Saturday, December 31, 2016

THE BEST OF 2016 - The Best MOVIES Of The Year


- We all know it: 2016 was not a good year. We lost icons like David Bowie and Carrie Fischer. We had a stressful, maddening, endurance-test of a presidential election that produced nightmarish results. 2016 was a rough ride. But hey, at least we had great movies. 

No question - 2016 produced a metric ton of great films. It didn't seem that way at first - there were a couple of early-in-the-year standouts, like The Witch, Green Room, Hail Ceasar!, and Hello, My Name Is Doris - but the Summer movie season mostly fizzled. Blockbuster season got off to a shaky start with the uneven, ill-conceived Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and with only a few exceptions (Finding Dory, Star Trek: Beyond, Captain America: Civil War), most of the other most-hyped movies of 2016 fizzled. Ghostbusters? Well-intentioned but flawed. Suicide Squad? Margot Robbie and Will Smith tried their best to save it, but the movie was a mess. Warcraft? Amazing visuals, flat storytelling. X-Men: Apocalypse? Not quite apocalyptic, but not exactly a franchise-saver. The Jungle Book? A box-office success story, but a tonal nightmare that failed to live up to the potential of its visuals. Suffice it to say, the Summer of 2016 had nothing that could match the awesomeness of the previous year's Mad Max: Fury Road.

But in the Fall, a steady stream of good and great movies released regularly. The later-in-the-year blockbusters hit the mark where many of those in the Summer did not - I really enjoyed, among others: The Magnificent Seven, Dr. Strange, Fantastic Beasts, Rogue One, Moana, and Passengers. And then came the usual tidal wave of Oscar hopefuls, and this year brought some great ones: Nocturnal Animals, Jackie, The Handmaiden, and La La Land - to name a few. 

This was a year in which we got notable new films from masters like Scorsese, Spielberg, The Coen Brothers, Linklater, Black, and Chan-Wook Park. But this was also a year in which new efforts from up-and-comers like Chazelle, Eggers, Carney, Ford, Villeneuve, Saulnier, Nichols, and more shone a spotlight on names that now have to be in the conversation when it comes to best directors working today. 

This was also a year where a variety of movies seemed to grapple with the big questions of our time - with the fears and anxieties of a country and world headed towards uncertain and, in many ways, scary times. Hell or High Water portrayed a new American South descending into desperation, decay, and lawlessness. The Witch looked to the earliest days of America to create a parable for modern times - about paranoia, divisiveness, and the seductive power of evil. The Handmaiden told a story of women fighting against an oppressive patriarchy, and Green Room pitted punk-rock against neo-Nazism in a literal battle to the death. Sing Street was a rousing reminder about the ways in which we can stand up for ourselves and resist bullies. Everybody Wants Some was a meditation on how to become a man without becoming an asshole. Arrival spoke of the need to understand and empathize rather than destroy. Even Captain America: Civil War was a red vs. blue superhero saga about staying true to one's moral compass rather than being a tool of someone else's agenda. 

As I sat down to write this list, I realized that I had seen a huge amount of fantastic films this year. So many that ranking them really became a challenge. And of course, the usual disclaimer that I've seen a lot, but not everything. Some notable 2016 movies that I still haven't seen include: Fences, Moonlight, Elle, Lion, 20th Century Women, Hidden Figures, Patterson, and American Honey. 

The one thing that kind of bummed me out was that I was only able to review a small handful of the movies I saw in 2016. Starting in the Spring, work got so busy and my hours got so crazy that I just wasn't able to churn out the volume of reviews I had in years past. Honestly, I wasn't sure if I'd continue with this blog. But I will also say that, sitting down to write these Best-Of posts - the first real posts I've done in months - well, it's felt good to be writing on here again. Hopefully in the year ahead I can figure out a compromise where I can still provide regular reviews and updates without straining myself too much. I've got a few ideas ...

But for now, let's get to it. Here are the best movies I saw in 2016.


1.) Hell or High Water

- The biggest existential question of the year was likely this: how was it possible that America - the greatest country in the world - could become a place that would vote a man like Donald J. Trump into office? Hell or High Water, though not an overtly political movie, feels like the movie that most represented the central crisis of our time: America, decaying and desperate, crawling lost soul by lost soul towards apocalyptic end-times. Hell or High Water tells the story of desperate men in a decaying Texas, trading morality for money. But they come up against Jeff Bridges' last-real-lawman, who soon learns that this is no country for old men. Bridges is at his best here, and Chris Pine and Ben Foster do a hell of a job as the two outlaws he's up against. It's a classic Western for modern times, an apt parable for an uncertain, lawless age.

2.) The Witch

- The Witch stunned me. If it hadn't been a horror movie, it still would have been a gripping look at the power of fear and paranoia to divide and conquer us. It it hadn't been a horror movie, it still would have been a fascinating look at an age long past - a painstaking recreation of early America, a look at what life was like for those first settlers. But The Witch is all that - and one of the scariest, most evil horror movies ever made. A true look into the heart of darkness, The Witch feels like something that you maybe shouldn't be watching. And therein lies its power. Anya Taylor-Joy is a breakout as a girl who feels the pull of the dark side, and writer/director Robert Eggers is undoubtedly one to watch.

3.) The Handmaiden

- We should be talking about Chan-Wook Park - director of Oldboy, Stoker, and now of The Handmaiden - in the same breath as other modern greats like Tarantino and The Coen Brothers. He's that damn good - a master of pure cinema - and his latest is another masterpiece. The Handmaiden casts a spell from moment one, and thought it is a 2 1/2 hour film, it leaves you wanting more. It's got twists and turns a-plenty - turning its entire story on its head halfway through the movie, making you question everything you thought you knew about its characters. What seems like a simple story of a lowly handmaiden sent to serve a wealthy noblewoman in 1930's Korea is anything but. What this movie really is is an epic story of lust, love, perversion, awakening, enslavement, female empowerment, and (since this is a Chan Wook-Park film ...) revenge. Anchored by two phenomenal lead performances from Min-hee Kim and Tae-ri Kim, The Handmaiden is yet another unforgettable classic from Wook-Park.

