My 2013 Media Highlights

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.

5. Saga

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.

3. Hannibal

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.

2. Her

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.


The Best Fictional Moments of 2012

Ah, the new year. Of course you just know that means it’s time to look back at 2012 and arbitrarily list our favorite media. BUT WAIT! After an absolutely exhaustive 2011 Facebook note ranking the movies and everything else I’d seen, I decided that this time I wanted to mix it up. So while I’m sure to collaborate on a best/favorite films list on my podcast sometime in the coming weeks, for now I’m going to do something a bit more unique and discuss all of my favorite moments from movies, television, video games, and books that were released in 2012.

Naturally there was plenty that I missed out on, but if I watched, read, or played it in the past twelve months and it had a moment of brilliance that left an especially strong impression on me, then I’ll discuss it here. I’m not ordering them by quality, only by the general sequence I came upon them.

As an arbitrary rule, only one moment from each property (film, TV series, etc.) is allowed.

Oh, and **SPOILERS FOR THINGS FOLLOW** Don’t worry though, I won’t blatantly ruin anything in the titles.

So with that, let’s begin.

The Grey: “Once more into the fray…”

I was a far bigger fan of the “Liam Neeson vs. Wolves” movie than just about anyone that I know. I expected complete nonsense, but instead found a deeply affecting story of survival (and lack thereof) in the face of impossible and admittedly unrealistic odds. Wolves aren’t like this, silly movie. That said, I’m sure it’ll always hold a special place in my heart as the first film I ever reviewed, something I really enjoyed doing this year.

Its closing scene was spoiled by the trailer, but that didn’t stop it from being a ridiculously cool, glass-knuckled tribute to the human spirit, with lone survivor Ottway taping shattered bottles to one fist and a knife in the other for his final showdown with a vicious pack of canines. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day…

Kill List: Hammer Time

This movie came out of nowhere. I didn’t have a clue what it would be going in, and whenever I thought I had a grasp on things it completely redefined itself. I guess it’s a horror film, but there’s so much going on that I’m uncomfortable even confining it to a genre. It might be the most disturbing thing I’ve watched all year, especially at the halfway point when a man is gruesomely murdered with a hammer. Everything I’ve implicitly learned about film led me to believe the camera would cut away right before metal met skull. I’m pretty sure everyone in the theater jumped when it didn’t. If brutality isn’t a turn off, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

Journey: Sand Surfing in the Sunset

For anyone who thinks video games are filled with nothing but zombies and people shooting each other in the face, this downloadable title from That Game Company might be the ultimate counterexample. A simple game about a hooded figure trying to reach a distant mountain, it happens to be one of the most beautiful things the medium has ever produced. No combat, no spoken words, no bonus missions or explicit instruction. Just a creature with a magical scarf and a random online companion walking, jumping, and flying to their destination through a series of gorgeous environments.

While the ending was amazing, no sequence had quite as strong an effect on me as the part where you glide across an ocean of sand as it shimmers in the setting sun. Simple, elegant, and totally jaw-dropping.

The Raid Redemption: The Final Fight

Nonstop insanity from start to finish, this Indonesian martial arts film was almost immediately hailed as one of the gold standards for what an action movie can be. What it lacks in a complex or thoughtful narrative it more than makes up for with some of the most incredible fight scenes ever put to film.

The last battle between the two brothers and “Mad Dog” is just relentless, going on well past the point of reason. I saw this movie in a stuffy room full of film critics, but even that couldn’t really stifle the energy of the scene. Once the final blow was struck, I’m pretty sure everyone would have clapped and cheered if I’d only started them off. Still kind of regret it.

The Cabin in the Woods: “Let’s get this party started.”

The first hour of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s deconstruction of the horror genre is good, solid stuff. It’s what I was expecting from the movie, but admittedly not quite everything that I wanted. While undeniably funny and well-put-together, I spent most my first viewing hoping it would manage to somehow attain that extra level of brilliance that I knew its creators were capable of reaching.

