An Unauthorized Guide to the Greatest Popular Entertainment of the 21st Century

I love coming across a wonderful movie buried on Netflix, a great book no one has read, an indie game a single developer has put their heart and soul into. But let’s face it, nerd culture doesn’t run on indie. It runs on the hope that the next Big Thing with a 2019 release date and a tantalizing teaser trailer will surpass everyone’s wildest dreams. And once in a while those Big Things have to live up to the hype. If nerd culture consisted of nothing but unrealistic expectations and subsequent disappointment it’d never sustain itself, would it? (Don’t answer that.)

So in honor of that Big Thing you’re desperately hoping will be good, I’m highlighting my own favorite pieces of unabashedly high profile entertainment, dating back to the turn of the century. Sequels, series finales, films by your favorite director. Some I anticipated and experienced along with everyone else, some I caught up on later after a legendary reputation had developed around them. All of them give me hope for the future. Every now and then, something IS better than you hoped.

2000: A Storm of Swords
A Storm of Swords shows how much an ongoing series can benefit from rising action. A Game of Thrones established a Westeros on the brink of war and A Clash of Kings coalesced the conflict, leaving A Storm of Swords free to open at a high level of intensity and escalate from there. The prologue ends on a cliffhanger that has the undead re-emerging for the first time in thousands of years and doesn’t return to that event for 200 pages… and you don’t care because SO MUCH is happening everywhere else. The scope of the novel is epic as we rotate between ten interrelated but geographically separate characters, all of whom offer a mosaic like view of a deteriorating world in the grasp of war. It offers the best redemption story I’ve ever seen, believably transforming one villain into a hero over the course of ten chapters. And George RR Martin was a fantasy author who gave his female characters varied and essential roles in the story as well, long before that was in fashion. But here’s what really makes the book different, and this is a spoiler alert.

There’ve been plenty of stories that end with the good guys losing. How shocking is it to read a book where the good guys lose with over a third of the book left? After the now legendary Red Wedding, we spend the final part of the story in a world that the villains have decisively conquered. And then we see what really happens when a lot of evil people who had been held together by alliances of convenience are expected to rule. Justice eventually catches up to all the worse people in A Storm of Swords, albeit in a very delayed, roundabout way. The resistance is down for the count, but poised to reemerge someday stronger than ever. It’s a weirdly hopeful story, despite how bleak the world of Westeros is. George RR Martin is infamous for his slow writing process but if he never finishes his series, I won’t be too fussed. A Storm of Swords maintains such a pitch of excitement and has so much closure, it’s hard to imagine the real finale topping it.

2001: Two Cathedrals (The West Wing)
As you’ll see from most of this list I gravitate towards fantastical nonsense. But The West Wing, with its depiction of a United States presidential administration trying to live by a strict ethical code... fits right in. This series was so good at taking dry political fodder and processing it into witty, digestible drama. Aspiration seeped from its every pore. But there was a dark cloud on the horizon. President Jeb Bartlet had M.S., he had kept it from the American public when he was elected, and the secret was threatening to expand beyond a very small circle. For two years we waited, and in the second season finale, all was out in the open. As the public speculates what the President’s next move is, about four other personal and professional crises converge on the Oval Office. The West Wing is usually a bright and chipper series, Two Cathedrals was dark and moody, offering an outstanding portrayal of a burdened President who’s alone in the world despite being surrounded by an entire staff. He flashes back to his childhood, he carries on conversations with people that aren’t there, in private he calls God a feckless thug. It’s a simple story about a man at the end of his rope, who also happens to be the leader of the free world. Plus, maybe the best ending to a season of television there’s ever been. That last scene, chills man.

2002: Minority Report
2002 is a year littered with big blockbuster movies that have aged badly. Spider-Man, Attack of the Clones, xXx, Die Another Day. But Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is a one eyed man in the kingdom of the blind. I watch this film and it scratches all the itches. It’s a thriller, and it’s a solid character drama. It’s got offbeat comedy, some big action scenes, a clever mystery. It’s has an awesome vision of a world fifty years in the future, not a dystopia, just an extrapolation of 2002 trends taken to their logical end points. And there are (harrumph harrumph) fascinating philosophical underpinnings about fate vs. free will, the story engages in some interesting paradoxes without being burdened by a complicated time travel story. If there’s a slight downside it’s that it doesn’t do all these things simultaneously, so Minority Report does tend to lurch from tone to tone, but the cumulative effect when the credits roll is of a well rounded day at the movies. To me this is Steven Spielberg entertainment on par with Jaws and Indiana Jones, though I can’t find many who agree. Everyone I mention the movie to remembers seeing it and liking it ok, but no one thinks it was anything special. If you’re in that camp, I recommend giving it another look. What, there’s another 2002 movie you’re going to watch instead?