4.) La La Land

- Director Damien Chazelle quickly became one to watch after the seminal Whiplash. Now, he's done it again with La La Land - another music-driven tour de force that radiates energy and emotion, and dazzles with visual brilliance and imagination. On paper, La La Land might not seem that exciting - another musical about Hollywood? Really? But La La Land both pays homage to and cleverly subverts the classics, using nostalgia as a tool but never as a crutch, and blending Old Hollywood glamor with modern-day sophistication and emotional nuance. In this movie, Hollywood dreams still exist - but they come with a price. Emma Stone turns in a career-best performance here, and Ryan Gosling is great as well. The musical numbers are clever and infectious. I can't wait to see what Chazelle does next. 

5.) Hello, My Name Is Doris

- If you've read my reviews over the years, then you probably know I'm a huge fan of the comedy troupe The State and all the various projects its members have worked on. Wet Hot American Summer is my gold-standard for absurdist comedy, and I always look forward to any new stuff from any of the primary members of the group. But even with that said, Michael Showalter's movie Hello, My Name Is Doris was a surprise. Blending absurdist comedy with genuine pathos and poignancy, Doris is an absolute knockout. Sally Field crushes in this one - turning in one of the year's best performances (which will, surely, get totally overlooked come awards time).

6.) Everybody Wants Some!!

- Here's one that, for some reason, got largely overlooked by both critics and moviegoers. Maybe people were expecting Richard Linklater to follow up Boyhood with an even more ambitious project? But don't dismiss this one - because it's another amazing film from Linklater. A spiritual sequel to Dazed & Confused, this one is a brilliant and hilarious look at a college baseball team enjoying the last moments of total freedom before the official start of the school year. A celebration of being young, carefree, and totally malleable, Linklater looks at how we form our identities and how men can balance traditional ideas of manhood with a working moral compass. It's a potent idea, ripe for exploration in the age of (cough, vomit) Trump.

7.) Green Room

- And here is the most purely badass movie of the year - brought to you by Jeremy Saulnier, who is quickly becoming a rising star for fans of pulp-action. Green Room is one of those great movies with a premise that sounds so awesome that you've got to see how it plays out: a down-on-their-luck punk rock band reluctantly takes a gig in a venue known for its Neo-Nazi clientele. Things go south, and the band soon finds itself trapped and on the run from Nazis with a bloodlust. And, oh yeah, the head Nazi cult-leader guy is Patrick Stewart. Green Room is pure adrenaline-pumping, bone-crunching, rock n' roll insanity. The one horrible terrible depressing tragedy here is that this film has what would have been a star-making turn from Anton Yelchin in the lead role. Yelchin is fantastic, and that makes his tragic death this year hurt all the more.

8.) Sing Street

- If you needed a little bit of life-affirming uplift this year, well, John Carney's latest, Sing Street was your movie. This feel-good, fight-the-power rock musical is the story of a group of misfit kids in 1980's Dublin - who band together to form a rock band and go from zeroes to rock n' roll heroes - finding friendship, brotherhood, and even love as they ride the rock new-wave to glory. The music that inspires the kids - everything from Duran Duran to The Cure - is great, but the original songs here are even better. I dare you to watch Sing Street and not have "Riddle of the Model" on heavy rotation for days

9.) Nocturnal Animals

-Tom Ford's dark, disturbing, moody, and ultra-intense neo-noir sort of floored me. It's a multi-layered story that weaves a very tangled web, but the various threads come together to form a totally engrossing tapestry about love, loss, and lurid crime. Amy Adams is at the top of her game here, and Jake Gyllenhaal is even better - delivering a shattering performance. But it's Michael Shannon - having a banner year between this, Midnight Special, etc - who absolutely destroys as a badass sheriff with nothing left to lose. Tom Ford may only be a part time director, but if this is the kind of movie he's capable of, I hope he's got a lot more films in him.

10.) Hail, Caesar!

- All hail the Coen Brothers. As per usual, their more comedic movies tend to get overlooked upon initial release, and Caesar is no exception. But that's a crying shame, because this is another piece of heady, ambitious brilliance from the Coens - with several great performances (Brolin, Clooney, Swindon, Tatum, and Scar-Jo all kill) - including a breakout turn from Alden Ehereneich, now poised to play young Han Solo. The thing is that Caesar is, sure, a tribute to Hollywood's golden age. But this is the Coens, so it has a lot more on its mind. In this world, the Hollywood actors are the people's golden gods, and its on Josh Brolin's no-nonsense fixer to keep them that way in the eyes of the people. This is a movie about faith and religion, about building and deconstructing myth. It's another Coen Brothers classic.



11.)  Jackie

- In a career-defining performance, Natalie Portman portrays Jackie Kennedy in the harrowing days following her husband's assassination. One of the most horror-movie-like bio-pics you'll ever see, this is a haunting tale of a woman trying to manufacture myth in the wake of tragedy. 

12.) Edge of Seventeen

- Hailee Steinfeld is fantastic as an angst-ridden teen trying to navigate the perils of high school. Yeah, we've seen this kind of thing before - but rarely done this well, and rarely with such a deft combination of humor and heart. Not your typical teen movie. 

13.) Captain Fantastic

- Not to sound cliche, but Captain Fantastic really is fantastic. A smart, funny, at times heart-wrenching film, this one tells the story of a family that lives totally off the grid forced to re-enter civilization and come face to face with what they've been missing. If you've been wondering what the great Viggo Mortensen has been up to, here's your answer - Viggo delivers an award-worthy performance as the family's stubbornly non-conformist patriarch.

