Top 7 THINGS of 2017

Helluva year

It’s the end of the year (and what a rough year it was), that time when the more pop-culturally minded among us sit down and attempt to smush 12 months’ worth of experiences into ranked lists – the perfect time to give this blogging thing another go.

Unlike a lot of other year-end lists, I’m not going to compartmentalize into movies, video games, anime, what have you; I honestly don’t feel like I’ve explored enough of what’s out there to really put forth a satisfying grouping of a single medium. From the winter/spring’s ridiculous avalanche of top-shelf video games to all these late-year Oscar season films I can’t see yet because I live in South Dakota, I simply haven’t gotten to everything I’ve wanted to for one reason or another.

I hope to soon find time to fight my way through Resident Evil 7‘s spooky mansion, push deeper into that stack of unread manga volumes, devote more time to not dying like a fool so quickly in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, catch up on what many are saying is the best year in a long time for anime, and maybe finish that last 40 or so hours Persona 5 one of these days. Hopefully, Phantom Thread and The Shape of Water eventually will come to a nearby theater. Basically what I’m saying is: it’s been a pretty great year if you care about these sort of things. Deeply bad and exhausting year for the world in general though.

So what follows is an unranked (because in addition to condensing a whole year into a single list, putting everything in a numbered order is just too much of a pointless toil) collection of the seven things that really got my brain charged up in 2017. Why only seven, and not a full 10 or a lean and mean 5? Because these entries started running long and my slow writing process meant I wouldn’t get this out before 2018 with another 1500 words. All of those honorable mentions were solid contenders for full entries. Some spoilers, but nothing too heavy.

Honorable Mentions

The Night is Short, Walk on Girl

Get Out

War for the Planet of the Apes

John Wick: Chapter 2

Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju 2

BoJack Horseman Season Four

Golden Kamuy

Super Mario Odyssey

Yakuza 0/Kiwami

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Before this year, my history with SEGA’s long-running franchise of Very-Serious-beat-’em-up-meets-absurdist-comedy adventure games, unfortunately, amounted to playing the PS2 original for a handful of hours before losing interest and letting it gather dust on the shelf. Another victim of a bad habit I had fallen into in the mid to late 2000s of not giving games a fair shake. But that changed this past January when the grassroots movement by fans to raise awareness succeeded in selling me on the series’ prequel with promises of fountains of cash spewing from hapless goons (because it’s the 1980s economic bubble, of course!), discos, and a business-savvy chicken.

Once onboard, I must say Yakuza 0 didn’t exactly make itself out to be the most approachable game out there. Between a several hour barrage of tutorials to a maze of organizations, characters, and histories the game assumes the player has at least a modest familiarity with, I found myself struggling to get involved. Yakuza has a lot going on. It wasn’t until around 15 hours in when it all started clicking together. The “Real Estate Royale” mechanic opened up, allowing the series’ lead and criminal with a heart of gold, Kazuma Kiryu to run around buying up many of fictitious Tokyo red-light district Kamurocho’s businesses to work his way through a nefarious cadre of moguls with his fists, cash, and ever-expanding team of plucky associates (such as the aforementioned chicken). It hooked me in a big way.

While I acknowledge navigating Yakuza‘s twisty main story, full of betrayals, conspiracies, and climactic fisticuff showdowns provides a necessary backbone to create a serious sense of scale, tone, and stakes, I found the goofy side adventures were where my interest lies. Spending a day learning how to competently play Out Run in the arcade because I wouldn’t give up an inch of Real Estate empire, helping not-Michael Jackson shoot a music video, learning the value of friendship and healthy rivalry through toy racing with children at the Pocket Circuit Stadium. These moments and so many more are what kept me coming back for 70 hours, and this is to say nothing of the other main character, Goro Majima, who had his own tale of finding his place and purpose to battle through, not to mention sitcom antics to bumble into. I really feel like I’m underselling just how much humor and charm there is to be found.

Then this summer we got another Yakuza romp with Kiwami, a from the ground up remake of the 2005 original, with additional features, story beats, and mechanics, many brought over from 0. While its main story and side content is noticeably leaner than 0‘s, Kiwami a must play follow-up if you enjoyed the latter. And though technically the original story, Kiwami is best taken in after going through 0, as it picks up several threads established in the prequel. Now with 6 on the horizon and Kiwami 2 just released in Japan (with fingers crossed for a Western release), there are even more adventures in the tonally dissonant world of Japanese crime to get excited for.

