5. Monsters University – I’m still not entirely thrilled about the slump that Pixar is now taking, coincidentally lining up with the timeframe of their Disney buyout. But Monsters University was at least in the ballpark of Toy Story 2 as a good Pixar sequel, so I’m hopeful again for the future.
4. The Great Gatsby – This was admittedly a little uneven in terms of tone, but I think the raucous atmosphere in contrast to the conveyance of emptiness was a great message that applies again today. (I suppose a cool modern soundtrack didn’t help with that either.) Also, Leo DiCaprio must have stolen a girlfriend or secretly murdered an Academy member, because he’s long, long overdue for an Oscar.
3. The World’s End – I still can’t decide between Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz as my favorite of this trilogy, but World’s End was still a great conclusion. I’m still not totally cool with the idea of making the clear protagonist of the past two films a intolerable anti-hero in this one, nor did I really feel comfortable with the tacked on ending, but it’s still the same brand of insanely awesome British sci-fi comedy that I loved from the first two.
2. The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug – Here’s my problem with the Hobbit movies as compared to Lord of the Rings. You can judge each Lord of the Rings movie separately, as they’re all obviously each their own book. The Hobbit is not only cut into three pieces, but it also has a bunch of The Silmarillion, The Lost Tales, and Lord of the Rings appendices thrown on top.
That said, I still don’t think I can judge it fairly until part three is out in 2014. I’ll withhold my full judgement until then, but I will at least say that both parts I’ve seen so far are exactly the more lighthearted and fun trip through Middle Earth that I expected for the past decade.
1. Gravity – I really debated ranking this as the top movie of the year, but something struck me. No one can ever replicate the experience that this movie offers anywhere else but an actual movie theater. You can put on a 4K copy of this on the biggest TV you can find with totally immersive surround sound, but you can’t in any way replicate the 3D experience that this provides for in a theater. Avatar is no longer the go-to movie that provides an excuse for the technology.
As a movie, it’s only just “pretty good.” It’s basically an hour and a half action set-piece with a few egregious plotholes. But damned if it still isn’t entertaining. It’s an awesome and simple plot that’s made incredibly awesome by insanely awesome technology and masterful storytelling.
5. America’s Got Talent – Don’t laugh. Yes, it’s overproduced, manipulative, and probably rigged in some aspect. But at a time when nothing else is really good on broadcast TV in the summertime, this is a really entertaining show. I probably wouldn’t recommend it if it weren’t for the presence of Howard Stern that often bites the hand that feeds him and calls NBC and the producers of the show on their BS, which keeps them at least partially honest. But that said, it’s still a fun show with a lot of different kinds of entertainment that still hasn’t grown old.
4. Mad Men – This was a really weird year for my favorite show. In 2012, the show had a stretch of about four episodes that was probably the best episodic television ever produced. This year, it seemed like they were focusing more time on setting up the last season as opposed to making a great current season. I’m sure that it will ultimately make for a more satisfying whole, but it was difficult to sit through the setup without hearing the punchline this year.
3. Star Trek: Next Generation – Okay, bear with me. Yes, I’m picking a show that’s over 25 years old, and one I’m sure that most of us have seen virtually every episode of at least twice. But in the past year in which I watched a lot of it over again, I realized what an absolutely brilliant show it is. I’m not a Trekkie by any means, and have no idea nor really care about all of the technical details surrounding Trek technology or lore. But Next Generation is far and away my favorite television show ever, just by nature of the brilliant and thought provoking stories that it tells, and I fell in love with it all over again this year.
2. Breaking Bad – There’s not really a lot that I could say about Breaking Bad that hasn’t already been said by tons of critics and writers elsewhere. The one thing I will add is that as opposed to finales of other shows that tried something metaphysical or overly metaphorical (Lost, Battlestar Galactica), it lowered its sights and went for a clean cut conclusion. Time will judge the writers really, really well for that.
1. House of Cards – I could easily say that one reason I ranked this as the top is because of the huge sea-change that Neflix caused this year, but that could easily also be attributed to something like Orange is the New Black, which was also great. But House of Cards was so good because it wasn’t just of HBO quality, it surpassed even that. The writing and cinematography were something that would be factors in a Best Picture nominee if it were a movie. And God bless Kevin Spacey, not only was he one of the most memorable leads ever, but he believes in the format and has been making a point to actively advocate for it.
