Thursday, January 11, 2024

2023 In Review - Movies

Along with TV shows, this year was a pretty good year for me with movies. I have a lifetime of all-time classics that I've never seen, and I managed to cross a few of those movies off my list this year. Here's every movie that I (can remember that I) watched in 2023, ranked!

#1 - Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I waited a while to watch this movie, making sure I found just the right time and place, and the payoff was tremendous. Chris Pine was exactly the right stereotypical snarky party leader that you find in all the best D&D groups, and each other character fit their role to a T. The villains were dastardly, the side characters were fun, the action was tense, and the story made sense. My one note would be that in the Dungeons & Dragons movie, I would've liked the dragon to be a little more terrifying, but that's a small note. I loved, loved, loved this movie.

#2 - The Fifth Element

What the hell took me so long to watch this movie? It's sci-fi and Bruce Willis, what more could you want. The themes are great, the action is great, and the comedy is top-tier. But Mila Jovovich as Leeloo was easily the highlight of the film. So many memorable quotes, large and small, and with an insane combination of cuteness and sexiness. This was definitely one of the highlights of my classic catch-up efforts. "Moooolti-pass."

#3 - Dune

The first half of this movie was absolutely mesmerizing. The grand scale, the machinations of different great houses as they vie for power in this distant corner of space. Politics, intrigue, violence, Oscar Isaac, I loved it so much. The last hour or so was a little more focused on characters I was less interested in, and a story that was a little more spiritual, and didn't really resonate the same. But overall, still a tremendous movie.

#4 - The Nice Guys

I saw a clip from this movie a dozen times on Netflix before I finally watched it, and I loved the clip every single time. I don't know why it takes me so long to decide to watch movies. Just a time commitment thing I guess. Anyways, this movie was a lot of fun! Russell Crowe is fantastic, and Ryan Gosling complements him perfectly (although he gets added to the long list of actors who can't really portray a drunk person). The end of the movie got freaking insane, and lost me a bit, but the characters were great, and I would definitely recommend this film to anyone.

#5 - Blade Runner 2049

I imagine I had a pretty rare experience with these two movies, watching 2049 just a few months after watching the original Blade Runner for the first time. You can really see the differences in picture quality, but they do a good job of recapturing the essence of the original film. I hemmed and hawed between these two films; I liked them both, but I think the supporting cast and story are stronger in 2049, so this one gets the nod above the original."

#6 - Blade Runner

Seriously, this was the first time I ever saw Blade Runner. There are a few all-time classics that I still haven't seen, but we can chalk this one off the list. I liked it a lot, but I think even more than the actual movie, I absolutely loved the idea of the movie. The setting, the concepts, the moral questions, it was all just awesome to think about. The actual journey of Decker as he tracks down replicants was great as well, though I thought the antagonist was a little more murdery than he needed to be; I like when a villain pushes you to question, are they really a villain?

#7 - Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

SPOILER ALERT. I can't really talk about my feelings about this movie without giving some mild spoilers. I loved the time they spent on Spider-Gwen, though Miles' story didn't really grab me the same way. Far too much of the movie was spent on an extended chase scene that led into the final scene. That final scene was fantastic, and I was super excited by the cliffhanger...right up until I realized it was a cliffhanger. It's disappointing to watch a fun movie and find out you were only watching half of a fun movie.

#8 - Violent Night

This movie was sold to me as ""Die Hard with Santa."" That is a fully correct description of the movie. It's got a full complement of over-the-top action lines and ridiculous holiday-themed fights, and David Harbour does a fantastic job portraying jolly old Saint Nicholas. John Leguizamo as a villain was a little too silly for me, which says something when it's a movie with Santa literally fighting kidnappers. But it was fun, entertaining, and self-aware.

#9 - Bullet Train

Bullet Train was an odd little movie. I enjoyed the brother assassins, and their creative use of Thomas the Tank Engine as a way to classify people. And Brad Pitt's semi-hapless character was a fun protagonist. The final 'bad guy' was a little too over the top (which is saying a lot, coming from me), but the many confrontations on the train itself were interesting, and the action was good. Overall a fun time.

