Saturday, January 3, 2015

End of the year thoughts and the best of 2014 - Games, Movies, Music

Welcome to 2015! Hope you've all stayed wobbly. I've personally wobbled pretty hard with my writing obligations, leaving huge gaps between reviews in spite of having 20 rough drafts sitting around.

This year marks the first time in over a decade that I haven't released a game of my own, though some years past saw only terrible joke games that weren't really worth saving. I began work a short-form top-down adventure game called Ghost's Towns, which I hope to have published before the end of January. In my personal life, I attended a crazy number of weddings and visited Philadelphia and Atlantic City for the first time and discovered a love of aquarium keeping.

Let's take a look at the best movies, music, and games! As I always note, I'm not a music critic, so my language on the topic isn't very deep. I haven't had time to see or play everything I wanted to: For games, I still want to check out Captain Toad and Dragon Age: Inquisition (I've never played a Dragon Age title) and for movies, I still need to see Inherent Vice, A Most Violent Year, Horns, and Tusk.

This article is an evolving piece and will be updated if I'm blown away by anything else I've missed. Tusk probably won't end up anywhere near my Best Movies list, but as a lifetime walrus fan I've got an obligation to see it. Please recommend your own favorites for the year!

Top Movies

Overall, 2014 has been a pretty stellar year for film, both in summer blockbusters and in smaller, weirder releases. There was plenty to choose from for comic book nerds between Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America 2, Amazing Spider-Man 2, but only one of those makes my Best Of list. The Hobbit series concluded with a nutty, campy finale that I felt was the best of the trilogy, even if it was still bloated with boring war scenes. The first half of the final Hunger Games movie came out and impressed me with its propaganda/terrorism themes but let me down by being very obviously the first half of a complete story. Jake Gyllenhall amazed me in Nightcrawler while Emma Stone put in a fantastic supporting performance in Birdman. In alphabetical order, here's what I loved:

Amazing Spider-Man 2 - The first film is Marc Webb's Spider-Man reboot series was a serviceable movie with solid casting that didn't do anything particularly wrong but also didn't excel in any substantial way, paling in comparison to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy. ASM2 ups the weirdness, brightens the color palette, and goes off the rails in the best ways possible. This feels like a sequel to a Raimi Spider-Man moreso than a sequel to Webb's previous film, and it's the most fun I've had with a super hero movie in a long time. I dug the whole "poor/middle class/rich boys with absent fathers deal with suddenly gained power" theme and I loved its garish style. Like the first film, the Richard Parker subplot is still kind of stupid, and too much time is spent setting up future films, but overall it's a funny, oddball movie with a lot of heart.

Birdman - A strange and sad black comedy about becoming irrelevant in our lives and in our careers while looking at the way society is captivated by broken people who just need help. Michael Keaton plays a character with a career path similar to his own, who became an international star from a series of superhero movies (Batman for Keaton, Birdman for lead character Riggan Thomson) before walking away and fading out for a while. An incredibly bitter indictment of both Hollywood and Broadway, Birdman is presented as one long, continuous take, interrupted by a few transitions that serve as curtain drops. The structure and presentation of the film feels like a weird new blend of stage and screen. Emma Stone and Edward Norton deliver a pair of solid performances, though Norton's character (like Keaton's, partly inspired by the actor's real world behavior) becomes part of the background by the end. In some ways, Birdman feels like a farcical version of Black Swan.

Frank - Lenny Abrahamson's own take on the way society simultaneously rejects/glorifies mental illness, this time taking aim at The Youtube Generation. The ways we present ourselves in the media, and how the media presents the narrative of our lives, is a big theme in 2014, and played a major role in four of my selections here. Frank's titular character, played by Michael Fessbender, is an offbeat musician with a close-knit band of unhealthy misfits who treat him as a sort of zen master. Frank, of course, wears a gigantic fake head and eats through a straw. Jon, a young, uninspired musician played by Domhnall Gleeson, falls in with Frank's band and begins molding it to his will in an attempt to find a sort of artistic relevance in his own life, eventually becoming the band's manager and exploiting his friend's illness for fame. It's sad, funny, and actually does have some pretty good songs, and presents a unique narrative structure, with Jon, as the lead character and audience focal point, serving as the story's antagonist more than anything else.