And boy, did they ever. Dana and Marty’s infiltration of the facility and subsequent unleashing of the nightmare army escalated the stakes to exactly the insane degree that I was craving. It’s ten minutes of beautifully orchestrated mayhem with so many monsters shoved onscreen at once that it demands repeat viewings just to fully appreciate how much is going on. From the terrifying (psychopathic masked arsonists) to the hilarious (death by unicorn) it was everything the movie was building towards from moment one. Easily the second-best thing Joss Whedon put his name on this year, because after all what could beat…

The Avengers: Puny God

I’m not ranking this list except for the following exception: The Avengers was my favorite thing this year. I’m not sure I’ve ever had more fun watching a movie than I did this long-awaited superhero team-up. Its existence is an anomaly, its quality a miracle, and make no mistake there are about thirty moments from this masterpiece that I consider as good as anything else in this post, so picking one isn’t exactly easy…but that said there’s no way I can really go with anything other than the Hulk cutting off Loki’s speech to smash the ever-loving hell out of him.

It’s such an astonishing, unexpected, flawless moment of crowd-pleasing ecstasy that not until my third viewing could anyone in the theater actually hear Hulk’s line over the sound of their own cheering. No other moment of 2012 validated the things I love quite like that.

Game of Thrones: The Battle of the Blackwater

If there was one thing from A Clash of Kings—the second book in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—that HBO absolutely needed to get right with their adaptation, it was this. They’d already avoided showing major battles a couple of times before, but budget restrictions be damned there’d be no excusing the exclusion of the most pivotal conflict in the war that the entire second season was built upon.

Lucky for everyone they stepped up to the challenge and depicted the Baratheon assault on King’s Landing in a way that not only lived up to the text, but may have actually managed to transcend it. Thanks to the legions of extras, Peter Dinklage’s awesome speechifying as Tyrion, the stomach-churning violence, Cersei’s drunken breakdown, and the Hound promising he’d rape the corpses of any man who died with a clean sword, this may have been the year’s best episode of television. Focusing on a singular event was a huge departure for this show, and it couldn’t possibly have worked better. No surprise George Martin himself penned the script.

The Legend of Korra: Amon a Boat

The sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender might not be the flawless work of genius I had hoped for based upon my devotion to the original, but it still had a lot to love. I found its greatest triumph in the antagonist Amon, a forceful revolutionary who unified the disenfranchised nonbenders of Republic City behind his Equalist movement.

I was sure his storyline would be resolved by the end of the season, but I wasn’t sure how. Just when it appears he’s going to escape towards the end of the finale, his brother Tarrlok blows up the both of them after a hauntingly beautiful scene that suggested the possibility for redemption. But no, instead this Nickelodeon series went with a murder-suicide. After dozens of pilots parachuted to safety from their exploded planes over the previous couple of episodes, I was unprepared for so bleak a turn. The scene’s music really sold it.

Killer Joe: K Fry C

While I missed out on Magic Mike and The Paperboy, I can state based on this film alone that Matthew McConaughey had an excellent year. The totally amoral hitman might not be the most original trope, but here he proves that there’s still so much fun that can be had with compelling killers who will do anything for what they’re owed.

Take the last fifteen or so minutes of this movie, in which the titular murderer forces the woman who double crossed him to suck on a fried chicken drumstick like it’s his penis. He certainly acts as if it is, in what makes for one of the most disturbing “can’t look away” scenes I’ve ever borne witness to. And the violent aftermath was superb. This film is rated NC-17, by the way.

Breaking Bad: “You’re Goddamn Right.”

I’m fairly certain that if most people were asked to pick the standout moment from the eight episodes making up the first half of the greatest show on television’s fifth and final season, they would pick either the train heist, its terrible and immediate consequences, or perhaps something from the installment that Rian Johnson directed—say, Skyler wading into the pool.

Yet I can’t help but choose Walt’s cocky as all hell “negotiating” that opens the seventh episode. To me it’s the apex of his journey, the moment where he so fully embodies an intimidating drug lord that it’s almost impossible to remember the sad little man he was at the start of this story. In some ways it’s everything the series had been building towards. Now all that’s left is for Walt to fall.

The Master: Processing

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman were both incredible in the latest work of genius from Paul Thomas Anderson, and never more so than in the early scene where cult leader Lancaster Dodd subjects budding disciple Freddie to an intense question and answer session as a way of forcing him to confront his past. Hypnotic stuff.

Looper: Temporal Mutilation

Rian Johnson’s third feature film wasn’t quite the mind-fucking cat and mouse game I was hoping for, but as a totally original science fiction story with grit and personality reminiscent of a bygone era of high concept filmmaking, it’s still one of the year’s highlights. Its most memorable contribution to the time travel mythos is the scene in which Paul Dano’s older self tries to flee from the mob after the younger version is captured. A faded scar on his arm appears telling him where to go, and then parts of his body start disappearing as the bad guys cut them off in the present day.

