I know. I know.I didn’t post this year.
In fact, this will be my first and last post of 2021. The truth is that I’m working three jobs now. I teach a sci/fi and fantasy course at Linn-Benton Community College, I make tech review videos for the HGG YouTube channel and I write video game news for SVG and Looper. It’s been a struggle to carve out time to write my own fiction, let alone blog posts.
Still, I wanted to make sure I wrote this top 5s article. As always, this list will include all my favorite books, movies, TV shows and video games I enjoyed this year – regardless of whether or not they were actually released in 2021.
So without further ado, let’s get started!
This part of the list is going to be a little scant. I did read quite a bit this year, but I did a lot of re-reading and didn’t find many new books to share. In fact, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t read very much that was written in 2021. Still there are a few that I’d like to talk about even if they are all a bit older.
5. The Shades of Magic Trilogy
Reading The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue last year left me craving more from author V.E. Schuab. I actually already had a copy of A Darker Shade of Magic that I’d given my wife as a gift and was collecting dust on a shelf, so that naturally felt like the perfect place to start.
There were some ups and downs in The Shades of Magic Trilogy. The characters were much more formulaic than the one’s in Addie LaRue and I definitely had to roll my eyes at one or two of the “cool” one-liners the cast fired off in the middle of battle. That said, Schuab paints a beautiful picture of a fantasy universe with unique, interconnected worlds, and a fun magic system. It’s also well paced and a genuinely fun read for anyone craving a high-stakes magical adventure.
4. Teen Titans
The new Teen Titans comics by Kami Garcia and Gabriel Picolo have been a blast so far. I’ve followed Picolo on his Instagram for a long time and have loved his art style from the moment I first saw it.
Every panel in the comic feels well thought out and is full of personality. The first book introduces Raven, the second introduces Beast Boy, and the third has them meet. I believe that they are currently working on the introduction of Robin. Each character has a new and beautifully thought out backstory. My only complaint is that the pacing feels a little rushed, but that’s probably due to the creators being eager to get to the point where all the characters meet.
3. Something is Killing the Children
Something is Killing the Children is kind of like if Buffy the Vampire Slayer was crossed with Hellraiser. The story focuses on a town where real monsters which are invisible to adults are brutally killing and eating children. Then a monster slayer comes to town.
The thing that makes Something is Killing the Children different from other action-horror stories is the sensation of utter bleakness it conveys. The monsters are too powerful. The murders don’t stop when our hero arrives. They don’t feel like something that can be defeated. The hero doesn’t seem strong enough and the organization backing her is morally ambiguous at best. There’s very little hope to be found in this story. The art sure is cool though!
This is probably the oldest thing on the list, but this was my first time reading it and it was good enough that it merited a spot on the list. It’s set in London, but not exactly the London you know. There is an undercity; a world of unseen creatures and people living off the scraps of the world above. Our protagonist accidentally stumbles into this city and must find his way back with the aid of an eclectic band of fellow travelers.
I do wish Gaiman expanded more on the “unseen” people in London. That theme felt like it never went anywhere and it was my favorite part. Still, it was a beautiful read from beginning to end and I’m glad I can finally cross it off my list.
1. The Witcher Series
This year I finally buckled and decided to read the entire Witcher series and I’m glad I did. The Witcher 3 is one of my all-time favorite video games and the Netflix show is always fun to watch.
Geralt’s journey in the books is a slow one at times, and incredibly fast paced at others. The first two books are my favorites. The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny are both short story collections that feel better paced than the novels that followed. That isn’t to say that the novels aren’t good. It’s just that they have a tendency to meander as characters sit around a campfire talking about philosophy and local politics between the action and emotional story beats. I’d say they’re still well worth reading for anyone who loves the characters and the world.
Even though I definitely saw more new movies this year than last year, the pickins were still pretty slim. Even so, there were a few that I was genuinely impressed with. Here are my top 5.
5. The Matrix: Resurrections
I’ve unapologetically loved the Matrix ever since it first came out when I was a wee lad of 10. I was worried a new movie might not be able to recapture that magic and – in a way – I was right.
The Matrix: Resurrections had a lot of amazing ideas, all wrapped up in a loose framework of nostalgia and half-baked philosophy. There are some really cool ideas about how hype-culture has replaced business-culture and how emotional control is the new weapon of the system, but most of it seems rushed and never feels all that cohesive. There’s a lot to like about this movie, but not that much to love.
