With another year of pop culture under my belt, it’s time to honor the classic tradition of year-end retrospectives. This isn’t a beat-by-beat series of “Top 10 Movies/Games/Albums/Whatever” in 2013. Rather, it’s just going to be a look back at the media that stuck out to me as important, entertaining, or worth praising.
I definitely finished more games this year than I have in recent memory, due in part to the fact that my iPad probably got the most playtime out of me this year on my long commutes to and from college. I started off with my now-annual playthrough of Blendo Games’s Thirty Flights of Loving, which still impresses me with minute details every time I play it. I then turned to smaller, independent titles to get my gaming fix, such as Bastion, The Room, Little Inferno, and Year Walk. These were all played on iPad, and each one impressed me with how it used the simple touch device’s interface to create genuinely exciting and unique gameplay experiences. I can only see more of these coming out in 2014, and I look forward to plowing through another large batch of them.
The two largest titles I played this year were Bioshock: Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V. Both of these represent a culmination of an entire generation’s worth of experimenting with tying gameplay to narrative, as well as crafting unforgettable worlds to traipse through. In the first, I was a little put off by how much combat there was and how it bogged down the second half of the game, but the story and landscapes just wouldn’t let up for a second, and even in that last moment, as the story reveals itself to be cyclical, I was calling up a friend during the credits to shout about how blown my mind was. It tied the Bioshock series together in a way that I never could have expected, and its use of music and reinterpretation of American history was unlike anything I’ve ever played. Similarly, Grand Theft Auto V represents a culmination of sorts, but not narratively. This classic crime drama of three men who just can’t get enough of the criminal world not only made me sympathize and believe my psychopathic character’s motivation, but be willing to join them on this crazy journey for hours on end. Just driving around the city of Los Santos is a delight, and it is, without a doubt, the best GTA game I have ever played. If there’s anything to be said about this year in games, it’s that developers really got a grasp on what their players like. From Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon’s addicting, conquest-based gameplay, to Guacamelee’s high-speed combat and level design that even put the Metroid series to shame in some spots, this was a great year for games. Let’s just hope that a new year brings these new consoles up to speed with what is still coming out on their predecessors, and that the industry as a whole can continue to produce unique, exciting experiences.
I only saw a handful of 2013 films in 2013, but each of them struck its own unique chord with me, so I’m just going to present each one with a sentence that encapsulates my feelings on it. These are presented in the order that I viewed them. 21 and Over made me realize that, even as a college student, I still don’t like films about college kids just hanging out and getting into trouble. Iron Man 3 made me reflect on what was honestly a series that ranged from decent to pretty dang good, while also telling its own unique story that deconstructed Tony Stark as a character by separating him from his suit for so long. Fast Furious 6 was the first example of a big, dumb action film that I didn’t need to separate myself from by liking it ironically in any way, and it made me care about a bunch of criminals driving souped-up cars more than most dramatic films do with their characters. The Great Gatsby proved that book adaptations can take as much creative liberty as they want, as long as it leads to an entertaining, if occasionally tone-deaf, film.
Man of Steel was the final straw for me tolerating Zak Snyder directing comic adaptations, and even though I liked it more than most critics (mostly due to the excellent acting from the main cast), it still didn’t do what a good, dark Superman film needed to do. This Is the End and The World’s End made me believe that a strong ensemble cast, and a few clever twists on genre conventions can produce some of the most fun apocalyptic comedy this side of Ghostbusters. Before Midnight made me cry like a baby, and felt like the most realistic crumbling of the tender relationship established in the two films preceding it, even if it did rely on the viewer liking those characters from the start. Gravity had me clutching at my chair in the theater like an anxious child, instilled genuine fear in me, made me believe in 3D as a way to provide depth to film, and also not really do much besides that in two hours. Spring Breakers was certainly one of the most unique films I saw this year, but its sleek cinematography and mesmerizing scenes with James Franco’s character were all bogged down by boring, repetitive monologue, a lack of direction, and an ending that just…OK, you should probably just watch Spring Breakers and get back to me if you want to discuss that…film. Finally, Inside Llewyn Davis was the first Coen brothers film that didn’t feature any abject tragedy, murder, or absurd comedy, and what was left was a tightly-written, thoughtful, and, ultimately, poignant film about doing what one loves, even in the face of detractors around every corner. 2013 was probably one of the strongest years for emotionally resonant dramatic cinema.
