The following list showcases the popular culture I most appreciated in 2019, regardless of whether it actually came out in 2019. Consider it a gift to you, capable of instilling in you the taste you so severely lack.
Boon Joon-ho’s genre-defying film Parasite is a must-see, even for those usually put off by subtitles. It’s funny, thrilling and relatable, goading the audience to root for a family whose increasingly selfish behavior threatens to transform them from clever capitalists into full-blown criminals. Impeccably written and full of well-timed surprises, Parasite is the high-water mark for exceptional modern filmmaking.
While not as terrifying as Hereditary, Ari Aster’s brightly-colored follow-up film is still roaring with dread. Anchored by an evocative performance from Florence Pugh, Midsommar tells the story of a woman attempting to process grief while on a trip to a remote village in Sweden. She and her travel companions participate in the village’s midsummer festival, only to discover that beneath the floral crowns and maypole dances something sinister lurks. Midsommar’s visuals alternate between idyllic and horrific, underscoring the movie’s tumultuous central relationship and echoing Pugh’s inner turmoil.
Though it looks more regal than Downton Abbey, The Favourite’s dialogue is as biting and raunchy as Veep. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone battle for Queen Anne’s favor with darkly funny, occasionally tragic results. The film’s juxtaposition of dazzlingly ornate architecture and foul-mouthed malcontents results in one of the most creative and engaging dramas ever conceived. Olivia Colman won the Oscar for her visceral portrayal of Queen Anne, but all three of the leading ladies deliver career-best performances.
For those not in-the-know, HBO’s Succession is a witty and gripping drama about a Murdoch-esque family whose penchant for power struggles is fairly Shakespearean. Quotable and clever, Succession delivers as both social commentary and binge-able obsession. Its cast is filled with skilled actors spitting witticisms. Brian Cox leads the ensemble as a cantankerous media mogul in search of an heir. Though it feels a bit icky to care about the people behind a Fox News-style propaganda machine, it’s a testament to the writing and the performances that I can’t wait to root for the Roy family next season.
PEN15 is a brilliantly funny, deeply personal look at what it’s like to be a middle-schooler. Adult actresses and writers Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play 7th grade girls, while all their classmates are played by child actors. Though the stars don’t always look like little kids, their line-delivery and mannerisms are so pitch-perfect it’s easy to forget. The adults-playing-kids schtick amplifies the inherent awkwardness of puberty. The 7th graders are desperate to seem cool and mature, while still exhibiting the inherent innocence of kids. More than just a nostalgia trip, PEN15 is a portal through time to embarrassing moments adults have either repressed or forgotten.
Disney’s first foray into big-budget Star Wars TV is a genuine hit. Much has been written about the show’s scene-stealing cutie, Baby Yoda, but The Mandalorian’s greatest accomplishment is proving that a Star Wars spin-off doesn’t have to focus on revising or explaining the events from the movies. Like the best of the expanded universe stories, The Mandalorian digs into unexplored lore, introduces compelling new characters, and lets viewers explore new corners of the Star Wars universe without marrying everything to a Skywalker. Though the first season suffers from some awkward plotting, it ultimately sticks the landing and sets up some exciting stakes for season two.
An inspiring tour of Joan Jett’s musical career, Bad Reputation is a feel-good documentary that made me want to thrash and blast her songs like the young person I no longer am. Though it tends to keep things positive and not dwell too much on the hardships, the core story about a young musician finding her persona onstage and defying people’s prudish expectations was fun and uplifting. One part biography and one part pro-Joan propaganda, Bad Reputation makes up for its lack of twists and turns by being a world-class delivery system for Joan’s music and the fiery spirit of feminism.
Fyre is schadenfreude in a bottle. It’s the story of a failed business venture, one that resulted in a bunch of rich concert-goers stranded on an island without access to the luxurious accommodations they’d been promised. It all started when professional douche Billy McFarland sold a brand new music festival to the rich and well-connected. Like Captain Ahab, McFarland sails toward disaster, obsessed with accomplishing his goal even as his crew warns him to turn back. The result is tragic for the concert-goers but deeply satisfying for viewers who enjoy seeing bad things happen to rich people.
