The holidays mean lots of things to lots of people, but for me it’ll always be about the endless ranking, the distribution of hundreds of lists across thousands of locales tabulating how, exactly, anything and everything in the past 365 days added up. Go ahead and call it pointless, call it shouting into a storm, call it navel-gazing. I don’t care. When it gets to December and all the big blogs start breaking out the big fonts for their big wrap-ups, my heart gets a-stutterin’.
There’s something about standing in the center of the critical echo chamber, taking a few moments to let it all wash over and soak in, that I really like. For me, the act of going through row after row of wrap-ups and best-ofs is one part mixtape, one part sabermetrics: the mass attempt to turn people’s opinions into objective fact is oddly addicting and, frankly, more often than not makes for damn good recommendations. For someone, such as myself, who constantly feels like they’re lagging behind the zeitgeist, it’s pure manna.
Before I get into my awkwardly constructed and woefully underpopulated favorite whatnots of 2014, I would like to take a step back tonight and thank all of those people out there with capable literacy and the means to project their voices throughout the information superhighway. I know that just sounded snarky as fuck but I mean every damn word of it. It’s the time of a season to share your thoughts, rank your opinions, and tabulate the stats on your year-end lists until you’ve got enough scribbled ticker-tape to fill the stockings. If one person reads this list and finds just one thing that they’d like to explore more in these coming winter months, then we’ve all done our job as critics.
Now, having laid down all that praise for praise, please note that you are now to bear witness to some true hating dabbled here and there within this list. “Best of” is a bit of a narrow window for a year partly defined by hate, fear, and disappointment. Great artists embarrassed themselves. Everyone was racist. Kanye West did practically nothing of import. So let this be a (media-focused) reminiscence on not just the best, but everything else interesting enough to warrant mention on the other sides of the emotional prairie.
Plus, like the most accurate year-wrapup lists, this shit is actually coming out in after the year is fully over. Take that, everywhere else!
- Worst Beef Between Grown Adults: Mark Kozelek vs. Sun Kil Moon
Whenever an artist of great talent is caught being reprehensible in real life, animal instinct tells us to find an excuse, a distraction, or some compensation that can allow us to keep enjoying their art. A lot of music magazines excused Mark Kozelek’s bullying of The War on Drugs like one would excuse the racist comments of a great-uncle with dementia, stashing his abuse in a footnote en route to heaping praise on Benji, his latest album.
I’ll concede my own footnote first: Benji is a fantastic record, a monolith that turns unedited rambling into poetry, excising the condescension of Among the Leaves to make a profound statement on life and death. After hearing Benji the first few times, I was convinced the good Kozelek was back, the guy who helmed Red House Painters and sang about dead boxers like they were long lost cousins—the guy whose albums listened to you when you listened to them.
But that’s the thing about great albums: they make you forget that bad albums reflect their creators too, and the smug, quietly grandstanding, holier-than-hillbillies, nose-either-in-the-air-or-up-his-ass, MRA-lite Kozelek of “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman” was ready for an encore before Benji was just warming up to rotation. No amount of gentle self-deprecation could spare this assholery: after a dire affront of totally intentional sound bleeding at the Ottawa Folk Festival, Mark Kozelek declared war on himself by telling The War On Drugs to “suck his fucking dick,” among other things. Rather than own up to his comments, which The War On Drugs could only meet with disbelief, Kozelek donned his IDGAF hat, grabbed a shovel, and buried himself so deep underground that he managed to crumble the mountain of goodwill Benji had built up.
“Being a huge dick” falls into a strange grey area in the realm of fan shame, but committing the primal sin of accusing your beefees of not having a sense of humor tilts the scales. Besides being hypocritical, it excuses homophobia while dodging accusations of assholery, effectively imbuing said assholery as a permanent character trait. After penning a 61 minute rambling opus on the leaves of his bare soul, the man still manages to completely lack any self-awareness.
This was the stupidest, most baseless and pointless horseshit musical drama since Psychedelic Horseshit himself called TV on the Radio “Wavves… with black dudes.” Take a lap, Kozelek. Come back when you’re ready to reflect the maturity you displayed on your albums—eleven years ago.
