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On 2018: Movies – Best of the Rest

2018’s Best of 2017

There were a good half dozen movies I saw in the first half of the year that were from 2017, and most of them were great! The good part about this is it made my best of 2017 list easier to put together. Not sure I’ll have any best of 2018s next year, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

**Light spoilers for a few movies below**

5. The Shape of Water

This is just the kind of movie one would expect from Guillermo del Toro. The juxtaposition of beauty and weird mostly worked, but there were a few moments that were difficult for me to reconcile. I loved the art deco style of the city and industrial look of the government complex. It brought to mind memories of Bioshock‘s Rapture. Sally Hawkins is excellent as the mute Elisa, and I really enjoyed her interactions with her neighbor and the weird merman alien. Michael Shannon’s performance as the government agent responsible for uncovering the alien’s mysteries is so down-to-Earth and believable that it made for an effective and genuinely scary villian.

The song/dance number and the sex scene were the main parts that took me out of the experience. I was sold on the setting, drama, and characters, and then those moments ratcheted up the goofiness to the point where I had a hard time not laughing at the ridiculousness. But I suspect that was the point, and I respect del Toro’s vision. In the end, I didn’t like The Shape of Water as much as I might have without those parts, but still found the film stunning in its presentation and storytelling.

4. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

I was very much prepared to hate this new Jumanji. As someone who still loves the original, I looked at the video game-y premise and what I perceived to be poor attempts at humor in the trailer and pretty much wrote it off. The more positive things I heard about it though, the more I thought I might as well give it a chance, and I’m really glad I did. I’m still not a huge fan of taking the board game and making it a video game, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a movie that’s really funny and doesn’t take itself too seriously. I don’t know if I’m ready to accept it as a sequel to the Robin Williams version, but I definitely grew to appreciate it as its own thing and consider it more of a re-imagining.

3. Coco

Coco isn’t my favorite Pixar movie by a long shot, but I can’t deny its quality. As a typical uncultured caucasian American, I can’t quite identify with the hispanic impact, but I absolutely support the efforts Pixar took to make the movie as touching for that demographic as they did. Even without that touchstone though, the story and characters are just as heartfelt as any other in Pixar’s stable, and the visuals of the land of the dead are truly impressive. This is one worth seeing on a quality 4K display, with all the lights and shading in their full glory. Coco may not be in the top tier of my personal Pixar favorites list, but the quality of what’s there combined with the respect paid to its hispanic setting make this feel like one of the most important films they’ve done yet.

2. Call Me by Your Name

I never pay attention to the Oscars, and rarely care what movies are nominated, so even if I had heard of Call Me by Your Name I probably wouldn’t have sought it out. It took a glowing recommendation from someone I trust to make me sit down and give it a chance.

Not knowing anything about it, I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than a love story (also not usually my thing). It’s a slow movie that takes its time developing the characters and their relationship, but the result was one of the most moving romances I’ve seen in film. It brought to mind what it was like to be young and not sure how to handle being in love. The soundtrack matches this awkwardness perfectly, as it goes from erratic while we watch Oliver and Elio stumble around their attraction for each other, to loving and heartbreaking when that attraction finally brings them together.

What took me most by surprise, though, was the final act. I struggle to recall a movie that has hit so close to home in so many ways. One doesn’t have to be a teenager or gay to relate to things like the highest highs of being in love and the lowest lows of losing that love. More than that though, Call Me by Your Name not only tugs on those well-trodden heartstrings, but it tugs on one I’ve never seen in film before, the feeling of being in love with someone whom you know beyond a shadow of a doubt you don’t have a future with. I’ve noticed I’m becoming a bit of a softy as I get older, but that particular situation, followed by an incredibly loving speech from Elio’s dad about how to deal with those feelings, made it so that by the time the end credits scene came I was silently bawling right along with Elio. If you’re the type who enjoys love stories but is afraid to let anyone see your sensitive side, watch this one by yourself.

And finally, it’s because of this movie that I’m now literally incapable of hearing Love my Way by The Psychedelic Furs and not thinking of Armie Hammer’s absurdly goofy dad dance. I blame you, Theresa.

1. Professor Marsten and the Wonder Women

A blend of comic book nerdery, kink, and alternative lifestyles, Professor Marsten tells the story of the man who invented the title character. I have vague memories of seeing previews for this, but it’s strange I didn’t pay it enough attention to catch it until months after the DVD release.

For those not familar with the man, Marsten had both a wife and a young lover, a situation that eventually turned into a full-on long-term, 3-parent, polyamorous family dynamic. In creating Wonder Woman, he gave her attributes of both of the women he loved, including no small amount of elements carried over from their exploration of BDSM. This created many difficulties both in trying to keep the comic in publication as well as fitting in once people found out about their lifestyle choices.

The movie blends all of these remarkably well, and while I’m not familiar enough with kink to speak to how well the bondage scenes are depicted, it all seemed to be treated with tact and tasteful respect. A movie like this could very easily veer into titilating territory, but it doesn’t go there. Instead, it focuses on the people, and never loses sight of the fact that they are trying to navigate relationship waters that even today are tricky, let alone in the 30s and 40s, when such things were freakishly taboo. This was another film that didn’t turn out to be quite what I expected, but that I was extremely happy to see get made.

2018 Honorable Mentions

5. Solo: A Star Wars Story

Oof, does this movie have problems. Problems so big and glaring that even thinking about them I can’t fathom what they were thinking. From how Han got his name, to his first meeting with Chewie, to his claim-to-fame Kessel Run, to the relationship that is the basis of the whole thing, there was a lot of baffling disappointment for me in seeing this. All that said, there are also some things I really like about Solo. Donald Glover is a fantastic Lando Calrissian, L3-37 is right up there with K-2SO as one of my favorite droids of the franchise, and the Kessel Run sequence, while not good from a plot standpoint, is breathtaking in the visual effects department. Finally, by the end of the film, I bought Alden Ehrenreich as our favorite smuggling scoundrel. He’s no Harrison Ford, but no one could’ve even hoped to fill those shoes. Ehrenreich has the look though, and I ended up pretty ok with him in the starring role. It’s a shame Solo turned out so inconsistent; there’s enough good here that it could’ve been so great. Ultimately, it’s only barely better than the prequel trilogy.

4. Annihilation

Based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation is a movie I was pretty weary of. The book was good, but it was very weird and ambiguous, and didn’t really tell the reader much about what was going on. So much so that I wasn’t sure how a movie would be able to capture the same vibe. Rather than trying to stick strictly to the book, the film goes in a more cerebral direction, and by doing so manages to capture the novel’s mysterious and bizarre atmosphere surprisingly well. As the scientists venture into Area X to find out more about what it is and what’s happening inside it, they discover things that don’t follow the normal rules of nature we’re so familiar with. In exploring an environment that is literally reshaping the way Earth’s biochemical nature works, I found the images and situations fascinating and disturbing at the same time. Annihilation doesn’t really provide much clarity or satisfaction in its ending, but as an adaptation of a book that doesn’t give the reader much to latch on to, it works a lot better than I expected.

3. Incredibles 2

The original Incredibles is one of Pixar’s most beloved films, and for good reason. A celebration of superheroes that also explores the potentially touchy subject of whether people with special abilities are better than the rest of the population, it was boatloads of fun. It left an incredibly high bar for the sequel to strive for, and while it doesn’t quite get there, Incredibles 2 is still pretty great. Like most sequels, this one is a bit bloated, as it tries to deal with bringing supers back to their former glory and acceptance, female empowerment, and continues the conversation of embracing ones natural abilities vs. hiding them out of humility and respect for the rest of us normal people.

Incredibles 2 doesn’t really come to any conclusions on its subject matter, so while Pixar wasn’t brave enough to make any firm statements, it’s just as fun as the first film to be along for the ride. It doesn’t all gel together as smoothly as the first movie and the villians aren’t nearly as memorable as Syndrome, but this is yet another example of even less-than-top-tier Pixar films still being better than the vast majority of non-Pixar films.

2. Game Night

This is another movie that flew pretty much under my radar. I was aware of it, but didn’t really pay it much attention until my dad recommended it to me. Like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the heck out of it. The relationship between Max and Annie is totally believable as two ultra competitive game fans. Their relationship mostly carries the film, and it’s endearing to watch them own at trivia nights, board game get-togethers, and try to cope with the shenanigans that go down when things take a turn for the serious. Jesse Plemons turned out to be one of my favorite characters as Gary, Max and Annie’s weird, creepy neighbor who desperately wants to join in on game night but has some pretty major personal issues. Thinking back on it now, Plemons’ performance here brings to mind his character of Robert Daly in Black Mirror. Thankfully, his character in Game Night is much less sinister, and it allowed him to be a welcome hero by the end. If you’re looking for a fun, light-hearted comedy, this is a great option.

1. Hereditary

I love me some creepy-ass horror, and it’s even better when there’s a few layers to the goings-on. Hereditary is a dark, slow, unsettling film that has more than a few moments I won’t be forgetting for a long time.

Annie and her family have just lost her mother, but her and her kids have very different ways of coping with that loss. Annie retreats to her business of making fancy doll houses and Peter does what teenage boys tend to do and tries to spend time partying with his friends. Her daughter Charlie, however, is a bit of an odd child. She’s quiet, introverted, and has some eerie behaviors that don’t quite become clear until you get to the end and can look at the whole film in context. It’s difficult to describe Hereditary because there’s a lot of underlying personal issues on display. The matter of dealing with intense personal loss is front and center as it starts tearing the family apart, breeding resentment and hurt feelings among them. Eventually, mental illness and ocult behavior come into the picture. These three themes start overlapping and blending together in ways that I found riveting, even as some of the more uncomfortable scenes had me wincing and sent shivers down my spine.

I can’t say Hereditary stuck the landing as well as I was hoping, but even though its abruptness detracted a bit from my enjoyment, the strength of the movie as a whole makes it one of the most effective horror movies I’ve seen in recent years.

On 2018

Twenty eighteen was a strange year for me, but one that will I’m sure remain memorable for years to come. On the grand scale, there’s a lot about the state of the country and the world that I’m gravely concerned about. Without getting political, I’ll just say that anyone who’s paid any attention to the news will know why I’m worried. But there’s little I can do about that stuff, so I’ll do my part and have to hang in there to see what happens.

Personally, it was a year of high highs and low lows. It was always intended to be one of rebuilding. I’d ended 2017 on something of a down note in life and I’d taken a step back in order to execute a plan which would pay off with two steps forward. In late January I randomly decided to join my dad at the ice skating rink. I hadn’t skated regularly in over 20 years, but I was surprised to learn that 1) I still remembered how to do it and was able to get around the rink without much effort, and 2) I really, really enjoyed it. I had such a fun time that I started going every week, and even took a class in the late winter/early fall. I never had any formal training when I skated as a teenager, so I had no actual technique and never learned to do even simple things like stopping properly.

Between the weekly open skates I was going to and finally getting some proper technique under my belt, my skills began to improve, quickly overshadowing what I was capable of back in middle school. I’ll never be a hockey player, but after a year of effort (and lots of falling) I’m happy to say that I’m pretty darn good, and it’s become my favorite freetime activity. I plan to keep up with it and will hopefully continue to get better. I may not want to play hockey, but if I can skate decently enough to make me feel like I could, I’ll be pretty happy.

