I consumed a lot of media this year and I’m going to rank my favourite pieces here. Rather than just doing a Film list, I’m also going to do a Games list and a short Music list.
There was some good shit in 2018. Let’s get to it!
This list is short because although I listened to more music this year than I ever have before, there were probably only four albums I genuinely fell in love with. They were:
#4 – Dirty Computer by Janelle Monae
The best way to describe why I love this album so much is that it made me realise why people love Prince. This record totally feels like Janelle has picked up the proto-electro-party-pop sound that has been absent since Prince passed away and for my money she does it better than he ever did. That might be sacrilege in some circles but I just see it as a sign of some damn good songwriting.
#3 – Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves
Genuine country music is so hard to get right. Swing too far in one direction and you end up cashing in and resorting to cheap pop parlour tricks. The other direction leads to rote ‘Good ole’ boys’ platitudes that reeks of sheer laziness. Kacey appeals to neither and produces an entirely affable and relatable album that is just super pleasant to listen to. It’s pretty great.
#2 – Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It by Rolo Tomassi
I’ve been following Rolo Tomassi since their second album and whilst I’ve always loved them for what they are (whatever the hell that is, it changes on a dime so frequently…) I feel like I’ve never taken them especially seriously as a band with staying power. I think I expected them to just disappear one day. Time Will Die… suggests that’s not the case and that they’ve only just begun to master their discipline of dynamics, aberrant melody and aggressively thought-out soulful thrash. This album fucking killed it.
#1 – Be the Cowboy by Mistki
I could legitimately write an entire article about the first track on this record alone. It’s the most singularly impressive piece of music I’ve heard in years. In fact, rather than fuck around, just listen to it:
The frequency of tonal shifts, of emotional variance, of dynamic range is just mind-blowing and this song is less than 2 and a half minutes long. I’ve listened to (and loved) entire albums that haven’t come close to what Mitski can do in 2 minutes and if that wasn’t enough, the rest of the album is killer as well. It bounces around genre and mood giving hints of the Pixies and Annie Clark but is never anything but entirely unique. It’s sexy and sultry and bouncy and just such a good fucking listen that it seriously made me question how I view music because for quite a while music has not made me feel as good as this album did. I honestly could not recommend this album more highly.
I bought a Switch this year! I almost bought a PSVR but chickened out at the last second! I played a bunch of games that were really good! Here are the ten best of them!
#10 – Pianista
Played on: Nintendo Switch
Pianista is Rock Band or Guitar Hero but with a piano and without the plastic instruments. You just use the buttons on the controller and that’s it, standard rhythm game fare. It’s also arguably way too fucking hard with a massive difficulty curve that was almost steep enough to turn me off. In fact, it wasn’t until I disconnected my Switch from my TV and played it handheld that I managed to overcome the input lag that was holding me back in Pianista and that’s a problem.
But the thing is that I love classical music and I think it’s fair to say that getting better at Pianista makes me understand and appreciate some of these masterpieces in a way that those other rhythm games honestly never did. Not to mention that the selection is absolutely huge with a tonne of tracks I could recognise immediately mixed in with some that were entirely new to me. Pianista is a flawed product but it elicited just enough joy in me to make it a pretty easy lock for this list.
#9 – Hitman 2
Played on: Playstation 4
Hitman 2 is more Hitman and that is all it needs to be. There are a few niggles I have with it, for instance I wish that it was still presented in an episodic format throughout the year. The preceding Hitman is arguably the only game to get such a release structure right and having all of the content up front led to me burning out about half-way through. But when the Elusive Targets came online the first victim was a man going by the title of The Undying played by Sean Bean and that is so unbelievably beautifully stupid. I stabbed that motherfucker in the eye with an exploding pen and it was magnificently fun. So, yeah. Hitman is still pretty great.
#8 – Yakuza Kiwami 2
Played on: Playstation 4
I’m pretty sure that the only reason this is Yakuza Kiwami 2 and not Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is that I’m trying to play these games in order and I have another 3 games to play before I even think about touching Kiryu’s final story. But that’s okay because Yakuza Kiwami 2 uses the same updated Dragon engine as Y6 did and otherwise it is a game that is HELLA YAKUZA.
You want grown gangsters crying in the rain? CHECK.
Over the top soap-opera drama culminating in a shirtless fist-fight atop a skyscraper? CHECK.
Need to see your boy Kiryu punch a tiger? WE GOT YOU BRO, HE FIGHTS TWO AND THEY’RE BIG AS FUCK!
I love these games so much.
#7 – Florence
Played on: iPhone XS
It seems really fucking silly to try and talk about Florence right after a Yakuza game. They are polar opposites in every way. One is 100 hours long, a high-tech installment in a franchise that celebrates excess and ridiculousness. The other is a 45 minute long, stripped down stand-alone story that focuses on emotionally resonant mechanics. Florence is maybe the smartest representation of emotion through how players interact with the game and although it only ever amounts to simple swipes, the implementation of those swipes is astounding. Florence might not blow anyone’s mind with bombast but it’s easily the most seamless merging I’ve ever seen of intuitive design and emotional engagement.
