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2020: Top Films of the Year

Hello to all you beautiful queens and kings of kino. It’s the end of December and time to rank my top 10 favorite films of the year. 2020 was a weird year for movies. A lot of stuff was pushed back but more importantly without the theater industry driven to fill its screens with new and relevant movies — I found it way more difficult to hear about new worth-seeing films. This was exacerbated by a lot of distributors flatly rejecting the option to make new movies available on video on-demand services like Netflix, HBO, or even Amazon.

This continues the long legacy of corporations refusing to respond to market innovations until they are practically forced to. It only took a global pandemic for Warner Brothers to bring all movies to streaming services that have existed for half a decade. But this has always been the case. I think about how it wasn’t until season 4 of Game of Thrones – in the year 2014 – that HBO shifted to a strategy of offering the show on streaming services rather than their previous strategy of bragging about how frequently their content was stolen. It really is incredible the lengths Hollywood executives will go to keep things the same. Which is another way of saying shout out to Searchlight Pictures the distributor of Nomadland. Apparently it’s the greatest film of the year — I wouldn’t know because I can’t buy it anywhere and don’t live in Los Angeles.

Anyway, this problem led me to watch a lot of the movies I saw this year within the past two weeks. I caught up after all the other end-of-year lists started coming out. I have not seen absolutely everything — I didn’t see Borat or Sonic or the concert movie people claim is more than a concert movie — but anything I think was in my wheelhouse I gave a shot. So here’s the list

10. The Queen’s Gambit

We’re actually going to start this list in the classic fashion of naming a piece of work that doesn’t meet the qualifications for this list. It’s the Queen’s Gambit. I’m not generally a television fan but I can make an exception for miniseries that are very much intended to be a tightly defined story with a beginning and end with no opportunities for a sequel of any kind.

The Queen’s Gambit is a 9-part adaptation of a novel by the same name following the story of Beth Harmon. Beth is forced to restart her life at a young age after her mother commits suicide, leaving her to an orphanage where she picks up an uncanny ability for chess. It is accurate to say Queen’s Gambit is “the chess show,” but the story goes beyond the limits of what you might expect from a sports drama about chess. It is just as much about pursing passion, the true definition of family, the loneliness that comes with being truly gifted, and the obvious challenges of being an intelligent woman in the late 50s and early 60s.

Of course many shows are about many things, but Queen’s Gambit felt unique in its ability to draw a through line between so many seemingly disconnected aspects of life. Beth Harmon feels like a person that actually existed, which I think is the reason why so many people are surprised and disappointed Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction. In a way, the fact your audience believed it was a true story is the greatest compliment that can be made about a character study. It’s a story that literally feels real.

And the show creates such an excellent sense of time and place. I really felt like I could connect to Beth regardless of if she was a pre-teen, figuring our adolescent romance, or struggling with a quarter-life crisis. I also loved that this show comes as close to saying “it’s not about the destination, it’s the friends you make along the way,” without actually saying it. And even more surprisingly when that moment lands it feels genuine and endearing. I really loved this series and considering Netflix has some revulsion to shows going on longer than 4 seasons, I hope they consider the miniseries format for their future projects.

9. Devs

Another miniseries that doesn’t technically fit this list. If you’ve talked to me about movies for any length of time I’ve probably shared my deep love for the work of Alex Garland, the writer and director of Ex Machina and Annihilation. This year Garland continued his self-prescribed habit of departing as much as he can from his previous work by taking up writing a miniseries instead of another feature-length film. Devs has absolutely everything I love about Alex Garland.

The premise is cerebral and on the cutting edge of science fiction and philosophy. Devs is a secret organization within a Silicon Valley megacorporation attempting to create a reliable simulation of the future. The concept of this project begs many questions posed by the philosophical concept of determinism. Determinism is the idea our cells and DNA make up complicated personalities that interact with a phenomenally complex world… but ultimately our decisions can be understood by a complex algorithm and therefore mapped out and predicted by a powerful enough supercomputer. If this is too dense for you already, it may be helpful to know the viewpoint of determinism is typically countered by the view of free will. So the question is basically: you there, the sense of consciousness you feel inside your head while you’re watching this video right now — do you have control over your body and its fate or are you merely a pilot bringing yourself to a predefined end. There’s even a specific scene in one of Devs’ later episodes where you have a proponent of determinism argue against a proponent of free will and it’s not a conversation that pulls any punches for general audience. Both of the characters in that scene make pretty coherent and nuanced arguments for their respective viewpoint.

I really loved that scene, but Garland isn’t making movies for just me. That’s probably why the first four or five episodes of Devs really have nothing to do with any of the philosophizing I just mentioned. Garland may be a sci-fi and philosophy geek but he’s not an idiot. He knows he can’t just plunge people into these conversations and expect to keep their interest. Devs is really just as much a stress-inducing espionage thriller as it is a cerebral musing about the nature of existence.

Garland’s movies get a lot of press for their intelligence, but its really his characters that carry you through these stories and Devs is no exception. I think the main character of Devs is the most believable average person I’ve ever seen in a thriller like this. Lily is a smart person, but she is clearly outgunned by nefarious megacorporations and the sinister intent of reality itself. She really gets her shit rocked throughout this series, and I think it takes some humility to recognize if you were in her shoes that’s pretty much what would’ve happened to you too. There are some other great characters, although I will say the one weakness is Nick Offerman who honestly looks so god damn retarded in this series I never took him seriously, but anyway.

As someone who is a fan of Garland, I really loved watching him work in the miniseries format because it was a true display of his full ability in filmmaking beyond his writing that’s so frequently commended. There’s really only so much you can accomplish in a movie without diluting your vision for a project. Garland’s first movie Ex Machina was intellectual, witty, and subversive but mostly a very narrative-driven story. His second movie — Annihilation — had a premise that allowed him to do a lot more with visual storytelling, ambitious computer graphics, and genre-blending. But Devs’ concept and its miniseries format let him go far beyond anything he’s done before. Since he has 10 hours to work with he can set aside 3-5 minutes at the beginning of every episode experimenting with bizarre montages, which is something he wouldn’t necessarily be able to do with any movie. Of these sequences, the one that plays before episode 3 is honestly one of the most unnerving things I’ve seen and despite the overwhelmingly discomfort I felt during it, I went back and rewatched it three or four times just to get a true sense of what I was looking at. That moment of rewatching the same sequence multiple times, really defined my whole experience with Devs. It was truly captivating — to such an extent that I regret all the other times I’ve used the word captivating because this time I really mean it.

That said, the problem with making a show about determinism is you can see the ending from a mile away. The show writes itself into a corner in that way. That’s obviously disappointing, but everything before the final pair of episodes is really unique and easily one of my favorite filmic experiences this year — and if I was allowing miniseries to go anywhere on this list Devs would have easily been my #1.

8. Corpus Christi

One last rule-breaking entry. Corpus Christi is a Polish language film that was technically released in 2019 but it didn’t hit wider Western audiences until earlier this year — and a bunch of other year-end lists are using it so I am too.

