As the halfway point of 2013 has come and gone, it is customary to take stock of all the entertainment we’ve encountered so far and determine what’s worthwhile. We decided to have some AA writers pick one thing from a list of categories (Film, TV, Album, Song, Video Game) as their favourite of the year so far, tell you why, and maybe mention some other notable things. Take a look, share your own, enjoy, don’t enjoy, see if I care.
My favourite of the year so far is, without question, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. In some ways, it was very misunderstood. Based on the marketing and the general vibe of “Disney girls gone wild”, expectations were shattered for many filmgoers who went to see it. I can’t help but feel like this was by design, at least partly because Korine just enjoys fucking with people. The actual movie is a surreal and hypnotic masterpiece of social commentary paired with obnoxious glorification, willfully presented as a collection of ideas not necessarily organized in any way and intended to disturb, entertain and interpret however you see fit. Korine himself succintly described it as a “pop poem”, and it’s a beautiful one at that (horrifyingly beautiful, really). Also well worth noting is Shane Carruth’s long-anticipated follow-up to Primer, the cerebral and sublime Upstream Color. You don’t have to get it completely (you won’t), you have to just give in and let yourself experience it (multiple viewings are recommended). A science-fiction film that’s less about answers and more about what brings people together and what identity actually means. With the gorgeous cinematography and muted but nuanced performances, it’s absolutely essential viewing. I was also pleasantly impressed with giallo homage Berberian Sound Studio, James Wan’s terrifying and atmospheric The Conjuring, and Rob Zombie’s continuing quest to make his music career obsolete with The Lords of Salem.
Warm Bodies: Even though this film didn’t get particularly good reviews, I thought it was a unique and thoughtful rethinking of traditional genre films. I enjoyed seeing how the comedy was derived from the problems associated with mixing romantic comedies and zombie films, because it made the film feel self-aware and intelligent. It was pretty well-acted (especially by Nicholas Hoult, who played the lead) and well shot, with some pretty funny moments sprinkled in throughout. Aside from the film being a bit predictable, I thought it was a very enjoyable 97 minutes of cinematic fun.
Monsters University: I thought this was a great movie (in comparison to average Hollywood films), but only a decent Pixar movie. What I mean by this is that it was very enjoyable to watch and I never really felt bored, but looking back on it, I realized that nothing unexpected or particularly original ever happened, compared to other Pixar movies. The whole film essentially just followed a typical coming-of-age film’s plot, and then added in a bunch of monster themed stuff (which was awesome, funny, and heartwarming). Overall, I enjoyed watching this movie, but I think it should have been better. Billy Crystal and John Goodman were still perfect in their characters (Mike and Sullivan).
2013 has been a solid year for film thus far. Yes, the hollywood blockbusters may have been especially bad this year, despite surprise favourites Iron Man 3, and the funnest film of the year so far, Fast & Furious 6. But the real star of this year has been the independent releases, where the lovely Frances Ha, and not fully accomplished but still haunting, The Place Beyond the Pines have stood out. But for my money the best movie of the year, hell the last 3 years, is Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. Following up on two fantastic predecessors, Midnight is the strongest and most engaging in the “trilogy”. I don’t think I’ve ever been so involved in the lives of two characters before. I’m ecstatic when they have their amazing sequence long conversations, and I’m heartbroken when it begins to fall apart. There’s room for people to call the film a gimmick and exploitive, but frankly I don’t care. If Linklater broke some unwritten rule when he produced this film then so be it, I don’t want to watch movies in a world with rules that keep films like this from me.
I’m going to ignore my own rule because there’s just too much great TV. For pure entertainment value, nothing beats Game of Thrones, which probably just had its best season yet and delivered one of the deepest gut punches any piece of entertainment has ever given me with the Red Wedding. I’m not quite finished it yet, but Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is phenomenal and will hopefully reach even more people than House of Cards did, with its stellar writing and diverse ensemble cast, making it ridiculously addictive. I was skeptical when I learned that Netflix ordered a second season before even putting the first one on their service, but now I totally get it. They probably just wanted to see more, like everyone else. Then there’s Hannibal, which is easily the best show to premiere outside of cable in years with its stellar cast led by Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, beautiful imagery, mood and atmospherics, and great writing thanks to creator and dark mastermind Bryan Fuller. Girls avoided the sophomore slump with a messy but overall fulfilling season including great, glorious scenes like this one (“She’s too self-involved to commit suicide.”). Enlightened was cruelly cancelled after being cruelly under-watched and the whole thing still just makes me sad so that’s enough about that. Also, 30 Rock‘s final few episodes in January put the show out on top, providing an emotional but hilarious farewell; Archer remains the most under-appreciated comedy on television; Justified continued its solid run of clever dialogue, great performances and killer storytelling; Mad Men‘s sixth season left some feeling unsatisfied but I think it worked wonderfully, and deserves to be mentioned if only for finally giving us this; and New Girl was great and funny all season but especially deserves recognition for the expert handling of The Kiss. And despite its many flaws, damn it was nice to have Arrested Development back.