It was a good thing I found an early happy pastime, because not long after I discovered my love of the bladed boots, things started to get a bit rocky. I had a few injuries on the ice (my body doesn’t handle impact with the ice as well as it did when I was a kid, who knew!), an especially disappointing lay off at work, and my biggest plan for the year fell through. If there’s one thing life has taught me it’s that the only certainly is uncertainty.

Needless to say, I was pretty unnerved in the first half of the year. Fortunately, I’m pretty good at handling stress and was able to pivot my plans into something else. After close to 2 weeks of filling out applications and going on interviews, I was employed again, and at the same company, no less (don’t ask. Just one of the weird things that can happen when you work in corporate America). The new job has had its own challenges, but has also proven itself to be a good opportunity, and I’m enjoying it.

I was also able to connect more with friends and family that I hadn’t had as much contact with as I would have liked in 2017. I took a couple fun trips, produced some good writing I’m pretty proud of, and was able to pull off my ultimate goal for the year despite the wrench in the gears that was put into the mix in the fall. That goal was to buy a house, and although it didn’t happen how I expected and it took more sacrifice than I originally hoped, I still made it happen. My concerns over homeownership haven’t changed; it’s not the American dream it used to be. But now that I’m pretty sure I’m in the place where I’m going to live for the long haul, the idea of making a house truly my own has made me willing to take the plunge.

There was a period of time, a few days after I moved in, that it really hit me. “I’m a homeowner now. All this responsibility, it’s on me.” For about half a day I was in full-on panic mode. I’ve never had issues with anxiety or panic attacks, but this was probably the closest I’ve ever come to having one. Thankfully, the worst of those feelings went away by the next day and I’m becoming more and more confident in my ability to handle things. Since then, I’ve been keeping a positive attitude and am looking forward to seeing what I can do with the place over the years.

There was a downside to the effort I put in to my skating, social connections, career, and housing goals. I only read a handful of books last year, only played a handful of video games, and was pretty stressed at various points throughout the year. Ultimately, I consider these sacrifices both acceptable and temporary. One of the things I’ve noticed as I come within a couple years of my 40s is that my thinking is changing. My mindset is getting more long term. Short term, empty pleasures are being deprioritized in favor of more permanent and bigger goals. I feel like I’m at a point in my life where I’m ready and able to make some more complicated life goals a reality, and am willing to let things go that I wouldn’t have a handful of years ago in service of those goals. Now that I’m moved, settled, and things have calmed down a bit, I’m hoping to be able to read more, game more, write more, and enjoy the little things more. But the larger, more important goals won’t be going away, and I’m becoming ok with that. I mean, unless I get a year or two into homeownership and decide “fuck this, it’s not for me!” lol. So far though, I’m pretty sure that won’t happen. My brain is starting to catch up to my body as I continue on through my middle-aged years.

Speaking of those social relationships, I’m incredibly happy with where they’re going. This February will mark 10 years since my ex-wife and I seperated. I don’t bring that up to reminisce or feel sorry for myself. I mention it because I realized recently that some of the friends I made in the wake of that relationship will be approaching the 10 year mark as well, and that is something I’m deeply appreciative of. Some of my very closest friends I’ve known for 6, 7, 8, 10 years, and now that we’re all getting into our mid 30s, many of these friendships will likely last for many more. It’s been a wonderful thing seeing those connections grow. Unlike most people, I didn’t have much of that until my 30s, so it’s a pretty new thing for me. It’s made me question some things about myself, my feelings, and my relationships. That’s a topic for a private post and another day, but publically I’ll say that the questions I’m asking myself are all positive ones, and I foresee nothing but good coming out of the things I’m pondering.

Oddly, one thing that I did a ton of in 2018 was going to the movie theater. Before Moviepass spiraled into the worst part of its inevitible crash and burn, I tried it out for a handful of months, and that contributed to me seeing no less than 35 movies. A few of them were holdovers from 2017 I was catching up on, the rest were all released this year, and damn this was a great year for films. Given the sheer amount of films I saw, and the disappointing lack of books and games I experienced, this year I’ve decided to make my annual media posts purely movie-focused. I have two posts in mind I’d like to write up, but knowing me and my lack of commitment to such things, we’ll see lol.

I did do a games write up here, so it’s there for anyone interested. Otherwise, I’ll be back (maybe) in the next few days with some of my favorite movies I saw last year. And after that, I’m happy knowing that I’m starting 2019 off on great footing. It may be the first time I’ve felt like I’ve not only figured out some things I want out of life long term, but have also positioned myself such that I may actually be able to achieve them. My post-exwife era is over, I’ve navigated the transitional phase, and have entered the era of what I hope will become one of growth and success as I start adulting on Bring It On difficulty. Bring it on indeed. (yes, that was a Doom reference)

On 2017, Part 3: Books

I read a lot of books last year. Part of the reason is because this was the year I finally embraced audio books. Last year I started getting into them more than usual, and I’m still picky about the ones I listen to, but in 2017 I finally started finding ones I enjoyed. I still don’t like audio books where the narrator reads in a different cadence than I would, but in cases where they’re read by the author or the narrator really fits a role well, I’ve found I can really enjoy them. A full 8 of the 21 books I “read” in 2017 were audio versions, so more than a third. I already have a stack of new ones I’m excited to get to, and hopefully this will be a way to read even more in 2018. These were my favorites of last year.

10. Mort(e) (War with No Name #1) by Robert Repino (2014)

Mort(e)This is one I might not have even heard about if not for the book club I’m in. It tells the story of The War With No Name, when animals suddenly become intelligent and grow in size and strength, then take over the world from their human owners. The premise itself is interesting, but the way the story is told makes it even more so. Mort(e) is a former house cat who goes looking for his best friend in the aftermath of the initial revolution, who happens to be a dog. He gets dragged into the war by joining a kind of mercenary team of felines and discovering he’s actually an excellent soldier, despite his domesticated background. Surprisingly quickly, time passes and Mort(e) becomes a war veteran trying to deal with the emotional and physical scars of battle as he takes up residence in his former home and continues his search for his canine friend. The book is told from Mort(e)’s perspective and reads like a war novel. It’s a fresh perspective that kept me interested, especially once the plot takes a turn for the religious. Themes of theology, racism, and loyalty were things I was not expecting. By the end of the book I was pretty taken aback with the state of things, and while I wasn’t comfortable with some aspects of it, I greatly appreciated reading it. In a way it kind of reminded me of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, in that it presents old situations from a perspective I hadn’t seen before and made me think in ways I wasn’t ready for when I started. This is definitely in the category of books that aren’t my favorite, but am grateful for having read.

9. Stardust by Neil Gaiman (1998)

StardustI didn’t truly begin to appreciate Neil Gaiman’s works until I heard his audio books. Most of the stories I’ve read of his are a bit too out there fantasy-wise for my tastes, but that completely changed once I heard them narrated by the author himself. Gaiman’s voice and inflections for each of his characters are absolutely perfect for the kind of stories he writes, and audio books have allowed me to appreciate them in a way I simply wasn’t able to previously. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d guess Gaiman was a benevolent fantasy character himself, gifting our less fortunate realm with his stories and presence.

Stardust is at its heart a love story. A boy promises to retrieve a falling star for the girl of his dreams, and being young and fanciful herself, she agrees to marry him if he should succeed. So off he goes on an adventure into strange, untold lands, meeting eccentric characters and making new friends along the way. The general structure is nothing new, but the adventures and characters contained within, conveyed by Gaiman’s dulcet, whimsical style, are where the fruits of this tale truly lie. This is a clear case of the journey being its own reward.

8. Storm Front (The Dresden Files #1) by Jim Butcher (2000)

Storm FrontI’ve been meaning to read The Dresden Files series for a long time. I’m not sure why it took me so long; they’re not especially long books, and the subject matter is right up my alley. Audio books to the rescue!

Harry Dresden is a modern day wizard. As a private detective, he takes on paranormal investigations from regular citizens as well as the local PD. Most people think he’s a joke, so it’s no surprise he struggles to find work. Suddenly he gets a case from a random woman who walks into his office, and his PD contact has a huge case for him as well. Of course, the cases turn out to be related, and light and dark magic must go head to head.

Dresden’s tale is told in a very noir style, and the audio narrator fits that cadence to a T. The dry, flat delivery instantly makes me think of Dresden sitting behind a ratty old desk in a trenchcoat, with the lighting in the room low enough that you can barely see anything but outlines of his facial features, the furniture in the room, and the light wisp of cigarette smoke from the ashtray. I have complaints about Dresden’s character and the way he fails to stick up for himself when talking to his PD contact, especially considering his own inner monologue seems like he has sufficient amounts of self-respect. It’s disappointing that my one issue is so paramount to the character, but that said, I’m looking forward to listening to more of Dresden’s wizarding cases.

7. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (2017)

Six WakesThis one hooked me right off the bat. Six people wake up in a spaceship that looks like it had very recently been the setting a brutal massacre. Before long, we learn that this is a future where people’s consciousnesses can be transferred to body copies after death, allowing theoretical immortality. Once in a new body, one should remember everything that happened to them since their last memory dump, but these six crew members remember nothing for the last handful of years, leaving them to solve the mystery of what the hell happened between then and now, how their previous selves got murdered, and who the culprit is. Not only was this immediately intriguing to me, but the book takes a slow burn approach to filling in the back stories of each character, as well as the legal and moral complications that come with being able to download a person’s mind and making copies of them. I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff, and couldn’t put Six Wakes down. As it turns out, each of the passengers have dark pasts and aren’t necessarily good people. I couldn’t wait to find out more of the story, and the more I learned, the more the tension built between the crew.

In the end, the finale didn’t quite stick the landing as well as I was hoping, but I felt everything leading up to that point was strong enough that it left an impression on me.

6. The Dispatcher by John Scalzi (2016)

The DispatcherThis lovely little novella presents an idea I’ve literally never heard before, and uses it to turn a simple kidnapping story into something much more interesting. For some reason, it becomes nearly impossible to kill someone. Any time someone is intentionally killed, that person immediately wakes up back in their bed at home. It’s never explained how or why this is the case, and none of the characters in this story seem to know either. Just that alone is a fascinating thought experiment. If no one can be killed, that changes war, crime, interrogation, and a million other things about society.

Tony Valdez is a licensed dispatcher; someone who is authorized to intentionally kill someone who would otherwise die of accidental causes, humanely putting them down so they can wake up at home and have another chance. When Tony’s friend and fellow-dispatcher is kidnapped, the hunt begins to track down the who and why of it. As I mentioned earlier, the kidnapping story isn’t especially notable, but the premise it’s wrapped around gives the plot a unique twist. Even though people can’t be killed in this world, a human body can endure quite a lot before it expires, and even then, the “resurrection” process is still a traumatic and potentially painful experience. This is one of the most thought-provoking novellas I’ve read in a long time.