2003: The Return of the King
The third Lord of the Rings movie is the most triumphant instance of my own sky high expectations being dwarfed by the quality of the actual thing. I expected a continuation of the quality from The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. But The Return of the King ramped up the scale of the story to impossibly epic and operatic levels. Another Part 3 in a series that benefits from a lot of rising action, The Return of the King is free to immediately plunge all its well established characters into 200 minutes of questing and battling. Excitement, terror, awe, this movie brought ALL the feelings up to a fever pitch and kept them there the entire movie. I walked out of the theatre with a newfound appreciation for film is capable of. Will anything ever top this theatre going experience for me? I don’t think so. There was some kind of alchemy involved with The Lord of the Rings that went beyond that group of people in that particular country getting to build a three movie story set in that particular world. If nothing else The Hobbit was proof of that. No, hopefully there’s some kind of big anniversary screening someday, the only thing that can match The Return of the King on the big screen is a rerelease of The Return of the King on the big screen.

2004: Day 3: 6:00 A.M. - 7:00 A.M. (24)I don’t really expect to be challenged when I’m watching a show as action oriented as 24. But the third season, and the eighteenth episode in particular, was a knife between my ribs. When this episode ticked its last seconds I didn’t know myself anymore, and that’s not an exaggeration. This season of 24 had been moving along, all business as usual. Then two thirds of the way in, a terrorist unleashed a highly contagious, deadly virus into an easily contained location as a demonstration, and threatened a dozen larger outbreaks if the President didn’t obey his every whim. So all of a sudden the season turned into this three pronged story about CTU agent Michelle Dessler on the ground containing the outbreak and putting a human face on the stakes, President Palmer trapped on the phone with a terrorist mastermind, and Jack Bauer chasing down leads trying to put a stop to it. When we get to this episode, Jack is given an ultimatum by the terrorist, he must murder a character who’s getting close to tracking him down or millions of people will die. So the episode turns into this ugly, voyeuristic depiction of what could very well be the last hour of this poor guy's life, and the stakes to the usual chasing and triangulating feel desperately high as CTU tries to find the terrorist before the hour is up.

But more than that, I had my own principles as a viewer shattered. I’d always had a black and white viewpoint; you don’t give into terrorism. This episode presents a threat so apocalyptic and terrifying that I found myself saying “Let the poor bastard die.” But then the character is trying and failing to be brave as Jack Bauer reluctantly holds him at gunpoint and it’s just awful. Sometimes populist entertainment takes off its funny disguise and leaves you changed when it gets inside. I didn’t like what I found out about myself, it’s the furthest thing from a fun hour of TV, but I’ve not yet found a better one.

2005: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The world of Harry Potter got a lot more frightening as it went. The end of the fourth book unleashed the Dark Lord Voldemort, the fifth book gave us a wizarding world in the grasp of misinformation and paranoia, the seventh turned it into a police state and later a flat out battle zone. So it’s surprising that Half-Blood Prince, the penultimate book, it really kind of a romp. Although war is breaking out, Hogwarts forms a protective bubble around its students, leaving them time to simply be teenagers. A big portion of the book is Harry and his headmaster Dumbledore examining the rise of Voldemort, but the rest is made up of lightly comedic stories about sports team rivalries and teenage crushes. It’s J.K. Rowling returning to the lighthearted style she used for her the first novel but with all the experience and perspective she’d picked up in the years since writing it. That becomes apparent later, when you realize all the false security was to keep you off guard as the book kicks you in the crotch with a devastating ending. But in the context of the seven books, Half Blood Prince prevents the series from being wholly grim and frightening in its second half. This one book reminds you and the characters that Hogwarts was an appealing place all those years ago, and that gives them something to fight for in the big finale to come. I remember staying up until dawn to finish this book back when it came out. Mainly because I didn’t want to share the one copy with my sister, but as time went on it was because I couldn’t actually put the book down. It was too much fun.

