Jul 1, 2013

The List: Best of 2013 (So Far)

By Wine & Pop Staff


FILM:



Stories We Tell
Stories We Tell is a remarkable film for all of the goals it sets for itself and accomplishes with aplomb. The basics of Stories deals with a fascinating tale concerning director Sarah Polley’s mother. The documentary paints a detailed portrait of the late woman through raw interviews with family members and friends, and recreations utilizing actors that capture the feel of the people that are no longer around. That striving for authenticity, even in the face of something inherently artificial, creates the backbone that the remainder of the film builds upon. The unraveling story of Polley’s mother and father would be enough for entertainment, but the director has a more distinct goal in mind. Stories We Tell transforms into a study on memory, storytelling and the impossibility of shared reality. The varying perspectives of those interviewed (a low key Rashomon) contrast even further with Polley’s own memories (she was young when all of the events recalled here occurred, giving her vantage point an added blurriness). I will not give away the twists the narrative takes. This has little to do with the basic ideas of “spoilers” and more with the importance of how the secrets are revealed. The entirety of the film concerns itself with memory, and, even at the end, certain questions are unanswered (both for the audience and the filmmaker herself). “There’s this misconception that she was this thing,” an interviewee says at one point, concerning the matriarch being studied. It seems a simplistic line but speaks to the truths we ache for but can have obtain. Life, Stories We Tell argues, is not a simple narrative, the kind of thing we reduce all stories into. It is those second two words of the title that matter most: it is in our interpretation of our stories and the stories of those we love that reality is mined from the supposed nature of what surrounds us. Stories We Tell is a powerful statement on the way we turn life into comprehensive art, and, more than that, shape our life story for others and ourselves.
(Josh Oakley)





The Place Beyond the Pines 
I like my dad. He’s a pretty cool guy. Even during my angsty teen phase I never really had too much of a problem with him. Still, The Place Beyond The Pines hit a deep nerve with me. Part of me was predisposed to love this movie, what with a score by Mike Patton, Ryan Gosling wearing a Metallica shirt, and Derek Cianfrance knocking his last film, Blue Valentine, out of the park. Even with those givens, The Place Beyond The Pines took turns that I certainly was not expecting. Sprawling out and showing how the actions of one life can have dramatic consequences upon our children and complete strangers, this film demonstrates the difficulty of attempting to life a moral life with the pressures of masculinity. It’s an epic about a small world. It’s about how we can become trapped by forces completely out of our control, and that sometimes the only way out is to just cut and run. But all this thematic weight would have meant nothing if it weren’t for the performances of Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Dane Dehaan. We’ve known about Gosling’s ability to bring life to a tortured badass for a long time, but Cooper’s dramatic chops came as complete shock to me (hadn’t seen Silver Linings Playbook, so I guess that one’s on me). Dehaan doesn’t get nearly as much to chew on as the other two, so my reasons for loving his performance mostly come from his shocking similarity to one of my closest friends from high school. I imagine that for a director as obsessed with realism as Cianfrance, that might be the highest compliment I could pay.
(Ian Cory)