14.) Moana

- To me, Moana felt like the classic Disney formula perfected. From the eye-melting visuals to the epic and mythic storyline, this one mixes kid-pleasing charm with thematic depth that will leave adults misty-eyed. Add in a fantastic set of songs (got to love the Bowie-esque "Shiny" sung by Jermaine Clement), and you've got Disney's best animated musical in years.

15.) The Nice Guys

- If Shane Black just made movies like The Nice Guys for the rest of his career, I'd be a happy camper. This one is classic Black - a grimy, smoky, action-packed noir with dialogue so sharp you could cut it with a knife. Gosling and Crowe make a two-fisted team for the ages, and newcomer Angourie Rice is a show-stealer as Gosling's too-smart-for-her-own good daughter. Basically, this movie is a movie-lover's dream. More please.


16.) Swiss Army Man

- An insane, darkly-hilarious oddity from rising stars Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Swiss Army Man was a true original in a Summer of me-too's. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe are one of this year's best on-screen duos - impressive, considering Radcliffe plays a corpse.

17.) Captain America: Civil War

- While it packed in a ton of plot and an army's worth of characters, Civil War was in many ways the pinnacle of the Marvel cinematic universe so far - a comic book epic that paid off years' worth of build-up in a big way. Plus, it made Spider-Man cool again and had him fight Giant Man. Seriously though, Civil War had enough awesomeness to put it at or near the top of the comic book movie heap.

18.) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

- Whereas The Force Awakens compensated for messy mystery-box plotting with stand-up-and-cheer character moments, Rogue One was just straight-up solid through and through. A tightly-told men-on-a-mission movie, the film delivered several flavors of badassery - from Felicity Jones' reluctant rebel to Donnie Yen's Force-worshipping ass-kicker. Plus: the greatest Darth Vader action scene ever put to film.

19.) Manchester By the Sea

- Part of me wants to rank this one higher - it's brilliantly acted and poetically scripted, not to mention gorgeously shot. It just left me feeling a bit empty, wondering what the ultimate point of the movie's endless barrage of heavy-duty sadness was. Even still, the little moments of Manchester are what really make the movie - and perhaps that is what makes this one special: the way it shows how the little moments still define us, even in the wake of shattering events that seem hopelessly big.

20.) Don't Think Twice

- For anyone (me included) who has doggedly pursued creative success, Don't Think Twice hits home and hits home hard. How does one balance the simple joy of creative expression with the driving need to be recognized (and paid!) for said expression? How does one be competitive without being an asshole? How do friends navigate the highs and lows together, rather than apart? Mike Birbiglia's funny, heartfelt film nails the dynamic and the challenges inherent in chasing the dream. And he's got a great cast along for the ride - Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key are two of the standouts. 

21.) The Shallows

- The Shallows was perhaps the biggest surprise of the Summer - a perfectly-executed self-aware pulp thriller, this is the Blake Lively vs. Giant Shark movie you didn't know you wanted. Director Jaume Collet-Serra really nails this one - giving us a gorgeously-shot movie that isn't afraid to go awesomely over-the-top. A true crowd-pleaser, seeing The Shallows was one of my favorite theater-going experiences of 2016. Watch it with friends.

22.) Midnight Special

- Jeff Nichols' film Loving is the one getting awards hype, but truth be told his earlier 2016 film, Midnight Special, was the better of the two. Nichols' moody, intense filmmaking style is perfect for sci-fi, and this Close Encounters-esque head-trip is Nichols at his best. Michael Shannon is also, yet again, the perfect collaborator for Nichols - he meets Nichols' intensity levels with ease. Shannon's son has mysterious powers, but you get the sense that it's Shannon who could burn holes in you with his death-stare.

23.) Finding Dory

- I had few expectations for this Pixar sequel. I mean, the idea of a brilliant idea-factory like Pixar churning out sequels is not exactly that exciting. And yet ... Finding Dory is way better than it had any right to be, a fun, funny, at times incredibly affecting underwater journey - with amazing visuals - that is, incredibly, on par with (if not better than) Finding Nemo.

24.) Kicks

- One of 2016's tragically-overlooked gems, Kicks is a must-watch urban fairy-tale about a kid desperate to get back his prized stolen sneakers. Both funny and very, very dark, this film is uncompromising in its look at how violence can beget violence in the inner city - detailing the plight of young, urban, African-American boys in a way that leaves a big impression. 

25.) In a Valley of Violence

- Ever since I saw his retro-horror movie House of the Devil, I've been a major fan of director Ti West and his uniquely-styled genre films. Valley of Violence is a departure for him - a pulpy, grindhouse-y Western - but West's talents prove well-suited to this type of movie. This over-the-top, darkly funny tale of bloody vengeance in the Old West features a great lead performance from Ethan Hawke, plus John Travolta in his best, most entertaining role in years. If you like Tarantino-style genre subversions, then make sure to give this one a watch.


26.) Silence

- Martin Scorsese's latest - a longtime-in-the-making epic - is a flawed but often brilliant historical drama about Christian missionaries in Japan in the 1600's, and the violence and conflict that ensues when the Japanese powers-that-be reject the religion and outlaw its practice. Adam Garfield and Adam Driver anchor this long, ponderous, at times brutal film. They both turn in excellent performances, and Scorsese delivers some truly powerful and haunting imagery. This one is a trek, but it's a journey well worth taking. 

27.) The Conjuring 2

- I think at this point it's safe to call director James Wan a true "master of horror." He slays with his Conjuring films - and this is the rare sequel (let alone horror sequel) that's as good if not better than the original. Wan deftly weaves a moody, chilling film that earns its scares through craft rather than cheap tricks. But the real trick here is that these movies are character pieces, with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga playing an easy-to-root-for pair of real-life ghostbusters who we'd gladly follow into the abyss.