5. The X-Files: Cold Cases by Joe Harris (2017)

Cold CasesAnyone who knows me knows how much I adore The X-Files. I’ve shied away from audio versions of X-Files books written over the years because I simply cannot cope with the thought of listening to Mulder and Scully being voiced by anyone other than David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Thankfully, Cold Cases (and its direct sequel, Stolen Lives) is voiced by a full cast including Duchovny, Anderson, and series favorites William B. Davis and Mitch Pileggi, reprising their roles as the Cigarette-Smoking Man and Assistant Director Walter Skinner, respectively. They even bring back the actors behind the Lone Gunman for their parts. Agents John Doggett and Monica Reyes make cameo appearances as well, but Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish sadly didn’t return to voice their characters. Oh well, I can deal with those omissions in light of all the others who did come back.

Cold Cases is a bit of a strange release in 2017. It had creative direction from series creator Chris Carter, but it’s apparently based off an existing X-Files graphic novel written by Joe Harris. This wouldn’t be all that odd if not for the fact that the continuation of the conspiracy canon Cold Cases presents is actually really good, and is in my opinion much better than what Carter decided to go with when the show came back for its Season 10 “event series” two years ago. That event series essentially retcons the conspiracy story told here, so I’m a little confused why they decided to release this at all.

That puzzling decision aside, I’m still glad they did. Cold Cases is presented as 4 or 5 separate episodes of the show, complete with the X-Files theme music being used to intro and outro each chapter. And while some of them continue the alien black oil story fans know and love, others are stand-alone creature feature episodes. One of these is a direct sequel to one of the show’s most popular early stand-alone stories. I won’t spoil it here, but I was completely unprepared for such a blast from the past, and it made the whole collection feel like it belonged alongside the rest of the series in a way that gave me all kinds of warm, happy, I-Want-To-Believe vibes. If you’re a fan of the show, this is without a doubt worth your time.

4. Redshirts by John Scalzi (2012)

RedshirtsRedshirts was my introduction to the work of John Scalzi. It’s an easy entry into his stories and is a lot of fun. It tells the story of a handful of new recruits as they join the crew of a space-fairing capital ship in the year 2456. It all goes well until they start noticing things about the crew, land missions, and the outcomes of these situations that don’t add up. I’m not even sure how to describe where the story goes without describing its style. Scalzi uses a lot of humor in his writing, and he uses that in the case of Redshirts to not only set a light, genuinely funny tone for the whole thing, but to present everything as a spoof of many media and scifi conventions. The story pokes fun at Star Trek, sensationalism, and a few other things that I can’t reveal without spoiling where the story goes. I will say that as soon as the main twist is revealed and you think the most bizarre thing is over, it proceeds to get even more absurd for the finale. It kind of reminds me of Starship Troopers in the way it mixes serious and goofy, and with Scalzi’s writing skill and tactful sense of humor, it all works wonderfully. Scalzi is another author I’ve been meaning to dive into for some time, and Redshirts is a great way to dip into his literary mind, as well as get excited for reading the rest of his stuff. Is there really anything greater than finding a whole new author you enjoy?

3. Alien: River of Pain by Christopher Golden (2014)

River of PainLike its predeccesor, Alien: Out of the Shadows, River of Pain is an audio book in the Alien universe that not only is considered canon, but is read by a full voice cast, and even includes sound effects. The Alien world is one that’s rife with opportunity, and this format fits it rather well. Out of the Shadows filled in the story between Alien and Aliens, highlighting an adventure Ripley had during her extended hypersleep. It seems she didn’t stay asleep the whole 57 years as we all thought. It was a very cool story and took the franchise back to its most popular time, but it had a couple issues that are difficult for me to describe without spoilers.

Thankfully, River of Pain negates my biggest issue simply by being set in a different time and location. Again drawing from the franchise’s early days, this is the story of the downfall of the settler colony on LV-426. If anyone remembers the additional scene of the colony from the director’s cut of Aliens, you’ll know where this tale begins. Right from the start it’s obvious things aren’t great in the colony. Between the arrival of Weyland-Utani executives who throw their weight around and prioritize discovery over colonist safety, and a new chief military commander who butts head with the aforementioned executives pretty eary and has a history with Newt’s mother, things get interesting very quickly. The main story beats are pretty predictable; Newt’s parents bring back an alien facehugger, aliens happen, people die. But the writing and voice acting are well done, and I enjoyed having this part of the mythology fleshed out. We find out what Newt’s family was like, and what she was like as a typical little girl before the traumatizing events of Aliens. River of Pain is a short read/listen, but one that’s a lot of fun if you’re a fan of the series.

2. Leviathan Wakes (Expanse #1) by James S.A. Corey (2011)

Leviathan WakesYeah, I know, I’m way late into this series. I was super late into Harry Potter too. There’s really not much I need to say about Leviathan Wakes, as I’m one of the last to check it out, but I loved it. Excellent writing, characters I cared about, a fascinating plot, fantastic world building, lots of intrigue, and even more moral ambiguity. I’m definitely going to continue reading this series. It’s not an exaggeration to say I haven’t enjoyed space opera this much since Star Wars. Although, I should add the caveat that I haven’t played the Mass Effect games. Again, always late to the party, I am.

1. The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin (2015)

Fifth SeasonIf there was a category for best book I never would have discovered if not for my book club, The Fifth Season would take the award, hands down. I went back and forth between this and Leviathan Wakes for my top slot for a while. In the end, it came down to the fact that Jemisin has created a world and a magic system that felt incredibly unique to me. It felt like both scifi and fantasy at the same time, with a post-apocalyptic setting that felt alien but familiar, and a geology-based magic system that’s equally familiar yet refreshing. Jemisin is an incredible writer who I consider to be in the same league as Patrick Rothfuss, and her three-tiered approach to the story was perfectly paced and kept me interested the whole way through. It’s not easy to write characters who are interesting in the day-to-day, make you want to learn more about their backstory, and care about, while also obfuscating or minimalizing the central goal, but somehow Jemisin pulls it off. I started to pick up on the connection between the three main characters’ storylines about halfway through, and was able to figure out the big picture shortly before the book told me, but it was no less impressive. Also, while this book is relatively self-contained, it closes with lots of unanswered questions, and the main goal still nowhere in sight. Thankfully, there’s a hook at the end to get the reader excited for the next installment. The Broken Earth trilogy concluded with the release of the final book last summer, and it’s won lots of awards. It’s awesome seeing yet another fantastic literary world come from a black female, and even more so to see her get recognized for the achievement. The Fifth Season is a prime example of reward awaiting those who aren’t afraid to read stories from authors who wouldn’t normally catch their interest. And if that weren’t enough, Jemisin likes to play video games on Twitch in her spare time, and she’s actually really fun, so for the gamers out there that’s just icing on the cake.

 

On 2017, Part 2: Movies

Well this turned out way longer than I intended haha. Oh well. There were some amazing movies in 2017 and I had a lot to say about them. Not all of the films below are great, but most of them are, and the ones that aren’t I still had enough feelings about that I wanted to put some thoughts down. It’s also worth noting that none of the movies on this list are original IP. Every one of them are sequels, reboots, or spin-offs. It’s surprising that in an industry where unique, creative ideas are few and far between we have so many great films from old ideas. I guess the lesson here is I don’t mind unoriginal movies if they’re well done. Enjoy, and let me know what you thought of any of them if you feel inclined.

11. Jigsaw

JigsawI didn’t expect a lot from this one going in. As it is, the original series went on way longer than it had any right to. The only thing that made the latter half of the franchise worth watching was seeing the new creative deaths and how far up its own ass the mythology could possibly go before it all fell apart. Seeing the return of Dr. Gordon in the finale was fun, but it was a miracle all the loose ends were tied up as well as they were.

Without that investment there’s really not much Jigsaw has going for it. A lot of the plot beats are fairly predictable and lazy, the death traps aren’t all that exciting or even all that creative (with the exception of one), and for some reason they still obsess over that reverse bear trap thing. The twist at the end (you had to know there would be a twist) was unexpected but not particularly satisfying, and there are several obvious avenues for more movies, because why the hell not. Honestly, I’m not sure why Tobin Bell keeps coming back to the franchise. Jigsaw was an interesting character 10 years ago, but his portrayal here is an accurate reflection of this latest movie; old, tired, way past his prime, and not nearly as clever as he used to be. Jigsaw wins my “Please Just Stop” award for 2017.

Jigsaw pic

On the positive side, I have a new celebrity crush, Hannah Emily Anderson

10. Alien: Covenant

AlienPrometheus was a very weird movie that only abstractly had anything to do with the alien we all know and love. I was excited to see Covenant tie in more directly with the rest of the mythology. It does do that in a way that connects Prometheus to the rest of the franchise in a more clear way, but it also takes a bit of a cop-out approach that left me unsatisfied. Taken on its own, I enjoyed Covenant; it’s a decent Alien movie. Its biggest flaw is a classic mistake; it explains too much of the alien’s origins in a way that is disappointing and unnecessary. My favorite thing about the alien is precisely the fact that we don’t know its origins. Aliens are bizarre-looking, efficiently deadly, uncontrollable, and uncomfortably sexual. This makes it terrifying in a way that is made even more so by the fact that we don’t know what its home planet is, how it evolved, and it appears to have no goal except to eat and reproduce in the most primal, animalistic way. It’s the midicholrian problem. Once you explain it, it takes away much of the magic and mystery.

Looking at Prometheus and Alien: Covenant together, combined with Ridley Scott’s statements about his ongoing visions for the franchise, I can only come to one conclusion: Scott doesn’t really want to make Alien movies. He wants to do other things, but the alien creature is such a fantastic device for terror that people still respond to, so the studio insists on making new ones. Maybe Scott thinks that if the studio is going to keep making Alien movies anyway, he may as well do it himself and use the opportunity to explore new ideas in the meantime.

Alien pic

A proper Alien movie needs to have dark, slimy, organic-looking corridors

9. The Fate of the Furious

FuriousAnother series that just keeps going for no apparent reason, except for the fact that they still make a crap-ton of money, the Fast and the Furious franchise went off the deep end of absurdity long ago. The strength of the series has been the bombast and the characters. They’ve been beating the “family” drum so hard for so long now that it just sounds like they’re trying too hard at this point. This series hasn’t been about cars for a long time now; the last couple of entries have cemented them as spy movies, for better or for worse.

Fate of the Furious is kind of a mess. It does things that fans of the mythology will probably have issues with. At least I did. Toretto changes sides for what turns out to be a good reason, but that reason feels unjustified and unearned. Also, the fact that he keeps his “family” completely in the dark about it, plus the fact that Deckard seems totally fine working with said “family,” and in fact becomes part of the “family” despite having killed one of the “family,” seems to shit on much of what they’ve been building for so long. One thing that remains consistent is the level of big, outrageous action scenes. These are some of the most outlandish yet. Jason Statham is pretty cool, for sure, and is a great foil to the walking slab of meat that is Dwane Johnson, but he’s a poor substitute for Sung Kang’s Han. When the series lost Han and Brian, it lost a big part of its soul. The franchise should’ve ended with the beautiful Paul Walker tribute that closed out Furious 7. Instead, we’re getting at least one more of these. Will I see it? Absolutely. But for me, the series died when Paul Walker died, and I’m content to let it be a seven film arc, if only in my mind.