#10 - Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3

It was a perfectly fine movie. It had a lot of solid jokes, good action, and decent music (though a cut below the previous two iterations in all of those regards). But the biggest problem I had with this movie was that it felt soooo heavy-handed with the emotional beats. After the fifth fake-out almost death, you begin to feel kind of manipulated. And Adam Warlock was a wholly unnecessary character, despite it being a fine performance.

#11 - Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Jonathan Majors absolutely owned this movie, and it's a shame (but completely understandable) that his off-screen behavior is going to prevent him from being in any future Marvel properties. I liked the zany quantum realm characters, though I feel like the movie suffered a bit from spreading its story too thin. The Wasp could've been completely removed from this movie and you wouldn't notice a difference. Hopefully future Ant-Man stories zoom back in on the fun characters and smaller scale stories that made the first movie one of my favorite superhero films.

#12 - John Wick

I finally caught John Wick on a random Thursday night this year (it might not have been a Thursday, it was you know, a metaphor or whatever, a 'royal' Thursday). The movie was about what I expected: big time violent, tons of guns, a whole mess of bad guys getting their just desserts. I don't know that it hit me the way that it seemed to hit a lot of other people, though. Taken was much more of a revelation for me when it comes to hyper-violent action movies. But hey, maybe the John Wick sequels will be less of a disaster than the Taken sequels were.

#13 - Starship Troopers

This felt like two different movies. Half of it was a cheesy, over-the-top action movie, with appropriate surprise deaths and swarming monsters. The other half was a scathing indictment of blind patriotism and government/military overreach. I did really enjoy having to wrestle with the uncomfortable dynamic of fighting a ruthless enemy, and how the protagonists used unspeakable tactics to fight them. It really leans on that idea that there's no such thing as an honorable war. It's just war.

#14 - Terminal

This is a tough movie to rank. Margot Robbie does a phenomenal job portraying her character, an ambitious femme fatale assassin, and Simon Pegg is brilliant as well, playing a man with a mysterious terminal illness. The other characters are decent; Mike Myers as a weirdo janitor is kind of charming. I really enjoyed so so much of the movie, but the ending was just all over the place. It was going for something dramatic and shocking, and I guess it was both of those things, but personally it just kind of landed with a thud. But damn, can Margot Robbie act.

#15 - The Thing

Nick has been pestering me to watch this movie for decades (he hasn't been pestering me, he just mentioned it a few times), so this year I finally gave it a go. The special effects are...well, you don't have to worry about being freaked out about a realistic looking monster. But the story itself was good, the acting was good, and the tension is very real. I wouldn't put it on the same level as Alien, Jaws, or Jurassic Park, but it's a solid thriller.

#16 - Jurassic World: Dominion

Look, nobody is going to confuse Dominion for the original Jurassic Park. Honestly, none of the sequels come close to the original, and that's okay. This one continued to stretch the bounds of incredulity, but it did so with a full embrace of nostalgia, bringing back a bunch of the original cast. And the movie knew what it was. It only took itself as seriously as was reasonable, and embraced its role as a kooky adventure movie for longtime Jurassic Park fans. It wasn't anything special or amazing, but it was a good little capstone to the Jurassic Park experience.

#17 - Nobody

I wasn't sure that Bob Odenkirk was leading man material until I saw Better Call Saul, but he was fucking tremendous in that show, which to me was even better than Breaking Bad. I know that's sacreligious to say, but a guy gets to have opinions. This movie was no Better Call Saul, though it had some fun action, good gags, and the guys you wanted to die for the most part did die. In a year where I watched John Wick for the first time, this one falls a few slots behind that, but it was still good.

#18 - The Marvels

I went into this movie hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. It had some problems, and I still don't know if they know how to write for Captain Marvel, but there were a lot of fun moments, the action was pretty good, and I left the theater feeling pleased at the experience overall. That's not a sure thing these days with Marvel, so I'll take it.

