Wednesday, March 13, 2024

My 2023 in Review

This is my third annual Year in Review post, so I think I can officially consider it a tradition! Here are my favorite things from 2023.
The Best Things I Read
Fiction - Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow
My favorite novel last year was Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, a work of literary fiction about two childhood friends who grow up to become video game designers together. The pair are very close friends as kids, then have a falling out and lose contact. They reconnect in college and begin making video games, first as class projects, later starting their own company and growing it into a major studio. They grow apart, then have another falling out. And then, tentatively, they begin to reconnect again. 
Parts of this book are very sad. The characters struggle with poor health and damaging romantic relationships, even as they find artistic and commercial success. The saddest part though, I think, is simply the very real pain of growing apart from someone you care about, or having a fight that means you don't talk to one another for years. Zevin did her homework on the video games too. The fictional games she describes sound realistic, and would be appropriate to each era. And impressively, the structure of each section of the book mirrors the game the friends are working on at the time. It was inspiring and encouraging to read.

My runners up this year are Corienne Hoex's Gentlemen Callers, which is like Invisible Cities, but for sex, literary and playful and phantasmic; and Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris by Leanne Shapton, which tells the story of a couple getting together and then breaking up entirely through objects, presented in the style of an auction catalog with photos and descriptive captions. Shapton accomplishes what every museum curator and dungeon designer hopes to, creating a narrative entirely through
Nonfiction - Islands of Abandonment
My favorite nonfiction book in 2023 was Islands of Abandonment by journalist Cal Flyn. Flyn visits and writes about places that humans no longer use, and looks at how the ecosystem has regrown and recovered there. In a few cases, the abandonment is for political or economic reasons, but mostly it's because of pollution or poison - these are places we've made so toxic that we can no longer work or live there. A recurring theme is that the simple fact of human occupation is worse for the local ecosystem than anything else we can do to it - worse even than tons of unexploded ordinance, buried neurotoxins, or radiation. 
The ecosystems that grow back represent a kind of feral nature, different from what was there before, or in any of the few remaining places we've never touched. Flyn shows places that were abandoned for many possible reasons, and that have recovered in different ways. If the future involves fewer people, or even just more efficient land-use, there will probably be more abandonment, and Flyn helps us imagine what that might look like. This is probably the most D&D-able book I read all year.
My runners up are Ace by Angela Chen, which offers a look at asexual identity, its complexities, and what it illuminates about other sexualities that we might otherwise not see; and Adam Nicolson's Life Between the Tides. Nicolson builds his own tidal pools and reports on the ecosystems in miniature that spring up inside, talks about the biology of some of the most common tidal species, and gives a history of the Irish coastal region where he's working. It felt like a unique and very holistic view of both the niche and the system that contains it.
Comics - Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow and Ducks (tie)