It’s something that’s never really been done before (outside of an episode of Invader Zim, technically) and though of course it suffers the logical flaws of any fourth dimensional narrative, it’s so chilling and memorable that I couldn’t have cared less. Perhaps I would have preferred the latter half of this movie to go in a different direction, but there’s still so much here to admire.

Seven Psychopaths: The Insane Climax That Wasn’t

I found very few things this year more delightful than Martin McDonagh’s second feature film. Perhaps not as resonant as In Bruges, it was nevertheless a crazy ton of fun with some of the year’s best performances from Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell.

The latter really shined, especially when he described/acted out a hypothetical shootout between all of the movie’s characters. By showing us an over-the-top conclusion as a deranged fantasy, McDonagh got to give us our cake without any of the calories. Some might see it as a cop out, but I thought it worked perfectly. I just wish that dog had fired the flare gun in the actual showdown.

The Walking Dead: Postpartum Depression

Still a little shocked at how impressively this show turned things around this year. If you told me a scene involving the horribly unlikable Lori would almost make me cry I never would have believed you, but then I also didn’t think they would actually be bold enough to kill her off.

And she doesn’t just get eaten by some zombie, oh no. She undergoes an emergency c-section with no anesthesia or medical resources of any kind, 100% sure that it’s going to kill her. And her son watched. Brutal stuff, even if you find Carl a worthless, annoying character. I say they’ve improved him a lot this season, but even if they hadn’t, watching him perform a coup de grace on his own mother so that she wouldn’t come back as a walker wouldn’t have been easy.

And then she gets eaten by a zombie, as Rick discovers when he tries to find her corpse. Now that’s what they mean by adding insult to injury.

Boardwalk Empire: Van Alden Irons Out Some Problems at Work

Though it’s never been the most talked about series, for me Boardwalk Empire was the one I most enjoyed following on a week-to-week basis this fall. Maybe that’s because it was the show I always watched with friends on the night it aired, but I still think it’s not as appreciated as it should be.

This year they were telling a very specific story with a great antagonist in Gyp Rosetti, but the highlight of the entire season had almost nothing to do with that. The show’s greatest resource might very well be actor Michael Shannon, who was sidelined for much of this season to the point where it felt like he was only in about half of the episodes. Maybe that was because he was busy filming Man of Steel or something, but it’s still unfortunate considering how he can utterly bring the house down when he needs to. Case in point: The scene where he’s finally had enough of his asshole coworkers and presses a hot iron into one of their faces, then freaks out and destroys the office as they all scream and cower in terror. His hideous grin is what really brings it all together. I want to see a new version of Frankenstein just because of how obvious it is that Shannon was born to play the monster.

Flight: The Crash

One of the most unifying theater experiences of the year was the palpable, edge of your-seat tension the entire audience shared during the harrowing catastrophe that kicks off Robert Zemeckis’s surprisingly explicit exploration of a man who will do (almost) anything to avoid confronting his addiction. Though the film is all character drama after the plane goes down, Denzel Washington’s performance manages to hold it together. I admit I found it less impressive on a second viewing, but for those first few minutes I was spellbound.

Red Country: Cosca Tells it Like He Sees it

EVERYONE GO READ EVERYTHING BY JOE ABERCROMBIE RIGHT NOW STARTING WITH THE BLADE ITSELF HERE’S A LINK. And with my requisite attempt to get more people to discover the genius of the greatest fantasy author working today, I can say that his latest—a fantasy western—does indeed continue in the incredibly good vein I’ve come to expect. It may be my least favorite of his in a while, but understand that of those words I’m still very much emphasizing the “favorite.”

The passage I reread twice immediately after I’d finished it is a beautiful piece of cynicism from infamous soldier of fortune Nicomo Cosca, who lays out a world-weary philosophy on the inevitability of change that’s as heartbreaking as it is true. It’s a cruel world Abercrombie has crafted, and I may never get enough of it.

Homeland: The Interrogation

The second season of this series was completely insane. Put six former showrunners in a writer’s room together and the result is that they all try to stave off boredom by burning through four seasons of potential plot development in about as many episodes. I was excited just to see what Homeland would be with each new week. By no means did it always succeed, but when it did it was astonishing.

