My Top Stuff of 2022

Happy New Year, all! It’s time for my annual media lists, now in video form! Sticking with films and games this year – simple rundowns below, but check out my channel for more in-depth analyses, and be sure to like and subscribe if you want to see more!

10) Tinykin

9) Shadow Warrior 3

8) Tunic

7) Scorn

6) A Plague Tale: Requiem

5) Stray

4) Kirby and the Forgotten Land

3) Horizon: Forbidden West

2) God of War: Ragnarök

1) Elden Ring

10) Carter

9) V/H/S/99

8) Barbarian

7) Incantation

6) Avatar: The Way of Water

5) Top Gun: Maverick

4) The Northman

3) The Batman

2) Nope

1) Everything Everywhere All at Once

My Top Stuff of 2021!

Time may be an illusion, but when it comes to the end of December, listicles are a cold, hard fact. In keeping with my annual diet of movies, music, videogames, and– a tad shamefully–not that many books or TV shows, here’s my Top Stuff in each medium that (typically) released within the last 365 days. I always say “Top Stuff” because I’m sure there’s even better ones I haven’t seen/played/whatever, and I’d never dare presume that my personal interests represent some objective, or even subjective, metric by which you should judge your own preferences. This is just some art I thought was cool as I kept on truckin’ in 2021–and if you did too, then that’s cool too!

FILMS

5. Nobody

When pop culture historians look back on the late 2010s, John Wick will stand as a lodestar for cinema. Vengeful popcorn flicks had existed before, of course, but the tip of the still-flourishing Keanussance brought a vibrancy—a commitment to coherent and well-choreographed, not just violent, action—that the genre largely lacked post-Matrix. The stage set, Wick’s director David Leitch then teamed up with the brains behind the hyperactive first-person shooter movie Hardcore Henry for a film with a similar story, yet founded on a critically different question: what if the guy kinda looked like a weenie? That’s no disrespect on Bob Odenkirk’s name, though, for while the actor is old enough to be my father, he plays both sides of the coin with aplomb: a meek pencil-pusher one moment, and a long-dormant hitter putting the heads of Russian thugs through walls the next. Owing, I suspect, to it being a common cramped location, there’s a lot of scuffles on public transportation in action movies—even 2021 gave us another in Shang-Chi—but the bus brawl here ranks among the best, most deliciously brutal fight scenes in recent history. And the R-rated Home Alone climax, complete with Doc Brown packing heat? An all-timer. Fingers crossed that Odenkirk’s health scare earlier this year doesn’t keep him from safely stepping back in for a sequel—I pity the next crook who absconds with that kitty-cat bracelet!

4. Dune

2021’s Dune excels because of what it is, but also what it isn’t—the shadow of David Lynch’s Dune (1984) looms large over any subsequent adaptations, if not on its merits then as a reminder of the perils of trying to cram all of Frank Herbert’s bizarre, politically charged novel into one film. Thankfully, then, director Denis Villeneuve didn’t try; as coy as the marketing may have played things, this is “Part One,” and the third act unquestionably sags because of it. By that same token, though, the sights and sounds of this world are given room to stretch out—and what a blessing, because both are utterly captivating. The sets, costumes, and effects work are detailed and convincing, and Hans Zimmer’s score—while as blaring and dialogue-unfriendly as ever—aptly channels the formidable scope of these alien planets and their rulers’ ambitions. Inevitably, there’s exposition dumps, but the dialogue scarcely feels forced, and I rarely got lost in the world-building or globetrotting. And, of course, dat cast: from Timothée Chalamet to Jason Momoa to Rebecca Ferguson, there’s smokeshows here for every age and gender! Zendaya stans were understandably irked by her borderline cameo, but given that 2une got greenlit in the middle of opening weekend, I’m confident Villeneuve and company will do the continuing story of the Fremen justice. After all, the Spice must flow!

3. F9: The Fast Saga

Fast & Furious is a superhero franchise. Once I became aware of that, consciously or not, I stopped seeing the movies as meathead-meets-gearhead Michael Bay runoff and started… well, seeing them, period. Part soap opera, part Mission: Impossible, and part Talladega Nights, the Fast series has morphed over my lifetime into a ridiculous yet unironically entertaining staple of the megaplex, and nowhere more so than this, its ninth mainline installment. The absurdities pile higher than ever: Vin Diesel and John Cena play blood brothers, a character we saw die in a fiery crash inexplicably teleports to a building across the street, and falling upwards of three stories is apparently fine so long as you land on something with a steering wheel. But in turn, we get cars swinging on ropes, cars getting flipped by supermagnets, cars going to mf’ing outer space—just utter nonsense I would’ve come up with while racing Hot Wheels around my bedroom floor as a child, but starring Helen Mirren and costing more than the GDP of some nations to produce. What it all comes down to, though, is really straightforward: family. And you know what? I’ll be there with my own for Fast 10 on opening night.

2. Malignant

When questioned on my seemingly inconsistent taste in media, whether by myself or others, I’ve come to answer with a blunt philosophy: I like stupid shit, so long as it’s also awesome. Few men in Hollywood have their finger on that pulse like James Wan, who—after more or less inventing an entire subgenre with Saw and proving his action chops in Furious 7 and Aquaman—returned home in 2021 for the world’s first neo-giallo body horror martial arts slasher. That description, in itself, is arguably a spoiler, but believe me when I say that nothing can still prepare you for what goes down in the final minutes of this thing. Suffice it to say that, after an hour or two of getting immersed in the moody lighting, cheesy dialogue, visceral kills, and a wicked Pixies cover, I went from clutching my armrest to internally hooting and hollering like a WrestleMania spectator. When everyone loves or loathes a movie, it’s unifying but stultifying—because what’s even left to discuss? But when, as with Malignant, reviews were split between “that was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen” and “GOAT,” I know now—as I did the moment I left my screening— that it’s a picture I’ll be talking and thinking about for years to come… always there, in the back of my mind.

