Best of 2014: 10 – 1
10. Big Hero 6 – Don Hall & Chris Williams [Movie]
I had so much fun watching Big Hero 6. The movie has an awesome setting, cool characters and excellent action scenes. It is colorful, fun, humorous and emotional combined into one slick package. I laughed, cried and sat on the edge of my seat as the movie progressed. I could go on, but I have already written about the film here. Click the link to read more of my thoughts on the wonderful, family film Big Hero 6.
9. True Detective – Nic Pizzolatto [Television]
In the fourth episode of the HBO series True Detective, there is a six minute sequence done in a single tracking shot. It is jaw dropping. The amount of effort and coordination it took to pull off the shot must have been insane. For that scene alone, True Detective is a must watch series. It is crazy to witness. However, True Detective does not stop its greatness at that scene. It provides a hell of a lot more to its audience. In its debut season, the series follows two detectives as they revisit an old case they solved many years ago. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson play the main characters, and their performances are some of the best of their careers. Both provide distinct, nuanced performances that delve into a world of the occult, philosophy, morality and darkness versus light. The rest of the cast is high caliber too. They add to the atmosphere and mystery of the show, feeling authentic to the world and the main detectives. The story unfolds over the course of many years. It uses different techniques to tell each part of the tale through multiple decades. The writing and direction is clever, captivating the audience and keeping them guessing until the end. Series like True Detective are making me a big fan of television that tells a full story in a single season. It prevents the writers from having to drag plot lines out or come up with cheap ways to keep the story going past what it needs to say. For a first season, True Detective is a masterpiece. I look forward to what the creators have to say with a new story and set of characters in season two.
8. The McElroys [Podcast]
I stumbled across the McElroy family through Polygon. Both Justin and Griffin McElroy work at the gaming site. In 2014, Justin started a podcast on Polygon called Quality Control. In the show, Justin follows up on the site’s game reviews by talking with the reviewer and asking questions that the write up may not have answered. Readers can submit questions to the show as well. It is a cool way to expand on reviews and give more insight into the process of the reviewer. Once familiar with Justin from Quality Control, I recognized him as a guest on the DLC podcast. On there, he mentioned several other of his podcasts on the Maximum Fun network.
My Brother, My Brother and Me features Justin, Griffin and Travis McElroy giving advice through listener submitted questions and ridiculous Yahoo Answers posts. The podcast is well into two hundred episodes, so I am late coming to the party. The show is hilarious. I find myself often bursting out in laughter while listening in the car. The brothers have a great dynamic, and play off each other in whimsical ways. At times the show is outright goofy. Other times there is a more crafted wit to the humor. It is loads of fun.
Alongside My Brother, My Brother and Me, the brothers started another podcast in 2014 with their father called The Adventure Zone. The show has the family playing Dungeons and Dragons together. Wanting to start a D&D campaign of my own, I started listening as a way to get a feel for the game. I keep listening because the podcast contains funny moments, great rapport and fantastic characters. The situations in the game provide for loads of laughs and bizarre interactions. Listening to the family bicker with each other over rash decisions is a treat. It is the kind of concept that might not sound great on paper, but it delivers in surprising ways.
If those shows are not enough, Justin also does a podcast called Sawbones. His wife, Sydnee, joins him on the show to talk about the history of various medical topics. Sydnee is a medical doctor and adds a lot of great insight to the topics. Justin is there for comic relief. The show is great. It is interesting to hear about all the crazy things that people have done for various ailments over the years. If you have an interest in history or medicine at all, then this podcast is a must listen.
The McElroys have even more shows available if you take the time to look. It is a wealth of entertainment. Though not all of the content started in 2014, the additions of new shows like Quality Control and The Adventure Zone give me a chance to praise all of their work. It is currently some of my favorite stuff on the internet.
7. Gone Girl – David Fincher [Movie]
Unlike the other movies on my list this year, Gone Girl was more disturbing than entertaining. That may sound like a negative quality, but I promise it is not. The movie is haunting and challenging. It dares the audience to question the motivations of themselves and those around them. Instead of presenting a cut and dry story, it details the complexities of the human psyche and relationships. The movie is not always pretty, and it does not try to answer all the questions it presents to the audience. That does not mean that it fails to tell a complete story. Instead, it leaves some decisions up to the viewers to decipher the motivations behind them. The directing and acting are top notch, backed up with ethereal music and a strong script. It was a difficult but excellent film. You can read my initial thoughts on the movie here.
