Here’s a completely subjective breakdown of some of my favorite things about 2014, in no particular order.
1. Winter Soldier
Yeah, I know Guardians of the Galaxy had the raccoon and the talking tree and the humor and the amazing soundtrack, but Marvel’s first 2014 offering, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, took me to a place I never thought a superhero movie would or could. Winter Soldier somehow delivered the most cinematic superhero movie of the modern era (those action scenes, that startling mature plot!) and yet conjured meditative feelings I thought to be previously exclusive to reading long arcs of comic books.
Characterization was king here, with Chris Evans turning in a wonderfully understated and pitch-perfect performance as man out of time Steve Rogers. Anthony Mackie stole the show from the first scene onwards as Sam Wilson. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was darker and more widow-y than ever, and basically held equally footing throughout the movie. Nick Fury was the baddest he’s ever been on screen. The eponymous Winter Soldier hits the screen like a blend of Batman and Boba Fett, all mystery and fire and ass-kicking personified in one being. And oh yeah, Robert f-ing Redford is along for the ride.
And what a ride. True story: Captain America was the first comic I ever bought. The year was 1987. I devoured Mark Gruenwald’s run on title, and although Winter Soldier was clearly sourced from Ed Brubaker’s story of the same name, there was a TON of Gruenwald in between each frame. Captain America is a character that on the surface can seem one dimension, a sort of super hero Mickey Mouse, maybe even something off a propaganda poster. What’s made Cap a mainstay on the comics shelf for decades has been the way writers use the character as a lens on the current state of American society. Sounds lofty for an action hero, but it works. Kudos to Disney for letting Marvel do its thing with Captain America, and equal praise is deserved for Marvel and the Russo Brothers for getting this one so right.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
It had the raccoon and the talking tree and the humor and the amazing soundtrack.
3. Mario Kart 8 / The Resurgence of Nintendo
A year ago, Nintendo was written off as next to dead. A daily stream of inane and ill-informed articles flopped out of the mainstream press pipeline, deriding Nintendo for not understanding the modern world. Mobile games and companies like Zynga were taking over, and unless Super Mario Bros. was released on Facebook and iPhones a black hole would form and destroy us all.
Those articles are still being written, but 2014 was pretty much a tidal wave of awesomeness from Nintendo.
For me the shift came with the launch of Mario Kart 8. The game simply made me fall in love with Nintendo again. It’s graphics and level designs are staggering, and the game is just so damn fun. The online multiplayer works flawlessly. The game perfectly represents the kind of gaming experience that only Nintendo can deliver.
Closing out the year, Nintendo is sitting on arguably the best library of games available on any console (Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World, New Super Mario Bros. Wii U, Pikmin 3, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Bayonetta 2, Shovel Knight, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD, and Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is just a partial list). The 3DS also held court with a strong showing.
There’s a full slate announced for 2015, including new Yoshi, Kirby, and Zelda games. Oh yeah, and Nintendo also launched amiibo figures and made A BILLION DOLLARS from them in North America alone. Once they get done counting that amiibo cash maybe they’ll care about porting Balloon Fight to your stupid iPad. I’m glad Nintendo will be around in 2015 and beyond.
Following up critically acclaimed cultural icons is probably tough, but Brian Lee O’Malley did it right with Seconds, his first new graphic novel since wrapping up the mega-beloved Scott Pilgrim series.
Seconds is awesome. A whimsical fairy tale about food, Twitter, life-altering decisions, and all the other stuff those stuck in the taint between Gen-X and whatever the new kids are called. It’s Chrono Trigger meets For Better or For Worse, and it might be the best story written about Generation Nirvana yet. I read it in one sitting at the beach and felt less alone in the universe.