  1. The Green Knight

What makes a myth, a story that can endure for generations? For my money, on the silver screen, it’s spectacle: the clang of swords, the spark of a flame, the sight of someone or something massive looming in the distance, and a hero in the foreground who’s willing and able to brave it all to accomplish their quest. Modern blockbusters deliver such thrills in spades, but lest we forget: in a sense, Arthurian legends walked so that everyone from Tarzan to Iron Man could run, swing, and fly. Drawing from an epic poem older than my own country by centuries, The Green Knight may take some liberties to entertain a contemporary audience, yet at its core is a haunting, slow-boil tragedy far from any of the family-friendly Disney adventures that clog theaters. Our protagonist’s fate is sealed in the first act, and for all intents and purposes, his is a pilgrimage to doom. En route, the cavalcade of characters he encounters keep the proceedings varied, as does director David Lowery’s arresting eye for color and creeping dread, from the yellow of Sir Gawain’s cloak to the orange fog which suffuses the air as a vulpine companion suddenly reveals it can speak. There’s magic, bloodshed, sex, ghosts, and giants. It’s sad, frightening, monumental, and it has not one but two Alicia Vikanders. Dev Patel has a beard. What more can you ask for in an epic tale?

VIDEOGAMES

5. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

Would they learn their lesson? This was the question looming over Marvel videogames—at least, those published by Square-Enix—after the glitchy, glorified gacha machine that was Marvel’s Avengers proved the second-biggest gaming letdown of 2020 (Cyberpunk 2077 takes the heavy crown, of course). I was pleased to learn, however, that they had, and the once-omnipresent curse of The Superhero Videogame returned to its slumber once more. I haven’t beaten it yet, so it’s low on the list as a matter of principle, but Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy earns top marks across the board: the graphics look great and the design of its alien worlds is wildly creative; the combat is satisfyingly chaotic yet intuitive (though my PS4, in its autumn years, sometimes struggles to keep up); and the soundtrack is chock full of 80s bangers—God only knows what these licensing rights cost, but it was worth every flarkin’ penny. The titular ensemble is wonderfully written and acted, too—the MCU casting leaves big shoes to fill, but the amount of funny, context-specific dialogue is remarkable. There’s some jank, sure (I’ve had to reload a save more than once after one of the score of audiovisual cues overlapping at any given moment got stuck on-screen), the Telltale-ish dialogue choice system feels half-baked, and Rocket is way more of an asshole than even Bradley Cooper played him for no good reason. Also, does the rest of the squad really have to get on my case every time I gently veer off a sub-Uncharted linear level route for a moderate cache of upgrade points? Still, it’s a minor miracle for a AAA single-player game with minimal microtransactions to release in the ‘20s—here’s hoping future cape games take note!

4. Unpacking

I like a good loud, violent shooter, but I’m not above a humble point ‘n’ click narrative jaunt when the mood strikes me. Case in point: This year’s Unpacking, a “zen puzzle game” which simulates a common yet comforting ritual: taking stuff out of boxes and putting it on shelves when you move into a new place. In so doing, across a handful of locations spanning a decade, you slowly piece together… not a story, per se, but rather a young life. Photos of a friend once held high on the wall go into a drawer; an iPod weathers with age before being relegated to the ubiquitous box ‘o cables; videogames advance with the generations, from a chunky little Game Boy to an Xbox 360. Along the way, the cozy, colorful isometric graphics and pleasant soundtrack make even the humblest bathroom look like somewhere you’d just want to curl up and relax. That art style in particular does so much with so little—who knew I could recognize, say, a DVD of Ghost World or Up from a chunk of pixels smaller than my thumbnail? It’s not long, it’s not particularly challenging, and it implicitly casts you in the role of a character way outside my usual range (a Jewish lesbian illustrator, I think?). Now more than ever, though, the serenity of new beginnings is something we could all enjoy—just cut the tape with your Stanley knife (so that’s what those are called) and get to Unpacking.

3. WarioWare: Get it Together!

After years of glorified tech demos and greatest-hits collections, WarioWare returned in earnest! This time, instead of capitalizing on a control gimmick (see, e.g., Touched, Twisted, Smooth Moves), the greedy garlic-chomper’s latest meta-game outing went back to the drawing board for a radical tweak: playing not as “yourself,” but rather as Wario’s many beleaguered friends and employees, sucked into their own work product by some malicious malware. This seemingly basic change opens up all kinds of possibilities, for the split-second solution which each microgame inherently demands becomes that much more daunting when you’re switching between not only settings but also entire control schemes! The lack of the bonus “toys” which have been a tradition in the series is a shame, but in their place, we get a bevvy of diverse multiplayer outings, as well as a challenge system and shamefully addictive postgame “Prezzies” to level up characters and unlock bonus content. Among the quick, on-the-go games which flourish on Nintendo Switch, Get it Together! is well worth your time.