Furious pic

Tanks, cargo planes, even submarines are no match for “family”

8. The Lego Batman Movie

Lego BatmanLike the first Lego Movie before it, The Lego Batman Movie is such fun. It applies the same irreverent, hilarious filter used on the previous film to the dark, brooding, don’t-take-anything-seriously martyr that is The Dark Knight.

What you might not expect is that Lego Batman actually explores something most of the serious Batman films don’t even do, Batman’s relationship with The Joker. Taking a queue from Christopher Nolan’s Joker interpretation, Joker wants nothing more than for Batman to admit how much their adversarial relationship means to him and how dependent they are on one another. A great hero is nothing without a great villain. Throw in the curveball of it being portrayed almost like a lover’s quarrel, fun references to Batman’s entire past from movies to comics, plus amazing performances from Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, and Rosario Dawson, and you have a fantastic, unexpectedly deep Batman movie filtered through the Lego Movie prism.

Lego Batman pic

The Joker and multitude of villain cameos are some of the best things about Lego Batman

7. It

ItThis was the movie that made me realize: I’m now old enough that the films Hollywood is remaking are the ones I was alive for to see the originals. So now I’m that old guy going “blahblahblah the original was better!” Needless to say, I was pretty skeptical about the new It going in. I wanted it to be good, but the original was so damn creepy that it still affects me to this day and I didn’t think this version would be able to pull that off as well. Additionally, I didn’t like the look of Pennywise’s new clown outfit. Yes, I know it’s more accurate to what a clown would wear in the Victorian era, but I didn’t care, it still looked too much like a dress to me.

All that said, I actually really liked It. Bill Skarsgård is no Tim Curry (in all fairness, who is?) and it’s not creepy in the same slow, quiet, dreadful way that worked so well in the original, but taken as its own thing it works surprisingly well. It’s clearly been influenced by horror movies made in the last 20 years in the way it builds and pays off the suspense. Pennywise’s costume works a lot better than I initially thought it would, mostly because seeing it in low lighting and the way it moves with the character is much more effective than seeing it in a static full body promotional photo. And most importantly, the divide between the adults and the kids is spot on. All the adults are eerily sinister and paint a picture of a town that’s had a dark cloud of evil over it for a long, long time, and the chemistry between the kids still totally works. I really bought their friendship and banter. I still like the original better, as it remains one of the most unsettling movies I’ve ever seen, but once I was able to look at this new film as its own interpretation, I was able to appreciate and embrace it.

It pic

I wonder how long it takes him to floss

6. Despicable Me 3

DM3The first two Despicable Me movies were a goddamn delight, and this new one is no exception. Right off the bat, Gru and Lucy are the couple you love to see working together, with a shared enthusiasm for the spy life, kicking butt and taking names. Trey Parker is a perfect choice for the mullet-sporting, shoulder pad-wearing, dance-off-loving, washed-up, stuck in the 80s Balthazar Bratt. Gru’s adopted daughters continue to be adorable as all hell, and Steve Carell now pulls double duty as Gru’s long-lost brother, Dru. Their banter as polar opposites is really fun, especially as their relationship evolves.

The one downside to this film is, sadly, the minions. I may be in the minority here, but I didn’t care for the Minions movie. The little sentient twinkies are wonderful supporting characters, but they don’t work nearly as well on their own and they’ve been outplayed to death with the same old jokes. DM3 tries to do what the Minions movie did and give them their own subplot, but none of it makes much sense and just seems like a shallow excuse to give them things to do instead of trying to work them into the main story.

That’s a fairly minor complaint though, as every other part of DM3 had me smiling from ear to ear. It’s not quite as good as the first, but it’s better than the second, and anyone who loved the first two owes it to themselves to see it.

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He kind of looks like someone I know, believe it or not

5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Last JediI’m very conflicted about The Last Jedi. The first time I saw it I didn’t know how to feel. It doesn’t just not answer the questions posed by The Force Awakens, it blatantly dismisses them and all but tells the audience directly that they don’t matter. This movies feels like it’s very intentionally cleaning the slate and saying that we need to let go of what Star Wars used to be. The inner child in me who grew up with the original trilogy and read so many of the EU books still hasn’t been able to make peace with that.

It wasn’t until I read some articles, listened to some spoiler podcast discussions, saw The Last Jedi a second time, and did a lot of reflection that I was able to see what was happening. What I didn’t expect was that there’s a part of me that is excited about the new possibilities this presents. Star Wars has always been very black and white, good and evil, light and dark, but as we all know, life is not like that. The scene where Kylo Ren kills Snoke and he and Rey fight off his imperial guards was impressive not just in a technical sense, but in a narrative sense as well. We don’t get to find out who Snoke is or what his backstory is. Kylo literally says to forget all of it. The Jedi, Vader, the First Order, the New Republic, let it all die. He’s not just speaking to Rey in that scene, he’s talking to the viewer. Kylo isn’t turning good as Rey thinks and Rey isn’t turning evil as Kylo thinks. They both have light and dark in them, because life is much more gray. Luke telling Rey to let the Jedi die because the Force is not just for them and Rey’s experience in the dark side cave are both promoting the same message. I love the idea that the Force is more than just a power reserved only for a select few. And for those who had a problem with this, a lot of the later EU books played with this idea as well; they weren’t afraid to explore the notion that the Force can be more than just a tool for Jedi to move things with their minds and influence weak-minded people. Even Rogue One hinted at this. The blind Force user Chirrut literally says he is no Jedi, but he clearly knows the ways of the Force. I can’t wait to see where future films take this idea that the Force can be many different things to many different people. It was a little disappointing that we didn’t get to see Luke rip and tear as I’m sure so many of us wanted, but his finale at the end seemed more appropriate for his character, especially given how broken he was by then. A lot of people had a problem with Luke as well, but to that I say, consider the fact that Luke’s training was incredibly flawed. He started training as a Jedi way later than others were in the days of the Old Republic, he cut his training short to save Han and Leia at Cloud City, and when Yoda died he was left on his own to single-handedly bear the burden of everybody thinking of him as a legendary warrior, as well as the responsibility of bringing the Jedi order back from extinction. All in all, it’s not surprising in the slightest that things went awry. And at least we got the moment of the First Order dumping everything they had at Luke only to have him brush it off his shoulder with nothing more than a silent “meh.” I absolutely loved that.

There are still lots of things I didn’t like about The Last Jedi. There appeared to be huge discrepancies in the timelines of the space battle/chase, the casino trip, and Rey and Luke’s island adventure. C-3PO, R2-D2, and Chewie don’t really have much to do anymore. At this point they’re just there for fan service and comic relief, and not all of the humor worked for me. Some of it, like Poe trolling Hux, was fun, but the porgs didn’t do anything for me. They seem like a lazy, forced attempt to give Chewie some cute, humorous companions and I don’t think they worked at all. Some of the casino planet stuff was interesting in that it was visually stunning, and I liked the idea presented that there were more stories to tell in the Star Wars universe and that there’s a dark underbelly to it all. But the whole subplot seemed disjointed from the rest of the film and the hinting of the child slaves being undiscovered Force-sensitives was a bit too ambiguous and subtle to be effective. And finally, my biggest issue with the film was when Leia got blown out of the command ship and supposedly used the Force to pull herself back to the ship. First of all, the vacuum of space would’ve killed her before she even had a chance to do anything about it. Second, no other film in the entire franchise has even hinted that Leia had learned to use her Force abilities. The EU books did, but those don’t count anymore, so there’s absolutely no precedent in the current canon to justify or explain what she did. Especially when you consider the fact that Carrie Fisher’s unfortunate passing gave the filmmakers an easy out. This was an opportunity to give Leia a heroic death, especially after such a powerful moment when Kylo was unable to bring himself to kill his mother himself. Instead, now they have to figure out how to give Leia an appropriate exit that matches those of Han and Luke. I have no idea how they do that without having Fisher available, but if they relegate her death to nothing more than a mention in the opening crawl of Episode IX it will be deeply unsatisfying.

So yeah, I have a lot of thoughts on the newest Star Wars movie. The open-minded side of me is thrilled at the new possibilities of what Star Wars will become. Many scenes are some of the most visually impressive in the entire series, and it made me stupidly happy to see Yoda again, and as an actual puppet no less! But executionally it didn’t all work for me, and many things about wiping the old slate clean hurts my soul. My conclusion is that I may never truly love The Last Jedi, but I think in time I will come to terms with it and be able to appreciate what it did for the franchise at large.

Last Jedi pic

Phasma still doesn’t get enough screen time, but I love seeing her again

4. Thor: Ragnarok

ThorI enjoyed the previous two Thor movies, but they’ve never been my favorite part of the MCU. I expected to enjoy Ragnarok just fine, but thought that it would be as forgettable as the others. Much to my surprise, it stuck out as quite different in tone from the previous films in all the best ways. The first thing I didn’t expect was the amount of humor. Not all of it worked, but much of it was genuinely funny and gave Thor’s character a refreshing break from the seriousness he’s displayed in all his appearances to date. His interplay with the Hulk was a lot of fun to watch, not just in their arena battle, but with their casual conversation as well. Korg was charming as all hell, but I was surprised to find he wasn’t played by Rhys Darby. Between his voice and his cadence, I would’ve sworn Darby was behind the CG. Finally, Jeff Goldblum is great, as always. Goldblum is the kind of actor who can’t help but play himself in every roll he takes on, and he brings a goofiness to Ragnarok that adds an always-welcome flair to the setting. In the end, Ragnarok is in the same category for me as Ant-Man; a movie I wasn’t expecting much from, but that I couldn’t help but love.

Thor pic

Confirmed: He’s not Thor, God of Hammers

3. Wonder Woman

WWI couldn’t be happier that Wonder Woman is so great. Given DC’s theatrical track record of late, it could’ve been a disaster. Thankfully, its abundance of strong, independent females, potent themes of not being able to save everyone, moral ambiguity, and female director make for an awesome film that I couldn’t wait to see again and support.

It’s not perfect. A lot of the fish-out-of-water scenes focus a bit too heavily on Diana’s physical looks and I didn’t really buy the romance between her and Trevor, specifically, the ending moment didn’t feel earned. But most of the rest of the film worked beautifully. It was encouraging seeing Diana as a young girl wanting to train to become a strong warrior defending her people, and the thought of Wonder Woman being an inspiration to young girls is heart-warming. After the debacles that were Man of Steel (which I actually kind of enjoyed) and Batman v Superman, DC needed a hit badly, and I’m super pleased Wonder Woman was that hit. I haven’t seen Justice League, but I haven’t heard great things, so I can only hope the next WW movie is as well-done as the first.

