I wasn’t planning on doing any sort of year in review post, mostly because (unlike 2010-12) I haven’t been keeping an active list of my favorites. But as the time drew nearer and everyone began posting their respective retrospectives I thought I might as well take stock and see what I came up with.
As it turned out, my top tier of all the year’s media contained exactly thirteen items, and since hey this year had a thirteen in it too I figured I’d arbitrarily rank them and do a little write-up.
There’s plenty I didn’t get around to, not to mention a couple of things I’m probably forgetting, but these were more or less the new releases (across all media, so the ranking is very arbitrary) that had the strongest effect on me over the last twelve months.
13. Orange is the New Black
This prison drama—er, comedy? Either way it’s by far the most impressive Netflix original content, and the first of their offerings that can deservedly stand beside the best of what the cable networks put out. It’s often described as a secret ensemble piece, with Piper Chapman as our conduit to the rest of the women, and while that’s true to an extent (and the rest of the women are all so fantastic) I still never lost interest in the central narrative’s sometimes predictable but always enthralling trajectory.
There are some amazing casts on TV right now, but in terms of gender diversity Orange dominates them all. A trans character with depth and nuance? And she is played by a trans woman? The air, it is so very fresh.
I’m not sure how the second season will be affected by the departure of Laura Prepon, whose Alex Vause is far and away my favorite character, but for now let’s be optimistic and appreciate a damned fine season of incarcerated splendor.
12. Captain Phillips
From the so-so trailer to the bad-bad title I wasn’t expecting much from Paul Greengrass’s latest, but even if I had been this maritime thriller would have floored me.
With incredible direction, a performance that stands out as one of Hanks’ best, and a near-hypnotic debut from Barkhad Abdi as lead pirate Muse, Phillips ratchets up the tension early on and never lets up until a climax that subverts expectations by foregoing catharsis for daringly realistic trauma.
This is a movie that could have taken the easy way out, but instead gave nuance to a simple story without compromising its breakneck pace. While by no means the more impressive cinematic achievement, when I look back on the year I can’t deny that I found it more exciting than Gravity.
11. Sex Criminals
The current run of Hawkeye proves that Matt Fraction is a pretty excellent comic book writer. But this new series—only three issues in at the moment—pretty much marks him as a genius.
He takes an absurd premise (what if your orgasms could stop time?) and comes up with a story that has a healthier, more honest view of sexuality than almost anything else being produced in popular media today.
It is also laugh-out-loud-yes-audibly-so hilarious. From the intentionally overlong recaps to the background jokes in a sex shop to the wickedly irreverent letters column and the insane fourth-wall-shattering consequences when they couldn’t get the rights to a certain song in time for print, this is easily the funniest comic I’ve ever read, with two of the most believable, likable lead characters you could ask for.
10. Masters of Sex
And on the dramatic end of explorations into human sexuality, we have this Showtime series about pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. At first I was worried it would just be an obvious period piece, an attempt by Showtime to piggy back off some of that sweet Mad Men acclaim, but it achieves far more than that.
The show ignores the easy-reach conflicts of its conceit (It’s SEX, everyone! At a time when people were WAY MORE REPRESSED ABOUT ALL THAT) by grounding everything so heavily in character that, yes, their lives and problems are just as relevant today as they were then. Tremendous credit due to all the actors. Lizzy Caplan is so very human as Johnson, who could have easily been little more than a manic pixie dream girl. Instead it’s other characters who objectify her and learn (or don’t) the errors of their ways. Sheen’s Masters effects stoicism, but you can always see the well of emotion just below. Every moment where he lets the wall down really counts.
They gave a great foundation, but this season was never more confident than when dealing with the marriage of Dean Scully and his wife (Beau Bridges and Allison Janney, the latter in particular owning every second of her screentime). It was tender, tragic, and beautiful.
But even without that I’d have to give special mention to the the fifth episode, which just about destroyed me. Let’s hope Showtime doesn’t ruin this series too.
9. The Act of Killing
Documentaries can be powerful, earth-shattering, life-changing. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any that evoked an intense, horrific fever dream. This beyond-chilling exploration of former enforcers of Indonesian genocide shows just how true it is that history is written by the victors.
After slaughtering roughly 1,000 people (like cattle, as he’s happy to demonstrate) in the communist purges of the 60s, Anwar Congo went on to live a perfectly consequence-free life, revered as one of the forefathers of the paramilitary organization that came to power in the aftermath of the killings. And compared to some of his friends he seems like an ok guy.
The stories director Joshua Oppenheimer got out of these retired killers are unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Some of the men are boastful, and some are trying to downplay it, but the worst ones? They shrug and tell it like it was.
The good news is this movie is creating some real change in Indonesia, but it still contains some of the most unsettling truths and upsetting quotes I’ve ever heard. It’s proof that we can soak in blood and go right on living.
8. BioShock Infinite
Not a big year for gaming on my part. I especially regret not exploring all of the indie titles that seem to have stolen the spotlight from many of the AAA releases.
