It’s felt like six years since January, yet I’m still here, trying to make sense of my life, the communities I belong to, and the media I engage with. This year was one of quiet contemplation, making plans, hoping they come to fruition, and being rewarded and disappointed in equal measure. As with every year, I feel like I haven’t done enough, but dredging memories from the recesses of my mind, I come away pleasantly surprised with what I discovered over the past twelve months.
As with 2018’s list (and the one prior to that), this list is more personal than an objective ordering of the best to come out this year. I don’t intend this list as any measure of taste—I missed plenty of anime and games, hopefully to be consumed at some point, so those will not be included. Feel free to recommend anything you think stands out!
Kaguya-sama: Love is War
Anime comedies (much less romantic comedies) are very much hit-or-miss for me. Many Japanese tropes just feel played out, but work best when mixed with Western sensibilities. Nevertheless, Kaguya-sama: Love is War won me over very quickly, for reasons I can’t fully explain. Perhaps it’s the characters; Kaguya’s and Shirogane’s arrogance fighting back against their never-confessed affection, Chika as the clown, and Ishigami’s paranoia all stand out as defining the series. Perhaps it’s the situations: learning how to eat ramen the right way, learning how to play volleyball, or trying not to giggle at childish dirty jokes, all work extremely well when the above characters act them out. I think, however, it’s mostly the relatability: the struggles all feel like situations teenagers find themselves in and are just as laughably awkward as they would be in real life. Kaguya-sama might not be anywhere near my favorite of the year, but every time I remember a scene from it, I can’t help but smile (maybe looking a little like Chika above!).
Alita: Battle Angel
This one deserves a mention just for the sheer audacity of existing, to say nothing of just how good it turned out to be. Alita: Battle Angel is not only a decent movie in its own right, but also a stellar adaptation of the original work. The original was very much one of those hyper-violent OVAs of the time, a feeling which the movie maintains through out the entire runtime. Despite the common complaint of “her eyes, man!” the CG effects blend together nicely and add to the movie while never being as jarring as they are in other movies which try to use them sparingly. If Speed Racer was the one anime adaptation to break the mold in the 00’s, then Alita is absolutely the same for the 10’s. Don’t skip this one. Then go back and listen to our podcast episode on it.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC Characters
I said last year that the hype leading up to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate‘s release was more satisfying than the game itself, that Sakurai & Co. could keep revealing new stuff over and over again and I would be content. My wish was apparently granted, as all of the announcements have ridiculous in the best kind of way. From Persona 5‘s Joker, with stages and music from that game and its predecessors, to fan favorite Banjo-Kazooie and the surprise that came with Dragon Quest‘s Hero and King of Fighters‘ Terry, each update has been wilder than the last. To wit: I still have not bought any of the DLC nor played any of these characters myself, so the inclusion on this list comes from sheer awe from their inclusion, receiving recognition they deserve in this game that has been as much honoring video game history as it is fun to play.
Untitled Goose Game
The best video games are those that immerse you into their world. Their characters are not just avatars you control but blur the line between themselves and you the player. I don’t know if this was the intent of developer House House when making Untitled Goose Game, but I few experiences this year so sublime as becoming the angry goose. At its core a puzzle game, UGG features situations you can’t help but laugh along with, a straightforward comedy that is made all the sweeter by the awkward movements of the titular character. If you don’t come away with this game with a smile, I can’t respect you as a human being; you are less than a goose to me.
I completely skipped out on Nier Automata on release, despite the critical praise, but sat down with it earlier this year, finding myself embarrassed at not playing it earlier. This is very much a Tobias-brand game. The characters and plot are “anime as hell,” but what really won me over was the aesthetic. Post-apocalyptic scenery, melancholic music that has driven me to tears, and just enough tongue-in-cheek snark and nihilism to invoke stories like Evangelion come together to create one of video gaming’s more memorable titles in many years. Again, if you skipped this originally like I did, pick it up as soon as you can—it goes on sale fairly often.
One Cut of the Dead
Gonna be honest here: I hate zombie media. The tropes are overdone, the plotlines rarely pay off, and the general obsession of zombies in popular culture since Dawn of the Dead and The Walking Dead has always annoyed me. That out of the way, One Cut of the Dead is brilliant and you absolutely need to see it. I’ll leave a better write-up of it to Tori in their list, but will echo that the less you know going in, the better. Then show it to your friends and watch their reactions for repeat entertainment.