Corpus Christi is about a troubled teen named Daniel who is released from juvenile detention and sent to work at a sawmill as part of his parole. Before leaving juvey, he’s shown having an appreciation for religion and a good relationship with the detention center’s priest Father Tomas. Once Daniel arrives to his assigned town, instead of going to the sawmill he decides to go to a church where he tells a half-assed lie to a cute girl that he is not some punk kid but actually a priest. This lie escalates into a full-on performance as Daniel finds himself impersonating a priest, but he’s pretty happy to be avoiding life at the sawmill so he keeps up the ruse.

Daniel hosts a variety of sermons and his interpretation of religious teachings is progressive to say the least. His liveliness reinvigorates locals in the town who have struggled with their faith after a tragedy took the lives of several teenagers in the community. He enjoys some early success, but things get complicated as his past comes back to haunt him.

Priest impersonators have been a thing for a long time, but the details of this story really hit at a good time for where we are in history right now. There are record numbers of people abandoning traditional religions but still maintaining a sense of “spirituality” with loose definitions. In the United States specifically, some 43 percent of Americans identify as “spiritual but not religious.” The implications of that have been extensively talked about in a book that also came out this year called Strange Rites — which I also highly recommend. Corpus Christi doesn’t quite reach the potential of its concept, but it is an intriguing look at the religious rules we hold firm to and the ones we’re more willing to relax.

It is a movie that takes a bit to get going, and I will say the ending doesn’t do anything interesting with its story, but it’s a thought-provoking concept that allows the film to persevere through its weaknesses.

7. Another Round / Druk

Ok let’s talk about actual movies from this year. Druk, or “Another Round” as it has been marketed in the West, is a Danish-language film starring Mads Mikkelsen. It’s about four high school teachers who decide to test a philosopher’s theory that human beings are meant to maintain a .05 blood alcohol level at all times because that level of toxicity unleashes our true self.

This is obviously a very silly premise for a movie but it does well to have fun with its concept. It is surprising how effective this movie is at portraying the fun of day-drinking since it’s literally an ancient pastime. Stories like Druk have always been about providing the audience with a vicarious experience of what would happen if you finally let loose like you were in college. This appeal is a big part of what made rated R comedies like American Pie so successful — especially following a largely conservative monoculture that dominated the 80s and early 90s in the United States. Druk succeeds at holding its own when compared to other raucous comedies, but it really distinguishes itself by presenting an honest examination of the appeal of drug abuse, while maintaining the inevitable pitfalls of such a lifestyle. Obviously if there was no upside to this drug abuse, no one would do it. But Druk is clear-eyed about the short-term gains of relaxing your stodginess, and even moreso about the problems that arise from lying to yourself about your own bad habits.

The second half of Druk takes a darker turn and exemplifies how any party-hard personality trait is typically hiding some deeper depression. Whether that is a midlife crisis, chronic loneliness, abdication of adult responsibilities, or marital concerns. I liked that this movie could show both sides of the issue and gracefully transition from the comedic elements to the more dramatic ones without any tonal issues.

Mikkelsen adds a lot to this movie, most of all to its ending where he drunkenly dances for a solid five minutes. I imagine the filmmakers believed was the climax — and to their credit it was the best part of it. Druk may be a bit of retread for some people who’ve seen this kind of thing before, but it is well-made and one of my favorites from the year.

6. A Sun

I still don’t quite know what to make of the Taiwanese epic drama film A Sun. This movie follows a family whose son gets into trouble during the opening sequence —one of the more startling examples of contrapuntal music I’ve seen in recent memory — and follows their lives for the subsequent years that follow after that event. I would describe A Sun as a “slice of life” movie which is a term that comes with a lot of baggage in my mind. On one hand, A Sun accomplishes what the best slice of life movies excel at. It does a phenomenal job dropping you into the world of these characters and giving you a wide scope of their lives throughout multiple events and tragedies. It also has a lot of excellent understated moments of tenderness that you wouldn’t otherwise get in a film with a more determined narrative. On the other hand, it is incredibly long, there’s a bunch of filler, and it’s not really “about” anything. So maybe not for everyone, and at times it wasn’t even for me. There were moments where I wanted to give up, but there are other moments that I’m still thinking about now.

Not necessarily because the scenes were so impactful, but they just resonate so strongly like a good novel. To name a few, I really liked the scene where the aggrieved father shows up to the guy’s job with a septic truck and sprays sewage everywhere. Something about that is insane enough to believe it could happen. I remember the dream sequence — that isn’t a flashy dream sequence it’s shot like any other scene — but it shows two family members in a moment of intimacy that’s not present anywhere else in the film, which really expresses the sadness of their interaction that’s exclusive to the dreamworld. And the ending scene is similar where a mother and son just ride a bike through town, which really has no further subtext or meaning, but in the context of the rest of this two and a half hour journey, it just hits differently.

And this whole movie is backed by this nostalgic or idyllic score that adds to the emotional impact of every beat it lands on. Or at least it did for me. So much of your response to this movie is emotional and it either works for you or it doesn’t. It’s a film that escapes description but it has the potential to land some devastating emotional weight on you if it works. There are definitely some issues with how it tells its story, like there are a lot of monologues. But I think it’d be a mistake to discount the quality of its best moments which make it one of the best films this year.

5. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

I feel like I owe an apology to this next movie: Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a movie that was pilloried by user ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, which made me erroneously assume this was some nanny activist filmmaking telling me how I should think. Instead, this movie is a very raw and realistic depiction of what it’s like for a teenager to get an abortion in the United States. You can say a movie with that premise is inherently arguing a political point, but I’m someone who is fairly resistant to that type of filmmaking and I did not get that impression from this movie. This movie is closer to being an interesting footnote in a history textbook than a traditional movie.

The story of this movie is so barebones that you can summarize it in maybe two sentences — there’s not a lot there — but knowing what happens in this movie is not a substitute for experiencing it. One of the great strengths of cinema is its ability to transport you to another place or witness the world through the eyes of someone else to better understand their experience. This movie shows just how terrifying it is to be stuck in some middle-of-nowhere town with unsupportive parents and a carousel of juvenile boys joking about blowjobs all the time. It’s not an atmosphere that can handle a conversation about abortion. It is incapable of talking about the incredible responsibility of childbirth or the long-term considerations of getting an abortion. So unsurprisingly, people like the main character Autumn are left to address this monumental decision on their own.

What I really liked about this movie was its intentional lack of commentary to any of the events. There’s not a lot of dialogue in this movie beyond the necessary interactions. There’s no character acting as a stand-in for all the talking points of pro-choice feminism. All you get is Autumn, her experience, and exactly what it entails. Many of things are pedestrian in nature, like booking appointments or pamphlets about adoption. Other things are more unique to her situation but speak to the terror thousands of teenagers experience every year. For example when Autumn is told her abortion is a two-day procedure, she has to find out some way to stay overnight in New York City without any money or alarming her parents. Regardless of your views on abortion, I don’t think the solutions she’s forced to consider are very humane or by design.

I respected this movie because it isn’t ideological or interested in changing your mind. It just wants to show you reality and maybe seeing that reality will make you think differently. Maybe your takeaway from this movie is: oh my god, I can’t believe we terrify teenagers with this messed up system. Or maybe your takeaway is, wow it’s way too easy to get an abortion. Whatever your view may be, the movie is a starting point for the rest of that conversation.