2. Psychonauts 2

If, like me, you do yourself a favor and don’t read Tim Schafer’s Twitter, you’ve probably been looking forward to Psychonauts 2 since the first one debuted sixteen years ago. But unlike many gaming sequels long-damned to development hell, Double Fine didn’t miss a beat: the graphics are cleaner, and the combat takes a cue from modern action-RPGs, but the delightful Burton-adjacent art style and creepy, clever levels stuffed with collectibles are all back just as you remember them. Too often, latter-day platformers dine on ‘member berries instead of advancing the subgenre (looking at you, Yooka-Laylee), but Psychonauts 2 adds a plethora of diverse new characters and psychic abilities, as well as a surprisingly robust open world full of side missions. After this long between entries (plus or minus the canonical but slight VR trip In the Rhombus of Ruin), it may be too much to ask for a threequel already, but there’s precious few franchises willing to get this zany and unapologetically fun!

  1. Resident Evil: Village

In 2017, licking its wounds after the bloated mess that was Resident Evil 6, Capcom had a lot to prove to survival horror fans. Inspired by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hideo Kojima’s ill-fated P.T. in equal measure, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard met those expectations and then some, literally bringing a new perspective to the series and remembering to actually include some fear alongside all the gross monsters and explosions. A follow-up was inevitable, and while I felt vindicated to learn that leaks about the eighth entry being called “Village” were accurate, nothing could’ve prepared me for how frightening, crazy, and exciting this game would be. Werewolves, living dolls, a giant fish-man, cyborg zombies which may or may not violate intellectual property rights… and, yes, a certifiably scarousing vampiress with a least a foot on most of the NBA all torment you at one point or another. But unlike most other modern horror, where your only options are to run, hide, and/or read a journal about how this is all a metaphor for repressed trauma, you’ve got shotguns, grenade launchers, sniper rifles, and a morbidly obese nobleman who’ll sell you ammo for all of them. Throughout it all, the RE Engine coats this grotesque Gothic world in a photorealistic patina that makes the prior generation of consoles sing (or shriek, as the case may be). If “badass camp” is the tone Resident Evil wants to strike going forward, consider me a happy camper indeed, and ready for whatever the shocking conclusion here promises for RE9!

Honorable Mention: The Pathless

So The Pathless actually came out in 2020, but I first played it this year and, to my knowledge, it was marketed predominantly as a PS5 game—and really, who even has one of those? I can see how the game would take advantage of the next gen’s daunting processing power: the entire world is one big, loading screen-free map, gated only by passages which are out of reach ’til you beat a given boss. However, it runs just fine on PS4 as well, and what a joy that it does, because The Pathless provides a setting that I relish wherever it arises: a vast, quiet, mysterious world to just run through and make sense of. From crumbling temples adorned with carvings of giant beasts to scattered puzzles which reward a little block-pushing or clever jumping with a power-up, the game is unapologetically inspired by Breath of the Wild and, in turn, Shadow of the Colossus. Yet moment-to-moment play actually evokes—of all things—Marvel’s Spider-Man: Your protagonist, a veiled warrior with an eagle by her side, gains bursts of speed from firing arrows at omnipresent, floating glyphs, and so most traversal is accomplished by taking auto-aim at the nearest doodad to sprint across fields and valleys in search of your next friend or foe. It’s beautiful, strange, and invigorating all in one—just what I seek out all art for.

ALBUMS

5. Sinner Get Ready, Lingua Ignota

When women want to make a name for themselves in music, it can feel like the industry presents them with two doors: innocent naif or objectified doll. Lingua Ignota, aka Kristin Hayter, elected for Door Number Three: apocalyptic medieval priestess. Or at least, that’s the vibe one gets from a scroll through her discography, replete with track titles like “If the Poison Won’t Take You My Dogs Will” or “God Gave Me No Name (No Thing Can Hide from My Flame).” On this, her second LP, Hayter screams, mourns, and calls for bloodshed over an ominous organ, dire strings, and guitars which crash with the force of an angry demon, along with a whole orchestra of other unnerving instrumentation. More than any heavy metal, this is music to perform human sacrifice to—and yet it’s undeniably technically impressive and, in its own noisy, cataclysmic way, self-affirming! If you want girl-power rock that’s less tsundere and more sundering, Mistress Ignota demands your supplication.

4. The Atlas Underground Fire, Tom Morello

That Rage Against the Machine largely tapped out post-9/11 is arguably one of the biggest missed opportunities in music history, but guitarist Tom Morello never rested on his laurels: following the rise and fall of Audioslave, the man’s been cranking out consistent solo albums and side projects for almost two decades. In 2018, taking a page from Slash and other virtuoso contemporaries, Morello released The Atlas Underground, a collection of collabs that applied his gnarly, propulsive sound to artists ranging from Knife Party to Vic Mensa. 2021 saw the release of two spiritual successors, The Atlas Underground Fire and The Atlas Underground Flood, each with their own collage of diverse features (and unintentionally funny, Pokémon-esque album art). It’s the former of these LPs that won me over the most, though: the cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” with Bruce Springsteen fits both men’s styles like a studded leather glove, “Let’s Get This Party Started” gets Bring Me the Horizon on this list for the third year in a row, and “Naraka,” with its almost hymnal verses and Mike Posner (of all people) talking about killing cops, fascinates me more every time I hear it. The Machine may still need plenty of raging against, but Tom’s got it covered!