Frances Ha 
Living alone, being your own financial supporter, wanting more out of your life than you currently have. These are all things we deal with after college, once we move away from our parents and begin to create our own lives. It’s never easy; we struggle to fit in, to find a job, to live our lives to the fullest. It’s a sad, depressing existence, but it’s also one filled with adventure and a growing appreciation of life. With Frances Ha, writer and director Noah Baumbach explores these ideas, and through his central character Frances he creates an intimate portrait of a socially lost woman trying to live her life in his most relatable film to date. It’s not uncommon for a filmmaker like Baumbach to pick a troubled protagonist to fuel his scripts; hell it’s what every film he’s made deals with. From The Squid In The Whale, which dealt with a crumbling family in the midst of a divorce, to the more recent Greenberg, dealing with a socially awkward man finding love in a girl he barely knows, Baumbach captures the most unusual aspects of human life and presents them with compassion, and an endearing emotional resonance that makes even his most outlandish characters relatable. Through his title character Frances (played by the lovely Greta Gerwig), Baumbach sheds light on the period of limbo between the end of college and the rest of our lives. Frances is 27, living with her best friend, and trying her best to live out her dream of becoming a professional dancer. However, she soon finds herself without a home, ostracized by her now engaged best friend, and out of a job at the dance company that could have molded her future career. From there the film creates a series of vignettes, each displaying a different part of Frances’ life, revealing the inner complexities of her character, and the struggles she encounters as she tries to figure out her life. Greta Gerwig shines in her role, giving the audience a character to relate to. She’s funny, quirky, awkward, and unsure of herself and the world she lives in. She emanates a part of life that we’ve all been through, or will go through at some point. That point where we’re broke, alone, unable to comprehend what life is giving us and unsure of what is to come as we struggle to crawl forward. Gerwig reveals a different side of the comedic girl we’ve seen in so many films. Her Frances has emotional depth, and it builds as the film progresses. Her characterization becomes sadder, and heavier in substance, contrasting the light, bubbly and carefree Frances we meet at the start of the film. Gerwig balances the comedic and dramatic aspects of her character brilliantly, almost effortlessly. You’ll find yourself laughing one minute, and feeling hopelessly depressed in the next as you witness a sad familiarity in Frances. Aside from Gerwig, the supporting performances are all great, from Mickey Sumner as Frances’ cold, distant best friend Sophie, to hilarious turns by Adam Driver and Michael Zegen as some friends Frances meets along the way. But in the end, it’s Gerwig’s film; she gives it a heart. This is by far the best Baumbach film to date, as well as the most hilarious and relatable. The dialogue is fresh and brisk, while the direction has a clarity and confidence unlike any past Baumbach film. His style and substance resemble classic works of Woody Allen like Manhattan (both films are also shot in black and white), and like Allen, Baumbach does New York justice, painting a beautiful canvas for Frances to run through. Made on a shoestring budget with a skeleton crew, Frances Ha feels small, but has a resonating emotional impact far larger than one might expect. It’s sad, funny, and at times scary how real the subject matter is. Most importantly, it’s one of the best films of the year.
(Mike Horky)

Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon's had a long and illustrious career where he's proven over and over again the depths of his imagination.  But for a real demonstration of how deeply his genius runs, take a look at his slick and hilarious version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.  Even when he didn't write a word of the dialogue, Whedon manages to make the story utterly his own through wordless add-ons, a shooting style that verges on artful, and a complete trust in the cast full of ringers he assembled.  Amy Acker leads the ensemble with a performance that would get Oscar attention in any universe with justice, and her costars acquit themselves nearly as well (most of all a show-stealing Nathan Fillion).  Earlier this year, retiring director Steven Soderbergh made a distinction between "movies" (surface spectacle) and "films" (artistic statements).  Whedon's last project, The Avengers, was certainly a movie.  Much Ado, on the other hand, is as much a film as it gets.
(Paul Krueger)

Mud
Jeff Nichols is known for creating searing portraits of the common man in America in his debut Shotgun Stories, and the incredible Take Shelter, but his most recent feature Mud might be his best yet. Led by strong, central performances from Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan, Nichols creates a coming-of-age tale indicative of our time and of southern culture. The film follows Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two boys living in impoverished southern Arkansas, who come across an outlaw, Mud (McConaughey). He convinces them to help him reconnect with his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and the boys agree, mesmerized by Mud’s simple, yet morally complex life. The performances in this film are aces, from Reese Witherspoon’s seductively sad Juniper, to Michael Shannon’s bit role as the uncle of Neckbone, to Sam Shepard’s appearance as an old acquaintance of Mud’s. But the real stars are the film’s leads. McConaughey shines as Mud, bringing sympathy to this outlaw character that seems to be more urban legend than human. It’s McConaughey’s magnificent acting chops that give Mud his humanity, creating emotional depths no one ever thought capable of this actor. He is seductive and creepy, with an underlying fierceness waiting to escape. McConaughey loses himself in this role, and he’s phenomenal. Sheridan brings the film its heart and soul as a boy losing his essence of childhood, experiencing love, disappointment, and tragedy: basically everything that encompasses adolescence. He reminds us what it was like to fall in love, how much it hurts, and how naïve we once were. His fierce resentment towards the world and utter questioning of life bring much needed humanity and character and Sheridan’s commitment to this role is admirable. He digs so deep into this troubled youth that it’s hard to believe he’s acting. Lofland is also spectacular as Neckbone, bringing much needed comic relief to scenes, and also lending his own amount of youthful wisdom to Ellis, making the two appear as a modern day Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Nichols has created a cinematic triumph with Mud, capturing the fragile essence of youth and setting it up against the harsh backdrop of the south (captured beautifully by cinematographer Adam Stone) and the tragedies of real life. His direction is sure as his storytelling abilities, letting flow a modern day fairytale that unfolds like a book rather than a movie. He goes into appropriate depth with his characters, allowing us to understand them as much as they understand themselves, and gives his audience an experience that satisfies. It’s a film you won’t want to miss, and the best of the year.
(MH)
            