I didn’t watch an exorbitant amount of television in 2013, but what I did catch was all pretty great. Since the absurd Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel wormhole that Magellan and I fell down is still ongoing and also not from 2013, I’ll leave that discussion to a separate article. But Breaking Bad certainly ended this year, and boy, did that hit hard. The final arc of Walter White as not only a sociopathic, transformative character was engaging on a level that basic cable television hasn’t been in a long time. Just as Walt says in the pilot episode, “Chemistry is the study of change”, which Vince Gilligan and his writing team have proven through the physical, mental, and psychological evolution that these characters went through. The final season was powerful, beautifully shot, and it gives me hope for more work of that caliber on TV. It’s all about the subtle moments, like Walt’s admittance of taking pleasure in his crimes to his wife, the death of most of those around him, and Jesse’s final moment of pure freedom from the world that Walt dragged him into.
Justified continued to impress in 2013. It’s a hard show to recommend wholeheartedly due to its middling first season of “hick criminal of the week”, but once it establishes each season’s overarching themes and villain, there is nothing else like it. I’ve never been a huge fan of police dramas, but the hunt for Drew Thompson had me on the edge of my seat in the last few episodes without fail, and even the introduction of Patton Oswalt’s character didn’t make the show too comedic or pull away from the drama. I’m just excited to see where Raylan Givens is heading next, given the ambiguous ending of the fourth season.
To wrap up the television section, I just wanted to mention Steven Universe. Spearheaded by writer and storyboard artist on Adventure Time, this new show is exactly what Saturday morning cartoons need to strive for today. Besides being drawn and animated beautifully, it tells such simple stories with so much pathos and heart that you can’t help but love that pudgy little protagonist. Essentially, the setup of the show is that Steven, a young boy, has a magic crystal embedded in his stomach. It doesn’t let him to anything special, but it is what connects him to the Crystal Gems, three young women with their own special gem powers and crime-fighting duties to take care of. As they go off to fight giant monsters threatening their seaside town, Steven tries to keep things going well at the homefront, but it almost always leads to some horrible creature being spawned from his mistakes. It’s a show that takes what superhero cartoons are doing, flips them on their head, and tosses flowers and rainbows at them to make them look pretty. Maybe it’s just because so much of television today is dark and moody, but it’s exciting to have a show that is nothing but positive vibes and jaunty adventures.
I listened to more music this year than anything else, but I don’t have much to say about any individual album. Yeezus was the best summation of why Kanye West is as popular as he is, and even if the songs themselves aren’t amazing, his lyrical prowess still shines. Similarly, Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris made me reflect on where rap music is today, and how someone like Sweatshirt can be successful without forgetting where his roots lie, both with rap collective Odd Future and his family. Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob and Chvrches’s The Bones of What We Believe reminded me why female musicians can make my emotions swell while still being deep and personal with pop music. But above all else, this was the year of free or cheap rap albums and mixtapes dominating my listening time. Because the Internet was a great sophomore album by Childish Gambino, but it didn’t manage to impress as much as the metanarrative that surrounded it online before release. Acid Rap is just earworm after earworm, and I can’t stop listening to “Juice” and “Cocoa Butter Kisses” even as I write this, and I’m excited to see Chance the Rapper do more in the future. Similarly, Chicago-based jazz/rap band Kids These Days broke up this year unfortunately, but frontman Vic Mensa released an excellent mixtape Innanetape, which almost sounds like a rap diary from a kid who has been going through a lot over the past year.
Conclusion: Woo, what a year for pop culture. I didn’t intend to have this much to say, but it’s been a dense, exciting year to be a game player, film buff, and music lover. I wasn’t able to get to everything I loved this year, but all the big stuff is there. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a whole new year of media to consume ahead of me, and I’m about to ready to dive right in.