One of two in a series.
Many things in 2007 were good. These are some of the most good bits.
As has been said elsewhere, it’s really nice that once a year, Pixar puts out a movie, and the best case scenario is that it’s a timeless classic and the worst case scenario is that it’s just a really good, fun little movie. Ratatouille is firmly in the middle ground of Pixar releases – better than Cars or A Bug’s Life, but not as fully realized as The Incredibles or Toy Story 2. (Which makes it only about ten times as good as most movies at a bare minimum.) Brad Bird – a likely candidate for the best animation director alive, and yes, I’m counting Hayao Miyazaki when I say that – brings a relatively simple story of a rat-turned-chef to life with a minimum of fuss, a wonderful turn from Peter O’Toole and a sweet, widely applicable moral.
Civilization IV: Beyond The Sword
The deepest computer strategy game there is – period – gets its second extension, and god, what more can they pack in if they decide to create a third expansion pack as rumoured? A ton of clever new mods, new units, the addition of corporations and advanced espionage rules, a crapload of new civilizations (including the Dutch, Sumerians, Byzantines and the Holy Roman Empire – but, sadly, no Canada), and of course the chance to play as Abraham fucking Lincoln. The game just keeps getting deeper and more complex with every expansion, and the best bit is that the learning curve can be as slight or as tough as you want. And it’s so deeply moddable a game – if I were inclined to mod games, this would be it. Civ IV as applied to the Wheel of Time world? As applied to Tolkien? Heck, even Eddings. (Eddings wouldn’t be hard, you’d just take the appropriate equivalent existing civilizations and change the names.)
The Immortal Iron Fist
Unlike, for example, Chris Sims, I have no particular fetish for the curious remnants of 1970s Marvel comics, and I had no expectations of an Iron Fist series. The man wore slippers for god’s sake, little yellow kung-fu booties. He kicked people, which in and of itself is not really that amazing or impressive. (I mean, Karate Kid kicks people, and just look at Countdown.) In short: a third-tier superhero with a small, dwindling fanbase is, generally speaking, not something about which I really look forward to reading. But then Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker decided they wanted to write a complete kung fu epic, only really tangentially related to the Marvel Universe, and they got superb art from David Aja and a host of others, and thankfully they got rid of the booties. The result is quite simply the best superhero comic available at present: a non-angst-ridden story-driven work, stuffed to the buns with top-quality action, a wealth of backstory applied smartly, and whip-smart dialogue. And again: it’s Iron Fist. Who woulda thunk?
Don’t Mess With The Dragon by Ozomatli
Their best album so far, and when you’re dealing with a band with a discography like Ozomatli’s that is no small thing to say. Some music critics dismissed the album as “admirable, but unfocused.” This is Music Critic for “not all of the songs sound the same so I have trouble writing up the album in one paragraph. Please make all of your songs sound kind of alike.” Ozomatli cannot do this, though, partially because they are a nine-piece band, but mostly because they are simply too damned awesome, with their melange of funk, hip-hop, salsa, rock and jazz fusing together into an improbable, wondrous whole. And as a bonus, this is far and away their most danceable album yet.
Quite possibly the funniest television show of the new millennium – all the sharp, venomous wit of Arrested Development combined with the quotability of the best seasons of The Simpsons and a surprising amount of heart to boot, and topped off with performances that any other show would kill simply to have one of. In most shows, Judah Friedlander’s fat nerd writer would be the go-to joke character; in 30 Rock, he’s not even in the top three, not when you have Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin and – I can’t believe I’m typing this – Tracy Morgan, who prior to this was my second-least-favourite SNLer of all time (beaten out only by the truly talentless Horatio Sanz). But especially Alec Baldwin, who finally gets to display the savage comic ability that was only hinted at by his numerous guest appearances on SNL, and who should be on this show for the rest of his natural life if they can manage it.
Air Guitar Nation
Everybody making best-of movie lists this year gives the nerd-doc props to The King Of Kong (and understandably), but by god do not overlook Air Guitar Nation, which like that other doc works the “competition” storyline by having one rock-steady hero (the incomparable C-Diddy) and one egomaniacal ass (the deeply strangleworthy Bjorn Turoque), who are both extremely good at what they do. The fact that what they do is cavort around on stage rocking an imaginary guitar is at first hilarious, but then eventually becomes life-affirming and wonderful (and hilarious), and when the film progresses to the World Championships of Air Guitar, somewhere in rural Finland (no, really), and the crowds cheer for the devoted air guitarists – well, it is entirely possible that a small portion of Heaven is like this. A fairly weird portion. But a portion.