Personally, I’ve always identified as pro-choice — although I have become increasingly disillusioned by that viewpoint to the extent that I don’t have an opinion anymore (but I’m a guy so I get to have no opinion) — and this movie only furthered my belief abortion is a phenomenally complicated topic often confused by political talking points. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is not a talking point, it’s a practical depiction of reality that really captures American life in our current moment. I think it is a unique film for that reason and one of the best for the year.

4. Bad Boys for Life

Number four is Bad Boys for Life. Maybe the placement of this movie will lower your expectations for all the other movies I just talked about, but really it should elevate your expectations for Bad Boys for Life. I talked about this in my original review back in January — but I cannot understate how insane it is this movie is so good.

And I should say I don’t have any love for the Bad Boys franchise. I saw Bad Boys 1 and 2 for the first time in their entirety a mere 24 hours before I saw Bad Boys for Life. There was an Alamo Drafthouse triple feature of all the movies leading up to the new one at midnight. There was a problem with the projector so the third one wouldn’t play and we had to come back the next day. I was very grateful for that because those first two movies might provide ironic enjoyment but watching them back-to-back wasn’t something I enjoyed. So I came back the next day and was pleasantly surprised this movie was so good.

On the most basic level, it is a successful action movie. It has clearly defined characters who not only feel like real people but their personality actually impacts how they perform in the action set pieces. Will Smith’s character is the reckless hotshot who goes in guns blazing, whereas Martin Lawrence in the stodgy old guy that just wants to get back to his wife alive. There’s an obvious conflict and tension between those two approaches which keeps the action in this movie engaging and entertaining.

But this movie is not just limited to the character who’s doing the action and the other character who’s the comedic relief, because this movie introduces a squad of younger characters who not only allow for flashier set pieces, but have a tangible impact on the story too. That squad is led by a former romantic interest to one of the main characters, and their prevalence in the film brings into question the relevancy of the Bad Boys, which is part of the whole theme of the movie. The intermingling of personalities and action style shows the filmmakers knew one of the most basic principles of action filmmaking which is to make every element of the story serve the action. If you were to grade this movie for its ability to work as an action movie, Bad Boys for Life is one of the best.

What really makes this movie so good is it reuses throwaway lines from Bad Boys 1 and 2 to suggest there is some coherent storyline across the entire franchise. They redeploy all the jokes including the teenager they grilled in Bad Boys 2 or the captain’s incompetence at basketball started in Bad Boys 1. More importantly they develop the families of these characters and use them as a source of motivation for both main characters in different ways. Martin Lawrence is scared of dying and wants to get back to his wife. Will Smith has a hidden past that contributes to the antagonist of this story. All of this stuff feels so natural and obvious, you wonder why previous Bad Boys movies weren’t as good. Maybe that speaks to the genius of the writers and director of this movie, or maybe Bad Boys was always good and it took this movie for me to recognize the potential its fans have seen all along.

Either way, easily the best action movie of the year — and I did see many others. I think I would’ve had good things to say about this movie in any year, but since this year is so whacky I do think it’s hilarious this made it into the top 5, but it really is that good.  

3. The Trial of the Chicago 7

Number three is the Trial of the Chicago 7, which is a movie I actually avoided for most of the year. This movie is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin and before I saw this movie I really thought Sorkin had overstayed his welcome. I think his most interesting work in the past few years has been with directors who neuter his smarmy tone. Movies like The Social Network and Moneyball have clear Sorkin influence without being overbearing with the witticisms that I’m just kind of tired of after seeing all the television shows he’s worked on for two decades.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I finally gave Trial of the Chicago 7 an honest shot and it quickly became one of my favorites for the year. The biggest criticism of Sorkin’s style is he tends to use the same type of dialogue no matter who the character is supposed to be. Whether you’re the President of the United States, the CEO of Facebook, a 70-year baseball scout, or just a teenager — everyone talks the same in a Sorkin script. With this movie, it’s not that Sorkin adapted his style but he found a setting that makes the dialogue appropriate. His sarcastic subversive dialogue works very naturally for a group of anti-establishment activists during the height of the Vietnam War protests. All of these characters are either very well-read activists or established lawyers, so they can keep up with conversations about obscure political movements or legal arguments that would be unbelievable for an ordinary person. Additionally, the fact this trial was seen as a sham trial creates the smart and comedic tone Sorkin has been writing for his entire career.

That tone is accomplished because of the diverse and combative characters in the entire cast. The most notable is Sasha Baron Cohen’s performance of Abbie Hoffman, a radical activist who was a borderline performance artist due to his adamant disregard for the system and his knack for media stunts. I’ve been familiar with Hoffman for a while and I think his character is hammed up a little bit for this movie, but it is a generally accurate portrayal of one of the more unique figures in history. Surrounding Hoffman are various degrees of other types of activists like the buttoned-up Tom Hayden played by Eddie Redmayne, the comically passive David Dellinger played by John Carroll Lynch, and the kinda stoner bro Jerry Rubin played by Jeremy Strong. All of these characters are real people in history and their stories have surprisingly resonant allegories to the modern day. You have a group of people who have the “radical” views of: not supporting foreign wars, universal healthcare, and legalizing weed. Within that group you have strong disagreements about the best way to accomplish their shared goals. Hoffman representing the performative mockery of the system and Hayden representing the strait-laced work within the system. It’s an argument that you could argue divided the movement then, and continues to divide it now, but there has not been a final word on which approach is the best.

The beauty of Sorkin directing this story is he gives each of the characters a moment to dunk on the others, which means even the viewpoint you’re most sympathetic to gets dunked on as well. It works because every character is so charismatic, mostly due to the confidence imbued in all of them through the script. I need to point our Mark Rylance specifically, who carries much of the film due to his central role in it.

It’s a really fun movie with some significance due to its allegories to the modern day. All of those things are right up my alley. Assuming you care at all about politics or history, this is easily one of the best movies of the year but it may not be for everyone.

2. Run

My number two pick was very close to being number one: Run. Run is follow-up to 2018’s Searching. If you’ve been following my work for a while you might remember me naming Searching as the biggest surprise of that year. Directed by first-time filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty, Searching was a thriller shot entirely from the perspective of a computer screen. It sounded like a dumb ass gimmick, which is probably why I had such low expectations but that movie not only proved the gimmick could be done well, but it was also a genuinely excellent nail-biting thriller unlike anything I had seen in a while.

Run is Chaganty’s follow-up to his debut and I think it firmly establishes him as one of the most exciting young directors working today. There is no gimmick with Run, but it does have a great premise. The movie stars a mother and daughter. The daughter Chloe is bound to a wheelchair due to a variety of medical complications. She is cared for by her mother Diane who is so familiar with taking care of Chloe there’s a new tension that arises when Chloe is finally set to go to college. Chloe detects this concern and begins to believe her mother isn’t being totally honest about the status of her college acceptance. The nature of that tension and the whole history of their relationship unravels across the rest of the movie.

To explain why this movie made such an impact on me, I need to do a quick story about myself. I started doing movie reviews and video game reviews when I was in High School. I fell into journalism out of that natural interest, and there was a brief period of time where I wanted to get into filmmaking. I took film studies courses and I did film production. This was before I realized writing was really what I was good at and movies just tend to have a lot of writing in them. Somewhere in those classes I stopped watching movies the way everyone else does. When normal people watch movies, they see the story and the characters and the spectacle. When I watch movies, I see the camera angle, and the writing, and the production. When I discovered this was how I saw movies, I got a little depressed. It was like I had taught myself to not believe in magic, because I was no longer swept away by cinema like I used to be when I was younger. And there was a hole in my life because that awe and wonder that motivated me to express my own ideas through writing was now gone. But I have come to discover there are a handful of films that are so good, I can suspend my thinking brain and feel entranced by the magic of filmmaking again. That happened to me when I watched Run.