6. Your Lie in April – A-1 Pictures [Anime]
The biggest reason that I started digging into anime in 2014 was to find shows that focused on subjects that the West ignores or overlooks. Television in the U.S. falls into redundant patterns of the same type of shows and premises. Netflix and Amazon Instant Video are helping to rectify that situation, but there is a lot of work left to do. I realize that there are similar patterns within the world of anime, but there is more room for variety. Your Lie in April is a prime example of a show with a unique focus and theme. The show follows the story of Kousei Arima, a child piano prodigy who stopped playing after the passing of his mother. Kousei meets a violinist, Kaori Miyazono, who pushes him to start playing again. I do not want to give away too much. It is worth diving in and watching the story unfold. There are several things that I love about this show. First, the music focus is awesome. Not only does the series deal with musicians, it devotes large chunks of time to playing the classical pieces. As a music fan, it is refreshing to see the arrangements sharing the spotlight with the characters that play them. I also enjoy that the cast is so varied. Despite being a show about musicians, there are several friends that have interests in other areas. The fact that all the characters share a passion for something helps to elevate all those interests to the same level of importance. The show highlights that passion, no matter what it is for, is a shared human experience. The other great thing about Your Lie in April is the depth of human emotion that it tackles throughout the cast members. The characters have a myriad of motivations, and the show does not shy away from the harsh realities of life. It also does not try to clean up all its problems through simplistic plot devices like “boy meets girl and falls in love, now everything is okay”. The series presents a myriad of relationships, and the emotions between characters are complex. It is awesome to watch each one as they grow and realize new things about themselves. Your Lie in April is a wonderful show that displays a level of depth unseen in most non-animated shows. It is a joy to watch each week, even when the content is far from joyful. Check it out on Crunchyroll.
5. We Have Concerns – Anthony Carboni & Jeff Cannata [Podcast]
I talked a little about Jeff Cannata earlier on the list with his podcast DLC. I found that podcast through one of his other shows, We Have Concerns. I remember checking out a video by Anthony Carboni from a tweeted link, Your Brain Sucks at Video Games. I thought the video was great, and it prompted me to dig into the creator’s other projects. That is when I ran across We Have Concerns, a new comedy podcast that Anthony was doing with Jeff. I immediately fell in love. It is the perfect example of what the medium can do. The guys release the podcast three times a week, and spend each episode talking about a recent story. The stories usually have to do with some sort of scientific discovery, research results or cultural event. The topics are informative and interesting. I often learn something new when listening. Along with the great topics, Anthony and Jeff joke and do improvised skits centered around the content. It is laugh out loud funny. They are hilarious. The voices and characters they do are excellent. They have an amazing rapport together, and their sharp wit fits perfect into the show’s format. It is great to hear Jeff try to sneak a dad joke into the show and get shot down by Anthony. Often the hosts will make callbacks to past episodes that gives the show a sense of depth and gravitas. The show clocks in around twenty minutes an episode, making it easy to digest several times a week. It is the perfect length for this type of show and ensures that the topics do not get worn out by the end. I cannot recommend We Have Concerns enough. I love it so much that I support it each month on Patreon. Be sure to check out all the other great things that Anthony and Jeff create too.
4. Distant Worlds – Distant Worlds Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir [Live Music]
The first time I played Final Fantasy VI, the experience blew me away. Part of that reaction was due to the amazing music in the game. I had never heard anything like it in a video game. It was captivating and unforgettable. Nobuo Uematsu is a musical genius, and it shows all throughout his work in the Final Fantasy series. I am not the only one to feel this way. Due to the love of fans around the planet, the Distant Worlds project formed. It is a live musical experience with an orchestra and choir dedicated to the music of Final Fantasy. After missing my chance to see the event in my area a couple times, I jumped on the chance to grab tickets to the 2014 concert in Chicago. Held at the Chicago Symphony Center, the Distant Worlds’ concert spanned the entire Final Fantasy catalog, but paid special focus to Final Fantasy VI in celebration of its twentieth anniversary. It was an awesome experience that delivered on all my high expectations. I walked away even more impressed with the music that has been bringing me joy for decades. The show is in my favorite live performances of all time. For someone who has seen hundreds of concerts over the years, that is saying a lot. You can read more on my experience here.