WW pic

Young Diana wants to be a badass when she grows up

2. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man picTom Holland’s Spider-Man was one of my favorite things about Captain America: Civil War. The awe-struck, starry-eyed fanboy who spent most of his screen time freaking out that he was fighting alongside so many heroes he admired was hilarious It brought back memories of the fun-loving Spider-Man portrayed by Tobey Maguire 15 years ago (my god, has it been that long?). Like Maguire before him, Holland brings back the Spider-Man so many people relate to. He’s not super rich like Tony Stark, he’s a broke-ass kid with real-life problems as a teenager trying to find his path as he becomes an adult in the big city. He’s the every man, he’s there for the little guys, and as much as it killed us all to see Maguire turn down Mary Jane’s affection so long ago, it felt as if that was how it was supposed to be. When Holland turns down a spot in the Avengers, it was disappointing, but only because we want Peter Parker to get his. We want him to be recognized with the big boys, but that’s not who Parker is. He’s the little guy who sacrifices fame, fortune, notoriety, even his own personal desires to be there on the ground level, making things better on the small scale.

Refreshingly, Homecoming skips over Spider-Man’s origin story entirely. We all know it already, so there’s no point in rehashing it yet again, and it lets us get right to the meat of the character. Watching such an endearing character try so hard, succeed, fail, and prove himself is incredibly uplifting. His arc is inspiring, and watching Stark tell Peter that if he’s nothing without the suit then he doesn’t deserve to have it at all is both heartbreaking and opens up the character to really shine and come into his own.

Finally, Michael Keaton absolutely kills it as Vulture. He’s a genuinely scary villain, and his origin as a blue-collar guy who got shafted in the wake of the Avengers’ destructive ways is brilliant, as is making him the father of Peter’s love interest. The scene with the two of them in the car at the dance just oozes tension and gives their confrontation so much gravity. The best villains are those who a) don’t see themselves as villains, and b) are sympathetic on some level. Vulture is a bad person with good motivations, and that makes for an incredibly compelling relationship with our hero.

I didn’t much care for The Amazing Spider-Man, and didn’t even bother seeing its follow-up, but so far, bringing the character into the rest of the MCU has been great for the character and the rest of the Marvel movie mythology. I can’t wait to see where the character goes from here.

Spider-Man pic

He’s not rich, he’s not a god, he’s your friendly neighborhood spider-man. And that’s the way we like him.

1. Blade Runner 2049

Blade RunnerI don’t even know where to start with Blade Runner 2049. I liked the first Blade Runner well enough, but it’d been so many years since I’d seen it, and not being familiar with Denis Villeneuve’s work, I didn’t really know what to expect from the new film. The trailers were intriguing though, and seeing it in the theater, I was blown away. Everything about this movie, from the aesthetic, to the score, to the effects, to the themes captivated me right from the start. It feels like a natural progression from the first movie, and very believable. It’s a long, slow movie that isn’t afraid to let a scene linger and let the imagery and ideas really sink in. Much in the same way that Her did, Blade Runner 2049 completely sold me on the ideas of an android yearning for companionship, learning how to be more human, and actually going through an existential crisis. The nature of humanity, what it means to have genuine feelings, memories, and what kind of “person” you become as a result are profoundly fascinating to me, and this film presents it all so damn well that I was riveted. The love scene between Joi and K in particular I thought was pulled off masterfully. A love scene between androids is something that could very easily come off as hokey or tasteless, but the acting and visual representation actually made me believe it as an affectionate interaction. Robin Wright is fantastic as always, and brings a human responsibility and weight to everything. I thought it would’ve been better if Deckard’s part had been kept secret, but his presence is still welcome. His fight scene with K in the casino, with the Elvis show glitching out in the background, was hilarious, and the fact that he doesn’t give a damn if his dog is real or not is very appropriate.

I feel the score in Blade Runner 2049 deserves special mention. It’s very identifiably Hans Zimmer, but in the best way possible, it’s absolutely dripping with 1980s far-future synth, booming bass, and haunting reverb. It’s eerie, poignant, and so thick with foreboding atmosphere that you can practically feel your ears bleeding. This is one of those soundtracks that’s so well meshed with its source film that it elevates the whole thing to a powerful new level.

I’ve heard some people complain that for as many thought-provoking questions as Blade Runner 2049 asks, it doesn’t really answer any of them. I don’t really understand this criticism. In any other film, this would be a valid concern, but when you’re talking about such philosophical stuff as what it means to be human, there really is no answer. It’s inherent to the nature of such questions that they can’t be resolved. Is Deckard a replicant or isn’t he? There are good arguments for both sides, but honestly, I don’t want to know. Like he says himself, does it really matter? Does knowing a memory was planted make it any less meaningful in the way it shaped your personality? If an AI is indistinguishable from humanity can there not be genuine emotion or affection for it? If they’re so lifelike, do they deserve the same rights as the rest of us or is a kind of replicant racism justified? And if there can be a genuine emotional relationship with them, does knowing that that same AI can be duplicated with no effort fracture that connection? Not only are there no easy answers to these questions, but in a sense I’m ok with that, because I love the discussions they provoke. More than that, they are extremely important questions to ask. They’re not new ideas by any stretch, but today we live in a world where Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa are getting smarter and smarter every day, knowing more and more about us, automating so many aspects of our lives, and are always monitoring us. Alexa will compliment you when you wake up or get home from work if you want it to. It knows what you buy. Google knows where you live, where you work, and where you go. Matter of fact, I’ve caught myself referring to them not as “it” but as “she.” The portrayal of Joi as an AI life companion is an eventuality I can totally see becoming a reality some day, for better or for worse.

The fact that Blade Runner 2049 did so poorly in the theaters is a bit soul-crushing to me. It isn’t just a fascinating movie with interesting characters, a powerful musical score, and breathtaking visuals of a not-so-pleasant future, but it’s an increasingly relevant film that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I saw it.

Blade Runner pic

As lifelike and moving as their relationship is, it’s still a simulation

On 2017, Part 1: Overview

Holy shitballs 2017 was a year. It sure as hell wasn’t boring. In reality, I’m pretty conflicted about 2017 as a whole. On the mass scale, there’s a LOT to be worried about. A president who’s a racist, sexist, loudmouth, bigoted, blowhard of a man-baby who cares nothing for anyone except his rich, white, business buddies. Neo-nazis and white supremacists causing uproars and people who are actually not shunning them. Natural disasters. International tensions with North Korea and others. A complete joke of a tax plan that was rammed through simply so the Republicans could say they accomplished something in their first year of Trumpy McOrangeface’s presidency. The repeal of net neutrality. Accusations of dirtbag men being dirtbags to women flying left and right. It’s enough to make my head spin and curl up in a fetal position under the covers.

Arguably the worst part is the fact that I can’t even say this year is over and maybe 2018 will be better, because we have another few years of this crap yet to endure. Who knows where we’ll be this time next year. My plan has been to basically batten down the mental hatches and prepare for the long haul. To put it simply, it’s not a coincidence that one of the NYE parties I’m attending this year is subtitled “Let’s All Pretend Everything is OK For A Few Hours”.

The one positive thing I can say about all the above is I think the mass amounts of men in the media finally being called out for their dicketry is a good thing. Maybe, just maybe, this will affect some change in that realm. The only way men in power are going to think twice about treating women like objects is if they’re made out to be social pariahs and it affects their companies’ pocketbooks.

With all that said though, on a personal level, 2017 was actually a pretty good year for me. It started out crappy, with a fairly serious car accident at the end of January, but after that it was all good. I got a new car (necessitated by the aforementioned accident), and being in the hospital from that incident alerted me to a relatively minor medical issue I’d been ignoring. This was a sufficient kick in the pants to get back on track with that, so in a way it was for the best. In addition, I further established myself with my new employer, saw some great concerts and shows, did some traveling, reconnected with a few friends I hadn’t talked to in quite some time, made some great new friends, and even managed to do some dating. It’s fairly easy for me to get into a rut of a dry spell in the dating department, but it felt good to put myself out there more than I did in 2016. I’m not getting any younger, after all, and the older I get the more my thoughts on dating evolve and change. I feel pretty good about the next few years.

Finally, I had an amazing vacation in Las Vegas where I partied more than I had in literally years, and moved back to the part of town where I grew up. I’d never left it completely, as I would come back to visit my dad or for events on that part of town, but I haven’t lived in this area in 14 years, and I didn’t expect to discover how much I’d missed living here. I now have a general gameplan for setting down roots here in the next year or two and now I just have to execute. That will be the true test. In a little over two years I’ll be 40, and although I’m not going to take that very well at all, if I can go into my 40s knowing that my future is relatiely secure and prove to myself that I’m capable of accomplishing something on a larger scale than I’ve yet to do, I’ll feel a lot better about it. I hope I’m up to it.

So all in all, I’m worried for our country and what it’s going to look like three years from now. But in the meantime I’m comforted by the fact that in the last few years I’ve done a fairly good job of balancing my life, assessing what’s important to me, and setting myself up for good things in the coming years. Life isn’t perfect, but I have a good handle on things and if I can keep it up I’ll be a-ok. Bring it on, 2018. I’m sure on the mass scale things will continue to be shitty, but for me personally, I’m ready to keep riding this roller coaster we call life.

And now comes the fun part of my year-end analysis. There were some absolutely incredible things in media this year that I’m really excited to write about. I plan to do some writing about my favorite movies, books, and video games throughout the year in the coming days. There’s probably not that much I will say that hasn’t already been said in a million and a half other blogs and websites, but I don’t care. This is my site, and I enjoy doing it, even if it’s for purely masturbatory purposes.

 

The End of an Era: Epilogue

My 10 year wedding anniversary would’ve been Fri, Oct 20th, ten days ago. It’s mind-blowing how much can change in ten years. I knew it was coming up, expected to be all reflective. So what did I do that Friday? Honestly, it completely slipped my mind on the day of, and I didn’t think of it once. I went to work, went to Side Quest where I met no less than four new people, one of which became a new friend, then I went home and thought of someone who most definitely was not my ex-wife.
 
One of my favorite song verses ever is “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you, that I almost believe that they’re real. I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you, that I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel.” I’ve always thought of those lyrics as refering to a lost love. But today, they mean something different to me. Today, they’re actually a pretty accurate description of how I feel.
 
Thing is, it was so long ago and both me and my life are so different now, on some level it almost doesn’t feel real anymore. It’s probably been six or seven years since I talked to my ex-wife; I have no idea where she is, what her life is like, or even if her phone number is the same. I’m sure she’s a very different person now as well. My ex-sister-in-law was less than a year old when I met her. She’d be about 14 or 15 now. I probably wouldn’t even recognize her if I saw her on the street. I have many memories that are clear as day, my wedding was amazing, and I’ve never stopped thinking of that time of my life, and probably never will. But I guess this means that, while it remains a tentpole time in my life, I’m so far removed from it now that it’s only meaningful to me in abstraction. It’s become a fable, a distant page in the history book of my life, relatable only because I know I lived through it. Hell, I expected to write about this at least a week ago, but the fact of the matter is I kept blowing it off because I didn’t feel I needed to.
 