Game of Thrones: I was a late bloomer to the amazingness that is Game of Thrones, but in the last two months I’ve watched all three seasons, leading me to conclusively say that this is the best show on TV right now. Acting? Better than most films I’ve seen. Directing? Excellently shapes the many story lines into one fairly understandable package. Cinematography? Beautiful and rich. Red Wedding? Horrifying beyond belief. It is no surprise that Game of Thrones has received 16 Emmy nominations for season 3.
The Voice: Considering how many reality TV shows there are about singing, and how many of those have become quite terrible (*cough* American Idol *cough*), The Voice is really surprisingly good. I loved Usher and Shakira as judges, especially compared to Christina Aguilera, and I think their charisma and actual understanding of the modern music industry helped the show out immensely. Though I was unhappy with the results, I thought the level of talent on the show, as well the show’s format, was better than anything of its genre I’ve ever seen.
MasterChef: I’m a sucker for cooking-competition shows, and I think that MasterChef is the best of its kind. In this program, Gordon Ramsay is far less of an unapologetic dick, and actually lets his food do the talking sometimes. I think the contestants that the producers bring on the show tend to be more appealing and likeable, to the point where the viewer would actually want to see them succeed rather than fail. Season 4 continued to impress me with its original challenges and captivating story lines (which are admittedly somewhat formatted by the producers, and then relayed to the contestants).
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me to talk about the strength of a year of television over another. With the majority of shows coming out in a year being renewals of the previous season, there’s pretty good insurance of a year’s quality of programming. I certainly haven’t been keeping up with enough television to fairly make this judgment, but I’ll do so anyways. This year has seen the return of a few heavy hitters, Game of Thrones in particular just came off a very strong season. I ask you to look past all the hype of the big dogs, sorry Mad Men, for the show that has been the strongest this year. This is a little bittersweet considering the show’s untimely cancellation, but I believe it needs to be celebrated regardless. Enlightened delivered a season early this year with more narrative direction, as well as emotional strength. The show has a weird charm to it, and feels different than anything else on the air. Forget about Tony Soprano, never has a character made me feel so divided than Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe. This season also took the time to follow the supporting men in Amy’s life by spending episodes following Mike White and Luke Wilson’s (who was robbed of an Emmy nomination) characters. Screw the overpraised Girls, White and Dern have created the most consistent and powerful show in HBO’s line up, and nobody noticed.
My favourite album of the year so far changes at least daily, if not hourly, so I thought that instead, like the TV section, I would mention a few that I really love. Baths are a band (or rather, person – Will Wiesenfeld) that I missed the initial buzz on, back in 2010, and only discovered a short time before the new album, Obsidian, dropped in May. But while Cerulean, the debut, was a collection of great electro-pop songs, Obsidian is Baths’ fully-realized vision. With deeply personal lyrics and a more expanded but refined sound environment, it is the type of thing practically made with my enjoyment in mind. Austra followed up on their excellent debut, 2011’s Feel It Break, an album that is very personal to me, with Olympia, a more collaborative and optimistic group of songs. Led by Katie Stelmanis’ beautiful opera-trained voice, their music still feels gloomy, it’s just surrounded by some more great beats this time. Then there is Yeezus. Kanye West‘s new album is that rare breed of “mildly disappointing only because it’s not perfect”, but then, that imperfection seems intentional. So despite the occasionally lazy lyrics and misogyny (and those two things are definitely intertwined), it’s still miles ahead of pretty much everything else. I’ve fallen out of love with some of this year’s “comebacks”, like Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk, but one that I still connect with is The Knife‘s Shaking the Habitual. Acting simultaneously as a feminist manifesto and experimental electronic album, it is full of ideas and good beats, too. I’ve also really liked the new albums from Vampire Weekend, Savages, Phoenix and Sigur Rós.
Waiting for the Dawn – The Mowgli’s: This whole album (and the greater collection of work by this band) is pure joy. The Mowgli’s are an extremely positive band, with a very full sound (they are an 8-piece after all) and a tendency towards interesting instrumentation. I love that they have a guy who plays the melodica in a lot of their tunes because that’s just the kind of band they are (the weird kind). I also love that they are named after a character from The Jungle Book. Great band, uplifting album.
The 20/20 Experience – Justin Timberlake: As I’ve said before, this album is good, but not great. I stand by that, though it is still one of my favorite releases of the year. Timberlake shows a lot of his tendency to experiment with his music and sample beats and melodies from various cultures and countries, while still creating music friendly to American top 40 radio audiences. I love that he’s not scared of putting several eight-minute songs on the album, and that he truly shows a lot of variety in the style of his tunes. I just wish every tune was as good as “Mirrors”.
In a Tidal Wave of Mystery – Capital Cities: Capital Cities is a really fun indie pop duo who definitely generated some good press with the release of their EP in 2011, which featured, “Safe and Sound,” a completely dancey dance track. The band’s debut album is a collection of songs that are both catchy and intricate, leaving the listener grooving and thinking at the same time. “Kangaroo Court,” Is my favorite track from the album. The tune (and many of the other tunes on the album) features a prominent trumpet counter-melody, which is a nice surprise to see coming from a pop duo. This band will be big in the future (I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing…).