The building of tension in this movie is simply masterclass. It does a phenomenal job of teasing out information to the audience. One of the very first scenes is a classroom and there’s a close-up of a tissue box being passed around the room. It’s natural for the audience to seek answers, so immediately you’re thinking: where are we, who’s talking, what’s happening, why are they here? You’re engaging with the movie because you’re looking for something to reward your attention. This movie knows how much to give you and how much to withhold. Which is what happens in that first scene. You find out you’re getting reintroduced to Diane who says something publicly and the audience has to decide if they believe her or not. It’s inviting the audience to interpret the movie as it’s happening. Even when there is a straight-forward scene of dialogue, it’s the kind of dialogue that’s true to life. It’s messy, imprecise, and contains lapse of attention or detail. People don’t approach conversations like chess matches, so it’s believable two characters talking to one another will miss something that you caught. And the tension that comes from you discovering something becomes anticipation for when the character will discover it, or what will happen if they never discover it. This is relatively basic stuff in building tension, but it’s clear in this movie Chaganty is a student of tension and knows how to wield it with expertise. That’s pretty much all I can say about the movie, because it’s a story best experienced blindly.

I also thought the concept of this movie was very smart. It shows how a wheelchair-bound character makes every element of life so much more stressful. Something as simple as grabbing something from the top shelf or going to the store around the corner is now an opportunity for tension. And I also thought it was super cool that the person who plays Chloe — Kiera Allen — is actually someone who uses a wheelchair in real life. Despite this concept being kind of obvious, she’s apparently one of the first actors to get a starring role as a character who uses a wheelchair.

Which goes back to why I’m so excited for whatever Chaganty makes next. He’s proven his ability to be an inventive writer and an immensely skilled filmmaker. I will say the one thing his movies are missing are that extra bit of weight that comes from truly great cinema. This is one of those situations where this is a movie I’d give a 5 out of 5, but it could be eclipsed by a lower-rated movie that had more of an impact on me. Which is what’s happening right now…

1. Horse Girl

This year was immensely stressful for a lot of people, not just because of the pandemic but because we’ve been subsisting under a generation-long trend of increased depression, anxiety, social isolation, and paralyzing loneliness. This has been exacerbated by social media, cancel culture, and inaccessible healthcare specifically for mental health. With all this in mind, the movie that made the most impact on me was Horse Girl. Horse Girl has a ridiculous title and the fact it stars Alison Brie — who most people know from Community — may create the false impression this is some sort of comedy. While there are comedic moments in Horse Girl, it is really meant to be a harrowing depiction of the onset of schizophrenia.

This movie had such an impact on me because a lot of the influencing factors on the main character’s mental state are very relatable realities of being a young person in the modern day. Sarah has a passion for horses, but she’s barred from partaking in this hobby due to a tragic accident that’s only hinted at. Beyond her love for animals, she is shown to be socially isolated. We initially believe this is because she’s kind of dorky. She seems to only watch the same television show for hours and hours and she maintains this awkward cheerfulness that’s more unsettling then it is reassuring. So we assume the reason she’s lonely is because she’s kind of lame.

As we get to know Sarah more and see the various tragedies of her life, the audience discovers she is suffering from early indications of mental illness. She experiences memory loss — sometimes in the form of sleepwalking, other times portions of her recent past are missing. She’ll find herself in places without knowing how she got there or people she’s interacted with many times will suddenly look different. All of these things can be explained as something other than what it actually is — maybe she’s just tired, or she got too drunk, or some other explanation. The human mind has a way of rejecting explanations it doesn’t like and accepting ludicrous explanations that provide a sense of comfort.

Sarah doesn’t believe she’s mentally ill, instead she believes some combination of conspiracy theories like she’s actually a clone of her late-mother or potentially being abducted by aliens because of her similarities to her mother. You can tell these conspiracies are intrinsically linked to some lost individual she never truly knew. It is a common expression of the depressed to believe the person who would have understood them did exist, but now they are separated somehow and that is the source of their unhappiness. Sarah is content to pursue these theories and tell people about them because the alternative is far more terrifying. That alternative is something we all consider but never truly want to believe.

What is the answer to the question: Why don’t I have a job? Why am I single? Why don’t I have friends? Why am I lonely? Why am I depressed? Why aren’t other people like this? The answer to these questions can be very simple but we are never tempted to accept that simple answer because we’re scared of what it might mean: Maybe, there’s just something wrong with me.

I think we all experience this level of self-doubt at some point. It’s why “imposter syndrome” has become such a big thing as people in our generation are finally moving into roles of responsibility and the shift feels so dramatic it feels like an act. But more commonly, we never get a position of responsibility and we flounder in this undefined state of irrelevancy wondering why we’re stuck. Horse Girl may be about someone who has a medically-prescribed mental disorder, but Sarah’s response to these otherwise very normal sources of discomfort and doubt are as resonate as they are heartbreaking — even if you don’t have mental illness.

I really need to take a moment and laud Alison Brie’s performance as a troubled young person that seems to know she’s fucked up but doesn’t want to admit it. Her feigned enthusiasm never betrays the undeniable sadness of her character. I really connected to this aspect of her character. That attempt to match other people’s mood so there’s no reason for them to discard you. See, I’m normal. I’m enjoying this awkward event just like you. I think a lot of people attempt to do this before they ultimately discover it’s a fake mask that doesn’t fool everyone, in the same way it doesn’t fool us when we see Sarah act this way and still detect her discomfort. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but one she maintains the entire movie. It’s easy to take for granted her performance and enjoy the movie without really locating where the empathy of the film comes from, but that performance is really what makes this movie so relatable. 

I don’t know what it’s like to have schizophrenia, but I did appreciate the depiction of this illness wasn’t a bombastic science fiction allegory as we often see in Hollywood storytelling — although there is a little bit of that. The movie doesn’t use its premise as an excuse to make crazy montages, it uses the strengths of filmmaking to express the life of Sarah’s mental state. The film uses noncontinuous editing and special effects to disorient the audience to match the disorientation Sarah feels when she’s coming out of a psychotic episode. These creative decisions are to get the audience to relate to Sarah’s experience. And all of these tools are used in the context of a grounded portrayal of reality. You can almost simultaneously see Sarah’s unreliable interpretation of the world but still figure out what literally happened. Which is another way of saying it’s a movie that uses its stylization in service to the story its trying to tell. It’s not simply artsy for the sake of being artsy, it’s using the craft to tell a story that couldn’t otherwise be accomplished through another medium.