Leaving Neverland provides viewers with the most damning testimony available regarding Michael Jackson’s child molestation. The documentary focuses on two men who were molested by Jackson when they were kids, then supplements their accounts with photos, faxes, and other corroborating evidence. Though stomach-turning, the picture that Neverland paints is clear, revealing the systematic way in which Jackson sought out, raped, and discarded young boys. In spite of the trauma, Jackson’s victims try to stay strong and live healthy adult lives, providing inspiration for anyone suffering similarly.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Three Houses is an addictive strategy game about a Hogwarts-esque academy where you can bond with your fellow teachers and students, thereby improving their strength in battle. The game offers enough customization to make it replayable multiple times, resulting in a good amount of bang for your buck. Though it sometimes lacks the graphical flair of its contemporaries, Three Houses makes up for any shortcomings with loads of quality combat, charm, and romance.
Return of the Obra Dinn
Lucas Pope is one of the most creative game designers of all time. You might recall his previous game, Papers, Please, in which you play as an immigration officer under an authoritarian regime. In Obra Dinn, you play as an investigator tasked with explaining the mysterious deaths of the crew aboard a vessel straight out of Moby Dick. The game’s visuals are monochrome yet vivid, and its music is intoxicating. Using a magical compass you can view the exact moment of each crewman’s death, but it’s up to you to determine how and why these tragic events took place. Obra Dinn is a truly unique game sure to please anyone who enjoys seafaring tales, murder mysteries, and puzzle-solving.
Pokémon Sword & Shield
Despite the controversy surrounding the designers’ decision to omit a slew of Pokémon from the game, Pokémon Shield succeeds because of the series’ latest gimmick, a large open area where changing weather determines which Pokémon will appear. My childhood dream was a game that combined the open world freedom of World of Warcraft with the world of Pokémon, and Shield is one step closer to making that dream a reality. Another added bonus is the game’s setting, a loving parody of modern day England. This means classic Pokémon have updated forms to fit the new region, including a Weezing that looks like industrial smokestacks and a fighting-type Farfetch’d with a leafy blade.
It’s been seven years since Borderlands 2 was released. In that span of time we’ve seen groundbreaking gameplay in Breath of the Wild and The Phantom Pain. We’ve seen revised takes on the loot-shooter genre like Destiny and The Division. We’ve even seen oddball spin-offs like adventure game Tales from the Borderlands and the Australian-infused Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, which added oxygen tanks and high-flying butt-stomps. After seven years of technical advancements, experimentation and hype, it would be safe to assume that the next major entry in the Borderlands series would be influenced by these factors. That’s why it’s a bit surprising that Borderlands 3 feels largely the same as its numeric predecessor.
For the first ten levels, Borderlands 3 is so indistinguishable from Borderlands 2 it almost feels like a rip-off. In the age of Overwatch, the shooting in BL3 feels sluggish and awkward. Despite the compelling art design of characters and locations, the new game reuses assets and animations from the previous ones, resulting in a decidedly last-gen look. Opening the menu grinds the frame-rate to a halt. Outdoor locations still feel vast and generic. Vehicle controls are still awkward. Small quality of life improvements, like the layered 3D map screen and the ability to switch quests on the fly, stick out as novel because they’re some of the only changes. Even additions from The Pre-Sequel have been muted or removed to the point where that game’s existence is negligible. Most mind-boggling of all, the game now allows you to climb certain ledges lazily marked in yellow, aping the same color indicator from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, resulting in some of the jankiest platforming challenges in any modern game. But in spite of all these problems, what sticks out most to me about Borderlands 3 is how much fun I had playing it, and how once I had finished it, I found myself wishing for more.
This is the gaming equivalent of an addictive fast-food cheeseburger. You know it’s fundamentally bad, and you’re probably supporting an evil company by enjoying it, but at the end of the day, the joy that it brings you outweighs the potential harm, or at least distracts you enough that you won’t feel bad until much later. The core gameplay loop of shooting and looting, ravenously collecting guns and comparing them to one another, following diamond-shaped markers from one arbitrary objective to the next is so fundamentally enjoyable and engaging, that the numerous reasons to dislike the game don’t carry much weight, even when added all together. They’re worth discussing of course, as some of the decisions that went into Borderlands 3 are surprisingly misguided, but it’s also worth reiterating that even as a single-player experience, you will likely have an enjoyable time from beginning to end (especially if you don’t pay too much attention to the dialogue and maybe throw on a podcast while you blast away the baddies).