28.) Star Trek: Beyond

- Arguably the most tightly-crafted of the new-era Star Trek movies, Beyond feels like a bit of a throwback to OG Trek - with a pulpy adventure story, lots of two-fisted action, and plenty of wink-y humor that takes full advantage of the franchise's fantastic cast and their spot-on chemistry. This movie soars - whether in the hilarious Spock/Bones scenes or when Kirk saves the galaxy via the immortal power of The Beastie Boys. This one goes boldly, and made me eager for more Trek.

29.) Hunt For The Wilderpeople

- A great, hilarious indie movie from New Zealand, Wilderpeople is brimming with heart and humor and imagination. The story of a hard-to-love orphan (a breakout performance from Julian Dennison) who falls under the care of a crotchety, reluctant foster dad (a terrific Sam Neil) - the movie takes the oddball pair on a journey through the New Zealand wilderness as they fend off all manner of dangers. A funny-as-hell film that will also make you grin from ear-to-er.

30.) 10 Cloverfield Lane

- This one has grown on me over time, and I wanted to give it a shout-out. I really dug the tension-filled direction on this one from up-and-comer Dan Trachtenberg. I really loved the lead performance from the perpetually-underrated Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who positively kicks ass here. And I really, really loved the great John Goodman in this movie, he seriously brings his A-game as a may-or-may-not-be-crazy doomsayer and bunker-dweller. This is just a really funny, creepy, tense thriller that is a terrific slice of Twilight Zone-style fun.



Southside With You
The Invitation
Sausage Party
Neighbors 2
The Magnificent Seven
Dr. Strange

The Lobster
The Legend of Tarzan
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Kung Fu Panda 3


A Monster Calls
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
The Girl on the Train
Ms. Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
The Free State of Jones
Kubo & The Two Strings



1.) Viggo Mortensen - Captain Fantastic
2.) Casey Affleck - Manchester By the Sea
3.) Jake Gyllenhaal - Nocturnal Animals
4.) Ryan Gosling - La La Land
5.) Jeff Bridges - Hell or High Water


1.) Natalie Portman - Jackie

 2.) Sally Field - Hello, My Name Is Doris
3.) TIE: Min-hee Kim and Tae-Ri Kim - The Handmaiden
4.) Emma Stone - La La Land
5.) Hailee Steinfeld - Edge of Seventeen


1.) Michael Shannon - Nocturnal Animals
2.) Josh Brolin - Hail, Caesar!

3.) Daniel Radcliffe - Swiss Army Man
4.) Patrick Stewart - Green Room
5.) John Goodman - 10 Cloverfield Lane


1.) Anna Taylor-Joy - The Witch
2.) Michelle Williams - Manchester By the Sea
3.) Felicity Jones - A Monster Calls
4.) Angourie Rice - The Nice Guys
5.) Kelly Thornton - Sing Street


1.) Tie: Chan-Wook Park - The Handmaiden, Robert Eggers - The Witch
2.) Damien Chazelle - La La Land
3.) Jeremy Saulnier - Green Room
4.) Tom Ford - Nocturnal Animals

5.) Richard Linklater - Everybody Wants Some!!


1.) Hell or High Water
2.) La La Land
3.) The Handmaiden
4.) Hail Caesar!
5.) Hello, My Name Is Doris
6.) The Nice Guys
7.) Green Room
8.) Manchester By the Sea
9.) Everybody Wants Some!!
10.) Jackie 

And that's it for 2016 - it may have been a miserable year in many ways, but in terms of movies, it's going to be a hard one to top. Here's to a great 2017!

Friday, December 30, 2016

THE BEST OF 2016 - The Best GAMES Of The Year


- Oh, if only my younger self could see me now. Too many games and not enough time to play them? What a problem to have. And yet, this year I really felt the weight of an ever-increasing videogame back-log. I mean, keeping up with games can be hard - many of my friends and peers likely can't even fathom how I keep up with them at all. But I can't not at least *try* to stay current - I'm too passionate about the medium and the industry to not have gaming as a part of my life. I wish more people felt the same way. Although the older I get, the harder it is to gauge gaming's current place in pop culture. I know fewer and fewer people who would call themselves gamers, but *tons* of people who seemed to salivate over the idea of buying an NES classic console, and shelling out money to get a less-functional version of a thirty-year-old Nintendo system. So here is my plea to readers and friends: don't give up on gaming. Even as you get married and have kids and grow up (ugh), don't give up on it. You don't drop movies or TV, so don't drop games. The old stuff you played was good, but a lot of the new stuff is better. You don't want to miss out on on the new classics - the games like Bioshock, Mass Effect, Skyrim, Uncharted, The Last of Us, or Telltale's The Walking Dead series. 

It's true - in 2016 I was usually playing catch-up when it came to games. I played through games from last year and older - games like the Mass Effect series, A Wolf Among Us, Limbo, Skyrim, Tomb Raider, and Batman: Arkham Knight. And of course, I engaged my brother in many a Rocket League match-up (unfortunately, I tended to lose).

I once again was lucky enough to attend E3 this year. I sampled the Playstation VR. I saw a demo of Injustice 2. I pinched myself realizing that I was at freaking E3. My sense from E3 2016 was that the big, blockbuster games are now so costly and time-consuming to produce that they will come less frequently, and some will not be to everyone's tastes. And so to fill in the gaps, indie games are really where it's at. Look at any Best of 2016 list, and indie games dominate. For people who like simpler, more cerebral, or more old-school games - it's a golden age right now. Look at stuff like Limbo and this year's Inside - simple yet impactful games that pair old-school 2-D play mechanics with new-school thematic sophistication and indie design sensibilities. Or look at what Telltale continues to do with franchises like The Walking Dead and Batman - creating episodic graphic adventures that are simple, story-based, but really really good. 