My favorite graphic novel this year collected the Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow miniseries, written by Tom King and illustrated by Bilquis Evely. It seems like DC might be giving each of their heroes a chance at standalone superhero adventures out in space, and if so, I am fully in support of this project. A young Supergirl goes to a planet with a red sun so she can get drunk when she celebrates her 21st birthday, and ends up on a star-hopping adventure with a young farm girl, who narrates the series, in tow. This is science fantasy at its finest, real sword-and-planet stuff, and I liked the contrast between the physically-powerful but emotionally immature Supergirl, and the politically-empowered criminal she pursues.
My favorite graphic nonfiction was Kate Beaton's Ducks. Beaton is best known for her whimsical Hark! A Vagrant comics, but her memoir of her two years working in the oil industry to pay off her student loans is a serious and mature work. Beaton's experiences with sexual harassment were harrowing and persistent; any counterbalance within the piece comes less from humor and more from the awe of nature and her briefer encounters with human kindness.
My runners up are the Forest Hills Bootleg Society in fiction, and Flung Out of Space, which is technically fiction but grounded in biography. In Forest Hills, Dave Baker and Nicole Goux give us a story about four girls at a Christian high school who try selling bootleg hentai movies to boys so they can buy cool jackets and hopefully the approval of their peers. You just know it can't end well. Space is about the author Patricia Highsmith, by Grace Ellis and illustrated by Hannah Templer, covering the period where Highsmith was working in comics, beginning to experience success from Strangers on a Train, trying to sell Carol, and struggling with her own lesbianism and the self-hatred from her internalized homophobia.
The Best Things I Watched
Live-Action Television - Kleo
My favorite live-action show in 2023 was the German revenge thriller Kleo. I'm beginning to realize that I might have a soft spot for revenge stories. Show me a righteously angry person willing to suffer unlimited punishment for the chance to murder their way up the org chart until they can confront and kill the boss who wronged them, and I am on the edge of my seat the whole time. In real life I'm a pacifist, but on film, the more brutal and morally complex the revenger is, the more I'm enthralled. And Kleo, the character, is enthralling. She's an East German spy, who got burned and sent to prison. Then, when the Wall comes down, she's released into the rapidly reunifying German, with exactly one goal - to find out who in her own government framed and imprisoned her, and make them pay. 
Kleo is delightfully unhinged, with tactics that made me wince even as I couldn't look away from them. It helps that the show itself is very aesthetically pleasing, with bright colors, excellent action sequences, and a soundtrack that mixes synths with 80s New Wave and actual Red Army patriotic music. And actress Jella Haase plays the role with the kind of manic enthusiasm we usually associate with Nicholas Hoult or Nick Cage - absolutely committed to a character who is sometimes terrifying, sometimes sympathetic, and always compelling.
My live-action runners up is Irma Vep, which is much more high-concept. It's a prestige miniseries about the making of a fictional prestige miniseries. The fictional miniseries is a remake of the 1915 French film serial Les Vampires, and the real show, Irma Vep, is also a kind of remake or sequel and expansion of an earlier film with the same name and same concept by the same director. But if you can sort of set all that real-life complexity aside, then Irma Vep is a behind-the-scenes look at how prestige tv gets made today, the way the artistic and creative ambitions of some of the people involved can use, be used by, or simply clash with the purely financial motivations of others, and a kind of surreal exploration of the lead actress - played by Alicia Vikander - getting back in touch with her identities as an artistic and romantic person after an ugly breakup and an unfulfilling starring role in a superhero blockbuster.