It is incredibly hackneyed by now to claim that any buzz band is “the next big thing”, but I really hope that CHVRCHES start to get a lot of attention when their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, drops in a couple months. Every song they put out, from The Knife-inspired “The Mother We Share” to the delightful earworm that is “Gun”, I love them more. But my favourite of the released singles and of the year so far is “Recover”, the type of song that you can listen to over and over and never get sick of it (trust me). This is electro-pop perfection, people. “No Eyes” is the standout track for me from Baths’ Obsidian, with its personal story of sex addiction and infectious beats. “Full of Fire” is perhaps The Knife’s greatest achievement yet. “Blood on the Leaves” may mix Nina Simone with a tale of alimony, but Hudson Mohawke’s beats and Kanye’s impassioned delivery make it the highlight on Yeezus. “Latch” is truly wonderful, but is also indicative of how great Disclosure’s debut album, Settle, is in its entirety. Others worth noting: “Hannah Hunt” + “Diane Young” by Vampire Weekend, “Play by Play” by Autre Ne Veut, “Hurt Me Now” by Austra, “Now I’m All Messed Up” + “Closer” by Tegan and Sara, “Attracting Flies” by AlunaGeorge, “Ain’t It Fun” by Paramore, “Black Roses” by Charli XCX, “Get Lucky” + “Giorgio by Moroder” by Daft Punk, “The Real Thing” by Phoenix, “Human” by Daughter, “Warm in the Winter” by Glass Candy, “She Will” + “Husbands” by Savages, “I’m Waiting Here (feat. Lykke Li)” by David Lynch and “Slasherr” by Rustie.
Say It, Just Say It – The Mowgli’s: I already wrote about how much I like the album, and this tune is probably the highlight for me. It perfectly summarizes their tendency towards group-sung choruses and really happy sounding instrumentals (major chords FTW). It’s high energy, well sung, and well written. Though I’m unlikely to hear this one on the radio anytime soon, I’d definitely call it my top summer song, and hopefully the band can gain a bit more of an audience because they certainly deserve it.
I Want Crazy – Hunter Hayes: Yeah that’s right, fuck you, Jake.
Centipede – Childish Gambino: Donald’s back and clever as ever. “Centipede” is inventive, catchy, and experimental. It’s maybe one of his most ambitious tunes yet. Gambino’s singing sounds better than I’ve ever heard it before and his rap is definitely impressive. What I love most about this tune is that it shows a progression in his work. This is a different side of the guy we came to know in Camp, and after just one song, I think I like it.
Admittedly, I haven’t played too much from this year. But two that I have played are perfect examples of extremes in the gaming industry. On the one side, you have Bioshock Infinite, a mainstream, big-budget game that proves how good blockbuster games can be. Although it has its issues (including a major narrative problem with the Vox Populi), it is thoughtful storytelling complemented by beautiful visual aesthetics and a real emotional connection that develops between the player and Elizabeth, your companion. And on the other end of the spectrum is the indie point-and-click Kentucky Route Zero. Although only two Acts out of an eventual five have been released (the first in January, the second in May), the first two have been enough to impress me substantially with this quiet but gripping tale of a truck driver trying to make his way through the mysterious Route Zero in order to make a delivery. Even working on such a small budget, the game manages to create a beautiful and enigmatic atmosphere, along with a focus on Lynchian storytelling, strange sense of humour and all. I’ve also just finished The Last of Us and really enjoyed it, despite how much it borrows from other franchises, particularly in terms of gameplay and combat. There’s also the fact that such an adult, depressing, deliberately paced and engrossing narrative must be coupled with a high head-count in order for it to be a blockbuster game, a quality shared by Bioshock Infinite (the games also share a deep bond between the two main characters, and you get very emotionally involved with both). In the end, though, this game’s shortcomings are beyond forgivable because of how production values and outstanding execution (not to mention a top-notch story with a perfect ending) can make all the difference. If I had to choose, it would be my favourite of these three.
Temple Run 2: I can’t tell if this pick is going to come across as a troll or not, but I legitimately love Temple Run 2. The original was a game changer (semi-pun?) for mobile gaming, and I think the sequel stepped up and delivered some key improvements, while maintaining the game’s original vibe. It’s still chaotic and still frustratingly difficult, but now it’s far more visually appealing and offers several new obstacles. I’m stoked to see what they’ll come up with for Temple Run 3.
The Last of Us: I’m going to preface this pick by saying that typically most of the years best games come out closer to the end of the year (for Christmas and such). However, The Last of Us was great. Like, really, really, really great. The game is intelligent, violent, and heart stopping. My only gripe is that it sometimes feels a little linear, but that’s okay because it’s FUN.
Side note: Journey was the best game of 2012 because REASONS.