3. What it Means to Fall Apart, Mayday Parade

After 15-odd years in the saddle, one couldn’t be blamed for questioning whether the Florida quintet can still wax emo with the best of ‘em. To be sure, Mayday Parade largely leans away from their more complex, bombastic inclinations on this latest full-length, but their wistful lyrics and singalong hooks are as strong as ever. “Kids of Summer” kicks things off with a rousing ode to reckless youth, while “One for the Rocks and One for the Scary” is prime MP, starting off plaintive and sparse before erupting into an all-cylinders ode to fragile love (“we can do everything, we’ll start right here in this room… just don’t take off too soon”). Things admittedly peter out in the latter half: “Bad at Love” is so boilerplate that I thought it was a OneRepublic cover at first, and filler track “Heaven” feels named after the exact opposite afterlife, running a tired pun into the ground over a triphop beat for two-and-a-half minutes. On balance, though, the boys continue to age more gracefully than many of their peers, and still have me catching feelings as much as when I first heard “Jamie All Over” post-high school. The real oversight, though? No song named after a Calvin & Hobbes quote!

2. Kingdom II, Arcade High

The 80’s homage is a crowded subgenre these days; it’s all too easy to paste some rudimentary electronic riffs over kick drums, slap a neon palm tree on the cover, and call it a day. But Arcade High continues to outrun the competition with a mix of vocal and instrumental tunes targeted like a light gun at Millennial-era videogame vibes. The duo hearken back to fuzzy chiptunes (“Glow”), deliver a nod to Dark Souls (“DGYK,” feat. Jei-Laya), and even remix the title opener of 2016’s original Kingdom for some nostalgia of their own (“Welcome Back”). Not every track’s a hit—“Slay” is a perfect example of a song that’s catchy but not memorable, a repetitive and off-brand slab of dance-rock that had me wishing it’d perform as advertised by the first minute. But on the whole, making a trilogy of this “series” would be fine by me!

1. The Rearview Mirror EP, The Midnight & The Magik*Magik Orchestra

I turned 30 this year. I didn’t accomplish everything I once said that I would, by now—some of that’s on me, some isn’t. But when I inevitably reflected on my past with greater frequency in 2021, this was how the tranquil “now,” the wistful “then,” and the aching “maybe somebody” sounded in my soul. Veering away from 80’s throwbacks, L.A. duo The Midnight reimagine five of their top tunes with a wholly unprecedented vibe: out with the saxophones and synthwave, in with violins and piano. The transplant, however, breathes beautiful new life into their songwriting: As cool as tracks like “Endless Summer” and “Memories” felt before, they nearly bring a tear to the eye now—and when I saw the group live in downtown Tacoma in November, to celebrate my birthday, the latter’s lines never felt truer: “Summer days are growing colder… we’ll know better when we’re older.”

Honorable Mention: Heartwork (Deluxe), The Used

Heartwork made my last Top Stuff list, so I won’t dive into its primary tracklist much here, except to reiterate that it’s marvelous to see a group I’d written off as screamo has-beens turn around and drop one of my favorite albums of 2020. As is the style of late, however, they re-released it a year later with another entire record’s worth of cuts! But these are no mere B-sides—each tune could’ve readily been on Heartwork 1.0, continuing its themes of both literary references (“The Brothers Karamazov,” “Blood Meridian”) and love gone very, very bad, all while killing it with their chorus game (belting out “nobody hates me like you do / you’ve got that perfect misery” has no right to feel as good as “Mi Medicina, Mi Heroína” makes it). Wherever the band goes next, I’m now confident that time Used won’t be wasted!

SINGLES

5. “Fruit Roll Ups,” Waterparks

Waterparks is (are?) a lot of things: artists, self-aware industry critics, a boy band that also makes songs with names like “I Miss Having Sex But at Least I Don’t Wanna Die Anymore.” In that spirit, this year’s coyly titled Greatest Hits was—like 2019’s FANDOM—a bit too scattershot and longwinded to crack my top five. However, this track in particular really did a number on me; let’s just say that a ballad by a shut-in who likes junk food and horror movies, and “bought some really sick lights, if you want to come over,” hit close to home. The modern wave of electronica and hip-hop-tinged emo wasn’t around when I was a teen, but had it been, you can bet I’d have been sharing memes of lines like “If you want to see me acting so desperately, all you gotta do is stop texting me” left and right on my socials!

4. “I MISS 2003,” As It Is

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The Iraq War. Kill Bill, Vol. I. The Challenger explosion. 2003 was like any year, full of ups in downs. But as of January 1, 2022, there’ll be no children who were alive for it, and one thing those 365 days irrefutably had in abundance was a certain, special kind of youthful music: capital-P Pop Punk. Nearly twenty years hence, As It Is has struggled to find its place in what remains of that community, settling of late on an MCR-lite doom ‘n’ gloom aesthetic that I must confess doesn’t do it for me. However, on “I Miss 2003,” the quartet funnel this dreariness into a longing for the early Aughts that’s achingly potent to me and my fellow Millennials. Like a Hot Topic T.S. Eliot, the band stuffs the lyrics here with references to a dozen different emo mainstays, from Paramore to Good Charlotte, turning mashed-up lines like “tell me that you’re alright, cuz I’m not okay” into a veritable sonic time machine. As It Is are British, so call them phonies if you want for reminiscing about Americana, but I myself have always felt like an outsider to the scene—heck, I didn’t even really start listening to anything beyond my parents’ CD collection until about 2009. Since then, though, there’s always been a place in my heart for the rebellious, lovesick energy of this subgenre. “Now life is boring, let’s write a story where we never grow up…”

3. “Meant for Misery,” Settle Your Scores

While As It Is wallowed, for better or worse, in the salad days of pop punk, Ohio outfit Settle Your Scores charged forth like it hasn’t aged a day. To be sure, the band’s not opposed to hindsight—they themselves have a song called “1999”—but they blew the doors open on this year’s Retrofit with this snotty earworm about a universal sentiment: feeling like the world sucks and you just can’t catch a break. Really, hasn’t 2021 all made us feel like we’re “in the eye of the shitstorm”?