Blade Runner 2049

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This is something of a sacrilege to a certain group of sci-fi fans, but I’m not a big fan of the original Blade Runner. Sure, I admire the way it looks and sounds, and respect the undeniable and impossible to downplay impact its production design has had on science fiction cinema and what we think the near future might look like as a whole. But as a narrative centered around Harrison Ford’s hunt for escaped artificial humans, Blade Runner leaves me pretty cold. It’s taken numerous viewings of the film to get it to “mostly enjoy” status and even then I can’t say I’ll be returning to it frequently. So imagine my pleasant surprise that 2049 immediately burned a lasting impression onto my brain.

I had my doubts, a sequel to one of the most influential films of all time made decades later during a wave of reboots, sequels, and remakes sounds like a bad idea on paper and most of the executions of these films don’t fare any better. But there are always a few exceptions to buck trends. For every few dozen exhausting Terminator entries or soulless RoboCop remakes, we get a Mad Max: Fury Road. Something so focused and sure of itself. Not content to simply regurgitate familiar images or feelings and rest on them, but driven to pick up and forward concepts the original put forth or even better, new ones. 2049 does this in spades. To presenting an updated vision of capitalism gone so far that it not only creates life but its own indentured customers to kicking the silly nerd fascination with Deckard’s true nature to curb. To say nothing of the wonderful choice to go against modern big-budget science fiction filmmaking trends and not overload the frame with visual noise, instead opting for stark, understated imagery. Or that booming soundscape I could listen to forever as I watch flying cars soar between fog-shrouded skyscrapers. 2049 is a movie I don’t think I fully appreciate yet and am aching to revisit once it lands on Blu-ray in January.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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At the beginning of 2017, my patience for Zelda had all but run out. After Twilight Princess‘ bloated over-eagerness to please that somehow resulted in leaving almost no lasting memory and Skyward Sword‘s across the board mediocrity, I was on my last shred of goodwill for new 3D Zelda. Coupled with the Wii U being all but dead for a least two years before Nintendo officially lowered it into the ground, I wouldn’t have predicted buying a Switch on launch weekend and dumping 100 hours into Breath of the Wild over the next few weeks. But I still make those impulse buys every so often, and lately they’ve been paying off.

In what could only be described as astonishing, Nintendo somehow both fully embraced open-world game design and threw down the gauntlet on an entire section of an industry that heavily revolves around it in the same game. Breath of the Wild is the first open-world game I’ve played in a long time that made the simple act of running through a field something I could totally get lost in. That quiet little experience of running through the grass, listening to the wind softly blow through a nearby forest, catching bugs, and looking off into the horizon just doesn’t compare to the largely business-like feeling in other similar games.

By turning the entire world into a sandbox, equipping you with all the tools necessary to access it in the first hour, and letting you loose to go about it however you want, Breath of the Wild ditched Zelda‘s tiring, mostly linear progression through dungeons and set pieces. So much has been said over the last 9 months that I’m just repeating praise better said elsewhere, so I’ll just say this: after over 100 hours spent poking around Hyrule being an awful tourist, getting electrocuted, falling off cliffs, having weapons explode at the worst possible time, throwing together dangerous concoctions that could only liberally be called “food”, I didn’t want to get as far away from the game as possible and never look at it again. Breath of the Wild never soured in mind, its magic never faded. And that almost unheard of in my experiences with open-world games. The DLC waits for my return.

Nier: Automata

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Another entry I had zero interest in at the beginning of the year – a theme running through this list – and another that will probably go down as an all-time favorite. If you had asked me about the original Nier, I would have gestured in the general direction of a few early 2010s cult favorite RPGs that I had no hope of telling apart. But like Yakuza, Automata has a strong word of mouth movement behind it, putting oddball director Yoko Taro’s nontraditional interview style and the game’s unique mishmash art direction of fashion models hacking up toys that look like came straight from the early 1950s front and center that eventually snagged my interest.

To condense what Automata is all about into a few hundred words isn’t right, there are simply too many ideas at work, most of which could probably prop up their own full-fledged stories. What starts out as a story of androids fighting to retake the Earth from occupying alien robots quickly flies off any semblance of implied rails. I have my share of issues with Automata, mostly concerning the moment to moment playing of it to be somewhat tedious, especially after you’ve taken in the entire city and its environs but the game continues to demand you return to the desert to find some baubles or kill another group of robots. It’s just that these quibbles are massively outweighed by the overall experience and takeaway of the game. And hey it gave us the most deeply resonant phrase of 2017 with “this cannot continue”.