A Silent Voice
Another work that predates 2019, A Silent Voice‘s inclusion is thanks to the prevalence of anime films in theaters nowadays. I was able to hold off until Eleven Arts hosted a wider theatrical run of it this year, and I hope that more people were able to watch it with me. Perhaps my most personal pick of the year (except the next one), A Silent Voice delves into themes of social alienation from physical disability and self-hatred from crimes of the past, coming to terms with both through acceptance and forgiveness. As someone who is both hearing impaired and has been a total shitheel in the past, I was treated to a double helping of empathy here. KyoAni’s character animation absolutely contributes to the character growth, creating a touching story that is not to be missed.
Delayed since 2015, Anamanaguchi’s [USA] has become, just like their previous albums, my favorite album of that particular year. Whereas Power Supply, Dawn Metropolis, and the Summer Singles‘ “Airbrushed,” were more traditionally chiptunes-inspired, and Endless Fantasy and “Pop It” was an experiment into a new sounds for the band, [USA] is different beast altogether with melancholic tracks like “Sunset by Plane” and “Speak to You [Memory Messengers]”. If 2013’s “Prom Night” was my anthem at the time, celebrating the fresh and deep love I had fallen into, then “On My Own” and “Up to You” embody the need for heartbroken self-love I find myself desperately coming to terms with after the dissolution of the previous.
My feelings toward Nier Automata mirror my feelings toward Death Stranding. A video game that isn’t afraid to poke fun at its being a video game, while embodying hope in a dead world. I haven’t gotten far enough in it yet to appreciate the gameplay fully, but frankly, that doesn’t matter to me. The opening segments alone make for one of the most memorable of the year. The way the team at Kojima Productions has, like with the Metal Gear Solid franchise, blended gritty, militaristic realism with fantasy is like chocolate and peanut butter, creating an experience that is more than the sum of its parts. I’m hesitant to give Kojima any more praise than he gives himself, but you can’t deny that this entry deserves every bit it has gotten.
Come on, you knew this was gonna be on my list. ‘Nuff said.
Really, though, Promare was a treat that somehow surpassed the hype for itself. Having all the strengths of Studio TRIGGER’s catalog with none (OK, fewer) of its weaknesses, Promare made waves not on in Japan but also in America thanks to two theatrical runs by Fathom. Fun characters, flashy visuals and animation, a banging soundtrack by Hiroyuki Sawano, and themes that speak a little too closely to the political landscape in 2019, Promare was exactly what we needed, when we needed it. The giant robot fanservice is just icing on the cake. To mirror my Speed Racer/Alita comparison at the beginning of this list, if Redline was the 00’s movie you absolutely need to have watched, then Promare holds true for the 10’s. You can bet I’ll be getting the Blu-ray as soon as it drops.
I need to give mention to a few other things as well. These mainly didn’t make the cut not because I didn’t like them as much, but because I slacked off and didn’t catch up!
- Carole and Tuesday – I thoroughly enjoyed the first few episodes I caught and have been waiting for the Netflix release to watch it all in bulk. I fully expect it to be on the 2020!
- Sarazanmai – Likewise, I really liked what I saw, but feel ashamed that I fell off keeping up with this! Ikuhara weirdness that belies deeper character studies is extremely my jam and I need to finish this.
- John Wick 3: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – The John Wick movies are just fun to watch, period. The action is altogether gritty and hilarious and unlike so much of the standard Hollywood fare.
- MFKZ – Am I allowed to say Mutafukaz on this family-friendly blog? Oh well. I’ve been sleeping on French animation for too long and MFKZ is a great entry point. The Studio 4°C influence is very apparent here and didn’t surprise me that they worked on this alongside Ankama.
- Gloomhaven – Perhaps the only board game you’ll see on these lists, Gloomhaven mixes tactical board game mechanics with a long-form roleplaying campaign. It does everything Descent: Journeys in the Dark tried to do years earlier, but does it better in every way. The class unlocks your party gets through the campaign and the evolving map provide a layer of progression that just hits that sweet spot for me, and the card-based combat invokes the same crunchiness of D&D 4th Edition, although can be a bit too difficult if you’re just looking for a casual experience as I often do. Luckily, the adjustable difficulty settings mitigate this complaint somewhat.
- Pokemon Sword and Shield – I have yet to see a single one of the new monsters I hate, which more than makes up for the infamous “Dexit” that culled several of the previous critters that are absent. The Gym Challenge becomes the focal point of the story, and the gym leader battles absolutely pop thanks to the Dynamax mechanic and pumping jock jams-inspired theme. You can tell the latter third of the game was rushed in production, however, so I could have waited another year to see it fleshed out, but the game we did get was still pretty good in its own right.