But of those releases, I’m happy to say my expectations were more than satisfied by the sequel to Irrational’s modern classic tale of a man behaving kindly. The world of Columbia was strikingly realized, with an opening hour or so that served as such brilliant immersion that I never wanted it to end. But when it did, in the best introduction to combat I’ve ever witnessed in a game, I was more than ready to shoot a lot of sky-racists.
Beyond the world, I adored Elizabeth and the infinitely quotable Luteces, as well as a story that was comfortable exploring some truly complex ideas. Perhaps I could have flipped a coin and put The Last of Us here instead…and maybe in some other universe I did.
7. Short Term 12
Brie Larson gets most of the credit for this one (because she’s amazing) but the whole cast really was perfect in this unflinchingly honest look at the staff and residents of a halfway house for troubled youths. It’s a straightforward movie, but one that grabbed me pretty much immediately and took me so far within the lives of the characters that it felt like an intimate experience.
It contains some of the best scenes of people telling each other stories that I’ve ever witnessed, with the fable of the octopus and the shark just about tearing me in half.
6. Game of Thrones
The season I’ve most anticipated since first reading the books, I feel like the show really came into its own this year. Mixing faithfully adapted moments (Jamie in the bath, the Hound and Lord Beric, the liberation of Astapor) without being afraid to flesh out some characters (Margaery Tyrell, Varys, Stannis) for the adaptation, Weiss and Benioff really distilled the lion’s share of Storm of Swords to ten episodes of thrilling television.
And the Red Wedding was exactly the cultural event I was hoping for. In the age of Netflix and binge watching, this is one case where you still need to gather round with friends (be they book readers or no) for some real event viewing. Season four’s going to be wild.
The comic that even people who don’t read comics should be (and many of whom are) reading, Brian K. Vaughn’s weird yet somehow familiar tale of star-crossed lovers trying to keep their daughter safe might be the most compelling piece of graphic media currently being published.
Every character and idea explodes onto the page in strokes of mad genius, a thousand disparate elements blending together flawlessly into a pseudo space opera that manages to be epic, personal, riveting, heartbreaking, and hilarious in equal measure. And that’s not even getting started on the incredible art from Fiona Staples.
This bears every mark of a classic in the making.
4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane
I moved this around the list a lot, because it’s almost impossible for me to compare something from Neil Gaiman to the works of others with any kind of objectivity.
This is a short book, but a brilliant one, and in many ways encapsulates the themes of memory, magic, bravery, childhood, and story that Neil’s explored for his entire career. It can be read in one sitting, making it so easy to return to, and I can confirm that rereading it does yield some very nice discoveries. An elegant and near-perfect tale that I can recommend to basically anyone.
Full disclosure: I type this as I’m looking up at the three signed copies on my shelf.
Just when you thought we’d had our fill of serial killers, here comes a take on Hannibal Lecter (of all the tired-out properties) that gives us something we’ve never seen before.
It’s Gothic horror on the small screen, a psychological assault on the senses that manages to transcend exploitation by elevating its violence to the realm of the artful grotesque, with killers who seem to have far more in common with the monsters of Grimm fairy tales than with their would-be contemporary psychopaths on other procedurals.
The most striking visuals on television, a deeply sympathetic Will Graham by way of the stellar Hugh Dancy, and a Lecter whom Mads Mikkelsen plays as if he were the Devil himself. It all adds up to the biggest surprise of the year: A franchise re-imagining that has the potential to become the definitive take on the material (provided NBC keeps it around long enough).
It’s like Bryan Fuller was given an abandoned, hollowed-out gold mine, and with the first swing of his pick-axe struck black oil.
Adaptation has forever solidified Spike Jonze as one of my favorite directors, but even then I was unprepared for the brilliance of his latest effort.
So much more than just Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with his phone, this is a sci-fi masterpiece that exemplifies the best of the genre by focusing on entirely believable characters and using their relationship with technology (haha) to show some of the essence of what it means to be human.
Funny, true, devastating, and ultimately life-affirming, I believe there’s every chance we’ll look back on this movie decades from now as it becomes increasingly relevant to the times.
1. Breaking Bad
The cultural event of the year. As far as I’m concerned, nothing was more satisfying than seeing this final batch of episodes from one of the best shows of all time enthrall millions and dominate the public discourse…except for the episodes themselves.
Walter White’s saga came to its tragic and inevitable conclusion, as we knew it had to, but the way it got there was just as compelling as it’s always been. Perhaps Jesse didn’t get as much of the spotlight as he deserved, but aside from that this was a final act that will cement the show’s classic status for all time.
“Ozymandias,” in particular, was one of the best hours of television I’ve ever seen, and I’m confident in calling Breaking Bad my favorite thing released in 2013, as well as the greatest show I’ve had the pleasure of watching.
And that just about does it for 2013. Special shout-out to Dexter for the worst final season and series finale ever unleashed upon a civilian populace. As usual, here’s to the stories of 2014, and all they have to teach us.