The timetables on blockbuster games are such that there are going to be ebbs and flows. I was okay that 2016 was a lean year for big new games (remember, the back-log), but even with that said, there was a new Uncharted game - and to me, that's the gold standard. Not to mention the arrival of long-delayed (like, seriously long) games like Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian. Meanwhile, 2017 seems poised to be huge if you happen to be a Playstation owner. The stars have aligned to bring us Horizon: Zero Dawn, a new God of War, a new Mass Effect, and many others. 2017 is going to be ridiculous. Not to mention, Nintendo's Switch is poised to launch. The Big N has been a non-factor for me for several years now, but I am curious to see what becomes of the Switch - likely their last, best shot to once again play with the big boys in the console space. I'm still a bit skeptical of it, personally. I mean, how long is Nintendo going to come out with a less-powerful console and try to get by with only a few token third-party games? 

But back to my original point: one of my pop-culture resolutions for 2017 is to actively make at least a bit more time for games. After all, there is going to be *a lot* to play in the new year.


1.) Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

- As I say above, to me Uncharted is the gold standard in games. I get that some people are weary of the series at this point, and I get that The Last of Us (which I love) has sort of usurped it as the preferred Naughty Dog franchise. But Uncharted is still the series I point to when I tell people how, in many ways, games are outdoing Hollywood in terms of providing a memorable blockbuster cinematic experience. I mean, they are making an Uncharted movie - but how is that ever going to top this? This series melds grade-A storytelling with engaging gameplay like few others, and has mastered the art of creating gigantic, movie-like set-pieces that have the effect of placing the player squarely in the middle of jaw-dropping action. Uncharted 4, for its part, is a return to the form for the series after, arguably, a solid but not-quite-bar-raising third entry. For one, Uncharted 4 stuns with its visuals - as the first game in the series for the PS4, it may take the cake for best graphics yet of this gaming generation. For another, the game makes some very tangible gameplay improvements - more responsive melee combat, a fun-as-hell grappling hook mechanic that took me back to Bionic Commando, and a much-improved sneaking/cover mechanic. And finally, the story is one of the best yet in the series - a sprawling adventure that nonetheless makes time for some quiet, character-driven moments - putting the focus back on the Nathan Drake / Elena relationship in a way that's sure to please fans of the series. So to sum up, I'll simply say that to me - Uncharted 4 is currently *the* reason to buy a PS4. Get it.

2.) The Last Guardian

- The latest from the creators of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus was years in the making - to the point where it was on the verge of becoming a legendary piece of vaporware. But the game finally came out this year, and to me it was worth the wait. Yes, the controls and camera feel a bit messy. The game as a whole lacks some of the polish that we now expect from AAA games. And yet, The Last Guardian has a magic to it that you don't see that often anymore - playing it took me back to the early PS1 days when developers were still experimenting and finding their way around hardware. The games back then were sometimes glitchy, but man, were they interesting. Maybe it's also that we don't get as many Japanese games anymore, I don't know. But TLG casts a spell on players. It's got emotion. It's got awe and wonder. Magic. You play a young boy in a magical land, navigating through obstacles and puzzles with a giant dragon-like creature at your side. The game is all about the relationship between boy and beast, and it's funny and sad and inspiring. The Last Guardian is a rare beast indeed.

3.) Inside

- Following the success of their trippy puzzler Limbo, the team at Playdead this year brought us a more-than-worthy follow-up with Inside. These guys do atmospheric like no one else, and Inside is nothing if not *haunting.* Like Limbo, Inside simply throws you head-first into the game - no explanations, no tutorials, not cut-scenes explaining the story. The game is the story, and the narrative slowly reveals itself as you make your way through the game's increasingly weird and disturbing nightmare-scape. This is the kind of game that we are lucky to now have (and that I hope we continue to get more of) as part of the ongoing indie revolution. 

4.) Final Fantasy XV

- In my youth, I was an uber Final Fantasy fanboy. I religiously played every entry in the series, and have many fond memories of getting lost in various FF games over the years. XII was the one that sort of broke me - I get that it did the job for a certain contingency, but to me it was a turning point in which the series became too complex and difficult for its own good. In any case, based on my early time spent with XV - the long-time-coming first entry for the series of this generation, it does feel like a bit of that old magic is back. The story feels more engrossing, the gameplay and combat more intuitive. The game feels both retro and suitably modernized. And the visuals are stunning. A welcome return to form. 

5.) Ratchet & Clank

- No joke, Ratchet & Clank may be my favorite game series of the last fifteen years - so I always look forward to new entries in the series, and thank the gaming gods that this still-underrated franchise continues to exist. 2016 was a noteworthy year for R&C, as there was an animated movie based on the original game, and in turn a new game based on the movie. The new game was sort of a strange hybrid - a game based on a movie based on a game - but what really mattered was that it was more of the classic gameplay that makes the series so awesome. Let me put it this way: so many action/adventure games nowadays hand-hold you through their action sequences. You are more "guiding" your character rather than directly controlling them. Not in R&C - the game's got spot-on sticky controls that are totally 1-to-1. These games rely on fast reflexes and run n' gun proficiency - scratching an itch that not many other third-person games do these days. R&C games always control like a dream, always look amazing, are always imaginative-as-hell (think Pixar), and are most importantly downright fun. Keep 'em coming, Insomniac.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

THE BEST OF 2016 - The Best COMICS Of The Year


- 2016 was another fantastic year for comics as a medium. DC got a huge shot in the arm with their Rebirth relaunch, giving new life to flailing franchises like Superman, Green Lantern, and The Flash. Marvel continued to put out some of the industry's most vital books - most notably the must-read Ms. Marvel. And Image continued to be a veritable factory for great comics, producing so many great new books that it could be hard to keep track. Meanwhile, other publishers like Dark Horse, Valiant, Boom, and Aftershock stepped up with great titles as well. I often found myself overwhelmed with how much good stuff there was to read in any given week. Plus, in the digital age, it's possible to binge-read newly-discovered comics with the touch of a button. This year, I continued to make my way through Garth Ennis' The Boys, among others. 