4. Black Widow
This one was pretty surprising for me. I like Marvel movies well enough, but there are only a few of them that I think stand out from the rest. Black Widow immediately begins with a much darker tone than most of the other movies in the franchise. A short introduction shows a young Natasha Romanoff as part of a fake sleeper-cell family in the US during the cold war before she enters the brutal Black Widow training program.
There are strong emotional themes about found families, the dangers of nationalism and how many young women all over the world are socialized to be viewed as objects rather than people. The cast is top notch as well. Florence Pugh’s performance as Yelena is particularly good.
Candyman is another movie that I wasn’t expecting to like nearly as much as I did. That’s because going into the film, I didn’t realize that it was co-written by Jordan Peele.
Much like Get Out and US, the 2021 reboot of Candyman is a horror film that uses the genre to reflect the very real atrocities which have been committed against African Americans in the United States. The film centers on the effects that gentrification has on primarily black neighborhoods and the historic impact that police brutality has had on the community’s collective consciousness. There’s also a surprisingly thoughtful message about how urban legends can be adopted as a coping mechanism for communal trauma. Heavy stuff.
I read the first Dune novel years ago, and while I certainly enjoyed it, I could also see why so many people had trouble adapting it into film. It’s a cerebral novel that spends more time discussing religion, politics and social structures and less time describing anything actually happening. I wasn’t sure that anyone could make it into an adequate adaptation.
Well, I guess I was wrong… kind of. The 2021 Dune film still definitely struggles with many of the slower moments in the story, but a combination of brilliant performances, stunning visuals and breathtaking cinematography make it into an experience that has a powerful impact on the viewer. I enjoyed the film quite a bit and can’t wait for part 2.
1. Words Bubble Up like Soda Pop
Of all the movies I’ve seen this year, this was the only one that really took my breath away. Words Bubble Up like Soda Pop is a Japanese anime that has one of the most vibrant visual stylings of anything I’ve ever seen. It’s use of motion and color had me completely entranced throughout the entire film. It also takes its time, lingering on shots that many other films would attempt to rush through and giving space for the emotional moments that hit the hardest.
It’s about a young man and woman who are each struggling with their confidence in different ways. “Smile” is a social media influencer who has recently taken to wearing a mask in order to hide her new corrective braces. “Cherry” is a haiku poet who works in an activity center for the elderly. He has trouble with public speaking and auditory hypersensitivity which he wears headphones to cope with. The story of the budding relationship between the two is sweet, heartfelt, and heartbreaking all at the same time. If you check out anything on this list, watch this.
Movie options might have been limited, but there were more than enough TV shows to watch this year. In fact, I’m sure that there are a dozen great shows I watched this year that all deserve a place on someone’s list. These are my top 5 though.
5. Y: the Last Man
The Y: the Last Man graphic novel is actually the series that got me into comics, so I was more than a little excited when I heard that FX was making a TV series based off it. The show is far from a 1-1 adaptation, but I actually think that’s a good thing. I recently re-read the series after watching the show and I realized that it, (being nearly 20 years old now,) is very much a product of its time and some of the story wouldn’t translate well to a modern audience.
I do think that the story in the show is a little too concerned with making all of it’s characters flawed and doesn’t give them enough redeeming qualities. That said, the story is enjoyable from start to finish and all of the performances are excellent.
Most of you probably don’t need me to tell you that WandaVision is good. The series’ unique format of using sitcoms from each decade as inspiration to tell each episode works as a visually appealing artistic choice as well as a structural storytelling one. Wanda uses sitcoms as a coping mechanism for trauma, so encapsulating a town in a living sitcom makes for an emotionally complex narrative framework.
I’m a little concerned that the second season of the show is going to struggle with re-capturing some of that magic since the premise of the show has already played itself out, but it’s earned enough goodwill that I’m more than willing to give it a shot.
3. Carol and Tuesday
This had been sitting in my Netflix queue ever since the first season came out back in 2019. I finally got around to watching it and I can’t believe I slept on it for so long! The story is a pretty straight-forward one. It’s set in a futuristic city on Mars about two musicians who decide to form a band together. It does deal with some heavy themes about immigration law and wealth disparity, but it’s mostly a light-hearted story about the misadventures of these two girls and the friends they meet along the way. The music and animation are both incredibly fun and it has some of the most memorable characters I’ve seen in a long time.
2. What We Do in the Shadows
I was pretty mad at myself after I realized I forgot to add What We Do in the Shadows to last years top 5s list. It definitely deserved a spot on there, but now I’m using the new season to justify its place on this year’s list. Don’t like it? Fight me.
