Friday, December 21, 2018

UPDATED best of 2018: miscellaneous

UPDATE 12/31:  I guess I should have waited to post this after all, because I finished Red Dead Redemption 2 earlier today!  I've updated my list accordingly.

And now it's time for my final "Best of 2018" list!  A few notes before I begin:

  • These are in completely random order.
  • Not all of these were first released in 2018, but that's when I first watched/played them.
  • If you've seen me fangirling over Red Dead Redemption 2 elsewhere, you'll probably be stunned that it's not on this list.  Well, there's a good reason for that:  I'm not done with it, and probably won't be by the end of this year, so I don't feel right putting it on this list.  But trust me, unless it takes a monstrous shit by the end, it will wind up on 2019's list.  I do feel comfortable telling you that unless we are forced to make Arthur Morgan do something truly horrific by the end of the game (we're playing him with high honor, but some bad deeds are unavoidable), he will wind up kicking Leon Kennedy out of his place of honor as my favorite male video game protagonist of all time. 
  • Along those lines, if I watch/play something between now and December 31st that belongs here, I'll update accordingly.
  • Some of the video games I list here are available on multiple platforms; the parenthetical tells you which console I played it on.
  • And, as always, your mileage may vary.

1. The Punisher:  Frank Castle, aka the vigilante known as The Punisher, stole season 2 of Daredevil from right under Matt Murdock's nose, so I was glad to see him get his own series.  It's superviolent, nasty, and a whole lot of fun, and Jon Bernthal is a perfect Punisher.  (Netflix streaming)

2. The Evil Within 2:  I was pretty disappointed in the first game, but I was able to snag this sequel very cheaply, and it was worth twice the price.  Ex-cop Sebastian Castellanos, still devastated by the death of his daughter and the breakup of his marriage, is contacted by his former partner, who tells him his daughter is still alive...but he'll have to enter a nightmarish world to find her.  The sequel improved upon the original in every single way (including, crucially, making Sebastian a much more compelling character), and as a bonus, it's terrifying as FUCK.  Essential for all survival horror fans, and unless I finish RDR2 by the end of the year, my favorite video game of 2018 by a long shot.  (PS4)

3. The Dragon Prince:  This animated fantasy series follows two brothers, Ezran and Callum, as they set out to return a dragon's egg and restore peace to their kingdom.  We were interested in it because the show's creators worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender, and although it wasn't as good as that (a tall order!), it was funny and sweet and exciting.  We were glad to hear it got renewed for a second season.  (Netflix streaming)

4. Uncharted 4:  Because this game builds upon the previous ones, I don't feel comfortable giving a synopsis since it might spoil the others; I'll just say that it's as close as you can get to being Indiana Jones in a video game, and it's an awful lot of fun.  Bonus points for snappy dialogue, strong female characters who aren't just eye candy, and the most beautiful graphics I've ever seen.  (PS4 only; The Lost Legacy DLC is included in this endorsement)

5. Life Is Strange: Before the Storm:  If you played Life Is Strange (and if not, why?  It's great!), then you'll remember Max's friend Chloe.  In this prequel, you get to learn more about Chloe and her relationship with Rachel, and it will most definitely break your heart.  Unfortunately, due to a voice actor's strike, Chloe's original voice actress, who was exceptional, did not return, but her replacement was good and it didn't impact our enjoyment of this well-written game.  (Uh...I can't remember which console we played it on!  I rented it from Gamefly but cancelled my membership so I can't check.  It's available on both the PS4 and Xbox One.)

6. Aggretsuko:  Sanrio is best known for its sweet mascot characters like Hello Kitty and My Melody, but they've added a few edgier characters to the mix recently, like clinicially depressed egg Gudetama and Aggretsuko, an adorable red panda office worker who hates her job and blows off steam by...singing death metal karaoke at the top of her lungs.  If you've ever worked in a cube farm, you'll laugh your ass off, and one episode actually made me tear up too.  (Netflix streaming)

7. Twin Peaks:  I was a MASSIVE Twin Peaks fan back in the day, so I was pretty excited when I heard that Showtime had commissioned a third season.  I don't have Showtime, so I had to wait for DVD, and when it finally came out, I binged it over the course of a few days.  I'll be honest with you; it's often boring and confusing and weird for the sake of being weird, but it's got so much fucking brilliance sprinkled in between the crappy parts that it's absolutely worth watching if you're a David Lynch fan.  (If not, my god, stay far away!  This will not change your mind.)