Also, since I’m reviewing 2013 from a personal context, I’ll share a true story: We totally ran into Robin Wright at the airport this year, but I was way too shy to talk to her that we both loved House of Cards and Forrest Gump for obvious reasons.
5. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories – I think I really only really liked three or four tracks of this album, but they were continual repeats on the soundtrack of the summer. One of my favorite memories of this year is being happily woken up to “Doin’ It Right” coming from the tent next door at Bonnaroo.
4. David Bowie – The Next Day – Kind of the opposite with this album. There’s no single track that I can point out that are my favorites from it, but the work as a whole is something really special. It’d be really more special if Bowie would drop the “silent” personna he’s taking on currently and go on tour so I can finally see him live.
3. Reptar – Body Faucet – I hadn’t even heard of this band until a few months before Bonnaroo, but I’m so glad that I got to know them in time to go see them live there. It’s hard to fully explain their sound, but the best I can offer is a mix of Talking Heads and Arcade Fire if they happened to form in the early 90’s. There’s really no other artist or genre to compare them to, and I love them for it. Reptar has the kind of fun and inventive music that makes me want to make more of it and be a part of it.
2. Arcade Fire – Reflektor – I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Reflektor hasn’t yet really sunk into me and made the same kind of impression as The Suburbs did. Arcade Fire is absolutely still my favorite band in the world at the moment, and their new album does nothing to detract from that. It’s different in a great way, but I don’t think I’ve occupied the same space as the band has yet.
The Haiti-influenced dance vibe is a lot of fun and makes for some incredible tracks (Hey Orpheous, Here Comes The Nighttime), but for me personally they’re only that. They don’t necessarily strike an emotional chord for me in the same way that songs from The Suburbs did, almost solely because I can’t find myself relating as emotionally or as deeply. But again, that’s not to criticize something that’s still an incredible output from the most brilliant band performing today.
1. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City – On the other hand, this has absolutely resonated with me. I shouldn’t pretend that it doesn’t have anything to do with me turning 30 next year, because the reflections that I see in my own thinking along with the lyrics of this album are almost frightening.
Pairing reflections and stories with that mindset along with truly new and inventive chord progressions and sounds is a killer combination and takes Vampire Weekend outside of the realm of hipster guilty pleasure into a truly mainstream and great band.
5. The Walking Dead – I’m not personally a fan of point and click style adventure games, but even I couldn’t deny the storytelling power of this game. Putting a player in the position of making the same style of horrifically difficult choices that are prevalent in the show and comic is a really memorable experience, and far surpasses the similar efforts of many other traditional games.
4. Tomb Raider – I rented this from a Redbox earlier in the year as a weekend distraction and didn’t really expect to like it as much, as I’ve only been so-so fans of prior games in the series. Turning it into a exploratory horror-survival adventure game was a really great move, and I loved it for it.
3. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 – Okay honestly, this is really not that great of a game if you look at the premise and history. It’s a cookie cutter sequel produced by an overworked studio. It’s mainly only an exercise in marketing and commercialism. There’s probably little actually new in it from a storytelling or technical perspective. But even with all of the above, I probably spent more time with it in the multiplayer than any other game in 2013. Learning every nook, cranny, and trick with every map and gun is a really satisfying experience. If it’s okay to have guilty pleasures with movies and TV shows, it’s okay to have them with games too, right?
2. Bioshock Infinite – Like Breaking Bad earlier in this whole rundown, there’s really not much else I can really say about this that hasn’t already been said. Again, I’ll just offer a small input of my own. I’m not a huge fan of the game mechanics of the Bioshock series, but the storytelling more than makes up for it. If it were a movie, it seems like the kind that Pixar would make if they decided to make something far more adult. Even though the game itself feels clunky and boring at some points to me personally, I can’t deny the achievement of the overall experience.
1. Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds – In a year when most bits and ink were spent on the launch of the new XBox and Playstation, the forgotten Nintendo 3DS finally found a few of its killer apps. It’s amazing that its starting to gain traction and become a formidable mobile platform, amongst the same environment of 99 cent iPhone games.
The new Zelda itself is a small miracle. Somehow it manages to combine modern aesthetics and game design with a uniquely retro package. Look at it in trailers or videos and it may seem like a simple update and sequel to the original SNES game. Play it more than an hour and it becomes obvious that this is a big gameplay reboot for the entire Zelda series. Dungeons, items, and progression are completely rethought and for the better. It makes for the best experience of the year, and hopefully one that carries into future Zelda games.