Friday, January 26, 2018

Top Tens of 2017: #6s

Here are the sixth best podcast, film, album, TV show, and videogame of 2017 (there's spoilers):

#6 Podcast: The Giant Beastcast

There was a period, in late 2016, when I nearly gave up on The Beastcast. It was after Austin Walker had left, which was why I had started listening to begin with. They (Vinny Caravella, Alex Navarro, and Jeff Bakalar) had fallen into a rut of actually exclusively discussing the news and new releases of videogames. It was informative, and also deeply uninteresting. The joke I made at the time was that I would wait for Dan Ryckert to join, because I was interested in how he would switch up that dynamic. This year, he did join and did what I hoped, and they also exceeded my expectations.

Ryckert's gimmick is that he's someone who is ignorant of a lot, and is also more than happy to admit that and ask questions to attempt to rectify it. A lot of people find it grating, and I can too - especially when it seems like he's asking in bad faith. But when it does work, it does exactly the thing that was boring me at the end of the previous year: it derails everyone from acting like they are simply experts on the topic at hand, and starts them down a path that pushes them into an honest attempt to explain what they are actually trying to say.

Later in the year they also added Abby Russell, a new hire who has an improv background that has lead to being more explicitly playful in the discussions, which is surprisingly absent from most podcasts about, well, games. Plus she has become an advocate for smaller games like Dream Daddy and LOCALHOST, which is something the whole Giant Bomb team has needed for a while.

In a lot of ways, The Giant Beastcast is just my favorite example of the regular-ass videogame podcast format, which is something I spend a lot of time listening to. I'd probably appreciate it less without the sister podcast, The Giant Bombcast, which is much more interested in taking detours through games history, emulation updates, and other more niche interests that contextualize the current issues and releases. But choosing one, I have to go with the Beastcast for just having a cool year.

#6 Film: Anarchist from Colony

There's something about the way that South Korean cinema, in the last couple years at least, has been unrepentantly political that has had me incredibly excited. This comes, of course, with my acknowledgment that it is a cinema I am only familiar with by the accident of biography; that it is accessible to me only through particular channels of distribution that began just over a decade ago with Netflix (the DVD era); that it relies heavily on the whims and organization of translators both professional and amateur (primarily the former, though there does seem to be some of the latter lately, which is interesting in its own right); that also relies on my own parsing of that work to find those particular moments I am interested in. All of which could only precede a sweeping statement: between films like Dongju: Portrait of a Poet (by the same director) & Spirits' Homecoming from last year & this & A Taxi Driver from this, there seems to be a serious political reckoning occurring with the socialist past in Korea, at least if you assume the cinema at least subconsciously reflects the desire/ego of the country. I remain skeptical, no matter my Lacanian tendencies.

The reckoning itself I will get to later in these lists. What fascinates and infuriates me about this movie in particular is the way it seems perfectly positioned to be a reckoning through the first half or so, and the suddenly and thoroughly becomes what I can only describe as an apology. That is: the first half of the film is about a small group of Korean anarchists in Tokyo. They beat the shit out of reporters they don't like, plot to buy a bomb, and write literature. They're great. They're also joined by a Japanese woman who self-identifies as a nihilist, played by Choi Hee-seo incredibly. If there were acting awards, she should probably win one of them. This is the bulk of the film up until the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 hits, and a member of the government decides to rile up anti-Korean sentiment in Tokyo.

At this point, Park Yeol (the main character) and Kaneko Fumiko (Choi) are thrown in jail, with the government deciding to prosecute Park for treason in order to cover up the massacre of Koreans by Japanese nationalists in the aftermath of the earthquake, in part due to their being scapegoated. The rest of the film is then basically a courtroom drama, intermingled with shots of prison and a love affair. It is, in this way I suppose, realistic; all the kinetic energy of activism and revolutionary fervor is channeled by the state into the justice system in order to destroy lives, demotivate comrades, and intimidate or pacify the public. The problem is that watching the movie actually feels that way to the viewer as well, after a point.

#6 Album: Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens

Heavily gospel-influenced, wheels around through the black history of the USA from slavery to police murder. It's an album that demands to be listened to through multiple times, and rewards doing just that. Plus, the banjo playing is just incredible. Some really gorgeous lines just sneak in or are highlighted here and there, as though it just makes sense that that instrument should sound like the prettiest one in the world.

#6 TV Show: The Good Place (season 2)

I was pretty skeptical of this show going into it, and I still am not entirely sold on the humor. Which is, I think, the real reason people like this. But I'm that dork that is mostly invested in the worldbuilding.

Because of that, I think the first half of the second season (second half to be released in 2018) is a pretty phenomenal half a season of a show. It does a good job of pivoting from the plot twist at the end of the first season (they're in hell, not heaven) to prioritize not that twist, but the way it can be used to develop the characters. Especially for Janet, the Siri figure who becomes maybe the best character in the show to this point.

#6 Videogame: Middle-Earth: Shadow of War

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a fucking complicated mess that I spent a ton of time with and enjoyed nearly all of. It's a big systemsy clusterfuck, an enjoyable action game, and a parable about fascist tendencies that is definitely not told in the smartest way imaginable. It's also a weird patient zero in the political debate around lootboxes that spawned this year, which on one hand is good and on the other is some weak ass Consumer Rights bullshit.

I've been trying for months to articulate something about this game, and unfortunately it's not going to happen in this venue. But there's something to be said about how it takes the last game's central mechanic - mind-controlling/enslaving orcs to fight for you - and puts that in service of a broader loot grind. It's almost like this sequel to Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor sees its predecessor as primitive accumulation, and it is the full on capitalist experience. Juxtaposing that with the outright fascism of the elf ghost inhabiting your protagonist is a weird thing that I think says more than many people are giving it credit for, but I don't know that I'm quite willing to parse it out at this point without a paycheck.

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