8. Violet Evergarden:  The title character used to be a lethal soldier, but after the war ends, she finds herself working as an "auto memory doll", writing letters for people who aren't able to express themselves the way they should.  The art is absolutely gorgeous, but be warned; there are thorns in those roses, and almost every episode made me choke up at least once.  (Netflix streaming)

9. Telltale's Guardians of the Galaxy:  I love superheroes, but found myself in the tiniest minority when I was just about the only person who was underwhelmed by the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.  But Telltale Games (RIP) had a pretty strong track record with making me care about properties I ordinarily didn't give a shit about, so I wanted to give this a go, and it was a lot of fun!  (PS4)

10. Red Dead Redemption 2:  I'll be posting a lengthy review of this in my December media update, so I won't do so here; suffice it to say it wound up taking a spot in my top ten video games of all time, and Arthur Morgan did indeed take the crown for my favorite male video game protagonist ever.  This game is an absolutely breathtaking achievement.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:  I am way too OCD to make a list that's not a multiple of 5, but if I wasn't, I'd put the anime series No. 6 here.  It's about Shion, a privileged boy who meets street rat Nezumi (literally "rat" in Japanese) and learns that his life of comfort has come at a terribly high price.  I wanted to watch it because I'd heard that Shion and Nezumi were a canon couple, and as you know I'm all about that shiz, but the anime only offered us a couple of kisses.  The manga is much more accommodating on that front; it's never graphic, but whereas you could make an argument that the kisses in the anime were just friendly or impulsive, the manga gives you no such outs.  Anyway, it's a fun series that probably needed another season to wrap up its complex story, hence its exclusion from the main list.  I still love Shion and Nezumi together, though; they're my current wallpaper.

I also need to mention Over the Garden Wall. In this animated miniseries, two brothers, Wirt and Greg, get lost in a forest and have strange adventures while trying to get home.  Beautiful art that's reminiscent of super old-school cartoons, great voice acting, catchy tunes, and some tears among the laughter.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

best of 2018: movies

UPDATED 12/31:  I replaced Deadpool 2 with A Simple Favor.

The usual notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first released in 2018, but that's when I saw them.
  • Keep reading (or not; I'll never know!) after the list for a "stinger".
  • Aside from the first three, which were definitely my first, second, and third favorite movies of the year, these are in random order.
  • I know the year isn't over just yet, so if I see something between now and the end of the year that deserves to be on here, I'll update accordingly.
  • And, as ever, your mileage may vary.

1. Avengers: Infinity War:  The Avengers team up against their most insidious foe yet in this REALLY FUCKING GOOD flick.  I had high hopes for it because the Russo Brothers did such a great job with the Captain America movies, and they did not disappoint.  It's dark, albeit leavened with some terrific humor, and Thanos is a much more compelling villain than you usually find in superhero movies.  When it was over, G and I just leaned back in our seats and said "Uh, holy shit."

2. Coco:  Young Miguel's family hates music, but he wants to become a musician like his late hero, the legendary Ernesto de la Cruz.  Miguel accidentally finds himself in the land of the dead during Dia de los Muertos, so he decides to find his idol and see if he can make his dream come true.  Beautifully animated, funny, and touching, and I cried my ASS off.

3. Won't You Be My Neighbor?:  A documentary about Mister Rogers and the impact he had on TV and generations of children.  Like a warm hug from the man himself, and take my word on this: have a box of tissues handy.  I cried harder at this movie than any other this year (yes, even Coco) because Mister Rogers was exactly as kind and gentle as he seemed and we need him more than ever and he isn't here.

4. A Quiet Place:  A family struggles to survive in a world where monsters with super sensitive hearing mean that the slightest noise could lead to their deaths.  Tense as HELL.

5. Eighth Grade:  Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is trying to survive the eighth grade and just get to high school in one emotional piece, but it's not easy.  Occasionally so realistic as to be excruciating, but filled with warmth and compassion; it's like a more humane version of Welcome to the Dollhouse.