But let's get to it. The great fun of being a comics fan is being part of such a smart and passionate community of readers. I love hearing what others are reading, and by the same token, it's always fun to tell non-fans about great comics I've read in an effort to get them hooked - whether they're interested in superhero books, or all the other kinds of storytelling that comics do so well. Liked Stranger Things? Then check out Paper Girls asap. A fan of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World? Then you had better give SP creator Bryan Lee O'Malley's new book Snot Girl a look. Dig superheroes but want a new spin on old favorites? Then hurry up and read Black Hammer - an awesomely unique deconstruction of classic hero archetypes. There's something for everyone below - so get to reading.


1.) Paper Girls

- No surprise here - Paper Girls was nearly my top comics pick in 2015, and that was after only a handful of issues had been released. Now with over a year's worth of stories under its belt, Paper Girls is officially the best comic book going - a twisty, heartfelt, nostalgic sci-fi adventure from one of the best writers alive, Brian K. Vaughan. So what is Paper Girls? To say too much would be to spoil things, so I'll just say that it's an 80's-set series about a group of plucky paper delivery-girls who see their ordinary suburban lives interrupted by some seriously insane sci-fi weirdness. Time travel may or may not be involved. Basically, Paper Girls does Stranger Things one better, because it tells a story through a lense of 80's nostalgia, but what's more, the entire theme of the book is contrasting the relative innocence of being a kid in the 80's to the world-weary existential dread of being an adult in 2016. Brian K Vaughan is tackling some big themes here, but he's also just telling an awesome sci-fi story, with plenty of jaw-dropping cliffhangers, lots of humor, and numerous holy-$%^& moments. The writer of Y: The Last Man and Saga does it again (and, also, the phenomenal art by the great Cliff Chiang doesn't hurt). You must read this one. 

2.) Black Hammer

- Jeff Lemire has been one of my favorite writers for several years now. I became a fan via his seminal series Sweet Tooth, and have followed him through other great books like Trillium, Animal Man, and the still-ongoing (and still great) Descender. Black Hammer is yet another new classic from Lemire. It's his take on superhero deconstruction - think Watchmen - but Lemire gives us a fresh spin on a subgenre that's been done to death, producing a series that's gotten better with each issue. Essentially, this is a series about several classic superhero archetypes who get banished from their superhero universe and are mysteriously stranded on a farm in a much more ordinary, mundane universe. They try to live normal lives, while also trying to figure out what happened to them. But the real brilliance comes as Lemire slowly reveals the backstories of each character, giving each seemingly stock character unexpected layers. Again, I don't want to reveal too much. But this one has been one of 2016's must-read books, and it's just ramping up. Jump onboard now.

3.) Ms. Marvel

- How powerful is Ms. Marvel? So powerful that, I'll admit, this book and this character have changed the way I think about Muslims. Superheroes are a powerful archetype, and reading the monthly adventures of a smart, funny, geeky, progressive Muslim superhero has made me more aware of bigotry towards American Muslims and more aware of a need to recognize our commonalities and embrace our differences. Writer G. Willow Wilson doesn't pretend that Islam is infallible. Kamala Khan stuggles with aspects of her religion just as I do with mine. But that is what's so brilliant about this book - it reinforces the idea that we're all in this together. We all have to reconcile problematic aspects of our inherited culture. But we are all, ultimately, stronger together. Ms. Marvel is a fun, smart, action-packed comic book. But more so than that, it's downright inspiring. And isn't that what superheroes should be?

4.) Kill or Be Killed

- On the other end of the spectrum is the latest grim n' gritty piece of pulp-noir from one of my favorite writers, Ed Brubaker. Earlier this year, Brubaker wrapped up both his old-Hollywood mystery The Fade Out and his spy thriller Velvet. But his newest project is one of his most exciting in a while - a pitch-black supernatural crime series about a guy who makes a Faustian pact with an evil spirit: kill or be killed. Of course, this bargain opens up a Pandora's Box of moral and practical questions - the book is still in relative infancy, so who knows how things will play out. But I can't wait to find out.

5.) Snot Girl

- The first-ever ongoing comic series from the creator of Scott Pilgrim initially seemed like a real head-scratcher. A comic about a self-absorbed fashion blogger? What? And what was with the title? Snot Girl - really?! Well, I am here to say that I have fallen for Snot Girl. You've just got to go with it, and trust in Bryan Lee O'Malley to steer you right. There's a lot more to Snot Girl than meets-the-eye. It's a pulp mystery, a sly social satire, and a relationship drama all rolled into one. 

6.) Superman

- Many of you guys probably know that I'm a pretty hardcore Superman fan. I've been reading Superman comics since I was a kid, so one of the great joys of DC's Rebirth reboot has been the revitalization of the Superman family of books. Post-Rebirth, Superman is now a bit older and more experienced - once again married to Lois Lane, and the father of a young super-powered son named John. A welcome change of pace from the more recent version who was younger and dating Wonder Woman, this feels like the more classic version of Supes that I grew up with, with the added twist of him now being a father to a superhero-in-training. Of course, all that would mean nothing without great creative teams, and the great thing is that all the Superman book are now in good hands. The standout book though has undoubtedly been Superman, penned by the ever-reliable, often great Peter Tomasi. Tomasi has really done great things with the new father-son dynamic - for example, sending Superman and son on a time-travel adventure to a lost island, in a story that paid moving tribute to the late great Darwyn Cooke and his signature story, New Frontier. Tomasi also penned the first-ever meeting between John and Damian Wayne, the son of Batman - and it was an instant-classic origin story for the new generation of Super Sons. If you're at all a Superman fan, check out the current Tomasi run.

