The Best of Opus, 2020 Edition

I posted 181 articles on Opus in 2020, or roughly an article every other day. Below are links to some of my favorite articles from the year. I hope you enjoy them, too, and as always, thanks for reading.

As always, I kicked off the new year with a look back at my favorite songs of 2019, which features music from the likes of American Football, City Girl, ISON, Pedro the Lion, Robert Rich, and Starflyer 59 (to name a few).

It’s a silly, completely irrational thought: Shortly after the new year begins, I despair that I’ll find any new music that was as good, beautiful, or evocative as the music I discovered in the previous year. And I’m always wrong. By the year’s end, I’m struck by the amount of incredible music that I’ve heard over the past twelve months, and 2019 was no different.

Jan 11: Staring Into the Sleepy Eyes of Death, An Unsung Samurai Cinema Classic

Broadly speaking, many samurai movies (aka chanbara or jidaigeki movies) can fall into one of two camps. The first is the ​“arthouse” camp, which includes Akira Kurosawa’s Seven SamuraiMasaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri, and more recently, Yôji Yamada’s Twilight Samurai. ​“Arthouse” samurai films feature elegant and epic filmmaking, stunning action set pieces, and deeply humanistic, elegiac storylines that explore lofty, ​“serious” topics: bushidō (the samurai code of honor), family and clan loyalty, and the clash between revered tradition and social and cultural change.

The second is the ​“exploitation” camp. These films feature grittier, more explicit and sensational storylines and are more graphic concerning sex and violence. Two of the most famous examples of ​“exploitation” samurai cinema are the Lone Wolf and Cub and Lady Snowblood films. The former follows a disgraced executioner and his infant son as they seek revenge on a rival clan for destroying their family. In the latter, a young woman becomes an assassin in order to kill those who raped and killed her family. In both series, the protagonists leave behind a bloody trail, the result of bizarre, over-the-top fights and action sequences.

The lines between the two camps are, of course, blurred. Kurosawa’s films certainly contained plenty of bloody violence (e.g., Sanjuro​’s climactic duel) while the Lone Wolf and Cub films have been praised for their highly stylized aesthetic. But one of the best examples of this blurring between ​“arthouse” and ​“exploitation” fare are the Sleepy Eyes of Death films that were released between 1963 and 1969 by the Daiei Film studio.

Feb 5: Disney’s Black Hole: A Flawed, Fascinating Sci-Fi Epic

For all its flaws… The Black Hole is a throwback to when Disney was perhaps a little more adventurous and willing to put out strange stuff. Other Disney films released around this time included The Cat from Outer Space, Escape to Witch Mountain, Dragonslayer, Condorman, Unidentified Flying Oddball, The Watcher in the Woods, and Gus (a film about a football-playing mule). I’m not saying these were all good films (though I have a certain fondness for The Cat from Outer Space and Condorman), but they weren’t uninteresting, and they represent a greater diversity of ideas than what you might see from Disney these days.

Feb 12: The Silver Surfer Cartoon Brought Cosmic Weirdness to ‘90s Saturday Mornings

Silver Surfer was produced by the same network that created plenty of bizarre and unique childrens’ series based on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Swamp Thing, The Tick, Godzilla, and Irish mythology (among other things). But with its portentous dialog, trippy visuals, cosmos-spanning storylines, and philosophizing on topics like war, slavery, imperialism, and mass media, Silver Surfer got especially heady for a ​‘90s Saturday morning cartoon. Having finally seen the series for myself, I can’t help admiring the chutzpah of everyone involved in its production.

Feb 21: Silver Surfer: Black Is a Trippy, Existential Story About Preserving Light in the Darkness (Review)

It’s clear that Donny Cates is trying to spin a tale that walks the line between kick-ass cosmic action and thought-provoking philosophizing. And for most of Silver Surfer: Black, he walks the line pretty well. I admire the ambition splashed across every single page, and Cates’ heart is definitely in the right place. (In an afterword, he explains how he wrote the final issue in response to Stan Lee’s death, as a way to pay his respects to Stan the Man.) But in the final issue, the storyline grows increasingly convoluted as Cates raises the stakes, to the point of even potentially undermining the story.

Mar 1: Lifesavers Underground’s Shaded Pain Brought Goth-y Gloom to Christian Music (Review)

Shaded Pain is not an album for everyone, nor should it be. It’s an album practically designed — though not, I think, with express malice — to disconcert religious authority figures. But I think it was (and still is) a helpful counter to certain notions of what Christian music can or can’t be, what it should or shouldn’t sound like. And for those listeners who do ​“get it,” Shaded Pain​’s goth-y gloom speaks truth about our brokenness and frailty with an intensity that few Christian albums have matched, then or now.

