nintendo was willing to do what it took to make sure this game saw release.

Delayed Entry

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

The Swapper (Multi)

I liked The Fall a lot, but it was actually only the second best existential sci fi side scrolling puzzle game I played in 2014. In The Swapper you are marooned on a mysterious space station, where you have to create clones of yourself and jump consciousness between them to solve puzzles, try to figure out what the hell is going on, and hopefully escape. So basically you win by killing yourself over and over. The very premise of the game is deeply unnerving to me. It's smart, moody, difficult in that great puzzle game way, and unforgettable.