I’d say this was liberating or enlightening if I felt I still needed closure, but I don’t. I got that years ago. Still interesting though, how even after so long thoughts and perspectives can continue to evolve in unexpected ways, so much so that it took me nearly a week and a half to be able to articulate it. Not good or bad, just interesting. In that sense, I’m glad I did finally decide to say a little something about it. Not what I originally anticipated, but still plenty worthwhile, in my opinion. Sometimes you need to think something through and get it out, not to vent, find closure, or even to learn from it, but simply to understand it.

Top 10 Reads of 2016

Update: 12/20/17 Man, I’m really bad with these. Another year, another top 10 list abandoned. 

Super late but I read a lot last year and want to remember the best of them.

11. 1984 by George Orwell (1949)

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10. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley (2012)

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9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)

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8. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab (2015)

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7. Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon (2013)

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6. The Crystal Spheres by David Brin (1984)

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5. Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman (2015)

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4. Dawn by Octavia E. Butler (1997)

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3. The Three-Body Problem by Lin Cixin (2014)

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2. The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (2015)

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1. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (2015)

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Top 10 Reads of 2015

Update: 12/20/17 Like My 2015 games list, I started this and didn’t finish it. So I might as well get it out now.

10. Crooked by Austin Grossman (2015)

Crooked coverA historical fiction starring Richard “I Am Not A Crook” Nixon isn’t something I’d normally be interested in. When it was selected as our October 2015 book club suggestion and I read the book sleeve’s description however, I was pretty into the premise. It describes a story of Nixon collaborating with Russian spies and battling supernatural forces. As we discussed in our book club podcast for the it however, this was hardly what Crooked turned out to be.

Nixon is painted pretty early on as a bumbling, aloof snake who gets by not on wits and strength, but by lying, cheating, and using whatever unscrupulous tactics he can. Early on, it’s easy to buy into as he pursues a supposed Communist who it’s revealed has connections to the supernatural. I was totally on board until that sub-plot came to fruition. Unfortunately, rather than Nixon having a revelation and beginning to come into his own as a demon-hunting spy, he continues to fumble around and pretend to know what he’s doing, even though it’s pretty clear he still has no idea what’s going on or what to do about it. The more I learned about the forces of evil from other characters, the more annoying it became that Nixon wasn’t growing one bit as a character and had very little to do with the plans being put in place to deal with the situation. To top it off, the conclusion was completely nonsensical and unsatisfying.

In the end, there was enough in Crooked to keep me reading to the end, but very little I found enjoyable that would make me want to recommend it. It’s all the more disappointing given the subject matter and book sleeve’s description. If Grossman had focused things more and paid off some of the promises made by the description, it could’ve been really great. As it is though, Crooked reeks of nothing but untapped potential.

9. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)

Christmas Carol coverAs many times as I’ve seen this wonderful movie of the spirit of Christmas, I’d never actually read the book. I’m glad I finally changed that.

There’s not really much I can say about A Christmas Carol that hasn’t already been said. You know the story, the characters, and how it turns out. Given the time period in which it was written and published, some of the language gets a bit obtuse, but the story at the heart of Mr. Scrooge’s run-ins with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come remains as powerful as it’s ever been.

Very few things get the spirit of Christmas flowing in me than this. As someone who has never attached any religious meaning to the holiday, A Christmas Story really hits home. Being thankful for friends and family, spending time with the people you love, not taking what you have for granted, and taking time to think of those less fortunate than yourself have always been the crux of what Christmas means to me, and Dickens’ classic tale embodies this more than any other work written since.

8. The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level by Chris Hardwick (2011)

Nerdist Way coverI’ve never been much for self-help books. Not that I think I’m above receiving advice from those more knowledgeable than myself, it’s just that they don’t usually hold my interest long enough to get much out of. The Nerdist Way was a lot easier for me to get into, coming from someone I have a lot of respect for both as a creator and promoter of geeky things in general, and as someone who completely turned his life around. Chris Hardwick isn’t that much older than me, and while I’m coming from a completely different background and set of past circumstances than he, many of the things he discusses in this book are things I’ve thought about.

Getting away from bad habits, creating healthier ones, not being afraid to put yourself out there and try new things, motivating yourself to get healthy and exercise, and other topics are discussed with delightfully geeky references and techniques, such as creating your own personal D&D-like character sheet to chart your real life strengths, weaknesses, and improvement. Hardwick is lovably nerdy, and his path to success is a fascinating one, worthy of reflection for anyone looking for help in any number of aspects of their lives.

7. Annihilation (Southern Reach trilogy #1) by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

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6. Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig (2015)

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5. You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day (2015)

YNWOTI coverIf there’s any celebrity representative of nerd culture I love as much as Chris Hardwick, it’s Felicia Day. More than just a cute face, her endlessly charming sense of humor, creativity, and awkwardness have managed to make her pretty much the most adorable person in the history of everything.

Anyone who grew up feeling weird for not liking sports and instead found comfort in D&D, video games, and friendships cultivated from behind a computer monitor will easily identify with Felicia’s tale of growing up and trying to find her way in life. More than her dorkiness however, her passion and drive to create has been extremely successful for her and has made her a role model for those looking to do similarly great things.

To top it off, as a woman in the age of the Internet’s mass-market proliferation, Day has had to endure some of the worst Internet bile out there. It’s inspiring to read not just of her successes, but of her failures and insecurities in dealing with everything that entails. If you’ve ever felt like a fish out of water or felt weird for identifying more with paper and pencil characters than real-life citizens of the realm of Earth, definitely give this one a read.

4. All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (2004)

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3. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996)

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2. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)

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1. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (2015)

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Biggest disappointment: Armada by Ernest Cline (2015)

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Top 10 Games of 2015

Update: 12/20/17 So I started thinking about my 2017 lists and realized I never posted this. Nearly everything below was written two years ago, I just never finished it and posted it. In the interest of cleaning out the closet, so to speak, here it is. 

This is usually where I spout my obligatory caveat about how I’m old now and things like a job and girls and friends and life in general have prevented me from playing x, y, and z games. The more top 10 lists I read that say this kind of thing though, the more annoying I feel that statement sounds, not necessarily to me, just in general. I figure anyone reading this is old enough to recognize that when you get into your 20’s and 30’s, you don’t play as many games as you used to. And the fact of the matter is, I can say I don’t have time for stupidly dense games like Metal Gear Solid V, The Witcher 3, and Fallout 4 until I’m blue in the face. It doesn’t change the fact that if a game manages to get its hooks in me, I’ll find time for it. I put in multiple dozens of hours into several games on this list simply because I fell for them hard and made time to play them at the expense of other games and other things I could/should have been doing.

So dispensing of all that self-justifying rhetoric, I’ll just say that it was a pretty great year for games. The industry still has its problems, as it always will. Broken ports, disingenuous DLC and microtransaction models, and muddy Kickstarter policies and practices will continue to be points of contention for some time, but it seems like the industry was able to wash away some of the vitriolic stench of Gamergate. While conversations around those subjects will (and should!) continue to take place to try and solve some of the more egregious problems with inequality and bullying, the conversations seemed to be more positive in 2015 and allowed the focus to return to the games. And there were a lot of really great ones that covered everything anyone could want, from massive AAA titles, to mobile, to downloadable indies, to weird little experimental games that played with unique interactivity and gameplay styles.

My list kind of blew up a bit this year, so I won’t blame anyone for checking out the top 10 and stopping there, but for anyone interested in a few extra tidbits, feel free to keep on reading. And as always, I’d be interested in your thoughts as well, so feel free to speak up if you’d like in the comments.

10. Pokemon Picross (3DS, Jupiter Corp)

Pokemon Picross coverI’m not usually a fan of free-to-play games, and I had the misfortune of being a tad too old to have caught the Pokemon bug when it came on the scene, but I love me some picross. Like Sudoku or any number of other math puzzles, it’s deeply satisfying to spend a few lazy minutes (or hours) deducing your way to coloring in pictures based on the number and arrangement of which blocks should be filled in a given row or column. To that end, Pokemon Picross is the best thing to happen to picross since Picross 3D.

This game takes the basic picross model and adds pokemon-powered special abilities to the mix. With each puzzle you solve you’ll capture a different pokemon, which then let’s you equip them to give you a number of different abilities, such as revealing a couple rows of blocks at the start of a level, slowing down the timer, or even stopping it completely for a bit. As the puzzles get bigger and more complicated, they start adding certain challenge conditions, such as not equipping pokemon of a certain type or limiting the number of times you can use abilities. These all add a strategic element to the vanilla picross model and I loved the way it changed things up.

The free-to-play features show themselves in several ways. You have an energy bar, and every puzzle requires a certain amount of energy to play. Once you run out of energy you either need to wait for it to replenish on its own, or buy a batch of the in-game currency, picrites. Picrites are used for many things, from refilling your energy bar right away (or even extending your maximum energy level), to unlocking more slots to equip more pokemon at a time, to opening up new sets of puzzles. You’ll get picrites by playing through the game normally, but like any free-to-play title, you’ll eventually hit a barrier where you won’t have enough of them to move forward without either waiting, or paying up. In addition, each pokemon has a number of uses available before they’re out of commission for a time, which, of course, you can spend picrites to eliminate.

What sets Pokemon Picross apart is the fact that it won’t gouge your wallet. Instead, it caps your spending at $30. Once you hit that point, it stops charging and just gives you more picrites for free any time you ask for them. Also, once you upgrade your maximum energy level a few times, it just gives you infinite energy. These key differences, by putting a limit on how much you can spend, are enough to avoid the egregiousness of many other FTP games out there and is worth praising. If you never want to spend a dime, you don’t have to. If you want to pay to binge on puzzles or throw the developers some support, they basically unlock the whole game for you once you’ve given them the equivalent of buying the game for a reasonable retail price. And with over 300 puzzles, plus alternate, more complicated versions of each puzzle and a daily challenge-style feature, there’s enough content here to keep you busy for a long, long, time. This is not just a great picross game, it’s free-to-play done right. Bravo, Nintendo.

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9. Destiny: The Taken King (PS4/XOne, Bungie)

Taken King coverThis was the year that Destiny got good. And not just good, but great. With a rock solid shooter base to it, what Destiny lacked was compelling content. Once you completed the main story campaign, the game become a never-ending grindfest the likes of which quickly got boring to all but the most hardcore. The first couple of expansions helped, but were fleeting experiences.

The Taken King wasn’t just a huge new piece of story-heavy content, it was a reworking of the entire experience, damage, and light systems, the addition of tons of new weapons and armor to collect, new sub-classes, a more convenient job board, and many other small improvements that injected new life into Bungie’s MMOFPS. This is the game Destiny should’ve been right out of the gate. It didn’t just hook me again, it hooked me harder than the OG game ever did. I started a second class, played with a different set of friends on XOne and PS4, and had more fun with it than ever.

It’ll be interesting to see what Destiny’s future looks like. There isn’t likely to be another influx of meaty new story content until Destiny 2, and it’s yet to be seen if the sequel will integrate with it’s predecessor as it should or if it’ll be an entirely separate thing. But I’m hoping Bungie takes the lessons learned here and builds off of the platform they’ve built to make something even better.

