2014 Year in Review

I typed this up while preparing my GOTY list for 2014, then decided to separate it out into its own blog. The GOTY list is here.

Games

Easiest Game To Look At:

Monument Valley [AND]

All I can really say is I have rotated about six or seven different screenshots from Monument Valley as my background on my HP Slate. The number of moods the game conveys through different color schemes and landscapes while maintaining its mindbending M.C. Escher aesthetic is pretty astounding.

Other Pretty Games:

  • The Banner Saga [PC] - Like an old gorgeous fantasy cartoon come to life
  • Child of Light [PS4] - Any screenshot's like a dream, and also fuck that forced rhyming scheme
  • FRACT OSC [PC] - AKA walking around in the world of TRON
  • Transistor [PS4] - Striking and fed right into the mystery of the world

Easiest Game To Listen To:

Shovel Knight [PC]

Kind of a no brainer

Other Pleasant-Sounding Games:

The Games I Most Wanted To Get To But Didn't:

As far as games I own or have access to, anyway:

  • Always Sometimes Monsters [PC]
  • A Bird Story [PC]
  • The Fall [PC]
  • Hack 'n' Slash [PC]
  • Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft [AND]
  • Mind: Path to Thalamus [PC]
  • Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake [AND]
  • Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth [3DS]
  • Secrets of Raetikon [PC]
  • TRI: Of Friendship and Madness [PC]

2014's 2015 Game of the Year:

Crypt of the NecroDancer [PC]

It took me a while to compile my games list for 2014, but my 2015 game of the year feels kind of already in the bag. Barring some surreal miracle where 2015 spoils me [or tragedy if the game is still not out of early access in a year], Crypt of the NecroDancer's got this one pretty much on lockdown. That mix of rhythm game and dungeon crawling roguelike is just too good. Ugh.

Other Potentially Cool Stuff:

  • Broken Age [PC] - Haven't played the first act yet, still waiting on the second
  • Kentucky Route Zero [PC] - I shouldn't put this under 2015 but
  • Starbound [PC] - Have already spent a billion hours in Space Terraria
  • Wasteland Kings [PC] - Because that name is totally better than Nuclear Throne

Least Favorite Games of the Year:

It was really easy to linger on the worst of wrestling--it inspires an irrational passion, I guess--but the games I least enjoyed this year don't really provoke the same fervor. So, they will go here without too much comment. Different reasons for disliking them all, but they stick out as some of the least pleasant experiences I've had this year. I don't even really want to pick one. [If I had to, I would probably go with The Witch and the Hundred Knight, though.]

  • Abyss Odyssey [PC]
  • Earth Defense Force 2025 [PS3]
  • Watch_Dogs [PS4]
  • The Witch and the Hundred Knight [PS3]

Film

Favorite Films:

10] Edge of Tomorrow [Doug Liman]

This year one of my favorite modern directors made a film that was often compared to the structure of video games. I wish I liked Joon-ho Bong's Snowpiercer, but instead I'm in the camp behind Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow. Its very existence is a video game construct, but unlike Snowpiercer, it feels less like a martyr vehicle and more like a taut Groundhog Day action comedy, and now I will go sit down and think about how I just wrote that the Tom Cruise character didn't feel like a martyr.

09] Cheap Thrills [E.L. Katz]

A genuinely dark comedy that seemingly refuses to draw any line, but miraculously avoids feeling like a gimmicky trick through its establishing of real people who are desperate--so very desperate--to escape their current living situation. That establishment is what makes the film's parallels to reality television trends all the creepier.

08] A Field in England [Ben Wheatley]

Ben Wheatley is rapidly becoming the Takashi Miike of Europe. Outside of pretty minor thematic similarities between his films, his work reflects the bonkers refusal to be pigeonholed that Miike has expressed over the last couple decades. It may not be on the level of his previous film Sightseers, but Wheatley's bizarre medieval sci-fi horror acid trip is the kind of film that needs to be seen to be believed. It provokes that rare kind of excitement, that I really don't know what I'm going to get from his next work. Even if he never makes his own Audition, I will be happy just knowing that I can't possibly predict what's on the horizon.

07] The Strange Little Cat [Ramon Zürcher]

The Strange Little Cat is a weirdly personal and bold debut for a director, a highly focused day in the life of a family, but also the life of the house itself. Through sound design as well as the tendency to linger on seemingly irrelevant objects such as orange peels or a moth, Zürcher makes the house seem bigger and more important than it actually is, providing the sense that the family's story may be self-contained and "light" but is nevertheless interconnected and meaningful to them. What feels fluffy in the moment turns out to be warm and considerate.