#19 - Dragonslayer

I was expecting the movie to be a lot cheesier than it was, but it was actually fairly mature and thoughtful. It's got some great dramatic dialogue, which is always a plus in my book, and while a lot of the dragon effects were very dated, the movie didn't rely so much on the actual dragon; much more of it was focused on the *threat* of the dragon, the anticipation, the expectation. The protagonist was kind of a whiny little shit, so that docks it a few points, but it was a fun watch, a nice classic adventure movie.

#20 - Venom: Let There Be Carnage

From the first time I ever saw Venom as a kid, on TV or in a comic book or most likely as an action figure, he was just the coolest-looking character around. The first Tom Hardy Venom movie was a lot of fun; the symbiote looked cool, the internal monologue was a funny device, the fights were exciting, and the bad guy made sense. This one was a little bit more of a mess, both visually and narratively. I'll tell you what though: Michelle Williams in a Venom suit was an absolute win.

#21 - Super Mario Brothers: The Movie

This movie was...fine. It wasn't offensive, it wasn't poorly made, it wasn't poorly voiced. But I just could not bring myself to care about any character. The best moment in the whole movie was the opening battle between the penguin kingdom and Bowser's army.

#22 - Black Panther 2

This movie had maybe an impossible job. It was charged with saying goodbye to both T'Challa and Chadwick Boseman. It also had to follow up on one of the most lauded superhero movies of all time and elevate a new Black Panther, and do all of this in an environment that's becoming less and less patient for superhero movies. I think the movie sort of collapsed under the weight of itself, between all those responsibilities, and the various characters it tried to give space for. It was too long, too wide, and not deep enough.

#23 - The Host

One of the previews for this movie cited Jaws as an inspiration or comparison, and for those of you who know me, you know Jaws is one of my favorite all-time movies. This not Jaws. It's a fine enough monster movie, with some surprises and thrills. Nothing special, though, not worth a recommendation.

#24 - 21

I started this movie sometime in like 2015, back when I liked gambling and had illusions of figuring out ways to 'beat the system.' It didn't grab me at all back then, but eventually I saw it on Netflix and gave it another go. And...well, it didn't really grab me this time either, but I did finally watch it. I found I didn't really sympathize with the protagonist, which made me not really invested in his plight. And Kevin Spacey's character is just kind of a butt. Cross it off the list though.

Monday, January 8, 2024

2023 In Review - TV Shows

This past year was also a big-time year when it comes to finally watching some of those long-recommended TV shows and movies you've all been incredulous to find out I haven't watched (stay tuned for the movies post later this week). I finally watched a bunch of shows I've been "meaning to get around to," in addition to my inevitable rewatches of longtime favorites like Justified and The Office. I've got a bunch more shows still to watch, and if I were smart, I'd start a draft of a post like this now, so I don't have to scramble at the end of the year and try to remember what I watched.

If I were smart, that's exactly what I'd do. Anyways, here we go!

#1 - The Sandman - Season 1

This show was one I've meant to watch forever, but I finally got the motivation to get into it because of a co-watcher. And I owe that person my deepest gratitude; what was I waiting for? The show has the proper balance between macabre, playful, and absurd. Season 2 is expected sometime in 2024, and when it drops, I can promise you I won't be waiting a full year to watch it this time.

#2 - Bonding - Season 1

Funny, quirky, and heartfelt. The episodes are very short, so if you're not careful, you'll watch the whole thing in one sitting. Which is great, it's fun, but you'll be sad it's over.

#3 - The Mandalorian - Season 3

I actually loved this season of the Mandalorian. There were some kinks (not those kind, pervert), specifically with some of the dialogue, but overall I found it really entertaining. And I gotta say, I'm a Bo-Katan stan. Am I using that word correctly? Stan? I'm not as into Grogu as the rest of...well, everyone, but the Star Wars bounty hunting and Mandalorian aspect of things check all the boxes for me. The finale was a lot of fun, big action, and without spoiling details, I was delighted to see two big name story pieces get put away once and for all.