7.) Descender

-Like sprawling sci-fi space epics? Then pick up Descender. Another book by Jeff Lemire, the second year of Descender brilliantly fleshed out the book's mythology, giving us new and compelling backstory on several key characters. The book details a far-future in which humans and other alien species travel the universe looking to hunt and destroy any and all remaining robots - who are now thought to be a danger to all life. One kid-like robot, Tim-21, now finds himself on the run from all manner of dangers. Lemire is spinning a truly epic yarn here, and the incredibly evocative art from Dustin Nguyen adds to the book's sci-fi atmosphere.

8.) The Walking Dead

- It's now time for my annual reminder that, while The Walking Dead TV series may be seriously slumping, Robert Kirkman's comic book remains a can't-miss page turner that delivers great serialized storytelling month-in, month out. In fact, one of the main reasons why I can't bring myself to drop the show is because I remain perpetually curious how the show will adapt some of the comics' epic storylines. This year, for example, Rick Grimes and co. found themselves wrapped up in a war with one of The Walking Dead's most intriguing groups of adversaries yet - the Whisperers - a zombie-worshipping cult who take on the appearance of Walkers. Kirkman remains one of the best storytellers in the biz, doling out crazy cliffhangers and twists like nobody's business. It still baffles me why the show struggles so much when the comic often feels so effortlessly readable. In any case, The Walking Dead remains a must-read. 

9.) Southern Bastards

-My pick for the Best Comic of 2015 drops several notches this year, mainly because it's come out so infrequently. Writer Jason Aaron is everywhere these days, penning Dr. Strange and Star Wars for Marvel, plus other perpetually-delayed books like The Goddamned for Image. Here's hoping that Aaron can focus on Southern Bastards in 2017, because it really is his magnum opus - a pulpy, generation-spanning epic about southern justice. When issues did come out this year, there was a compelling shift in focus to Roberta Tubb, daughter of the series' original protagonist - now returned home to avenger her dad. There's been some amazing build-up to Roberta's inevitable confrontation with the series' big bad, Coach Boss. So please, give us a lot more Southern Bastards in 2017.

10.) The Flash

- The Flash, for decades, was consistently among the best books DC Comics put out. Writers like Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Geoff Johns all contributed to that long run of quality - so it was shame when the book became nearly unreadable in the New 52 era. But, good news: The Flash is back! The rebooted Rebirth version of Flash quickly righted past wrongs, with new writer Joshua Williamson doing great work - making Barry Allen, finally, as compelling in the comics as he is on TV. Williamson has introduced new villains, brought back some classics, and put character first. He's incorporated some elements of the TV show without being slavishly devoted to it. (It's no surprise that Williamson is becoming a go-to writer for DC, now penning their first big post-Rebirth event, JLA vs. Suicide Squad, which is off to a killer start). Also, the art on The Flash by Carmine Di Giandomenico has been awesome - as kinetic and energetic as you could hope for in a Flash comic.


11.) Saga

- Saga has become ever-so-slightly stagnant of late, but never count Brian K. Vaughan out. There is a clear long-game at work here, and Saga still managed to deliver its share of huge moments in 2016. This is, still, one of *the* must-read ongoing series of the last few years.

12.) Batman

- Batman was one of the few DC franchises that was doing just fine pre-Rebirth, and in fact, one of the few downsides of the reboot was the end of Scott Snyder's modern-classic run on the title. But luckily, Batman came back strong with writer Tom King at the helm. In several short months, King has done great stuff with the Dark Knight - introducing a new pair of super-powered vigilantes to Gotham, and telling the best Bane story in years. 

13.) Green Arrow

- Green Arrow kept the same writer post-Rebirth as pre-Rebirth, but it still feels like a whole new book. Writer Ben Percy has brought the character back to his most beloved incarnation - the bearded, liberal-minded, hard-luck vigilante who fights for the little guy and romances Black Canary. Classic Green Arrow is back.

14.) Silver Surfer

- One of my favorite books of the last few years, Dan Slott's whimsical take on the Surfer is elevated to pure cosmic awesomeness by the unmatched art of Mike Allred. Anyone who likes quirky, big-hearted sci-fi like Dr. Who needs to read this book. 

15.) Captain America: Steve Rogers

- No comic book moment made mainstream waves in 2016 more so than Captain America's shocking proclamation of "Hail Hydra" in the first issue of Nick Spencer's new take on Cap. But the moment was more than just a gimmick - Spencer has been telling a super-fun, super-compelling long-form Cap epic - and I still can't even begin to predict where it's going.

16.) Doom Patrol

-One of the most compelling stories in comics in 2016 was the start of a new DC Comics imprint - Young Animal - spearheaded by My Chemical Romance frontman (and comic book writer) Gerard Way. Way sought to put a mind-bending, mature-readers spin on some of DC's weirder properties, and he's off to a strong start. The line's flagship book, Doom Patrol, has so far been a highlight - a delightfully trippy return for DC's strangest superhero team.

17.) Faith 

- In 2016, I got aboard the Faith hype train. If you haven't heard, Faith is one of the breakout comics characters of the last year - a plus-sized, geeky superhero who is as much a fan-girl as she is a defender of justice. Written with heart, humor, and humanity by Jody Houser, Faith is a refreshingly unique take on superheroes - and a book that is emblematic of the genre's ever-expanding, increasingly-diverse audience. 