Borderlands stories have never been great or particularly coherent, but the characters and vocal performances are generally enjoyable. This time there are some bizarre new inclusions to the voice acting cast, like problematic nerd mogul Chris Hardwick as an overly-enthusiastic bandit and Las Vegas magicians Penn & Teller as Mad Max-ified versions of themselves. There are a few cosplayers known for erotic modeling in the game as well, which feels fan-servicey in terms of casting even though their roles aren’t particularly provocative. It only stands out as an odd choice given that Randy Pitchford, the President of Gearbox Software, allegedly left a hard drive containing underage pornography at a Medieval Times restaurant in 2014, giving anything he’s associated with a undercurrent of sleaze. Putting this further into sketchiness context, in 2018 the aforementioned Chris Hardwick was accused of mentally and sexually abusing his ex-girlfriend Chloe Dykstra, a well-known actress and cosplayer. Borderlands 3 is hampered by these controversies without actually saying or doing anything to address them, which feels a bit weird given the series’ Deadpool-esque penchant for meta-humor. But there does seem to be an attempt to make things slightly more politically correct this time. There are a staggering number of female characters in Borderlands 3, and that feels unique given that it’s primarily a game about murder, guns, and fart jokes. There aren’t any characters named “midget” in this game like there were in Borderlands 2, but you still have to shoot countless little people. Now they’re called “tinks,” which still sounds demeaning but at least isn’t a well-known slur. Adding to the game’s pseudo-feminism, there are now female bandits for you to murder as well. Talk about progress.
That sort of ambivalent progressivism abounds in Borderlands 3. It’s a game about family, trauma, loss, and murdering literally everything that crosses your path. The game is a cornucopia of carnage, but it also occasionally wants to make you feel things. It’s not shy about killing off characters or tossing in twists, but it rarely sticks the landings on these big moments. The best of the vocal performances ground the game in an emotional reality, though no one is as commanding or iconic as Dameon Clarke’s Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2. YouTuber SungWon Cho delivers a nice, growly turn as playable character Fl4k, and trans actor Ciaran Strange’s performance of Lorelei is energetic and lovable, enough though the dialogue doesn’t do either of them any favors. David Wald’s Wainwright is a welcome addition. He’s a gay southern gentleman with depth and charm who never becomes an offensive stereotype. Less successful or explicable is the inclusion of Ice-T as a streetwise immobilized teddy bear who speaks about “bitches” and “chains.” This is the kind of thing that feels bizarrely incongruous with the rest of the virtue signaling, and like most of the game is a real dead-end in terms of comedy.
One pleasant thing that makes Borderlands 3 unique from its predecessors is its scope. Spanning several planets, and allowing you to travel via your own spaceship, Sanctuary III, the game fills a void left by the recent absence of a solid Mass Effect experience. There is never the depth or nuance of that series’ character interactions or philosophical musings, but the sensation of being commander of a vessel on a cross-universe mission is still fun. To be clear, you’ll still be shooting and looting on all of these planets, flipping switches and running errands for malcontents, but getting to stretch your legs and leave Pandora whenever you want is the kind of growth that the series desperately needed. Even though I’ll admit I left few stones unturned in terms of side quests, I was shocked by how long the story felt and how much bang there was for my buck. Every time I thought things would wind down they kept going a bit longer, with a few additional nooks and crannies even in the final moments. This is again a double-edged sword, as it makes the narrative bloated and meandering, but it also makes the game feel meaty and worth the asking price in terms of a time-sink.
Throughout it all you’ll be blasting bugs and badasses, grabbing their weapons, and testing them out for yourself. Why did ancient aliens leave so many modern firearms in their vaults? Who knows, and who cares? That’s the kind of question that Borderlands 3 gleefully ignores. It’s a game where a shotgun can shoot buzz saws, or a rifle can become a turret with tiny legs that runs after an enemy before exploding. Its absurdity is part of its charm, although that is often undercut by the implications that the writers were occasionally aiming for emotional depth. Maybe things would be different if they’d taken more time to revise and edit the story rather than adding a hundredth line of dialogue about how good the player is at killing things. The violence may be frenetic and fun, but the game keeps begging you to stop and think about it every ten hours or so, which raises the question: what exactly, if anything, is this game trying to say? Almost any point it makes is undermined by another aspect of the game, so perhaps the only thing for certain is that if you can overlook all the odd decisions and problematic elements, Borderlands 3 is pure, mindless fun.