Though I will say the movie ends in kind of a disappointingly ambiguous note. Which is part of the reason I gave it a 4 out of 5 when it first came out, but it’s not enough to detract from what else is accomplished in this movie. Horse Girl offered something new to me this year. A unique portrayal of a specific segment of the human experience that’s usually only done in service to some other goal. Movies use mental illness to ramp up their whacky sci-fi thriller or to give film students an excuse to go avant garde. Horse Girl is a sincere depiction of a topic we so frequently reference without ever actually addressing. When I see a movie, I want to feel like it made an impact on my life. Horse Girl is not a pleasant movie to watch. It only offers pain and sadness, but I consider it the most impactful experience you can have, which is why it’s my favorite movie for 2020.

Categories
Movies

Top Films of 2018

This year of film had a lot of incredible originality. I’ve never been more optimistic for the future of movies than right now. Here are some movies that show movies are still one of the best ways to tell stories and dissect the human experience:

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10. A Quiet Place

It’s pretty crazy that a movie like A Quiet Place was billed as a mainstream blockbuster. It wasn’t so long ago that filmmakers had preconceptions of what audiences would accept. At the top of that list has always been the necessity for dialogue. People believed audiences were too stupid to understand a plot through pictures. Those long sequences of no-talking were for artsy films by Stanley Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson. A Quiet Place has proven audiences are up for a lot more than Hollywood may have expected. The film has a plot explanation for the lack of exposition and it commits to its own rule without circumventing it by having soundproofed rooms or an abundance of subtitled sign language [Bird Box call out goes here].

The bravery of A Quiet Place to commit to its own idea is enough for me to commend the film, but it helps that it’s actually a thrilling nail-biter as well. The sound design has an obvious contribution to the tension, but just as important is John Krasinki’s direction and decision to show the monsters sparingly (although we do get that paid off eventually). It’s also a film that takes narrative risks. The opening scene shows the lethality of the world and proves to the audience that this story could go anywhere — and indeed it does. A Quiet Place is more than an exciting thriller with an intriguing pitch, it’s a sign of how far mainstream audiences have come and how far filmmakers are now allowed to go.

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9. The Front Runner

I could probably write ten thousand words about my thoughts on The Front Runner, but most of them would be focused on politics and not the movie itself. To put it simply, the story of Gary Hart is essential to modern day America. It’s a tragic tale of an upstanding politician whose presidential aspirations are torched by shoddy reporting and a societal shift toward denying privacy to public figures. Hugh Jackman plays the lead role of Senator Gary Hart and he perfectly captures the mixture of anger and disgust Hart embodied when he was asked personal questions or suggestions he had been unfaithful to his wife. He was a reasonable man who reacted appropriately to inappropriate inquiries, but it wasn’t the reaction the public wanted and we all suffered as a result.

One of the reasons this story is so important — although it is never addressed in the film — is Hart has since been exonerated for this so-called “scandal.” A Republican strategist admitted on his deathbed that Gary Hart’s scandal was a set-up. How could such a shoe-string trick tank an otherwise popular politician? Well, that’s where the 10,000 words come in. In short, The Front Runner will force you to address how you view the purpose of the press, how we consume media, and what’s relevant to report — without getting confused by the craziness of our current president. It seems we’re living in the day Hart predicted “when we get the kind of leaders we deserve.”

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8. Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse

It’s hard to believe this is the fourth time Spider-Man’s origin story has been committed to film, but Spider-Verse’s greatest accomplishment is how new it feels despite that fact. This is a superhero film with a purpose. It has a narrative it wants to tell that exists outside of maximizing audience likability to launch a franchise of films. As a result, Spider-Verse is the most refreshing superhero film in a long time. I really loved its total embrace of the animated art style and Spider-Verse concept. The presence of multiple universes isn’t a generic roadblock for the [hero] to overcome, it’s interwoven into every aspect of the film. The multiple Spider-Mans and alternative versions of well-known villains made this particular story standout in the sea of copy-paste superhero films out today. Spider-Verse holds on its own and shows there’s more creative energy in this genre that’s starting to feel tired.

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7. Searching

You’ll often find people who claim every style of film has already been explored and all that’s left are gimmicks. I’d challenge those people to watch Searching. The film is shot entirely from the perspective of a computer screen while a father searches for his missing daughter. You might wonder, why restrict that story to a computer screen? Wouldn’t it work better if you could pull away and see the main character react to information? Well 1) you do see him react in other ways and 2) there’s an immersion quality to the main character’s search that wouldn’t be possible if you weren’t glued to the screen in the same way he is. It’s an inventive filming technique that truly utilizes its form to fortify the narrative. Searching has incredible pacing and some great twists, making it easily one of the most enjoyable film experiences this year.

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6. First Reformed

This is a strange entry on this list because First Reformed went from 0 to 100 very quickly for me. The film stars Ethan Hawke as a priest in a congregation that’s getting more irrelevant in modern times. He’s asked to help a woman’s husband, who has become nihilistic due to global warming and the fear of raising a child in a dying world. Hawke’s character goes on his own journey, but I’ll be honest and say a lot of the messaging in this film was eye-roll inducing. It’s a movie that seemed like it was going the absolute wrong way for so many bad reasons, but it all changes at the very end. Its final shot delivers a blow to pessimistic scare-mongering, and it wasn’t until that final shot that I decided I loved this movie. If nothing else, First Reformed is worth a watch for the interesting musings about what we should be doing in the face of a potential global catastrophe.

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5. A Star Is Born

It might not be surprising the fourth remake of A Star Is Born is good, but it is surprising just how good it is. This isn’t just a retelling of an old story, it’s about the realities of fame, the loneliness of popularity, how hard it is to remain authentic, and the difficulty of supporting a relationship in the spotlight. It’s a film with huge scope, but feels like a passion project. A lot of that passion comes from Lady Gaga’s performance. Her musical performances sing for themselves, but her acting matches the caliber of skill found in the array of actors she’s surrounded by.

In the review I gave earlier this year, I had some criticisms for individual scenes or how the second act loses its tight direction, but many of those critiques disappear given the full breadth of the film. A Star is Born succeeds at humanizing celebrities and getting the audience to see how the struggles of stardom are not so different from ordinary life. There may be some faults along the way, but it feels like a cultural event that deserves to be seen.

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4. Hereditary

I don’t like horror movies. I want my movies to have some value beyond jumping my nervous system so I feel alive for a few hours. I want something to think about. Hereditary gives you something to think about and maybe some mild PTSD to overcome for the rest of your life. If there’s one thing I can say to convince fellow non-horror film fans, it’s the fact that Hereditary has no jump scares. It plays it straight from beginning to end, and it doesn’t detract from the terror it inflicts. Although Hereditary inevitably becomes a supernatural hellscape in its final minutes, the majority of the film is a family drama depicting the ways people cope with death. It was the dramatic moments of the film that have stuck with me. The ants, the scream, the rear-view mirror — they still give me chills. Hereditary taps into the true fears of the human condition and sets an example all horror films should aspire to.

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3. Eighth Grade

We don’t deserve Bo Burnham. In an era where everyone is focused on the Logan Pauls of the world, Burnham understands that the majority of experiences with the internet is intense loneliness manifested in personal vlogs. For a man who benefited early from “going viral,” Burnham shows a remarkable amount of empathy for the type of person who gravitates toward web content. Eighth Grade follows a young girl with no following of any kind, and shows how her web presence contrasts with her dull life. While this alone might have been good enough to be a great film, Eighth Grade enters another echelon with the infamous truth or dare scene. In one of the most uncomfortable versions of a well-known party game, Burnham shows the complicated relationship between our desire for human connection and our frequent disappointment with other people. It’s a brave film that leaves its audience with a new sense of empathy and understanding for the oddballs attempting to navigate this strangely interconnected world we live in.