Apr 5: Being an Introvert During a Pandemic Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

I’ve come to realize that one of the most difficult things for me in this pandemic — acquiring toilet paper aside — is that I’m no longer able to easily compartmentalize the different aspects of my life. I miss being able to leave my house and drive to work, and leave home stuff behind. Likewise, I miss being able to leave the office and work stuff behind, and re-enter home life. I didn’t realize how much I relied on having different ​“life modes” that I could switch between until all of those modes were smashed together, and the boundaries between them erased.

May 3: Alex Garland’s Devs Is Heady, Philosophical Sci-Fi Destined for a Cult Following (Review)

How best to describe Devs, the latest from writer/​director Alex Garland (Annihilation, Ex Machina)? Is it a murder mystery? An espionage thriller? A critique of Silicon Valley ​“tech bro” culture? A philosophical exploration of determinism versus free will?

Well, in Devs’ case, the answer is all of the above — which is both its greatest weakness and its greatest strength.

May 22: Amazon’s Tales From the Loop Is a Haunting and Melancholy Sci-Fi Anthology (Review)

If there’s one underlying theme to Tales From the Loop, it’s that no technology or phenomena — regardless of how wondrous, bizarre, or fantastical it is — can ultimately prevent human nature from manifesting itself, for good or ill. Mercer may seem like a midwestern utopia, but its populace still wrestles with jealousy, bitterness, fear, loneliness, doubt, and ultimately, death. And no enigmatic facility or bizarre phenomena can ever hope to fix those things.

Jun 2: The Vast of Night by Andrew Patterson (Review)

[T]he fun of watching The Vast of Night doesn’t come from what its story is about, but rather, how that story is told. For a film that may or may not be about aliens and military conspiracies, The Vast of Night feels surprisingly, and wonderfully, mundane, focused on the seemingly boring details of its two main characters and their town.

Jun 27: Is it blackface to portray a dark elf on TV?

While Netflix and Hulu’s decision doesn’t surprise me, some see it as an over-correction of anything that even possibly resembles blackface. (There’s already a Change​.org petition for Netflix to re-add the episode.) And I confess, my initial reaction was along those same lines. Like many others, I think that ​“Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” is a great Community episode that highlights the series’ ability to use absurdity and meta-humor to tell stories that actually have depth. But more importantly, and at the risk of being pedantic as nerds are often wont to do, Chang’s face paint is technically not blackface: he’s not portraying a black person but rather, a member of a fictional race.

However, that’s muddied a bit by several factors.

Jul 7: Netflix’s Dark Is an Intricate & Ominous Time Travel Story (Review)

“What we know is a drop. What we do not know is an ocean.” This Isaac Newton quote, which is said during a climactic scene in Dark​’s series finale, is one of the many erudite, philosophical lines that pops up throughout the series’ dialog and voiceovers. It’s also a pretty apt description of what it’s like to actually watch the German sci-fi series.

To describe Dark as ​“labyrinthine” seems like an understatement. It’s inevitable that you’ll be lost at some point in the series’ 26 episodes and in dire need of a family tree and/​or a couple of flowcharts. There will be a frequent feeling that you’re only comprehending a fraction of the story, and that there’s a whole lot more that you ought to understand — except that whenever you think you’ve got a good bead on the knotty storyline, along come a few more twists to throw you for a loop.

Jul 15: Why did I watch this Pizza Hut training video from 1988?

What’s more, in that perfectly organized and sterile Pizza Hut kitchen of 1988, there’s no global pandemic, no narcissistic leaders recklessly promoting conspiracy theories and ignorance, and no nunchuck-wielding bears. Just the never-ending promise that a piping hot, perfectly cooked, ​“fairy dust”-covered pizza is waiting for me every time I walk through Pizza Hut’s doors. (Back in 1988, anyway.)

Jul 16: The Imaginative Worldbuilding of Lancer

Even though I have no idea if/​when I’ll be able to actually run a Lancer session or campaign — the pandemic makes organizing such events all the more difficult — I’ve still very much enjoyed submerging myself in the game’s rich, imaginative worldbuilding. It’s readily apparent that a lot of thought and creativity has gone into Lancer​’s creation, and my own imagination has already benefited from simply thumbing through the pages, looking at the excellent artwork, and pondering the ramifications and storytelling potential of what Miguel Lopez, Tom Parkinson Morgan, and their collaborators have created here.

Jul 27: What happened to AllSocial?

