Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Top Crab #14

Perhaps because I haven’t posted here for exactly a year, it is still worthwhile to sum up the year that was and celebrate the better or the best. Here we go again, for the 14th time!

Best Film:
I seem to be going through a period of mediocrity in my movie watching. The vast majority of the films I get to watch these days are good or enjoyable, but rarely do I stumble upon a film that is truly great. I did, however, stumble upon two such movies of greatness this year, which goes to show that one needs to not give up on this Marvel contaminated world yet.
I, Daniel Blake is a 2016 Ken Loach film that I only got to watch this year. The movie describes the hardships of the unemployed under the UK’s austerity regime, in which funds as well as humanity have been actively removed from the process of helping out those that need support the most. As much as I grieve for the people of the UK, it was the cruel similarities between what happens in the movie and what has been taking place in Australia and its Centrelink services that made this particular movie ring a bell. Robodebt, anyone?
The other excellent movie I had the privilege of watching was Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There is no point with me going into details here, but as a movie buff I was touched by the layer upon layer of homages to the world of cinema presented by this tale of alternative Hollywood history. In that, alone, it is a true work of art.

Best Book:
It brings me great shame to say that I wasn’t able to come up with a worthy nominee for a best book, the direct result of having not read enough books. Is it only me, or is reading a book from start to finish becoming a harder and harder task to achieve, COVID quarantine or not?
Of the books that I did read, The End Is Always Near by Dan Carlin is probably the best (and not just because of borrowing from The Doors for its title). I consider Carlin the best podcaster out there bar none, with his Hardcore History series, and he doesn’t fail with his first history book either. The End Is Always Near discusses the various ways in which human civilisation as we know it can expire, from pandemics to the nuclear (BTW, the book was released way before COVID was); reading it, one cannot escape noticing how easy it would be for us to tumble down that ever so near chasm.
As much as I regret not reading enough regular books, I did indulge myself in plenty of technical reading, and shall therefore grant this year’s best book award to the one technical book I have found to stand head and shoulders above all the rest when it comes to teaching the ways of iOS programming. That books is iOS Programming: The Big Nerd Ranch Guide (7th Edition).
Having tried to learn iOS development using so many other resources, only to find them all lacking in one way or another - either in focus, inconsistency, or general time wasters - the Big Nerd Ranch Guide stood its ground to portray a developing narrative that leaves its reader with a proper impression of Apple’s iOS environment. Yet even this guide is far from perfect: it completely glosses over SwiftUI, which is obviously the future of Apple development on all platforms. Oh well… I guess I will take the wins as they come.

Best TV:
Look, we have been drowning in massive TV series over the past several years, and between Netflix running under constant debt and the coffers of Amazon, Apple, and Disney joining the fray, things are only getting “worse”.
Yet with all the money, the clear winner this year is a series that is all about the evils of money. Succession stood apart from everything else with its multiple round characters, excellent acting, and drama that triggers both laughter and disgust at the same time.
Talking about the Murdoch family, I will mention another series that stood out: Loudest Voice, starring Russell Crowe as the morally and criminally corrupt founder of Fox News, Roger Ailes. With Fox News and the Murdoch family behind it forming much of the support pillars for the USA’s death cult around the whole COVID affair, both Succession and Loudest Voice are bursting with relevance.
Moving on a completely different note, I want to spare a few words for Apple TV+. Of all the streaming services, I find this one the weirdest in the sense that it is obviously and visibly overflowing with money yet having very little in the way of contents. I openly admit I would have probably given it a miss if it wasn’t for Apple giving me a free year with the service. However, if I was to do that I would have definitely missed out on something quite good: Apple may not have much in its streaming service, but it is clear Apple TV+ is very values driven. It is also clear that the values it is standing for align quite well with my own personal values. Apple TV+ may not have much, but a much higher portion of what it does have is pretty good (especially when comparing with the “written to a formula” contents, in the bad sense of the word contents, that is filling the bulk of what Netflix has to offer). I will mention For All Mankind as a fine Apple TV+ example, but Home Before Dark was probably my favourite of them all.
And since I’ve just badmouthed Netflix, it would be a great shame for me not to mention the best thing Netflix has on offer - and our second Best TV award winner: the so very Japanese stop motion animation marvel that is Rilakkuma and Kaoru. Especially in a year plagued by fires and then a real plague, we need to learn to take comfort from the better things this world has on offer; and that’s where the giant teddy bear that is Rilakkuma (and his mates) step in with their cuteness, innocence, and love of sweet food. So charming, yet so wise at the same time.

Best Music:
I’ll be honest: I did not encounter new music this year that “shook” me as much as the music I have always been listening to. If you look at the tracks I’ve been playing the most, you will still find a list dominated by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and The The (to name but a few).
That said, there are definitely certain flavours of new music that I like, so much so that the bulk of music I am listening to is new music. Indeed, most of my music listening these days has me trying out new flavours of music in search for that new spice that would make my life so much richer.
I can definitely testify in favour of plenty such good spice in existence, even if it is not of the quality that one can only find on a planet called Dune and which enables faster than light travel. In my case, the better spice tends to offer a mix of what is commonly referred to as alternative music these days, coupled with some jazz, and with perhaps a bit of oriental or latin influence.
I will cite three albums that demonstrate what I’m talking about. The first is Immigrance by Snarky Puppy, the funky jazz band. On the more blues-y side of things we have Easy to Buy, Hard to Sell by The Sleep Eazys and Joe Bonamassa (the latter being of the old style guitarists I love so much).
My overall winner is, however, a London duo made of a French musician and a Turkish vocalist. Together they make up Kit Sebastian, and their album Mantra Moderne mixes and matches the alternative, jazz, and orient very well, thank you very much! I admit, I like the songs sung in Turkish the best - try Yürüdüm Büyüdüm Çürüdüm for a nice, 4 minute long, adventure. Or, if you’re somewhat less adventurous, the French mixed with English With a Sense of Grace, a song brimming with both sense and grace.