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2. The Hate U Give

When I tell people I like The Hate U Give, the number one response I receive is “Really? I thought you’d hate that movie.” Maybe that’s a low-level insult about me, or maybe I can’t blame people for that reaction since I haven’t liked Sorry To Bother You, Moonlight, Blackkklansman or countless other movies about the black experience in America. But maybe my enjoyment of The Hate U Give proves the effectiveness of its message. Regardless of your political views, it’s clear America’s relationship with black Americans and police officers is something that needs to be examined. While many pieces of art have attempted to present their worldview as the definitive solution to these complicated problems, The Hate U Give knows when it can give an answer and when it can’t. Instead of pretending to possess oracle wisdom from the future, the film anchors its conflict to how it affects its family of characters.

The family of The Hate U Give is based on a book that came out two years ago (which received similar level of praise) and the movie really feels like it’s derived from dense source material. The world feels rich with life and backstory. Numerous side characters pop in and out, all with their own history that contributes to the narrative and how it affects the main character. Starr isn’t a perfect person — and she makes many mistakes throughout the film — but all her choices are understandable given the context of her situation. She’s an immensely likable character who’s attempting to navigate difficult issues in good faith. Much of Starr’s wisdom comes from her father, Maverick, who acts as a source of stability throughout the family’s turbulent journey. I couldn’t help but wonder how many black families could have had a Maverick figure in their life, but were robbed of such an individual due to the realities of our era.

From a filmic view, The Hate U Give doesn’t have any standout production elements. It’s not a movie that’s praised for its artistic direction. Instead it’s a movie that addresses difficult issues and allows productive conversations as a result. It’s for that reason, I consider it the most vital film from this year.

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1. Annihilation

My first viewing of Annihilation was defined by awe. My initial review praised the movie for accomplishing incredibly tense minute-to-minute set pieces, but also found time for lofty big ideas to think about. There was enough left unexplained to allow for a conspiracy theory-level of obsession. I saw Annihilation twice in the theater. I bought it the first day it was available for download and I’ve since seen it a total of six times, each time with a new group of friends so we could uncover the mystery of Annihilation. In these viewings and conversations, I haven’t “solved” Annihilation — in fact some people would say movies are not meant to be solved — instead I’ve found a wealth of interpretations, all of which have their own merit. Annihilation is dense with ideas and as a result it can be about so many things.

Even if it weren’t high-concept and otherworldly, Annihilation is one of the more memorable journeys into the unknown. The film is classified as science fiction, but it’s closer to a horror film. The crew’s experiences in the shimmer run the gambit of every type of dread you can experience. Jump scares, body horror, extreme violence and gore, existential horror and psychological unease. Who can forget the alligator, the video tape, the bear or the lighthouse? They’re permanently implanted in your brain not only because of the terror they inflict, but because of the strangeness you never completely understand. How do these traumatic experiences affect who we become?

I’ve seen this movie a bunch of times and I’m still in awe. Annihilation is an unbelievable achievement. It’s the most inventive science fiction film in a decade, an unforgettable experience and easily the greatest film from this year — perhaps one of the greatest of all-time.

Categories
Video Games

Top 10 Games of 2015

Many people believed 2015 would be the next landmark year of gaming. They hoped it could be mentioned within the same breath as 1998, 2004, and 2007. One of those years where the developer and console cycles align and a boatload of quality comes out in the same year. 1998 saw the release of games like Half Life, Ocarina of Time, Stacraft, and others. 2004 had San Andreas, Metal Gear Solid 3, Halo 2, etc. 2007 brought us Mass Effect, BioShock, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, among others. Looking at my list, and the other games of 2015… I don’t think it holds up to those years. I think 2015 was the year of surprise. Like: SURPRISE! Games are actually good for some reason. After the absolute bum year that was 2014, the industry has rebounded with gusto. My list itself has a lot of surprises, mostly because it features games and genres that I typically don’t enjoy. Overall I believe 2015 is setting up and even greater year: 2016, but we’ll see how that works out. Before we move onto the future, let’s take one last glance at the past. Here’s my top ten favorite games of 2015:

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10. Massive Chalice

This year was the year of the XCOM clones and my first run in with one was Massive Chalice. Originally slated to be released in 2014, Massive Chalice got pushed back into summer of 2015 and sort of got farted out in a way that made everyone forgot about it. The game is a mix of family name building akin to Game of Thrones, along with “defending of the realm” storytelling, combined with XCOM combat if it focused on melee units. I felt this game could’ve done achieved more if it had taken it self seriously instead of the established goofy tone of Double Fine (which may be why lead designer of Massive Chalice, Brad Muir, has since left the company to work for Valve) but I still enjoyed well over thirty hours with this game.

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9. Invisible Inc.

Hey another XCOM inspired game! This time from Klei, the talented developers behind Mark of the Ninja and Shank, also known as the best games I’ve never finished. A problem I didn’t have with Invisible Inc, but that’s probably because one playthrough only takes 2-3 hours. The game relies on randomized environments and campaign conditions and it’s highly encouraged you play it multiple times as each playthrough unlocks another character or item to alter your play style on the next run. I liked the style and tightness of the world in Invisible Inc and gave it a good 4-5 runs in the middle of the year. Some people have called it the best designed game of the year. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s certainly one of the stand outs from what I played in 2015.

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8. Prison Architect

Prison Architect was the game I eyed almost daily for months. It would announce a new update, or go on sale every few weeks. Each time it seemed more enticing. What might as well be called “Prison Maker Tycoon,” had everything I could want from a builder game, and the developers seemed dedicated to updating their game and not only improving it but adding more content for free on a regular basis. The game finally saw an official release this year after multiple years of Early Access on steam so I didn’t delay to start playing it (if it isn’t clear, I refuse to purchase Early Access games and wait for official release). It turned out to be everything I imagined. The campaign mode gently introduces you to all the mechanics and eases you into your own prison, and there’s even different play styles and “types” of prisons to construct, such as one that values punishment versus one that values rehabilitation. These play styles give you a reason to keep playing after you’ve reached max capacity with your first prison. I’ve had a lot of reason to get cynical about Early Access in 2015, but Prison Architect was a shining example to stay optimistic.

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7. Until Dawn

If there was a “surprise of the year” award, I would undoubtedly give it to Until Dawn. I never would have thought that a horror game, that’s closer to an “interactive drama” than a game, would turn out to be one of my favorites of the year. Until Dawn proved itself a lot smarter than its premise as “a dumb B-movie horror game.” I was genuinely impressed with how the design led me to make decisions that progressed the story down interesting paths. The contributions they made to the Quantic Dream formula such as the personality meters, and relationship statuses gave insight on how I should act in certain scenario. It also helped that the cast they picked for their motion captured characters had the charisma needed to stay memorable long after I had finished the game. Until Dawn could’ve easily ended up as something forgettable, or a cluster of good ideas that never land right, but a series of good decisions led to a really marvelous outcome… just like the game itself.