Team Fortress 2
When it comes to the Orange Box, Portal understandably gets all the hype, because it’s clever and original and funny. But Portal only lasts a few hours. The real meat of the Orange Box comes with the involving, easy-to-learn-but-hard-to-master online gameplay of Team Fortress 2, a game with animation and visual design reminiscent of The Incredibles and a sense of humour from, well, pretty much the same place (the Heavy Weapons Guy’s pseudo-Slavic commentary alone is worth the price of admission, but don’t discount the Scout’s Bronx taunts, the high-pitched German screaming of the Medic, or the muffled yells of the Pyro – because the Pyro wears a mask, you see). The gameplay is simple and elegant, and always extremely easy to follow: “snapshots” freeze-framing the guy who killed you not only help you identify who killed you but help newcomes get an idea of how. Plus, they helpfully label the pieces of your dead body when you get gibbed.
“Kings of New York: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Geniuses Who Make Up America’s Top High School Chess Team” by Michael Weinreb
Recommended particularly for nerds, and I estimate my readers are, oh, ninety-eight percent or so nerds. (Wave your freak flag high.) Even if you aren’t a chess fiend particularly (and I, personally, am at best an average player – although if we’re talking speed doubles chess, that’s different strokes right there), this book will resonate, because – come on – it’s about nerds surviving high school by doing their own thing. It’s just that in this case, “their own thing” wins them big-ass trophies.
Killer of Sheep
I first saw Killer of Sheep when I was 20, taking an American Cinema course. The prof had a bootleg copy, which is how I got the rare chance to see a movie that, though made in 1977, only got released this year due to conflicts over the music rights. Killer of Sheep is amazing – a lot of people liken it to Italian neorealist cinema like The Bicycle Thief, but I always thought of it as having a more Cassavetes sort of a feel, despite the film’s essential lack of continuous narrative – it’s bleak and honest but doesn’t lack heart, and indeed I would argue it almost has more because of that bleakness. It’s on DVD along with Burnett’s second feature and a number of his shorts, which are likewise brilliant. Rent or buy, either way.
The video for “1234” by Feist
The song alone would qualify for this list, but the video is the sort of thing that births superstars – delightful low-fi wonderment, relying on showmanship and pure filmmaking skill to pull off (trust me when I say that I can tell the focus pulling for the shoot was nightmarishly difficult just by looking at it), and effortlessly communicating sheer joy in a way that isn’t entirely common, to say the least. A thousand thousand high school girls just got their first girl-on-girl musician crush this year because of this video. (Tori Amos would be proud.)
Step 1: Get Darwyn Cooke to write and draw something.
Step 2: Fuck yeah.
A perfectly excellent first-person shooter, notable for both the character improvement system imported from the old (and fantastic) System Shock games, and the gorgeous, completely immersive 1940s Art Deco-ish visual design, brought to life with graphics both gorgeous and surprisingly interactive. (The opening, where your plane crashes in the middle of the ocean, and you get to swim around as you watch it sink – amazing.) Oh, and of course there’s the fact that the main plot boils down to “Atlas Shrugged, except it all goes wrong and people become zombies.” I am honest enough to admit that the game’s hearty “fuck you, Ayn Rand” ethos tickles me greatly.
Yau Man on Survivor: Fiji
Yau Man was easily the coolest player to come along in quite a while on Survivor – a canny late-fifties math teacher with a knack for practical survival and for playing the game to a brilliant inch. Plus, he was funny. Unfortunately, Yau Man made the critical mistake of thinking that somebody named “Dreamz” was intelligent enough to realize when he had precisely zero shot at winning the game outright, or that giving “Dreamz” a car would be incentive enough for the jackass to walk away happy rather than compromise his much-vaunted integrity in the hopes of winning a million dollars he would never actually win. On the bright side, the next season of Survivor, starting in February, is a “hardcore fans versus top Survivors” show, and you have to bet that Yau Man qualifies as a top Survivor – if he wants to go for a second round, that is. Yau Man might not, because he’s just that cool.
Upcoming: The stuff that did suck.