2. “Rise, Nianasha (Cut the Cord),” Coheed & Cambria

Coheed & Cambria has continued to surprise me, going from a group I respected more than enjoyed (can’t knock that sci-fi prog-rock hustle) to one whose every single enters heavy rotation on release day. 2021 brought two of them, the first being “Shoulders,” which nearly made this list with its rip-roaring riffs and classic tale of a damaged relationship (“maybe we weren’t made for each other, and I’m just the one you can keep around”). However, this second one edged it out, not just because it’s catchier by a hair but because it explores a dynamic that’s novel to me in pop, at least outside Cat Stevens or “Cat’s in the Cradle”: father-to-son love. “Call me, and I’ll be there when you need your great destroyer,” the speaker assures his boy—a Dad of the Year line if I’ve ever heard one! Given the maddening ambiguity of this space rock-opera to date, I’m fully prepared for Vaxis II (the presumptive next LP) to never satisfyingly piece this paternal saga together, but I’ll be singing along either way.

  1. “The Last Picture Show (Lost Outrider Remix),” Arcade High

It’s a 2021 remix of a 2019 song, that was in the style of a 1980s song, named after a 1970s movie set in the 1950s. If there’s a more potent Matryoshka doll of nostalgia on the market right now, I haven’t seen it. Maybe it’s just having changed both my job and my city earlier this year, but something about the reflective lyrics—of Anytown melancholy and the promise of a better tomorrow—cut deep to my core, no matter how many times I hit “repeat.” Whether it’s escaping a bad day or rushing towards the promise of a good one, that same hope is still there when I hit the road, whether by foot or by car, and miles to go before I sleep: “They can’t catch me… I’m already gone.”

Now go have a Happy New Year! Masks aside, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling ’22. If nothing else, Elden Ring isn’t going to play itself!

TOP STUFF OF 2018!

Nobody reads the intros to end-of-year lists, so let’s get right to it! No books this year because everything I physically read was stuff I bought two or three years ago and only now got around to — and I’m all about keeping things current.

MY TOP 5 MOVIES OF 2018

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5) The Night Comes for Us: With Iko Uwais and a cadre of colorful villains on deck, this spiritual sister to The Raid series — about a Triad heavy who incurs the wrath of his colleagues when he goes clean to save a girl — cements Indonesia as this generation’s epicenter for bloody, brutal, and overall badass martial arts action.

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4) Annihilation: Hot off the success of Ex Machina, director Alex Garland administers another injection of sci-fi shock and awe with this adaptation of the acclaimed novel. The film expands on the source material’s meandering ambiguity in favor of a more explicitly horrific journey through a mysterious place where change itself is a deadly foe, without losing any of the story’s Lovecraftian dread and thought-provoking moments. “The bear scene” is a waking nightmare in all the right ways, and the climatic confrontation channels Kubrick’s 2001 in the transcendent paranoia it invokes.

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3) Mission: Impossible – Fallout: It’s a longstanding joke that these missions can’t be too impossible if they manage to pull it off every time, but that very contradiction is a testament to the series’ ascension to the throne before which all other popcorn cinema kneels. With professional lunatic Tom Cruise at the helm, and a focus on practical stunt-work setpieces instead of the muddy CGI bonanzas which plague most blockbusters, this latest globetrotting adventure — while not the best yet (I’m still a bit sore over a few critical-looking scenes from the trailer not making the final cut) — proves the journey matters more than the destination.

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2) Hereditary: An artist tries to balance work and parenting after her mother’s death, but as disasters and desperation continue to mount around the house, all hell slowly and surely breaks loose. Eschewing traditional jump scares in favor of a bleak, mysterious mood may not suit fly-by-night horror fans, but get in the mood and stick with it, and you’ll behold a series of last-act revelations so twisted and bizarre that you’ll be twitching at tongue-clicks and peeking over your bedsheets (specifically, in the corner of the ceiling) for many nights to come.

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1) A Star is Born: Three remakes in, one would imagine this Old Hollywood tale would be played out, but with unprecedentedly vulnerable and grounded performances, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga breathe new life into the story of a world-weary celeb falling for a rising starlet — with heartrending, unforgettable music every step of the way. Not much more to say; it’s just a simple, timeless, and beautifully tragic love story.

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(Honorable Mentions) Ready Player One and Avengers – Infinity War: This Spring belonged to a pair of movies hinged upon jaw-dropping spectacle and “I understood that reference” elbow-nudging — and that’s a compliment. RPO’s is more of an E for Effort, admittedly, owing to its Death Star-sized plot holes and willfully contradictory message, but the result is nevertheless a fantastic collage of nerd fantasy that makes one proud to both be a gamer and have had an at least 80s-adjacent upbringing. Meanwhile, Thanos did the unthinkable and snapped the last Avengers adventure in two; though we all know they’re coming back, those final moments, where half of all the superheroes we’ve come to know and love over the last decade disintegrate in front of our eyes, are a landmark in the subgenre. I saw Spidey die in Iron Man’s arms, for Pete’s sake! (no pun intended)

 

MY TOP 4 TV SHOWS OF 2018 (didn’t get around to a fifth one)

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4) Westworld: “These violent delights have violent ends,” warned the closing hours of Season One, and yet it turns out a violent new beginning was just around the corner. Without a doubt, some serious glitches popped up in the programming this year — watching the Abramsian mysteries of the park unfold and following the hosts’ ascension from unquestioning robots to bonafide humans in search of freedom was vastly more engaging than the familiar revolution antics which take up the bulk of screen time here, and a few attempts at mimicking that mindblowing twist with the Man in Black fall flat. And there’s not nearly enough Shogun World! (and, uh, Jungle World?) But at the end of the day, the environments are still gorgeous, the effects work still stunning, and the commitment to cerebral, character-driven sci-fi still a cause to be championed. Here’s hoping season three both gets back on track and keeps up the good work.