18.) Lazarus

- Another longtime favorite that got moved down a few notches due to infrequent issues in 2016, Lazarus remains one of the best ongoing books there is. A futuristic Game of Thrones that feels increasingly relevant as we enter the Trump age (cough, vomit, gag), Lazarus is still one to watch in 2017 as it turns a major narrative corner, and the longtime build towards protagonist Forever Carlyle realizing her true nature picks up steam. Writer Greg Rucka is one of the best in the biz, so I'm still psyched for this one going into the new year. 

19.) Invincible 

- Robert Kirkman announced this year that his long-running superhero saga will come to an end in 2017. This makes me sad, as Invincible has been a favorite for years now. It's a superhero story not beholden to corporate mandates to keep the status quo in place, which has always allowed Kirkman to go nuts with both plot and tone.

20.) New Super-Man

- One of the surprise standouts of Rebirth, New Super-Man is a humor and heart-filled telling of China's not-quite-Superman - the cocky, too-cool-for-school teen, Kenan Kong. Even better: the bumbling Bat-Man of China. 

21.) Tales From the Darkside

- The story goes that writer Joe Hill (of Locke & Key fame) had developed a new TV version of 80's horror anthology Tales From the Darkside. That reboot eventually got scrapped, but Hill's scripts found a second life in comic book form. So yeah - we comic readers got a new horror anthology from the Locke & Key team. Predictably, it was great.

22.) Wonder Woman

- Greg Rucka has a long history of writing great stories about kickass women, and so it was no surprise that his return to Wonder Woman meant that the character, post-Rebirth, is now enjoying a creative high-point. If Rucka's writing it, I'm there - and in advance of the upcoming movie, Rucka has given the big-screen version a very, very tough act to follow. And, sidenote: the art from both Liam Sharp and Nicola Scott - amazing.

23.) Green Lanterns

- Yet another DC franchise with new life post-Rebirth. Green Lanterns has been a highlight - a return to the epic stories and core mythology of the Geoff Johns era, but with new protagonists Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz - an odd-couple pairing that, under the stewardship of writer Sam Humphries, has produced two of DC's most likable new characters.

24.) Cave Carson Has a Magnetic Eye

- Another success story from Gerard Way's Young Animal imprint at DC, this one hit my geeky buttons, as I'm a total sucker for weird stories about obscure DC characters. This book puts a postmodern spin on DC D-lister Cave Carson, re-imagining him as a down-on-his-luck, past-his-prime family man whose superheroic spelunking cost him his family and his sanity.

25.) Darth Vader 

- I sort of hit peak Star Wars this year. Marvel began putting out so many Star Wars books that it became a bit too much, and the stories began to get stale and repetitive. But the one book that never lost steam was Darth Vader - in part because writer Kieron Gillen didn't just rely on established stories and characters - he created new ones. Notably, Gillen gave us Dr. Aphra - a breakout new character now so popular with fans that she's got her own spin-off book. A morally bankrupt con-artist with evil-droid versions of C3PO and R2D2? Hells yeah. 


DC Rebirth #1

- I've mentioned Rebirth a lot, so it's only fair that I give a shout-out to the one-shot special that kicked off the whole shebang. Geoff Johns was largely absent from comic books this year, his attention largely devoted to movies and TV. But Johns did give us DC's single most important issue of the year Rebirth #1 - and it was one hell of a comic book. Rebirth was an expertly-constructed love letter to DC - an acknowledgement that things had strayed off-course, and that crucial elements of the DCU (legacy, for one) were conspicuously absent in the previous era of the New 52. With one fell swoop, Johns planted the seeds for DC's return to greatness - the long-hoped-for return of legacy characters like Wally West, the re-setting of characters like Green Arrow back to their most iconic incarnations, and the restoration of a sense of history to DC Comics. Rebirth was the kind of comic that comic fans love - a lovingly-crafted bridge between present, past, and future.

Locke & Key: Small World

- I've also got to give a quick shout-out to one of 2016's late-arriving treats - a new installment of Locke & Key. Small world was only a quick, one-off return to Joe Hill's series - one of the best of the last decade. But it served as both a reminder of that series' greatness and as a prelude to more Locke & Key stories still to come. 

Dark Knight: A True Batman Story

- Paul Dini has arguably done more to shape Batman in the last thirty year than anyone else. As co-creator of Batman: The Animated Series, he was responsible for perhaps the definitive take on the Dark Knight. But here, in this one-off, autobiographical graphic novel, Dini turns his focus inward and tells us a tale of his own darkest night - when, while working on the show, he was mugged and beaten in a cowardly act of criminality. Dini movingly tells of how he drew on his fantastical stories - on the legend of the Batman - to get him through this tough time. And the result is one of the most powerful works of graphic fiction I've read in a long while.  


1.) Brian K. Vaughan (Paper Girls, Saga)
2.) Jeff Lemire (Black Hammer, Descender)
3.) Greg Rucka (Wonder Woman, Lazarus)
4.) G. Willow Wilson (Ms. Marvel)
5.) Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead, Invincible)
6.) Peter Tomasi (Superman)
7.) Joshua Williamson (The Flash, JLA vs. Suicide Squad)
8.) Sam Humphries (Green Lanterns)
9.) Bryan Lee O'Malley (Snot Girl)
10.) Tom King (Batman)


1.) Cliff Chiang (Paper Girls) 
2.) Jason Fabok (Justice League, JLA vs. Suicide Squad)
3.) Mark Brooks (Han Solo)
4.) Phil Jiminez (DC Rebirth, Superwoman)
5.) Carmine Di Giandomenico (The Flash)
6.) Liam Sharp (Wonder Woman)
7.) Dustin Nguyen (Descender)
8.) Mike Allred (Silver Surfer)
9.) Nick Derington (Doom Patrol) 
10.) Leslie Hung (Snot Girl)