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6. Ori and the Blind Forest

I’m not that huge of a fan of “Metroidvanias,” so it takes a lot for me to put one on my Top 10 list. The fact that Ori is on this list at all, should be a sign of its quality. Ori’s not just a game that looks pretty and dazzles audiences from thinking rationally, confusing them into giving it praise. Its design is genuinely impressive, on top of being one of the most beautiful experiences of video games. Take this small change for example: In most games there are checkpoints artificially placed in the world, typically before difficult parts of the game. Sometimes players run into frustrating sections when there is no checkpoint at a section they’re stuck at. In Ori, there are very few pre-made checkpoints, because the player can make their own at any time by holding B. This is balanced because making a checkpoint expends “energy” that the player has to collect in the world. Which means instead of artificially choosing which parts of the game the player will need more help with, you can choose where you think you’ll need a few more retries, or you can save all day if you think you’ll need it. It’s just one example, but I think it’s a good example of the developer’s forward thinking led to making Ori one of the most intuitive games I’ve played in years. It might be called “hardcore difficult,” but it never felt that way because it taught the player how to master difficult strategies so well. The rest of Ori’s strengths speak for themselves. The impressive animation, beautiful music, Disney-esque story, and memorable set pieces. If you like this genre at all, Ori and the Blind Forest is perfection.

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5. Fallout 4

Man, can the world decide what it thinks about Fallout 4? I feel there are two camps and people keep jumping between them. Either Fallout 4 is a good game or Fallout 4 is too similar to Bethesda’s previous work and therefore a disappointment. I have not played the maximum amount of hours (I’m hovering around 27-30 hours right now) but my opinion right now is that Fallout 4 is pretty good. I think it’s leagues better than Skyrim, and any comparison before that is hard to quantify because Fallout 3 was a long time ago (seven years!). One thing remains true: the great thing about Bethesda’s game design is that they put a focus on the writing of the games.

One of the reasons I didn’t like Skyrim is because the quests were uninspired. I remember finishing the Thieves Guild quest line and being told that was “the best part of the game.” I was unimpressed, so I turned it off. I was already disappointed with what I had seen and if I had just passed the “best part,” why bother? In Oblivion, I was always surprised, every quest added something to the world or filled in some personality to the town or faction I was working within or for. Even if I had passed the best part of that game (The Dark Brotherhood) the other quests had something to offer. I feel that way with Fallout 4. I’ve had some five star quests, some four star quests, some three star quests, but they’ve all been really enjoyable and have helped fill out the world. That’s what Bethesda games are supposed to be about. I can see the criticisms that Bethesda didn’t evolve the mechanics enough, or that the base building doesn’t actually do anything, but for my money, and for what I wanted Fallout 4 to be, I got what I wanted. No one makes a game like Bethesda can, and until that changes, I can never call one of their games “disappointing.”

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4. Cities Skylines

Praise the publisher Paradox for sheparding the developer Colossal Order to release Cities: Skylines and saving the genre of city builders. After the disaster of Sim City I think everyone was ready to call it quits on ever seeing that franchise revived. Out of nowhere came this little game and in no time I found myself lost in thirty hours and down several metropolises. The best praise I can give Cities: Skylines is it’s so easily streamlined, you wonder how anyone could’ve gotten it wrong. Just a few weeks ago I loaded Cities: Skylines up again, after not playing it for months, and all the concepts and tools came back to me within minutes, it was simple. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Cities, and who knows, maybe it’ll inspire other developers to make a competitor that’s worth a damn.

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3. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Talk about a surprise. For anyone who knows me, I have a begrudging relationship with Metal Gear. I’ve played every game in the series and I don’t think I’ve liked a single one of them. That changed this year with The Phantom Pain. Phantom Pain practically dropped the “Metal Gearness” of the series, which is to say there’s far less hour long cut scenes and way more emergent gameplay. Granted, there’s still plenty of insane characters and bizarre cut scenes, but it all takes a back seat to the action. For once I can say that Metal Gear is the game I turn on when I just want to screw around in a world and see what happens. My appreciation for the depth of Phantom Pain’s mechanics really expanded in the second half of the game, when specific missions strip away your loadout preferences and you have to rely on strict stealth, or start with no weapons at all. These missions made me play the game in different ways I had never tried before. These latter parts of the game really opened my eyes to the depth of the systems at play in The Phantom Pain. I still don’t like the story, and I’m pretty sure I skipped past a lot of the cut scenes, but for once they made a game I actually really enjoyed.

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2. SOMA

Up until now Frictional has only made games that I’ve aspired to play but never actually do. Penumbra and Amnesia have really high praise in my circle of friends but the controls and the early moments of those games do a good job of convincing me to “nope” out of there real quick. SOMA was different. SOMA had a far different set up than the previous games, and the sci-fi backdrop intrigued me more than their dungeon horrors of the past. There were still times in SOMA where I wanted to hit escape, quit out of the game and never play it again, but I stuck with it. The groundwork laid in the first hour hinted at questions that I had to have answered. What was going on? What happened to my character? How am I going to get back? The rest of the game does not disappoint. Since finishing SOMA I’ve been relentlessly pleading others to finish the game so I can discuss the ending. I’ve even started asking non-gamers about tangential topics just so I can have some form of conversation. It’s a game that’s plagued my mind in more ways than one, the way a true horror should. I may have some reservations on “getting lost” every now and then, but I can’t deny how completely SOMA has taken hold of my life since completing it. For that reason I have to acknowledge it as one of the best experiences I’ve had this year.

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1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

When Witcher 3 came out, there was a lot of praise. I heard my trusted sources talk about it and they said they liked it. At one point someone said “some people are calling this one of the best games of all time,” to which someone responded, “I feel like those are the same people who said that about Witcher 2.” I remembered that I played Witcher 2. Twice. Both playthroughs are sitting at the 12 hour mark, just after the first encounter with the main villain. After that fight I lost all interest in ever playing it again. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I remember when Witcher 2 came out there was high praise when it was released, then it dimmed, then as the year went on people forgot about it. By the end of the year Witcher 2 was not remembered as “one of the best of all time.” I decided after hearing this conversation that Witcher 3 would go the same way. But, it hasn’t.

After hearing continuous praise for the game throughout the year, and seeing mainstream praise from outlets like The Game Awards and GameSpot, I decided I needed to play Witcher 3. I bought the game sometime last week and I’m now thirty hours into Witcher 3. Every moment away from the game I’m constantly thinking about it. This is my acknowledgement that I haven’t finished the game, but it didn’t feel right awarding my #2 or #3 pick with the top spot. Witcher 3 feels like it earns it placement for a variety of reasons.

One of the stand out differences of Witcher 3 is a fundamental approach of how the game chooses to spend the player’s time. In games like Fallout, or even Metal Gear’s side ops, the quests amount to errands. “Go pick up some stuff for me.” Maybe there’s a dialog wrapped around it, but there’s not a lot to it. All of Witcher 3’s quests are exactly that, involving, story intertwined, quests. Every interaction Geralt has with someone in the world feels like it matters. I feel like I’m in the world of the Witcher, instead of just logging more hours into my playtime of a game. I feel like I am becoming Geralt, and the actions I want to perform are generally allowed in the game world.

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Pictured: An enemy who’s buddy shot him in the back of the head.