- Most Heartbreak: Marek gets an eye job in Octopus Pie [OCTOPUS SPOILERS AHEAD]
Since their first panels together in Meredith Gran’s Octopus Pie, Hanna and Marek were the comic’s immovable objects. While characters developed, Gran’s artwork evolved, a rotating chorus of weirdoes joined and exited the cast, and dramatic arcs blossomed and resolved in Octopus Pie’s oddball Brooklyn, Marek and Hanna’s union remained the comic’s one certain truth. The two were similar enough, in their carefree optimism, and dissimilar enough, in Hannah’s gleeful viciousness and Marek’s beardish vulnerability, to be not only one of the most enjoyable couples in webcomics history, but also one of the most realistic.
So, how does Meredith Gran undo this fantastic coupling? Gradually, realistically, through indirect dialogue and visual cues. It’s recipe for waterworks, with no herbs or spices spared. The relationship, which had bubbled since Octopus Pie’s third chapter back in 2007, began its very, very slow disintegration in the midst of an Occupy Wall Street plot back in 2012, with the final blow coming this past winter. Compatibility means nothing in the face of key differences (like, say, wanting children) and enough time. When Marek finally finished his seven-year, 10,000 page dissertation, the writing was on the wall.
Or, should I say, the eyes were on the face. At the emotional apex of pre-breakup tensions, the moment Eve realizes the tragic imminence of Marek and Hanna’s dissolution, we see the bearded Pole in a new light: we finally see his goddamn eyes.* It’s a beautiful, subdued moment, presented without comment and built up for literal years. Things have changed, irreversibly, and we cannot be blind to inevitability any longer.
Post-breakup, Marek has been put on a ship back to Poland (mattress in tow) while Hanna has taken center stage, morphing into a new person from strip to strip as she struggles to find new tethers in her life. It’s some of the richest ground the comic has tread since Marigold ditched Will and became “Miley-with-a-job,” and I, for one, look forward to our new single, irascible stoner overlords.
* – Okay, so this strip was technically made in 2013, but I read it in 2014 and the arc concluded in 2014. So there.
- Best Nail in the Nice Guy Coffin: Wendy and Dipper cut the shit on Gravity Falls
Strange times have hit Gravity Falls, one of television’s most unique landscapes. And I’m not talking about the Twin Peaks-indebted conspiracy theories, threats from a whimsical space-time deity, or even the dreaded multibear. No, I’m talking about Gravity Falls doing the one thing few other shows in television history have ever done: put to bed a shitty, slightly creepy male-gaze infatuation subplot.
As someone who was once a lovestruck 13-year-old myself, I can’t deny the truth inherent in such plots. Season one’s “The Inconveniencing” best articulated Dipper’s unrequited crush on Wendy as a living nightmare of hormones, with symptoms including lying awake in a cold sweat and pretending to be cool when you’re totally not. But there was never truly a dichotomy between Dipper’s “nice guy” and Robby’s… uh, “emo jock?” because Wendy just wasn’t into him. Doomed crushes are doomed storylines, and without allowing Wendy enough time for character development outside of Dipper’s gaze, the well dried up quicker than a goat carcass in the Gobi.
But all that changed with “Into the Bunker,” an awesome episode in at least sixteen ways, and I’ve already written a little bit about it over here. Effectively a mea culpa for its mishandling of the Dipper-Wendy relationship—not to mention years of similar storylines in too many other shows to count—the episode features Dipper burying the hatchet in his crush by literally burying a hatchet in Wendy (well, a murderous doppelganger). The readheaded lumberjill also takes her most active role in the series at the time, proving to be the most resourceful member of the mystery team. No one fights over Wendy’s heart anymore: Wendy just fights fucking monsters.
Watching “Into the Bunker,” I wanted to throw my fists in the air and shout something, but I couldn’t decide between a triumphant “Hell yes!” or a relieved “Finally!” Really, the episode-ending conversation said it all for me. Gravity Falls is a show about dealing with newfound maturity, and its maturity metaphor applies to the show itself (meta-phor?). Season one was hilarious, and season two covered its weakest spots by telling the honest truth and broadening its perspectives. That is compassionate evolution. That is true maturity.
Oh, and then the cherry on top? The writers pull a fast one and reverse the roles a few episodes later. Secretly subversive? Hilarious? Both?