Iron Man 3
2013 has been a good year for blockbusters. They are abundant, yet have had a solid streak of quality entertainment thus far. Helmed by Shane Black (who I’ve commented fondly on in past contributions), Iron Man 3 continues Marvel’s very wise idea of allowing writer/directors to imprint their signature styles on the comic book movies they craft. The movie succeeds on this idea, being as much a Shane Black movie as an Iron Man movie. The story follows Tony Stark post-Avengers, dealing with the post-traumatic stress disorder involved in dealing with an alien invasion on the largest city in America. The entirety of the Iron Man cineverse borrows from the 2005 comic story arc "Extremis", but this entry dwells into it heavily, managing to create a mostly interesting plot, but a rather plain villain and fairly predictable third act. However, the real standout in this entry is the dialogue and character relationships, as Black and Downey Jr. prove, again, to be a perfect creative pair. Rhodey becomes a far more interesting character, especially as the buddy cop dynamic rolls out during the third act. Black even manages to make Tony teaming up with a young sidekick entertaining and even heart warming, avoiding the negatives typically associated with this trope. The amount of time spent outside of the suit is also refreshing, as the fear of the franchise burning out after two solo adventures and a group outing containing Iron Man is approached by making each set piece (especially one with an airplane) involving the suit very high stakes and memorable while wrapping things up with a sense of closure. While I wouldn’t say this is a game changing entry in the superhero genre, it’s certainly doing a lot of things very right.
(Daniel Ott)

Star Trek Into Darkness
Into Darkness came a few months after the announcement of J.J. Abrams taking the directing role in the next Star Wars film. If the way he’s treated this reimagining of Star Trek is any indication of the potential the Star Wars sequels have, I’m ready. I grew up a Star Wars kid, not a Star Trek kid. It wasn’t until the 2009 reboot that I visited the original series, Next Generation, and a majority of the movies and found out what I was missing. The returning cast continues to shine as the crew of the Enterprise. Each actor takes the well-known role and makes it their own, giving the rebooted saga a different feel, but keeping it grounded in the nostalgia and mythos the series is known for. The story is fairly typical science fiction fare, but the energy and spectacle keep things interesting. The real standout is Benedict Cumberbatch, whose physicality is matched only by his excellent delivery, making villain monologues into beautiful sounding poetry. He seems to bring magic to every film he is involved in. The movie suffers from perhaps a few too many winks into story arcs and notable moments of the classic series, fighting across that thin line that distinguishes fan service and homage, especially considering this universe is an alternate timeline and has the potential for completely new adventures. This isn’t to say that it’s handled poorly, as the movie makes good use of what it is working with by twisting and altering each moment to be unique. Regardless, the movie is massively entertaining from start to finish, and should be witnessed on the big screen if it is still playing nearby.
(DO)

TV:


New Girl
When New Girl made the transition from semi-obnoxious Zooey Deschanel showcase to fantastic hangout sitcom, the corners of the show were slowly shaded in. Much of season one’s second half worked to deepen Deschanel’s Jess and make Max Greenfield’s Schmidt a breakout character. Season two quickly began building towards a Jess/Nick (Jake Johnson) romance, giving the latter the material he needed to become that season’s fan favorite. Johnson’s work on the show has grown both in maturity and absurdity, to the point that he’s now giving one of the best performances on television. The kiss in “Cooler” was sexy in a way uncommon on network television, and New Girl was able to use this transformed relationship both for humor (“Quick Hardening Caulk”) and pathos (“Chicago”). Even when the season diverged from this central pairing, the material was strong, such as the continuing love Schmidt holds for Cece. The largely pointless (except for the last minute) “Virgins” was also one of the funniest episodes the show has pulled off, proving that Johnson is great no matter what age he’s playing (braces-inflicted teenager, hemp-addled college student, angry/depressive 30-year-old). Winston remained largely underserved, but at least the show addressed this in “Winston’s Birthday”, and whenever Lamorne Morris was given good material, he knocked it out of the park (Morris has never been better on the show than his attempts at horrifyingly elaborate pranking). The highlight of 2013, season two, and the entire show, was “Parking Spot”, an episode that took a seemingly inconsequential issue and breathed into it a profound sense of purpose. By highlighting the immaturity of certain characters this season, New Girl has proven just how mature the show itself has become.
(JO)