#6 – Celeste
Played on: Nintendo Switch
It’s odd that I feel for Celeste as hard as I did. I’ve never been super hot on the pixelated retrograde art aesthetic and super difficult games simply aren’t my bag. But I’ll echo what everybody else has said in their coverage…Celeste is fair. It’s nice about it’s cruelty. It’s encouraging and it never feels like it’s providing an insurmountable challenge, just a challenge I’ve not figured out yet. I’ve not gotten super far into Celeste but I’ve died more times than I can count already and still feel ready to come back for more. And the music is absolutely lush, too.
#5 – Red Dead Redemption 2
Played on: Playstation 4
Red Dead Redemption 2 is everything in every sense I can conceive. It’s a massive world, it’s a beautiful visual statement, it has tremendous music, an ongoing and wholly immersive simulation that sunk its hooks into me. It’s beautiful and sprawling and exciting at first and then just too damn big as you keep playing.
By the time I was done with RDR2 I was really done with it. I loved the main story but not how much of it I had to play. I loved the exploring but hadn’t done any in about thirty hours. I was very grateful it was a world I got to spend time in and experience but I honestly don’t know if I ever want to revisit it again. That first time around was a real trip though.
#4 – Into the Breach
Played on: Nintendo Switch
Into the Breach is the precise opposite of Red Dead; it’s a game that is uniquely disciplined and encourages that discipline in its players. It is very difficult but gives players more than enough information to make their way out of any situation. It comes down to whether or not players pay attention that determines whether or not they make it through a time-line or not. A mix or Turn-Based-Strategy and puzzle game mechanics, Into the Breach constantly shifts to exceed expectations and is basically the embodiment of that age old adage, “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master.” It’s very fun.
#3 – Marvel’s Spider-Man
Played on: Playstation 4
They made a hella good Spider-Man game.
#2 – Tetris Effect
Played on: Playstation 4
I’ve always respected Tetris from afar, rather than love it. It’s basically a perfect video game but I’ve never felt any particular compulsion to invest myself in Tetris. Until now. Tetris Effect is the game that made me actively get better at Tetris and there’s no point trying to explain why. Check out some footage and if you like any part of it you should play this game. The music and the triptastic visuals simply manage to push my brain into a generally zen place that it need to function well at Tetris and the whole experience is just goddamn gorgeous.
Note: I’ve not had a chance to play this in VR yet and from what I’ve heard, that experience could push this game to the top of the list. Even on a TV, though, Tetris Effect is one of the very best games of the year.
#1 – God of War
Played on: Playstation 4
I’m not going to suggest anything crazy like God of War made me realise what it must be like to be a father and I’m not going to even attempt to defend some of the problematic elements of its story. A few shortcomings aside, though, God of War gave me a softer and more tender side of a franchise that had frankly run its course by the time the first instalment came out. The narrative by and large worked for me and it was wrapped up in gameplay that felt tight and fresh, along with an incredibly effective art design and an overhaul in scope and setting that simply worked for me. It’s the smallest and most colourful epic adventure I’ve ever been on with an emotional core that more than works and left me excited about a franchise I’ve honestly never really cared about.
The movies of 2018 increasingly felt like they were trying to wear me down but at the end of the day, there were ten movies that more than stand up to any Top Ten list I’ve ever done. The kids movies certainly let me down a little this year but the following ten simply blew me away:
#10 – You Were Never Really Here
You Were Never Really Here is the follow up to We Need To Talk About Kevin from director Lynne Ramsay. So to say it’s nasty would be an understatement. What is surprising about her current movie is just how restrained it is. Ramsay is a master film-maker who has a concrete understanding of just what she needs to show but in this movie, what is most impactful is how little violence you physically see and how much you absolutely feel. It’s a masterful piece of internal film-making out of a plot that in just about anybody else’s hands would feel like trite thriller-nonsense and easily stands up pretty tall in her back-catalogue.
#9 – American Animals
Let’s get this out of the way up-front: American Animals is a true story of an art heist that is presented as 70% narrative reconstruction and 30% talking heads documentary that showcases the subjects of the narrative in real life, today. It’s an unconventional format that seems more akin to a TV special than it does to a movie but it works shockingly well here. It’s an aloof and fun movie that doesn’t shy away from the consequences of the lunacy it courts and leaves viewers with more questions than answers. I loved it.
#8 – Sorry To Bother You
As somebody who has worked in cold-calling in order to make ends meet in the past, I feel almost like the ideal audience for a movie like Sorry To Bother You. This is certainly a movie in which racial politics play a significant part but it soon transcends those politics and replaces them with altogether more universal politics. And then it replaces those politics with some truly bonkers ideas that have to be seen to be believed. It’s smart, funny, shocking and crazy in equal measure and I daren’t say any more for fear of ruining one of the best twists in recent memory. Check it out.