Chief among Nier‘s many ideas and execution is that art is messy. Not everything has a clear cut answer, and sometimes asking a question, exploring its potential consequences, and letting the audience work out what it means for them is the most important. And yeah, not all of Nier‘s ideas and concepts are fully formed, there’s a playful feeling of experimentation and willingness to push boundaries running throughout. This is by no means a clean, hyper succinct piece of art. And for the game to be directly and plainly stating this, not as an aside, but as its closing statement capping off hours of challenging and evocative concepts continues to stun me. Nier probably isn’t for everyone, it’s at times almost too hopeless to bear, its characters slowly being ground down by a cursed world designed to crush hope, but it ended up being a perfect fit for me. Certainly isn’t a bad thing that the soundtrack was one of the best I’ve ever heard in a game either.

Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: Bandit Flower/Manga Developments

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This is one is a little tricky as the movie itself isn’t exactly what I mean, but I don’t only want to include the original manga source material. It’s more the stretch of manga published in English this year dealing with a well-textured post-One Year War landscape of Universal Century 0080 combined with Bandit Flower‘s excellent battle scenes, dynamite soundtrack, and the payoff from reshuffling events. Both movie and manga carry strong recommendable qualities.

The thing is, the manga’s second major story is shaping up to be a much more complex and layered arc than the relatively straight forward “rival ace pilots clash” one depicted in December Sky and the opening 3 volumes of the comic. Thunderbolt is really spending the time to explore the lasting consequences of an all-consuming war its effects. But the swath of story Bandit Flower covers is very clearly only the first act, setting up the major players and stakes, and then cutting to credits. Several extremely important chunks of exposition dropped casually throughout the manga, are here held off until the final moments which, while somewhat damaging the flow of the film, creates an absolutely electrifying cliffhanger. Now I like Gundam stories, a lot. I’ve subjected myself to probably far more of them than any reasonable adult should over the years and will continue to, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this excited to see where one of these stories will take us. The final reveal shot, a crackle of thunder, that end credits song. Just perfect. More Thunderbolt can’t come fast enough.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Three weeks ago, when starting to put together this list in my head, the question of “will Star Wars leave much of an impact?” briefly crossed my mind. Could it even? After the well-cast but disappointingly safe, scientifically-focused-to-squeeze nostalgia Force Awakens and the limp collection of iconic mechanical designs that was Rogue One, I had Star Wars written off. Then in walks writer/director Rian Johnson with The Last Jedi, ready to make something meaningful out of those dull J.J. Abrams mystery box setups, ready to challenge the idea of religiously repeating the past, ready to kick a bunch of ass and look good doing it. Ready to deliver a Star Wars movie the likes of which we’ve never seen or more importantly, felt, before.

I could go on for a while about The Last Jedi‘s stunningly successful mission of illustrating failure and the importance of growth or how refreshing it was to walk out of a major franchise tentpole so utterly satisfied, but we’re only a few weeks out from release and Star Wars discussion is everywhere. It’s hands down the best one of these space wizard movies and something of a miracle in the modern moviemaking world of nickel and diming audiences with incomplete narratives and character arcs to generate interest in sequels. It’s a treasure.

Twin Peaks: The Return

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OK so I said I wasn’t going to put these in any particular order, but Twin Peaks‘ return to TV (yes, it’s TV) eclipsed everything else this year. It couldn’t not stand as the single most enthralling piece of media I experienced in 2017 and maybe ever. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s revival defied expectations and classification week after week for months. The cryptic catchphrase (one of many and by no means the most obtuse), “it is happening again”, which was prominent in the vague marketing could have easily meant another murder in the same vein as Laura Palmer’s. Another investigation by a group of unconventional law enforcers that quickly expands to cover the town of Twin Peaks, exploring the secrets and quirks of the residents. The 18-episode third season, or “Limited Event Series”, instead hews closer to the most boundary – and audience – pushing material found in the original series and its prequel film, Fire Walk with Me.

Less concerned with traditional and easy to digest narrative structure, Peaks throws us precious few lifelines in its early hours. Unfamiliar characters involved in seemingly unrelated storylines sprinkled around America. Special Agent Dale Cooper makes his escape from the Black Lodge only to end up as an insurance salesman in Las Vegas. A mysterious glass box in New York City. Jerry Horne is very high and very lost in the woods. Soot-caked hobos lurk menacingly on the fringes, watching. And then just as we’re starting to get acclimated to this new nightmare-tinged world and connections are beginning to emerge between of all this, episode 8 hurls us into the fury of the first atomic bomb and things are never the same again.

Twin Peaks isn’t easy watching, it never was. Don’t buy into its flattened meme-ified pop culture footprint of coffee jokes and Funko Pops. Twin Peaks remains a singularly challenging piece of art that dwells in the ripples created by unspeakable trauma. Forcing us to face the inevitability of aging and death. And so much more. The rewards for engaging with it are vast and we’re going to be unpacking this 18-hour gift for years to come.

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