For those that don’t know, this sitcom is based on the mockumentary of the same name which was created by one of my favorite directors, Taika Waititi. It follows four vampire roommates in Staten Island and their familiar Guillermo. The show contrasts the ridiculousness of vampiric lore with modern life. The cast is amazing from top to bottom and it features some of the cleverest humor on TV today IMO. The new season ended on some shocking cliffhangers that have me really excited for the direction the show is taking as well.
I’ll be honest. I saw Arcane pop-up on my Netflix feed a while ago and my first thought was: “Art looks cool, but I don’t really give a s*** about League of Legends.” Well, I ended up watching it after getting knocked out for a few days by my Covid booster shot and whoo boy, I’m glad I did.
The show follows sisters Violet and Powder as they grow up in the slums of the steam-punk inspired city of Piltover where they have to steal to survive.
The first episode starts out feeling a little typical, but the show quickly demonstrates that it isn’t going to pull its punches. This is another one that has some strong themes about the dangers of unchecked capitalism and wealth-disparity. It also has a powerful emotional core that had me invested in each of the numerous character’s points of view.
That would be enough to make me love it, but it also has some of the best animation I’ve seen since Into the Spiderverse and an absolutely bangin’ soundtrack.
There are still a few games that came out this year I haven’t gotten around to just yet. Tales of Arise, Halo: Infinite, Metroid: Dread, and Life is Strange 3: True Colors are all on my list. Their omission doesn’t mean they aren’t good enough to make the cut. I just haven’t gotten to them yet. There are plenty of great games I did get to play though. Here are the best of them.
5. Nier: Replicant ver.1.22474487139
Like most people, I played Nier: Automata without ever laying hands on the original Nier. Luckily, Square Enix gave us the opportunity to play a new remake of a version of the game which was previously only released in Japan. I actually did my first game review video for HGG on it.
The upgrades weren’t just visual either. They completely revamped the combat and even added new boss fights. Nier: Replicant scratched my itch for a new action RPG while allowing me to finally see where the series began.
4. Persona 5: Strikers
Persona 5 is probably my favorite RPG since Final Fantasy X. The characters and story make for some of the most fun I’ve had in gaming in a long time. Then Atlus made a sequel and — just like they did with the sequel to Persona 4 — they changed the type of game it is.
Person 5: Strikers uses musou-style action RPG mechanics in lieu of the turn-based combat system established in the first game. Honestly, the new controls are a little button mash-y, but they’re not bad. The real appeal of Persona was never the combat anyway. It’s the story.
Strikers picks up right where 5 left off. It’s a fun story that allowed me to hang out with some of my favorite video game characters of all time again. What more could I ask for?
Plus it’s on Switch which is a much better platform than the PS4 for that kind of game.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
I picked up the Guardians of the Galaxy video game on a whim when I saw it going for half off on a Black Friday sale. Truth-be-told, the shooting controls are a little funky, the team mechanics can be tricky to get a handle on and the difficulty settings are dialed up way too high so even Normal mode can feel impossible at times, but this game is still definitely worth playing. Square Enix did a great job capturing the dysfunctional relationship between all of the characters and the story is a fun space odyssey that’s as good as any of the movies all on its own.
It also has what must be the most expensive soundtrack in the history of video games.
2. Resident Evil: Village
I’ve loved Resident Evil games for as long as I can remember, but lately it feels like they’ve been knocking it out of the park every single year. Resident Evil: Village feels less scary and a lot more campy than most RE games, but that’s kind of what makes it fun. The game is an almost theme park-like journey through a village infested with, and run by, monsters.
The shooting feels just as good as it does in every RE game and the villains make for fun narrative fodder and even funner boss fights. Like everyone else, my only complaint is that there wasn’t more Lady Dimitrescu.
So, my favorite game I played in 2021 was actually made in 2018. If you haven’t played Hades yet then you’re seriously missing out. It’s a rogue-like game where you play Zagreus, the rebellious son of Hades who wants to escape from the realm of the dead in order to find his mother. To do so, you must battle your way through every level of the underworld – and players who die have to start again from the bottom.
What makes Hades so cool is the way the story continues to progress even after you die. Each run is reset, but time isn’t. There are story lines that continue to evolve between runs. The combat is plenty fun, and the art is breathtaking, but the characters are where the real charm of the game comes into play. I would recommend this game to anyone.
2021, Signing Off
Hey! Thanks for reading my list!
I hope it gave you a few ideas for things to check out that you might have missed. Go ahead and leave a comment if you think I missed something from your top 5. Hopefully there will be even more to talk about in 2022!
Thanks for reading,