Numerous social networking services and apps have challenged Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram’s hegemony over the years. These challengers have included the likes of App​.net, Diaspora, Ello, Google+, Path, and Peach, to name a few. Some of them (e.g., Google+) were outright challengers, while others (e.g., App​.net, Path) appealed to niche audiences or needs. And some (e.g., Ello, Peach) are still active, albeit in smaller, less ambitious forms. In any case, many of them were, at best, a blip on most peoples’ radars.

Meanwhile, Facebook et al. have kept trudging along, their dominance still intact.

In April 2019, another challenger threw its hat into the ring: AllSocial. At the time, Facebook and Twitter had come under increasing criticism for censorship and bias (particularly with regard to conservative viewpoints), privacy snafus, and their algorithmic approach to determining what users saw (which resulted in people seeing less of their friends’ content, and more from advertisers).

Aug 27: Macross Plus at 25: Revisiting & Reevaluating an Anime Classic

I can respect the fact that Macross Plus tried to do something different than practically every other entry in the Macross franchise, from exchanging the ​“big robots battling in space” aspect for more character-based melodrama to inverting the ​“idol singer” theme that’s so central to Macross. And I can respect the fact that Kawamori, Nobumoto, et al., tried to make a more mature and emotionally complex Macross title even if the final storyline fluctuates between disturbing (the relational dynamics of the central protagonists) and ridiculous (the Sharon Apple subplot).

But even with those flaws, Macross Plus remains a must-see title for those who want to experience the best of ​“classic” ​‘90s anime.

Sep 17: 30 Years in Heaven or Las Vegas

Heaven or Las Vegas is one of those rare albums that I can describe as ​“otherworldly” and not feel hyperbolic doing so — not in the slightest. There are aspects of Fraser’s coo and Guthrie’s guitar cascades that simply do not sound like they were made by humans, or at least humans on this particular plane of existence. But the wondrous thing is that sense does nothing to diminish the album’s beauty or emotional effect. Rather, I believe the otherworldliness that the trio tapped into — however you want to try and explain it — is what ultimately allows Heaven or Las Vegas to be the affecting and sublime album that it is.

Sep 29: 20 Years of In the Mood for Love

[T]he film finds emotional release in the tiniest and seemingly most insignificant details, be it cigarette smoke slowly swirling in the air, a pensive glance captured in a mirror’s reflection, a chance encounter while getting dinner, or any number of awkward silences. Such moments — often captured in exquisite slow motion — are all the more powerful and poignant thanks to Leung and Cheung’s restrained performances, right up to the bitter end.

Oct 11: The Expanse Is the Best Sci-Fi Show on TV Right Now

In The Expanse, outer space is more than just an excuse to show off cool-looking spaceships locked in fiery battle. It ultimately becomes a mirror of human nature, of both our inventiveness and ambition, our compassion and prejudice, and our sense of wonder and sense of entitlement.

Nov 9: Demen’s Darkly Atmospheric Nektyr Embraces Gloom and Melancholy to Stunning Effect (Review)

All of this shadowy enigma surrounding Demen’s music might easily come off as pretentious and overblown if it weren’t for the fact that the music itself is so effectively haunting and all-encompassing in its gloomily gorgeous vision. Therefore, I say we don’t really need to learn anything more about Irma Orm (if that is, indeed, her real name). Let her continue to release music in semi-anonymity. Nektyr is so well-realized, so singular and powerful in its execution, its sense of atmosphere so bleakly beautiful, that it stands entirely on its own merits.

Dec 8: Harold Budd, 1936-2020

Harold Budd is best known for his lush, atmospheric style of playing the piano, which he termed ​“soft pedal.” Although his compositions are often sparse and minimal, the individual notes are bathed in so much delay and sustain that they seem as vast and endless as the Mojave Desert in which Budd grew up — and yet, his music never loses any sense of intimacy, elegance, or warmth.

Dec 22: 25 Movies I Hope to See in 2021 (And Maybe Even in Theaters)

[L]et’s look ahead to 2021 with some cautious optimism, as the year promises a true variety of cinematic delights, from a clash between cinema’s greatest titans to Arthurian legend, from ambitious sci-fi to Nicolas Cage at his Nicolas Cage-iest.

Dec 27: Yes, Ted Lasso Really Is as Delightful as You’ve Heard

It’s easy to write villains. It’s much harder to write truly good characters who radiate hope, conviction, integrity, and honor while at the same time, making them believable and three-dimensional rather merely wish fulfillment (or worse, caricatures). But miracle of miracles, Sudeikis and his Ted Lasso co-creators have done just that. Originally conceived for several promos for NBC Sports’ Premier League coverage — careful viewers will note that some of the promos’ jokes, like Ted’s confusion concerning offside, resurface in the series — Sudeikis et al. have parlayed the Ted Lasso character and premise into one of the brightest moments in 2020’s pop culture landscape.