Parenthood's "Keep On Rowing"
Parenthood was never a bad show, but it took about a season to find proper footing, and continued to stumble a bit in its second outing. Season three proved strong, but the most recent fourth effort provided a terrific season of television. Much of this revolved around a central narrative that used a dramatic device (cancer) so potentially overwrought that concern was understandable. But from Kristina telling her family in a silent, powerful moment to Adam discussing the disease in detail with their daughter Haddie, Monica Potter and Peter Krause forced viewers to find themselves weeping at the end of each episode. “Keep On Rowing” was a season highlight for the way it took a fairly standard cancer-related storyline (bald Kristina wants to feel normal) but played it with Parenthood’s sublime blend of naturalism and gentle soapiness (a mix extending from showrunner Jason Katims’ work on both Friday Night Lights and Zwick/Herskovitz). Krause and Potter had to play heightened for so long this season, and though they played that perfectly, it was nice to see a more tempered relaxation to the characters in the episode's second half; it felt good to see them relax as we would wish our own family members to. This episode also featured wonderful moments for the other Braverman siblings, with Crosby’s dealings with his mother-in-law (another storyline that could have been more overplayed, but was dealt with in a ultimately quiet fashion), Julia telling her adopted son that he couldn’t see his mother again, and, well, Sarah’s doing stuff too. “Keep On Rowing” was one of the best episode of the year because it managed to simultaneously heighten and release the drama of Parenthood’s best season yet.
(JO)


Hannibal
I couldn't be happier to put this on my list.  A year ago, when this project was first announced, I was one of its biggest skeptics.  Never mind that the creative brain behind it was Bryan Fuller, one of the best writers working in the business.  And never mind the intriguing casting reports that began popping up in the wake of the initial announcement.  I doubted it right up until it hit the airwaves.  My doubt was met with lush direction, sharp acting, and just the right amount of off-kilter humor I've come to expect from Fuller's more lighthearted works.  And the pilot wasn't just a flash in the pan; the episodes that followed only enriched the elements I found so engrossing about the first.  It called to mind all the wire-tight tension of the Dexter's great first season, but without the foreboding signs that it would run out of dramatic steam.  Its renewal was something of a small miracle, but one NBC will hopefully be glad of; right now Hannibal is perhaps the only network drama that can challenge its prestigious cable counterparts.
(PK)

Doctor Who
After so long as a niche show, Doctor Who's cultural cachet has risen considerably, even making the cover of Entertainment Weekly.  But my praise for the revived Who's seventh season comes with some reservations and explanations.  The writing this year has often had eyes bigger than its stomach, taking on ideas that it can't possibly explore in-depth with only a forty-five-minute runtime.  But Doctor Who makes my list this year on the strength of Matt Smith, who's stepped up his game so much that I'll no longer smack someone who thinks he's better than David Tennant.  Now the show's fiftieth anniversary looms, itself a major benchmark--how many narrative shows can boast that kind of longevity?  And soon after that, we'll finally get to meet Smith's own successor.
(PK)

The Red Wedding on Game of Thrones
Full disclosure: I’ve only read the first two books in the Song Of Fire And Ice series, so I’m pretty sure no matter how well episode nine of season three stuck its landing, I probably would have been shocked. I definitely saw certain bodies heading towards their grave as much of this season was about tearing down certain paragon’s of virtue, but I didn’t expect the deaths to be as ugly, undignified and frankly pitiful as they were. But on top of that, Game Of Thrones fucking nailed it on the execution (ugh, sorry about that). The sudden change of music, the dreadful thud of a closing door, the creeping suspicion as each character slowly begins to realize what’s about to happen. My heart hasn’t hammered so much against my ribs because of television since the finale of Breaking Bad season 4. More important than the moment itself, for me anyway, was the way its aftermath lingered with me for the rest of the night. The Red Wedding proved to me exactly how strong this show’s commitment is to seeing its decisions play out to the end. Everyone warned me that my favorite characters were going to end to end up dead, but so far none of them have. Game Of Thrones doesn’t kill its characters out of spite for its audiences. It kills them because they lost the game, either by following the wrong set of rules, or following the right ones at the wrong time. Never before have I seen a narrative skew so close to objectivity, and it makes me sick to my stomach in the best possible way.
(IC)