Gone Girl - I've been lukewarm on some of David Fincher's recent films, but Gone Girl is Fincher back at the top of his game and is probably my overall favorite film of 2014. While media manipulation is an important element of Birdman and Frank, it's the absolute core of Gone Girl, in which a man searching for his missing wife shifts between villain, victim, and hero as the American people demand. With great performances by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl is about who we are versus who we're forced to be, whether by family, society, or media pressures. It's a film that's both brutal and funny and both discomforting and cozy. It's one of those films where the twist (which happens and is revealed at almost exactly the film's midpoint and serves as a foundation for the remainder of the story) actually strengthens the entire piece, rather than existing for shock value. Gone Girl also features one of the most well delivered monologues in recent film, in spite of being presented as a voice over montage. Pike absolutely crushes it.
Interstellar - With the Dark Knight Trilogy complete, Christopher Nolan was free to make pretty much whatever he wanted. What he went with was Interstellar, an unusually optimistic sci-fi film about the power of faith and love and the power of knowledge and science and how perfectly the two can blend together, standing in opposition to a more typical sci-fi story which may place them at odds with one another. Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway lead an expedition to find a new home for human life as Earth is being consumed by an unstoppable blight. There's no distrust for technology (the robots we spend time with are endearing and fun to watch) and no condemnation of working on faith; the one time a character is chastised for aiming on faith and love alone, that character ends up being completely right. It's a starkly different film from The Dark Knight or Inception, the former which I enjoyed but didn't love and the latter which I felt completely wasted its wonderful premise in favor of endless action bloat.

Lucy - I've definitely got a soft spot for films that take a completely nutty premise and just run with it and own it. Luc Besson's Lucy is a film that was maligned from the day its first trailers hit for its central premise: That if humans can unlock more of the brain, they can get super powers. The film puts its ridiculous technobabble in the mouth of the trustworthy, loveable Morgan Freeman, while putting its power in the hands of a Scarlett Johansson who drifts further and further away from humanity as the film progresses. Johansson, as the titular Lucy, channels a dozen different sci-fi and comic book premises throughout the film, from Watchmen to X-Men to Akira, in a story about motherhood, social detachment, and possibly the origins of human life. It's an insane movie that just keeps upping the crazy as it goes on and is a fast, tightly paced comic book styled film that's better than any of the year's actual comic book movies.

Nightcrawler - A grimy, neon-drenched Los Angeles serves as the home of Jake Gyllenhaal's sociopathic photojournalist Louis Bloom. Like Gone Girl, the media and its actors are the primary focus here, with Bloom coming up as a nobody and becoming a powerful force in exploitative crime journalism that cares more about capturing human suffering than uncovering any truth. It's a dark, tense film that nonetheless manages to be pretty funny, entirely through Gyllenhaal's perfect performance. This is, right now, the absolute top of his career right here, and one of the best performances of the year. Louis Bloom is a pitiful, disgusting character that still manages to be compelling and charming in spite of his alien behavior. Where American Psycho captures the American Nightmare of 1980's Wall Street, Nightcrawler presents us with a similar tone and message, only this time dumped in a gutter in post-economic crash America.

Movie Let Downs

I enjoyed most of the movies I saw in theaters this year, several in spite of what I saw as major flaws. Reese Witherspoon's Wild is a well acted self discovery film with a few really powerful scenes and a great soundtrack, but it doesn't form as cohesive a film as I'd hoped, with an ending that feels overly easy. Edge of Tomorrow, a Tom Cruise sci-fi film that mixes the time loops of Groundhog Day with nutty, anime-inspired action, is an extremely solid film for its first two acts until it abandons its central premise of infinite death and rebirth for the final act and becomes a typical action movie. The only time our hero is actually in real danger is, ironically, the only time the movie becomes boring.