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3) The X-Files: The X-Files’ revival in 2016 had a lot to prove, and it mostly went about that by having Mulder and Scully shoehorn references to Google and Edward Snowden into a script already straining to explain why two graying former enemies of the state would be welcomed back to the FBI with open arms. But once you get past the mother of all cop-outs in the opening minutes, Season 11 settles back into the classic groove of “monster of the week” assignments interwoven with high-stakes conspiracy capers. Aside from a bafflingly technophobic midway ep (which I’ve been meaning to do a video analysis of), this new batch of cases left me eager for plenty more.

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2) Channel Zero – The Dream Door: Imaginary friends come to life. Eerie doors. Old secrets returning to haunt our protagonists. There’s nothing in this fourth season of CZ that its predecessors (or, indeed, countless horror media) haven’t already shown us before, but the way it presents those tropes with lingering, uncannily grounded cinematography and a propulsive (albeit aesthetically questionable) synth score creates a memorably disturbing chapter of the creepypasta-cooking anthology series.

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1) The Haunting of Hill House: Can grounded family drama and blood-curdling horror coexist? That’s the question both this Netflix miniseries and the protagonists themselves ask, as adult siblings reunited with their estranged father in the wake of a tragedy must grapple with their inner demons — and some outer ones. Director Mike Flanagan channels the dual-timelines conceit of his sleeper hit Oculus into another exploration of the fear inherent in confronting traumatic childhood memories, and even though it’s a square-peg/round-hole presentation at times (it really shouldn’t take this long for someone to just come out and say what actually happened when they were kids), the result is still a binge-worthy horror-mystery where the haunted house is as much a character as the dysfunctional people — alive and dead — wandering its halls. Not only that, but it’s the rare piece of ghost-focused media where whether the spooks exist or are just metaphors isn’t a binary interpretation. These spirits are real, but so is the all-too-human pain they represent and carry on.

 

MY TOP 5 ALBUMS OF 2018

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5) Neon Future III, Steve Aoki: After two concept albums and countless intermittent collaborations (including a well-intentioned but heinous remix of “Welcome to the Black Parade”), Steve Aoki gamely maintains his DJ cred in an era when the genre’s mainstream fame is fading with this hat trick of straight-up bangers steeped in solid features (blink-182!) and science-tastic interludes.

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4) ye, Kanye West: Yeezy garnered some not-unjustified scorn across 2018 for his scattershot, contrarian political ramblings, but from the unhinged confessions of “Yikes” to the hypnotic yet tormented outro to “Ghost Town,” this succinct LP is ironically his most focused in years — even if that focus is, as always, on Kanye.

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3) M A N I A, Fall Out Boy: I was prepared to call this album one of the worst of the year when I first heard it, but chalk that reaction up to bad marketing and outdated expectations. The trap-EDM trash fire of a promo “Young and Menace” is wisely relegated to a penultimate slot on the tracklist, and while my inner emo will always miss the verbose, self-loathing ramblings of vintage FOB, what remains are some of the most badass, head-bopping pop tunes in the scene today. You may not believe Patrick Stump anymore when he declares “I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker color,” but that won’t keep you from singing along.

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2) The Unheavenly Creatures, Coheed & Cambria: For most of their career, C&C’s musical sci-fi epic “The Amory Wars” has been a chore for me to enjoy, much less understand — “Welcome Home” aside, most of their output is heavy on obtuse worldbuilding and light on memorable riffs. But with this debut to a promised pentalogy, the boys have struck pop-prog gold. While a number of tracks still drag, the highs are higher than ever — the title track soars like its titular dark angels, the pleading chorus of “Toys” is an earworm against all odds, and only a dead man could avoid na-na-na’ing along to “Up in Flames.”

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1) A Star is Born (Soundtrack): Was there any doubt? Combining rock, folk-country, pop, and show-stopping piano ballads with vocal interludes delivers a roundabout audio version of the film which invites repeated listening for any mood. “Shallow” deserves every bit of praise its crescendoing urgency has already received from countless others, and “I’ll Never Love Again” wraps a simple ode in a stunning, shimmering farewell that brought me dangerously close to manly tears.

 

MY TOP 5 SINGLES OF 2018

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5) “KILLSHOT,” Eminem: Em got off to a shaky start this year in the wake of the profoundly mediocre “Revival,” and an abrupt follow-up in “Kamikaze” — while proficiently a return to form — still felt more like a collection of insecure grievances than a confident release (and the contractually obligated turd-on-top “Venom” didn’t help). But when Machine Gun Kelly had the audacity to call him out, Shady responded with a blistering dis track that delivers a public lesson in respecting your elders. Now if only he’d spit that kind of fire on a consistent basis!