The highlight was the confrontation that the entire show had been leading up to, a face off between Carrie and a captive Brody with everything more or less on the table. Claire Danes and Damien Lewis already got Emmys for their first season performances, but this one scene was good enough to warrant another for each of them. Just flat out amazing work.

Django Unchained: The Shootout at Candie Land

In a year mostly defined by the way my expectations were exceeded, subverted, or all-too-often disappointed, I was just thankful that this Western (well, actually a Southern) from Tarantino was precisely what I thought it would be: Two hours and forty-five minutes of luxurious dialogue, bloody action, and badass movie-going glee from the undisputed master of…whatever the hell it is that Tarantino does.

The whole thing was great, but I knew I would walk out satisfied once the two biggest supporting players’ deaths lead seamlessly to one of the goriest gun battles I’d ever seen. Curiosity, attention, devotion, adoration…as far as I’m concerned Tarantino can have it all.

Zero Dark Thirty: SEAL Team Six Goes to Work

This movie was an experience. In the spirit of the war it portrays, it left me shaken and awed on a more profound level than Bigelow’s similar Hurt Locker from three years back, and I loved The Hurt Locker.

Yet by focusing on true events and presenting them with an unflinching matter-of-factness, this film rose even higher. It’s a testament to the talent of all involved that the raid at the end—in which I knew everything that would happen ahead of time—was the most nerve-wracking, suspenseful twenty-five minutes I spent in a theater this year. Impressive, especially considering how weird it was to see Chris Pratt from Parks and Recreation in such a stark environment.

The Walking Dead (video game): The Final Farewell

Perhaps the most affecting video game I’ve ever played, I don’t hesitate one instant to say that it’s a better story of survival horror than the television show. Over its five episodes players are taken through the wringer as they make incredibly tough choices affecting their place within the linear narrative. You may not always be able to affect who lives and who dies (in fact most of the time you can’t), but your choices surrounding these events—how you react and make other people feel—all matter. The way it tells you how your decisions compared to all other players after each episode is a fantastic touch.

SPOILERS HERE, Seriously I’d feel bad about ruining this one

And this game doesn’t compromise. No matter what happens,  the main character Lee will die. It’s inevitable, and the fact that he’s bitten at the end of the fourth episode fills the final chapter with incredible purpose. Whatever happens, it’s the last thing you’re ever going to do. And it ends as emotionally as it could, with a heartfelt and tearful goodbye to Clementine—the adorable little girl who you’ve watched over and protected for the entire game. Your final choice is whether or not she shoots you in the head to keep you from coming back. I didn’t make her. But what mattered more to me was what you choose as your last words. I told that poor child not to be afraid.

This is what games are capable of, people.

Well, that would be that. A pretty good year, I’d say. Here’s to the next one. Now everybody go party.

My Last Month in Media

Well I haven’t posted in what feels like forever, and that’s just embarrassing. I wish I could say it’s because I’ve had nothing to talk about, but no, there was plenty of media that I could have been analyzing over the past few weeks. So to make up for that, here’s a summary of everything I’ve been reading/watching/playing/thinking about over the past month or so.

I actually watched Homeland at the same time that I went through The Walking Dead, and I’m almost guilty that I gave that show it’s own post because, while more popular, it’s nowhere near as good. Homeland isn’t perfect, but it’s deeply compelling stuff that doesn’t get quite the recognition it deserves because it just barely misses the top tier of quality TV—certainly nothing to be ashamed of considering what else is on air now. Eight years ago, Homeland would be all anyone talked about.

I really should have done some sort of reaction piece to Dark Knight Rises, which is the single most disappointing viewing experience I’ve ever had. The film wasn’t terrible; it just had so many unbelievable elements that I never thought Nolan would let slip through the cracks. I expect more from a structural genius like him. My full review here. It was thankfully a lot more fun on a second viewing, but still way too stupid. BONUS FACT: I do the worst Bane impression ever.

Beasts of the Southern Wild was enjoyable, if only because the main girl is the cutest child ever to appear in a movie.

On the opposite end of the indy wholesomeness spectrum, Killer Joe is one of the best films of the year, and one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. After the insanity of the last fifteen minutes, I’ll never be able to look at Matthew McConaughey or fried chicken the same way again.