#4 - Cowboy Bebop (live action)

I remember when this show came out, and I remember how the internet reacted with such vitriol and judgment, about how the show was different from the original anime in one way or another. I watched the first few episodes of the original series, and while I enjoyed it well enough, I wasn't drawn in. But for me, the live action version has just the right balance of hilarious ridiculousness and more mature themes. And the character of Faye Valentine in the live action version is just absolutely perfect. It's a shame that all those internet people got the show cut down in its prime.

#5 - Brooklyn 99 - Seasons 1-5

This is another show that falls into that category of, "I really should've known that I would love this show." I enjoy workplace comedies, I like law enforcement as a framework, and I absolutely love the cast of this show (RIP Andre Braugher). Unsurprisingly, I've really enjoyed what I've watched so far, and I'm looking forward to closing out the show in the near future.

#6 - The Bear - Seasons 1-2

I love a cooking show, and this is that, a little bit. But it's more so a show about work, about anxiety, about grief, about relationships, about struggle. It's a heavy, deep show, and also a cooking show here and there. It struck a great balance between humor and stress, it felt very real in that regard. Even when life is awful, it's funny sometimes.

#7 - Invincible - Season 2, Part 1

This was a really solid four episodes of television. It's been a while since the first season of Invincible, and it was great to see the show return, and pick up right where things left off at the end of season 1. I found Rex Splode a little more tedious this time around, but hopefully that was just a fleeting thing; the rest of the returning characters still have me engaged. I'm not wild about the split season deal, but these days you take what you get, I guess.

#8 - Rick & Morty Season 1

I've been told for years that I would like Rick & Morty, that it's got a particular sort of humor that fits my own. And one season in, I heartily agree. There are a few heavy-handed jokes here and there, but for the most part it's a lot of conversational, situational humor, and that's my wheelhouse.

#9 - Loki - Season 2

Through five episodes, this would've been towards the bottom of the list of shows I watched in 2023. It felt directionless and tedious, and it felt like they really wasted the character of Sylvie after making her relationship with Loki such a beautiful part of the first season. But that finale, holy shit. It's as if they took all the good stuff from the season and jammed it into one episode. That one episode alone brings the whole show up several notches.

#10 - Battlestar Galactica - Season 1-2

A show I've meant to watch for years, decades even, I finally started it this year. Of course, I started it just two weeks before it got removed from Peacock, but what I watched during that time was quite good. I don't find the characters as endearing as those on most Star Trek shows, but I believe that's partly intentional; this gritty environment fosters people with sour attitudes and adaptive morals. There's no Captain America in this crew.

#11 - Jury Duty - Season 1

This was a really fun show. The premise was really funny, a faux reality show with a totally fabricated court case, and only one person who wasn't in on it. And they executed it well, created a bunch of really fun scenarios, and the guinea pig ended up being a really sweet guy who unwittingly played his role perfectly.

#12 - Ahsoka - Season 1

Ahsoka was an interesting television-watching experience for me. I came into the show very worried that, having not watched Clone Wars or Rebels, I was going to be in the dark about important story beats. Then I watched the first two episodes, and I was literally blown away. It was a Jedi detective show, with space ships and lightsaber battles, and holy mother of Luke, I was sold. And thennn, the story moved towards Sabine's efforts to find Ezra, a Rebels character who meant literally nothing to me, and the threat of Grand Admiral Thrawn, another character I had almost no prior knowledge about. The references to Clone Wars and Rebels continued, and I did my best to follow along using context clues, but by the end of the show, I was a little disillusioned. I did like Thrawn a lot though; I'm looking forward to seeing more of him.

#13 - Bodies

There are a lot of pieces to like in this show. The acting is top notch, and there's one storyline that really sings. The rest are okay, but the show incorporates time travel, and even in shows and movies I like, I get twisted up about time travel shenanigans. Because of course, it never truly makes sense. Still, there's enough I enjoyed about the show that I would still recommend it.