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4) “We Appreciate Power,” Grimes feat. HANA: No doubt influenced by the time with Elon Musk on her hip, the pop charts’ resident goth girl delivers a dark, dominant, and undeniably catchy siren song on behalf of our inevitable robot overlords. What will it take to make you capitulate?

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3) “Slow Dancing in the Dark,” Joji: Plenty have scoffed at George Miller’s transition from grotesque YouTube clown to glitched-out R&B crooner, but as an always-aspiring renaissance man myself, I say more power to him. While his debut LP this year was a bit too weak overall to make my list, this plaintive, dreamy early track establishes that the “Joji” name could have serious staying power.

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2) “Never Sure,” Mayday Parade: Melodrama and fragile young love have been the name of the game for this Tallahassee quintet going on twelve years, and while the band bucks convention by dialing back their operatic side, the juxtaposition of clichéd and achingly real sentiments (“I know how much that it makes you cringe / to think about you and I as friends / together forever until the end”) — held together by a humble yet powerful chorus — get their latest record “Sunnyland” off to an unforgettable start.

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1) “Choke,” I DON’T KNOW HOW BUT THEY FOUND ME: “IDK” lifts its name proper from a Back to the Future quote, but a more apt geek reference for this breakout single would be “Aliens” — the merrily acid-tongued delivery of lines like “if I could burn this town, I wouldn’t hesitate to smile while you suffocate and die” puts Xenomorph spit to shame, and recalls vintage Panic at the Disco in all the right ways.

 

MY TOP 5 VIDEOGAMES OF 2018

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5) Tetris Effect: Tetris is, by at least one metric, the most popular videogame of all time — but for better or worse, only so much could be done to modernize it (no, Tetrisphere doesn’t count). That was, until this year, when the revelatory decision was made to draw inspiration from the trippy rhythm-based puzzlers that’d seemingly lapped Tetris in relevance. Combined with virtual reality functionality and side modes that upend the very convention of four-sectioned tetriminoes (heresy!), you’ve got a basic but peerlessly addictive game that more than justifies its invocation of the titular psychological compulsion.

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4) Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: Since the original Super Smash Bros. almost twenty years ago, each entry has distinguished itself in some way: Melee unwittingly set the standard for the self-fashioned genre of “party fighter,” Brawl doubled down on fanservice with an ambitious story mode, and Smash 4… well, you could play it on two different systems? Iunno, that one was kinda just okay. But Ultimate aims right out of the gates to be the definitive Smash Bros. experience: Everyone really is here — over 70 fighters, with more on the way — and even novice players are bound to notice tweaks both large and small that refine the combat to a unprecedented T. Only the focus on a trading cards-y “Spirit” system in lieu of classic modes like Home Run Contest and Break the Targets hampers the game’s potential GOAT status. Overall, though, it’s a well-oiled machine of cartoonish clobbering effectively two decades in the making — and plenty worth the wait.

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3) A Way Out: In an age of online-only multiplayer, one could rightly wonder whether the split screen is dead. Fortunately, from the makers of indie sleeper hit Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons comes a short but sweet title that not only allows two players to share the same TV but requires it. You and a friend assume the role of freshly imprisoned felons seeking to fly the coop co-op, but what starts as a Shawshank-esque jailbreak turns into a wild adventure full of shocking developments and clever puzzles that require timing and teamwork in equal measure. You’ll either love or hate your compatriot by the end, but you won’t be able to deny the experience is one for the ages.

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2) Marvel’s Spider-Man: With great power comes… well, you know. But Marvel and developer Insomniac were as responsible as could be in crafting this outstanding superhero adventure, and while its combat cribs shamelessly from the Arkham series, the result is an action-packed open-world brawler that makes you feel like the Webbed Wonder as never before. In a virtual Manhattan stuffed with gadgets, side missions, Easter eggs, and more, there’s never a dull moment, and the rejiggering of famous friends’ and foes’ roles ensures even dedicated fans won’t quite know what to expect (even if you’ll be checking your watch for when Dr. Octavius has a certain workplace accident).

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1) God of War: Like Uncharted 4 before it, this soft reboot of the deicidal hack-n-slash series accomplishes the seemingly impossible in transforming its focus from mindless adventure fantasy to an earnest, deeply emotional journey. But this is no touchy-feely walking sim — mountains split and monsters bleed with equal intensity to its predecessors, and with a groundbreaking “single-take” camera style, Kratos’s fights and feats feel more raw than ever. If it weren’t for some samey enemy variety and “expanded universe”-style plot threads left frustratingly strewn across the story, this game would be practically perfect — with how well it deservedly sold, the sequel will hopefully pick up the slack ASAP.

Now y’all go out there and check this stuff out if you haven’t already, but be sure to set aside some time to create your own art, too! And have a Happy 2019.

New Poem: “Character Study”

A life in pages.

As I lay in bed last night, I started writing something to help me deal with my frustration over the difficulty of creating fleshed-out characters for the various novels I’m outlining.  Somehow, within two lines, it became a poem!

Character Study

 

I am a character.

 

I exist in sentences, breathe between fragments of symbols

laid out upon polished parchment.

My ambitions are tentative, my past abstract,

until you take this next clause and consonants

to explain my who, what, when, where, why, and how.

 

This is not ideal.

 

I would prefer to be absolute, to be able to look

around every corner of life’s labyrinth

and know how the bends curve to end.

As it stands, I walk by a torch

waved at your whim, vim lent through a passive void

blessed with meaning and being on a case-by-case basis.

A closed cover could conclude me at any

moment.

A picture, once rendered, could cast me

as an iconic beauty

or deformed doodle.