6. Happy Death Day:  Tree is a college student who is murdered on her birthday by someone wearing a creepy baby mask...and then she wakes up alive.  It turns out she's caught in a time loop and will keep getting murdered until she finds out who's doing it and why.  It's like the love child of Groundhog Day and Scream, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri:  After her daughter's brutal murder goes unsolved, Mildred (Frances McDormand) takes out three billboards accusing the local police force of shuffling their feet.  Excellent performances, and I appreciated that the script didn't go quite where I was expecting.

8.  A Simple Favor:  Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is an excitable young widow who idolizes Emily (Blake Lively), the ultracool mom of one of Stephanie's son's classmates.  One day, Emily asks Stephanie if she can pick up her son after school; Stephanie eagerly agrees, but then Emily never shows up, and Stephanie becomes obsessed with solving the mystery.  A deliciously dark comedy that's much better than the book, thanks to the excellent performances.

9. The Incredibles 2:  Superheroes have been made illegal, so Helen and Bob Parr, aka Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible, are living in a motel with their three children.  But when an entrepreneur asks Elastigirl to help him restore the public's trust, she leaves Bob to take care of their kids while she fights a dangerous new threat.  Not as good as the original---a tall order considering that's my favorite Pixar movie and one of my favorite movies of all time---but it's still really enjoyable.

10. Annihilation:  A biologist (Natalie Portman) agrees to lead a group of scientists into the Shimmer, a strange area from which her husband barely returned with his life, in hopes of discovering the truth behind its environmental mutations.  Beautifully filmed, with intense sound design and a scene that's honestly one of the most frightening fucking things I've seen in a long time.   The woman in front of me was getting hysterical, and I don't mean laughing; I mean I was seriously worried she was going to have a nervous breakdown.  (I saw her in the bathroom afterwards putting on lipstick, and she seemed fine.)

Bonus content!

SEEN IN THE THEATER:  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Annihilation; Black Panther; Avengers: Infinity War; Searching; A Star Is Born


MADE ME CRY (OR AT LEAST TEAR UP):  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Train to Busan; The Florida Project; African Cats; Lion; Avengers: Infinity War; A Quiet Place; Tully; Hereditary; Searching; It Comes at Night; Eighth Grade; A Star Is Born; Instant Family; Crazy Rich Asians; The Incredibles 2; BlacKkKLansman; Bird Box

MADE ME NOT JUST CRY, BUT SOB:  Coco; Won't You Be My Neighbor?; Bao (the short that played before The Incredibles 2)

WTF DID I JUST WATCH:  The Untamed, Annihilation, Batman Ninja, Hereditary

MOST TERRIFYING SCENE:  The bear sequence in Annihilation.  Second place: a scene in Hereditary that I don't want to spoil.

BEST SOUND DESIGN:  Annihilation and Hereditary.



Monday, December 17, 2018

best of 2018: manga and graphic novels

A few notes:

  • Not all of these were first released in 2018, but that's when I first read them.  (This is why the list doesn't include long-running series that I'm still keeping up with like Food Wars!, since they've already been included in previous "best of" lists.)
  • All of these are commercially available in the United States.
  • Because there are only five titles listed here, they are in preferential order.
  • I doubt anyone still believes comics/graphic novels/manga are strictly kiddie fare in this, the year of Our Lord 2018, but just in case: I've made a parenthetical note of any potentially objectionable content.
  • And, as always, your mileage may vary.

1. The Promised Neverland by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu:  I don't want to tell you what this series is about, because I think the less you know about it going in, the more you'll enjoy it.  I hadn't even finished the first chapter of the first volume when something happened that made me gasp out loud, and every single volume has had at least one "Holy shit!" moment, so try not to spoil it for yourself.  (Strong violence; disturbing themes that I can't specify due to spoilers)

2. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Nagata Kabi:  This autobiographical manga covered a lot of topics I've never seen depicted (or depicted realistically) in manga: self-injury, eating disorders, debilitating depression, and coming to terms with one's sexuality.  Terrific, and very highly recommended.  (Strong sexual content/nudity; strong language; potentially triggering content listed above)

3. Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu:  Eric "Bitty" Bittle loves baking, ice hockey...and his team captain Jack.  Funny and very sweet.  (Strong language; sports violence)