I’m also far more impressed with the combat system this time around. The mix of swordplay and spells continues to be cool. You’re practically a Jedi with things like a pseudo “force push” or a fire spell, but even just the randomness of the fights themselves lead to humorous results. A common arrangement of foes is a sword enemy, a shield enemy, and a bowman in the back. In one encounter I force-pushed the shield opponent to the ground. The sword opponent approached me, then suddenly his health dropped to near-zero, because his bowman buddy had shot him in the back of the head. This emergent randomness can happen all the time. Every fight becomes a question of “what’s going to happen this time?” I love finding out the answer every time. There isn’t a single fight that becomes a slog or “alright let’s do this now.” It’s always fun, it’s always uncovering what the game’s engine will allow next. Even the tougher enemies are always a fight for survival without being brutally difficult.

And the world building is better now than any previous game in the series. I can attest to the fact that the first few hours of any Witcher game had always felt like an encyclopedia of foreign terms being dumped out of characters’ mouths as they referred to characters and conflicts from lands I’ve never heard of before. This game has a personal scope. It expands into grander conflict the further you dig into your own personal story. As you meet each new character that’s completely different from the one you met before, you suddenly realize you’ve met nothing but characters you’ve never seen before, and realize how unique this world of the Witcher really is.

When every quest feels like it’s important, every fight feels like a fight to the death, when digging into the world is rewarded with deep character backstories and a unique world, it’s hard not to be in awe at the game. I understand this game has been patched several times since launch and maybe at release it was in a completely (more embarrassing state) than it is now, but the game as it is now, is a bewildering force of quality. Any moment before now I could’ve told you that the previous Witcher games were overrated, but this time around they really did it. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is my game of the year.

Categories
Movies

Top 5 Films of 2015

Earlier today I saw a lot of “Top Lists” for the year of 2015 and this led me to throw up something on Twitter. Then I quickly realized I should dedicate more time to my favorite films from the years. There’s not many times I get to be wholly positive, so instead of posting a clumsily thrown together list I made in Notepad, here’s a detailed explanation of five of my favorite films from 2015. I would have gone for a full top ten, but I really didn’t see that many movies I liked enough to put on a list. By the way, Sicario (with Emily Blunt in FBI gear up top) is not on this list, although it makes for a great feature image.

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5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I’ve written a little bit about how one aspect of this movie bothered me, but that doesn’t do justice to how pleased I was with the overall result. J.J. Abrams and company managed to bridge the gap between the old fans and new fans and gave us the “Episode 1” that everyone wanted. It’s almost like we can pretend the prequels never happened. Unfortunately, there’s already a movement among big-time Star Wars fans that say the film had “too much fan service,” but I think these complaints can only be had after leaving the theater and realizing you liked the movie. The Force Awakens is the first time that audiences cared more about new characters than old ones, but the creators didn’t know that we’d like Rey, Finn, or Poe, so we got a little glimpse of who they are instead of focusing on them completely. As someone who has never been a huge Star Wars fan, this film has gotten me onto the hype train, to the point that I’ve reinstalled Knights of the Old Republic and I’m considering a replay. It’s easy to feel good about Star Wars right now, as long as I push back the thought that the “marvelification” of the franchise will happen any minute now.

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4. The Gift

I wrote on social media immediately after seeing this movie: “The Gift is a great movie because it advocates all my world views. Don’t get married. Don’t have relationships. Don’t have friends. Don’t invite people over. Don’t meet people. Never trust anyone.” Four months later, I think this still accurately represents why I liked The Gift. If not for that reason, I think it’s one of the best “It’s good, just watch it,” experiences you can have. I went to see The Gift on the premise that it was about a “creepy neighbor,” and that’s it. It’s a film that plays with your expectations more than once. The less you know about the movie the better. In other words, it’s good, just watch it.

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3. Kingsman

As far as I’m concerned there were three James Bond movies released this year: Spectre, Kingsman, and Missions Impossible: Rogue Nation. I could go into the details of why they latter two are totally James Bond movies but you’re better off skipping Rogue Nation and just watching Kingsman. A kid gets drafted into British secret service and has to infiltrate an evil lair and save the world using gadgets. All he needs is a double 0 in front of his name. Kingsman had the benefit of being released earlier in the year, several months before Spectre brought “being fun” back to Bond, so at the time it was a breath of fresh air to the formula that had been bogged down by the self-seriousness of Skyfall and Quantum of Solace. Kingsman is funny, charming, but also smart. All of this is made clear by the inclusion of Colin Firth in the main cast. When you read about a movie like Kingsman, and see someone like Firth being in the cast, you’d usually think “I wouldn’t think Firth would do something so brain-dead,” well that’s because it’s not. Like with many British films, there are layers of classism stitched into the fabric and Kingsman is no different. You walk away wondering if there was something more going on. Even if there wasn’t, it was the most fun I had at the theater all year. P.S. Love Samuel L. Jackson’s costume design.

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2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie that’s story is told almost entirely through pictures. That’s a statement that can’t be said for most movies, and that’s okay. We have writers, actors’ performances, witty dialog, and ways of conveying information that’s pleasing to audiences outside of just pictures. In reality how many stories could you tell with just pictures? Still the novelty of watching Fury Road and realizing how much I knew about the world just by watching it had a big effect on me. Take for example this fight scene between Max and (the real main character) Furiosa. We learn key things about both characters: Furiosa is willing to kill Max, Max is not willing to kill Furiosa or the Wives, Max will work with Nux, but only to the extent that he has to, Nux has a deluded sense of friendship, and it appears that both Max and Furiosa want to use the truck to get away from the incoming horde. There’s no “we’re on the same side here Max!” scene between Furiosa and Max, because the audience already knows. The entire movie assumes a level of intelligence from the viewer. The low bar that they have seen the visuals on screen and were paying attention. But this isn’t some pretentious nonsense from film class. It’s an action movie made by an old guy who’s been making action movies since the 70s, and it is fucking rad.

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1. Ex Machina

Ex Machina automatically had to be in my Top 5 after I realized it had started not one, but two, heated debates between friends and family over the implications of the ending of the film. It’s nothing incomprehensible like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a fundamental understanding of what you believe “life” to be and if you think that definition translates when it’s being applied to biology versus synthetics (or to use simpler words: humans versus robots). Ex Machina is a film that sparks conversation and I envy any work of art that can accomplish that. That alone would force me to give it a recommendation but the rest of the film is also a marvel. It’s small in scope, with only four characters and “one” location, but it covers huge ideas like artificial intelligence, human connection, and the definition of “life.” It’s short in runtime, barely making it past an hour and a half, but you learn so much about the characters, their motivations, and quickly learn about complicated concepts. It’s a tightly written film, every second has a purpose and various moments have the potential to stay with you long after it’s over (I know which one has stuck with me the longest). On top of all that it’s undeniably charming thanks to the best performance from Oscar Isaac I’ve seen from him yet, as the super-genius super-self-centered Nathan. His character is a joy to watch and he jives well with co-stars Domnhall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander who do their part to service the film.

There isn’t a weak point to Ex Machina and every aspect of it I try to think about just inspires another sentence or two of praise, and I haven’t even mentioned the set design or soundtrack. Top 10 lists (or Top 5 lists) are always subjective and graded on nothing, but Ex Machina is the film that affected my life the most and made me love the medium more than I already do. I think that’s justification enough to praise it as my favorite for 2015.