It’s been a hard year. I saw exactly one film in theaters, my favorite albums weren’t as phenomenal as my favorites in years past, and I can’t leave my phone in my pocket for one hour without the discourse shifting to the President’s tweets, another beloved celebrity being exposed as a sexual assailant, or some other Hell. So over the next twelve days, I’ll be counting down twelve pieces of entertainment that kept me sane in 2017.
Note: Today, we’ll be trying something different! My top two I regard as pretty uniquely immaculate, so before we get to them, here are a few things that could have totally made this list but, for whatever reason, didn’t quite.
Night in the Woods (multiplatform), by Infinite Fall
Night in the Woods isn’t the first time a video game has been built so thoroughly around a narrative that its mechanics are footnotes – the excellent Gone Home in particular comes to mind – but it’s the first to truly blow me away. Night in the Woods comes on as a story about the nether region between childhood and adulthood and failure, but then takes on mental health and the connective tissue between the weakening of organized labor and the decay and disrepair of small town America.
But on the way there are powerful character moments, many of them come automatically, but even more feel earned through your genuine persisting interest in the lives of the citizens of Possum Springs.
The most striking moments come in cutscenes, but it’s often just as powerful for a simple, understated conversation to complete a character’s gentle arc.
I was first really struck by how I felt after my (Mae’s) mother came after her for dropping out of college and I chose to say something to hurt her. Later, I felt hurt when Mae lashed out at the pastor in exchange for the pastor being honest with Mae about her enduring but incomplete belief. Moments like these pile up until a climax too intense, too haunting, to wonderful to spoil.
I was late to Night in the Woods. It came out last January, but I only got around to it after its release on the Switch last month. It would have made my list, and it would have made it pretty high. I can’t recall a game making me shed tears before.
Sex Fantasy (Koyama Press), by Sophia Foster-Dimino
Sophia Foster-Dimino was nominated thrice in the 2015 Ignatz Awards and won out, taking home Promising New Talent, Outstanding Minicomic (for “Sex Fantasy #4”), and, most impressively, Outstanding Series outright for Sex Fantasy.
It was a question of when she would finally collect the series, and finally here is Sex Fantasy, ten entries long.
As the series progressed, its meditations gave way to meditative conversations and finally gave way to meditative stories: a woman vacationing with her husband finds herself contemplating divorce, a grown troublemaker throws a tantrum in a grocery store aisle, and a young woman’s plans to spend time with her boyfriend are thrown into chaos and loneliness by a blizzard.
Sex Fantasy #1-8 are all available on Foster-Dimino’s blog and are astonishingly quick reads. In fifteen minutes you might be willing to throw down money for a tiny collection of them, plus two more comics.
I hate to spoil it or put a comic in text form, but allow me to share this exchange from my favorite, “Sex Fantasy #7” (available to download at that link in .pdf form at a pay-what-you-want-including-nothing rate), which is illustrative of the series’ appeal.
“When I fell down the hill and I was bleeding – is that why you laughed, because you love pathetic things?”
“Ugh…you don’t understand! It’s just that your fall was so measured and considered – almost in slow motion – it was so like you. I know it seems cruel and strange, but I felt overwhelming tenderness for you and the only expression I could find for it was laughter. But I was deeply moved. And in that moment I loved you so much.”
Ball is life, but after the once-in-a-lifetime experience of the 2016 Golden State Warriors…
1. Making their way to the best record in league history, 2. Coming back from a 3-1 deficit against Kevin Durant’s and Russell Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder, 3. Blowing a 3-1 lead to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers to ruin a historic season, and then 4. Acquiring Kevin freakin’ Durant in an unprecedented, unholy event…
…the 2017 season felt like a formality. A team that already had made Greatest Of All Time talk united its own MVP with another, and it wasn’t a surprise when they breezed through the playoffs nearly undefeated to win it all. It wasn’t boring – the team’s personalities are too great and its gameplay is too beautiful – but it wasn’t exactly a thrilling conclusion.
It was a treat, however, to see Russell Westbrook, abandoned by Kevin Durant, go Super Saiyan, doing the unthinkable by becoming the second player to ever average a triple double (far more difficult in this era of play), and win Most Valuable Player through sheer force of will.
But 2017 was most notable for its offseason, when the rest of the NBA had a panic attack thinking about the Golden State Warriors.
Chris Paul joined James Harden and the Houston Rockets, making it the second team with two of the league’s ten best players, turning the Rockets into a machine hellbent on one quest: defeating the Warriors. The two powers in the East, the Boston Celtics and the Cavs, swapped franchise star point guards, the Celtics trading their scrappy fifth place MVP finisher after he played through the tragedy of his sister’s death for them. Paul George finally fled Indiana to join the Thunder, helping fill the void Durant left. That’s only scraping the surface of everything that happened.
The 2017-2018 season has been fun so far, but it remains to be seen what it will amount to. But the offseason had the truly memorable sight of all stars pinging around the NBA.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Disney), directed by Rian Johnson
As I keep saying, I saw exactly one film last year. It was the one everyone saw.
No, not every decision was perfect, but disregard skeptics and embrace the humor, the ambition, and risks Rian Johnson takes, because with the trilogy’s final episode we’ll regrettably be returning to JJ Abrams.