4. My Solo Exchange Diary by Nagata Kabi:  The sequel to #2 on this list is not quite as engrossing as its predecessor, but still well worth reading to see how the author continues her search for self-acceptance and love.  (See #2)

5.  The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang:  At night, Prince Sebastian dresses up in gorgeous gowns and hits the town as Lady Crystallia.  Fearing parental and political censure, he has to hide this side of himself, but he finds an ally in Frances, a talented dressmaker.  A lovely tale of inclusiveness that doesn't feel forced.  (No objectionable content that I can recall)

Monday, December 10, 2018

best of 2018: nonfiction

And now it's time for my favorite nonfiction books of 2018:  A few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first published in 2018, but that's when I read them.
  • Aside from the first two books, which were definitely my favorite and second favorite of the year, these are in random order.
  • It's still a little early, so if I read something between now and the end of December that belongs here, I'll update accordingly.
  • I didn't make a conscious decision to have this list made up almost entirely of women authors, but I ain't remotely fuckin' mad about it.
  • And, as always, your mileage may vary.

1. Feminasty: The Complicated Woman's Guide to Surviving the Patriarchy without Drinking Herself to Death by Erin Gibson:  In a series of essays, the author talks about the ways society completely shits on women, but she still manages to be funny about it; seriously, there's a solid laugh on just about every page.  If I were in the habit of highlighting my books (and, uh, if it hadn't been the library's copy), the interior would be almost completely pink and yellow.

2. I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara:  Over several years, a man committed numerous rapes in Northern California and then moved to Southern California, where his crimes became increasingly violent, leading to the deaths of ten people.  He seemingly stopped in 1986 without being caught.  The author was a true crime journalist who dedicated her life to finding the perpetrator.  She died while writing this book (it was finished by her research assistant and a colleague), but thanks in part to her hard work, the alleged perpetrator was arrested only weeks after the publication of this book.

3. A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong:  An 18-year-old named Marie reported that a man broke into her apartment and raped her; the police (and even her foster mother) didn't believe her, so she recanted, and she was charged with filing a false police report.  Two years later, a serial rapist began terrorizing Colorado, and two shrewd detectives started putting the pieces together.  Not an easy read, but an essential one.

4. Getting Off by Erica Garza:  The author's account of her addiction to sex and porn.  Brutally honest but not judgmental.

5. I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell:  A memoir about the author's seventeen near-death experiences, from a creepy encounter with a stranger to almost drowning.  It's got a "savor every moment, because you never know what might happen" message without being saccharine or preachy about it.  (The title comes from this Sylvia Plath quote:  "I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.  I am, I am, I am.")

6. You All Grow Up and Leave Me by Piper Weiss:  As a teenager in the early 90s, the author had an unusually attentive tennis coach named Gary Wilensky.  Gary tried to kidnap one of his other students, and when his attempt failed, he killed himself.  An engrossing combination of memoir and true crime.

7.  I Might Regret This by Abbi Jacobson:  After having her heart broken, the author decided to drive across the country by herself in hopes of discovering herself and what she really wants in life.  It sounds like typical navel-gazing bullshit, but it was really funny (as you'd expect from the co-creator and co-star of Broad City) and surprisingly touching.

8. The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein:  The riveting true story of Sandra Pankhurst, who survived abuse and neglect as a child named Peter, underwent gender confirmation surgery in the early 80s, became a sex worker, and eventually started a successful trauma cleanup service.  This book alternates between Sandra's life story and anecdotes from the job.

9. Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction by Gabrielle Moss:  If you, like me, lived for monthly mall visits so you could hit up B. Dalton's and Waldenbooks and spend your allowance on Sweet Valley High, Wildfire, and Sweet Dreams, you will LOVE this book.  It was the nostalgia equivalent of black tar heroin shot directly into my veins. 

10. The Heart Is a Shifting Sea by Elizabeth Flock:  A fascinating look at three couples in Mumbai and how their relationships have been influenced by Western culture and traditional Indian beliefs. 