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8. Tales From the Borderlands (PS4/PS3/XOne/360/PC, Telltale Games)

Tales Borderlands coverI thought I’d gotten everything I needed out of Pandora. Between the two base Borderlands games and The Pre-Sequel I had more cel-shaded, comedic, shooty loot dropping fun than I could shake a vault key at. So when Telltale announced they were applying their adventure game talent to making a character-driven Borderlands story, I didn’t understand why I needed it, or even why I should care. This is a case where word of mouth made all the difference. I’d seen the positive reviews and they managed to open me up to it, but a couple recommendations from friends sealed the deal and I decided to give it a shot.

With Tales From the Borderlands, Telltale managed to create characters that were likable, interesting, and played off each other wonderfully, helped by an all-star voice cast including the likes of Nolan North, Troy Baker, and Chris Hardwick. I got attached to them and wanted to see where their story took them. This is crucial in an adventure game, and is especially impressive considering the only characters I cared about, or could even name, from the first three Borderlands games were the most outlandish (Claptrap and Handsome Jack). Rhys, Fiona, Sasha, Vaughn, and Loaderbot made me care about the world of Pandora in a whole new way, with the visuals, humor, and great licensed music providing all the stylistic flair you want from this series. These,  combined skillfully with the tough, nail-biting decision-making of Telltale’s signature style, made me a believer, and if they do a second season then I’ll be right there ready and waiting enthusiastically.

Tales from the Borderlands

7. Super Mario Maker (Wii U, Nintendo)

Mario Maker coverSuper Mario Maker is basically a Mario game taken to its peak potential. How many of us played a Mario game and either wanted more levels or wanted to make their own? It’s criminal that it took Nintendo this long to give it to us, but in a way that’s a good thing. If there’s ever been a game that justified the Wii U’s touchscreen gamepad it’s this.

I have no intention of ever creating a level in Mario Maker. I’ve never enjoyed making levels in games and am not creative enough to come up with clever ideas for them. But I love seeing what others out there are making. From short gimmicky experiences, to levels meant to tell a story, to levels expressly built to be maddeningly difficult, it’s amazing to see one of the best games ever made exploding into basically an infinite amount of content. And with as great as it already is, it continues to have tremendous potential. Nintendo has already started to build on its structure, adding improvements to the level filtering and discovery, and adding features to make the level possibilities even more varied. This is a game people can, and hopefully will, play for years to come.

On top of that, Super Mario Maker is a huge landmark in Nintendo opening up its tools to the public. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the design philosophies of the earliest Mario games and how ingeniously and meticulously they were created. The brilliance of their level design and the way those first few levels in Super Mario Bros teach you things without you even realizing it remains some of the most clever things in gaming, even after nearly three decades. It’s a massive win for Nintendo and gamers that Mario Maker exists, and I’m thrilled that we now have a way to play with its creation tools and enjoy an endless supply of the best platforming in gaming’s history.

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6. Ori and the Blind Forest (XOne/PC, Moon Studios)

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5. Yoshi’s Woolly World (Wii U, Good Feel)

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I’m trying to figure out how to write about Yoshi’s Wooly World without just spouting a vomitous stream of squees and rainbows. Yoshi was already a cute little guy when he was simply a mode of transportation for our favorite overall-wearing plumbers, but then Nintendo had to go and make him a soft, cuddly yarn ball and omg the adorableness!

If you’re not familiar with Good Feel, they’re the studio who graced the Wii with Kirby’s Epic Yarn, an utterly delightful game that managed to make Kirby’s heart-melting persona even more so. Kirby’s Epic Yarn, as pleasing as it was though, was clearly made for a younger audience. There wasn’t a whole lot going on, it was easy as pie, and other than the occasional sequences where Kirby would turn into a UFO or rocket-spewing tank, it wasn’t all that exciting. I was totally ok with that, but Yoshi’s Wooly World feels much more like the Epic Yarn formula and taken to the next level.

Kirby’s yarn world was made up mostly of outlines. In Wooly World, everything looks like it was actually knitted, crocheted, or stitched. There’s not a single thing within it that you wouldn’t find in a craft store. It’s the yarn aesthetic taken to its max potential, gorgeous to look at and see the incredible detail in every sewed button, every doily platform, and every crochet hook-brandishing yarn shy-guy. It never got old to see Yoshi’s little feet curl up into wheels when he ran at full speed, or see how the doors to new areas would open and close with the help of a zipper. Also unlike Kirby’s linen-skinen adventure, this is a much more difficult game. If all you want to do is make it through the level and finish the game, it’s not too bad. It’s tougher than Epic Yarn, but won’t give you much trouble. To those who want to find all the hidden stamps and yarn bundles (and really, how could you not want to, seeing as the yarn bundles unlock different-themed yarn yoshis), Wooly World can get challenging very quickly, with deviously clever hiding spots and brutally difficult secret levels.

Like the very best Nintendo first party games, Yoshi’s Wooly World has some fun and truly unique ideas, and doesn’t run them into the ground. It goes for variety, and is all the better for it. The level designs are excellent, making full use of the visual style in ways that never failed to make me smile, and kept me entertained even when I was at my most frustrated. The boss battles are impressive as well, and the game even features a boss-run mode with more difficult versions of them to unlock even more colored yoshis. The only negative thing I can really say about this game is that Yoshi’s grunts and vocal straining too often strayed from cute to annoying, since you hear them pretty much constantly throughout the game. Other than that, Yoshi’s Wooly World is a fantastic game I really can’t say enough positive things about. It’s one of those snuggly, kiddie-looking games that I just love to love. The kind of game that burrows its way into your heart and drags the smiles out of all but the most hardened misanthrope.

Woolly World screenshot

4. Life is Strange (PS4/PS3/XOne/360/PC, DONTNOD Entertainment)

Life is Strange coverIt was bound to happen. Someone finally did the Telltale adventure game better than Telltale, even despite the fact that Life is Strange lays it on nauseatingly thick with its emo high school dialogue. It’s as if the developers learned about high school from watching teen drama TV and movies than by actually going to high school themselves. But then, it’s been over fifteen years since I was in high school myself, so for all I know that’s how kids really talk these days. Damn millennials.

Fortunately, even though the endless uses of “hella,” “cray,” and other slang will make you roll your eyes, there’s a heartfelt genuineness to the performances that makes it easy to overlook that point. The story is incredibly powerful, and deals in matters that are easily relatable regardless of your fluency in teeny bopper banter. Friendship, love, loss, regret, being unsure of yourself and unconfident in the decisions you make in dealing with all those things, it’s all represented here. As the main character, Kate, attempts to deal with her new life and maintain friendships both old and new, the discovery of her ability to rewind time makes each major decision riveting and intense. At the heart of it all is Kate’s fractured friendship with Chloe. The more it strengthens and weakens, it’s very easy to get invested in and care about these characters.

The story takes some pretty heavy twists and turns, with certain characters’ lives and Kate’s relationship with them hanging in the balance. Kate’s time rewind powers grow stronger as the game goes on, but a major point of it all is how going back to change things sometimes causes more problems than it solves. It’s not a new idea at all, but within the scope of these characters and what happens to them, it works beautifully. What is unique is that by rewinding time you can see how each decision you make will play out and make a more informed choice. One could argue that this takes away a bit of the sense of ownership of your own path through the story, but Life is Strange teaches you pretty quickly that your decisions will have long term repercussions that you can’t predict, and this can undermine how you initially feel about each short term decision. In the end, it actually gave each choice even more weight and got me more invested. By the time I reached the conclusion, I felt like I’d really been taken on a ride. The climax is especially well done right up until the final, gut-wrenching decision. If you have any affection for episodic story and character-heavy adventure games, then I highly recommend Life is Strange. The dialogue will make you groan and all the story elements don’t gel perfectly at times, but the main plot and characters are well worth the journey, and it sticks the landing wonderfully,

Life is Strange screenshot

3. Axiom Verge (PS4/PC, Thomas Happ Games)

Axiom Verge coverIt would be accurate to say Axiom Verge is to Metroid as Shovel Knight is to Mega Man, but it would also be a bit too easy and not sufficient to really convey what this game does. Axiom Verge wears it’s inspiration on its sleeve. You know how these games work. Non-linear world to explore, showing you things you can’t access yet, and returning to areas you’ve already been to uncover new secrets are staples of the metroidvania genre. But it doesn’t take long before this game starts subverting your expectations in wonderfully surprising ways. Yes, you’ll figure out a way to get into that half-sized hole, but there’s no morph ball. Yes, you’ll be able to break that wall, but there are no bombs. And one of the first items you get makes it very clear you’re going to be doing some very exciting and unexpected things in order to see this adventure to its end. Add to that the stunning retro-like visuals, the incredible soundtrack, and the fascinating lore taking place underneath it all, and this is without a doubt my favorite Metroid-like in a long, long time.

Axiom Verge screenshot

2. Batman: Arkham Knight (PS4/XOne, Rocksteady Studios)

Arkham Knight coverBatman: Arkham Asylum was phenomenal. But it’s been six years, and in that time we’ve had two more Arkham games, and Shadow of Mordor, which managed to take Arkham Asylum‘s silky-smooth combat mechanics and somehow make them even better. I’m actually pretty glad I only dabbled in Arkham City and skipped Arkham Origins completely, otherwise I probably would have come to this new entry with more Bat-fatigue.

Thankfully, I was primed and ready for a new Batman game from the studio who brought us the original more than half a decade ago. And man, did Rocksteady not disappoint. If you’ve played any of the other games in the franchise you know mostly what to expect, but they’ve taken the formula they’ve been cultivating and refined it to damn-near perfection. The combat and stealth mechanics are just as satisfying as they ever were; with the additions of team takedowns and multi-takedowns, no other game makes you feel like more of a badass Bat-hero. The new Bat-tank batmobile is a surprisingly cool new way to engage your enemies and solve puzzles. If puzzle solving is your thing there’s a crap-ton of new Riddler trophies to find, and graphically, Gotham and the Dark Knight have never looked better. Every time I was perched on a railing and stopped to look around, it never failed to blow me away with its level of detail. The city itself is vast, with countless neon signs, tall buildings, vehicles, drones, and other things all moving together. The rain effects are incredibly detailed, most impressive when dripping off the Batmobile or glistening off your cape as you glide from rooftop to rooftop.

That’s not to say Arkham Knight is perfect; there’s plenty of irritating things here to knitpick. First off, the tank battles and puzzles are fun new additions, but they’re leaned on way too much as the story goes on. There were times, like when maneuvering in tight quarters, dodging and shooting increasingly ridiculous amounts of enemy tanks, or racing through underground obstacle courses when it stops being fun and I wanted to be done with them as quickly as possible. The main story itself is unoriginal and The Arkham Knight as a character failed to hold my interest. The hallucinogenic nuances are the most interesting bits, and Mark Hamill’s Joker kills it as always, but those moments are frequent enough that it could turn some off. On a related note, Batman himself starts to get annoying as the Gary Stu martyrdom of his character is taken to what felt like the highest levels I’ve ever seen. Finally, and it’s kind of crazy that I’m considering this a negative, is that Arkham Knight suffers from severe bloat. It’s so packed with side missions, Riddler trophies, and training modules that by the time I reached the end I was fatigued and glad to put it back on the shelf, which is not how a game should leave you feeling. I would have less of a problem with this if they didn’t gate the game’s endings behind your completion percentage. I was actually thankful all the DLC was shallow, as I didn’t have the energy for it.