06] Stranger by the Lake [Alain Guiraudie]

The setting for Stranger by the Lake is novel and effective, focused on a lakeside cruising spot for gay men, shots reinforcing the loose community that develops as well as their isolation from the rest of society. It's a smart reflection of the dangers posed to gay culture while simultaneously being as thrilling as many great noir stories about desire and its potentially deadly consequences. There's no mistaking the artistry at hand in the film's second half--I find it difficult to recall sequences this year imbued with greater tension. And Christophe Paou's Michel, the homme fatale at the center of it all and resembling some sort of Greek god, lends the proceedings an air of mythical tragedy.

05] A Spell To Ward Off the Darkness [Ben Russell & Ben Rivers]

The experimental nature of A Spell To Ward Off the Darkness gave off a first impression of complete disconnect and a lack of interest in pulling me in, but as the central figure wanders between the three stages of the film--the Estonian commune, the wilderness of Finland, and the Norwegian black metal scene--the titular spell seemed to be placed more on me than in any suggested attempt for the figure to find meaning in his life in order to avoid such "darkness." The film still seems to be about that search for meaning and how the journey--and the fact that the search continues--is more important than the stops along the way, but for me it also felt oddly pleasing and transcendent to watch the journey take place, to the point where, when the film concluded abruptly, it was like a weird gasp of air, like I had forgotten to breathe.

04] The Grand Budapest Hotel [Wes Anderson]

Perhaps Anderson's saddest film to date, and certainly one of his most personal, The Grand Budapest Hotel is filled with characters grasping desperately for the past. Anderson's particular aesthetic design quirks--always resembling something out of a French magazine from two decades before he was even born--are well-suited for the story being told. And unlike maybe any of his previous work, The Grand Budapest Hotel manages to showcase his ability to, as a character puts it, "sustain [an] illusion with marvelous grace." In his weakest films the illusion is obvious because we sense the puppet master behind the curtain and therefore the artifice. Yet in his best work, as seen here, the illusion is only obvious because we can sense the pain of the truth. We let the illusion persist, because we possess as much hope as the characters searching for purpose.

03] The Immigrant [James Gray]

James Gray follows the masterful Two Lovers with something that, in spirit, doesn't seem that far off from the Godfather saga. Not necessarily in quality, but in its thematic depth, actor showcasing, and careful consideration of the immigrant experience. In a way The Immigrant feels very much like a classic Hollywood epic or perhaps some lost Italian neorealist work, depicting meticulously fleshed-out characters in a dire situation beyond their control, all affected by the same circumstances. Everyone is looking for the American Dream, and everyone struggles to even approach it, but if anything is clear by the conclusion of the film--and that holy shit final shot--it's that these characters are beginning to recognize how to survive in the world. Or, at least, they're destined for the same, slightly optimistic path despite their struggles amongst one another.

02] Only Lovers Left Alive [Jim Jarmusch]

Oh thank God. After the pleasant but limp Broken Flowers and LITERALLY EVERYTHING about The Limits of Control, I thought Jim Jarmusch was done for. And the general idea of Only Lovers Left Alive--hipster-ish vampires bemoaning the uncultured "zombies" around them--did not sound like a recipe for warm observation. And yet two scenes in particular--the vampire couple dancing to "Trapped by a Thing Called Love", and a Lebanese singer entertaining a Tangier club as the couple looks on--suggest something else entirely. Nevermind that the film is a unique take on the vampire subgenre in general, and that it contains minor notes of humor and love all over the place even amidst its cultural observations. More importantly, it even seems borderline hopeful, its title at first seemingly reflecting the protagonists' disdain for the "zombies" around them but eventually showing its true message--the need to stick together and find the brighter things in life in a world so bent on detachment, the real harbinger of death.

01] Under the Skin [Jonathan Glazer]

Under the Skin might recall science fiction films like 2001 or The Man Who Fell to Earth, but it is entirely alien despite its inspirations. It is a sensory experience the likes of which are difficult to come by. Scarlett Johansson scouts and lures men to their death for reasons largely unexplained--and, having read some of the novel, it's a smart choice to omit the details of the "why." Glazer instead opts for an experimental mood piece that focuses on the protagonist's self-discovery, her search for what makes someone human. At times it feels like a visual language unto itself, an artifact from some alien civilization that is hard to decipher but worth the trouble of sitting, staring, wondering. It's maybe a little on the nose, but it's hard to avoid saying it--it gets under the skin and lingers uncomfortably. And it feels genuinely special like no other work in any medium this year.