Anime - Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! and Sailor Moon (tie)
I only started consistently watching anime again in the last few years, and I feel like I'm embarrassed by the riches laid out before me as I sample some of the treasures from the past that I missed when they first came out. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! is at least from this century, and like Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, it's about people making something they love. In this case, we follow three high school girls who form their own tiny animation studio as a club. Across the brief series, we see them make and screen three short films, and learn about each step of the process along the way. The characters dream of feature films and international success, but the show is realistic about how much work they have to do, and what kind of results they can produce.

What makes Eizouken really enjoyable is the absolutely irrepressible enthusiasm of the lead character, the bucket-hat-wearing Midori. She has an unstoppable imagination, looking at the real world and imagining it filled with robots and hovercrafts, and filling notebooks with drawings of her ideas. Midori imagines the kind of things I used to daydream about when I was a kid, and the way the show depicts them really captures the feeling of that childhood excitement; I've never seen it portrayed so accurately before, in any medium. The theme song is also a banger, and sets the mood with its infectious energy.
Eizouken has a somewhat non-traditional animation style, especially for anime, and it makes me want to shout out a few other short series I watched that used unconventional visuals, all of which I really enjoyed, including Kayba, Mononoke, and Fire Hunter.

My other favorite season 1 of the original Sailor Moon anime, the one that first aired in America television in the 90s, where I watched it sporadically after school. It turns out that my clearest memories are from the plant alien arc at the start of season 2, but my heart belongs to the first and best season, which in my opinion did the best job sharing the spotlight across the ensemble, and doesn't include Sailor Moon's difficult daughter from the future. An ordinary, imperfect high school girl discovers that she is also the superhero Sailor Moon, the guardian of an ancient Moon Princess, and defender of Earth against aliens who want to steal the life energy human teenagers, usually Sailor Moon's friends from school. As the show progresses, she meets a team of other guardians, and they become real friends out of costume too.
Yes, this is absolutely a formulaic, monster-of-the-week action show, but within that framework, there's a great deal of creativity and love that went into the series. The combat sequences, for example, often use a series of splashy still-frame images in lieu of full animation. This was almost certainly a cost-saving measure, but it's also an artistic choice, one that amplifies key moments in each fight, and the splash images are always really good. The show also deploys exaggerated, Looney Tunes style expressions to convey strong emotion; a deep knowledge of the art form and its history really shows through in those moments.

My runners up are Princess Jellyfish (for slice of life) and Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury (for action). Princess Jellyfish follows a group of nerdy girls who live together in an all-women apartment building. When the city starts threatening to tear it down to revitalize the district, the girls are forced to confront their shyness and social awkwardness to advocate for the building at government meetings. One of the girls also makes friend with a crossdresser (someone who, I wonder, might be portrayed as a trans girl if the show were made today) who helps her practice acting confident and assertive, even when she just wants to hide. That crossdresser reminds me a lot of myself when I was that age.

The Witch from Mercury is not in continuity with any other Gundam series, although it uses the same giant robots and the same conflict between humans who live on Earth versus humans who live in space. This series focuses on the students at an elite academy, mostly the children of the richest and most powerful government and corporate leaders in the solar system. A cold-war conflict among the adults is acted out among their kids in the form of ritualized dueling (with mechas, of course) and high school romances. The stakes continue to ratchet up throughout the series, until the system is right at the brink of a real hot war. And I really liked the central relationship between Suletta and Miorine.
Films - The Creator
Probably my favorite film of the year was The Creator, which is exactly the kind of scifi film I hope they'll make more of. It's an original story, but in conversation with other works about robots and AI; it's visually stunning, seamlessly mixing CGI with practical techniques to make something that looks much better than either could produce alone; and it has something relevant to say about the contemporary world that's not simplistic, trite, or nihilistic.

At the end of an alt-history 20th century, where sentient robots became citizens of every country in the world over the course of the 60s and 70s, America suffers a terrorist attack, an atomic detonation in LA that kills a million people, and responds by outlawing robotics, and waging a global war on robots and any country that harbors them. Visually, the scenes of combat in Southeast Asia are reminiscent of the Vietnam War, but everything else about the war is obviously inspired by the War On Terror. What The Creator makes you feel, viscerally, is that even after an incident as severe as that, America's reaction is a catastrophic over-reaction, and that killing civilians abroad will never make anyone any safer at home. I watched this film over the summer, but its portrayals of racism and unconstrained military violence are even more relevant now, as the Israeli military is engaged in mass killing in Gaza.

My runner up is Vesper, which has like, all the same good qualities as The Creator, just on a smaller scale. In the climate and genetic engineering post-apocalyse, the self-contained cities known as Citadels control the supply of seeds to anyone living outside, and they only sell crops whose own grains will be sterile, forcing the hinterlands to purchase new seeds every year. Vesper is an ambitious girl on the cusp of puberty. She wants to be a scientist and move into the city; her uncle who owns the farm next door wants to ensnare her in debt and take ownership of her body. Then a small personal airship leaving the nearest Citadel crashes within sight of the farms, and Vesper suddenly has a new opportunity, and new dangers. After Islands of Abandonment, this might be the second-most D&D-able thing I enjoyed this year! It's actually very easy to imagine a version of this film that's just a Western, albeit one that center's women's experiences on the frontier, but I think the science fictional elements are improvements, they make the film better, certainly better-looking, and more impactful.