I’ve been very slowly reading Chronicles of the Black Company, and I appreciate what it’s trying to do (a pitch black war story with no good guys in a fantasy setting) but it just hasn’t grabbed me. Not sure if I’ll read more after finishing the first installment.

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh will get its own post at some point. It’s too relevant to everything I believe not to—likely I’ll revisit it around the release of McDonagh’s next film, Seven Psychopaths, which looks phenomenal.

I’ve been told plenty of times over the last couple of years that I really shouldn’t have missed out on Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s Old West take on their celebrated sandbox video games, so I finally got the chance to play that, and it more than lived up to the hype with a great world, characters, story, and gameplay that all came together to set a standard for western games that likely won’t be improved upon for a long time. Haven’t played the Undead Nightmare expansion yet, but I’m obviously looking forward to it.

Breaking Bad is taking over my life. Recapping it every week here and have more or less arrived at the point where a third of my conversations are about how freaking good it is. Only two more episodes this year, so let’s hope they’re brilliant enough to hold us over till the latter half of the season.

And of course there’s been plenty of entertainment news, but the one thing that really made me stand up and cheer was the confirmation that Joss Whedon has signed on to write and direct Avengers 2, while overseeing the entire Phase 2 of Marvel’s cinematic universe. It’s going to be a fine few years at the movies.

E3 2012 and the Video Game Industry’s Immediate Future

For about six years I’ve followed the Electronic Entertainment Expo, tuning into the big conferences for Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, as well as watching footage and reading demo descriptions for new and upcoming video games.

This year really made it painfully obvious that there are very few people in the industry actually producing content that I consider at all interesting. Microsoft’s conference kicked things off and was, not to put too fine a point on it, an embarrassment. They talked about sports games and their idiotic Kinect while showing off some sequels to their established franchises that did nothing to raise the bar beyond the kind of shooters we’ve all come to expect, which I no longer have patience for. I was hopeful for Tomb Raider, but it just looked like a lesser version of Uncharted. I’ve played Uncharted, thanks. Nothing, though, was more upsetting than Resident Evil 6, wherein you will apparently play as a powerhouse and kill endless hordes of the undead with minimal effort. Not exactly the direction I want the series to take. They ended on the third party Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, which was sad. Microsoft has nothing left this generation.

EA is more openly insidious than most entertainment corporations, and sure enough, in their conference they really pushed the idea of games as a thing you subscribe to, paying premiums for more content. You can taste the art. What little was shown of Dead Space 3 was horribly disappointing. The first two are great, and though I understand there’s an expectation for sequels to up the ante, the series has to stay somewhat in the realm of survival horror. Now you have a co-op partner, with whom you fight giant monsters on an ice planet. My, how atmospheric and terrifying. Like Microsoft, they also had games with shooting and guns.

Ubisoft was the big winner. Though their conference presentation itself was juvenile and insipid, their content was unquestionably the strongest, from Assassin’s Creed III actually getting me interested in a franchise after I’ve passed up all the previous installments (a reversal of the trend I was experiencing so far), to their Rayman game beating out everything else revealed for the Wii U. And no game at the entire show laid a finger on Watch Dogs, an original game (and a genuinely surprising reveal) about a master hacker in a world just a little bit into the future that, if it lives up to the mind-blowing demo, is a real step forward. It’s one of two games at the show that appears even remotely interested in exploring themes related to society. It might actually be about something.

Then Sony was easily the best of the big three, which is insane considering they spent about fifteen minutes on the idiotic Wonderbook. Other than that, most of their games hit the mark. Assassin’s Creed III continued to impress. The new God of War looks like more God of War, which I admit I’m still a fan of.Smash Bros. but with Playstation Characters might be a pretty fun party game. A lot of people went a little wild over Beyond, but I’m wary of David Cage. He seems like he’d much rather be making films than games, which is fine, except he’s making games. I recommend healthy skepticism as to whether he can back up his pretensions. Especially since we’ve seen about ten minutes of his new game, and no gameplay. Yeah…but hey, I like Ellen Page. I’m much more confident in The Last of Us, a post-apocalypse with some real bite. Uncharted with brutal seriousness. Count me in.

Then Nintendo came out and basically yelled to everyone, “WE DO NOT CARE ABOUT YOU. YOU ARE NO LONGER OUR TARGET AUDIENCE” as loudly as they could while still keeping up the charade.