#14 - Secret Invasion

I don't think I'm alone in having had high hopes for this show. I've come around to Winter Soldier over the years, so the idea of Marvel doing a spy show had some real exciting potential. The current characters were great, and the incoming cast was super strong, several fresh faces with some serious acting chops. And then the show was...blah. It was boring, heavy-handed, sloppy, and just not that much fun, which is almost unthinkable for a Marvel property. The few good Olivia Coleman moments were overshadowed by a frustratingly simple antagonist, clunky dialogue, and some inexplicable narrative choices.

#15 - Justified: City Primeval

What a colossal disappointment. Justified is one of my favorite shows of all time, but this spinoff was a total letdown. You get a few Raylan moments, but overall it just does not capture any of the magic of the original, owing in large part to a poorly constructed main villain. It's crazy that Boyd Holbrook is the primary antagonist in the bookends of my list; his character was fantastic in the Sandman, and an absolute drag in City Primeval.

Friday, January 5, 2024

2023 In Review - Video Games

So as many of you know, I play games at my own pace. That usually means that A) I acquire games and don't play them, and B) I neither acquire nor play big time releases until they've been out for a while. This year was an exception in both regards, to an extent. I didn't acquire nearly as many games as I have in the past, and those I did acquire, I was more likely to play. And, I ended up picking up three different games right around their full release date: Diablo IV, Baldur's Gate 3, and Starfield.

I also spent more time on my Steam Deck this year, trying out some of the many random games I've accumulated through my love of a gaming bundle. In the end, my best guess is that I played 20 new games in 2023. What did I think of these games?

Well, let's rank them and find out!

#1 - Baldur's Gate 3

I've played a ton of role-playing games over the years. I've played hundreds of hours of D&D over the years as well. Baldur's Gate 3 arguably does both of those experiences as well as anybody could hope. Decades after playing games like Curse of the Azure Bonds and Dark Sun: Shattered Lands (both legends in their own rights), BG3 captures that same beautiful combination of exploration, adventure, growth, and challenge. This was deservedly my most played game in 2023, and I expect it'll be right up there in 2024 as well. Now, who wants to play coop?

#2 - Raft

Raft is an interesting game. I really enjoy a lot of the experience; there's a certain satisfaction from collecting goods, putting them to work, researching new technology to do a more effective job at collecting goods, and so on and so on with that cycle. But I'm not totally sure that the gaming experience is like, meaningful. Still, it's a low-stress way to hang out with friends, and that's worth something on its own, even if I'm being tricked into chasing dopamine bursts every time I kill a pufferfish.

#3 - Risk of Rain 2

I'm only like 90% sure that I started playing this game in 2023, but I've decided to include it regardless. I was a huge fan of the first Risk of Rain game, played the hell out of it, never got amazing but still enjoyed it from start to finish. It was always good for a quick cooperative multiplayer game too, the sort of thing you could jump in and out of on a whim. RoR 2 goes from 2D to 3D, but actually does a good job of keeping the same essence of the original game, which is no small task. The last fight is a little more chaotic, and a bit less forgiving, but it's still very fun. And I dare say the different characters feel more unique and interesting for the most part. An excellent follow-up to an excellent original.

#4 - Diablo IV

The story in Diablo IV was absolutely tremendous. I haven't finished it yet, but everything about Lilith is compelling, much more so than the primary villains in previous games. And Diablo IV felt truly fresh, whereas Diablo III felt awfully similar to Diablo II. And bonus points to Blizzard for avoiding a disastrous repeat of Diablo III's launch.

#5 - Starfield

I was so hyped for this game that I blogged for the first time in like, years. I wanted so desperately to have a whole Mandalorian/Firefly type experience, and I convinced myself with the pre-release materials that that was what I was going to get. But it wasn't that at all. We got the same mild-mannered NPCs that previous Bethesda games have offered, space travel is essentially just fast travel, and space combat feels incredibly clunky. Plus I can't even figure out how to become a megacorporation. I enjoy the non-ship combat, and I'm open to finding expansions and mods that improve the experience, but so far it's been a big disappointment.