My favorite movie of the year is Boyhood from director Richard Linklater. There are all kinds of articles detailing the intricacies of the film’s 12-year production. For me, Boyhood can be summed up in short terms– it made me feel something. A lot of movies entertained me in 2014, lot of movies were exhilarating, some even thought provoking. None really hit my soul like Boyhood did. Am I sap? Maybe. Probably. But if Boyhood doesn’t make a sap out of you, you may need to talk to a professional. A wonderful reminder of what it feels to be a human being, touching on the good, the bad, and everything in between.
Grant Morrison, like Nintendo, has been written off as past-prime by many comic fans. Final Crisis disappointed, his multifaceted Batman and Batman, Inc. runs derailed by the New 52 and subsequently overshadowed by Scott Snyder’s hit run on the flagship book. Morrison’s name was being openly scoffed at in comic shops across the land. He’d gone too far. The shark had been jumped.
And yet it all comes back around again, doesn’t it? Multiversity, a project that’s languished in development limbo for the better part of a decade, finally hit stands in August. It’s like everything Morrison’s done up to this point had been training for Multiversity. It’s truly Morrison’s greatest hits album of comic writing. He’s pulled out all the stops, and has perhaps out-Invisibled the Invisibles in terms of concocting comic book adventures that actually feel like taking illicit drugs. Salvador Dali once said “I don’t do drugs, I am drugs.” Morrison offers up the drug of his talent in the Multiversity books, and the acid seeps off the paper and into your pores as you read them, each panel, each word twisting and tweaking reality just a little bit. Imagination and passion will always seem too obvious to those too cold or restrained to see it. Morrison applies his craft with such skill in these books that those tepid, visionless critics should be mostly silenced as well. You either get it or you don’t, and for those who do, Morrison’s Multiversity is a tour de force.
7. Future Islands – Singles
I listened to this album on repeat for like half the year.
8. The Return of D&D
It’s a digital world, so why the heck are major newspapers and magazines dedicating loads of pixels to covering Dungeons and Dragons? Wizards of the Coast released the fifth edition of the old school tabletop role playing game, and by all accounts, it is badass. The books themselves are beautiful and smell of slightly toxic yet wonderful commercial grade ink. The whole experience feels gloriously 20th century. Fifth edition steals back much of the gains made by the upstart Pathfinder system, and used an open source testing pool to help develop the system. The end result is a flexible framework for running role playing games. The chief rule is have fun, and the second is use your imagination. While D&D’s world is that of fantasy, it inspires creating thinking across the board. I found myself unexpectedly getting lost in the new editions. Memories of musty basement game sessions came back, but mostly I remembered all those great stories that spun out of the game. In a world fixated by Game of Thrones, I can’t help but wonder what the masses would make of Raistlin and Cameron; Tanis and Flint? The worlds of Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and Dark Sun are just the top of the iceberg. D&D’s comeback is unexpected, and may have come at the perfect time to counterbalance our affinity for all things screen-based.
A close second to Boyhood as my favorite movie of 2014. Where Boyhood felt tender, natural, and real, Birdman is raucous, theatrical, and intense. Hailed as Michael Keaton’s comeback (did he ever go away?), Birdman is so much more. I feel like Birdman is a movie the late Robert Altman would have enjoyed- a nuanced sprawl of talent sublimely orchestrated. Birdman is like Altman on coke. I didn’t expect any of Birdman’s peaks. The stage. New York. The critics. Actors. Writers. Directors. Life. Existence. Birdman is an origami sculpture of a movie that folds in on itself and multiplies its energy with each new fold.
10. Hype for 2015
Maybe it’s a sign of hope, maybe it’s a coping mechanism we’ve collectively taken part in constructing in response to the absolutely shit show that was 2014, but starting around September chatter began increasing about 2015, which may go down in modern pop culture history as something akin to a unicorn year. New Star Wars. New Jurassic Park. New Mad Max. New Avengers. And that’s just blockbuster Hollywood movies. If even a fraction are better than The Phantom Menace, we’re in a for a treat. Who knows what surprises are around the bend? I love that we’re all sort of freaking out about it. New hopes, indeed.