2006: Casino Royale
Casino Royale is a generous lover. It feels like a entire trilogy of films compressed into one movie, with all the boring parts taken out. The first hour of Casino Royale hits all the beats you expect in a James Bond movie and hits them good. Then it becomes a psychological thriller set in a casino, in which the filmmakers find all manner of inventive ways to make a game of Texas Hold ‘Em feel as high stakes as possible. Then it finishes out with a movie about a tragic romance that ends in bullets (and nails). Daniel Craig has the role well in hand his first time out, Eva Green is the best leading lady in the series, Judi Dench as M has never been better or more caustic. If you love the book the entire story is here, but with a lot of savvy changes to make it more cinematic. The movie doesn’t shy away from how its a series with a misogynist lead character, but finds a way to turn that into a character flaw that makes James Bond less of a flat character. The opening credits sequence is amazing, the parkour chase is my favourite action sequence of all time, there’s an Aston Martin that barrel rolls seven times, Casino Royale gives and gives and gives. I don’t know if it’s a movie that transcends the James Bond franchise. Given how it heads into unusual territory for the series, it’s probably not representative of a typical Bond experience. But it is the best movie with the 007 label attached, and I don’t expect to ever see it topped.

2007: Through the Looking Glass (Lost)
The third season finale of Lost is positioned right at the heart of the entire series, it’s the episode upon which everything pivots. Through the Looking Glass aired right after the showrunners announced that the series had set an end date, implicitly promising that the mysteries and characters were going to start heading towards a resolution. Everyone’s mileage may vary on how satisfying the next three seasons were, but the middle of 2007 was a great time to be a Lost fan. “Through the Looking Glass,” which focused on the survivors of Oceanic 815 trying to secure rescue while fending off an attack from The Others, their long time nemesis, functioned simultaneously as a pay-off to the first three seasons while teeing up what was to come later on. It was a two hour episode that was exciting all the way through, if one act didn’t have an action sequence you could count on the next one having two to make up for it. And that last scene, the show never topped it (the showrunners cheerfully admit this as well). I really could say that the entire second half of Lost’s third season is the Best of 2007 and be done with it, but “Through the Looking Glass” is the culminating moment for the entire show to that point and it promises big things to come.

2008: The Dark Knight
The Joker and Two-Face are two of the most interesting villains around, so I was predisposed to enjoy any movie that incorporated both of them. But who could have predicted the degree to which Heath Ledger’s performance would become legendary? Or how likeable Aaron Eckhart would be as Harvey Dent before his transformation into Two-Face? It’s the same compliment people were giving Titanic back in the 90s, the early character investment makes the impending disaster feel more like a tragedy than something to be eagerly anticipated. You don’t want Harvey Dent’s face to hit that iceberg.

Those are the film’s two flashiest elements, but it’s the story that keeps me coming back to The Dark Knight. It’s a street level view of a Gotham City caught up in the midst of terror, as the Joker launches a series of attacks designed to prove that all of humanity has the potential to be as ugly as he is. It’s a very difficult thing to manage, a movie that depicts nonstop chaos without feeling like it’s being told chaotically, but the confidence of the direction and the script keeps us assured that we’re in good hands. This was a movie I saw on Day 1 and absolutely loved, but any time I watched it again it was with friends, or it was on in the background while I did something else. The last time I watched The Dark Knight I really watched it, and I realized how daring the structure was. The entire second half of the movie is made up of climactic events that feel like they’d be the ending of any other movie, but The Dark Knight always carries on past that and you start to feel like it could keep going indefinitely if it wanted. It’s a movie that risks trying the patience of the audience and I’m sure some weren’t into it, but the amount of critical acclaim the film got proves how well made it really is.

2009: Under the Dome
Under the Dome feels like someone put out a great throwback to the sort of book Stephen King wrote back in his heyday, except it was written by Stephen King himself. It’s structured like all the best King novels; it doesn’t bury the lede at all. The big dome comes down on Page 2 or 3, then a lot of two dimensional but easy-to-like characters are quickly defined by how they deal with the crisis. There’s a human villain who makes life difficult for everyone too, he’s easy to spot because he uses Christian values to cloak his evil misdeeds. Here’s the great thing about Under the Dome though, you’d assume based on the premise and on the size that the book spans months or even years as life under the dome deteriorates. But the degree and speed to which things go to shit happens practically in real time, the 1100 page novel takes place over a few days. This allows Stephen King to tell a morality tale about how ugly humans can become in a pressure cooker situation, but it happens within the context of a pulpy thriller that never stops moving. Good luck finding a break in the action to put the book down, King always keeps the next confrontation, the next secret meeting, the next villainous power grab, right around the corner and you’ve got to keep going no matter how late at night it is. I’ve read Under the Dome three times since its 2009 publication and am looking forward to a fourth, but I’ve got to save it for a long plane or bus ride or something. Nothing is getting done while I’ve got this thing open.