Most Disappointing Film:

Wolf Creek 2 [Greg McLean]

This is a pretty tight race for me between three films, but I think this one takes the crown for the sheer difference between entries 1 and 2. Wolf Creek took me by surprise nearly a decade ago, a laser-sharp and efficient horror-thriller with ominous landscapes, a monster worthy of a spot amongst the greatest of cinema monsters, and one of the more effective reflections of xenophobia at a time when I felt surrounded by it. I guess one way to follow that up is to Nightmare on Elm Street it up and go full-on comedy horror, but for me that was a giant misstep and I'm still actually kind of upset about it. I'm not sure I wanted a sequel anyway, so expectations were maybe a little tempered, but now I'm just hoping McLean gets back on track. He still has an eye for dreary landscapes.

Other disappointing children:

  • The Babadook [Jennifer Kent] - It works really well until the metaphor works way too hard
  • Snowpiercer [Joon-ho Bong] - Feels flat and one-sided, with none of the verve of Bong's previous work save for that one fight scene

Wrestling

Favorite NJPW Match:

Time Splitters vs. The Young Bucks - Dominion [6/21]

I have never thought tag matches held much potential for quality matches, due to the complications of more people as well as the particular dynamic presented by tagging. It turns out it's just because the WWE hasn't cared about tag teams--the only good matches there involve teams with any kind of investment, which amounts to the Shield basically. One of the most pleasant discoveries in my introduction to New Japan Pro Wrestling is that tag matches are treated with respect, especially when teams with good chemistry go up against one another. The Young Bucks and Time Splitters are two such teams, often relegated to [albeit unusually well executed] spotfests that feature great chemistry. At Dominion the teams were given ample time to shine, and they responded with a tag match with almost perfect psychology execution. Tag matches can apparently have good psychology that doesn't just involve hot tagging [which they, of course, also execute perfectly]. It even has one of my favorite pin breakups ever.

Other Favorites:

  • AJ Styles vs. Minoru Suzuki - G1 Climax Day 7 [8/1] - A well-paced, classic-style match
  • Kota Ibushi vs. Ricochet - Dominion [6/21] - Flips R Us
  • Hirooki Goto vs. Katsuyori Shibata - Wrestle Kingdom 8 [1/4] - Brothers who will headbutt each other and not give a fuck
  • Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Katsuyori Shibata - Destruction in Kobe [9/21] - A great response match to Tanahashi's G1 Climax loss to Shibata

Favorite NXT Match:

Adrian Neville vs. Sami Zayn - Takeover: R Evolution [12/11]

Sami Zayn's road to redemption could not feel more like "classic" storytelling, and yet--unlike John Cena on the main roster--it's so thoroughly believable because Sami, in his struggles, is actually relatable. I don't know whether NXT has actually designed his story for well over a year, for this single moment of finally winning the NXT Championship, but considering the execution as well as the quality of the show around it I wouldn't be surprised. Neville and Zayn tore the house down for over 23 minutes and--despite all temptation to finally "do what it takes" to win the title--Sami refused to play dirty, despite hypothetically earning the right to do so. And he won anyway. And it was incredible. It's such a hilarious contrast to the weekend of Hell in a Cell, where John Cena "lost" the right to fight Seth Rollins, had to "concede" to the guy who actually deserved to fight him, still got a #1 Contender match as consolation, and then got to fight Seth Rollins the very next night anyway. John Cena Wins.

The WWE inspires cynicism, obviously, but then I just think about Sami's story and feel better.