Overall, my biggest letdown is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I absolutely loved Rupert Wyatt's 2011 reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an unconventionally quiet and heartfelt film for a summer special effects spectacle. The 2014 sequel by Matt Reeves is everything I'd originally feared Rise was going to be. After a stellar opening 15-20 minutes spent with no dialogue, watching the apes adapt to a new world without human civilization, Dawn falls apart and becomes another dumb, loud action movie with long and boring war scenes. And, of course, it ends with a cliffhanger. Nothing's worse than a bad, needless sequel setting up more sequels.

Top Games

Without a doubt, 2014 was the year of the Wii U. I finally got a chance to play Super Mario 3D World, the best Mario platformer in years, which I've since added to my Best of 2013 list. Great new Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros games were released, and the long awaited Bayonetta 2 hit and didn't disappoint. On the downloadable front, NES Remix 2 and Shovel Knight provided some wonderful retro fun. I haven't even had a chance to check out Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Hyrule Heroes, or Captain Toad! I'm very happy with my PS4 and played plenty of great little indie titles as well as nicer looking versions of multi-platform games, but overall this year really belonged to Nintendo even if, weirdly, the 3DS didn't have anything that really caught my attention.

Bayonetta 2 - Four years after the release of the first game, Bayonetta is so good that it makes the already strong original title feel obsolete. Bayonetta 2 is funnier, brighter, and features tighter control and mechanics than its predecessor, as well as smarter writing that still falls into some of the same pitfalls as the first game but, for the most part, is pretty good satire. Its loud burlesque humor is still going to be off-putting to some, but its never as gross as the first game could get. It's currently the best brawler in my game library, and I can't wait to see how Platinum tops this one. As a nice bonus, Bayonetta 2 also comes with a remastered version of the original game for free.

Child of Light - Without question the most I've enjoyed a turn-based RPG in years. Child of Light is a gorgeous game with pretty, hand-drawn art and an awesome soundtrack by Canadien singer-songwriter Coeur de Pirate. At around 12-15 hours long, it's a very tightly paced coming of age story about loss and redemption that never wastes the player's time. The fairy tale style story is small and refreshing in a genre filled with bombastically giant quests and storylines, and it never derails from its themes. It gets dark, but no darker than some of Disney's classics get, and it doesn't talk down to its audience.

Dark Souls 2 - First things first: Dark Souls 2 is weaker than its predecessor in nearly every way. The level design, the art, the boss fights, and the storytelling are all a step back. That said, it's still a really strong game with the same sense of dread and despair found in Demon's Souls and Dark Souls 1. DS2 could have used a director with a firmer concept for what its world should have been, and it never fully commits to either the linear stage paths of Demon's Souls nor the more open, twisty paths of Dark Souls 1. In spite of these faults, there's still nothing like a Souls game. Even imitators like the fun Lords of the Fallen don't quite measure up. The universal, sad emptiness of these games just works so incredibly well, even when the cracks show.

Last of Us Remastered - I didn't play the original PS3 version of Last of Us until early 2014, after the game had already been out a while. While its core plot and gameplay aren't anything new, their presentation is so top-notch that it stands out above other games by a huge margin. Last of Us is one of the few story-driven games where its directors actually know anything about cinematography, giving us some extremely well framed shots that just soak the audience in atmosphere. It's funny discussing it right after Dark Souls, since the two could not be any more opposite in storytelling, with Last of Us going for a cinematic experience while Souls hides its story in carefully scattered subtle bits throughout the world. Neither stye is better than the other, and both can be done with great effect than most games often miss, whether through bad writing or incoherent themes. Last of Us puts other cinematic games to shame. The Remastered edition on PS4 is nicer looking, much more stable, and includes a wonderful Photo Mode as well as the extremely good Left Behind prequel DLC. Yeah, it's a port of a game from last year, but it's still better than almost anything else released this year.