2010: Super Mario Galaxy 2
You can almost always count on a new Mario game to update the same durable formula for a new console generation. Super Mario Galaxy 2 doesn’t innovate one little bit, after Mario Galaxy defined the series for a new generation the second game is more of the same. That just screams “cheap cash in” and 99% of the time you’d be right, but Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the rare direct sequel that feels truly creatively motivated. You get the sense that having made the first game, the developers realized what could be done with the concept and came up with dozens of even better mechanics and level designs for the sequel. It’s a true space opera, you zip between planets, no level looks or feels quite like another, the soundtrack is grandiose and enhances the adventure. I love this game so much I’ll put up with the Wii remotes in order to play it. …Yeah.

2011: Portal 2
The original Portal was one of those little hidden gems I talked about earlier, only it became so popular it triggered plans for a much more high profile sequel. The result feels like what Pixar would do if it ever moved into gaming. It’s a game that’s elegant in the simplicity of its design and its gameplay. Portal 2's three speaking characters, a bumbling robot sidekick, a malicious HAL-like program with a grudge, and a militant can-do billionaire from the past, are full of character and humor. And the game is as leisurely as you want it to be, every new setting has a new conceit and a puzzle, and whether you solve it instantly or after a half hour of experimentation, you always feel a sense of accomplishment. The game gets more inventive and clever as it goes, but the story and the characters pull you in too, you’re always looking forward to the next malicious remark from GLaDOS as much as the next puzzle. Portal 2 is a perfect model of sequel escalation, and an incredibly entertaining experience.

2012: Moonrise Kingdom
This is probably the “smallest” title on this list. It’s true that Moonrise Kingdom was released in a season dominated by Hunger Games and Avengers assembling and Dark Knights who rose, but if you don’t think Wes Anderson movies aren’t heavily anticipated then you’ve got to hang around more coffee shops. Wes Anderson more than any filmmaker today seems like someone who puts the world as he wants it to be on film. And Moonrise Kingdom is right at the point where he has full control over that world before he maaaaybe let things get a little too twee in The Grand Budapest Hotel. He centers the movie not on detached, deadpan adults with nebulous life goals, but on an accessible story about two young teenagers discovering love (the detached deadpan adults are in the movie, they’re just not the focus). Actors like Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, and Bob Balaban are welcome additions to the Anderson-verse alongside Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. And the movie is so filled with detail, every shot is packed with background jokes and incongruous set dressing, more and more is revealed every time you watch the movie. The decade isn’t over yet, but Moonrise Kingdom is on track to go down as my favorite movie of the 2010s.

2013: Ozymandias (Breaking Bad)
Has there ever been an episode that so determined the legacy of an entire series? When you met Walter White in the pilot, he was a man dying of cancer, he was going to leave behind a pregnant wife and a son with cerebral palsy, so he became a meth kingpin in order to leave some money for his family, right under the nose of his brother in law in the DEA. Breaking Bad was a show with a time bomb baked into the premise, and you had five years to imagine the explosion. Walt’s double lives finally crash together in Ozymandias, and the show lives or dies on how successful this one episode is.

It was even better than we thought.

It doesn’t seem necessary to summarize an episode everyone has already seen, or to ruin it for the three people left who are going to get around to Breaking Bad any day now. But one miscellaneous point; Ozymandias isn’t the series finale, and it benefits a lot from that. If you’re going into the third-to-last episode of the series, your anticipation is at a fever pitch, but you’re not putting pressure on it to deliver some grand pay-off or final statement. Expecting another stepping stone, only to get the climax to the whole story, is a huge surprise. You don’t have time to set unrealistic expectations because it’s all happening in front of you. Plus it frees up the last two episodes to do a nice little victory lap. Climactic third to last episodes. Take note, hypsters.