#7 – Widows
Viola Davis is about all that you need to say to me to get me onboard a movie and Widows continues her trend of being increasingly awesome with every role. She’s raw and broken in more ways than are immediately apparent but every new unveiling of tragedy only adds more authenticity to a performance that is as layered as it is agonising to watch. She’s hardcore but it clearly doesn’t come to her (or any of her cohorts) naturally. Widows is considerably deeper than it needs to be but it never feels like a lecture and finds director Steve McQueen back at the top of his game in hugely entertaining fashion.
#6 – Bodied
I’ve always believed that satire can do tremendous things so it’s with no hesitation that I call Bodied simultaneously the most offensive and the most woke film of 2018. It’s basically my personal belief system rolled up into a movie. It’s not necessarily the disgusting shit anyone ever says but the intent behind it and although Bodied is chock-full of passive bigotry…that’s kind of the point. It’s a movie about racism being inherent to Battle Rapping as an art-form and that there are consequences to producing such art. On top of all these heavy topics, though, it’s also the funniest (and the most surprisingly stylish) movie of the year and I am constantly amazed that it was released by fucking YouTube of all companies. Fucking YouTube!
#5 – Annihilation
I read the original novel Annihilation in a single sitting on a plane and couldn’t quite fathom what it was I’d just read. A few months later I had just about reconciled what I thought the plot was when the film adaptation was released only to find that the plot was somehow entirely different. There is no movie this year that made me work harder ad I’m pretty sure it would have been the same way if I hadn’t read the book beforehand. It’s a movie of incomparable beauty and horror, often all rolled up together. It’s a medley of melancholy and almost entirely devoid of nonsense and I still can’t believe it was hung out to dry so drastically. If you’ve not already seen it, take the time but be ready to do some thinking in the process.
#4 – Bad Times at the El Royale
Bad Times at the El Royale is a big movie. It’s got a large very talented ensemble cast who all get their moments and the twists came fast and furious fairly early on. And they don’t stop. It’s great.
I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Bad Times… saying that it’s too clever for it’s own good but I just don’t see it. The twists all felt totally rational to me and the topsy-turvy nature of the plot shifting and shaking left me suitably entertained. I physically laughed out loud out of shock more times in this movie than I did for every other movie of the year combined. Couple that generally batshit crazy script with an aesthetic that screams nostalgia and some whip-sharp dialogue that left me in absolute awe of the craft on display…Bad Times at the El Royale is just a damn good time at the movies.
#3 – Mission: Impossible – Fallout
I’m not sure if Fallout will go down in history as my favourite Mission: Impossible film but it is certainly the most Mission: Impossible film and I’m still astounded that they’re making these beautiful slices of madness. Considering how concerned I was when Chris McQuarrie was announced as a returning director, a first for the series, he and longtime star/producer/amateur daredevil Tom Cruise managed to find an entirely new voice with which to produce the latest instalment and truly push everything to the max. There was shit in this movie that made me gasp in horror because it’s all just so much and I’ve probably watched this movie more than any other this year. It’s tremendous and as far as Mission: Impossible movies go, I genuinely don’t think it can be topped.
#2 – A Quiet Place
Few movies set up their rules as effectively as A Quiet Place and fewer still commit to those rules. It’s a harsh inhospitable world and we learn this very quickly. What perhaps surprises me the most about A Quiet Place is that it took this long for it to be made. A horror movie in which sound is the monster? Effectively a silent film, writer/director/star John Krasinski does such a good job of letting action do the talking that you never feel like you need dialogue. In fact, if I have one qualm it’s that a few Sign Language sequences are subtitled and they really don’t need to be. The characters and the world tell you all you need to. And regardless of what anybody tells you, A Quiet Place is legitimately scary.
#1 – Apostle
Am I literally the only fucking person on the planet to see Apostle? It’s such a great movie! With a not entirely subtle environmental message, some trippy ass horror imagery, brutal action, character interactions that almost always end gnarly, beautiful Welsh scenery and a very pissed-off looking Dan Stevens, I honestly don’t know what more anybody needs! It’s like The Wicker Man but far more grotesque and violent. Bringing the sort of choreography that worked so well for him in The Raid movies, director Gareth Evans does a tremendous job of breaking up the moments of static glaring with genuinely punchy violence. The movie operates with a ruthless effectiveness building up pressure and then releasing before building up even nastier and crueller turns for its characters, who almost all happen to be total dicks. I might be inflating my opinion of this movie a little because nobody else has seen it but honestly, it’s the movie I came out of more breathless and stunned than any other this year. Sometimes that’s exactly what I need.
Looks like you’ve got a lot to live up to. Let’s finish off the Twenty-Teens with some more awesome stuff, rather than with the mutually-assured destruction that I half expect every morning.