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

best of 2018: fiction

Now that December is here (how though?!?), it's time to start posting my "best of 2018" lists!  A few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first published in 2018, but that's when I read them.
  • Aside from the first two books, which were definitely my favorite and second favorite novels of the year, these are in random order.
  • I know it's a little early, and I'll have plenty of reading time while I'm unemployed, so if I read something between now and the end of the month that belongs on this list, I'll update it accordingly.
  • And, as always, your mileage may vary!

1. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar:  In 1785 London, wealthy merchant Jonah Hancock is horrified when the captain of one of his trading ships comes back and says that he sold the ship in exchange for a dead mermaid.  Jonah decides to try to cut his losses by exhibiting the mermaid, and it quickly becomes a sensation.  Meanwhile, a celebrated courtesan named Angelica has recently lost her patron, and when Jonah agrees to lend the mermaid to the brothel where she used to work, their lives intersect in unusual ways.  This was fantastic; if you liked The Crimson Petal and the White, I can't imagine you wouldn't like this too.

2. How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister:  Anna Crawford is a high school teacher who's just been suspended for losing her temper in class.  While she's home, she's horrified to see a news report saying that there's been a shooting at her school...and that she's the primary suspect.  Even after she's exonerated, people still don't trust her, and the town falls into chaos as people try to make sense of the tragedy.  A blistering look at our society's love affair with guns, and surprisingly funny too.

3. The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll:  Kelly and Brett are sisters on a reality show called Goal Diggers, which showcases successful businesswomen.  Kelly is older but new to the cast, with a young daughter; Brett is a tattooed lesbian who runs a successful spin studio.  We find out on the very first page that Brett is dead, but we won't find out how or why until the end.  It's a nasty, savage, catty book (I mean these adjectives as compliments) with a message, and I enjoyed it immensely.

4. Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay:  A group of three teenage boys makes a surreptitious late night trip to the titular rock, and one of them, Tommy, vanishes.  His mother Elizabeth is devastated, and then random pages from Tommy's journals begin showing up on the living room floor.  Scary and heartbreaking in equal measure.

5. Force of Nature by Jane Harper:  A group of women goes on a corporate retreat deep in the Australian wilderness, but one of them doesn't return.  Like Harper's debut The Dry, it reminded me of Tana French, and I loved it.

6. Jane Doe by Victoria Helen Stone:  Jane has just gotten a job at an insurance company, where she hopes to catch the interest of Steven, one of the managers.  He takes the bait, but what he doesn't realize is that Jane isn't who she says she is, and she wants revenge.  Smart and nasty.

7. The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd:  Dennis Danson has been in prison for over 20 years after being convicted of murder, but a group of true crime fanatics believe he's innocent.  Sam, a young British woman, becomes obsessed with the case and begins writing him, and soon she moves to Florida to be with him as much as possible and help a documentary crew with their film about the case.  Dennis and Sam even get married, but a series of events leads her to start doubting his innocence after all.  It's so good I had a hard time believing it was the author's first book; I'll definitely keep an eye out for her future work.

8. Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough:  Lisa has a secret past that she's tried to keep hidden for many years, but seemingly random incidents start making her think everything is going to come into the light.  An engrossing psychological thriller; it's not nearly as wackadoodle batshit as Behind Her Eyes (seriously, that had one of the most astonishing endings of any book ever), or as good, but I really enjoyed it.

9. Gun Love by Jennifer Clement:  Pearl lives with her mother in a car parked next to a trailer park.  Despite their lack of money and material things, they carve out a decent life for themselves, but the prevalence of guns will lead to tragedy; as Pearl puts it, "In our part of Florida things were always being gifted a bullet just for the sake of it."  It's fairly short, but it packs more beautiful writing and emotion into its pages than books twice its length.

10. Sweet Little Lies by Caz Frear:  When a woman's body is discovered, London policewoman Cat Kinsella is called to the scene.  She thinks the corpse looks familiar, but once the victim is identified as Alice Lapaine, Cat dismisses her initial reaction.  But then it turns out Alice is actually a woman named Maryanne Doyle, who had been missing for years...and Cat had always suspected her own father of having something to do with Maryanne's disappearance, which complicates the investigation.  A really enjoyable mystery that reminded me of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad novels.  (I hasten to add it's not as good as Tana French, which I don't remotely mean as an insult; that's a very high bar!)