All that said, none of these negatives are serious enough to change the fact that the base game of gliding and sneaking around and taking out thugs is incredibly fun. Rocksteady may have gone a bit too far with stuffing things into it, but it’s still by far the best game about a psychologically-damaged playboy punching super villains in the face ever.

Arkham Knight screenshot

1. Bloodborne (PS4, From Software)

Bloodborne cover2015 was the year I finally got it, when the Souls addiction finally clicked for me. I’ve written before about how many times I tried to get into Demon’s Souls. I banged my head against its obtuse systems, mazelike-yet-still-structured levels, and crushingly unforgiving difficulty several times, only to have my ass handed to me time and time again. Eventually I was able to beat the boss of level 1-1, and decided to brave level 2-1. As incredibly rewarding as that was, however, it never stopped feeling like a tedious homework assignment. I wanted to have fun with it, and felt like I should, but ultimately resigned myself to the fact that I was probably never going to be able to crack this proverbial nut, so much so that I completely skipped Dark Souls and its sequel.

Bloodborne was the game that changed all that. First, its Victorian gothic setting, infested with horrific plague-riddled creatures, piqued my interest infinitely more than the Arthurian swords and shields fantasy land of its predecessors. The idea of using a gun, not for long distance killing, but for up close and personal parrying was unique and intriguing. It was enough to convince me that maybe this series was worth another try, and boy am I glad I did.

Everything about Bloodborne grabbed me right off the bat. Yharnam was instantly a visually striking place to explore, and because I’m super methodical about how I like to see every path in games like this, it was hugely gratifying to see how each winding road looped in on other parts and connected to each other. I grew to learn the layout of the whole game in my head like my own home town. The relatively limited gun and weapon toolset combined with mechanics that were just slightly easier to get a handle on than the previous Souls games, which allowed me to come to grips with them much more easily this time around. And once that happened, it all fell into place and I came to appreciate the difficulty and exacting precision these games require. The best thing I can compare them to is a really hard platforming game from the NES days, like Ninja Gaiden or Mega Man. They’re by no means insurmountable, but they require patience, practice, and skill. Even low-level enemies can and will mercilessly beat the snot out of you if you’re careless enough to drop your guard or get surrounded.

The great thing is that when you’ve hit your stride, mastered the techniques, and learned how to exploit the weaknesses of your foes, it’s incredibly empowering. When I hit that point I no longer felt like I was beating my head against a brick wall and instead found myself riveted at the edge of my seat, intimidated by every new area I explored with no idea what horrors may be around the next turn. And oh does Bloodborne have some fascinating things to show. By the time its ambiguous plot turned toward the Lovecraftian halfway through, I was transfixed. When I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about it. At work, laying in bed at night, I couldn’t wait to put in another dozen hours to see it through, even if I didn’t fully understand what was happening. Every fight was visceral, not necessarily because it was bloody (and it does get bloody!), but because I had to earn every victory. And every time I had to use the skills I’d developed to dodge around a massive beast screaming its anger at me and swiping at me with claws as big as my own character, with an epic orchestral soundtrack accompanying it, I was in awe. It was epic, it was terrifying, and it was the most exhilarating, heart-pounding experience I’ve had all year. I haven’t played the DLC yet, but am excited to jump back in. Hell, I may even go back and give Dark Souls a try.

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2015’s 2014 Game of the Year

Nidhogg (PS4, Messhof)

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En garde! Have at you!

Biggest Disappointment

The Order: 1886 (PS4, Ready at Dawn Studios)

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Shooty McShooterson, but boring

 

 

A Day To Be Inspired

Even though I didn’t have to be at work today, and despite having staying up way too late the night before catching up on episodes of @midnight, I found myself laying in bed at 8am and unable to get back to sleep. I’d intended to take devote the entire day to diving headfirst into Fallout 4, but a shipping delay with a certain mail carrier who shall remain nameless (when mispronounced, it rhymes with “cups”) meant that my copy wouldn’t be arriving until later in the day. Thus, in a rare confluence of inspiration and the free time immediately available to actually act on it, I found myself thinking of the reason why I had the day off work in the first place.

Veteran’s Day. Right up there with Memorial Day, it’s without a doubt one of the most meaningful holidays we have as a people. Observed similarly in other parts of the world as Armistice Day, it was originally meant to coincide with the end of World War I, when the Armistice with Germany went into effect. President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed the occasion with the following: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” In 1945, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill expanding Armistice Day into a day to remember all veterans, and Congress passed it less than a week later.

I’ve always had the utmost respect for the men and women who serve in the military. Regardless of your thoughts on politics, politicians, the wars we fight, or the current state of the world (and there’s a lot to think and talk about), it can’t be denied that the people serving in the armed forces have the most difficult job of all. Some do it because they’re in a bad position in life and don’t see another option available to them. Some do it because they know that in putting in their time they’ll be given training, a GI bill, and a lifetime’s worth of unforgettable experiences. Yet others do it because they simply have pride for their country and want to dedicate their lives to defending it.

But whatever their motivation, they’ve volunteered to put their lives, friendships, families, and educations on hold to be a part of something greater than themselves. We break them down, only to build them back up into the men and women we want them to be. We train them, instill them with discipline, arm them, and send them to far off places to do jobs they have no say in. They’re asked to do things by people in power they’ve never met, and sometimes don’t agree with, but they do it anyway because they respect their superiors and have a job to do. They endure years away from those they love, everything they’ve known, and are expected to do unpleasant and impossible things, in many cases literally putting their lives on the line in the name of an ideal. For the hope that their efforts will help a cause.

But it’s not without reward. Military service is hugely beneficial for the majority of those who choose to enlist. I’ve heard stories of teenagers of broken, abuse-filled homes going on to become incredible people who accomplish things they never dreamed themselves capable of. The skills, experiences, friends, and travels they gain are unlike any other. As much of a sacrifice as it is, I’m in awe at the places they visit and the camaraderie they develop.

I find that there’s a few ways I like to pay some attention to those who inspire me like this. Some are better than others. Of course, there’s video games, plenty of which attempt to recreate warlike atmosphere. Call of Duty, with its Michael Bay approach of beating you over the head with explosions, weighty death scenes, and an endless supply of terrorists to shoot in the face. Medal of Honor Frontline was always a favorite of mine from the PS2 era, with possibly the most thrilling recreation of the storming of the beaches of Normandy ever put in a game, as well as one of the most beautiful, moving orchestral scores I’ve heard from a World War II-based shooter.

Movies are even better than games, if less interactive. The obvious choice here is Saving Private Ryan, but there are many others. Most people have a fondness for Das Boot, but I’ve always preferred U-571. In terms of a small band of US soldiers facing enormous adversity and coming out the other side, it was hugely impactful for me, filled with tension like I’d never experienced before and characters I grew to genuinely care for. Rules of Engagement is also one I’ll always recommend for those who like a good courtroom drama. Or you may want to check out PBS’s documentary style TV series Carrier, which follows a six-month deployment of one of the US’s largest nuclear aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz.

But even though media will never stop giving it their best shot, the best way to pay respect is to simply talk to an actual vet. Thank them for their service. Let them know it’s not lost on you that a large part of why we live in a country with as many freedoms as we have and have the ability to try and make the world a better place is because of their efforts. If you don’t know any veterans yourself, there are tons of websites that will put you in touch with them. One of my favorites is amillionthanks.org. In addition to taking donations for America’s troops and families of servicemen and women, one of the services they provide is collecting letters of thanks to be delivered to military local, abroad, or injured in hospitals. It’s one of the quickest and easiest ways to show your support.

Lastly, if you’re having the trouble finding enthusiasm, I highly recommend checking out the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website. The highest honor this country can bestow, awarded for gallantry and bravery in combat at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, is not given lightly. Reading the stories of those who’ve earned it is a revelation and a sobering reminder of the situations veterans are sometimes placed in, as well as the selflessness the best of the best are capable of.

Just looking at the current featured recipient, Sergeant William Shemin, I found this:

…in connection with combat operations against an armed enemy on the Vesle River, near Bazoches, France from August 7 to August 9, 1918. Sergeant Shemin, upon three different occasions, left cover and crossed an open space of 150 yards, repeatedly exposing himself to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, to rescue wounded. After officers and senior noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Sergeant Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until wounded on August 9.

Or this, from the page of Specialist Fourth Class Donald P. Sloat, who was in the US Army during Vietnam:

On the morning of Jan. 17, 1970, Sloat’s squad was conducting a patrol, serving as a blocking element in support of tanks and armored personnel carriers from F Troop in the Que Son valley. As the squad moved through dense up a small hill in file formation, the lead Soldier tripped a wire attached to a hand grenade booby-trap, set up by enemy forces. When the grenade rolled down the hill toward Sloat, he had a choice. He could hit the ground and seek cover, or pick up the grenade and throw it away from his fellow Soldiers. After initially attempting to throw the grenade, Sloat realized that detonation was imminent, and that two or three men near him would be killed or seriously injured if he couldn’t shield them from the blast. In an instant, Sloat chose to draw the grenade to his body, shielding his squad members from the blast, and saving their lives. Sloat’s actions define the ultimate sacrifice of laying down his own life in order to save the lives of his comrades.

This was only two weeks before his 21st birthday.

To see a veteran of military service, especially in uniform, fills me with a pride and admiration in a way few things can. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been in the trenches with bullets blazing around them, sat in a dark control room reading maps on a computer screen, or cooked in the kitchens of an offshore aircraft carrier, they’ve seen and done more than I ever will. They’ve experienced the greatness and diversity this world and its cultures have to offer, as well as worst, most senseless and hateful acts it’s capable of. Their contributions to their country, our allies, and their fellow comrades dwarfs most of ours, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Given my medical history and the weak physical stature it left me with, there was never a chance I’d ever be deemed fit for military duty. Had my life turned out differently, I honestly don’t know if I would have it in me to walk into a recruitment office and enlist, let alone shoot a random enemy or take a bullet to save a comrade. I’d like to think that I’m emotionally and mentally well balanced enough to handle it, and certainly have pride for my country and am not afraid to work hard for my friends and what I believe in. But it’s one of those things that’s impossible to truly know without actually being in the moment. And it could be argued that I’m the person I am today because of my background. If my background had been different, It’s certainly possible that I wouldn’t have the courage for it. I suppose I’ll never know for sure.

So instead, I’d like to ask that we take just a little time today to be thankful for those who don’t get days off like most of us. Those who spend birthdays, Christmases, and anniversaries in a bunker halfway around the world in the midst of people who would sooner shoot at them than ask them for help. Those who see their newborn children for the first time over a Skype call that could go out at any second because they’re connecting to the internet from the middle of an ocean thousands of miles away. And those who wake up day in and day out trying not to think about the possibility that this day could be their last.

To those currently serving, to those who’ve served in the past, and to those service members no longer with us, I say thank you. Thank you for your selflessness, sacrifice, strength, and heroism.