Mario Kart 8  - It's more Mario Kart, so you probably already know whether you'll love it or hate it. MK8 features my favorite set of courses yet, a welcome change from some of the dullness of the new courses in Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS and Mario Kart Wii. I love the low gravity zones, where your karts drive up and down walls and ceilings and the course just spirals around everywhere. In spite of all the madness, it's never hard to see where you're going or follow the action. There's also a really great replay mode, letting you watch the game's goofy facial expressions in slow motion. Props to Nintendo for doing a great job with DLC, too; for $12, players get another 50% of the game, and this is a game that already featured just as much content as any other Mario Kart. It's also the first one to branch out into other Nintendo franchises, with courses from The Legend of Zelda, F-Zero, and Excitebike showing up in the DLC. I'm hoping for an eventual Kirby pack.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch - An average man struggles with maintaining a healthy family life and keeping his deepest, truest self closeted. In this case, the true self is an octopus wearing a man's suit. Octodad's focus is on silly comedy and light humor, but it's actually got a really good core message about being true to yourself and honest with the people you love, even if it hurts. It's also a ton of fun at parties, as people struggle to fling the ungainly octopus up flights of stairs and through grocery stores.

P.T. - An obtuse first person puzzle-horror game that took weeks of online communities working together to fully solve, P.T. is a free PS4 title by Metal Gear boss Hideo Kojima and director Guillermo del Toro. When it was first released, their connection was kept secret, and the first person to complete the game had no idea what they'd done to finish it. The time spent contributing and watching communities dig through every bit of the game to try to reproduce the win conditions was a pretty fantastic social experiment, and it all served to reveal that the game was intended as a teaser for the new Silent Hill title that I couldn't be more excited for. P.T. is a great looking, terrifying experience that does a good job simulating the whole "repeating the same actions over and over praying for a different result" aspect of losing your mind.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U  - Six years after the Wii's Super Smash Bros Brawl, we finally have a Smash Bros game that mostly works online. With an even bigger roster, including some great new characters like the Duck Hunt dog, Punch-Out's Little Mac, Pac-Man, and he sun worshiping Wii Fit Trainer, the fourth Smash Bros. game is the best in the series. This one also allows up to eight players in local multiplayer on certain stages, and includes a really nice stage builder that lets you freehand draw stages on the Wii U tablet. It's more of the same, but bigger, but that's fine when that sameness is still incredibly good. I do miss having Solid Snake as a character, though.

Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition - I feel kind of cheap listing this since it's an expanded version of a game I already listed as one of 2013's best, but I just love Guacamelee that much, and the new version's much better. The definitive brawler-puzzle-platformer is now a few hours longer, includes new bosses, new power-ups, and removes almost all of the stupid internet memes that embarrassed me last time. If you haven't played it, the new version is on nearly every console, and it's phenomenal. I can't recommend this one highly enough, unless you're one of those weirdos that hates lucha libre.

Game Let Downs

I was let down pretty hard by a few games this year. The 3DS Chibi-Robo Photo Finder is a sequel to one of my favorite Nintendo franchises, but the newest game is a cheap, lazy game that barely works. The gimmick of taking pictures of real world objects to play with in the game is a good one, but the 3DS camera is so incredibly bad that it's nearly impossible unless you're in absolutely perfect lighting conditions. The game itself is too shallow and lacks the sad/sweet story of the original Gamecube Chibi-Robo title, but the hardware just kills any hope of it being fun.

I was really surprised to be let down by Walking Dead Season 2. Telltale Games' first Walking Dead title is a well written emotional ride (after you get passed some awkward, too video gamey moments in the first episode) that, from start to finish, tells a story of redemption and love. Season 2 loses the first season's strong structure and just meanders for a while, focusing way too much on graphic violence that feels much more gratuitous than anything in the first game. A different crew wrote this game, and you can tell. I haven't finished it yet, and it's not terrible by any means, but it's a big step down from the first season. With Season 1, I played every episode the night they were released. With Season 2, I'm basically saying, "I'll finish it eventually."