The Killing
If someone were to mention The Killing, the typical responses would either be “I’ve never heard of it”, or “that show sucks”. Now granted, the AMC drama did have a lot of problems during its first two seasons, but it was still a very gripping and riveting series with stellar acting, and a fantastic visual palate. However, it’s understandable how the problems this show has faced could turn a person off forever. But that’s about to change, as the third season of the series has crept its way into the summer lineup of shows, and it is among the best. The series has radically changed itself, becoming darker and more involved. It has found itself relying less on red herrings like previous seasons, and more on finding solid clues that lead to solving the major case of this season. While The Killing spent two seasons trying to determine who killed Rosie Larson, this season looks like it’ll wrap itself up nicely come the last episode. The first episode picks up where season two left off, with Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) dealing with the fallout of the Larson case, and isolating herself from detective work. Her ex-partner Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) is now a detective working with a new partner, and trying to solve a string of murders dealing with teenage female victims. Meanwhile, Ray Seward (Peter Sarsgaard) is waiting on death row for the brutal murder of his wife, a case that Linden had dealt with years back. Although only five episodes in, the series has already made a phenomenal comeback. The story is stronger, the direction is bleaker, and each episode makes you crave another after it’s done. The performances are also just as good as in previous seasons, with Enos and Kinnaman working magnificently off of each other. But it’s Sarsgaard who really drives the show along. He brings each scene he’s in a malevolent, pulsing energy, digging deep into his character’s inner torment, yet keeping everything very subtle. His scenes are written brilliantly, capturing a man so emotionally torn over his crime, yet too psychologically disturbed and egocentric to show it. The rest of the scenes are also written extremely well, and are a drastic improvement from past seasons. Each episode brings the characters closer to solving the case, and raises the tension to an almost unbearable point. Yet, it’s this tension that makes this season of The Killing so enticing, intriguing, and unbelievably addicting. Even if you haven’t seen past seasons, this one doesn’t relate to them, so you won’t be lost. It’s like the series is starting over, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
(MH)

MUSIC:



"Gravity's Union" by Coheed and Cambria
Coheed and Cambria is a fucking weird band.  Having had some success in the early 2000’s by being just barely enough of an emo band to be played on MTV and Fuse, they’ve since proved to be too inconsistent and heady for the mainstream and have subsequently doomed themselves to thrive on their devoted but static fan base. But they haven’t let this get them down, and in 2012 and '13 they have released an excellent two-part record titled The Afterman. “Gravity’s Union”, from the second disc released this year, might sound pretty foreign to those expecting the bubbly pop punk from their singles 10 years ago, but it still features all of the band’s strengths. More than anything, Coheed excel at writing long, highly involved melodies that flow seamlessly into each other as the underlying form of the song shifts and squirms. After a jerky and unsettled verse the band hits the chorus like a truck going 90, building a huge foundation in the lower register for Claudio Sanchez to soar over. Once the band has fulfilled the required second verse and chorus, they really start to stretch out, changing meters, stacking up the harmonies and letting the guitars run wild on the solos. Finally, after one final calm before the storm, the whole thing explodes into an enormous coda, made of entirely new material, yet still building from everything preceding it. As usual, I have absolutely no idea what Sanchez is going on about, but fuck does it sound important with an arrangement like that.
(IC)