3. The Last of Us: Remastered – Naughty Dog [Video Game]
I am cheating a bit by putting The Last of Us: Remastered on my Best of 2014 list. The game came out in 2013 on the PS3. However, Naughty Dog and Sony re-released the game on PS4 in 2014 with improved graphics and the extra content included. I did not have a chance to play the game when it was first released. I heard a lot of amazing things about it, and bought a PS4 in large part to be able to play it. The realization that the PS4 lacked backwards compatibility disappointed me, but luckily the creators announced the remastered version of the game shortly after my purchase of the system. When I had a chance to finally play, it blew my mind. The game is awesome, and sits in my top five favorite games of all time. The only reason I did not put it as my top spot for 2014 is because it is a re-released version of an older game. For those unfamiliar with the game, The Last of Us takes place in a broken world dealing with a fungal outbreak that causes those infected to become mindless zombies. I know that the word “zombie” is a turn off for many these days. After all, pop culture is overrun with zombie related properties. Do not let that deter you from playing The Last of Us though. The game is so much more than the overarching story of the world. It is like playing a movie. The visuals are beautiful. The enemies are creepy. And the writing provides an unmatched level of storytelling. The character development is phenomenal. The world building is powerful, and there are many moments filled with incredible emotion. Spoiling any part of the game feels like a disservice to those who have not played it yet. It is worth going in blind and experiencing the game for yourself. Along with the main game, the extra content has the same caliber of quality. The Left Behind DLC is excellent. I cannot recommend this game enough. It blurs the line between game and cinematic experience with a rich, compelling world and characters.
2. Home, Like Noplace Is There – The Hotelier [Music]
I listen to a lot of new music each year. It is no exaggeration to say that I hear hundreds of new albums in the time frame of a year. Some people might find that method of music consumption to be overwhelming. In general, I think it helps to hear a broad range of released content. The great music tends to rise to the top anyway. In most cases, there is one album that sticks with me over the year in a way that no other comes close. The Hotelier’s 2014 release, Home, Like Noplace Is There, is a prime example of an album that rose above all others to a significant degree. From the opening track, “An Introduction to the Album”, the band grabs the audience by the throat and does not let go until finished. The Hotelier play emo with vigor and passion. It shines through in every song. The dynamics of the album are killer. The band knows when to build and when to transition. Hearing the level of skill in the songwriting is inspiring and uplifting. No matter what mood I am in, I can flip on Home, Like Noplace Is There and lose myself in the music. I love when albums are able to do that.
1. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor – Monolith [Video Game]
In 2014, I played roughly thirty five video games. Yes, I am the kind of dork who keeps a log of that stuff. None of the games came close to providing the same amount of fun that Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor did. While The Last of Us: Remastered was a wonderful, cinematic experience of emotional depth, Shadow of Mordor was exhilarating, non-stop hours of kick ass entertainment. Players take the role of Talion, a Ranger seeking vengeance for the death of his family. In the opening scene, Talion dies and becomes inhabited by the spirit of a mysterious Elf. Connected to the Elven spirit, Talion can no longer stay dead. The intertwined characters use their skills to fight through hordes of Uruks to find answers and get revenge.
Once the game starts, the main story becomes irrelevant to the overall experience and game mechanics. Shadow of Mordor combines a traversal system similar to Assassin’s Creed and a fighting system similar to the Arkham series. It adds a skill tree on top of the mechanics that gives Talion more abilities as he levels up. The later skills are awesome, and allow players to dominate the enemy army. By the end, the Uruk warriors are little match against Talion, but the game remains fun attempting to find creative ways to get rid of them. The best part of Shadow of Mordor is the Nemesis system. Monolith managed to create a game mechanic that feels new and unique. In the Nemesis system, all enemies, no matter how trivial, can become part of a larger story. Uruks rank up after killing you. When you defeat them, they can come back with the damage visible on their body. In each circumstance, the enemy remembers you and comments about it. This creates unique experiences for every player as the ecosystem of Uruks grows and changes with the battles fought within each game. There is a huge amount of Uruks with unique names, looks and voice acting. The captains and warchiefs become a narrative onto themselves. Players can then seek out intel on the various Uruk leaders to find out their weaknesses ahead of time and plan the perfect method of attack. It is wonderful.
On top of the Nemesis system, the game has a ton of side quests to seek out. Unlike most open world games, I found the side quests to be engaging and worthwhile. Many focus on using the weapons in unique ways. Others have cool back story to read, and the weakest of the quests usually take so little to accomplish that it does not feel like a burden. Shadow of Mordor is an excellent game. When I was not playing it, I was thinking about it. Hours would pass as taking down the Uruk armies enthralled me. It was an incredible experience. Make sure to play it on the PS4, Xbox One or PC though. Last generation systems strip out the full Nemesis system mechanics, and that is the selling point of the game.
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