The Force Awakens was about the safest movie imaginable, serving as an introduction and reintroduction and not a lot more. The Last Jedi was tasked with being the first to really define the thrust of these new episodes.
Kylo Ren continues to be the best thing about them and forces his way further to the fore. Mark Hamill enthusiastically leaps back into Luke Skywalker. Laura Dern shows up and is given far and away the best moment of the film.
Most else of what I have to say involves ruining the entire thing for the twelve people who haven’t seen it, none of whom are reading this, but while The Force Awakens was fun, it took this one to make Disney’s ventures into Star Wars feel like more than a cash grab.
I Love You Like A Brother (Dead Oceans), by Alex Lahey
Japandroids’ Celebration Rock is a favorite of mine, but its sequel ended up not quite living up, so I had to turn elsewhere to ease my woes with “whoa-oh-oh”s.
It wasn’t until 2017 was about over that I heard Alex Lahey’s I Love You Like A Brother, and it was one of those rare albums that I instantly knew I’d be having a long term relationship with. Like Celebration Rock, it was exactly the sound I needed exactly when I needed it.
I Love You Like A Brother is easily my most listened to album of 2018. I find myself begging my friends to listen to her, and it feels unimaginable that she hasn’t spread yet. But the way her guitar zooms and her small songs about small things turn into big anthems just tickles something deep down in my core.
It’s the best rock album since Art Angels. It’s the best guitar rock album since Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
Boundless (Drawn & Quarterly), by Jillian Tamaki
If one were to produce the name of the most talented person in indie comics, Jillian Tamaki is about as good as you can do. And her short form work has been piling up. Much of it is available on Hazlitt. “Darla!” “Body Pods” (part one and part two). “Boundless.” “Bed Bug.” “The ClairFree System.”
These make up most of Tamaki’s collection, with two new stories and her best one completing it. She’d done short comic stories before, but “SexCoven,” her contribution to the wonderful Frontier series from Youth in Decline, immediately vaulted her to the fore of the form. It follows an hours-long audio file of mysterious origin on its journey from peer to peer file sharing services into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. People fuck to it. Small groups take walks at night to it. Parents have a moral panic about it. People forget about it. Holdouts continue to obsess, even moreso than before, over it.
Tamaki’s fascination with the stranger ways of popular culture is also apparent throughout “Darla!” – about a wholesome but pornographic sitcom whose only success was in its death, thanks to the internet – and “Body Pods” – whose narrator keeps stumbling into romantic partners obsessed with the fictional cult films, remembering the way the deaths of cast members marked each period in her life.
Those stories, along with the spooky social media tale “1.Jenny,” are my very favorites, but Boundless is spellbinding throughout, and it’s in no small part due to Tamaki’s art, which helps sell opening poem “World-Class City” and closer “Boundless,” which relays the existential inner monologues of a bird, a squirrel, and a fly.
Boundless is Tamaki’s first book since her collected SuperMutant Magic Academy strips and the Esiner-winning This One Summer with cousin Mariko. It’s a stern reminder of what she can do, and it’s now the de facto starting place for anyone interested in her work. Maybe anyone interested in indie comics at all.
Samurai Jack (Cartoon Network), created by Genndy Tartakovsky
“Do you give up? Will you abandon their hope? Can you not feel their desperation? Will evil forever rule the world? HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN?”
No scene from Samurai Jack‘s original run resembles the arc of the show’s fifth season, back from a thirteen year break to conclude the series, quite like this scene from “Jack and the Monks.” Fifty years after being flung into the distant future by Aku, much of Jack’s journey through these ten new episodes is internal, over time his drive to return and save his enslaved family and people being overtaken by his gradual realization of his quest’s impossibility.
Often presented as a perfect fighter and a perfect person in the original series, Jack’s cynicism has been nurtured by the passage of time, and the new season’s second episode sees him combating this while his time might be up anyway, because Samurai Jack is finally outclassed and fighting for his life, barely surviving each second. Never has Samurai Jack‘s animation been allowed to drive home this kind of tension before. Its self-contained episodes of old couldn’t pull off what’s done here.
At one point Jack cowers, clueless, as part of him tries to convince him that suicide is the answer. He fights. He fails.
It’s one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever seen.
Honestly, this season should have been on the list proper and was simply a casualty of me realizing my error too late into the project. Especially when revivals (think The Powerpuff Girls reboot or Dragon Ball Super) keep falling well short of their predecessors’ animation, it’s stunning to see Samurai Jack move beyond its already immaculate look. The show’s move to Adult Swim gives it new depth rather than tacky grit. The serialized approach fits this story like a glove, and though I have qualms with the ending, they seem trivial when the show so expertly handles Jack’s traumas.
#12: Doki Doki Literature Club
#9: The Young Pope
#8: Life Will See You Now
#7: Super Mario Odyssey
#6: Better Call Saul
#5: The Wicked + The Divine: “Imperial Phase”
#4: competitive fighting games (part 1: Smash 4), (part 2: Street Fighter V), (part 3: Super Smash Bros. Melee)
#3: The Can Opener’s Daughter