Save Rock and Roll by Fall Out Boy
After a four year hiatus, Fall Out Boy returned with another entertaining, and rather ambitious album, blurring the line between pop and rock as always, and showing that they still have a lot of life left in them. They’re not quite saving rock and roll, but they’re definitely sending a message that it isn’t out of the fight just yet. From the opening track ("The Phoenix"), it sounds like the band hasn’t lost its touch. They’re back, guitars blaring, and beats pumping, resurrected, as the song suggests, like a phoenix. It’s a great start to the album, and flows nicely into their first single "My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark". Reminiscent of "This Ain’t A Scene" from 2007’s Infinity On High, it’s a slow burning song that leads into a brash and intense chorus, all backed by lead singer Patrick Stump’s powerful vocals. Passing through the rest of the album, songs like "Alone Together" and "Just One Yesterday" mirror the earlier punk influences of the band, while the dance influenced "Where Did The Party Go" and "Miss Missing You" are a welcome addition to their repertoire. As the album ends, three of the best tracks of the album emerge. "Young Volcanoes", a light-hearted acoustic tune, allows for an easy break from the heavier material of the album, yet is still just as good. Following this is the Courtney Love-filled "Rat A Tat", an intense, gritty tune full of vicious vocals, and punk-fueled fire. It’s a fun, unapologetic romp, which leads into the strongest song of the album. "Save Rock And Roll", a ballad of epic proportions, features some of the strongest lyrics and vocals of the entire album. Maybe this is because Elton John lends his voice to this track, but regardless it’s phenomenal. Stump and John complement each other remarkably, with Stump being at the top of his game. It’s a great closing to a great album. The album showcases each band member in top form. Front man Patrick Stump shows how much he’s matured vocally and with his song writing since 2008’s Folie A Deux. His pitch is cleaner, his range bigger, and his songwriting skills are more unapologetic and brave than they’ve ever been. This is also in part to co-songwriter and bassist Pete Wentz. The two work marvelously together, creating songs that are emotionally powerful and cling to your mind long after they’re over. This album is definitely the most personal, and brave album Fall Out Boy has released to date. They’re not the punk band they were when they started; they’re more mature, more sure of themselves, and ready to, as Pete Wentz has said “make music that f*cking matters”. They’ve proven that with Save Rock And Roll, an album that truly matters to all that love music.
(MH)

OTHER:



Patton Oswalt
Discovering Patton Oswalt’s masterpiece Werewolves & Lollipops was a turning point in my life as a pop culture connoisseur. His work is to me as the various musicians and writers he nerds out about are to him, a staple of my mindset and a fraction of my own voice. This year he has only grown outward, continuing to stake his ground in the annals of comedy history, and he hasn’t even released an album. The most pure spectacle of his 2013 achievements was his turn on Parks & Recreation as a man dedicated to the word of the constitution. His work in the episode itself (“Article Two”) is excellent, but even more vital is the extended filibuster wherein he elaborately details the wildest fanboy dream in all of movie history. The other two main contributions that Oswalt has given the internet this year are far more somber. The first came the day of the Boston Marathon bombings. His post on the good inherent in humanity was a powerful and comforting statement on a cold and hard day, never more so than the closing line, directed towards the idea of hatred: “The good outnumber you, and we always will.” After already providing an overwhelming amount towards the good of the human heart, Oswalt continued with his essay “A Closed Letter to Myself About Thievery, Heckling and Rape Jokes”. The first two topics had Oswalt on the (justified) offensive, describing his disappointment in people who refuse to look beyond their own narrow viewpoint. When discussing rape jokes, he turns this idea inward and views himself as someone who could stand to take others’ perspectives. It is a vital and difficult lesson to learn in life, a matter he has touched on before in a high school graduation speech (and I performed for my high school speech team, with all due accreditation, making it to state my senior year. Thanks, Patton!). This year, in nontraditional formats of YouTube videos and blog posts (meaning he has made little money beyond what Parks & Rec paid him) he has given the gift of pure, electric humor, touched on an important defense against cynicism, and reminded readers that looking outside oneself is the greatest thing one can do.
(JO)


Chew
This isn't the first time I've sung the praises of Image Comics' Chew, and it won't be the last.  Writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory have created a lively, offbeat series full of lively, offbeat characters, and at the beginning of this year they plunged into the second half of their story with the funeral of a beloved character whose sudden death was a complete gut punch.  A lot of the fun in second acts is seeing characters pushed to dark places and particularly nasty situations, and that's a storytelling directive to which Layman and Guillory have taken with glee.  The series' disparate plot threads have finally begun to come together in unexpected, sometimes poignant ways, and those developments have been brought to life every step of the way by Guillory's dynamic penciling.  Image might currently have the best stable of series right now, and I can honestly say as someone who's read most of them that Chew is among the very best.
(PK)

