Hi everyone! I used to do these on Facebook every year, but I deleted that, so I’m moving the post here. And I get to post some pretty pictures with it.
Less than half of these actually came out in 2020, but 1) I saw like no new movies this year and 2) I need an excuse to talk about Outer Wilds.
With that out of the way…
Favorite: Outer Wilds – Mobius
Outer Wilds has my favorite exploration in the medium. The entire game is about uncovering secrets and sticking your nose into every part of this intricate solar system. It wants you to think about its physically accurate gravity simulation, to use it to solve weird problems, and connect with the people in its worlds. It’s packed to bursting with humanity, with characters who are passionate artists, explorers, engineers, and scientists, and don’t see any contradiction between those. Nothing else like this exists. Unfortunately, because it’s so exploration-based, I can’t really replay it, since I already know all its secrets. So, Outer Wilds II or whatever they do next is now at the top of my list for anticipated games.
Runner Up: Disco Elysium – ZA/UM
Probably my favorite RPG ever made. Its writing has a heft, depth, and naturalistic tone that feels almost out of place in a video game. Game writing is just not this complex and, honestly, good. It dances between leftist politics, absurdist humor, self-destruction, and weird moments of camaraderie, and it does all this effortlessly. Some of my favorite moments in the medium happen one after another in this game, sometimes in random side quests. Its character building systems are fun to experiment with, to see how the people of the world react. My favorite systemic discovery was how a character with a maxed out empathy skill will start taking mental damage if they witness people hurting that they cannot help. That is simply brilliant. It definitively proves that when the cruft and hammy writing of most CRPGs is cleared away, the genre can do things that no other can.
Max Payne 1, for it’s infinitely replayable slo-mo shoot dodges.
Half-Life: Alyx, for validating my purchase of a VR headset.
Hades, for being drop-dead gorgeous and damn near perfect in every category.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales, for bringing an even greater sense of heart and community (and Spider-Cat) to the franchise.
Cyberpunk 2077, for having incredibly complex and human sci-fi writing, when it wasn’t trying to melt my PC.
Favorite: Knives Out – dir. Rian Johnson
This came out in 2019 but I saw it in early 2020, and it was just so well produced; everything seemed to fit together so elegantly. Fun as hell, but knows when to take itself seriously.
Runner Up: Palm Springs – dir. Max Barbakow
The best quarantine movie. I love Groundhog’s Day-style films in all their forms, but this this film just has so much fun with it, it stands out. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti are clearly having the time of their lives in these roles.
Bill & Ted’s 3: Fun, wholesome, just more Bill and Ted’s. Rare to see this much heart in a contemporary film.
Birds of Prey: Reminded me that superhero films can actually be fun. Margot Robbie absolutely kills it, I was smiling like an idiot from beginning to end. Some of the violence feels a little out of place, I guess they have to make it totally okay for the protagonists to beat the shit out of Black Mask. And, to its credit, it is very fun to watch the protagonists beat the shit out of Black Mask.
Kara no Kyokai: ufotable’s most visually striking works, at least that I’ve seen. Explores mental health through the lens of magical realism (and just straight up magic). Soundtrack is eerie as hell.
Favorite: Exhalation – Ted Chiang
Some of my all-time favorite sci-fi writing. Each story takes a high concept sci-fi idea, and explores it thoroughly, both in the implications of the technology itself, and how people would react to it. My favorite was “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” a story told in the style of One Thousand and One Nights about a form of time travel that is more consistent with our actual understanding of time. It uses that to tell a story about a man who deeply regrets many choices he’s made in his life, and can use time travel to understand them better. A high watermark of the short story collection, but by no means the only one with that technical and emotional depth.
Runner Up: A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor – Hank Green
Further digging into capitalist hyperproductivity, social media, and how we build narratives when social media dominates our communication.
Favorite: Fate/Zero – ufotable
I did not expect to have any anime on this list, but here we are. Fate/Zero rules. It uses anime’s seemingly inherent hyperreality and melodrama to talk about issues that would feel trite in another style. Fundamentally a story about screwed up people trying to make the world less screwed up (or, often, more screwed up), and losing themselves along the way. It can veer towards misery porn at times, but is never nihilistic. It doesn’t confuse darkness for depth, it has moments of levity, but also moments of profound, joyful acceptance. It looks some genuinely nasty shit in the face, and doesn’t flinch.
Runner Up: Lovecraft Country – HBO
This show has problems. After around the 6th episode, its “racism is the real monster” twist endings start getting really predictable. It depicts some genuinely messed up violence against queer folks (which the creator has acknowledged). And the quality drops off hard in the back half. But there are genuinely incredible moments throughout, and so, so many stories to be told about pulp fiction being reclaimed by creators and characters of color. It wasn’t the cosmic horror I wanted (which was kind of promised by the title), but it’s clearly made out of love for pulp sci-fi, and has its own take on how those genres can evolve.
Halt and Catch Fire, getting into anime, Gundam: Iron Blooded Orphans for its brilliant political writing, finally watching Cowboy Bebop, and Mob Psycho 100’s endless charm.
Favorite: Endtroducing… – DJ Shadow
I’ve listened to this album more than any other this year, by far. Predominantly while playing Max Payne late at night, but it works incredibly well as background music that, much like a good Brian Eno album, is “as ignorable as it is interesting.” It’s got a very loose, dreamlike feel to it, with motifs that are repeated across songs that form more of an emotional state than a coherent narrative. The Number Song is a great place to start.
Runner Up: Inside Mood EP – Inside Mood (2020)
Cheating again because my brother worked on this one, but I’ve looped these tracks so many times. It’s got a wonderful blend of various jazz styles, and the production as a whole has gotten damn good. Vocal effects, distorted instruments, ambient background sounds, it all comes together to a sizzling and stylistic whole.
Mouth Dreams – Neil Cicierega
The World Within – Moderator
Rescue – Major Tom : It’s not an album so it technically doesn’t count, but Rescue is a song that just taps in to so many genres and styles I really like. Echoey, ethereal vocals, emphasis on storytelling, and an emotional core that hits waaaay too close to home. It’s a damn solid debut…from my other brother, Tom. My brothers are really talented; sue me.
Well, that’s about it! For some reason, I had a lot more time this year to read/watch/play stuff. Weird!