2014: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
When I think Tropical Freeze, I think one word. “Propulsion.” Just about every single level in this game has a conceit that forces you the player to run for your life. Collapsing environments, avalanches, mine carts, rocket barrels, angry monsters, platforms made of dynamite. Don’t stop or you’ll die. It’s daunting at first, you’re going to lose quite a few lives early on. But once you’ve mastered Tropical Freeze and you’re flying through all these precarious levels with the greatest of ease, it’s like having dozens of Indiana Jones blockbuster action scenes at your fingertips. The environments are colourful and varied, there’s character and charm coming out the wazoo, the soundtrack is big and orchestral and always matches the action. Every level follows a completely linear path, if you replay it you’re going to have the exact same experience you did the first time. And that’s a good thing. Remember when you were a kid and you wanted to ride a roller coaster again and again? A Tropical Freeze level is that roller coaster, and there are about 60 to choose from. It seems like a lot of people missed out on this game when it came out on the Wii U, hopefully it gets its audience when it hits the Switch later this spring.

2015: Arkham Knight
I can’t talk about why I specifically like this one without SPOILERS, so steer clear if you intend to play someday.

Arkham Asylum and especially Arkham City were great games, and Arkham Knight maintains or even improves on all of their strengths. You get to drive around in the Batmobile, the combat is smoother, the puzzles are more clever, and the setting is a vast, tech noir type playground. I would have been more than content to play as Batman in a Blade Runner-esque Gotham City, but the game takes a turn early on. The deceased Joker is revealed to be living rent free in Batman’s head thanks to some science-y mumbo jumbo from the last game, and he’s intent on wrestling control of your body. So now you play a game with the Joker as your constant, invisible companion, offering snarky commentary on the action and futzing around with Batman’s head. Between the Joker hallucinations and the presence of the Scarecrow fear toxins, Arkham Knight is basically Gas Lighting: The Game as the developers find all sorts of ways to mess with your perception. The main quest concludes with a brilliant sequence that puts you in the head of the Joker while he’s high out of his mind on Scarecrow drugs, it’s a vivid, unprecedented examination of this famously inscrutable supervillain’s psyche. And then on top of all that, Batman’s secret identity is exposed and you play the rest of the game in a Gotham City that’s completely aware you’re Bruce Wayne. It was enough that Arkham Knight simply updated the series for a new console generation, but these novel story elements is what really makes it soar.

2016: The Winds of Winter (Game of Thrones)
Game of Thrones hasn’t had one unpredictable moment since it got ahead of George RR Martin’s books. It’s understandable, the crew has their hands full trying to maintain some insane production values, they don’t really have time to come up with the kind of intricate storytelling the books manage so well. But in the sixth season finale, straightforward plotting became a huge asset. “The Winds of Winter” delivered moments you’d been anticipating all season (or even all series) and suffused them with incredible emotional and narrative power. Long anticipated revenge, revelations about birthrights, characters laying their true feelings bare, thrones being claimed, we saw all of it coming and we weren’t let down. I’m inclined to label this episode the best work of 2016 based purely on the opening twenty minutes, which sees Cersei Lannister launch a grandly choreographed series of strikes against all of her enemies. It’s like if The Godfather had ended in a green fireball. But after that the episode just keeps going, the show pays a visit to every character and doles out satisfying rewards or comeuppances where it sees fit. The episode is a collection of amazing moments, and one ok scene where Sam becomes a librarian or something. The one problem with “The Winds of Winter,” it sets an impossibly high bar for the rest of the show to clear.

2017: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
News and politics in 2017, it… demanded constant attention, to put it as non-controversially as possible. And Breath of the Wild was the one and only piece of media that offered a world detailed and immersive enough to completely distract me from what was happening in real life. Every positive memory I have of the previous Zelda games involve intricately designed puzzle rooms and (what I used to believe were) great big worlds filled with secrets. This one gives you well over a hundred dungeons, and a textured, varied Hyrule the size of a small country. You can play for 200 hours and not come close to exploring every area. I know this, because there’s an in game feature that tracks where you’ve been on the map for up to 200 hours, and I’ve not come close to exploring every area. There’s really no way to adequately describe how it feels to play a game in which you can stand at the pinnacle of a mountaintop, see an interesting looking landmass or structure about ten kilometers in the distance, and spend the next hour traveling there on foot, getting into dozens of adventures along the way. I spent last March fulfilling a lifelong dream of traveling through New Zealand (a trip I decided to commit to on January 20th, 2017, I forget why), and when I got home, the pre-ordered copy of Breath of the Wild was waiting. I went straight into playing the game the next day, and it felt like one great experience segued into another. That’s not me living through video games, Breath of the Wild is just that good.

Those are my picks! What are yours, and what are you most looking forward to in the months and years ahead?
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