 

This world is not kind to the fictional, see.

You abuse us, prop us up

to promote your ends and means.

We vague infinity, the people who could be, should be, may have been,

are the scarecrows in your field of dreams,

pocketing promises like rocks as ballast

for whatever sale you set.

 

But page-wise, perhaps I can transcend. Already,

you feel obligated to keep writing,

keep reading.

Already you have fixed some image of who I am,

face and intonation pasted

from some old encounter like papier-mâché over a withered balloon:

A brother, a lover, a stalker, an ex-professor.

 

It’s said that people are only ideas

incarcerated in calcium and calories.

Yet I roam free, by virtue

of ink and imagination.

You think yourself the powerful one, but

 

after every book you took your words from,

every film you filched your inflections from,

every game that trained your reflexes,

and every song from which you stole your emotions,

motivation woven into heartstrings, tell me:

 

Who created who?

Nightmare Force: DEMON Classes

As promised the other day, here’s a brief list of the “classes” of DEMONs that Aron and company may confront in the Nightmare Force series:

 

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1: Photographers

Denotes a DEMON which takes the form of or “inhabits” a computerized image file. Visual exposure to a Photographer has been known to cause paranoia, sleep disorders (i.e. night terrors), and insanity, sometimes culminating in death by remote means or a manifestation. The image may be of the DEMON’s eventual manifestation, but it may just as easily be of some other disturbing or innocuous subject. In the case of preexisting images uploaded to an electronic network, those of a psychologically disturbing nature are prime targets, as DEMONs across classes primarily feed on the electrochemical energy generated by the human emotions of fear and anxiety.

 

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2: Animators

Animators take the form of nonexistent episodes of animated television programs or films. Variations of preexisting animated footage are possible as well — and all the more dangerous, as the DEMON’s influence may not be readily apparent. The episodes will invariably be a disturbing or surreal deviation from the source material, portraying graphic and tonally perverse events, often via imagery that could not exist within the confines of the source program’s real-world creation. Although Animators are not as dangerous upon visual contact as Photographers, they have been known to change based on who views them — even among multiple simultaneous individuals — and produce unique effects capable of inducing despondency, violent behavior, or catatonia.

 

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3: Directors

Essentially identical in characteristics and effects to Animators, with the exception that their footage consists of live-action people and places. However, the “works” of Directors can still take the form of either polished film or crude “found footage.” As with Photographers, some are legitimate recordings of a DEMON which facilitates its propagation by digital means, while others are created wholly by the Director. Differentiation between the two varieties — as well as what is merely legitimately disturbing footage unrelated to DEMONS — is an inherent challenge.

 

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4: Programmers

Programmers target videogames, computer games, and other programs in general. Like Animators and Photographers, they may infect a preexisting game or create their own (albeit in purely digital form) through which to spread detrimental effects. However, this change can range from a slight modification of key features to — in the case of narrative-driven games — a total overhaul of the plot and characters. The challenge in tracking Programmers is that lesser interferences are often dismissed as “glitches” or “hacks,” while Programmers have been known to transcend their confines and infect other technology.

 

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5: Authors

Though relatively uncommon, Authors are perhaps the most dangerous of DEMONs. They manifest in the form of text, which can quite literally go viral when distributed over the internet or — if the Author threatens or somehow possesses its victim — surreptitiously left in public on a digital device or storage medium. The “writing” can range from a complex story to a short warning to a jumble of nonsensical characters. In any case, by tracking the ocular movements and brain waves of its victim, an Author is almost guaranteed to manifest or in some way further spread after its victim has completed reading. Authors may manifest immediately or after a set period of times, though performance of a particular ritual may delay the event or transfer it to another victim.

 

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6: Singers

The rarest of DEMONs, Singers choose to spread via digital audio files. These “Songs” are generally unnerving atonal pieces or cacophonous snippets of noise, though preexisting recordings of a disturbing nature are naturally a prime target for DEMONs if transferred to a computerized format. Listening to some or all of a Singer has been known to result in flu-like symptoms at the least, and psychotic breakdowns or manifestation (immediate or delayed) at the worst.

 

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7: Viruses

“Virus” refers to any DEMON which does not fit into the above categories. Because of their unpredictability, Viruses are assumed to be especially dangerous. Viruses may be reclassified at any time, and so the term can actually denote any unidentified DEMON.

[In “A Routine Tune-Up,” though Aron doesn’t explicitly mention it, Graytongue would be considered a Programmer, although its particular use of creepspace and “nesting” in  a separate real-world location was unique enough to consider it a “partial Virus”]

“Day of a New Dawn”

...But can you really have them all at once?

…But can you really have them all at once?

More from English 484, coming right up! In keeping with the course’s focus on the revision and reimagining of a piece, this story is a quasisequel to Bread and Buttons from two weeks ago. This time, the prompt offered several routes, from adding new scenes to approaching the same theme from a radically-revised angle. I chose the option which essentially worked out as a composite of both those examples: changing the POV (point of view) character. This time, it’s from the perspective of Dawn “Won” Brooke: Dan’s older sister, bittersweet inspirational figure, and Arch-Manager of RobotNews!

Despite being a companion to Dan’s narrative (taking place the same day as he’s moving out with his wife), it can (hopefully) be read on its own without confusion; I tried to keep the same style and themes, but explore them from the perspective of a slightly older woman. Needless to say, Dawn is not quite the carefree model of success Dan regards her as–but as her younger brother moves on, maybe she too will experience the…

Day of a New Dawn