Besides that, Star Wars 1313 has a ton of potential, I’m sure Ni No Kuni will be amazing, and there are a few other titles on the horizon I’m interested in, but all in all it doesn’t look like I’ll have reason to play more than the handful of games I find time for every year.

This medium is still in its infancy. The gems are few and far between, but they exist. As much as I rolled my eyes this past week (oh, so very much) I still have boundless faith in what games can achieve, and maintain excitement for the industry’s awkward, painful evolution.


A Journey Unlike any Other

Though I follow the video game industry and stay up to date on the culture, I no longer really play more than a handful of titles a year. Unless I feel something is a must-play, I likely won’t put be willing to put forth the time and money it would take to acquire and see to fruition, but this fortunately has the upside of investing every game I do buy with the sense that I’m embarking on something truly exciting, if only due to how selective I am when it comes to the medium as a whole.

The downloadable game Journey has been on my radar ever since I first saw a screenshot, so I’m very pleased that the timing just so happened to work out in such a way that my PS3 was on hand when it became available earlier today.

It’s a short little jaunt, so I’ve already played it to completion, and I’m happy to report that the first game I’ve seen fit to purchase this year was completely worth the hype, and I suspect will go down as a marker on the road towards realizing the immense potential that interactive media possesses.

The game opens on a vast and gorgeous cel-shaded desert, the immediate surroundings barren save for the thin-limbed, hooded figure you control. After wandering briefly through the dunes an enormous mountain appears in the distance, which you implicitly recognize is your ultimate destination. And onwards you go.

This is a game of exploration and discovery, with simple, satisfying mechanics enabling you to get from place to place. Everything hinges on the sights and sounds, both of which are exemplary. Each new vista could cause some shortness of breath, and a few had me absolutely slack-jawed.

The game’s crowning achievement, though, is how it treats co-op play. Shortly after starting I encountered another, identical traveler. This was another player, our games seamlessly connected online. I don’t know how often it works this well, but my fellow traveler and I very ably went through the rest of the game together, quickly developing what felt like a real bond only through gameplay, since there’s no way to communicate aside from a handy (and practical) chiming sound.

Though we didn’t actually need to interact to progress, we were companions all the same, never straying too far from each other, exploring the world and facing its (few but genuinely terrifying when encountered) dangers. When we reached our destination I wished the other player was physically standing next to me, because frankly I would have liked to give him or her a hug. It’s the best cooperative experience I’ve ever had playing a video game.

Journey doesn’t take much time at all, as it’s very deliberately meant to be played in one go, but that doesn’t make it any less worth anyone’s time or attention. This is a wonderful game, really showing what’s possible with perfectly integrated visual and mechanical game design. Mass Effect 3 may be what everyone is talking about, but frankly I suspect Journey has managed to do a lot more for the medium with a lot less. An utter triumph.

Tim Schafer and Double Fine are about to Change Everything

Well THIS is insanely exciting. Double Fine (dudes behind the fantastic Psychonauts and a bunch of other cool things, led by equally cool Tim Schafer) are funding their next game entirely through Kickstarter.

This means: No game studio enforcing any influence on them. No interference between developers and consumers. And most importantly: A massive step in artists getting funded directly without relying on the typically accepted industry parameters. Increasingly notable entertainment entities are using Kickstarter (Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer funded their fantastic tour over the site) and this is phenomenal proof that consumers WILL pay for entertainment if they have faith in the people making it.

So sorry, video game publishers, but piracy really doesn’t seem to be that much of an issue if these cult status developers can raise a quarter million dollars over the internet within hours of announcing their project. In fact by now they’ve probably reached their goal a month or so ahead of time. Fancy that, it’s almost like the creators aren’t obsolete, the publishers are. This is going to help everyone realize it, and over the next few years we’re only going to see more of this as publishers in every industry realize that they’re in an adapt or die situation. Prepare to witness most of them die, by the way. Adaptation’s a real bitch.

But for now, donate here, because there’s an awesome little adventure game on the horizon. $15.00 and you get the finished product and the opportunity to watch them create the whole thing as it happens. I’m thrilled to see where this goes.