The Split Screen on Homestuck
It wasn’t the most outlandish event in Homestuck this year (Tricksters) nor was it the most game changing (John’s Arms), but the ending to Act 6 Act 5 was yet another example of Andrew Hussie using his unique medium for maximum dramatic effect. Putting two pages next to each on the same screen doesn’t seem like much of an innovation in the way comics tell stories; in fact it’s probably the closest Homestuck has ever come to emulating the physical medium. But sometimes the old tricks are the best, and by doubling the information on screen, Hussie pushes the pace of the story into overdrive. Duality is a pervasive theme in this arc. Our cast is split into two groups of two on the diametrically opposed moons of Prospit and Derse. As we watch the kids finally come clean about their insecurities and feelings for each other, the world crumbles around them. What started as just two panels balloons into six, expanding to show a single image. It’s a combination of visually striking images, emotional catharsis and huge advancements in the plot all rolled into one. The events that occur swing from the horrifying (Jack Noir’s eyes will haunt my dreams) to joyous (Jade’s back!!!!!!) all the way back to gut wrenching fear as everything that could possibly go wrong does just that. Although the ensuing intermission was a bit heavy on exposition for my tastes, post hiatus Homestuck looks to pick up where this wonderful sequence ended, with the stakes just as high and the visual storytelling just as artful.
(IC)

Bioshock Infinite
2013 is an important year for gaming, and it isn’t because the new generation of consoles is making its way to our homes, but rather because the topic of ‘are games art’ continues to get games such an Bioshock Infinite as counter points to the arguments against it, but that conversation should be reserved for its own piece. The original Bioshock was a big deal when it was released in 2007, showcasing a mesmerizing underwater world known as Rapture that was as much a character within the game as the silent protagonist. The sequel, which shared the same setting, wasn’t greeted as kindly upon release, but still proved to be a solid entry in the franchise, but the awe of exploring Rapture for the first time was mostly lost. Infinite draws from the strengths of past entries (combat mechanics, focus in exploration, storytelling, and character development) and seeks to improve them while building everything around a vast new world that is equally, if not more engaging and beautiful than Rapture was, especially on your first visit. Columbia is a floating utopia, a theme park with a twisted moral code and a heavy focus in religion, divided in civil war due to its isolation and conflicting ideas amongst the citizens. You arrive with a mission, to find a woman named Elizabeth and return her to the men who have hired you. Elizabeth, a prisoner of Columbia, becomes your partner as you make your way through the game, and quickly distinguishes herself as one of the most useful and engaging computer controlled characters in recent memory (at the level of Half Life 2’s Alyx). As battles unfold, she moves through the crossfire, attempting to find items that can aid the both of you as you progress, and taking cover when necessary. She also has some unique and game changing abilities that come about as the story progresses, but they fall into spoiler territory. The drawbacks of the game come from a large focus in combat that starts to wear in the third act. Though the pacing of discovering new abilities mostly works, the low enemy variety becomes tiresome. Regardless, Infinite is engaging, thought provoking, beautiful, emotional, and unforgettable. Avoid the spoilers. Experience this first hand.
(DO)

Escape from Burgertown
Zac Gorman is a cartoonist, most known for the Magical GameTime, the brilliant blog where Gorman draws comics that are simultaneously wistful, fun, and profound. That site has had an excellent 2013, but most exciting in the world of Gorman is his new series Escape from Burgertown. There have only been a handful of strips so far, where Gorman has begun to sketch out the detail in his protagonists, two young boys who live in a totalitarian future. So far they have played games that have shifted in purpose and importance, from a simple arcade game that allows them to feel a sense of control and heroism in the bleakness of their world, to “Marry, Smooch, Report”. It is in this entry that Gorman shows the full power he can wield when combining his art and writing. The name of the game show both the youth of the characters, and “Report” standing in for “Kill” gives an authenticity to the futuristic setting of the world. The strip ends with one character telling the other “I don’t really wanna report anybody”, showing that their potential naïveté of youth is quickly becoming erased in the face of dystopia. There have only been five entries posted thus far, and the most recent (posted on May 22nd) gives just the first glimpse of the titular town, but Gorman has already begun to create a universe. I trust that the scope of the world will only continue to expand, but even if the scale remains small, the poignant moments of two young people discovering that the cruelty of the world can destroy almost anything is enough reason to follow Escape from Burgertown for as long as it continues.
(JO)

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