#6 - Alien: Isolation

Still early in my gameplay, but so far the game has a lot of potential. I'm not usually one for horror-style games, but I'm a sucker for established IP, and famous monsters draw me in even more. I can only rate this on what I've played so far though, which has been pretty simple and straightforward.

#7 - 80s Overdrive

There are a lot of pixel-graphic games out there that lean on old tropes and established nostalgia, but this one hit me just the right way at just the right time. The gameplay is fun, the music is great, and progression feels earned. One of the most pleasant surprises among my many "I'll try this random game on the Steam Deck" choices from 2023.

#8 - Moonlighter

I grew up on Recettear. I've played and replayed Recettear (and am currently doing so again). You, Moonlighter, are no Recettear. It's actually still pretty fun, but adding meticulous inventory management to the hybrid adventurer/shopkeeper base is not an improvement.

#9 - Red Dead Redemption

I bought the original RDR something like 10 years ago. I got a whole Game of the Year edition, including something called Undead Nightmare, which I have yet to play. But I played the base game a bit, and it definitely has the feel of GTA in the wild west, which is what they were going for, no doubt. The game didn't feel particularly dated, which was a plus for a ten year old AAA game. But I didn't feel drawn in by the story, and the few sandbox opportunities I came across didn't suck me in either. I may go back to it at some point, but I got RDR 2 for Christmas; I'm much more interested in the broader, newer, fancier option.

#10 - Suriving the Aftermath

I played this game exactly one time in 2023, for 2-3 hours. Chip and I both acquired the game for free from Epic, and we were both feeling kind of low energy, so we decided to play solo games independently. It was pretty relaxing, mildly interesting. I could see playing it some more, but the fact that I haven't played it since that night might be telling.

#11 - Out There Somewhere

This is a quirky little game, and it was very hard to rank. At its core, it's got the guts of something cool: limited but interesting mechanics, with the potential for a lot of different ways to deploy them. But the game was so short that it was a bit of a letdown to finish it. If a sequel comes out, one that promises to expand on the premise and have a more robust and extensive experience, I'd be interested.

#12 - Dead Island 2

I can't tell if the game is kind of boring, or if I'm just supremely bad at it. There is, of course, the potential that both are true. I'm hopeful to get a chance to try out the cooperative mode this year, maybe that'll add some fun to the experience.

#13 - Splendor

This is simply the video game version of a board game I enjoy. It's an effective representation of the board game, and it translates pretty well to the digital medium.

#14 - Little Racers STREET

Little Racers STREET is essentially a modern twist on RC Pro-Am, the old Nintendo game, but it's got none of the charm. It's perfectly fine, but I found it very forgettable.

#15 - Turbo Golf Racing

I only played the tutorial and a couple of single-player levels. It seems like it could be a fun game to play with other people, but that opportunity hasn't presented itself as of yet. So for now, it's just kind of a weird little driving game that I'm pretty bad at.

#16 - Marvel's Avengers

I've been interested in this game since it came out, so when it dipped to $5 this year, it was an easy pickup. But a long tutorial and ungodly load times kept me from spending much time actually playing the game. I might play it again sometime, but the motivation isn't there.

#17 - The Political Machine 2016

I played a couple games of this, and I feel like I got everything I was going to get out of it. It was fun enough for a quick dip, but I was hoping for a little more of a simulation experience, and not quite so much of a board game experience.

#18 - I, Zombie

It's an interesting little puzzle game, but as the difficulty increases, it becomes less rewarding and just more frustrating. I'd compare it to herding cats professionally.

#19 - Hero of the Kingdom

I can't say for sure that it's a game. So far, it seems to be basically just follow the directions and click where you're instructed to click. I didn't get terribly far in the game, and I don't expect to.

#20 - Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge

You remember how there were some old NES games where you walked pretty slowly, and jumped pretty slowly, and just everything went really slowly? This game is kind of like that. I'm sure that people who've gotten good at the game find it more compelling, but the gameplay was just a non-starter for me.

2023 In Review - Movies

Along with TV shows, this year was a pretty good year for me with movies. I have a lifetime of all-time classics that I've never seen, a...