The Video Games of 2011

Overall 2011 was a pretty great year for interactive media. I certainly didn’t have time for everything, most notably the eight-hundred ton juggernaut of industry might that was Skyrim, but I’m actually pretty happy with how much I managed to get in there. Alphabetically once again, we’ve got:

Arkham City– This game makes you feel like Batman, and what else could you possibly need? A lovingly designed slice of Gotham to roam around in? A really cool story? The greatest possible number of villains without quite going overboard? Well hey, it’s got all that too. Manages to be bigger and, yes, better than the already fantastic Arkham Asylum, and that’s certainly an accomplishment. The cast is great as well. Mark Hamill as the Joker and Kevin Conroy as the Dark Knight never disappoint, but the big surprise was Nolan North’s Penguin. This isn’t easy to say but: Better than Danny DeVito.

Dead Space 2– The first Dead Space was more or less the video game equivalent of Alien. Appropriately enough its sequel, like Aliens, is more action packed and takes place on a colony instead of a ship. It’s atmospherically spot-on and manages to maintain a fairly constant sense of dread. When it gets psychological it really shines. The highlight is a VERY effective bit that plays on a pretty base fear involving sensory organs and sharp things.

Ghost Trick– A DS puzzle game from the creator of the Ace Attorney series, featuring a recently deceased poltergeist who has one night to use his ghostly powers to save people’s lives and figure out why he was killed. If you like quirky puzzle games and/or pomeranian puppies you need to play this. The story is fantastic and you won’t see the ending coming. Really, you won’t.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword– A lot of people said this might be the best Zelda ever made. I have no idea why. The combat, when it works, is immensely satisfying, but literally everything else that this series is supposed to deliver- an enticing overworld, well-designed dungeons, brilliant puzzles, a sense of epic fantasy, great boss battles- fell short of every other Zelda I’ve played. Not that it’s bad, just disappointing when so much could have been done. I hear people saying the story, in particular, was told better than ever before, but I cared so much more about what was going on in Wind Waker and Twilight Princess than I did this time. Worst of all my favorite thing about the last console Zelda was how brilliant a companion Midna was. She’s replaced by Fi, a cold, deliberately emotionless, and spectacularly unhelpful crystalline-looking thing. I didn’t really think Link’s relationship with Zelda was anything special either. The villain was alright, but in typical Zelda fashion is upstaged at the last minute by his less interesting master. There’s one fantastic boss fight against a six-armed suit of armor, the time shift mechanic is gloriously fun, and the final dungeon is perhaps the most purely inventive in franchise history, but I can spend much longer singing the praises of previous series efforts. My only real gaming letdown of the year.

Mortal Kombat– Tasteless, idiotic, unrepentantly comic in its over the top violence and undeniably really fun, a Mortal Kombat game has no right to be this good. Weirdly enough, there’s actually a lot of care put into the single player story mode. But you’re here for the fighting and the fatalities, and on that front, yes, it delivers. If you like this kind of thing, this is the best it can ever be.

Portal 2– Utterly inspired. If you want an idea of what games can do as a purely narrative medium, look no further than this perfectly made puzzler that, without a single cutscene, tells a more compelling story than just about any video game ever made. It’s unquestionably a high water mark for writing in an industry sorely lacking in genuinely witty comedy. The voice acting from Stephen Merchant, Ellen McLain, and JK Simmons ties it all together brilliantly, and everything builds to a hugely satisfying ending. And before I forget, yes, it’s also really fun.

To the Moon– A four hour, sixteen bit story that’s basically the opposite of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Instead of erasing memories so people can go on living, you play as a pair of scientists who create memories for people in their last moments so that they can die in peace. An intriguing concept, very well done, with a lot of humor and heart. Available to download for like $12.00.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception– The second Uncharted was a huge leap forward for gaming as a whole, easily the closest a game had ever gotten to replicating the magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The worst thing I can say about the third in the series is that it’s about as good. Nothing to be ashamed of, but the innovation from Uncharted 2 was so refreshing that there was really nothing the sequel could do to come out on top technologically. The set pieces are as great as we’ve come to expect, my favorites being the chateau and the cruise ship, but it’s not like they’re noticeably a step up from the train or the collapsing building from the second game. The story, however, really shines, and in a few places manages to come off as the most polished in the series. Chapters 2 and 3, especially, are fantastic, and the game never quite captures that magic again. Ultimately I’d say if Uncharted 2 is Raiders, this one is very much Last Crusade (with the first one being Temple of Doom? Kinda…). Let’s just hope Uncharted 4 doesn’t have fucking aliens in it.

Best of the year was Portal 2, no question. Valve is the most reliable company in the industry right now, and this may very well have been there finest achievement to date.