Other Favorites:

  • Adrian Neville vs. Sami Zayn vs. Tyler Breeze vs. Tyson Kidd - Takeover: Fatal 4-Way [9/11] - Surprisingly well-managed for all four participants, and the best work Tyson Kidd's ever put in
  • Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks - Takeover: R Evolution [12/11] - Maybe the best women's match ever? Maybe?
  • Cesaro vs. Sami Zayn - ArRival [2/27] - Not quite on the level of their crazy work from last year, but still Cesaro and Sami doing their thing
  • Charlotte vs. Natalya - Takeover [5/29] - Two incredible workers and a cool moment seeing a new generation for two wrestling families

Favorite WWE Match:

Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins, Lumberjack Match - Summerslam [8/17]

There may be a lumberjack match some day that tops it, but it's hard to imagine one that reflects the perfect set of circumstances that were blissfully provided to Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins. It didn't make sense in the beginning that Ambrose, when given the option, would request a lumberjack match as opposed to, say, a Hell in a Cell bout [though the sort of lackluster Hell In A Cell Match At Hell In A Cell 2014 suggests it was the right call anyway]. But not only did the stipulation work, it thrived when placed with the unpredictable, uncontainable character of the "lunatic fringe". It was impossible to contain the physical participants as well as the emotional baggage that had built for two and a half months by that point. It was before Dean morphed into a Looney Tunes character squirting condiment bottles, when his actions still made sense--he was furious and broken, not illogical and random. There was real weight put on the conclusion of the match, a true rarity for the WWE's main product.

Other Favorites:

  • The Shield vs. The Wyatt Family - Elimination Chamber [2/23] - A showcase for six men who should be the future of the company, in particular Ambrose, Rollins, Bray, and Harper
  • Dean Ambrose vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Jack Swagger vs. Kofi Kingston vs. Rob Van Dam vs. Seth Rollins, MITB Ladder Match - Money in the Bank [6/29] - Great ladder match drama and crazy spots
  • Cesaro vs. Sheamus - Night of Champions [9/21] - Can these guys just fight every day
  • Cesaro vs. John Cena - Monday Night Raw [2/17] - It's almost like John Cena can work when he has credible threats, whoops!

Show of the Year:

NXT Takeover: R Evolution [12/11]

There are some New Japan cards that are very solid through and through, but a large part of storytelling is lost on me with the language barrier. In any case, I guess the WWE is burying NXT in the Network options for a reason--good fucking luck topping that on the main product.

Other Favorites:

  • Any full NJPW card I've watched this year is worth considering
  • The closest WWE got to a great card was Summerslam

Worst Match:

Bray Wyatt vs. John Cena, Cage Match - WWE Extreme Rules [5/4]

John Cena's booking in general is sort of absurd; even in the context of faces who win against all odds, Cena is often placed as superhuman with his ability to instantly recover from pretty much anything. But amazingly, John Cena's ludicrous strength may not have even been the worst part of the hot pile of garbage that is his Extreme Rules bout with Bray Wyatt. Cena's ability to fight off three huge, grown-ass men with very little struggle is a really good way to sell a heel stable as dangerous and powerful--and, predictably, Bray And The Gang struggle to have a point anymore, because they're not really a threat, a real waste of three very talented individuals. But man, the kid that scared Cena at the end, kind of surprised his title push hasn't come up yet, as he's the only part of this miserable 20-minute waste to get a positive rub from the match.

Other Worsts:

  • Layla vs. Summer Rae, Fandango as Guest Referee - WWE Money in the Bank [6/29] - UghhhhhhhHHHHHHHHHHHHH
  • Dean Ambrose vs. John Cena, Contract on a Pole Match - WWE Monday Night Raw [10/13] - A prime example of the most squandered character of the year in Dean Ambrose
  • Daniel Gracie & Rolles Gracie vs. Kazushi Sakuraba & Yuji Nagata - NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 8 [1/4] - The Gracies don't belong in a wrestling ring
  • Daniel Gracie & Rolles Gracie vs. Takashi Iizuka & Toru Yano - NJPW Invasion Attack [4/6] - What did I just say

I Wish I Knew This Dude Before This Year:

Finn Balor/Prince Devitt

There likely aren't three better minutes in wrestling this year than the entrance Finn Balor graced the NXT audience with at Takeover: R Evolution. Well, there probably are, but it's very difficult to forget, and presentation-wise there isn't anyone in the WWE or NXT who just has it quite like Finn. I selfishly want Balor to stay in NXT but he clearly deserves more, having seen his work in some New Japan matches and his dedication to character and presentation in general. Get him the fuck away from the Ascension, please. Thanks in advance.

Some Other Really Cool Dudes:

  • Katsuyori Shibata - The one guy who doesn't know it's fake
  • Kevin Owens - Can't wait to seek out old Steen matches
  • Ricochet - Extraordinarily athletic
  • Shinsuke Nakamura - Pulls off the impossible of thoroughly communicating character explicitly through body language
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