- Most Valuable Player, Voice Edition: Linda Cardellini kicks ass all over the cartoonosphere
But that’s enough about Wendy from Gravity HA HA JUST KIDDING FUCK YOU I’M GONNA TALK LIKE SO MUCH MORE ABOUT WENDY BECAUSE GUESS WHAT HER VOICE ACTRESS (LINDA FUCKING CARDELLINI, EVER HEARD OF HER *LIGHTS CIGARETTE*) JUST MAYBE, INVISIBLY JUST HAD ONE OF THE BEST YEARS OF HER FRUITFUL CAREER. YEAH, STEP THE FUCK ASIDE WITH YOUR CANDY ASS FREAKS AND GEEKS.
Cardellini injected warmth and character into Wendy back when she barely had any lines and zero substantial arcs, and in season two’s heightened role she absolutely slays. I’ve shat out enough words about “Into the Bunker” already, but her work in that episode reflects how she’s improved the show as a whole. Her aggressive spark was the missing piece of the show’s ensemble, a source of genuine teenage attitude that avoids gimmicks and pandering, a sort of elder statesman to Dipper and Mabel, plus a perfect foil for man-child Soos. And that wouldn’t have been possible without Cardellini’s pitch perfect work. She makes sarcasm sound kind, and manages to make chill sound authoritative. She puts the lowercase “c” in “casual.”
Now, her voice work for Cloudy Jane (or CJ) on Regular Show covers much of the same ground, so at the very least that’s two very solid performances in a similar range. And CJ herself doesn’t break much ground as a character, existing primarily as Mordecai’s love interest, though the most nuanced and compelling love interest to date. However, after taking a statistical analysis of Regular Show’s fifth season, I’ve come to the conclusion that it got really really fucking good the moment CJ nuzzled her way in at the stroke of midnight during “New Years Kiss.”
2014 was supposed to be the Year of the Rigby, but it was really the Year of the CJ. Satisfying mammoth episode orders each season inevitably made Regular Show subject to heavy quality swings week-to-week, but season five post-CJ was brutally consistent (not to knock pre-CJ highlights “Tants” and “Bank Shot”). Cardellini might not have figured heavily into all of the twenty-three episodes between “New Years Kiss” and “Real Date,” the season finale, but almost all of them absorbed her greatness by osmosis—I could count the number of duds on one hand, a remarkable ratio for an 11-minute series with a 44-episode order.
How can I so certainly attribute this anomaly to Cardellini? CJ allowed Regular Show—and I’m noticing a pattern here—to mature. Structurally, the show’s adherence to formula is comical, and past attempts at serialized stories were limited or mishandled (the less said about Margaret the better). Throwing CJ into the mix opened up room for character growth for Mordecai, Rigby, and even would-be-should-be-breakout character Eileen, while sustaining a competent, even compelling emotional throughline across a couple dozen episodes. In the cracks, the writers even felt free to experiment a little, like with the Hi Five Ghost vehicle “The Postcard” or two-part flashback “Skips’ Story.” Regular Show never jumped too far out of its own skin, but it boasted a new confident aura, a gleaming tattoo of refinement.
When CJ is in the picture, she brings out the best in Regular Show. Even though it appears as if her character’s arc is drawing to a close, I hope her afterglow continues to resonate in her absence.
- Best 5-Episode Miniseries: True Detective
- BONUS! Honorable mentions! Another eleven for the road! Etc!
- Abbi goes to North Brother Island on Broad City
- Edie Fake creates new space from the past with Memory Palaces
- Liz Prince unintentionally dumps a nerd in Tomboy
- In a big year for misanthropy, Black Coal, Thin Ice creates the world’s least likeable protagonist
- The bees prepare for the end in Micheal DeForge’s Ant Colony
- Rumi Hara tells a watercolor folktale in Border Land
- Geraldine Chaplin gives a best actress performance with just her eyes in Sand Dollars
- The best running joke of 2014 makes a fool of everyone in “Zoës and Zeldas” (Bojack Horseman)
- Elisha Lim gets jealous as hell in 100 Crushes
- Alex Dahm creates a maze in a box that’s actually a comic with Dive
- Too Many Cooks! Too Many Cooks!! Smarf!!!!