Best Podcast:
This past year has seen my podcast listening rise to new peaks. These days, podcasts are my main “contents” consumption method, if only because I can listen to podcasts while doing other things: while driving, while walking, while shopping, or while cooking.
I thus listen to many a good podcast, yet when the time comes to pick one that is a true gem I find the task rather hard (unless I’m to pick a former winner); almost all the podcasts I know, by their very nature of being a rather personal and improvised affair, tend to suffer from significant ups and downs.
I therefore decided to go with the podcast I start most mornings with as my pick for this year’s best podcast. That podcast is 7AM, made (with love) by the people behind The Monthly and the Saturday Paper. In 12 minutes or so every morning, 7AM tells me most of what I need to know about Australian news for the day. More importantly, given the state of our media these days, it does so in a progressive manner while displaying true journalism - even investigative journalism - of the type that has become so rare since Murdoch’s trash took over as the main supplier of “news” for Australia, coupled with the deliberate demise of the ABC by the Australian government. There aren’t that many good sources of journalism left in Australia (The Guardian probably stands as the last bastion of the written word), but 7AM definitely makes a worthy stand.

Best Video Game:
Several good things happened to the world of video games this past year.
Untitled Goose Game broke new winds into the sails of the gaming universe, with a simple yet devilishly crafty and original take on a very simple formula. What a great, fun, game it is! In my opinion, it shows how inflated games such as Grand Theft Auto have become: both Goose and GTA have you do pretty much the same thing, but one of these two is pure fun.
The second good thing to happen was Apple Arcade, which delivered Mini Motorways, a sequel to that gem of minimalism, Mini Metro. Mini Motorways delivers aplenty, with a game I can just play endlessly without ever getting tired. Having met the developers face to face on several occasions by now, I can attest that it is no coincidence such a great game came out of the hands of such nice people.
It does seem as if Apple Arcade is still searching for what type of games it seeks to deliver. Recently, we heard Apple has discontinued several projects in favour of games that will have players come back for more. I think that’s a shame; short but great games such as Assemble With Care have been my favourite Apple Arcade games thus far, and it’s a pity to see such gems have no future so that great “contents” dumpsters would. Regardless, I am still a big fan of Apple Arcade for one very simple reason: privacy. Nowhere else in the world of gaming can one put their hands on games where the privacy policy is pretty much a one liner along the lines of “we do not collect your data”. Such a breath of fresh air!
Such gems aside, there was one game that captured me for the bulk of this year and had me coming back for more again and again to the tune of hundreds of hours. Just like last year’s best game, it’s a Japanese game, and just like last year, it was a game I had “discovered” rather late. But who cares?
Dragon Quest 11, or by its full name, Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age, is a JRPG. As JRPG regulars will tell you, the Dragon Quest brand is that of lighter JRPGs, but that does not mean bad JRPGs. It is true that Dragon Quest 11 won’t shatter the world of philosophy with its concepts, and it is true that its characters are less complex than one could have imagined. However, it is exactly because of the simplicity of this side of things that its tale told in three acts manages to shine so brilliantly.
I’m going to give away a key element of the plot in the next paragraph, so if you’re blooper shy you should skip it. You will, however, miss out on the key reason Dragon Quest 11 had managed to captivate me as well as it did.
The first act plays like your typical goodies vs. baddies tale, with the unlikely hero wandering the world in search of answers while gathering friends along and while discovering more and more about the pending evil that is about to bring doom to this world. It took me about 70 hours (I guess you could make it in 40 if you don’t care for the finer details), but eventually I got to the biggest boss of all bosses and expected to finish what seemed, by then, to be a nice game with lots of nice characters. But then the unexpected happened: I lost that fight; and it wasn’t just me being a noob, the game clearly meant for me to lose that fight. Because as much as I wanted to win it, my gang was simply not ready. So the baddie won, and the gang got scattered all across the world, each paying some personal price for the defeat. That’s when the second act starts, when the sheer brilliance of Dragon Age 11 shines: each of those characters has to pick their feet up, find the good enough reason to continue fighting for a better world despite now living in a bleak world dominated by evil, and simply get on with it.
These tales are brilliantly told. They are touching, and they are also very relevant for the world we live in today: a world that’s been devastated by a pandemic, a world that’s going through an even bigger devastation of the environments and its climate. A world that would require all of us to [eventually, because we are led by a bunch of morons] sacrifice a lot and to make huge efforts in order for life to continue.
There is so much to take from Dragon Age 11, from its brilliantly simple fight mechanics to its charming graphic design. But it is those individual tales of rising, against all odds, in order to make the world a better place, that made Dragon Age 11 stand way above the rest of the crop when it comes to quality video gaming. This is a true piece of art that sets an example worth following, a game of true game of the year colors.

And that's it for this year. Till next time, plenty of good puff puff to us all!