Worst game of the year, no contest, falls on Namco's rancid SoulCalibur: Lost Swords. SoulCalibur is one of my favorite fighting game series, so it's really miserable seeing how badly this game turned out. It's nearly everything bad about modern gaming rolled into one awful package. It's a free to play game with extremely expensive energy purchases if you want to play for more than a few fights a day, it crashes more than anything I've ever played, the load times are the worst I've seen on the PS3, and it requires constant online check ins with Namco for every little thing you do. Every piece of equipment you change means long loads while the game phones home. And half the time it tries to phone home, it crashes and kicks you to the title screen. To top it all off, it's a single player only sequel to a popular multiplayer game. Namco should be embarrassed by this one for years, and I don't imagine another, better SoulCalibur coming out any time soon after this disaster.

Top Music

Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots - The latest effort by Gorillaz/Blur front man Damon Albarn is my favorite album of the year. It's a sadder, more personal album than his typical work, and I've kept this one on regular rotation since it came out in April this year. There's not a weak track on here, and it ranks among Albarn's best work easily. This is a much stronger album than the also great Dr. Dee from 2012.

Top Tracks - The Selfish Giant, Hollow Ponds

Ian Anderson - Homo Erraticus - Anderson's continuation of 2012's amazingly good Thick as a Brick 2, Homo Erraticus is another Concept Album that feels like a genuine piece of lost history. Outside of cultural references (including one to Walking Dead, which is especially funny given that Anderson's son in law plays its lead character) this has the sound and tone of an album straight out of 1970. It's retrospective, modern, and post-apocalyptic all at once; a lyrically dense album that takes work to dig through, but very worthwhile. Hard to pick any top tracks here, since the album is really intended to be listened to as a whole.

Ingrid Michaelson - Lights Out - Michaelson's sixth album is the follow up to 2012's Human Again, an uneven album that showcased an awkward phase as she began to tradition from a cuter indie style songwriting to a more forceful pop direction. With Lights Out, Michaelson masters the new pop style she began to experiment with on Human Again, producing a massively stronger album absolutely filled with confidence, which also showed at a concert I attended this year. She's grown as both a musician and a performer, and Lights Out is this year's strongest pop album.

Top Tracks - Afterlife, Everyone is Gonna Love Me Now

Mike Oldfield - Man on the Rocks - Yes, I picked up this album because I loved the use of Oldfield's song Nuclear in the trailer for Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. The whole album is a very relaxing, strong collection of classic rock that feels like it was transplanted from another point in history; it's so familiar, but its presence as a new album in 2014 feels alien. The deluxe edition includes an instrumental version of the complete album as a nice bonus.

Top Tracks - Castaway, Nuclear

Lana del Rey - Ultraviolence - Though less catchy than Born to Die or Paradise, Ultraviolence is a more mature, carefully crafted album than Lana's previous efforts. Her music always feels like a dream set in a sleazy bar, and her ghostly vocals on the new album nail that tone better than ever. It's haunting and just weird enough to feel somehow wrong. Her music feels like the kind of thing you might find hanging around a more modern version of Twin Peaks' Roadhouse.
Top Tracks - Cruel World, Shades of Cool

Taylor Swift - 1989 - No album this year has been as talked about as 1989, and honestly I think it lives up to the hype, even if I think Ingrid Michaelson's Lights Out is a better pop album. Moving on from her country roots, Swift's new album is full of electronic sounds and pop hooks while still maintaining her confessional storytelling songwriting. This direction was hinted at in her 2012 album Red, with tracks like I Knew You Were Trouble and 22, and Swift's style transition was more graceful than most. I absolutely love the beat on the album's third track, Style. This is also one where you should definitely pick up the deluxe edition, as the bonus songs are as good as anything on the main album instead of the typical leftovers on too many other deluxe albums. Also, Taylor Swift is just really funny.

Top Tracks - Blank Space, Clean

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